Otto Skorzeny (June 12 1908 – July 6 1975) was an Obersturmbannführer in the German Waffen-SS during World War II. After fighting on the Eastern Front, he commanded a rescue mission that freed the deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from captivity. Skorzeny was also the leader of Operation Greif, in which German soldiers were to infiltrate through enemy lines, using their opponents' uniforms and customs. At the end of the war, Skorzeny was part of the Werwolf guerrilla movement.
Although charged with breaching the 1907 Hague Convention in relation with Operation Greif, the Dachau Military Tribunal acquitted Skorzeny after the war. Skorzeny fled from his holding prison in 1948, first to France, and then to Franco's Spain. A German court denazified him in 1952.
Otto Skorzeny was born in Vienna into a middle-class Austrian family which had a long history of military service. In addition to his native German, he spoke excellent French and English. In his teens, Otto once complained to his father of the austere lifestyle that his family was suffering from by mentioning he had never tasted real butter in his life due to the depression that plagued Austria after its defeat in World War I. His father prophetically replied, "There is no harm in doing without things. It might even be good for you not to get used to a soft life." Thus his underprivileged upbringing helped make him what he became--a feared commando He was a noted fencer as a university student in Vienna. He engaged in thirteen personal combats. The tenth resulted in a wound that left a dramatic scar - known in academic fencing as a Schmiss (German for "smite") - on his cheek.
In 1931 Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi Party and soon became a member of the Nazi SA. A charismatic figure, Skorzeny played a minor role in the Anschluss on March 12 1938, when he saved the Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas from being shot by Austrian Nazis.
In 1940, as an SS Untersturmführer, he impressed his superiors by designing ramps to load tanks on ships. He then fought in Holland, France, and the Balkans, where he achieved distinction by forcing a large Yugoslav force to surrender, following which he was promoted to Obersturmführer in the Waffen-SS.
On February 21 1940, Skorzeny went to war in Russia with the 2nd SS Division Das Reich and fought in several battles on the Eastern Front. In October 1941 he was in charge of a "technical section" of the German forces during the battle for Moscow. His mission was to seize important buildings of the Communist Party, including the NKVD headquarter Lubyanka, the Central Telegraph and other high priority facilities, before they could be destroyed. The mission was cancelled as the German forces failed to capture the Soviet capital.
In December 1942 he was wounded in the back of the head by shrapnel and was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery under fire and sent to Vienna to recover. While in Vienna, he learned that Hitler had decided to form a new unit similar to the British Commandos; he quickly volunteered for this and was accepted.
Almost two months of cat-and-mouse followed as the Italians moved Mussolini from place to place to frustrate any rescuers. Information on Mussolini's location and its topographical features were finally secured by Herbert Kappler and aerial reconnaissance by Skorzeny himself. On September 12, Skorzeny took part in "Operation Oak" (Unternehmen Eiche), a daring glider-based assault on the Campo Imperatore Hotel at Gran Sasso. Mussolini was rescued without firing a single shot. Skorzeny escorted Mussolini to Rome and later to Berlin. The exploit earned Skorzeny fame, promotion to Major and the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.
Operation "Long Jump", the failed plot to assassinate the "Big Three" (Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt) was masterminded on Hitler's orders and headed by Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Otto Skorzeny, as the man who always seemed to have luck on his side, was chosen by Kaltenbrunner to head the mission. However, the plot was discovered.
The first tip-off came from Soviet intelligence agent Nikolai Kuznetsov, under the alias of Wehrmacht Oberleutnant Paul Siebert, from Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Kuznetsov, a legendary Soviet spy, tricked an SS man named Ulrich von Ortel into telling him about the operation.
In the autumn of 1943, fate thrust 19-year-old Gevork Vartanian into the centre of the operation. Vartanian was an intelligence agent and the son of a Soviet intelligence agent who worked in Iran by posing a wealthy merchant. He received his first assignment and the cover name Amir in 1940. He was to form a group of spies. The seven he recruited were all about the same age – Armenians, a Lezghin and an Assyrian – and they communicated in Russian and Persian. Vartanian managed to thwart the Nazi plot. Vartanian was awarded with the Hero of the Soviet Union medal.
Skorzeny spent January and February 1945 commanding regular troops in the defence of the German provinces of East Prussia and Pomerania, as an acting major general. Fighting at Schwedt on the Oder River, he received orders to sabotage a bridge on the Rhine at Remagen. His frogmen tried but failed. For his actions in the East, primarily in the defence of Frankfurt, Hitler awarded him one of Germany's highest military honours, the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross.
Besides organising the "ratlines," which would form the basis of the supposed ODESSA network after the war, Skorzeny had been employed since August 1944 by high-ranking Nazis and German industrialists to hide money and documents, some of which was buried in the mountains of Bavaria, and some shipped overseas.
Skorzeny surrendered on May 16, 1945, feeling that he could be useful to the Americans in the forthcoming Cold War. He emerged from the woods near Salzburg, Austria and surrendered to a lieutenant of the US 30th Infantry Regiment.
He was held as a prisoner of war for more than two years before being tried as a war criminal at the Dachau Trials in 1947 for allegedly violating the laws of war in the Battle of the Bulge. He and officers of the 150th Panzer brigade were charged with improperly using American uniforms to infiltrate American lines. All the defendants were acquitted, the military tribunal drawing a distinction between using enemy uniforms during combat and for other purposes including deception; it could not be shown that Skorzeny had given any orders to fight in US uniform. A surprise defence witness was F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, GC, MC & Bar, Croix de Guerre, a former Allied SOE agent who testified that he had himself worn German uniforms behind enemy lines.
Skorzeny was detained in an internment camp at Darmstadt awaiting the decision of a denazification court.. On July 27 1948 he escaped from the camp with the help of three former SS officers dressed in US Military Police uniforms who entered the camp and claimed that they had been ordered to take Skorzeny to Nuremberg for a legal hearing. Skorzeny afterwards maintained that the US authorities had aided his escape, and had supplied the uniforms.
Skorzeny was photographed at a café in the Champs Elysées in Paris on 13 February 1945, and the photo appeared in the French press the next day, causing him to retreat to Salzburg, where he met up with German veterans and also filed for divorce so that he could marry Ilse Lüthje. Shortly afterwards, with the help of a Nansen passport issued by the Spanish government, he moved to Madrid, where he set up a small engineering business.
Using the cover names of Robert Steinbacher and Otto Steinbauer, and supported by either Nazi funds (or according to some sources Austrian Intelligence), he set up a secret organization named Die Spinne which helped as many as 600 former SS men escape from Germany to Spain, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, and other countries. As the years went by, Skorzeny, Gehlen, and their network of collaborators gained enormous influence in Europe and Latin America, Skorzeny travelling between Franquist Spain and Argentina, where he acted as an advisor to the dictator Juan Perón, his aim to foster the growth of a fascist "Fourth Reich" centered in Latin America.
Skorzeny also acted as an advisor to the leadership of the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, which had been established in 1966, and which counted him as one of its founding fathers.
Like thousands of other former Nazis, Skorzeny was declared entnazifiziert (denazified) in absentia in 1952 by a West German government arbitration board, which now meant he could travel from Spain into other Western countries. He spent part of his time between 1959 and 1969 in Ireland, where he bought Martinstown House, a farm in County Kildare in 1959. He also had property in Mallorca.
Otto Skorzeny finally succumbed to cancer on 7 July, 1975 in Madrid at the age of 67. He was cremated. His ashes were later brought to Vienna and interred in the Skorzeny family plot at Döblinger Friedhof.