There’s a reason persistent rumours exist about Adolf Hitler fleeing to South or Central America, with a convenient cover story about killing himself in a Berlin bunker. It’s the same reason The Boys From Brazil is a cinematic classic, The Odessa File is a cracking read, and Germans in Mexico and (I Wanna Be) A Mexican Hitler are such catchy tunes.
New to SBS VICELAND, documentary series Hunting Hitler investigates whether Hitler indeed ended his life in the bunker or escaped to Argentina. After all, lots of high-ranking Third Reich officers did flee to the continent in the wake of WWII, establishing new lives in hiding from dogged Nazi hunters like the legendary Simon Wiesenthal. And they certainly left their mark.
Why South America?
It’s surprising to learn that South America was a bit of a hotbed for anti-Semitism from the late 19th century – and indeed that one of its most famous German immigrants, Bernhard Förster, was a key influence on Hitler’s political thinking. (He, like his eventual acolyte, ended up committing suicide as his utopian colony failed.) By the time it was all falling apart in Germany, there were sympathetic regimes across the continent – the most prominent of which was Juan Perón’s Argentina.
When it became clear that the war was turning against them, Nazi contingency plans were activated. The most prominent of these was Argentina’s “ratlines”, a system established by the Perón government and the Vatican. Under this system, war criminals and collaborators were smuggled out of Europe (Germany–Spain–Argentina) to start new lives with barely disguised identities.
But it wasn’t just Argentina, of course. According to Dr Yvette Alt Miller, in recent years, German prosecutors have estimated that 1500–2000 Nazis went to Brazil, 500–1000 went to Chile and Argentina took on 5000 through the ratlines system.
What did they do when they arrived?
Laid low, mostly, among the surprisingly large communities of ethnic Germans across the continent who were generally sympathetic to the newcomers. (You can see this lasting cultural influence in places like La Cumbrecita.) As more and more arrived in South America, it was easier to establish and maintain networks, easing their transition into new lives, free from prosecution for their crimes. For the most part, the estimated 9000 escapees established new identities and did their best to blend in.
One of the most famous examples is Dr Josef Mengele, responsible for horrific medical experiments at Auschwitz. He worked as a carpenter, among other things (including performing illegal abortions without anaesthetic), before dying of a stroke while swimming in 1979.
Working for Perón seemed to be a lucrative choice. Fleeing to Argentina in 1948, Gerhard Bohne was given money and ID, and looked after for decades before becoming the first Nazi war criminal to be extradited by the Argentine government, in 1966. Otto Skorzeny got an even better deal. He’s rumoured to have had an affair with Eva Perón while working as her bodyguard.
But the plan didn’t pay off for every escapee. In 1960, Adolf Eichmann – architect of the Final Solution – was seized by Mossad operatives and smuggled back to Israel to stand trial as a war criminal. After a nine-month trial, he was sentenced to death.
How did this shape the years to come?
As you might expect, the main legacy of these German immigrants is one where successive governments attempt to grapple with the actions of their forebears. More than one Chilean government refused to extradite Walter Rauff (who invented the mobile gas chamber van) and Brazil refused to give up Sobibór Extermination Camp’s deputy commandant, Gustav “The Beast” Wagner, to West German authorities, even as late as 1979.
In addition, many of the Nazi escapees came laden down with treasure of indeterminate provenance, some of which has since been revealed to include gold teeth and fillings. In 1997, a report was released on the complications and controversies around the death and $4 million fortune of an unassuming Brazilian man named Albert Blume. The New York Times quoted Brazilian historian Maria Tucci Carneiro on the fact that even in the 1960s, textbooks didn’t tackle the fact that the government welcomed known Nazis while rejecting Jewish refugees: “It was taboo.”
These are the lasting impacts of the ratline system, where time passes but countries have to face up to the sins of the past. Not just the powers-that-be in South America, either. The post-war world was one of realpolitik, and being useful meant more than facing justice, in some instances. Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, not only managed to evade capture in the immediate aftermath of hostilities, he was deployed as a counterintelligence agent by the Americans and was instrumental in Bolivian regime change up to the 1980s, before he was finally extradited to France and lived out his last days in prison.
Hunting Hitler airs Sundays at 7.35pm on SBS VICELAND, or stream episodes via SBS On Demand.