Buenos Aires, Argentina
Old Nazis Never Die
By NICHOLAS KULISHJAN. 10, 2015
AS the decades roll by, there are fewer and fewer Nazi war criminals left
alive to track down. Which made the recent reports suggesting that Alois
Brunner, the top lieutenant to Adolf Eichmann, may have died as recently as
a few years ago in his late 90s all the more surprising.
Even more startling for many, though, was the fact that he wasn't hiding in
Argentina or Brazil but in Damascus, Syria, where he had lived from the
1950s under the name Georg Fischer. Apparently, he may have even advised the
Syrian government, according to Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon
Wiesenthal Center's Israel office (though without the benefit of an eye and
three fingers he lost opening letter bombs over the years).
It turns out Mr. Brunner wasn't an anomaly. Many of the most notorious Nazi
fugitives - members of the SS and the Gestapo - fled to South America after
the war, but hundreds fanned out through the Middle East, primarily to Egypt
and Syria. Eichmann was captured by the Mossad in Buenos Aires and brought
back to Israel for trial and execution. But his deputy, Mr. Brunner, was
among those who carved out new lives in the Middle East, where governments
sometimes recruited them to build up military and intelligence programs.
A few years ago, as The Times's Berlin bureau chief, I worked with a
colleague on an article about the most-wanted Nazi in the world, Dr. Aribert
Heim. Investigators and Nazi hunters were searching for him in Chile, but we
discovered that Heim had absconded to Egypt, converted to Islam and quietly
lived out his days in a working-class neighborhood of Cairo.
Like Brunner, he was part of a wave of German soldiers and scientists who
made their way to North Africa and the Middle East. Leaders in Egypt and
Syria especially viewed the Germans as more sympathetic to their aspirations
than Britain and France, which still had significant interests in the
region. During World War II, many Arab nationalists hoped the German field
marshal Erwin Rommel would sweep the Allies out of the Middle East.
That respect for German military might and expertise survived the fall of
the Third Reich. Following the defeat of the Arab coalition by the Israelis
in 1948, German advisers were discreetly sought out as the best resources
for building new, stronger armies. In a French documentary last year, "The
Nazi Exiles: The Promise of the Orient," the French-German filmmaker
Géraldine Schwarz traced the paths of German soldiers of fortune, fugitives
and propagandists, including Lt. Gen. Artur Schmitt, who fought with Rommel
in North Africa. The Arab League recruited Schmitt to help form a more
effective fighting force.
After a trip to the Golan Heights in 1951, Schmitt wrote to an Egyptian
colleague that the Arab defeat by Israel had been "the consequence of
Egyptian leaders' inability to take advantage of the early stages of
fighting to wipe the state of Israel off the map with a blitzkrieg of two
weeks at most."
Meanwhile, a Syrian agent traveled to Rome to seek out Walter Rauff, who
helped develop the vans used as mobile gas chambers, to lead a search for
military and intelligence advisers. Within months dozens of Nazis made their
way to Damascus, including Franz Stangl, who had commanded the Sobibor death
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More than 50 Germans were known to have gone to Syria, while at least 70
more went to Egypt. Many fugitives, like Heim, converted to Islam and
adopted Muslim names, making them more difficult to track.
In most cases, the recruitment of people accused of war crimes was kept
discreet. Yet many of the Germans in 1950s Cairo, known as the "Alemanni,"
lived openly as they helped modernize and train the Egyptian army.
Their ample salaries arrived half in Egyptian pounds at local banks and half
in francs sent to Swiss bank accounts. They rented luxury apartments, drove
Mercedes-Benzes on their weekend trips to the Red Sea and had memberships at
In some cases they were merely following the jobs. With military activity
suspended in postwar West Germany, a career officer had few options but to
find a new profession or seek his fortune abroad. In her film, Ms. Schwarz
tracked down the villa in Cairo where Dr. Wilhelm Voss, a leader of the
German defense economy and former SS standartenführer, lived with his
entourage. The Waffen-SS member and German Special Forces commando Gerhard
Mertins trained Egyptian paratroopers but also represented German businesses
like Mercedes and Siemens.
Often enough the government in Bonn was happy to see its former soldiers at
work in the Egyptian capital, as long as their Nazi pasts did not cause
embarrassment. "Contact with the German military advisers" led to "a
fundamentally positive attitude toward the Federal Republic, which has
repeatedly made itself felt agreeably in negotiations," a staff member at
the German Embassy in Cairo wrote in 1957.
Some, like the propagandist Johann von Leers, remained committed Nazis and
anti-Semites, and were well aware that Egyptian leaders hoped to avenge the
humiliating defeat by Israel. Dr. Hans Eisele, twice convicted for crimes as
a concentration camp physician, fled to Cairo as investigators once again
closed in on him. When the West German government demanded that the
Egyptians extradite him, they bluntly refused.
The Israelis were concerned enough about the Cairo Germans - in particular
their missile-making expertise - to dispatch an undercover agent to Cairo. A
letter bomb nearly blinded the German secretary working for one of the
rocket scientists. Another device addressed to Dr. Eisele exploded
prematurely in the hand of his Egyptian postman. But by and large they
The question for future researchers is how much influence the Germans had
over these rapidly changing nations and their security apparatus. "The world
as it is today was shaped after World War II, so the '50s are a really key
era," Ms. Schwarz said by telephone from Berlin. "The Germans were advising
the army, the secret service and the police at the moment when these
countries were being built."
Nicholas Kulish is a correspondent for The New York Times and a co-author of
"The Eternal Nazi."
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