Damascus, 1988. Plainclothes security personnel hover constantly around the main entrance of an elegant residential building. There are whispers that an “important” German fugitive lives on the second floor. As teenagers back then, whenever we got too close to that building, the security officers would order us to disperse, warning that only residents were allowed on the sidewalk.
The shutters were always closed, but occasionally, the occupant of that sunless flat would come out for a walk, passing a popular shawarma restaurant that faced his building. He would then walk up to Arnous Square and pass the Retired Officers Club, also known as al-Muharibeen al-Qudamaa (Old Fighters). Many of the older former officers seated in that club, sipping strong Arabic coffee, playing cards and smoking their shishas, knew exactly who the tall and humorless man was, but nobody ever said a word. They just pretended not to have seen him. Many had served in World War II when Syria was under French occupation. Some were cadets at the Homs Military Academy; others were soldiers in the French-run Army of the Levant. During the war, this man was their enemy. They fought on opposite sides of the battlefield; they with France and the Allies, he with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The man of whom I speak was Alois Brunner.
All we knew of this mysterious stranger was that he never smiled. When we saw him, he ran. One time he cussed at a group of boys whose soccer ball had accidentally hit him. We eventually learned that he was “Hitler’s man” and that he was “good, not bad,” having “killed the Jews during World War II.” One of our friends, trying to be funny, raised the Nazi salute at a distance and barked: “Heil Hitler.” The man didn’t see him and neither did the security service personnel who were standing nearby. This came as a relief to me at the time, not because admiring Hitler in Syria was a crime. It wasn’t. But because we knew the secret identity of a man that the regime was protecting.
The name Brunner is known among World War II historians and Nazi hunters. Austrian-born, SS officer Brunner joined the Nazis in 1931, when he was still a teenager. In January 1943, he was put in charge of the Drancy camp outside Paris, the last stop for Jews before they were sent to the gas chambers. He had been the right-hand man to Adolf Eichmann, a notorious Nazi officer and one of the organizers of the Holocaust. By some estimates, Brunner was responsible for the arrest and torture of 47,000 Jews in Austria, 44,000 in Greece, 23,000 in France and 14,000 in Slovakia.
Brunner disappeared right before the April 1945 suicide of Hitler. In a 1985 interview with the West German magazine Bunte, Brunner described how he escaped capture by the Allies, who had mistakenly arrested someone else named Brunner, thinking it was him. The other Brunner had also been active in Vienna during the war and was later executed for Alios Brunner’s war crimes. The real Brunner worked briefly as a driver for the U.S. Army using fake papers and then fled Germany in 1954 using a forged Red Cross passport. He first landed in Rome and from there made his way to Egypt, where he found himself the guest of then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The details of how he met the Egyptian leader remain unclear, but Nasser was looking for ways to get back at the West in light of an Israeli raid on Gaza in February 1955 that left 38 Egyptian soldiers dead. Adding to Nasser’s frustration with the U.S., France and the U.K., the World Bank withdrew its offer to finance the Aswan High Dam. Brunner’s hatred of Zionism and the Jews made the former Nazi soldier an immediate attraction to Nasser and his generation of Arab nationalists.
Brunner ended up being hired by the Egyptian military regime, which had been in power since 1952, as a “consultant” at its security apparatus, working closely with its security chief, Salah Nasser. During the short-lived Syrian-Egyptian union (1958-1961), Brunner was sent to Damascus to train police dogs, a talent he had developed at Hitler’s prisons. He happened to be in Damascus when, on Sept. 28, 1961, a coup dissolved the United Arab Republic. Syria’s airport closed down, and flights to Cairo came to a halt. Brunner was stranded in Syria. Neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey were already allied with the West, making them unlikely places for him to escape to. Brunner was still considered a fugitive in the West, from France and Great Britain to the U.S. and Canada.
The former Nazi officer applied for asylum in Damascus. Not to be outdone by Nasser’s Arab nationalism, Syria’s post-Nasser regime approved Brunner’s application almost immediately. Since the September coup, the Syrians had come under increased pressure from Cairo’s Voice of the Arabs radio station, and from Nasser himself, who accused them of harboring the treacherous trifecta of the time: imperialism, Zionism and anti-Arabism. So hosting an internationally wanted Nazi officer would surely prove them to be otherwise, would it not?
The head of Syrian military intelligence at the time was a young officer named Sharaf al-Din Zaabalawi. He is believed to have made Brunner an offer he could not refuse. In exchange for protection, Brunner would train Syrian troops on interrogation methods, espionage and torture. When the Baathists came to power after staging a coup against the post-union government in March 1963, they renewed this offer to Brunner, who again readily accepted. But to this day, the details of what, exactly, Brunner taught the Syrians are still unknown, along with the nature of his duties in Damascus. Most reports say that he could have even served as an adviser to Hafez al-Assad himself, though this too remains difficult to prove.
Syria’s sympathy for the Nazis went back to the days before the war. In December 1937, Hitler had sent Baron Baldur von Schirach, a senior youth leader in the Nazi Party, to Damascus. Schirach was tasked with singling out potential allies for Germany in the Arab world, rife as it was then with distrust of the British, French and the Jews. The Nazis presumed that the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” would lend itself toward an ideological predilection that primed Arab leaders to work with the Nazis. Schirach was to promise them liberation from the French and British mandates, whose unpopularity among the Arabs was reaching a boiling point. All they had to do in return was help Germany win the war in Europe.
Schirach met with iconic Arab nationalists like Shukri al-Quwatli and Said Fattah al-Imam, who had visited Berlin in 1936 and met with Hitler. Quwatli had even suggested sending German arms to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, to fight the Jews in Palestine. Schirach was particularly interested in a military organization called the Steel Shirts, which took its inspiration from the Brown Shirts of Italy and the Nazi Black Shirts. The Steel Shirts even wore uniforms with an armband similar to the Nazi swastika with a torch-bearing hand. French intelligence accused the organization of agitating to set up a branch for the Nazi Party in Syria, which was not a far-fetched idea. Several political parties inspired by Hitler and the Nazis were already emerging throughout the region, including the Syrian Social Nationalist Party of Antoun Saadeh and the Kataib Party of Pierre Gemayel. During that time, another senior Nazi official was sent to Syria — a man named Walter Beck — who proceeded to offer 70 scholarships to Syrian students wanting to study in Germany. They were transported, lodged and educated entirely at the expense of the German government.
In January 1941, Hitler sent his most senior official to date to the Middle East. Werner Otto von Hentig was head of Section VII at the German Foreign Ministry, which was responsible for a vast territory that stretched from Turkey to India. During his month-long tour, he promised Arab leaders that if Germany won the war, it would immediately abolish the mandate system and grant them independence. He did not fail to (presciently) remind them that if the British were to win, they would give Palestine to the Zionists and northern Syria to the Turks.
On Jan. 25, 1941, Hentig arrived in Damascus, and the Syrians commissioned a tailor to make Nazi flags to be flown during his welcoming ceremony. Hentig stayed for a few days at the Umayyad Hotel in the city center, where he summoned the country’s most promising Nazi friends and met with them. In May 1941, Maj. Alex von Blomberg landed at the Mezzeh Military Airport just outside Damascus and stayed at the Orient Palace Hotel in the Syrian capital. The last of Hitler’s envoys to visit Syria was Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe, a member of a royal German family by marriage who was generally believed to be a Nazi spy.
After the war, then-army commander Hosni al-Zaim (who would go on to orchestrate Syria’s first coup) hired former Gestapo soldiers to guard his office at army headquarters. Zaim managed to bring Walter Rauff, another Nazi heavyweight as the former right-hand man to Heinrich Himmler. According to Sami Jumaa, who worked at Syrian intelligence at the time, Rauff helped Zaim prepare for the coup, then converted to Islam, taking on the Muslim name “Abdul Rahman Raouf.”
The Nazis’ presence was so common that in 1962, Israel sent a special spy, the legendary Eli Cohen, to track them down and report on their activities in Syria. Cohen infiltrated high society in Damascus under the guise of a fake persona, a wealthy Syrian emigre from Argentina named Kamel Amin Thabet. But he was captured by the Syrians and swiftly executed in 1965, leaving behind no trace of ever having met with Brunner.
But given the small circles through which Cohen moved, there is a high probability that he would have crossed paths with Brunner either at the Officers Club or the Orient Club — a leading casino of the 1960s — or, perhaps, at the home of army commander Abdul Karim Zaher al-Din. Brunner at the time was going by the alias George Fisher. He taught German in private lessons to the children of Syria’s elite.
In 1950, from the comfort of his Damascus residence, Brunner followed the news of his former boss Eichmann escaping the long arm of retribution by the Allied powers. Eichmann moved to Argentina under a fake identity provided to him by the Catholic Bishop Alois Hudal. The move triggered the Israelis’ relentless hunt for him. They found him in Argentina and extradited him to Tel Aviv, where he was tried and executed in June 1962 — around the same time that Cohen arrived in Syria. Shortly after arriving in Syria, Brunner survived two assassination attempts by letter bombs — one sent by the Israel Defense Forces in 1961 and the other sent by Mossad, Israel’s secret-service agency, in 1980. He lost three fingers and an eye but went on to live the rest of his days in Damascus until his death.
The year of Brunner’s death remains in dispute, with some accounts pegging it to 1996 and others to 2001. In 2014, the BBC ran a story saying that he had died in 2010, which, if true, means that he lived to the age of 89. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks down Nazi war criminals, confirmed the BBC’s findings, though he did not provide any forensic evidence to back up the claim. In 2017, the French magazine Revue XXI reported that Brunner died in 2011, the year of the Syrian uprising. According to the report, Brunner spent his final years incarcerated in a Damascus basement, living off meager food rations provided by the Syrian army. According to one of his guards, who the magazine identifies only as Omar, “the door closed on him and was never opened again. All he had to eat were battle rations, terrible stuff, and an egg or potato.” This claim seems strange and unlikely given that Brunner had been treated as a VIP guest of the Syrian government.
Before his death in 1982, Egypt’s intelligence chief Salah Nasr wrote a detailed memoir but made no mention of Brunner. And neither did Syria’s notorious intelligence chief Abdul Hamid al-Sarraj, who, also, never spoke of his many secrets after he leaving Syria in 1961. Sarraj was an expert torturer in Syrian prisons ahead of the 1958 union and had to have met with Brunner during his numerous work trips to Cairo. Sarraj died in Egypt in September 2013, without uttering a word about Brunner. Sarraj’s successor Sharaf al-Din Zaabalawi, who died in 2018, might have also known Brunner. Ali Douba, Syria’s chief of military intelligence from the 1970s to the 1990s, is still alive and may very well be the only person who can say from memory exactly what services Brunner gave to Syria, but the 90-year-old has seldom spoken to the press and never to foreign media. If Douba knows anything about Brunner, then he will likely take the information with him to the grave.
It is impossible to know to what extent Brunner saw the legacy of his brutal tactics bear fruit. But there is little doubt that Syrian and Egyptian interrogators today — all too young to remember Brunner or even know who he was — apply some of the same methods against their own compatriots that the Nazis used against the Jews.