They called them “ratlines.”
In the final days of the Third Reich, when its demise was imminent, adherents realized that if they didn’t escape they would go down with it. So they devised a system of escape — ratlines — that funneled thousands of war criminals through Spain to points west and south. Abetted by Third Reich sympathizers, many swarmed into South America, beginning new lives from Brazil to Argentina.
Argentina is now where myths, rumors and historical facts of that time collide. The stories say Nazis arrived by rubber dinghies off the coast of Patagonia, bedraggled from the long journey. The stories say crates of Nazi gold hit the beaches, then vanished into the foggy Andes Mountains. The stories say Hitler himself found new life in an Argentine idyll, “doddering peacefully in the Andean foothills attended by faithful Nazi servants.”
Some stories are more true than others. It’s true that the Argentine government, under the command of Nazi sympathizer Juan Domingo Perón, did bring in hundreds, if not thousands, of Nazis. “In those days, Argentina was a kind of paradise to us,” Nazi Erich Priebke remembered in 1991. And it’s true that some major Nazi operators escaped there, including Adolf Eichmann, a Holocaust mastermind arrested in 1960 in Buenos Aires and later executed in Israel.
According to a fresh findings announced over the weekend, it’s also true the Nazis made it deeper into the Argentine jungle in search of refuge than anyone imagined. Hundreds of miles north, along the border with Paraguay, rises the Parque Teyú Cuare. A path winds into the nature preserve, opening to a trove of “mysterious buildings” that are “battered by time,” reported the Argentine newspaper Clarin. “What were these buildings? Who built them? For what?”
It now appears there may be an answer. According to a team of Argentine researchers led by Daniel Schavelzon of the University of Buenos Aires, the three buildings were built by Nazis. The signs are everywhere. The team found several German coins with dates between 1938 and 1944. They found some German porcelain engraved with “Made in Germany.” And perhaps most telling, they found Nazi symbols, including a swastika, were etched into the buildings.
“We can find no other explanation as to why anyone would build these structures, at such great effort and expense, in a site which at that time was totally inaccessible, away from the local community, with material which is not typical of the regional architecture,” Schavelzon told Clarin, taking a team of journalists to see the site and capture remarkable images of buildings atrophying in the jungle humidity.
There are three of them, Schavelzon said. One was used for housing. Another was for storage. And the final was intended as something of a lookout. The site, Schavelzon contended, was built as a jungle hideaway for Third Reich leaders. Less than 10 minutes from the Paraguayan border, it had various escape points — a “protected, dependable site where they could live quietly,” Schavelzon said.
“Apparently, halfway through the Second World War, the Nazis had a secret project of building shelters for top leaders in the event of defeat — inaccessible sites, in the middle of deserts, in the mountains, on a cliff or in the middle of the jungle like this,” Schavelzon argued.
It isn’t likely the site, which hints at one of Argentina’s darkest chapters, got much use. That’s because at the end of the war, it turned out Nazis didn’t need to hide. “Nazis who found refuge in Argentina after the war … lived without incident,” the New York Times said, attributing the country’s “open-door” immigration policy that forged what it later called a “haven for Nazis.”
The best-selling British novel “The Odessa File,” published in 1972, illustrated some of the suspicions swirling about Nazis and the Argentine administration at that time. It told of a secret society of Nazis who did everything they could to facilitate the escape of their brethren, culminating in the pursuit of one Nazi leader to Argentina. The account was “not only believable, but also contained many elements of the truth,” according to author Uki Goni, who uncovered links between the administration and Nazis.
“It was [President] Perón’s intention to rescue as many Nazis as possible from the war crimes trials in Europe,” Goni wrote.
Eichmann was one of the most notorious escapees. He made it to Argentina in 1950 and lived there for the next 1o years. Argentina was known for turning down extradition requests for those accused of war crimes. So the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, launched a daring capture mission, got their man — and in the process shined an international spotlight on Argentina’s cooperation with the Nazis.
And now, a lifetime later, that same spotlight has again fallen on Argentina. This time, it’s trained on the northern jungles, where a deteriorating structure pays homage to a dark history.