BERLIN // Allegations that the German secret service destroyed
hundreds of documents relating to the Nazi war criminal
Alois Brunner have sparked calls for a closer examination
of the activities of former top Nazi officials who fled
to the Middle East after the Second World War.
Between 1994 and 1997, the Bundesnachtrichtendienst, or BND, shredded 581 documents
about the aide to Adolf Eichmann, the German news magazine
Der Spiegel reported on July 20, citing Bodo Hechelhammer,
a scholar who heads a research team commissioned by the BND
to explore the history of the foreign intelligence agency.
The report has reinforced speculation
that Brunner, a former officer in Adolf Hitler's paramilitary
organisation, the SS, who was responsible for the deportation
of more than 128,500 Jews to concentration camps, worked
for the BND after the war.
The disclosure has also led to renewed
public pressure for a detailed investigation into the post-war
lives of former Nazi officials who escaped Germany to the
Middle East as allied troops closed in - in Brunner's case,
Efraim Zuroff, the director of the
Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which among
its activities, campaigns for the prosecution of Nazi war
criminals, said the latest revelations about the BND cast
Germany, as well as the agency itself, in an especially bad
"It flies in the face of
our whole perception that Germany had done a complete turnabout
and was totally committed to democracy and to atoning and
compensating for the crimes. We see here that the public
face of Germany was doing the right thing, while the private
face was doing the exact opposite," Mr Zuroff said.
The document destruction, Mr Zuroff said, "clearly shows" the BND "have something to hide".
Without present or past German or Syrian officials coming forward, what secrets
those documents might contain is a matter of speculation.
Mr Zuroff said Bruner may have served
as an agent for the BND in Syria. He described it as likely,
though, that the former SS officer worked for the Syrian
government, even as an adviser to the late Syrian President
Hafez Al Assad.
Brunner, an Austrian, was nicknamed "the
bloodhound" because of the zeal with which he rounded up Jewish families in Vienna, Berlin,
Greece and France.
After his boss Eichmann was caught
by Israeli agents in Argentina, put on trial for war crimes
in Jerusalem and executed in 1962, Brunner was the most senior
Nazi war criminal still at large.
"We received information
about four years ago that he was dead, from someone who has
very good sources inside Syria, but we haven't been able
to prove it yet and it's not clear if it will ever be proved," said Mr Zuroff.
If he were still alive, Brunner would
be 99. He escaped capture in the immediate aftermath of the
war partly because he did not have the giveaway SS tattoo
on his left arm showing his blood group.
Syrian authorities steadfastly denied
that Brunner was in Syria, even though he repeatedly gave
interviews to journalists there.
Prosecutors in France, Germany and
Austria later established that he had been living in Damascus
under the alias "Dr Georg Fischer" since the 1950s. Repeated extradition requests came to nothing. French courts
prosecuted him in absentia and sentenced him to death in
1954 and to lifelong imprisonment in 2001.
"Brunner is believed to
be among the people who helped set up the Syrian police apparatus," Bettina Stangneth, a historian and author of Eichmann Before Jerusalem, said. "The Nazis had close ties in the Middle East and were welcomed as specialists,
in Egypt as well.
"Everyone here knew that
Brunner was in Syria calling himself Dr Georg Fischer. Journalists
interviewed him in Damascus, tourists spotted and photographed
him, and he told them in cafes who he was. He even contacted
Eichmann's lawyer to testify on Eichmann's behalf at the
In 1985 Brunner told a reporter for
Bunte, a German magazine, that Israel would never get him.
"I'm not going to be a
second Eichmann," he said, pulling a poison capsule out of his breast pocket. He was targeted
twice by letter bomb attacks believed to have been sent by
Israeli agents - he lost an eye in the first, in 1961, and
several fingers in the second, in 1980.
Brunner, just 1.70 metres tall, and described as having a slightly crooked nose
and dark eyes, remained unrepentant, telling people how proud
he was to have played a part in the Holocaust. In 1987, he
told an Austrian journalist: "Be happy that I cleared all the Jews out of beautiful Vienna."
The BND, which had former Nazi agents in its ranks when it was set up in 1956,
has recently faced criticism for failing to shed light on
whether it did all it could to track down war criminals half
a century ago, and whether it worked with some of them.
The agency lost a court dispute last
year over its refusal to open its files on Eichmann, and
it has since been confirmed that the BND knew Eichmann's
whereabouts years before he was captured in Buenos Aires.
Former heads of the BND insist they
did not know that documents about Brunner had been destroyed.
"I would never have ordered
it," one of them, Konrad Porzner, whose grandfather had been jailed in Dachau concentration
camp, told Der Spiegel.
Ms Stangneth said the shredding was
suspicious. "If the BND did destroy its Brunner files, it will have had a reason for doing
so. One doesn't need to be a conspiracy theorist to raise
one's eyebrows at this news."
She and other researchers say Brunner
initially worked as a trader in Syria, importing beer, sauerkraut
and dark German bread. Some claim his business was a front
for weapons trading.
He is then believed to have been recruited
as a consultant for the Syrian security authorities.
He moved house several times in Damascus and at one point was spotted by witnesses
living in the Hotel Meridien. "Brunner lived at the heart of a circle of fugitive Nazis," said Ms Stangneth, noting that the role played by Nazis in the Middle East after
the war has never been fully documented.
"It is a myth that the Nazis in exile were fundamentally afraid. Men like Eichmann
or Brunner who wielded such power over life and death, who were cut off
in the prime of their lives, would have seen living quiet, private lives
as too much of a comedown. That made them receptive to offers from governments
or secret services, for whom such bribable people were of course useful,
especially if they were eager to resume playing a role in the history
of the world."
As far as Brunner and the Syrian chapter of his life are concerned,
there is still some hope that the details may yet come to light.
It was likely, Ms Stangneth said, that copies of the shredded
documents might still be in the files of Germany's domestic intelligence,
the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or BfV.