Evita, the Swiss and the Nazis
by Georg Hodel
iF magazine, January / February 1999
On June 6, 1947, Argentina's first lady Eva Peron left for
a glittering tour of Europe.
The glamorous ax-actress was feted in Spain, kissed the ring
of Pope Pius Xll at the Vatican and hobnobbed with the rich-and-famous
in the mountains of Switzerland
Eva Peron, known as "Evita" by her adoring followers,
was superficially on a trip to strengthen diplomatic, business
and cultural ties between Argentina and important leaders of Europe.
But there was a parallel mission behind the high-profile trip,
one that has contributed to a half century of violent extremism
in Latin America
According to records now emerging from Swiss archives and
the investigations of Nazi hunters, an unpublicized side of Evita's
world tour was coordinating the network for helping Nazis relocate
This new evidence of Evita's cozy ties with prominent Nazis
corroborates the long-held suspicion that she and her husband,
Gen. Juan Peron, laid the groundwork for a bloody resurgence of
fascism across Latin America in the 1970s end '80s.
Besides blemishing the Evita legend the evidence threatens
to inflict more damage on Switzerland's image for plucky neutrality.
The international banking center is still staggering from disclosures
about its wartime collaboration with Adolf Hitler and Swiss profiteering
off his Jewish victims.
The archival records indicate that Switzerland's assistance
to Hitler's henchmen didn't stop with the collapse of the Third
And the old Swiss-Argentine-Nazi connection reaches to the
present in another way. Spanish "superjudge" Baltasar
Garzon is seeking to open other Swiss records on bank accounts
controlled by Argentine military officers who led the so-called
"Dirty War" that killed and "disappeared"
tens of thousands of Argentines between 1976-83.
During World War IL Gen. Peron -a populist military leader
-- made no secret of his sympathies for Mussolini's Italy and
Even as the Third Reich crumbled in the spring of 1945, Peron
remained a pro-fascist stalwart, making available more than 1,000
blank passports for Nazi collaborators fleeing Europe.
With Europe in chaos and the Allies near victory, tens of
thousands of ranking Nazis dropped out of sight, tried to mix
in with common refugees and began plotting escapes from Europe
to Argentina across clandestine "ratlines."
At the Argentine end of that voyage was Rodolfo Freude. He
also was Juan Peron's private secretary, one of Evita's principal
benefactors and the chief of Argentine internal security.
Freude's father, Ludwig, played another key role. As managing
director of the Banco Aleman Transatlantico in Buenos Aires, he
led the pro-Nazi German community in Argentina and acted as trustee
for hundreds of millions of German Reichsmarks that the Fuehrer's
top aides sent to Argentina near the war's end.
By 1946, the first wave of defeated fascists was settling
into new Argentine homes. The country also was rife with rumors
that the thankful Nazis had begun to repay Peron by bankrolling
his campaign for the presidency, which he won with his stunning
wife at his side.
In 1947, Peron was living in Argentina's presidential palace
and was hearing pleas from thousands of other Nazis desperate
to flee Europe. The stage was set for one of the most troubling
boat-lifts in human history.
The archival records reveal that Eva Peron stepped forward
to serve as Gen. Peron's personal emissary to this Nazi underground.
Already, Evita was an Argentine legend
Born in 1919 as an illegitimate child she became a prostitute
to survive and to get acting roles. As she climbed the social
ladder lover by lover, she built up deep resentments toward the
As a mistress to other army officers, she caught the eye of
handsome military strongman Juan Peron. After a public love affair,
they married in 1945.
As Peron's second wife, Evita fashioned herself as the "queen
of the poor," the protector of those she called "mis
descamisados" -- "my shirtless ones." She created
a foundation to help the poor buy items from toys to houses.
But her charity extended, too, to her husband's Nazi allies.
In June 1947, Evita left for post-war Europe. A secret purpose
of her first major overseas trip apparently was pulling together
the many loose ends of the Nazi relocation.
Evita's first stop on her European tour was Spain, where Generalissimo
Francisco Franco - her husband's model and mentor -- greeted her
with all the dignified folderol of a head of state.
A fascist who favored the Axis powers but maintained official
neutrality in the war, Franco had survived to provide a haven
for the Third Reich's dispossessed Franco's Spain was an important
early hide-out for Nazis who slipped through the grasp of the
Allies and needed a place to stay before continuing on to more
permanent homes in Latin America or the Middle East.
While in Spain, Evita reportedly met secretly with Nazis who
were part of the entourage of Otto Skorzeny, the dashing Austrian
commando leader known as Scarface because of a dueling scar across
his left cheek.
Though under Allied detention in 1947, Skorzeny already was
the purported leader of the clandestine organization, Die Spinne
or The Spider, which used millions of dollars looted from the
Reichsbank to smuggle Nazis from Europe to Argentina.
After escaping in 1948, Skorzeny set up the legendary ODESSA
organization which tapped into other hidden Nazi funds to help
ex-SS men rebuild their lives -- and the fascist movement ---
in South America.
Evita's next stop was equally fitting. The charismatic beauty
traveled to Rome for an audience with Pope Pius Xll, a Vatican
meeting that lasted longer than the usual kiss on the ring.
At the time, the Vatican was acting as a crucial way station
doling out forged documents for fascist fugitives. Pope Pius himself
was considered sympathetic to the tough anti-communism of the
fascists although he had kept a discreet public distance from
A top-secret State Department report from May 1947 - a month
before Evita's trip - had termed the Vatican "the largest
single organization involved in the illegal movement of emigrants,"
including many Nazis. Leading ex-Nazis later publicly thanked
the Vatican for its vital assistance.
As for the Evita-Pius audience, former Justice Department
Nazi-hunter John Loftus has charged that the First Lady of the
Pampas and His Holiness discussed the care and feeding of the
Nazi faithful in Argentina.
After her Roman holiday, Evita hoped to meet Great Britain's
Queen Elizabeth. But the British government balked out of fear
that the presence of Peron's wife might provoke an embarrassing
debate over Argentina's pro-Nazi leanings and the royal family's
own pre-war cuddling up to Hitler. Instead Evita diverted to Rapallo,
a town near Genoa on the Italian Rivera.
There, she was the guest of Alberto Dodero, owner of an Argentine
shipping fleet known for transporting some of the world's most
On June 19, 1947, in the midst of Evita's trip, the first
of Dodero's ships, the Santa Fe,. arrived in Buenos Aires and
disgorged hundreds of Nazis onto the docks of their new country.
Over the next few years, Dodero's boats would carry thousands
of Nazis to South America including some of Hitler's vilest war
criminals, the likes of Mengele and Eichmann, according to Argentine
historian Jorge Camarasa.
On August 4, 1947, Evita and her entourage headed north to
the stately city of Geneva a center for international finance.
There, she participated in more meetings with key figures from
the Nazi escape apparatus.
A Swiss diplomat named Jacques Albert Cuttat welcomed the
onetime torch singer. The meeting was a reunion of sorts, since
Evita had known Cuttat when he worked at the Swiss Legation in
Argentina from 1938 to 1946.
Newly released documents from Argentina's Central Bank showed
that during the war, the Swiss Central Bank and a dozen Swiss
private banks maintained suspicious gold accounts in Argentina
Among the account holders was Jacques Albert Cuttat.
The Swiss files accused Cuttat of conducting unauthorized
private business and maintaining questionable wartime contacts
with known Nazis. In spite of those allegations, the Swiss government
promoted Cuttat to chief of protocol of the Swiss Foreign Service,
after his return from Argentina to Switzerland
In that capacity, Cuttat escorted Eva Peron to meetings with
senior Swiss officials. The pair went to see Foreign Minister
Max Petitpierre and Philipp Etter, the Swiss president.
Etter extended a warm welcome to Evita even accompanying her
the next day on a visit to the city of Lucerne, "the doorway
to the Swiss Alps."
After her "official" duties had ended, Evita dropped
out of pubic view. Supposedly, she joined some friends for rest
and recreation in the mountains of St. Moritz.
But the documents recounting her Swiss tour revealed that
she continued making business contacts that would advance both
Argentine commerce and the relocation of Hitler's henchmen. She
was a guest of the "Instituto Suizo-Argentino" at a
private reception at the Hotel "Baur au Lac" in Zurich,
the banking capital of Switzerland's German-speaking sector.
There, Professor William Dunkel, the president of the Institute,
addressed an audience of more than 200 Swiss bankers and businessmen
-plus Eva Peron - on the wonderful opportunities about to blossom
Recently released Swiss archival documents explained what
was behind the enthusiasm. Peron's ambassador to Switzerland,
Benito Llambi, had undertaken a secret mission to create a sort
of emigration service to coordinate the escape of the Nazis, particularly
those with scientific skills.
Already, Llambi had conducted secret talks with Henry Guisan
Jr., a Swiss agent whose clients included a German engineer who
had worked for Wernher von Braun's missile team. Guisan offered
Llambi the blueprints of German "V2" and "V3"
Guisan himself emigrated to Argentina where he established
several firms that specialized in the procurement of war material.
His ex-wife later told investigators, "I had to attend
business associates of my former husband I'd rather not shake
hands with. When they started to talk business I had to leave
the room. I only remember that millions were at stake."
Intelligence files of the Bern Police Department show that
the secret Nazi emigration office was located at Marktgasse 49
in downtown Bern, the Swiss capital. The operation was directed
by three Argentines - Carlos Fuldner, Herbert Helfferich and Dr.
Georg Weiss. A police report described them as "110 percent
The leader of the team, Carlos Fuldner, was the son of German
immigrants to Argentina who had returned to Germany to study.
In 1931, Fuldner joined the SS and later was recruited into German
At war's end, Fuldner fled to Madrid with a planeload of stolen
art, according to a U.S. State Department report. He then moved
to Bern where he posed as a representative of the Argentinean
Civil Air Transport Authority. Fuldner was in place to assist
the first wave of Nazi emigres.
One of the first Nazis to reach Buenos Aires via the "ratlines"
was Erich Priebke, an SS officer accused of a mass execution of
Italian civilians. Another was Croat Ustashi leader Ante Pavefic.
They were followed by concentration camp commander Joseph Schwamberger
and the sadistic Auschwitz doctor, Joseph Mengele.
Later, on June 14, 1951, the emigrant ship, "Giovanna
C," carried Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann to Argentina
where he posed as a technician under a false name. Fuldner found
Eichmann a job at Mercedes-Benz.
(Israel intelligence agents captured Eichmann in May 1960
and spirited him to Israel to stand trial for mass murder. He
was convicted, sentenced to death and hanged in 1962.)
Through Evita's precise role in organizing the Nazi "ratlines"
remains a bit fuzzy, her European tour connected the dots of the
key figures in the escape network. She also helped
clear the way for more formal arrangements in the Swiss-Argentine-Nazi
Additional evidence is contained in postwar diplomatic correspondence
between Switzerland and Argentina. The documents reveal that the
head of the Swiss Federal Police, Heinrich Rothmund, and the former
Swiss intelligence officer Paul Schaufelberger participated in
the activities of the illegal Argentine emigration service in
For instance, one urgent telegram from Bern to the Swiss Legation
in Rome stated: "The (Swiss) Police Department wants to send
16 refugees to Argentina with the emigration ship that leaves
Genoa March 26 . Stop. All of them carry Swiss ID cards
and have return visa. Stop."
Besides political sympathies, the Peron government saw an
economic pay-off in smuggling German scientists to work in Argentine
factories and armaments plants.
The first combat jet introduced into South America-- the "Pulque"
-- was built in Argentina by the German aircraft designer Kurt
Tank of the firm, Focke-Wulf. His engineers and test pilots arrived
via the illegal emigration service in Bern.
But other Nazi scientists who reached the protected shores
of Argentina were simply sadists. One physician, Dr. Carl Vaernet,
had conducted surgical experiments on homosexuals at the Buchenwald
concentration camp. Vaernet castrated the men and then inserted
metal sex glands that inflicted agonizing deaths on some of his
For the Swiss, the motives for their cozy Nazi-Argentine relationships
were political and financial, both during and after the war.
Ignacio Klich, spokesman for a new independent commission
investigating Nazi-Argentine collaboration, said he believes the
wartime business between Nazi Germany and Argentina was handled
routinely by Swiss fiduciaries.
That suspicion was confirmed by Swiss files released to the
U.S. Senate as well as papers from the Swiss Office of Compensation
and correspondence between the Swiss Foreign Ministry and the
Swiss legation in Buenos Aires.
One target of the commission's investigation is Johann Wehrli,
a private banker from Zurich. During World War II, one of Wehrfi's
sons opened a branch office in Buenos Aires which, investigators
suspect, was used to funnel Nazi assets into Argentina.
The money allegedly included loot from Jews and other Nazi
victims. (Later, the giant Union Bank of Switzerland absorbed
the Wehrli bank.)
Swiss defenders argue that tiny Switzerland had little choice
but to work with the powerful fascist governments on its borders
during the war. But the post-war assistance appears harder to
justify, when the most obvious motive was money.
According to a secret report written by a U.S. Army major
in 1948, the Swiss government made a hefty profit by providing
Germans with the phony documents needed to flee to Argentina.
The one-page memo quoted a confidential informant with contacts
in the Swiss and Dutch governments as saying, "The Swiss
government was not only anxious to get rid of German nationals,
legally or illegally within their borders, but further that they
made a considerable profit in getting rid of them."
The informant said German nationals paid Swiss officials as
much as 200,000 Swiss francs for temporary residence documents
necessary to board flights out of Switzerland. (The sum was worth
about S50,000 at the time.)
Moreover, that memo and other documents suggest that KLM Royal
Dutch Airlines may have illegally flown suspected Nazis to safety
in Argentina, while Swissair acted as a booking agent.
Back in Argentina, the rave reviews for Evita's European trip
cemented her reputation as a superstar.
It also brought her immense wealth lavished on her by grateful
Nazis. Her husband was re-elected president in 1951, by which
time large numbers of Nazis were firmly ensconced in Argentina's
Evita Peron died of cancer in 1953, touching off despair among
her followers. The fearful military buried her secretly in an
unannounced location to prevent her grave from becoming a national
Meanwhile, a feverish hunt began for her personal fortune.
Evita's brother and guardian of her image, Juan Duarte, traveled
to Switzerland in search of her hidden assets.
After his return to Argentina, Duarte was found dead in his
apartment. Despite her husband's control of the police -- or maybe
because of it -the authorities never established whether Duarte
was murdered or had committed suicide.
In 1955, Juan Peron was overthrown and fled to exile in Spain
where he lived as a guest of Franco. Peron apparently accessed
some of Evita's secret Swiss accounts because he sustained a luxurious
The money also may have greased Peron's brief return to power
in 1973. Peron died in 1974, leaving behind the mystery of Evita's
Nazi fortune. In 1976, the army overthrew Peron's vice president,
his last wife, Isabel.
Paradoxically, the cult of Evita flourished still. The idolatry
blinded her followers to the consequences of her flirtation with
Those aging fascists accomplished much of what the ODESSA
strategists had hoped. The Nazis in Argentina kept
Hitler's torch burning, won new converts in the region's militaries
and passed on the advanced science of torture and "death
Hundreds of left-wing Peronist students and unionists were
among the victims of the neo-fascist Argentine junta that launched
the Dirty War in 1976.
When the junta started its "war without borders"
against the left elsewhere in Latin America, it used Nazis as
storm-troopers. Among them was Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo's Butcher
of Lyon who had settled in Bolivia with the help of the "ratline"
In 1980, Barbie helped organize a brutal putsch against the
democratically elected government in Bolivia. Drug lords and an
international coalition of neo-fascists bankrolled the putsch.
A key supporting role was played by the World Anti-Communist
League, led by World War I fascist war criminal Ryoichi Sasakawa
of Japan and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Barbie sought assistance from Argentine intelligence. One
of the first Argentine officers to arrive, Lt. Alfred Mario Mingolla,
later described Barbie's role to German journalist Kai Hermann.
"Before our departure, we received a dossier on [Barbie],"
Mingolla said. "There it stated that he was of great use
to Argentina because he played an important role in all of Latin
America in the fight against communism."
Just like in the good old days, the Butcher of Lyon worked
with a younger generation of Italian neo-fascists. Barbie started
a secret lodge called "Thule," where he lectured his
followers underneath swastikas by candlelight.
On July 17, 1980, Barbie, his neo-fascists and rightist officers
from the Bolivian army ousted the center-left government. Barbie's
team hunted down and slaughtered government Officials and labor
leaders, while Argentine specialists flew in to demonstrate the
latest torture techniques.
Because the putsch gave Bolivian drug lords free reign of
the country, the operation became known as the Cocaine Coup. With
the assistance of Barbie and his neo-fascists, Bolivia became
a protected source of cocaine for the emerging Medellin cartel.
Two years later, Barbie was captured and extradited to France
where he died in prison.
Most of the other old Nazis are dead, too. But the violent
extremism that the Perons transplanted into South America in the
1940s still haunts the region.
In the 1980s, the Argentine military extended its operations
to Central America where it collaborated with Ronald Reagan's
CIA in organizing paramilitary forces, such as the Nicaraguan
contras and Honduran "death squads."
Even today, as right-wing dictators in Latin America are called
to account for past atrocities, fledgling democracies must move
cautiously and keep a wary eye on rightists in the region's potent
The ghosts of Evita's Nazis are never far away.
iF magazine is an investigative newsmagazine
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