In the twilight of the Second World War hundreds of Nazis fled to Argentina. The fugitives included some of the vilest figures of the 20th century: the architect of the Holocaust Adolf Eichmann, Auschwitz’s ‘angel of death’ Josef Mengele, Erich Priebke and Klaus Barbie.
‘The Real Odessa’, written by the Argentinian journalist Uki Goñi, soberly and meticulously exposes the network that spirited these war criminals away from international justice. He uncovers a trail that leads from Berlin to Buenos Aires; implicating Argentinian president Juan Perón (a national hero to some Argentinians), the Vatican and to a lesser extent even the Allies. This thoughtful book shows that the flight of Nazis to Argentina was no accident, but rather was the culmination of a sinister relationship that had developed over many years.
Goñi’s starting point is the wartime Argentinian regime, which was for the most part sympathetic to fascism. Prominent German Argentinians secured strong links with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. Indeed a deal was struck with the German Nazis giving their agents freedom of movement in Argentina, false IDs and use of the Argentinian diplomatic pouch. Furthermore the Casa Rosada shared a profoundly anti-Semitic world view with the Third Reich–Jewish immigration, as Goñi reveals, was effectively blocked as early as 1938.
It was, of course, still possible to buy entry into the country. Many corrupt immigration officials extorted vast quantities of money from terrified refugees. Goñi’s own grandfather, a diplomat at the time, was struck by the desperation of the applicants. A young woman once offered herself to him after her life savings failed to make a difference. He turned her down. Scrupulous perhaps, but he left her facing almost certain death.
In 1943 Juan Perón and his fellow generals emerged from the background of Argentinian politics and seized power. They immediately busied themselves cementing the alliance with European fascism. After the war the chief of the SS Foreign Intelligence, Walter Schelnberg, explained that Perón’s government was ‘based upon a worldview similar to ours’.
When defeat for the Nazis appeared inevitable Perón sent emissaries to Spain to help the growing number of fugitive fascists escape to Argentina. His motivation was twofold–firstly his politics converged with theirs (especially the Catholic-tinged fascism of the Italians, Spanish and Croatians) and secondly he believed their skills and knowledge would benefit Argentina. Naturally though the US acquired the cream of Nazi talent–including the likes of Wernher von Braun, the V2 designer.
Argentina was not alone in providing refuge for the fascists. Goñi reveals, in the latest edition of his book, that the Catholic hierarchy were up to their ecclesiastical collars in the transatlantic trade in war criminals. Not only did Pope Pius XII make appeals on behalf of those condemned by Nuremberg, some of his closest associates actively assisted the Ustashi, the Catholic fascists of Croatia, to escape justice. This was no small misdemeanour–the activities of the Ustashi shocked even the SS. Goñi remarks that, ‘Unlike their Nazi masters the Croatians carried out their Holocaust in broad daylight.’
Allied intelligence agencies were guilty of turning a blind eye. Britain and the US, in the first twangs of the Cold War, preferred the Nazis to escape than to fall into the hands of the Red Army.
‘The Real Odessa’ brilliantly pieces together one of the most disquieting episodes in European and South American history. Almost no one emerges with honour. The Catholic Church and Perón united to rescue some of the world’s most depraved criminals–with the full complicity of the Allies. Uki Goñi does history a great service by exposing the squalid truth.
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