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By Christopher Miskimon,War Is Boring
Otto Skorzeny was Nazi Germany’s most notorious commando. His missions included rescuing Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from imprisonment and sending German troops in American uniforms to conduct sabotage during the Battle of the Bulge.
Hitler favored Skorzeny, though many of his colleagues disliked him. Admittedly a brave man, he joined the Nazi Party in the early 1930s and liked nothing more than self-serving adventure. These intrigues continued even after the war ended.
In 1945 Skorzeny received orders to form “Werewolf” guerrilla units and continue the war in the mountains of Southern Germany and Austria. He soon saw the assignment as useless folly and surrendered. When he gave up, Skorzeny slyly provided information to ingratiate himself with his American captors.
That plan didn’t work and the Americans arrested him. U.S. and British interrogators interviewed him several times and he continued his attempts to curry favor. He and his co-defendants were acquitted on Sept. 9, 1947.
Despite the verdict Skorzeny remained in custody. As an ex-S.S. man, he underwent “denazification,” a process designed to measure his repentance of National Socialism and prepare him to rejoin the new, democratic German society.
The Americans also worried the Soviets might get their hands on Skorzeny and use him for propaganda purposes. His brother Alfred lived in the Soviet Zone. They also feared he might try to escape. During Christmas 1947 the occupation authorities granted him leave to visit family. Counterintelligence agents followed him the entire time but he honored his parole and returned to the detention center.
Seven months later Skorzeny changed his mind about remaining in custody. On July 27, 1948, a jeep arrived at the detention camp carrying three uniformed American military police. They said Skorzeny was needed in Nuremburg, presented the proper paperwork and swept him away.
No one laid eyes on him again for over a year. The military police were disguised former S.S. men. Skorzeny later claimed American intelligence agents provided the uniforms. It seems he had American protection. Although Skorzeny’s height and prominent scar made him easy to spot, he remained at large. His capabilities and experience as a commando would be useful in the event of war with the Soviets.
In 1951 Skorzeny relocated to Madrid. Postwar Spain was a fascist state. Many in its government and ruling class admired the Nazis and allowed thousands of them to settle there. The Korean War stirred new fears of war with the Soviets, who maintained large armies in occupied Europe. Western Europe was still recovering and militarily weak, protected by American atomic bombs.
Skorzeny, still an ardent nationalist, designed a plan to create a new German army to combat a Soviet invasion. The plan used German emigres to Spain, many of whom were veterans. The CIA knew of the plan but did little to interfere. The agency held little esteem for Skorzeny, but the Soviets were still interested in him and thwarting them justified the minor effort of protecting the German.
At top — Skorzeny in Pomerania visiting the 500th S.S. Parachute Battalion in February 1945. Above — Skorzeny waiting in a cell as a witness at the Nuremberg trials on Nov. 24, 1945. Photos via Wikipedia
Skorzeny nominally worked as a journalist, publishing stories and memoirs in right-wing publications. He also met a new woman, Ilse Lüthje, and divorced his wife Emmi. Ilse had some tenuous claims to royalty and a family fortune, but the estate sat in the Soviet Zone. Those who knew them often realized while Skorzeny was energetic, outgoing and charming, Ilse supplied the brainpower.
Still, the couple needed money. Contrary to rumor, Skorzeny had no secret Nazi gold. Governments outside Spain often seized the royalties from his writing on the grounds he was technically a fugitive.
With so many ex-Nazis living in Spain, Skorzeny tried to find employment with them. His American handler wrote reports of the former commando trying to work with aircraft designer Willi Messerschmitt and steel tycoon Otto Wolff, but little happened.
He kept talking about his plan to reform the German army to almost anyone who would listen. Despite his special forces experience, Skorzeny couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He spoke of preparing 200,000 men to defend Germany from the Soviets and claimed the Americans backed his efforts. The CIA knew of the plan but worried about a reformation of the Third Reich and provided nothing.
Skorzeny also claimed evidence of a communist spy ring in the fledgling West German government. He peddled this information to a number of intelligence agencies. Investigation revealed a few minor officials working with a group of former S.S. men rather than Soviets.
Through the 1950s Skorzeny remained involved with right wing organizations and often worked with other S.S. veterans, but his reputation as the mastermind of a secret Nazi society was exaggerated. He took a job as an “import-export manager” in Spain and traveled widely, including visits to Egypt and Argentina. Rumors he slept with Eva Peron proved false. She died two years before he ever set foot there.
In Egypt he secretly tried to sell arms and become a military advisor to Gamal Abdel Nasser, but again little came of it. His presence in Cairo caused a stir just the same and even caused British intelligence to worry he was training Egyptian paratroopers to seize the Suez Canal. His only real successes during this time came with his alleged cover story — he got contracts signed on several concrete and steel sales. This brought in some $260,000 over the next several years, equivalent to over $2 million today.
By the 1960s the aging Skorzeny continued to dabble in arms sales, increasing his fortune. His reputation meant his name circulated wherever intrigue occurred, such as during the kidnapping of Adolph Eichmann. He met with Israeli agents during the 1960s, but as with so much about Skorzeny, we know few details.
What is clear is his unrepentant nature. He lived in Ireland for a time and during a dinner, a former British officer asked Skorzeny why the Nazis didn’t befriend the peoples they conquered. Surely that would have made occupation easier? “It’s not possible to make friends with them … they are sub-human,” he replied.
Personable and charming, Skorzeny was still a dedicated Nazi to the end. He died on July 5, 1975.
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