Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away

Mike Wood - April 13, 2017

May 1945. As the Allies march through Germany and begin to encircle Berlin, the loyalty of the highest echelons of the Nazi regime begins to falter. Self-preservation starts to trump fidelity to the Fuhrer, with more and more of the top brass beginning to leave the sinking ship. With Hitler slowly losing his mind in his central Berlin bunker, the escape paths of thousands of Nazis begin to spread across Europe, spiriting leading figures away from the fatherland. These became known as the ratlines, the clandestine methods by which some of the Second World War’s biggest villains attempted to flee from justice. They went to South America and to Switzerland, using fake names and passports, friendly fascist regimes and duplicitous double agents from the Allied Forces.

Just months after the war officially ended, the Nuremberg Trials began in Germany, but some of the most wanted men in the world were not there. Some – Himmler, Goebbels, and Hitler himself – committed suicide rather than face the courts, but far more had simply vanished into the chaos that engulfed a continent ravaged by total war. In the months and years that followed, legions of Nazi hunters would scour the world in an attempt to bring the perpetrators of Nazism to justice. Here we discuss some of the most infamous figures that got away from the wreckage of Germany – the Nazis that got away.

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away
Adolf Eichmann on trial in Israel, 1961. Israel Government Press Office

1 – Adolf Eichmann

Arguably the best known Nazi to escape was Adolf Eichmann. His notoriety stemmed from both his long career as a high level functionary in the Nazi regime and from his flight, which lasted all the way until 1960. Eichmann was one of the principal administrators of the Holocaust, a man who skilled in organized death that he was the genesis of the now famed phrase “the banality of evil”, coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt at his trial.

Eichmann had long marked himself out within the Nazi Party as an “expert” on Jewish matters, going as far as to learn bits of Yiddish and Hebrew, as well as traveling to Mandatory Palestine with the intention of creating somewhere for the Jews of Germany to immigrate to. He was one of the leading Nazis in charge of “encouraging” Jews to leave the country, whether it be through economic sanctions or outright anti semitic violence and thus when war began, he was the man tasked with the forced deportation of millions of Germany’s Jews.

When the Wannsee Conference was convened on the outskirts of Berlin in 1941, Eichmann was one of the attendees and wrote the briefing from which the total Jewish population of Europe was estimated. When the conference called for the “Final Solution”, that Jews be exterminated, it was Eichmann who was tasked with organizing the deportations and executions, of creating in the ghettos and the logistical methods for the greatest genocide in human history. He was never a maker of decisions, rather an efficient and skilled administrator who put policy into practice. It was not for no reason that the “banality of evil” became associated with him.

As the war turned, Eichmann was posted to Budapest to oversee the deportation of the Jews of Hungary. More than 400,000 Jews would be deported and murdered in the short time that he was in charge, which lasted from early May until early July 1944, with sometimes more than 10,000 people per day sent on trains to the concentration camps. As Soviet troops encircled the Hungarian capital, Eichmann made the remaining Jews of the city engage in a death march to Vienna.

The second act of Eichmann’s life began in captivity. He was taken by the Americans, but he escaped and lived in relative peace in Austria, avoiding the Nuremberg Trials completely. As the court heard evidence of his deeds from other captured Nazis, he plotted a move to South America. Obtaining a humanitarian Red Cross passport through a Nazi-sympathizing bishop in Italy, he travelled through a network of safe houses run by other clergy and eventually caught a ship bound for Buenos Aires in 1950.

He lived peacefully in Argentina, working for the government and later for Mercedes Benz. Nazi hunters, however, were on his tail. As with many fugitive Nazis, South America was widely suspected to be his location and an address was finalized when a chance meeting between the daughter of a Jewish emigre in Argentina and a man boasting of his father’s exploits in Hitler’s regime lead to the woman coming face to face with Eichmann at his home in San Fernando, just outside Buenos Aires.

The Israeli secret service, Mossad, were soon on the case. They surveilled Eichmann for several days, worked out his routine and then struck, taking him captive on May 11, 1960. When he was unveiled in Tel Aviv a few days later, it made worldwide news. After around 11 months in an Israeli jail, Eichmann finally stood trial. He used the same defence that countless other Nazis had: that he was a functionary, carrying out orders that he did not have the power to influence. The defence famously cited a quote from Eichmann in 1945, saying that: I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction”.

He was eventually convicted and hanged in 1962. His trial, death and the subsequent raft of publications that emerged brought the legacy of the Holocaust to a new generation, both in Israel and beyond.

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away
Alois Brunner. Wikipedia

2 – Alois Brunner

While Adolf Eichmann was at least brought to justice, the same could not be said for Alois Brunner. He represents arguably the biggest failure of the Nazi hunters, surviving long after the end of the war and dying a free man. Brunner interacted closely with Eichmann during the build up to the Holocaust – they were both working at the the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna – eventually succeeding him as head in 1939. He was responsible for the deportations of thousands upon thousands of Jews to the concentration camps of Eastern Europe, particularly from Austria, Greece and later France.

By 1943, Alois Brunner was the commandant of Drancy internment camp, a facility just outside Paris that was used to centralize Jews from Vichy Regime France before they were sent to the gas chambers in the East. While the camp had previously been run by local French police, Brunner’s arrival began an acceleration of deportations. He was famed for his brutality, with tales of him personally executing Jews and ordering revenge killings after French resistance attacks widely known.

In 1944, Brunner was sent from France to Slovakia on the personal order of Adolf Eichmann with the task of deporting the entire Jewish population of the country. Thousands were sent to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and the ghetto-city of Theresienstadt, where very few survived.

As the war became increasingly unwinnable for the Germans, it became clear that leading Nazis would have to go to ground to survive. Alois Brunner was lucky: he was confused for a similarly named Nazi – Anton Brunner – and managed to evade capture by Allied forces. His namesake was less fortunate and was executed for war crimes. Alois’ luck would continue, as he lacked the SS tattoo that marked out ex-members for the Nazi hunters. He managed to avoid justice and remain in Germany until as late as 1954. During this postwar period, he claimed to have been worked by the Gehlen Organization, an American-lead intelligence agencies that controversially used former Nazis to undermine the Soviet Bloc during the early days of the Cold War.

Brunner finally left Germany for the Middle East under a Red Cross passport. After a short period in Egypt, he emerged in Syria, where he would live the rest of his life in relative comfort. Brunner spoke openly to the press about his former life as a leading functionary of the Holocaust – appearing in interviews with German and American press – and showed little remorse. Speaking to the Chicago Sun Times in 1987, he said “All of [the Jews] deserved to die because they were the Devil’s agents and human garbage. I have no regrets and would do it again.”

Periodically there would be calls to extradite him, particularly from the East German state, but the collapse of communism would ensure that Brunner continued to live freely in Syria. Sightings of him were relatively common and his address was known – he was twice injured by letter bombs – but efforts to bring Brunner to justice failed. His death was confirmed in 2014 and dated to 2010. He was the highest ranking Nazi never to have been captured.

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away
A fake Italian passport in the name of Gregor Hellmuth, used by Josef Mengele. Wikipedia

3 – Josef Mengele

If Alois Brunner lasted the longest of any of the major Nazi fugitives, Josef Mengele might well be known as the most notorious. His reputation for depravity, cruelty and outright disregard for his victims was his calling card: it was not for no reason that he was known as the Todesengel, the Angel of Death. Josef Mengele gained this moniker because of the experiments that he carried out on prisoners at Auschwitz, centreing specifically on identical twins, dwarves, people with two different eye colours and disabled people.

Mengele’s background was in anthropology and genetics, so when the virulently racist and supremacist Nazi Party came to power, he thrived. He joined in 1937 and graduated to the SS in 1938, taking a medical role befitting his training as a doctor. He was wounded in 1942 while fighting in the Soviet Union and, unable to continue at the front lines, moved back to Germany. Mengele applied for a transfer to concentration camps with the express desire of performing human experimentations and in 1943, he got his wish.

Mengele’s first posting at Auschwitz was to the Zigeunerfamilienlager, the Gypsy Families Camp. Romani and Sinti people also fell into the “enemies of the race-based state” alongside Jews, homosexuals, black people and others that had been declared under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and an estimated 200-500,000 would die during the Nazi period. Mengele would take a hands on role in his job, selecting subjects personally from the masses that arrived at the camp, separating those he deemed most interesting. He was known to whistle and smile as he performed this gruesome task. He also was one of the doctors assigned with handling the Zyklon B that would go to the gas chambers.

His experiments on twins included deliberately infecting one twin with a virus such as typhoid and taking blood from one twin and injecting it into the other. Should one die, the other was always killed to compare their autopsies. One eyewitness later claimed that he stitched two Romani children together with the goal of creating conjoined twins. Despite his macabre experiments, Mengele was known to be pleasant to children, having them call him “Uncle Mengele” – before he sent them to their deaths. As the Soviets approached Auschwitz, hordes of documents were burned by panicked SS troops.

After the war, Mengele was, like Brunner, incredibly lucky. He was captured by the Americans but his name was not on any of their most wanted lists. He also lacked the identifying SS tattoo and was released, even heading back into the Soviet zone to Auschwitz, where he tried to collect the records that he had kept. Fearing identification, he used an established ratline from Genoa to reach South America, eventually settling in Buenos Aires. He would live legitimately there, even gaining a West German passport under his real name and traveling to Europe in 1956.

He was known to the Allies, but none suspected that he was still alive, let alone living under his real name. It took until 1959 for Simon Wiesenthal, the most celebrated Nazi hunter, to discover his location. By the time an extradition order with Argentina was finalized, Mengele had fled to Paraguay. He later move on to Brazil. The Mossad agents involved in the arrest of Eichmann knew where he was, but could not square it diplomatically to capture him. Josef Mengele died in 1976, free and unrepentant for his crimes, a Nazi to the last.

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away
Klaus Barbie, posing as Klaus Altmann. Wikipedia

4 – Klaus Barbie

While Josef Mengele was known as the “Angel of Death”, he was far from the only Nazi with a nickname designed to inspire fear. “The Butcher of Lyon” was the epithet by which Klaus Barbie was known, a name earned by a brutal career at the head of the Gestapo in the French city. His reputation was built on a legacy of torture and murder, but his story goes further than that, with a post-war career that showed just how far sections of the victorious Allies were willing to go to gain an advantage in the nascent Cold War.

Klaus Barbie’s ascent in the Nazi Party was rapid. He was just 22 when he joined the SS and was immediately put to work in the intelligence agency of the organization, working in Dortmund and Düsseldorf to root out suspected social democrats and communists. When war began, he was transferred to the newly-conquered Netherlands, where he helped to round up Jews. As the march across Europe continued and Klaus Barbie found himself in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon at the age of just 29.

Lyon was at the time seen as a hotbed of the French resistance. Barbie’s methods in controlling the city were, even by Nazi standards, horrendous in their brutality. Children were starved and beaten, suspected resistance members – including Catholic priests – tortured with electroshocks and boiling water and women were raped, beaten and killed. He used a whole range of implements that he kept in his desk, from screwdrivers, blowtorches and whips to ammonia and even dogs. Jean Moulin, one of the heroes of the French Resistance, was tortured by having his hands broken and his nails removed with pokers before being beaten to death. Some historians believe that Barbie murdered Moulin personally.

With such a reputation, one would think that Barbie would have been high up the Allied wanted list. While he was captured, he was immediately moved to the US Army Counterintelligence Corps, who used his rabid hatred of communists to further their aims of destroying the Soviet influence in Europe. Despite being sentenced to death by a French court for war crimes, Barbie was indulged by the Americans and in 1951, smuggled along a ratline to Bolivia. It is unclear whether the Americans protected him because of what he knew – undercover agents in high positions within communist organizations in Europe – or because they wished to cover up ever having recruited him at all.

On arrival in South America, Barbie continued to live well. Under the alias of Klaus Altmann he was known within the higher echelons of Bolivian society and was suspected to have had involvement in the capture of Che Guevara in 1967. He was eventually extradited to Europe in 1983 and stood trial in France for crimes against humanity, largely based on his actions as Lyon gestapo head. He was acquitted of some of the charges – France had subsequently committed similar war crimes against Algerians and absolved their participants – but Barbie was convicted and died in prison in 1991.

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away
Martin Bormann with Hitler (left, front), Berlin, 1940. Bundesarchiv Berlin

5 – Martin Bormann

While the four stories that we have told thus far have been of Nazis who escaped and were chased, the story of Martin Bormann is somewhat different. Bormann’s centrality to the Nazi regime, his closeness to Hitler and his long-standing involvement in the party made him one of the most important figures unaccounted for in the chaos of 1945, while his mysterious fate marked him out as a target for Nazi hunters everywhere. The difference being, of course, that nobody was completely sure if there was anything to be found at all.

Bormann was the model Nazi. He came through the Freikorps, the post-World War I paramilitary organization that fought communists in the streets and proved himself early as a rabid hater of both Jews and Slavs. As the party grew, so did Bormann, taking roles in propaganda, finances and administration. By the time the Nazis took power, he found himself in Berlin at the heart of the government, working as chief of staff to Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s second in command. Later he would become Hitler’s personal secretary, dealing with the personal finances, living arrangements and day-to-day life of the Fuhrer.

Hitler’s preferred method of keeping government hierarchies in check was to play his underlings against each other. As he often gave spoken orders and rarely wrote anything down, in practice the best way to communicate with Hitler himself was via Martin Bormann. This gave him immeasurable power within the regime. When Hess fled to Britain in 1941, Bormann assumed his role. He would put his long-held hatred of Jews and Slavs to full effect, causing the deaths of millions of people.

As befitting someone with such importance to the Nazi regime, Bormann was in Berlin as the walls came crumbling down in 1945. While many of the hierarchy died with Hitler in his bunker, Bormann’s remains were not found and thus he was presumed to have escaped. Reports of his suicide in Berlin existed, but so did countless others that placed in him in Munich, in Spain, in Australia and beyond. The leader of the Hitler Youth claimed to have seen his body, but the Soviets never announced that they had found it, and when the time came to try prominent Nazis at Nuremberg, Bormann was on the list.

He was convicted in his absence and searches continued all over the world until the 1970s. Reinhard Gehlen, founder of the Gehlen Organization of former Nazis-turned US allies, said he was in Moscow and had long been a Soviet spy, while Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal insisted that he was in South America. Eventually, a body was exhumed in the Mitte district of Berlin, very close to what is now the Hauptbahnhof train station, and identified as that of Martin Bormann.

A search that had cost millions, a trial that caused headlines around the world and a mystery that had stumped the greatest of the Nazi hunters had ended up just a mile from where it had started, in the ruined heart of Berlin.

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away
Gestapo Müller. Wikipedia.

6 – Heinrich Muller

The next on our list of missing Nazis is one of the closest of all to the Führer himself – so close, indeed, that he was known to have been in Berlin in the Bunker with Hitler when he committed suicide. And like his fellow high-ranking Nazi, Martin Bormann, it was in that Bunker that he was last sighted, on the 1st of May 1945.

Heinrich Müller was one of the top men in the regime, the head of the Gestapo and arguably the highest-placed man in the Nazi government never to have been located after the war. One of the reasons behind his disappearance and lack of capture was his name: Heinrich Müller is one of the most common names in Germany and even within the apparatus of the Nazi state, he was referred to as Gestapo Müller to differentiate him from another Heinrich Müller, an SS General. Because of his very common name – he didn’t even have a middle name, which could have identified him among other Heinrich Müllers – he could have slipped any checkpoint that he might have come across. How were they to know that the Heinrich Müller who stood before them was Gestapo Müller, the head of the notorious secret police?

How he got out, and what he did after the war, has long been debated. It was suspected that he might have got himself onto a ratline and made his way to South America. When captured, Adolf Eichmann told his interrogators in Israel that he thought Müller to still be alive. Another theory holds that, as the head of the Gestapo, Müller was in possession of vital information to both sides of the Cold War that would follow the Second World War, and thus was harbored by one of the Allies.

The Soviets and Czechoslovakians were accused regularly in the West of having taken Müller in, and the CIA was convinced for a long time that he had been spirited away to somewhere in the Soviet Union. In 1961, a leading member of the Polish intelligence services admitted as much when he defected to the West, though his claims could not be substantiated. It could just be that, like so many other, he perished in the rubble of Berlin. Without a body, however, there will always be a mystery and, as everything in the Cold War, there will always be rumors that he was used by the other side to gain an advantage.

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away
Karl Silberbauer. Wikipedia

7 – Karl Silberbauer

Our next fugitive is nowhere near as high-ranking as Adolf Eichmann or Martin Bormann. He was not as furtively sought as Heinrich Müller or Alois Brunner and he was not as widely despised as the likes of Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie. His name – Karl Silberbauer – is not one that most people will know and his career in the Nazi Party was far from exceptional, in the sense that he never amounted to more than the rank of staff sergeant within the Gestapo.

What makes Karl Silberbauer famous, however, was his role in one of the most noted tales of the war. He was a sergeant in the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and thus the man who ordered the raid on the house of Anne Frank. Born in Vienna, Austria, Silberbauer took a relatively well-traveled path for men of his standing: he joined the Austrian Army for national service and, on leaving at the age of 24, followed in his father’s footsteps to become a police officer. He joined the Gestapo after the Anschluss between Austria and Germany in 1939 and was posted to the Netherlands, initially to the Hague.

In August 1944, he was ordered by his superior to raid the house on Prinsengracht in the center of Amsterdam that had been housing the Frank family, in secret, for the previous two years. He broke in and arrested the family, as well as the Dutchmen who had been protecting them. He turned over the house, taking money and tipped out Otto Frank’s papers, including the manuscript of his daughter’s diary. The family was split up: initially sent to Bergen-Belsen, Anne and her sister Margot were sent to Auschwitz, where they would die in early 1945. Otto would survive and later publish Anne’s diary, which had been kept safe by Miep Gies, a woman who had helped to shelter the family.

Silberbauer would spend just over a year in prison for excesses against communists committed during his time in the Viennese police, but his life in Amsterdam was unknown until the 1960s. Miep Gies, a fellow Viennese, identified the arresting officer of the Frank family as having a Viennese accent and from that, it was discovered who he was. Silberbauer had spent the intervening 20 years as a police officer in Germany, often exploiting his SS credentials to help spy on neo-Nazis. Though the Vienna police knew who he was, they did nothing to expose him, as they feared the bad press that would inevitably come from having employed a former Nazi for so long.

He was eventually uncovered in 1963, and it took famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal to discover Silberbauer and give his name to the Dutch media for something to be done. When asked by reporters if he had been the man to arrest Anne Frank, Silberbauer owned up straight away. The Austrian authorities declared that, as he had just arrested the Frank family under orders, he was not a war criminal and thus could not be prosecuted. Otto Frank spoke on his behalf, telling a Vienna police inquiry that he had “only done his duty and behaved correctly. The only thing I ask is not to have to see the man again.”

Fugitive Fascists: 8 Nazis Who Got Away
Oskar Gröning. Wikipedia

8 – Oskar Gröning

When we discuss Nazis who have escaped justice, we are generally talking about history rather than current events. Even those who evaded capture in the aftermath of World War Two were caught up with later, while those who were never found would generally be far too old to survive to this day. For some, however, that is not the case. Oskar Gröning is one of those people.

He was in his early twenties during the war and thus in his mid-nineties now, but very much still alive. He is notable because he reminds us that the fight to bring those who were participants in the greatest crime in human history is never over and that it is never too late for justice to be served.

Gröning had the upbringing that many of those who would serve in the SS had. His father was a veteran of the First World War and one of the ex-soldiers who immediately signed up the idea that the German nation had been stabbed in the back following its defeat in 1918. He was a member of the Stahlhelm, a paramilitary organization of former combatants that was nationalistic and antisemitic. Gröning was a member of the youth wing of the Stahlhelm and an early member of the Hitler Youth, having joined in 1933. As soon as he was old enough, Gröning joined the SS and, having previously been employed in a bank, was put into the accounts division. When he was packed off to work at Auschwitz in 1942, he claimed never to have heard of the place.

There, Gröning was tasked with counting the money taken from the Jews that entered the camp. He was one step removed from the gas chambers and the executions but admitted later that he knew what was taking place. He claimed to have asked for a transfer away from the camp twice but was refused on both occasions. When his wish was granted in 1944, he was sent to fight in France and was captured by the British in 1945.

Gröning was sent to Britain as a forced laborer and later returned to Germany, where he lived a perfectly normal life. It was only when, in the 1980s, he met a Holocaust denier, that he felt compelled to tell his story. “I would like you to believe me. I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I would like you to believe that these atrocities happened because I was there,” he wrote. Gröning never thought himself a war criminal, as he was not a direct participant and was simply a part of the wider SS machine, not to mention that he asked to leave once he discovered what was taking place. Psychologists have long debated his ability to divorce himself from his own actions and experiences as if he were not a participant in them.

He was, at the age of 93, arrested and tried for being an accessory to the murder of over 300,000 Jews. He told the court “For me there’s no question that I share moral guilt.I ask for forgiveness. I share morally in the guilt but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.” After over 60 testimonies from survivors of Auschwitz, Gröning was found guilty, making him the oldest person to be convicted for crimes committed during the Second World War.