San Carlos de Bariloche is the biggest town in Argentina’s Lake District. Snow-capped Andean mountains encircle the area and reflect off the impressive Lago Nahuel Huapi, the biggest of the seven lakes in the region, its turquoise water clear down to the bed.
It’s a tourist haven that offers skiing, paragliding, kayaking, bike trails and superb hiking at inflated prices in immaculately kept national parks. It’s also the place to which the Nazis fled and which they made their stronghold after World War II.
Bariloche sells itself as a little Switzerland and the Germanic influence is evident — from the Bauhaus lettering on shop fronts and menus to the cutesy fraulein dolls with blonde pigtails that welcome you into the surprisingly large number of chocolatiers or fondue restaurants.
But there’s little to suggest the Nazis were here at all. Only a suggestion of their presence lingers in the town, an undercurrent that they were here, in the form of some graffiti about Hitler and the Hotel Edelweiss — named after the mountain flower found in the Swiss Alps that was the symbol of the German Luftwaffe during the war. Ask around town where you can find signs of the Nazis and all you get are confused looks and shoulder shrugs.
So what’s a tourist who comes to Bariloche not for the exquisite scenery but for a tour of 20th-century conspiracy theory to do? Surely the Bariloche tourism board would not have missed out on such a delectable alternative-travel idea?
Enter Abel Basti, a journalist who lives and works in Bariloche and who has been researching Nazis in Argentina for the past 15 years. He tried to popularise the tourism opportunities with his 1996 tour guide-style book, Bariloche Nazi, which contains a map that the tourist office doesn’t distribute (and doesn’t even seem aware of) and directs interested visitors to Nazi sites. The book’s publication broke a silence about the town’s Nazi heritage and didn’t make Basti a popular figure among the locals.
‘Many families [of the Nazis] still live here,” he says.
In 1995 he covered the extradition to Italy of the former Nazi Erich Priebke, who had lived in the town since the late 1940s after escaping from a British detention camp in northern Italy shortly after the war. Priebke was a notable member of the community, the head of the Bariloche German cultural association and the head of the board of governors at the local German school.
Basti estimates that about 1 300 Nazis entered Argentina after the war, a large number of whom settled in Bariloche. ‘Look at this place,” says Basti, ‘the Nazis had good taste.”
With a climate similar to that of northwestern Europe and surrounds that resemble the Swiss Alps, where many high-ranking officials liked to get away from the dirty business of genocide, it seems logical they would have chosen this idyll in the wild south of Patagonia as the locale for their escape plan.
‘This was their Plan B,” says Basti — Plan A, presumably, being the Aryan race’s goal of world domination.
There is anecdotal and, Basti claims, documented proof that the Nazis in Bariloche provided domicile for Joseph Mengele, aka Dr Death, the villain who masterminded the experiments on the Jews in the concentration camps. He later moved to Buenos Aires, where he became a well-respected doctor.
Basti even claims that the Führer himself escaped to Argentina after the war and had a sprawling mansion, where he lived with Eva Braun, just 80km north of Bariloche. Basti has written two books on the subject — Hitler in Argentina and The Exile of Hitler — and is working on another, The True Death of Hitler.
‘There is more evidence for him coming here [to Argentina] than there is for him committing suicide,” says Basti. ‘It’s the best-kept secret of the 20th century.”
Reinhard Kops, a former SS lieutenant, owned and ran the Hotel Campana in Bariloche for many years under the name Juan Mahler.
‘He was always very nice to me,” says Gerardo Bochert, who worked for Kops in the hotel from the age of 13. The hotel has since been split into offices, which Bochert manages and Mahler’s (Kops’s) children own.
Other high-profile Nazis who are known to have lived in the town include former SS officials Martin Bormann and Adolf Eichmann.
‘The Nazis had all the power in the town. There was a very strong circle. People worked for them,” says Basti.
Perhaps that is why not many people in Bariloche, apart from those who want to keep it under wraps, can tell you much about the Nazis who established their beautiful town. In the centre alone are 10 previous Nazi sites within about a 1km radius that just about every tourist who visits will walk past.
Priebke’s old house has been divided — half has been turned into a bar, the other half into an office that sells bus tours.
Club Andino, once a popular watering hole and meeting spot for the fascist crowd, now bears no trace of the baddies who may have stumbled off-kilter down its stairs.
In South Africa we have developed a culture of acknowledging our past, of memorialising our history and confronting former injustices. The fact that Argentina harboured Nazis seems to be not a fascinating footnote of history but rather a source of great embarrassment.
The Argentinian government destroyed the bomb shelter the Nazis built — presumably in case they were discovered in Bariloche — on Isla Huemul, a small island in the middle of Lago Nahuel Huapi. But its destruction speaks to a kind of forced amnesia, a monument to both their denial and that the Nazis were welcomed in Argentina. The island is not on the tourist map.