Any expat living in Buenos Aires will be aware of Argentina’s open door policy towards immigration. After all, lots of us just hop over to Uruguay every three months to perpetually renew our tourist visas. Technically it’s illegal to spend more than six months per year here on a tourist visa, but no-one seems to mind.
In fact, Argentina has had an open door policy on immigration for the last 200 years, including a long period where immigration (specifically from European countries) was actively encouraged. And how’s this for a factoid: between 1821 and 1932, Argentina was #2 in the world in the number of immigrants that it admitted, a staggering 6,405,000 people. (Wondering which country was #1 in the world during this period? It was of course the United States of America, admitting approximately five times as many immigrants as Argentina!)
So far all this sounds innocuous enough. It’s nice that so many people who want to settle in Argentina have been able to. But in the aftermath of World War II, Argentina’s door was open to a much more sinister group of people: Nazis and Nazi collaborators fleeing Europe in order to escape trial (or, one supposes, a bullet in the head courtesy of Mossad) for their war crimes.
Shameful enough, but it gets worse. Despite an official position of neutrality, it appears that the Argentine government also actively supported Nazi Germany during the war, and that the offer of a safe haven to Nazis after the war was simply an extension of this support.
The main villain of this piece, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Juan Perón. Perón was sympathetic to the Nazi cause and in 1943 traveled to Germany to discuss the possibility of an arms deal between Argentina and Germany.
Investigators believe that following the war, a cabal of ex-Nazis and Nazi collaborators formed in Argentina and worked with the Perón government (he became president in 1946) to organize the emigration of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of their kind to Argentina. Members of the group frequently travelled to Europe to look for and bring back more of the fugitives.
It’s not known exactly how many ex-Nazis were brought to Argentina during the late 1940s and early 1950s. One researcher identified 300, but there easily could have been more. What is known is that they included Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann and his adjutant Franz Stangl, Erich Priebke (a former Captain in the Waffen SS), Klaus Barbie – also known as ‘the Butcher of Lyon’ (a former Captain in the SS and a member of the Gestapo), Ustasha Dinko Šakić (former commandant of the concentration camp that was nicknamed ‘the Auschwitz of the Balkans’) and many, many others.
The ex-Nazis were given landing permits and visas and it has also been claimed that many of them were even given jobs in Perón’s government.
In 1998, while opening the Commission for the Clarification of Nazi Activities in Argentina, the Argentine foreign minister Guido di Tella described the collaboration between Argentina and Nazi Germany as a ‘painful and shameful’ episode in Argentina’s history. It is undoubtedly that. However, in fairness it must also be mentioned that as well as accepting ex-Nazis, Argentina under Perón also accepted more Jewish immigrants than any other country in Latin America. Today Argentina has over 200,000 Jewish citizens, the sixth-largest population of Jewish people in the world. While Perón clearly sympathized with Nazi Germany, he also sympathized with the Jews. Also, it seems that a big motivation for Perón in inviting ex-Nazis to Argentina was that he hoped to acquire from them German technology that had been developed during the war. It wasn’t, or wasn’t only, that he wanted to protect the ex-Nazis from the consequences of their crimes.
But what about the present day. Might there be ex-Nazis still alive and living in Argentina today? Could you see one on the street of Buenos Aires? It seems unlikely. After all, someone who was 35 in 1940 would be 105 this year (2010) and probably would have died of natural causes. However, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (which is dedicated to tracking down escaped war criminals) believes that potentially dozens of lower-level Nazi war criminals – who would have been younger than their superiors – might still be alive. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has launched an operation called ‘Operation Last Chance,’ which is a final effort at finding and bringing to trial as many ex-Nazis as possible before they die of old age.