If there's one historical figure I have very deeply mixed feelings about, it's Otto Skorzeny. This is a guy who in the space of just a few short years either participated in or ran some of the most audacious covert military actions known to man. The rescue of Benito Mussolini, the kidnapping of the son of Miklos Horthy (a sitting head of state), and the infiltration of the American camp during the Battle of the Bulge using English-speaking German soldiers in American unifroms and vehicles -- any one of these actions on their own would have been enough to secure Skorzeny's place in history. When a rumor (unfounded, it turns out) spread that Skorzeny was intending to assassinate Dwight Eisenhower, the general was forced to be locked in his office for a week until the threat had passed. Inescapably, however, one must confront the fact that Skorzeny's daring missions were carried out in service to one of the most evil and bloodthirsty regimes in history.
Imagine if Skorzeny had been born in a different era. If there was one knight who liberated Richard I from captivity, dethroned the Byzantine emperor, and the mention of his name caused such panic that the king of France had to go into hiding, we would have no end of books and movies about him. But Skorzeny's actions, as bad-ass as they seem, prolonged World War II and indirectly caused unimaginable death and suffering. After being freed from jail, Mussolini was set up as a Nazi puppet ruler in the north of Italy. The kidnapping of Horthy's son caused him to resign his position in favor of a political movement that eagerly tried its best to exterminate Hungary's Jews and other undesirables.
Interestingly, it was Operation Greif -- the mission where Skorzeny and his English-speaking soldiers put on American uniforms -- that got him into trouble after the end of the war. Skorzeny was captured, jailed, and put on trial as a war criminal for this action. At issue was the fact that wearing the uniform and using the insignia of an enemy army was a violation of the Geneva Convention if any fighting took place while wearing said uniforms. Astonishingly, there was a debate among the German military leadership about the advisability of conducting this mission given the potential legal ramifications; ultimately, however, the mission was authorized, presumably because someone pointed out that Germany had already broken essentially every other law of war up to that point, so why not run the table?
Originally, Operation Greif had been intended to be a massive undertaking with something like 3,000 soldiers planned to participate. The goal was to get these soldiers behind the lines and capture some bridges, which presumably would have required combat while wearing the American uniforms. Unfortunately -- or I guess fortunately for us -- the German armed forces were not exactly filled to the brim with soldiers who spoke American English well enough for the parameters of the mission. Not only that, something got scrambled in the request for American vehicles and equipment, and Skorzeny instead received a ton of captured Soviet vehicles and only a few usable American vehicles. The whole operation was actually kind of a mess, and the German army by 1944 was hardly the model of ruthless Teutonic efficiency it had once been. The fact that Allied intelligence sources had intercepted requests for English-speaking soldiers told them something was up and ultimately the whole operation was scaled back to include just a few dozen men who would go behind enemy lines for sabotage purposes.
The fact that Operation Greif apparently never involved combat is probably what saved Skorzeny from execution as a war criminal. His defense in his 1947 trial hinged on the fact that he never issued orders for his men to actually fight while wearing the uniforms. In fact, it would have been counter-productive to their mission, which by that point was focused on causing disarray and chaos through actions like issuing contradictory orders, disrupting communication lines, removing road signs, and stealing or destroying supplies. He stated -- and his co-defendants confirmed -- that they wore their German uniforms underneath their American ones, and that they would have taken them off before any fighting had the situation ever arisen. Most exculpatory, however, was the testimony of a British intelligence officer who admitted that he and his colleagues had conducted similar operations behind German lines wearing German uniforms. Skorzeny was acquitted but not released because there was an active investigation into whether any of his other covert actions constituted war crimes. In what was perhaps the second greatest irony of the man's life, he was freed from prison by former Waffen SS officers who snuck into the prison where he was being held wearing American uniforms.
The greatest irony of Skorzeny's life, though, did not become public knowledge until relatively recently. It always amazed me that Skorzeny's life after World War II was so public. While many former Nazis went on to live essentially normal lives after the war, a great many of them did so under the patronage of various governments. Operation Paperclip saw various Nazi scientists recruited by the United States government, most famously Wernher von Braun. The Soviet Union had a similar, but much more secretive, program. The government of West Germany made extensive use of former Nazi officials in a variety of capacities. Other former Nazis, particularly intelligence officers, wound up working for countries like Egypt and Syria. Spain, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina all either become refuges or places of employment for former Nazis. Skorzeny himself worked for Argentine dictator Juan Peron for a short time and evidently had an affair with his wife, the famed Eva Peron, before moving to Spain under the protection of Francisco Franco where he apparently contributed nothing to society beyond writing his memoirs.
In 1962, Skorzeny and his wife were enjoying drinks in a bar in Madrid when a distraught couple with Austrian accents approached them saying that they had just been mugged. After some more drinks, Skorzeny invited them back to his mansion for a night of group sex, which the couple eagerly accepted. When they arrived, however, Skorzeny pulled a gun on his guests and told them he knew that they were really here to kill him and that they were agents of the Mossad, Israel's secret intelligence service. Remarkably, they admitted this was true, but that their mission was to recruit him, not to kill him. Even more remarkably, Skorzeny agreed under one condition: instead of money, he wanted Simon Wiesenthal to remove his name from his list of wanted war criminals. The agents agreed and a man who had joined the Nazi party at the age of 23 signed up to do work for a Jewish intelligence agency at 53.
To call this arrangement "strange" would be a severe understatement. Skorzeny -- and all former Nazis at that time -- had good reason to fear the Mossad. The Mossad had abducted Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking SS officer with about as much direct responsibility for the Holocaust as possible for any person living at that time, off the street in Argentina in 1960. He was secretly flown to Israel where he was put on trial for crimes against humanity, found guilty, and executed. The Mossad had also assassinated or attempted to assassinate a number of individuals determined to be enemies of or threats to Israel, ex-Nazis and otherwise. These people were not, to put it mildly, fucking around. There was very little that was beyond the capabilities of the Mossad, so it seems strange that they would see a need to recruit someone like Skorzeny rather than just killing him. Skorzeny's well-honed self preservation instincts undoubtedly played a role in his acquiescence.
The Mossad agents had offered to pay Skorzeny for his services, but he refused. He was already wealthy before the war and his financial situation improved by marrying a countess and publishing his best-selling memoirs. He was also able to maintain a fairly comfortable social life; he moved in high society and would have been the central attraction for any type of event at which he was present. In addition to living in Spain and Argentina, he also had a residence in, of all places, Ireland. But he was still unwelcome in many places he wished to visit, specifically the United Kingdom. His sole demand for rendering his services -- that the Wiesenthal Center no longer designate him a war criminal -- is telling. While this designation did not have any legal power behind it, the stigma attached to it was real in terms of the damage that it did to his reputation. Whether or not Skorzeny really cared about whether Simon Wiesenthal called him a war criminal is debatable. He definitely cared that it could impact the way other people viewed him and that it could negatively impact his freedom of movement. He probably was more interested in being able to tell people that he was removed from the list than actually being removed from it.
Simon Wiesenthal, for his part, refused. While this would seemingly present a very serious impediment to the whole arrangement, the Mossad simply wrote a letter saying Skorzeny was removed from the list and forged Wiesenthal's signature on it. In a time before a Google search could have exposed this lie in about 15 seconds, this was good enough for Skorzeny, and he was flown to Israel to receive his assignment and his training. While he was there, his handler took him to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Skorzeny reportedly seemed chastened by the experience. His precarious situation was underscored when another visitor to the museum immediately recognized him. A giant of a man at 6'4" with highly distinctive dueling scars, Skorzeny stood out in any crowd. His handler somehow managed to convince the man that Skorzeny was actually a relative of his and a Holocaust survivor himself.
It is beyond conception that there were not many agents in the Mossad who found recruiting Skorzeny distasteful. While Skorzeny is of course famous for all of the adventures mentioned above, he also served on the Eastern Front, which is probably the closest thing to Hell on earth that has ever existed. There is very little information relating to Skorzeny's service there and it has long been suspected that he was involved in actions that would be considered war crimes or crimes against humanity there. However, there is no direct evidence to suggest this. He also seems not to have been a particularly ideological Nazi; he joined the paramilitary wing of the party in 1931 when it was just starting to gain power and influence and many of his actions throughout his life seem to have been motivated by a desire for danger and adventure (likely including his decision to work for the Mossad). His actual feelings about Jews are unknown, so at the very least, the Mossad wasn't recruiting someone who had been overtly antisemitic or who could be directly and definitively tied to genocide.
Skorzeny's reputation as a master of covert actions didn't hurt either. While he undoubtedly embellished much of his career in his book, he was still highly competent. The fact that he was able to correctly identify his new friends as Mossad agents while drunk in a very short period of time demonstrates that he had not lost his touch. But what would the Mossad use him for? It seems to difficult to imagine that Skorzeny could have given the Israelis anything they didn't already have, and even though he was physically imposing, he was still in his 50s by this time, so he wouldn't have been fit for field work, right?
Israel's conflict with Egypt was the impetus for bringing Skorzeny into the fold. As America and Russia were employing former Nazis to help design weapons and other bits of military technology, Egypt was increasingly trying to do the same. Skorzeny himself had briefly worked as a military advisor in Egypt before moving on to Spain and Argentina. The Nazis who worked in the US and the USSR did so chiefly out of a desire to avoid trials for war crimes and the death sentences their guilty verdicts would inevitably bring. The ones who went to work for Egypt did so mainly because they wanted to contribute to the destruction of Israel. The Israelis feared that German engineering prowess could give their Egyptian enemies an insurmountable technological edge in any future conflict between the two. They needed someone who these scientists would immediately and completely trust. Otto Skorzeny fit that bill.
Based on his earlier work in Egypt and his knowledge of some of the German scientists working there, Skorzeny was able to travel there and provide the Mossad with detailed intelligence about Egypt's weapons programs and the people working on them. One of the most important figures was Heinz Krug. Krug believed he was in danger and asked Skorzeny for help. Skorzeny agreed, introduced him to three "bodyguards," and then shot and killed him. The bodyguards were Mossad agents who would dispose of Krug's remains. Skorzeny evidently also killed five German scientists in Egypt using mail bombs.
For obvious reasons, the extent of Skorzeny's work for the Mossad is still not completely known today. By the end of Skorzeny's life in 1975, these types of assassinations had fallen out of vogue in Israel's intelligence community. While of course some were still carried out, the Mossad had had a change of leadership in the mid-1960s, and Skorzeny was apparently not called on again after the mail bombings. His life continued on much as it previously had, doing "consulting" work for various organizations and doing his best to help fellow former SS officers create new identities for themselves in Spain and Latin America. It is impossible to "admire" Otto Skorzeny but it is similarly difficult to deny that he was extremely capable. Perhaps his work with the Mossad was a form of atonement and he served them the only way he knew how. We'll never know for sure. For now, however, Skorzeny has the evidently unique distinction of being personally awarded the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler and being an employee of the state of Israel.