Otto Skorzeny was the Waffen SS commando behind some of Nazi Germany’s most significant special operations. When Mussolini’s government fell, it was Skorzeny’s team who were parachuted into Italy to rescue the dictator. At the end of the war he was detained by Allied forces and awaited a denazification trial.
But Skorzeny’s story didn’t end there. He escaped prison and fled to Franco’s Spain,
He became a military advisor to the Spanish, Egyptian and Argentinian governments, and spent time as a bodyguard for Argentina’s First Lady, Eva Peron. Over the course of his post-war career, he worked for the CIA, West German intelligence, and even Israel’s Mossad.
“As a CIA official wrote after the war, old intelligence hands are always attracted back to the job they know best,” says Danny Orbach, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War. This is why, he tells New Lines’ Faisal Al Yafai, Skorzeny and those like him ended up as mercenaries, informants and spies.
“People are very, very quick about forgetting past hatreds when a new enemy comes on the agenda.”
And there were many like him. “The vast majority of Nazi criminals either got off with meagre punishments, or just escaped completely unharmed,” Orbach says. As the Second World War ended and the Cold War began, intelligence services on both sides of the Iron Curtain quickly shifted their priorities from hunting down Nazi war criminals to recruiting them, in hopes of getting some sort of advantage over their new adversaries. “People are very, very quick about forgetting past hatreds when a new enemy comes on the agenda,” Orbach remarks.
This, he explains, was why so many agencies were willing to work with such men — some of whom, like Alois Brunner or Klaus Barbie, were personally responsible for hundreds of thousands of killings during the holocaust. The calculus was simple: “What’s more important, the past or the future?”
“The condemnation usually comes after there is no longer a practical need in employing them,” he adds.
Produced by Joshua Martin & Christin El-Kholy