A newly declassified CIA memo saying that Adolf Hitler may have been seen alive in Colombia in 1954 - long after his reported suicide in his Berlin bunker in 1945 - has triggered new speculation that the Nazi leader escaped from Germany and lived in several Latin American countries before his death.
I don’t buy it. Based on what I read in the just-released CIA document, and on what I heard from two well known journalists who have written books on the Nazi presence in Latin America, it is unlikely - though not impossible - that Hitler survived the war.
According to an Oct 17, 1955, cable from the CIA base in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and included among the newly released documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a former German trooper and newspaper editor named Phillip Citroen told a CIA agent in Maracaibo that he had met with Hitler in the Colombian city of Tunja in 1954.
“Citroen, who was co-owner of the former Maracaibo Times, told a former member of this (CIA) base that while he was working for a railroad company in Colombia, he had met an individual who strongly resembled and claimed to be Adolf Hitler,” the document says.
A previous CIA memo from the agency’s base in Caracas, Venezuela, dated Oct. 3, 1955, stated that Citroen had said that Hitler lived in Colombia under the name of Adolf Schrittelmayor, and that the alleged Nazi leader was confident that he would not be arrested for war crimes because they had occurred more than 10 years before.
The memo included a picture of Citroen with a man resembling the Fuhrer. It added that, according to Citroen, Hitler had left for Argentina in January 1955.
But the same Oct. 3 memo’s first paragraph cast doubt on the whole story. It said that neither the CIA agent “nor this station is in a position to give an intelligent evaluation of the information, and it is being forwarded as of possible interest.”
The news about the CIA cable made big headlines in Colombia, in part because it coincided with the release of a book by Argentine author Abel Basti. The book, Tras los pasos de Hitler (“Tracking Hitler’s Steps”) says that Hitler lived in Colombia and Argentina after World War II.
But Alberto Donadio, a well-known Colombian journalist who co-authored the book “Nazi Colombia,” about the Nazis in that nation, told me that the story of Hitler’s alleged escape to Latin America “is pure fiction.”
All serious military historians who have written about Hitler agree that he committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, Donadio told me. “To say otherwise may help sell books, but it’s absurd,” he added.
If Hitler escaped Germany, he probably would not have gone to Colombia, but to countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay or Bolivia, where he would have found a support network of former Nazi officials. Colombia had a prosperous German colony that had moved there before the war, but no former Nazi officers, Donadio added.
And if Hitler had moved to Colombia, the last place he would have picked to hide would be Tunja, a small town in the Boyaca province where he would have attracted instant attention, Donadio said. “It’s such a small town that everybody would have noticed him,” he told me.
Uki Goni, author of “The real Odessa” and several other books about the Nazis in Argentina, told me in an email: “Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. All the rest is fake news.”
Until we see more evidence than a story told by one source of a former CIA agent, whose own CIA supervisor at the time admitted he could not corroborate, we will have to stick with the conclusion by virtually all serious historians that Hitler died in his bunker.
Still, the resurgence of this story may serve as a powerful reminder for governments across the Americas to refuse entry to human-rights abusers, and to give refuge to their victims. While Hitler may have never made it to Latin America, thousands of top Nazi criminals did - Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann among them - and in some cases were protected by government officials from Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil.
To that, we should say, “Never again!”
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.