A notorious Nazi, known as “Hitler’s favorite commando” and “the most dangerous man in Europe,” Otto Skorzeny lived a peaceful life in a mansion on a 160-acre farm in County Kildare 14 years after the end of World War II.
Not an easy man to miss, Skorzeny stood 6 foot 4 inches tall and weighed 250lbs. And he was known as “Scarface” for a reason. He had a long, distinctive scar on his left cheek. Skorzeny achieved 'fame' during the war for rescuing deposed Italian leader Benito Mussolini from an Italian hilltop fortress.
Skorzeny was depicted in the Irish press as the Third Reich's 'Scarlet Pimpernel,' the tone in newspaper articles was one of admiration rather than repulsion.
"He seemed to be admired for his military prowess," according to the BBC reported in 2016.
Skorzeny was an elite soldier and he traveled the world training military and opportunists in guerrilla warfare techniques after the war. He was a businessman and a one-time bodyguard to Eva Peron. In 1957 he was greeted as a celebrity in Ireland and became, for all intents and purposes, a gentleman farmer with a large estate in The Curragh in County Kildare.
According to the BBC report, the British authorities drew the line at Skorzeny entering the United Kingdom and the Irish leaders grew increasingly concerned that he was engaging in “anti-Semitic activities” in Ireland. He was unable to obtain a permanent Irish visa and moved back to Spain, which was still ruled by the fascist Francisco Franco. He lived there until he died of cancer in 1975, aged 67.
Otto Skorzeny's rise to power as a Nazi SS commander
Born in Vienna in 1908, Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi party in the early 1930s. At the outbreak of the war, he was involved in fighting on the Eastern Front, taking part in the German invasions of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
By April 1943 he had been made the head of German special forces, in charge of a unit of elite SS commandos.
Skorzeny’s unbelievable story is made all the more shocking because the former Nazi SS storm trooper remained unapologetic and showed no remorse for his actions following the war. He was tried for war crimes in 1947 but was acquitted.
He was a pioneer of what is now known as special operations warfare and in the early 1950s, he served as an adviser to the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, training his army in guerrilla tactics. During this period he also trained Palestinian refugees in these tactics and was the mastermind behind the early terrorist raids into the newly re-established state of Israel. Among his trainees was Yasser Arafat, who later became the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization and for much of the 1960s and 1970s was the world’s most prominent terrorist.
His exploits were followed by the media and, on the back of this friendly publicity, Skorzeny traveled to Madrid, Spain, where he ran an import-export business. This was believed to be a front for shuttling escaped Nazi war criminals to Argentina.
For many years Skorzeny lived in Argentina and served as a bodyguard to Eva Peron, wife of the Argentine dictator Juan Peron. It is rumored that he had a romantic affair with her.
Why Hitler's henchman was welcomed in Ireland
In July 1957 he traveled to Dublin where he was met with a gala reception by members of Parliament and celebrities. Following his warm welcome, he purchased Martinstown House, the 160-acre farm estate in The Curragh, County Kildare.
Kim Bielenberg, a Dublin-based journalist whose own grandfather, Fritz von der Schulenburg, was captured and tortured by Skorzeny due to his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler, reflected on his Dublin welcome. He told the BBC, "He was feted by the Dublin social glitterati, including a young politician, Charles Haughey, who was later to become Ireland's most controversial prime minister."
"According to the Evening Press account, 'the ballroom was packed with representatives of various societies, professional men and, of course, several TDs [parliamentary representatives]'.”
Bielenberg believes this warm reception prompted the Nazi war criminal to buy the Kildare estate.
He continued, “He could be seen driving across the Curragh in a white Mercedes and would visit the local post office for groceries.
"Reggie Darling, a local historian, told me he remembered coming across Skorzeny on the Curragh.
"He recalled him as a big man who stood out because of the scar across his face (which was the result of a dueling contest as a student), but that he wasn't particularly friendly and he didn't really mix with local people.”
Skorzeny was allowed temporary visas to stay in Ireland under the proviso that he would not travel to Britain.
However, in post-World War II Europe the specter of Nazism and the fear they would once again rise to power caused concern.
Former Irish Minister for Health Noel Browne raised concerns over Skorzeny’s "anti-Semitic activities" in the Dail (Parliament) in 1959.
On another occasion, he said, “It is generally understood that this man plays some part (in neo-Nazi activities) and if so, he should not be allowed to use Ireland for that purpose."
When questioned about his affiliation Skorzeny denied any involvement in Nazi activity. However, upon his death, his coffin was draped in the Nazi flag by his cohorts.
Other Nazis who fled to Ireland after World War II
He was not the only high-profile Nazi to sojourn in Ireland. Albert Folens and Helmut Clissman also came to Ireland. The 2007 RTE documentary “In Hidden History: Ireland's Nazis” estimates that between 100 and 200 Nazis moved to Ireland. It’s believed that Ireland’s anti-British sentiment led to the war criminals receiving a warmer welcome than they ought to have.
Bielenberg added, "They must have felt reasonably welcome, and were probably left alone, or even feted, as Skorzeny was. I am not sure that the full horror of Nazi atrocities had sunk in in Ireland.
"There also may have been an attitude among certain nationalists that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'. Irish attitudes to Nazis changed from the 1970s on, as issues such as the Holocaust entered the public consciousness."
RTÉ documentary on Otto Skorzeny:
* Originally published in 2016.