Half-Century Later, a New Look at Argentine-Nazi Ties
By LARRY ROHTER
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."