It’s easy to see why the small mountain city of Bariloche, stretching along the southern shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi, is a popular retreat for holiday-makers and adventurers. With snow-doused peaks peering over from the west and south, there is no shortage of options for outdooring, and the natural scenery is among the most beautiful in Argentina.
After a tough time in Buenos Aires, we made the gruelling 24-hour bus journey for our own getaway in Bariloche. Surfacing after endless miles of northern Patagonian desert into its quaint streets lined with Swiss-chalet cottages, we could be forgiven for thinking we had somehow been teleported into an alpine paradise village. It was the perfect place for a quiet escape.
I was a little surprised, then, while preparing for our stay, to read that a dark chapter of history lay beneath this idyllic exterior. It was to here, under the giant shadow of the Andean mountains, that many Nazi war criminals fled in the late 1940s to live out their lives in secret, undisturbed bliss. There is even a theory that Hitler himself faked his own death and lived on for decades in peaceful exile in Bariloche.
As someone whose family was grievously affected by the Holocaust, this is a subject that has always been close to me, and so I wanted to find out more.
The German Footprint walking tour
We signed up to take the ‘German Footprint’ tour of Bariloche that runs twice a week. The tour is run by an eccentric trilby-hatted fellow called Diego who speaks excellent English, and whose deep enthusiasm for the city’s history is evident.
Guiding us through the streets, Diego took care to cover the full spectrum of German influence on Bariloche’s history, right back to Carlos Wiederhold, the immigrant who founded its modern settlement and whose name is recognised in its full title San Carlos de Bariloche. We also learned about Otto Meiling, the mountaineer whose escapades established the city as a skiing and adventure destination. Indeed, the German roots of Bariloche are evident all around, from the above-mentioned alpine-style architecture to the excellent schopps of beer in pubs like Manush.
Then we came to a large building – a school – outside which, in 1994, the darker side of Bariloche’s recent history was exposed in an incident that drew the world’s attention. As an ageing man left the building, he was confronted by a TV crew headed by American journalist Sam Donaldson, an encounter you can watch here.
The man was Erich Priebke, a German former SS officer who, 50 years earlier, was in senior command at the Ardeatine massacre in Rome. The massacre was Hitler’s revenge for the killing of 33 German personnel by Italian resistance fighters. The orders came that ten Italians were to be shot for each dead German; in total, 335 people were executed. Priebke himself shot two of the victims.
In the years following the war, Priebke managed to escape to Vatican City, where a bishop gave him a false visa to travel to Argentina. He made it to Bariloche, where he lived a free man for five decades – even using his real name – as a popular member of the local community. He became president of the local Germano–Argentina cultural association and taught in a local school.
The revelation of Priebke’s criminal past caused division in Bariloche. While many called for justice, others pointed to his work in the community as proof he was a good man, and even defended his actions on account that he was “following orders”. Indeed, this was Priebke’s own defence when it came to his trial.
But Erich Priebke was not the only former Nazi living in the safe confines of this pretty mountain city. Here are some other examples:
- Reinhard Kopps was a Nazi spy who operated mainly in the Balkans and Hungary. Following the war he escaped to Argentina and lived under a false name. While in Bariloche, he wrote extremist right wing literature and edited a Europe-based Nazi apologist magazine. The US TV crew in 1994 reached Kopps first: to deflect their attention, he put them onto Priebke and then fled into hiding. He died a free man in 2001.
- Frederic Lantschner was a Nazi governor of Tyrol in Austria. He fled to Bariloche in 1948, where he set up a construction company, using the letters ‘SS’ for its emblem, and joined the mountaineering society Club Andino Bariloche, of which Priebke was also a member. He died a free man in Bariloche.
- Josef Mengele was a Nazi officer and physician known as the “Angel of Death” for his role in conducting deadly human experiments. He was sheltered in Bariloche, and took his driving test outside the Town Hall. He fled the city as the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad closed in on him. In 1979, he was found drowned on a beach in Brazil.
- Hans-Ulrich Rudel was a high-ranking Nazi ground pilot, one of Hitler’s close confidants and the most decorated German serviceman of World War II. In exile in Bariloche, he founded a relief organisation for Nazi criminals, helping them escape to South America and the Middle East. He later moved to Paraguay and then back to Germany, where he represented the neo-Nazi German People’s Union. He died in West Germany in 1982.
- Josef Scwammberger was an SS commander in forced labour camps in Poland. He escaped to Bariloche in 1948, where he lived briefly in a lodge with his family. In 1987, he was extradited to Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1992.
In the years that followed the exposure of Priebke’s criminal past, he was extradited to Italy, tried, and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998. Due to his age and ill health, however, he remained under house arrest until his death in 2013 at the age of 100. He had requested his remains to be returned to Argentina so he could be buried with his wife; the request was denied by the Argentinian government, and instead the Italian authorities buried him in a secret location.
Priebke’s son, Jorge, still lives in Bariloche.
How did Nazis escape to Argentina?
The post-war flow of German war criminals was helped by the fact that Juan Perón, then president of Argentina, was sympathetic to German nationalism, and so provided willing assistance.
There were four common means by which fugitives managed to make the journey. The first was the route taken by Erich Priebke – obtaining a false visa from the Vatican, which was known to be assisting Nazis.
A second possible route was via the Red Cross, which was issuing travel papers for refugees and relied on references from the Vatican or the allied military forces. Overwhelmed by the volume of applicants, war criminals could easily slip through the system.
Another option was to simply pay a large sum of money for a blank Argentinian passport in Italy.
The fourth method was via knowledge migration. In his mission to build a strong and self-sufficient Argentina, Perón sought to attract external talent, and saw an opportunity to bring in skilled German veterans, in particular scientists, in the war aftermath. Many with close ties to the Nazi regime were invited to Argentina. One such example was Ronald Richter, who was invited by Perón to develop a nuclear programme.
Once on Argentinian soil, Bariloche was an alluring location for fugitives to settle. Not only was it on the doorstep of the end of the world, far away from watchful eyes, but it also had a strong German heritage with which they could identify.
The Hitler theory: did he fake his death?
A local journalist, Abel Basti, wrote a book entitled Bariloche Nazi and runs a website www.hitlerargentina.com.ar presenting the theory that Hitler faked his death, and lived in exile in the city for many years after the war. Basti also claims that Nazi parties continue to take place in secret nearby locations to celebrate Hitler’s birthday.
While concluding our walking tour, Diego discussed the Hitler theory, and like us, he was sceptical about it. While not beyond the realms of possibility that such a deception could have taken place, Diego pointed out that Hitler’s doctor had reported that prior to his death, he was suffering from Parkinson’s. The supposed Hitler eye witnesses in Bariloche did not mention any signs of the disease.
Aside from the obvious flaws to the theory, there is an even bigger reason it does not ring true to me. Could such a megalomaniac who had been intent on building and leading a nationalistic empire really be satisfied with living out his days quietly at the farthest corner of the world after it had failed? For the officers and doctors carrying out the orders, the attraction of escape is obvious; but for the architect of the entire machine – I sincerely doubt it.