Source – greyfalcon.us
– “…An ‘Underground Reich’… An entity which maintains the long-term interests of German-based multinational conglomerates, it includes heavy industry, chemicals, communications, as well as international shipping, banking and financial interests. Emory contends that the many units which make up the “Underground Reich,” having survived World War II, persist and flourish as major components of the current global capital elite”
The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Argentina – By Uki Goñi
“In those days Argentina was a kind of paradise to us,” reminisced Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke in 1991, thinking back to the warm welcome he and some of his comrades found when they fled postwar Europe for the country ruled by Juan Domingo Perón.
Priebke, Adolf Eichmann, and Josef Mengele were only the most notorious of a rogue’s gallery of several hundred European fascists who made their way to Buenos Aires in the late 1940s and 1950s. The story was immortalized in the best-selling novel The Odessa File, Frederick Forsyth’s dark fantasy of a conspiratorial order seeking to launch a Fourth Reich through the mythical ODESSA (Organization der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen or Organization of former SS members).
This image of Argentina as a sanctuary for villains escaping justice became so widely understood in popular culture, even the Blue Meanies thought of going there after their downfall in the Beatles’ cult cartoon “Yellow Submarine.”If the flight of Nazi fugitives down the ratlines to Argentina is well known and has already been the subject of a number of investigations, never before have the mechanisms of the escape routes been laid out in such detail as in this painstaking study by Argentine journalist Uki Goñi.
Goñi conducted some two hundred interviews and undertook six years of relentless digging in archives in the United States, Europe, and frequently uncooperative ministries in Argentina. His findings are a catalog of cynical malfeasance and cover-up by highly-placed officials in the Argentine government and the Catholic Church, as well as actors from other countries. Goñi’s principal contribution is his in-depth look at the Argentine side of an organized smuggling operation that had its genesis in German-Argentine cooperation during the war and eventually involved Allied intelligence services, the Vatican, and top Argentine officials in network stretching from Sweden to Italy.
Among the key players in Goñi’s account are two Argentines of German descent: former SS Captain Carlos Fuldner, who ran “rescue” efforts from bases in Madrid, Genoa, and Berne; and Rodolfo Freude, head of Perón’s Information Bureau, who coordinated the work of intelligence and immigration officials from his office in the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s White House. Many of the Argentines involved, as well as a multinational cast of Vichy French, Belgian Rexists, Croatian Ustashi, and cardinals from several countries, seem to have been motivated by the vision of an international brotherhood of Catholic anti-Communists.
Goñi has gone to great lengths to document information about individual members of the operation and those it abetted. We learn, for instance, about SS Captain Walter Kutschmann, frequent wartime travel companion of fashion designer Coco Chanel and himself responsible for thousands of killings in Poland, who escaped to Argentina in the plain robes of a Carmelite monk. Goñi found documentary evidence of Kutschmann’s support from the Casa Rosada in a place few people would have thought to look: Kutschmann’s early application for a taxi license, Goñi discovered, was backed by Fernando Imperatrice, a member of Perón’s presidential staff. Kutschmann retained friends in high places almost until the end of his life. During a trial held by the Argentine military regime in the early 1980s, the former SS man went free “when the court lost the case dossier. It was found five years later … in the judge’s safe” .In an extraordinary tale from the archives, Goñi describes spending five months posing as a genealogist to look unobtrusively for crucial evidence in the records of the Argentine Immigration Office. From 1920 to 1970, the government routinely opened immigration files for every applicant for a landing permit, whether job seeker, refugee, or war criminal. Goñi eventually worked through “a couple of city blocks of shelves stacked with tightly packed cards,” indexing the files to find ones he wished to order. He discovered entries corresponding to files for Eichmann, Priebke, Mengele, and other lesser-known fascists. But when he broke his cover and tried to order the relevant files, the archivists turned nasty and sullen, and terminated their cooperation. One of them then met him furtively in a park across the street to confess that in 1996, Peronists, fearing exposure, had carted most of the key documents down to the riverbank and burned them. But not all of them were burned.
By entering the data from the index cards alone into a computer spreadsheet, Goñi found that the files for Erich Priebke and Josef Mengele were numbered consecutively, even though they arrived in Argentina seven months apart. At the time of their applications, the Immigration Office was opening new files at a rate of over five hundred per day. Thus a single person must have applied on behalf of both war criminals at once or processed them together, prima facie evidence of an organized effort on behalf of Nazi fugitives.
Goñi made other important finds. He draws effectively on the revealing unpublished diary of a Belgian fascist involved in the smuggling network in Buenos Aires, Pierre Daye, whose papers were repatriated after his death and thus escaped the Argentine bonfires. Historian Beatriz Gurevich, a member of CEANA (Comisión de Esclarecimientode Actividades Nazis en la Argentina), the Argentine government commission investigating Nazi links, who resigned in the late 1990s because the commission did not dig deep enough, shared her files with Goñi. He also worked in Chile, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States. In the end he was able to identify nearly three hundred war criminals who entered Argentina beginning in August 1946. (The entire staff of CEANA came up with only 180).This research, presented in such detail that at times the narrative of events gears down into a register of names and places, is itself a great achievement. Goñi’s interpretations of causality, however, are more porous.
At the center of the image of Argentina as a fascist paradise, and looming in the background throughout the story told here, is the highly disputed figure of Perón himself. Did he, as Goñi argues, turn his country into an asylum for the blood-spattered losers of the Second World War out of ideological sympathy for European fascism? Or were other motives more important? Goñi takes a clear stand: if Perón was not himself a Nazi, he liked Nazis, cooperated with them before, during, and after the war, and sought to save them from the “victor’s justice” he saw at work at the Nuremberg tribunal because it offended his soldier’s sense of honor. “It was Peron’s intention to rescue as many Nazis as possible from the war crimes trials in Europe,” Goñi writes.To show the antecedents for the program, he spends several chapters outlining how Argentina steadily made it more difficult for Jewish refugees to enter the country in the late 1930s and 1940s,especially when the Immigration Office was headed by Santiago Peralta, a virulent and prolific writer of anti-Semitic tracts appointed by the military government in 1943 and kept on by Peron until June 1947.
Historians will no doubt contest whether anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi sentiment among Argentine officials, including Perón himself, can bear the explanatory weight Goñi assigns them in accounting for the causes of this sordid episode. A comparative frame of reference would also be useful. Countries all over the world were closing their doors to Jewish refugees in the Nazi era, an appalling practice that did not in itself automatically indicate a preference for fascist immigration. Despite the many obstacles created, in percentage terms, Argentina actually admitted more Jews (between 30,000 and 50,000 during Hitler’s rule) than did any country in the Western Hemisphere except Bolivia. (The United States ranked first in total numbers but third relative to population).
Perón’s hostility to the Nuremberg trials should be placed in an Argentine context, where protestors sometimes chanted “Nuremberg! Nuremberg!” to call for the prosecution of the military officers (including him) who ran the country during the war, giving him a self-interested motive for opposing the trials. Perón cannot simply be labeled a Nazi since he readily made alliances with Communists and Jews, maintaining an ideologically flexible, populist approach as he tried to co-opt workers’ movements by meeting many of their demands. Indeed, within the Argentine military and the right wing in general there was far more admiration for Italian and Spanish fascism than for the German variety, which was considered too anti-Catholic.
After the war, Perón did not just go looking for war criminals in Europe; he especially sought skilled labor and advanced technology for his crash industrialization program. As Goñi notes, an Argentine agency based in Rome and implicated in smuggling fascists actually “had orders to organize the immigration of 4 million Europeans, at the rate of 30,000 a month, to boost the economic and social revolution Perón envisaged for his country”. It was an ambitious plan, partly realized in at least one respect: Argentina produced its own jet fighter in 1947 with the help of imported Nazi engineers. This aspect seems worthy of more careful analysis. Argentina was hardly the only country to take advantage of the decommissioned human resources of the Third Reich. The United States is famously indebted to rocketry expert Wernher von Braun, who literally got NASA off the ground thanks to his experience building Hitler’s V-2rockets using slave labor in the underground factories at Peenemünde. Von Braun arrived via Operation Paperclip, a once-secret program that eventually brought 765 German scientists, engineers, and technicians into the United States; between half and three-quarters were former Nazi Party members or SS men, and more than a few of them were guilty of war crimes.
The Soviet Union carried off German technicians and laborers in large numbers after the war, and the intelligence agencies of both superpowers recruited well-informed Nazis into their ranks. Perhaps the most notorious was Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” who worked for and was sheltered by the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps after the war. The CIC also protected Otto von Bolschwing, a senior aide to Adolf Eichmann. France likewise enlisted ex-Waffen SS in the Foreign Legion to fight against national liberation movements in its colonies. Few historians would assert that the United States, the Soviet Union, and France welcomed Nazis out of ideological affinity with the Third Reich; moral blindness, perhaps, or cynical realism may have been at work, but there is no mistaking the instrumentalist thinking behind a salvage operation intended to locate Nazis with unusual skills for national programs in intelligence, advanced technology and counterinsurgency. Was what was good for the goose also good for the gander? Even if his sympathies lay more openly with European fascists, could Perón have been motivated in part by some of the same cold-blooded calculations going through the minds of Truman, Stalin and De Gaulle?
Goñi would answer with a resounding “no.” Although he acknowledges the utility of some of the newcomers to Perón’s modernization effort, we also read of a number of arrivals who may have been good at mass murder, but had so few useful skills it was hard for their Argentine sponsors to find them employment. (Mass murder itself was in any case not yet in demand. Perón’s defenders like to point out that, whatever the Nazi influence in his government, Argentina’s concentration camps were created not under his rule, but by the generals who overthrew his second government in 1976 and killed some thirty thousand people.) Ultimately Goñi understands the whole episode as part of a tragic continuity not only in Peronism’s sins of the past and present, but in an unbroken chain of Argentine history from collaboration with the Third Reich to the disappearances carried out by the military junta of the 1970s, the corruption of the civilian governments that followed, and the bloody bombings of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. All of this went for the most part unquestioned, Goñi writes with sadness; Argentina’s chief crimes remain unsolved and draped in the silence of a society grown too accustomed to looking away.
Historians will continue to differ over how to explain the Perón era and Argentina’s Nazi connections, and this study leaves unresolved key questions of interpretation, especially about how to classify the cipher at the head of the Argentine government from 1946 to1955. But the debate over these issues, and our knowledge of the inside of the Argentine Odessa network, has been greatly enriched by Goñi’s findings.
Frederick Forsyth, The Odessa File (New York: Viking, 1972;
Carlota Jackisch, Elnazismo y los refugiados alemanes en la Argentina(Buenos Aires: Editorial de Belgrano, 1989);
Holger Meding, Flucht vor Nürnberg? (Köln:Böhlau, 1992);
Beatriz Gurevich and PaulWarzawski, Proyecto testimonio (Buenos Aires:Planeta, 1998);
John Loftus and Mark Aarons, Unholy Trinity (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998);
Jackisch, El nazismo y los refugiadosalemanes;
Haim Avni, “Peru y Bolivia–dosnaciones andinas–y los refugiados judios durantela era nazi,” in El Genocidio ante la Historia y laNaturaleza Humana, ed. Beatriz Gurevich and Carlos Escudé (Buenos Aires: Grupo EditorLatinoamericano, 1994);
Christopher Simpson, Blowback:The First Full Account of America’s Recruitment of Nazis, and Its Disastrous Effect on Our Domestic and Foreign Policy (New York: Weidenfeld &Nicholson, 1988);
Linda Hunt, Secret Agenda: the United States Government, Nazi Scientists, and Project Paperclip, 1945-1990 (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1991).
Max Paul Friedman. “Review of Uki Goñi, The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina”, H-German, H-Net Reviews, April, 2004.URL: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=160051084077522.
Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of thi swork for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online
from The Real OdessaUki Goñi on the hidden Nazi past of Argentina, ‘a country that time and time again has failed miserably the test of looking at itself in the mirror.’ Ever since the end of World War Two, the existence of a shadowy organization dedicated to the rescue of Nazi war criminals has been the subject of countless media articles, documentaries, novels and movies. Some of these claim that leading members of the Third Reich escaped justice by crossing the Atlantic in submarines. Indeed in Argentina, where I live, there are many eyewitness accounts of nervous men in Nazi uniforms disembarking from rubber dinghies on the coast of Patagonia at the end of the war. Large crates packed with Nazi gold and secret archives of Hitler’s Reich were reportedly collected at night from windy beaches and driven across the continent to secluded havens in the Andes mountains. According to these mostly fantastical accounts, Hitler lived out his final days in southern Argentina, where he still lies buried; his deputy Martin Bormann settled nearby as a rich landowner, first in Chile, then in Bolivia and lastly in Argentina.
Yet none of these far-fetched accounts has gripped the collective imagination as strongly as one novel, The Odessa File, by the best-selling British author Frederick Forsyth. The book portrays a group of former SS men linked in a secret organization named Odessa (Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen), whose aim is not only to rescue their comrades from postwar justice but also to establish a Fourth Reich capable of fulfilling Hitler’s unrealized dreams. Thanks to extensive research and his own experience as a Reuters correspondent in the early 1960s, Forsyth wrote a novel that was not only believable but also contained many elements of truth. Ever since its publication 30 years ago, the existence of a ‘real Odessa’ has been hotly contended by journalists, though frequently denied by serious scholars.
In the last ten years, however, the steady declassification of secret documents in the United States and Europe has made it possible to test those fictionalized tales of Hitler’s survival, and Forsyth’s more plausible novel, against the hard stone of historical fact. The picture that emerges is not necessarily one of an ageing Führer doddering peacefully in the Andean foothills attended by faithful Nazi servants. It does not even include an organization actually named Odessa, but it is sinister nonetheless, and weighted in favour of an actual organized escape network. The documents reveal that the ‘real’ Odessa was much more than a tight organization with only nostalgic Nazis for members. It consisted instead of layered rings of non-Nazi factions: Vatican institutions, Allied intelligence agencies and secret Argentine organizations. It also overlapped at strategic points with French-speaking war criminals, with Croatian Fascists and even with the SS men of the fictional Odessa, all in order to smuggle Hitler’s evil minions to safety.
Instead, reporters and researchers found a batch of dog-eared ‘intelligence’ dossiers containing mostly faded press clippings but precious little new information. The file on Bormann, who never really survived the fall of Berlin, included a press article claiming that he had been transported to Argentina via submarine. Conspicuously absent was the file on Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ and the most notorious Nazi criminal to have actually arrived in Argentina (under the auspices of both the Catholic Church and Perón’s Nazi-smuggling team). The dossiers proved hugely disappointing to journalists, while the scholars inwardly cheered: the lack of evidence seemed to corroborate the growing consensus in academia that no Odessa had ever existed, and that the Nazis had arranged their escapes individually, finding their separate ways to Argentina without any organized assistance.
It was against this backdrop, unconvinced by the all-too-convenient lack of evidence, that in 1996 I began to dig for clues to Argentina’s Nazi past. I guessed, correctly as it later turned out, that there was a wealth of material out there just waiting to be uncovered. If a ‘real Odessa’ had ever existed, I was determined to find traces of it.
In Buenos Aires, much of the vital documentation had reportedly been destroyed back in 1955, during the last days of Perón’s government, and again in 1996, when the burning of confidential immigration dossiers containing the landing papers of Nazi criminals seems to have been ordered. But tantalizing leads in other Argentine files that had miraculously survived these purges led me first to Belgium, where vital information on what I discovered to be Perón’s long-denied Odessa-like organization had happily remained out of the reach of Argentina’s document cleansers. Hundreds of pages of government documents were sent to me from Switzerland, detailing the co-operation of anti-Semitic Swiss officials in Perón’s Nazi escape operation. In London, patient digging in British postwar papers finally paid off when these documents revealed direct Papal complicity in the protection of war criminals. Documents I requested from the United States under the Freedom of Information Act proved how Perón’s top Nazi smuggler had actually been a secret agent of the SS, sent out of Berlin in l945 on a mission slated to start after the end of the war. Declassified CIA documents also explained how gold looted from the Serb and Jewish victims of Croatia’s Nazi puppet regime had found its way to Argentina in the early 1950s.
Incredibly, it sometimes proved easier to gain access to faraway archives in the US and Europe than to those at home. The progress I made in Argentina was maddeningly slow, hampered by the unresponsiveness of government officials and by the refusal of surviving participants in the Nazi rescue operation to be interviewed. One thing was clear, however: the cover-up had been so complete that only separate parts of the jigsaw puzzle survived in each country. I was forced to assemble and compare the varying information available in Brussels, Berne, London, Maryland and Buenos Aires. This was a gargantuan task that involved obtaining copies of thousands of pages of documents and indexing them all, while working simultaneously in four languages (French, German, English and Spanish) before the whole could be understood. And even that proved insufficient, for the assembled documentation left glaring gaps in the investigation which had to be filled in with some 200 personal interviews. It took six years of dedicated work. But finally, for the first time, the disparate pieces of the Nazi rescue puzzle slid into place, revealing the whole gruesome tableau.
I didn’t know it when I started, but parts of that puzzle had been almost literally on my front doorstep all along. Looking out of my apartment window, for years I had unknowingly been seeing the grandson of Fritz Thyssen, the German industrial magnate who bankrolled Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, take a stroll along the sidewalk. Four doors down, by the Swiss ambassador’s residence, is the chalet once inhabited by SS Captain Carlos Fuldner, the Himmler agent who coordinated the main Nazi escape route and shielded Eichmann, among others. It sounds like Berlin, Munich or Vienna, but no, it is the sleepy Embassy Row of Buenos Aires. The street remains oblivious to its sinister past. I myself had been unaware of its notorious inhabitant when I cycled past Fuldner’s house as a kid in the 1960s. What a missed chance for an interview!
The luxurious town houses and elegant curved streets of the Palermo Chico neighbourhood disprove the assumption that Hitler’s helpers were somehow condemned to a life of squalor during their long postwar Argentine ‘exile’. Most of them boasted select addresses in a city that rightly prided itself on being the Paris of South America’. Some, like Fritz Thyssen, who died in Buenos Aires in 1951, regretted aiding Nazism. The magnate had a falling out with the Führer and spent much of the latter part of the war in German concentration camps. Others, such as Fuldner, remained loyal to the cause long after Hitler’s demise.
From my window, across the avenue, I can almost see the attractive red-brick townhouse where Thilo Martens lived not so long ago. He was a German millionaire who smuggled into Argentina the state-ofthe-art radio sets used by Hitler’s agents to communicate with Berlin. After the war Martens reportedly arranged money transfers for some of the more notorious Nazis who escaped to Buenos Aires with Fuldner’s help. But his Nazi past did not spare the ageing collaborator from abduction by the generals of Argentina’s genocidal 1976/83 dictatorship, who pocketed a substantial part of his fortune.
A few blocks further along, in a comfortable modern apartment building, lived another SS captain circa 1943, Siegfried Becker. He was arguably Himmler’s most cunning and successful agent in the western hemisphere. During the war he plotted the overthrow of the Allied-leaning government of neighbouring Bolivia with Perón. Afterwards he apparently helped channel Nazi funds to Argentina.
Finally, slightly up the hill from Becker lived the man who breathed life into the Nazi escape route, Colonel Perón himself. The Argentine strongman shared his bed there with a 14-year-old girl now remembered only by the pet name Perón gave her, ‘Piranha’. In 1944, Evita arrived on the scene and threw the teenager out.
None of this was on my mind in mid-1996 when the Sunday Times of London called for a story. It had been a slow week in the rest of the world and the paper’s editors needed some colourful copy for their international section. I offered up the usual Argentine fare political scandals, new twists in the Falklands dispute, ageing generals from the 1970s and 1980s trudging through the courts on renewed charges of old human rights violations. The British voice coming down the line was not impressed. ‘Well, and then there’s the Bormann passport in Patagonia,’ I offered, hoping the editor would decide there was nothing worth taking from my neck of the woods.
How wrong I was. That weekend the Sunday Times ran a big piece entitled ‘Bormann File Reopened by Passport Find’. In it I reported that a Uruguayan passport had turned up in southern Chile made out in the name of Ricardo Bauer, one of the aliases allegedly used by Hitler’s deputy during his flight to South America. It proved a shaky start for the investigation that resulted in this book, for two years later a DNA test conducted on a skull found in Berlin established that Bormann had died fleeing Hitler’s bunker during the last days of the war. Nonetheless, tackling the Bormann mystery made one thing obvious to me no well-documented research was available on the Argentine side of the postwar Nazi escape route.
I had reasons of my own to start digging. For too long I had been aware of silence as a noisy presence in Argentina, a country that time and again has failed miserably the test of looking at itself in the mirror. Each Argentine carries around a fabricated version of the country’s history, tailored to their own personal comfort. There is one version for the die-hard Perónist, another for the Catholic nationalist; one for the victim of the 1976/83 massacres, another for those who walked blindly through the horror. As I write this, in mid-2002, the country is going through another of its perennial crises, this time an economic collapse of unprecedented proportions. The current storm has plunged over half the population of an until recently fairly affluent middle-class country below the poverty line. Silence played its hand here as well, the collapse driven by tens of billions of dollars in ill-gotten assets funneled out of the country by a hopelessly corrupt political class and its attendant financiers, with barely a single person ever convicted for corruption by Argentina’s easily bought judges. But of all these silences, there is none so deafening as that surrounding Perón, the Catholic Church and the Nazis they helped to escape from justice. If this particular section of the wall could be cracked, I thought, then Argentines might feel encouraged to chip away at other parts of the edifice
When I was born in 1953 in Washington, DC, where my father served at the Argentine embassy, the wife of Perón’s vice-president suggested that since I had come into the world on 17 October the anniversary of the popular uprising in 1945 that catapulted Perón to the presidency I should be named Juan Domingo, in homage to El Líder. I was spared that particular ignominy, even though suggestions from Perón’s presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, carried not a little weight back then. The awareness of that small jolt at the start switched me on to permanent alert mode during the strange years that followed.
In 1955, Perón was ousted by a group of fanatically Catholic rightwing generals who gave cabinet posts to former collaborators of Himmler’s espionage service. These generals were succeeded in turn by a series of oppressive military regimes that, apart from brief interludes, kept a firm boot against the Argentine throat until Perón’s triumphal return to power in 1973. No better than Perón himself, these regimes forbade even the mention of Perón’s or Evita’s name in the press. Shockingly, Argentina’s journalists obeyed the ban.
I grew up in the US, far from the centre of events that make up this tale, spending part of my childhood years in an old mansion called Downcrest that my parents had rented at the end of wooded Crest Lane in McLean, Virginia. The house, built in castle style with mock battlements, still overlooks the Potomac river today. Back in the late 1950s, one of its frequent visitors was Senator Eugene McCarthy, who, together with his wife and children, had become close friends of our family. The McCarthys and my parents, hailing from extreme ends of the same continent, had some life points in common: both couples had married in 1945 and both had four children. Although I was small, I can remember eavesdropping intently on the long conversations that my father the South American diplomat and McCarthy the Democrat Congressman had on the open veranda of Downcrest above the Potomac. I like to think that some wisdom filtered through despite my scant years. Afterwards, the lives of our two families took different directions, as my father proceeded to new diplomatic postings and McCarthy embarked on his failed but heroic bid for the US presidency in 1968, running a campaign against the Vietnam War that raised fundamental military, political and moral questions concerning America’s role in the world.
That same eventful l968, after spending brief years in Argentina and Mexico, I was transplanted to Dublin, where my father headed the Argentine embassy. That was the year Ché Guevara was murdered in Bolivia. Each morning as I left the embassy residence in chauffeur-driven comfort for classes at St Conleth’s College, I would see the scrawl of graffiti on our sidewalk: ‘Guevara Lives’, in white letters, painted during the night by Irish revolutionary sympathizers. Just as inexorably, each day the embassy staff would scrub the offending letters away. Driving over the reiterated scrawl, I shrank ever); time a little deeper into the red leather upholstery of our old Jaguar.
Erasing the evidence was a method that I grievously mistrusted even then. During the research for this book, some Argentine diplomats argued off the record that the country could best shake off its Nazi stigma by ‘proving’ once and for all that there had been no wartime collaboration by Perón and no organized assistance for fleeing Nazis; I disagreed. There was no shame in admitting old Nazi connections. It would be shameful only to be caught tampering with the evidence. Let the scrawl remain.
Between 1972 and 1975, I moved back and forth between Ireland and Argentina, unable to decide where I wanted to stay. While making the slow transition to Argentina, where: I finally settled, I spent a lot of time walking around Buenos Aires, trying to adapt to a society that I barely knew. My arrival coincided with Perón’s return after l8 years of exile in Spain. The country was spiralling into mindless violence, driven by armed confrontation between youthful Perónist terrorists who wanted to ride piggyback on Perón’s return to power and the right-wing death squads that he used to shake the pesky youths off his ancient back.
During these long walks I came across a disturbing sign of the times that I should perhaps have heeded better. On the broad Nueve de Julia Avenue that divides Buenos Aires in half—’the widest avenue in the world’,—according to some Argentines stands a giant white obelisk that is the city’s most conspicuous landmark. In 1974, the landmark lost its virginity in the strangest of ways. A revolving billboard was suspended around the Obelisco, snugly encircling the huge white phallus. Round and round the ring turned, inscribed with an Orwellian message in bold blue letters on a plain white background” ‘Silence Is Health’.
I was stunned. With every turn, the ring reaffirmed its doctrine, schooling Argentines in the total silence they would practise in the years to follow. Anywhere else, people would have mocked loudly, but in Argentina nobody laughed at all. My attempts to discuss the ring with friends invariably foundered met with blank stares. The ring’s message, I soon learned, was self-fulfilling. A line had been drawn. Today, over a quarter of a century later, I still receive blank stares when I bring it up in conversation.
After Perón’s death and following the overthrow of his vice-president wife ‘Isabelita’ in 1976, a new military dictatorship set up Nazi-style death camps across Argentina. The generals were intent on defending what they considered to be the country’s ‘Western and electric torture prods and Christian’ lifestyle. Their instruments were mass killings. Instead of gassing their victims, the generals slit their stomachs open and threw them alive from planes into the freezing South Atlantic. That way they sank faster.
Under the military the silence became asphyxiating and present everywhere, all the time. Only the Buenos Aires Herald, a small English-language newspaper read by Argentina’s mostly conservative British community, dared report on the bloodbath. I gravitated to its offices in the port of Buenos Aires, first as a cub reporter, then as editor of national news.
Daily the mothers of the victims would come in to report their tragedies. Men in green uniforms had broken into their homes in the middle of the night and taken their children from their beds to an unknown destination. They were never to be seen again. The abductors returned to steal their TV sets and refrigerators; sometimes they even unbolted the doors and loaded those on their trucks too.
I asked the mothers why they didn’t report their stories to the big Spanish-language dailies. Why bother coming to a tiny newspaper published in a foreign language? ‘Don’t be naive,’ the mothers almost laughed. ‘We went and they wouldn’t even let us in the door.’ Just as Argentina’s journalists had erased Perón’s name from their vocabulary, now they erased part of a generation.
Attempts to repeat outside the Herald what I had heard from these mothers came up against a brick wall, much in the way my previous attempts to discuss the ring around the obelisk had. Even friends, members of my generation who picked up guitars and sang Blowin’ in the Wind’ at the parties I went to, gave me the empty stare.
If I forgot the ‘disappearances’, life could hardly have been more glorious. The military obtained huge international loans and opened up imports, and for the upper layer of the population the economy boomed. Colour television finally arrived; the streets were suddenly full of new BMWs; flights to Europe and Miami were packed with Argentines, their pockets bulging with dollars. Rod Stewart came to Buenos Aires for the 1978 World Cup. After the matches he is said to have joined the dancers in the basement of Experiment, a trendy disco where I began spending much of my time outside the Herald in a haze of gin and tonics while the killing was at its bloodiest.
Hell managed to intrude even through the deafening disco beat pounding out of Experiment’s loudspeakers. My then-girlfriend confided in a whisper that her aunt had been kidnapped by the dictatorship. She was placing great trust in me for she had been warned by her family not to tell anyone. I begged her to impress upon them that the only hope of saving her aunt’s life lay in going to the international press immediately, before the military concluded their dirty work. The family stuck to their policy of silence until it was too late. Multiply that by thousands.
My scariest memories of those years are not of the middle-aged generals who ordered the killings but of the deep abyss that separated even the more enlightened members of my own generation from the rest of humanity. Some generals became obsessed with the Jewish question’ during 1976/83, particularly the powerful chief of the Buenos Aires police, General Ramón Camps, who hoped to stage a trial against the country’s most prominent Jews in order to prove the existence of what he imagined was a Zionist plot against ‘Western and Christian’ Argentina. To this end, he abducted Jacobo Timerman, editor and owner of the influential daily La Opinión. After confiscating his newspaper and torturing him for months, the ‘doves’ among the. military finally caved in to international pressure, stripped Timerman of his Argentine citizenship and threw him out of the country.
Enraged at being deprived of his prey, Camps called a press conference at the exclusive Alvear Hotel during which he played the tapes of Timerman’s interrogation.
The purpose of the exercise was to prove that Timerman was ‘a Zionist’ who sought Argentina’s destruction.
‘Do you admit you are a Jew?’ Camps could be heard snarling on the first tape.
‘Well . . . yes,’ came back Timerman’s frightened whisper.
Then you are a Zionist’ hollered Camps.
‘Well … I don’t know, maybe,’ said Timerman.
Camps ordered the tape stopped and beamed triumphantly at the gathered reporters: “See, he admits he is a Zionist’.
The general’s raving in the luxurious hotel in front of a gathering of foreign correspondents wasn’t half as frightening as the composure of his civilian assistant, a finely educated young man who was the ‘best friend’ in Argentina of British writer Bruce Chatwin, someone Chatwin considered possessed of ‘a culture and sensibility that has died out in Europe’. The assistant also happened to be a close friend of mine. He gave me Chatwin’s address when I travelled to London in 1980.
This young writer had a hard time making ends meet and had been set up with Camps by his father. The scene was unreal: here was an otherwise enlightened intellectual (together we used to pore over scholarly editions of T. S. Eliot’s poetry) pressing the play button for the forced interrogation of Argentina’s main Jewish journalist by a wildly anti-Semitic general.
I hung around after the press conference and nodded to my friend, inviting him for a cup of coffee at the hotel. He was smiling, thrilled that so many correspondents had turned up, completely oblivious to the dark significance of the role he had just played.
‘You have to give up this job,’ I said bluntly.
Look, one day there’s going to be a Nuremberg here and your name is going to be associated with this crazy general.’
‘No! He’s a friend of my father’s. Do you think so I really don’t,’ he said, stirring his coffee with a silver spoon. It proved impossible to press the point any further. Our friendship faded years later when I tried to bring up the memory of that bizarre press conference, the wall of silence intact even after all those years.
Argentines still lack a definitive understanding of the general moral blindness that allowed the 1976/83 dictatorship to carry out its gruesome exterminations. Almost equally, the country remains at a loss to comprehend how, even in 2002, the most egalitarian society in Latin America has lurched suddenly into a chaos of apocalyptic proportions, undone by widespread corruption and with the spectre of mass hunger haunting a land historically known as the ‘breadbasket’ and Beef capital’ of the world. It could take many more years before such an understanding is possible. Meanwhile, clues as to how chat of past horror of mass extermination and this present one of rampant corruption were generated may be found in Argentina’s (still-denied) closure of its borders to the Jews at the beginning of the Holocaust and the warm welcome it extended to the Nazis afterwards