Peronism and Nazi Germany
Part 1 - The complicated past of Argentina's most popular political movement
“During my government I have made countless speeches against the Nuremberg trials, which is the greatest enormity that history will not forgive!”
— Juan Domingo Perón1
Hello Avatar! After a decision was made by popular vote on Twitter, today we will do a deep dive on the organized escape routes (also called Ratlines) of Nazi criminals from Europe to Argentina after World War II. It is definitely one of the darkest chapters in recent Argentine history and there is a lot to cover here, which is why this article is split in 2 parts.
After the Second World War, Europe was packed with former Nazis and wartime collaborators in occupied countries. Many of these Nazis, like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele, were vigorously sought for by their victims and the Allied forces.
To say that collaborators from France, Belgium, Croatia and other countries were no longer welcome in their home countries is an understatement: many were put to death or faced life imprisonment.
These individuals needed to seek refuge elsewhere, and most of them fled to South America, specifically Argentina, where populist President Juan Domingo Perón welcomed them.
How and why did Argentina and Perón accept these desperate, most wanted Nazi war criminals? And why is Peronism still the mainstream political movement in Argentina, whereas in Italy, Spain and Germany similar movements have virtually no political leverage at all? Let’s dive in.
Argentina before and during the Second World War
Argentina had strong diplomatic and trade relationships with three European countries in particular: Spain, Italy, and Germany, before Perón even came into the picture.
These three countries also formed the heart of the Axis coalition in Europe (Spain was technically neutral but was a de facto member of the alliance).
Argentina's ties to Axis Europe are understandable: the country was colonized by Spain, Spanish is the official language, and a large portion of the population is of Italian or German heritage due to decades of immigration from those nations.
When the war broke out, Argentina was heavily in favor of the Axis cause. The country remained “neutral”, but actively assisted the Axis powers. Argentina contributed with significant grain deliveries to Nazi Germany right up until the point of the declaration of war.
Argentina was rife with Nazi operatives, and Argentine military commanders and spies were common in Germany, Italy, and other occupied European countries. Argentina even purchased guns from Germany just in case a war would break out with pro-Allied Brazil.
Argentina would only declare war between Argentina, Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan on March 27, 1945, with Perón as the Secretary of War.
Perón privately informed his German allies that the declaration of war was merely for show, so we should consider Argentina’s declaration of war as more of a formality to cover their asses for the post-war period than anything else.
By that time the war was completely defined and it was just a matter of time before the Allied Forces would declare victory over the Axis Powers.
That same week, Hitler's Germany had dropped its last bombs on England, with the European territory absolutely lost. Only a month later, the Führer committed suicide in his Berlin bunker and although Argentina tried to save face by take the winning side when it was clear who would win the war, it’s hard to overlook this ambiguous and pro-Nazi position.
When Germany surrendered in 1945, Argentina was closer to mourning than celebrating. As a result, Perón felt he was rescuing brothers-in-arms rather than assisting wanted war criminals. He was furious about the Nuremberg Trials, which he saw as an unworthy farce imposed by the victors. Following the war, Perón and the Catholic Church vigorously fought for Nazi amnesty.
This was something that the country paid dearly for during many decades.
Perón has shaped the Argentine political landscape more than any other political leader. But let’s go back in time a bit and focus on Perón and his political rise to fame, and why he was so essential to helping out Nazi refugees in need.
Perón in Italy
Before the start of World War II, at the beginning of 1939, Perón was sent to Italy to follow training courses in various disciplines, such as economics, mountaineering, skiing, and other activities. There, he got acquainted with Mussolini’s fascism, which would play an important role in some of his policies in Argentina later on.
Perón was convinced that fascism was the best system of government to balance the relationship between capital and labor and thought.
“From Germany I returned to Italy and dedicated myself to studying the subject of Fascism. My knowledge of Italian allowed me to penetrate, I would say deeply, into the foundations of the system, and that is how I discovered something that from a social point of view was very interesting for me. Italian Fascism brought popular organizations to an effective participation in national life, from which the people had always been separated.”2
— Juan Domingo Perón
According to Perón, Germany and Italy were not aggressors in the European conflict; they were simply defending their ideas against capitalist Americans and communist Soviets. Perón was drawn to the middle ground because to him it meant building the state through the working class.
“A fundamental premise guiding Perón held that Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany were developing an alternative to capitalism and communism. World War II, in [Perón’s] view, was no more than a concerted effort by these dominant systems to crush their budding competitors.”
— Joseph A. Page: Peron: A Biography (1983)
During his stay in Italy Perón also visited Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania and the Soviet Union. He returned to Argentina two years later, on January 8, 1941, where he gave a series of conferences on the state of the war situation in Europe.
Anti-Semitism in Argentina
Another reason Argentina supported the Axis powers was the country's endemic anti-Semitism. Argentina had a small but considerable Jewish community, and Argentines were already persecuting their Jewish neighbors before the war began.
When the Nazi persecution of Jews began in Europe, Argentina quickly closed its borders to Jewish immigration, implementing new laws to keep these "unwanted" immigrants out.
By 1940, only Jews with contacts in the Argentine administration or the ability to bribe consular officers in Europe were allowed to enter the country.
Secret arrangements between the SS and Argentina even before Perón
The Argentine journalist Uki Goñi is probably one of the first to investigate the relationship of the Argentine government with Nazi war criminals.
In his book The Real Odessa: How Peron Brought The Nazi War Criminals To Argentina (2003), he insists that the relationship between Argentina and Hitler's Germany existed even before Perón came to power.
He mentions that a secret agreement existed as early as 1943 between the German Schutzstaffel (better known as the SS), and the Argentine navy's secret agency.
The deal was that Argentina agreed to provide Argentine documents to covert SS agents, so that they could move freely across South America, where they ran a massive espionage network. In exchange, Argentina received secret intelligence about its neighbors.
This was right around the time that the tides began to turn for Nazi Germany.
Peron’s rise to power in Argentina
In that same year of 1943, president Ramón Castillo was overthrown by a military coup. Perón participated in the coup as an active military member and started in this administration as an aide to Secretary of War, and later headed the Department of Labor.
Perón's efforts in the Labor Department led to the enactment of progressive social reforms to improve working conditions and an alliance with socialist and syndicalist groups in Argentine labor unions, which boosted his authority and influence in the military government. His reforms were basically a carbon copy of Mussolini’s Carta del Lavoro, which Mussolini had introduced in his attempts to modernize the Italian economy.
After pressure from the USA president Ramirez was forced to suspend diplomatic relations with the Axis Powers in 1944, and the military junta replaced him with Edelmiro Farrell.
In Farrell’s administration, Perón was chosen as Vice President, Secretary of War, and Minister of Labor.
As Minister of Labor, Perón founded INPS (Argentina's first national social insurance system), handled industrial conflicts in favor of unions (as long as their leaders promised political support to him; again, an exact copy of Mussolini’s model), and implemented a comprehensive range of social welfare benefits for unionized workers.
Perón becomes president and structures the import of Nazi refugees
As we’ve seen, up until the end of WWII, there was little democracy involved in Perón’s rise to power. That is until February 1946, when the country organized elections and Perón and his running mate Hortensio Quijano won the presidential elections.
Perón won the presidential elections, in part, thanks to the support of the businessman Ludwig Freude. Freude was considered at that time as the most influential German in Argentina, even more so than Ambassador Edmund von Thermann himself.
Although it has never been a secret that many Nazis escaped to Argentina after the war, it is less well known how the Perón administration actually assisted them.
Perón sent spies throughout Europe, especially Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Scandinavia, with instructions to help the escape of Nazis and collaborators to Argentina.
Under Perón as president, the Argentine government kept the cooperation agreement and continued to give false documentation to Nazi agents, only now it was with the intention of rescuing them from prosecution.
These agents, notably Argentine/German former SS agent Carlos Fuldner, assisted war criminals and arranged for Nazis to depart with money, papers, and travel plans.
Cruel butchers like Josef Schwammberger and wanted criminals like Adolf Eichmann were able to make their escape to South America through these ratlines.
They were offered money and jobs after they landed in Argentina. The effort was mostly funded by the German community in Argentina via Perón's government. Many of these refugees had personal encounters with Peron.
A total of 5,000 Nazis (including 180 war criminals who were convicted of crimes against humanity) were received with open arms by President Juan Domingo Perón. Perón not only ordered the processing of permits, but also provided them with housing, work, and in cases of very important figure heads like Eichmann, even a different identity.
Autist note: Argentina was not the only country aiding Nazis at the end of WWII, but probably the structured way in which the Perón administration went about it is quite unique. For example, the history of the CIA is filled with providing ex-Nazis with prominent positions. A highly recommended read about the start of the CIA and the way in which some Nazis were used as spies or important informants during and after WWII is “The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government.”
The Nazi Ratlines: One destination, three routes
For many Nazi leaders wanting to flee Allied hands when Adolf Hitler's Germany fell in 1945, the "final escape route" was a transatlantic passage via ship.
These "ratlines" were not easy or escapes for fleeing war criminals. They were flight plans planned and arranged by powerful persons to safeguard not just German fugitives but also Croats, Slovaks, and Austrians, as we will see in our second part of this series.
They would not have succeeded without the inadvertent participation of two of the most well-known international humanitarian organizations: the Catholic Church and the Red Cross. Both of these organizations helped actively in obtaining false identities for Nazi war criminals so they could flee prosecution and start their lives over in South America.
The three most common ratlines were routes that crossed multiple European countries with a single goal in mind: to reach a port and escape via boat.
The so-called "Nordic route" travelled via Denmark before arriving in Sweden.
The "Iberian route" was orchestrated by Nazi collaborators who lived in Spain and used ports such as Galicia, allegedly with General Franco's knowledge.
And lastly, Italy. It is estimated that up to 90% of Nazis fleeing continental Europe left the continent through Italy, Germany's biggest ally throughout the war. Although some emigrated to the UK, Canada, the US, Australia, and the Middle East, the vast majority fled to South America.
Argentina was the country on that continent that drew the most Nazi fugitives. According to secret Nazi documents released by German authorities in 2012, around 9,000 Third Reich soldiers and accomplices escaped to South America after the war (with 5,000 (55%) of them arriving in Argentina).
Legendary "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal dubbed Buenos Aires the "Cape of Last Hope" for National Socialists.
Perón’s motivation for providing a Cape of Last Hope
Besides loving anything with a uniform, Perón sincerely thought these men could be valuable as well. Many people, including the majority of the Catholic Church's hierarchy, considered that the communist Soviet Union posed a considerably bigger long-term threat than fascist Germany.
At the end of the war, some high up Nazi generals even went so far as to suppose a truce with the Allied forces, to then start an alliance with Germany against the Soviet Union.
Perón was one of them, and as we will see with his last presidency in the 1970s, Peron was a fervent anti communist. As the war came to an end, Perón was not alone in anticipating a clash between the United States and the Soviet Union.
He intended to portray Argentina as a big neutral country that was not associated with either American capitalism or Soviet communism and the General believed that Argentina's neutral position would convert it into a wild card capable of tipping the balance in the "inevitable" confrontation between capitalism and communism.
The idea was that the ex-Nazis feeling en masse to Argentina would aid him in this quest. After all, they were veteran soldiers and officers with a passionate antipathy toward communism.
As we will see in part 2 of this article, some did aid him and played an important role in setting up the secret police (SIDE) in Argentina.
Once in Argentina, Nazis received a warm reception
Whenever groups of prominent Nazis arrived in Argentina, President Perón prepared a massive celebration, aided their disembarkation, and hosted some of them at the Casa Rosada.
Perón established the Human Potential Commission to devise an immigration policy that gave preferential treatment to Nazi war criminals sentenced to death in their own nations. This commission's aim was to "arrange the rescue of Nazi war criminals."
The CEANA commission (Commission for the Clarification of Nazi Activities in Argentina) uncovered that a so-called “Argentine Society for the Reception of Europeans” (SARE) was active during these years of Peron’s presidency.
Rodolfo Freude, the son of Ludwig Freude, appointed by Perón as Casa Rosada information secretary, acted as a liaison between the SARE and the Argentine immigration authorities.
Immigrants who came to Buenos Aires under Perón's administration were asked if they were communists or Jews, but not about their Nazi history.
Article continues with Part II: The Nazi legacy of the Argentine secret service and prominent Nazis in Argentina
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Translated from original quote: “¡Cuántas veces durante mi gobierno pronuncié discursos en contra de Núremberg, que es la enormidad más grande que no perdonará la historia!”
Translated from original quote: “De Alemania volví a Italia y me dedique a estudiar el asunto del Fascismo. Mi conocimiento del italiano me permitió penetrar, yo diría que profundamente, en los fundamentos del sistema, y asi fue como descubrí algo que desde ese punto de vista social fue para mi muy interesante. El Fascismo italiano llevó a las organizaciones populares a una participación efectiva en la vida nacional, de la cual había estado siempre apartado el pueblo”