Angels of Death: 5 Nazi Officials Who Escaped to South America to Avoid Justice

Angels of Death: 5 Nazi Officials Who Escaped to South America to Avoid Justice

Kurt Christopher - June 21, 2017

As the Allies closed in on the ruins of the Third Reich from east and west, Hitler’s paladins were confronted with the prospect that they may finally be held accountable for their crimes. Many leading Nazis, including Hitler himself, chose to commit suicide rather than submit to Allied justice. Others would be captured after the end of the war and stand trial at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal or one of the many subsequent trials held by various nations across the world. A few, though, managed to escape from Germany and found refuge on the other side of the Atlantic in South America.

The covert network of escape routes for former Nazis, called “Ratlines,” developed following the war. One route ran from Germany to fascist Spain before terminating in Argentina, while another departed from Rome and cut through Genoa on the way to other South American countries. The most notorious Nazi escapees would flee through Rome under false identities, aided by Bishop Alois Hudal who provided the fugitives with Vatican papers. Once they reached their destination, the escapees could expect to be welcomed in their new homes. Argentinian President Juan Peron, himself a Nazi sympathizer, was particularly happy to support the arrival of these criminal immigrants.

Some of the highest profile Nazis in South America would later be arrested and face trial, but quite a few managed to live out the rest of their lives in peace. The following are the most infamous of those who, for at least a time, evaded justice.

Angels of Death: 5 Nazi Officials Who Escaped to South America to Avoid Justice
Adolf Eichmann. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Adolf Eichmann

More than any other person, Adolf Eichmann was responsible for the day to day operations of the Holocaust. He was present at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, in which a concrete plan for the conduct of a genocide was developed. A career bureaucrat, Eichmann’s role in the unfolding Holocaust would be to coordinate the logistics of identifying, collecting, and deporting the Jews of Europe to their deaths in extermination camps.

Once the war came to an end, Eichmann was captured by the Americans. He avoided immediate discovery by using a false identity, and when an opportunity presented itself he escaped from American captivity. For the next five years he lived as Otto Heninger, a small time farmer. While hiding out on his farm he made contact with Bishop Hudal’s operation in Rome. They provided him with a new identity, “Ricardo Klement,” along with Argentinian papers that would allow him to leave Europe for Buenos Aires in June 1950.

Eichmann found work in Buenos Aires, eventually becoming the department head of Mercedes-Benz there. Even half a world away from Germany, though, he could not maintain his cover indefinitely. Both the new Israeli government and a few dedicated private Nazi hunters were quite eager to find him. They got their most important lead when the daughter of a half-Jewish German immigrant to Argentina reported that she had been dating a man with the last name Eichmann who liked to talk about his father’s importance in the Nazi regime.

Because the Israeli government expected than Argentina would not extradite Eichmann, they dispatched a team from their intelligence agency, Mossad, to kidnap Eichmann and bring him to Israel. In May 1960, after confirming Eichmann’s identity, Mossad agents seized him in Buenos Aires as he got off of a bus. He was sedated before being slipped on board an airplane and secreted out of the country to stand trial in Israel. During that trial the following year he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was hanged just after midnight on 1 June 1962.

Angels of Death: 5 Nazi Officials Who Escaped to South America to Avoid Justice
Josef Mengele. Wikipedia

Joseph Mengele

Joseph Mengele was a latecomer to the Nazi party, not joining until Hitler had been in control of Germany for four years. While others had been jockeying for a position within Hitler’s new Third Reich, Mengele had been in university, studying medicine and then completing a Ph.D. in anthropology. During his studies he developed a keen interest in investigating the effects of genetics by studying twins. When the war began, he went off to fight as a medical officer in the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the notorious SS organization. In 1942 he was seriously wounded in battle in the Soviet Union and returned to Germany.

Though no longer able to fight, Mengele elected to find another way to contribute to the Nazi cause, applying for a position in the concentration camps in 1943. His application was accepted, and he took an appointment as a medical officer in the Auschwitz concentration camp. One of his duties in this position was to conduct “selections” of Jewish deportees arriving at the camp from occupied Europe. Selections were the first experience of Auschwitz for most Jews, occurring right on the rail platform.

New arrivals were formed into lines, and they would pass by a camp doctor – often Mengele – who in a few seconds would decide whether they could be used for labor or if they should be murdered immediately. Mengele relished conducting selections, and even volunteered to participate when it was not required of him because they gave him the opportunity to single out sets of twins. He would use those twins that he acquired in medical experiments within the camp.

As the Soviets closed in on Auschwitz Mengele fled to the west, and he would be captured by American forces the month after the war ended. Even though the Americans had his real name, no one uncovered his connection to Auschwitz and he was released the next month. For several years he would work on a farm under a false identity, before connecting with the Rome “Ratline” and escaping to Buenos Aires in 1949. In the coming years he became comfortable enough that he had escaped detection that he brazenly began using his real name once again, and even took a vacation back in Europe.

Nazi hunters were soon onto him, and when Mossad was in Buenos Aires to capture Eichmann they considered grabbing Mengele as well but did not want to jeopardize their primary mission. Feeling the heat, Mengele went back into hiding under an assumed name in Brazil. Thereafter the Nazi hunters’ lead went cold and they never found him again. He lived out the remaining nineteen years of his life in Brazil.

Angels of Death: 5 Nazi Officials Who Escaped to South America to Avoid Justice
Klaus Barbie.

Klaus Barbie

Klaus Barbie began working for the SS intelligence service in 1937 at the age of twenty-two. He would quickly rise up through its wartime ranks, serving in occupied Holland and France before taking a position as head of the Lyon Gestapo. In Lyon he pursued the French underground aggressively, using torture – which he personally administered – to extract confessions and information from suspected members of the Resistance. These gruesome interrogations, which usually involved beatings and sometimes more macabre techniques such as electrocution or skinning a prisoner alive, resulted in the arrest and eventual deal of 14,000 people and earned Barbie the moniker the “Butcher of Lyon.”

After the war Barbie did not go into hiding. Instead the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps, fearing a communist revolution in France, actively recruited him in order to take advantage of his knowledge of French communist rings. When the French government discovered that the United States was harboring Barbie they requested that he be turned over to them for execution. Fearing that Barbie might expose other German spies working for the United States, the Counterintelligence Corp put Barbie in contact with a “Ratline” which helped him escape to Bolivia.

Barbie’s covert activity did not end with his arrival in Bolivia. He established connections with the Bolivian army, helping them with arms deals and acting as a liaison between the government and prominent drug cartels, include that of Pablo Escobar. In 1967 he would collaborate with the CIA to track down Che Guevara, who was then leading a guerilla force in Bolivia.

The French government, aware of Barbie’s presence in Bolivia, had requested his extradition to France several times. Barbie, with his connections to the drug cartels and counterrevolutionary activity, was simply too valuable to the military dictatorship running Bolivia for them to simply turn him over. In 1983 that dictatorship collapsed and the new government gave in to French demands. He was indicted for war crimes the following year, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. He died of leukemia in 1991.

Angels of Death: 5 Nazi Officials Who Escaped to South America to Avoid Justice
Franz Stangl. Wikipedia

Franz Stangl

The early 1930s found Franz Stangl working for the Austrian police in Linz. Though the Nazi party was illegal in Austria at the time, Stangl joined the underground organization in 1931. This early adoption of National Socialist ideology opened doors for him after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and he was brought into the Gestapo to work in the Linz Jewish Bureau. He would soon prove, though, that his true specialty was the organization of industrial killing.

In 1940 the Nazi regime rolled out its “Euthanasia” program, the cynical name for the murder of mentally ill Germans in several asylums across Germany. Stangl was tapped to act as the deputy at one of these killing facilities, but when popular protest against the “Euthanasia” program prompted Hitler to shut it down Stangl was reassigned in April 1942.

In his new job as the commandant of the Sobibor camp Stangl would apply the techniques that he had been using in the “Euthanasia” program to Jewish deportees. Sobibor was not a concentration camp, it was an extermination camp. Unlike Auschwitz, there would be no selections of Jews capable of working at Sobibor. Each and every one of them went to the gas immediately. Stangl only led Sobibor for four months, but in that time 100,000 Jews perished there. This murderous efficiency earned Stangl a new position as commandant a second death camp, Treblinka, in September 1942.

Despite the tremendous amount of blood on his hands, he would twice come under American custody in the years following the war without ever being charged with a crime. Fearing that the United States would soon realize what he had done, he made contact with Bishop Hudal’s “Ratline” in 1948, escaping first to Syria and then to Brazil. He would live in Brazil for sixteen years, working for Volkswagen for the majority of his time there and all the while using his real name. The Austrian government finally caught on to his whereabouts in 1961, but it would take another six years before Nazi hunters could pressure the Brazilian government to arrest him ad extradite him to Germany. In 1970 he was convicted of war crimes by a German court and sentenced to life in prison, but would die of heart failure less than a year later.

Angels of Death: 5 Nazi Officials Who Escaped to South America to Avoid Justice
Walter Rauff in 1945 – Pintrest

Walter Rauff

Walter Rauff spent most of his career, from 1924 to 1941, as a naval officer. While in the navy, though, he developed a friendship with Reinhard Heydrich, who turned out to be a rising star in the SS. By 1941, when Rauff left the navy, Heydrich was second in command to Heinrich Himmler and was overseeing the operations of the Gestapo and the development of the Holocaust. In this capacity Heydrich would offer Rauff a position working on a new method for mass-execution.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 special killing squads, called the Einsatzgruppen, followed behind the military, rounding up and shooting the Jews and communist functionaries that they encountered. These mass-shootings soon took a severe toll on the psyche of the executioners, so the SS began looking for a more impersonal means of murder. Rauff oversaw the development of a fleet of killing machines that were to fulfill this purpose: the gas vans.

Victims would be loaded into an airtight cabin in the back of the van, and exhaust from the vehicle was redirected into the cabin while it drove to a burial site, creating a mobile gas chamber. This technology would later be repurposed in the static gas chambers of the extermination camps. With these new industrial killing facilities established, Rauff was redeployed to North Africa, where he led an Einsatzgruppe which would surely have gone on to murder the Jews of the Middle East had the British not stopped the German advance at El Alamein.

Owing to his experience in the Middle East, Rauff was recruited by Syrian intelligence after the end of the war. After a coup in Syria drove Rauff out he was courted by an intelligence agent from Israel, of all places, but elected instead to flee to Ecuador and subsequently settled in Chile. The West German intelligence service would track down Rauff in Chile in 1958, but instead of calling for his arrest they too sought to mold him into an intelligence asset. He soon proved to be of little value to West German intelligence, and in 1962 they would request his extradition to Germany to stand trial for war crimes.

The German extradition request went all the way to the Chilean Supreme Court, but the court decided to release Rauff because the statute of limitations on murder had elapsed according to Chilean law. For the next twenty years the Chilean government rebuffed one extradition request after another from both Germany, Israel, and several prominent Nazi hunters. As a consequence Rauff lived the rest of his life as a free man, dying in 1984 at the age of seventy-seven.