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Half-Century Later, a New Look at Argentine-Nazi Ties

By Lar­ry Rohter
NEW YORK TIMES [1]

BUENOS AIRES — That scores of fugi­tive Nazis found their way to Argenti­na after World War II, aid­ed and abet­ted by Gen. Juan D. Perón, is no secret. But accord­ing to a book just pub­lished here that draws exten­sive­ly on archival mate­r­i­al only now being made avail­able to researchers, his gov­ern­ment also offered a haven for the prof­its of Ger­man com­pa­nies that had been part of the Nazi war machine and whose assets the vic­to­ri­ous Allies would oth­er­wise have seized.

In “The Ger­man Con­nec­tion: The Laun­der­ing of Nazi Mon­ey in Argenti­na,” Gaby Weber, a Ger­man jour­nal­ist, argues that the Perón dic­ta­tor­ship spon­sored an oper­a­tion to move illic­it­ly obtained wealth to Argenti­na and then back to Ger­many. For near­ly a decade, her book asserts, Ger­man-made cars, trucks, bus­es and even the machin­ery for entire fac­to­ries flowed into Argenti­na, paid for with dol­lars that were then used to help finance the “Ger­man eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle.”

To the cha­grin of Argen­tines who still revere him and his wife, Evi­ta, the evi­dence she presents indi­cates that Perón and a few favorites around him also took a cut. But Ms. Weber, who has lived and worked in South Amer­i­ca since the mid-1980’s, said she was main­ly inter­est­ed in what she described as two par­al­lel but com­ple­men­tary mon­ey streams to and from Ger­many, which were involved in and ben­e­fit­ed from the arrange­ment.

“One must make a dis­tinc­tion between the Nazi Par­ty orga­ni­za­tion and the com­pa­nies, which had no inter­est in financ­ing a Nazi resur­gence,” she said in a recent inter­view here. “My focus is on the offi­cial Argen­tine gov­ern­ment oper­a­tion to help those com­pa­nies laun­der their mon­ey, but a lot of Nazis also did it on their own, hop­ing to recon­struct the par­ty” from their hid­ing places here.

Ms. Weber’s book, pub­lished in Ger­man and Span­ish, is based in part on research in the cor­po­rate archives of Mer­cedes-Benz and on inter­views with Argen­tines and Ger­mans who took part in the scheme. But she also con­sult­ed gov­ern­ment records of Ger­many, the Unit­ed States and, par­tic­u­lar­ly, Argenti­na, where she found tran­scripts of inter­ro­ga­tions of par­tic­i­pants after Perón’s ouster in Sep­tem­ber 1955, and oth­er offi­cial doc­u­ments that until now were gen­er­al­ly off-lim­its to researchers.

Accord­ing to the doc­u­ments Ms. Weber cites, the laun­der­ing oper­a­tion involved both the con­sis­tent over­charg­ing for goods export­ed from Ger­many to Argenti­na and billing for nonex­is­tent trans­ac­tions. But the Argen­tine Cen­tral Bank also coop­er­at­ed by per­mit­ting trans­ac­tions to be con­duct­ed at an exchange rate unusu­al­ly favor­able to Ger­man com­pa­nies.

“The Ger­man Con­nec­tion” focus­es large­ly on Mer­cedes-Benz, the auto­mo­bile, bus and truck man­u­fac­tur­er that is today a unit of Daim­ler-Chrysler. But oth­ers offered by Ms. Weber as ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the plan include Ger­man mak­ers of elec­tri­cal and rail­way equip­ment and oth­er cap­i­tal goods, as well as pro­duc­ers of items as var­ied as trac­tors and tele­vi­sion sets.

“It is impos­si­ble to cal­cu­late the exact amount of mon­ey laun­dered in Argenti­na between 1950 and 1955,” Ms. Weber said. “But it prob­a­bly cor­re­sponds to well over a bil­lion dol­lars.”

Accord­ing to Argen­tine doc­u­ments seized after the over­throw of Perón, about half of one large ship­ment of Mer­cedes sedans to Argenti­na went direct­ly to the pres­i­den­t’s office. Perón appears to have kept four cars him­self, but sent the oth­ers to judges and pros­e­cu­tors, politi­cians, jour­nal­ists and oth­ers whose sup­port he was seek­ing.

Ms. Weber also found doc­u­men­tary evi­dence that in at least a cou­ple of cas­es, entire fac­to­ries were shipped to Argenti­na for reassem­bly here. Perón envi­sioned Argenti­na as an indus­tri­al pow­er and appar­ent­ly saw the import­ing of Ger­man equip­ment and experts as the best way to jump-start air­craft, chem­i­cal and oth­er indus­tries.

“Most of the machin­ery came from Rot­ter­dam, though we don’t know how it got there,” Ms. Weber said. She added that most of the equip­ment appeared to be Ger­man in ori­gin, though some was prob­a­bly loot­ed from Czecho­slo­va­kia or oth­er con­quered East Euro­pean nations.

At one point, Ms. Weber also main­tains, the Nazi Adolf Eich­mann was hired, ini­tial­ly under his own name but lat­er under an alias, at the Mer­cedes-Benz plant in the sub­urbs of the cap­i­tal. In the inter­view, she sug­gest­ed that Mr. Eich­mann, abduct­ed by Israel in 1960 and then tried and exe­cut­ed, might have func­tioned as a sort of pay­mas­ter, “financ­ing the move­ment and flight to Argenti­na” of oth­er fugi­tive Nazis.

Reached by tele­phone, a spokesman for Mer­cedes-Benz, Ursu­la Mertzig, acknowl­edged that Ms. Weber had been “giv­en free entrance to our archives in Stuttgart and that we checked the names she gave us in our per­son­nel data.” But she described the book as “a very strange sto­ry” that lacked sub­stan­ti­a­tion.

“She has no proof of mon­ey laun­der­ing and there is no proof,” Ms. Mertzig said. “We could find noth­ing that gives nour­ish­ment to her reproach. This is her idea of what his­to­ry was, but it is not sup­port­ed by oth­er his­to­ri­ans in Ger­many.”

The pub­li­ca­tion of Ms. Weber’s book fol­lows the release here late last year of a doc­u­men­tary film that caused debate on the same sub­ject. The film, “Nazi Gold in Argenti­na,” con­tends that Swiss banks, the Roman Catholic Church and Argen­tine politi­cians con­spired to loot hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in cash and oth­er valu­able assets held by the Third Reich.

The film includes scenes of Nazi sub­marines filled with gold bars unload­ing their trea­sure on the desert­ed beach­es of Patag­o­nia, events that most experts dis­miss as fan­ci­ful. But it also sheds light on the activ­i­ties of shad­owy fig­ures like Her­mann Dörge, a Ger­man banker who worked in Argenti­na’s Cen­tral Bank dur­ing the 1940’s and was offi­cial­ly declared to have com­mit­ted sui­cide after destroy­ing evi­dence of Nazi mon­ey trans­fers.

In his book “The Real Odessa: Smug­gling the Nazis to Perón’s Argenti­na,” the Argen­tine writer Uki Goni doc­u­ment­ed how Croa­t­ian fas­cists allied with the Nazis shipped over 500 pounds of gold bars to Argenti­na after World War II. But he said that “regard­ing Ger­man or Aus­tri­an Nazi mon­ey after the war, the trail is more dif­fuse.”

Dur­ing the war itself, “there is quite a lot of Amer­i­can doc­u­men­ta­tion about how the Nazis laun­dered mon­ey, seized from the banks of con­quered coun­tries, in Argenti­na so they could buy raw sup­plies,” Mr. Goni said in an inter­view. He added that he found it “fishy” that many Argen­tine Cen­tral Bank records from then and the post­war peri­od were either incom­plete or said to be destroyed.

“I’m sure some­thing hap­pened, but the doc­u­ments are still hid­den,” Mr. Goni said. “A tremen­dous amount of research still needs to be done, and the Argen­tine gov­ern­ment needs to open up more records, espe­cial­ly those of state intel­li­gence.”