There are few better examples of how extreme versions of “the ends justifies the means” can be adopted as an ethical course than the strange, and oddly under-publicized, story of Otto Skorzeny.
Do you know the tale? I didn’t, until today. This is a good day to consider it, being the anniversary of the date Hitler’s minions invaded Czechoslovakia.
Skorzeny was born in Vienna in June 1908. He joined Austria’s branch of the Nazi Party in 1931 when he was 23. He worshipped Hitler. When the Nazi army invaded Poland in 1939, Skorzeny left his construction firm and volunteered for the SS Panzer division that served as Hitler’s personal bodyguard force. He took part in battles in Russia and Poland, and was probably involved in exterminating Jews.
In 1944, Skorzeny handpicked 150 soldiers in a plan to foil the Allies after they landed in Normandy on D-Day. Dressing his men in captured U.S. uniforms, he procured captured American tanks for to use in attacking and confusing Allied troops from behind their own lines. This mission more than anything else earned Skorzeny two years of interrogation, imprisonment and trial after the war ended. Somehow, despite being one of Hitler’s favorite SS officers, he still managed to be acquitted in his war crime trial in 1947. The Führer had even awarded Skorzeny the army’s most prestigious medal, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, for leading the rescue operation that rescued Benito Mussolini from his captors.
After Skorzeny’s acquittal, newspapers called him one of the most dangerous Nazi criminals still unpunished. Typically brazen, he capitalized on the notoriety by publishing his memoirs, including the 1957 book “Skorzeny’s Special Missions: The Autobiography of Hitler’s Commando Ace.”
Skorzeny did not reveal in his books how he escaped from the American military authorities who held him for a year after his acquittal, perhaps saving him from more charges and another trial before the Nuremberg tribunals. The escape was rumored to have been assisted by the CIA’s predecessor agency, the OSS, which he assisted in some special operations after the war.
Skorzeny was allowed to settle in Spain under the protection of the pro-Western Fascist, Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The former SS officer did some advisory work for President Juan Peron in Argentina and for Egypt, meeting and becoming friendly with the Egyptian officers who were running a missile program using Nazi German scientists, much like the United States used captured Nazi scientists in “Operation Paperclip.” Indeed, Wernher von Braun had contacted his former colleagues in Egypt persuade them to join the space program in the U.S.
The Nazi scientists in Egypt were working on a missile program that would, Egypt hoped, allow the nation to successfully attack and subdue Israel. Meanwhile, in Israel, the Mossad was working on its campaign to track down and kill as many ex-Nazis as possible, and flushed with its success in kidnapping Adolf Eichmann, had targeted Skorzeny.
Mossad officials also had discovered the secret Egyptian missile project, its deadly objective, and knew about the crucial role of the German scientists. The Mossad leadership decided that it needed a Nazi to stop the Nazis. They concluded that the ruthless, ingenious Otto Skorzeny was the perfect man for the job.
For weeks, Mossad agents observed Skorzeny, his home, his workplace and his daily routines. One evening in early 1962, Skorzeny was in a Madrid bar with his wife, the niece of Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s finance minister.
The bartender introduced them to a young German-speaking couple he said he had been serving. They said they were German tourists who had just been robbed. Skorzeny’s wife invited the distressed young couple, who said they had lost their money, passports and luggage, to stay the night at their villa. Soon after the four entered the house, however, Skorzeny pulled a gun on the young couple and declared: “I know who you are, and I know why you’re here. You are Mossad, and you’ve come to kill me.”
The Mossad agent replied, “You are half-right. We are from Mossad, but if we had come to kill you, you would have been dead already. If you kill us, the agents who come next will blow out your brains and you won’t even see their faces before they do . Our offer to you is just for you to help us.”
Surprised and intrigued, Skorzeny asked, “What kind of help? You need something done?” The Mossad officer told Skorzeny that Israel needed information and would pay him for his services.
The Nazi shook his head. “Money doesn’t interest me. I have enough,” Hitler’s favorite commando replied. “I need for Wiesenthal to remove my name from his list.” Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Vienna-based Nazi-hunter, had Skorzeny listed as a war criminal, and he didn’t want to be hunted, or, obviously, killed.
So a deal was struck, and the two men shook hands. The Nazi would be spared, as long as he helped the Mossad end the Egyptian missile program.
On September 11, 1962, Heinz Krug, one of the German scientists working with Egypt, vanished and was never seen again. Eventually it was revealed that Krug was murdered, shot by Otto Skorzeny, then a secret agent for the Israel. With the assistance of Skorzeny, all of the scientists were eventually intimidated to the extent that they refused to work with the Egyptian government any further.
Skorzeny flew to Egypt and compiled a list of the German scientists and their addresses, as well as the names of many front companies in Europe that were procuring and shipping components for Egypt’s military projects. During one trip to Egypt, he mailed exploding packages, including an Israeli-made bomb that killed five Egyptians at the military rocket site where the German scientists worked.
The Mossad kept its side of the deal, though it never persuaded Simon Wiesenthal to take Otto Skorzeny off his Most Wanted list. The SS legend died of cancer at age 67 in 1975. He had two funerals, one in Madrid and the other to bury his cremated remains in Vienna, Both services were attended by Nazi military veterans and their wives, who can be seen on YouTube giving their hero the Nazi salute.
If only they knew.
Like the Mossad, Otto Skorzen made his own extreme utilitarian trade-off, turning on his former countrymen and those whose cause he fought for to join his sworn enemies and protect their nation. The end, after all, was his own life, and he didn’t blink at the means required to preserve it.