Partners in Evil

12.07.14 11:45 AM ET

Hitler’s Henchmen in Arabia

Nazi Alois Brunner’s confirmed death in Damascus reveals an uncomfortable truth: Egypt and Syria have long ties to Nazi Germany and long provided sanctuary to fugitive war criminals.

When most of us think of the premier retirement destination for unrepentant Nazis, our minds immediately turn to South America. We think of Josef Mengele hidden on a lonely estancia in Paraguay, or Adolf Eichmann ensconced in a two-bit suburb of Buenos Aires.

This perception was magnified by a slew of sensational books that were published in the early 1970s, many of which promoted a very iffy thesis that former Nazis were using the continent as a launchpad for a “Fourth Reich” that would, yes, take over the world.

This culminated in Ira Levin’s 1976 thriller, The Boys from Brazil, in which fiendish Nazis hatch a diabolical plot to unleash several cloned Hitlers onto the world. The book was made into a film in 1978, and starred no less than Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, who were presumably behind on the rent.

But as the recent declaration of the death of the former SS officer and Eichmann henchman Alois Brunner reveals, the boys didn’t just go to Brazil. For Brunner, like so many other Nazis, found the Middle East an equally hospitable location, and far less out-on-a-limb than a chalet in Patagonia, no matter how gemütlich.

An undated picture of Austrian-born Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel asked Prime Minister Ehud Barak 12 December 1999 to request the extradition of Brunner from Syria during peace talks scheduled in Washington 15 December. Though some Syrian sources say that Brunner died in 1996 and is buried in Damascus, the center claims he is still alive in the Syrian capital.
Photo d'archives, non datée, du criminel nazi Alois Brunner, qui se trouverait depuis 40 ans en Syrie, a déclaré Me Serge Klarsfeld, président de l'association des Fils et des Filles de Déportés Juifs de France (FFDJF), au moment où le président syrien Hafez al-Assad effectue une visite d'Etat en France. Undated picture of Austrian-born Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner. Brunner, who would now be 85, was an SS lieutenant and senior aide to Adolf Eichmann, the chief organiser of the extermination of European Jewry. French Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld said 16 July there was "a good chance" that Brunner was still alive and hiding out in Syria. Syrian President Hafez a-Assad, who arrived in Paris today for his first state visit to a western nation in 22 years, forcefully denied 15 July that Brunner was hi (Photo credit should read /AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty

An undated picture of Austrian-born Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner.

Brunner, who sent an estimated 130,000 Jews to their deaths, made his home in Damascus, Syria, where he found the conditions much to his liking. Although there has been much guff peddled about Brunner’s postwar activities over the past few days—some of which may be true—there is no doubt that he worked in cahoots with the Assad regime, or at least certainly enjoyed its protection.

However, Brunner was not the only perpetrator of the Holocaust mooching around the streets of the Syrian capital. In terms of gruesome numbers, Franz Stangl, the former commandant of Treblinka extermination camp, had some 800,000 murders on what remained of his conscience, and he arrived in Damascus in September 1948 with the assistance of a Roman Catholic bishop.

Although Brunner is said to have variously worked as an intelligence agent, an arms dealer, and a security advisor, Stangl took more menial positions in textile firms. Life was somewhat frugal, but manageable. Unfortunately for Stangl, the local chief of police took a fancy to his 14-year-old daughter and wanted to add the child to his harem. Stangl didn’t tarry, and packed his bags and shepherded his entire family to—you guessed it—Brazil.

Stangl seems to have been one of the few Nazis who didn’t find the air pleasing in Syria. Most, such as Major-General Otto-Ernst Remer, prospered on Arab Street. Remer was, frankly, a real piece of work, and having founded the swiftly-banned Socialist Reich Party in West Germany in the early 1950s, decided that working as an arms dealer with the likes of Brunner more rewarding.

Unlike Brunner, Remer was itinerant, and spent much time in that other nest of postwar Nazis—Cairo. If anything, the Egyptian capital was even more appealing than Damascus, and had been playing host to Nazis immediately after the war, when King Farouk opened his arms to scores of former SS and Gestapo officers.

That hospitality continued even after Farouk was deposed by the Free Officers Movement in 1952, as Nasser regarded German scientific and intelligence expertise as being an essential component of his regime. No less a figure than Joachim Daumling, the former head of the Gestapo in Düsseldorf, was tasked with establishing Nasser’s secret service. 

In fact, the list of some habitués of Cairo in the 1950s and the 1960s reads like a who’s who of Nazi Germany, featuring as it did the rescuer of Mussolini, Otto Skorzeny; the ace Stuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel; the leader of a notorious SS penal unit, Oskar Dirlewanger; and the particularly odious and violently anti-Semitic stooge of Goebbels, Johannes von Leers.

What made the relationship between these former Nazis and the Egyptians and Syrians so successful was that it was a genuinely two-way deal. The Arabs offered the Nazis a haven, as well as a market for all their nefarious dealings in arms and black market currency. The Nazis, meanwhile, were able to provide technical and military experts, as well as the knowhow of establishing the instruments of repression.

However, below the back scratching lay a deep and dark underpinning to the relationship between the crescent and the swastika. That was, of course, a hatred of the Jews, and in particular, a desire to see the eradication of Israel. 

That shared exterminationist desire had been born during the war itself, when the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni, had made his home in the luxurious Hotel Adlon in Berlin in 1941, and had impressed Hitler with his hatred of the Jews. The Mufti lobbied the Nazis hard to kick the British out of the Middle East, and he was instrumental in raising recruits for a largely Muslim unit of the SS called the 13th Armed Mountain Division of the SS Handschar.

In addition, throughout the war in North Africa, German intelligence had worked closely with the Egyptians, and the Mufti is thought to have been a key intermediary between King Farouk and Hitler himself. If further evidence were needed that the roots of the Nazi-Arab affair were required, then it is worth considering the fact that both Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat, had been wartime agents for the Germans.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, many old Nazis managed discreetly to trickle back to what they regarded as the Fatherland. However, others such as the former SS “doctor” in Mauthausen, Aribert Heim—and indeed Alois Brunner—would end their days in the Middle East, dying lonely deaths in obscure dusty back streets of Cairo and Damascus.

It is hard to feel sorry for such lonely demises, but in the end, those Nazis who escaped to the Middle East found permanent sanctuary. Remembering that may seem inflammatory when the West struggles with its relationship with that part of the planet, but it is nonetheless the awkward truth.