Juan Domingo Peron and Argentina's Nazis

Why War Criminals Flocked to Argentina after World War Two

Juan Domingo Peron. Photographer Unknown

After World War Two, Europe was full of former Nazis and wartime collaborators in once-occupied nations. Many of these Nazis, such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele, were war criminals actively searched for by their victims and Allied forces. As for collaborators from France, Belgium and other nations, to say that they were no longer welcome in their native countries is an epic understatement: many collaborators were sentenced to death.

These men needed a place to go, and most of them headed to South America, particularly Argentina, where populist president Juan Domingo Peron welcomed them. Why did Argentina and Perón accept these desperate, wanted men with the blood of millions on their hands? The answer is somewhat complicated.

Perón and Argentina Before the War

Argentina had long enjoyed close ties with three European nations above all others: Spain, Italy and Germany. Coincidentally, these three formed the heart of the Axis alliance in Europe (Spain was technically neutral but was a de facto member of the alliance). Argentina’s ties to Axis Europe are quite logical: Argentina was colonized by Spain and Spanish is the official language, and much of the population is of Italian or German descent due to decades of immigration from those countries. Perhaps the greatest fan of Italy and Germany was Perón himself: he had served as an adjunct military officer in Italy in 1939-1941 and had a great deal of personal respect for Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.

Much of Peron’s populist posturing was borrowed from his Italian and German role models.

Argentina in World War Two

When the war broke out, there was much support in Argentina for the Axis cause. Argentina technically remained neutral, but aided the Axis powers as actively as they could. Argentina was teeming with Nazi agents, and Argentine military officers and spies were common in Germany, Italy and parts of occupied Europe.

Argentina bought arms from Germany because they feared a war with pro-Allied Brazil. Germany actively cultivated this informal alliance, promising major trade concessions to Argentina after the war. Meanwhile, Argentina used its position as a major neutral nation to try and broker peace agreements between the warring factions. Eventually, pressure from the USA forced Argentina to break relations with Germany in 1944, and even formally join the Allies in 1945 a month before the war ended and once it was clear that Germany would lose. Privately, Peron assured his German friends that the declaration of war was just for show. 

Anti-Semitism in Argentina

Another reason Argentina supported the Axis powers was the rampant anti-Semitism from which the nation suffered. Argentina has a small but significant Jewish population, and even before the war began, Argentines were beginning to persecute their Jewish neighbors. When Nazi persecutions of Jews in Europe began, Argentina hastily slammed its doors on Jewish immigration, enacting new laws designed to keep these “undesirable” immigrants out. By 1940, only those Jews who had connections in the Argentine government or who could bribe consular bureaucrats in Europe were allowed into the nation.

Peron’s Minister of Immigration, Sebastian Peralta, was a notorious anti-Semite who wrote lengthy books on the menace posed to society by Jews. There were rumors of concentration camps being built in Argentina during the war – and there was probably something to these rumors – but in the end Perón was too pragmatic to try and kill off Argentina’s Jews, who contributed much to the economy.

Active Aid for Nazi Refugees

Although it’s never been a secret that many Nazis fled to Argentina after the war, for a while no one suspected just how actively the Perón administration aided them. Perón dispatched agents to Europe – primarily Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Scandinavia – with orders to facilitate the flight of Nazis and collaborators to Argentina. These men, including Argentine/German former SS agent Carlos Fuldner, helped war criminals and wanted Nazis flee with money, papers and travel arrangements.

No one was refused: even heartless butchers like Josef Schwammberger and wanted criminals like Adolf Eichmann were sent to South America. Once they arrived in Argentina, they were given money and jobs. The German community in Argentina largely bankrolled the operation through Perón’s government. Many of these refugees met personally with Peron himself.

Perón’s attitude

Why did Perón help these desperate men? Perón’s Argentina had actively participated in World War Two. They stopped short of declaring war or sending soldiers or weapons to Europe, but aided the Axis powers as much as possible without exposing themselves to the wrath of the Allies should they prove victorious (as they eventually did). When Germany surrendered in 1945, the atmosphere in Argentina was more mournful than joyous. Perón therefore felt that he was rescuing brothers-in-arms rather than helping wanted war criminals. He was enraged about the Nuremberg Trials, thinking them a farce unworthy of the victors. After the war, Perón and the Catholic Church lobbied hard for amnesties for the Nazis.

“The Third Position”

Perón also thought these men could be useful. The geo-political situation in 1945 was more complicated than we sometimes like to think. Many people – including most of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church – believed that the communist Soviet Union was a far greater threat in the long run than fascist Germany. Some even went so far as to declare early in the war that the USA should ally itself with Germany against the USSR. Perón was one such man. As the war wrapped up, Perón was not alone in foreseeing an imminent conflict between the USA and the USSR. He believed that a third world war would break out no later than 1949. Perón saw this upcoming war as an opportunity. He wished to position Argentina as a major neutral country affiliated neither with American capitalism nor Soviet communism. He felt that this “third position” would turn Argentina into a wild card that could sway the balance one way or the other in the “inevitable” conflict between capitalism and communism.

The ex-Nazis flooding into Argentina would help him: they were veteran soldiers and officers whose hatred of communism was beyond question.

Argentina’s Nazis after Peron

Perón fell from power abruptly in 1955, went into exile and would not return to Argentina until nearly 20 years later. This sudden, fundamental shift in Argentine politics unnerved many of the Nazis who were hiding out in the country, because they could not be certain that another government – especially a civilian one – would protect them as Perón had.

They had cause to be worried. In 1960, Adolf Eichmann was snatched off a Buenos Aires street by Mossad agents and taken to Israel to stand trial: the Argentine government complained to the United Nations but little came of it. In 1966, Argentina extradited Gerhard Bohne to Germany, the first Nazi war criminal formally sent back to Europe to face justice: others such as Erich Priebke and Josef Schwammberger would follow in subsequent decades. Many Argentine Nazis, including Josef Mengele, fled to more lawless places, such as the jungles of Paraguay or isolated parts of Brazil.

In the long run, Argentina was probably hurt more than helped by these fugitive Nazis. Most of them tried to blend into Argentina’s German community, and the smart ones kept their heads low and never talked about the past. Many went on to become productive members of Argentine society, albeit not in the way Perón had envisioned, as advisors facilitating Argentina’s rise to a new status as major world power. The best of them were successful in quiet ways.

The fact that Argentina had not only allowed so many war criminals to escape justice, but had actually gone to great pains to bring them there, became a stain on Argentina’s national honor and informal human rights record. Today, decent Argentines are embarrassed by their nation’s role in sheltering monsters like Eichmann and Mengele.

Sources:

Bascomb, Neil. Hunting Eichmann. New York: Mariner Books, 2009

Goñi, Uki. The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron’s Argentina. London: Granta, 2002.

Posner, Gerald L. and John Ware. Mengele: The Complete Story. 1985. Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Walters, Guy. Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice. Random House, 2010.