Argentina’s expulsion last month of Bishop Richard Williamson because his Holocaust denial ”profoundly insults Argentine society, the Jewish community and all of humanity by denying a historic truth” smacks of a certain cynicism given its long history of denial concerning it own shameful role with regard to the Nazis. For 60 years it conducted a campaign to conceal its enthusiastic pursuit of an anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi policy before, during and after World War II. Only the tenacity of a handful of historical researchers, most notably the journalist Uki Goñi, finally forced Buenos Aires to begin admitting the truth.
The story of Directive 11 is a case in point. Secretly issued by the Foreign Ministry in July 1938 as Argentina sat at the Evian Conference table pledging to aid refugees, it instructed Argentine embassies to ”refuse visas, even tourist and transit visas, to all persons that could be considered to be abandoning or to have abandoned their country of origin as undesirables or expulsees, whatever the motive for their expulsion” – in other words, Jews.
Specifically designed to prevent the entry of those fleeing after the Anschluss, it represented, according to Goñi, ”the equivalent of a death warrant for thousands of European Jews.” Argentine diplomats were warned that Directive 11 was ”strictly confidential” and ”should not, for any reason, be referred to before the public or before the authorities of the country of posting,” and all documentation relating to its implementation was destroyed in the mid 1950s. This allowed Buenos Aires to deny rumors of its existence until 1998, when the historian Beatriz Gurevich unearthed a copy in the Argentine embassy in Stockholm.
It took another seven years (plus the election to the presidency of Nestor Kirchner, the one post-war leader who appears to have been genuinely committed to ”rebuilding the truth” regarding Argentina’s past) for Buenos Aires to officially acknowledge its existence, repeal its provisions (which technically remained in force) and issue a public apology for what it now termed ”a grave injustice and historic error.”
Of course, Argentina was not alone in officially refusing sanctuary to Europe’s Jews. But it was the only country that refused to assist even its own Jewish nationals stranded in Nazi-occupied territory. And astonishingly, this refusal was, as Haim Avni documented in his 1991 study, Argentina and the Jews, effected in the face of repeated German requests that they be repatriated. (Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop believed that sparing them would help maintain Berlin’s excellent relations with ”neutral” Buenos Aires, which allowed him to use Argentina for money-laundering, espionage and supplies.)
In January 1943, for example, the Argentine ambassador to Vichy ignored the authorities’ request to evacuate 15 Argentine Jews from France, while in Berlin, the first secretary at the Argentine embassy, Luis H. Irigoyen, refused to issue visas despite being informed that Ribbentrop ”would consider it an act of special courtesy if the Argentine embassy would cause all Argentine Jews to return to their homeland.” Ribbentrop’s officials even drew up lists of Argentine Jews living in Poland, Greece and Holland to expedite their repatriation, but Irigoyen still refused to comply. When, under intense Allied pressure, Buenos Aires finally broke with Berlin in January 1944, about 100 of these Jews, now stripped of diplomatic protection, were immediately transported to Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, where most are believed to have perished.
Yet Buenos Aires continues to insist that its embassies did all they could to save Jewish lives, arguing that more Jews (about 40,000) entered Argentina during the Nazi period than any other Latin American country. What it carefully omits to mention, however, is that half of these were smuggled in illegally, while the others gained admission only by posing as Catholics or paying hefty bribes. In July 2001, the Foreign Ministry went so far as to unveil a bronze plaque honoring 12 Argentine diplomats who, it was claimed, displayed ”solidarity with the victims of Nazism,” although it was unable to produce any real evidence of activities on their part that had been ”beyond the call of duty.” Adding insult to injury, it even listed Luis Irigoyen as one of these ”saviors.” It took four years of campaigning by organizations such as the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation to have the plaque removed.
Argentina has also refused to come clean about its role in the flight of the Holocaust’s perpetrators from justice, what Goñi calls ”the greatest escape ever in the annals of crime.” After the war, Juan Perón’s government took a proactive approach to organizing the so-called ”ratlines” – Perón considered the Nuremburg trials ”an outrage history would not forgive.” As a result, hundreds if not thousands of Nazi war criminals and collaborators, including Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Erich Priebke and Klaus Barbie, escaped to or through Argentina, where they were provided with new identities and employment under programs run from within the Casa Rosada.
In his book, The Real Odessa, Goñi details how Argentine officialdom conspired to keep this secret through everything from the restriction of proper access to relevant archival material and the suppression and actual destruction of incriminating government files. In 1992, president Carlos Menem ordered all official documentation pertaining to Argentina’s dealings with Nazi Germany made public, but this resulted in the release of what the Simon Wiesenthal Center dismissed as a collection of ”newspaper clippings.”
Suspicions of a cover-up were strengthened after Immigration Ministry officials deliberately burned long-secret records (which would have cast light on the granting of entry visas to war criminals) as Menem made plans to establish the Commission of Inquiry into the Activities of Nazism in Argentina (CEANA). But despite the destruction of evidence, CEANA still avoided most of the core issues, leading to charges that it had been set up to ”conceal rather than clarify” Argentine-German collaboration. Indeed, Goñi himself resigned from its board after just three days over what he termed ”irreconcilable differences of criteria.”
And despite subsequent official expressions of regret for Argentina’s pro-Nazi policies, applications for access to existing files are still routinely stonewalled. (Goñi’s description of his own battles with Argentina’s state archivists make for fascinating reading.) The result is that the bulk of historical research has to be conducted in foreign archives.
Bishop Williamson’s expulsion order stated that ”anti-Semitism is an ideological aberration which has cost millions of lives throughout history.” But this rings hollow coming from a country that, amid accusations of studied incompetence and cover-ups, has yet to bring to justice any of those responsible for what The New York Times called ”the deadliest single act of anti-Semitic terrorism since World War II” – the bombing of Buenos Aires’s Jewish cultural center in 1994. Not to mention the fact that as recently as February 19, Argentina’s Jewish community demonstrated against what it described as the government’s silence and inaction regarding a resurgence in anti-Semitic agitation and attacks. Indeed Williamson’s expulsion, ordered the same day, looks very much like an attempt to counter this charge.
While Buenos Aires continues in its refusal to fully acknowledge it own anti-Semitic sins during the Holocaust and after, it lacks the moral authority to punish Richard Williamson for his. Until it puts its own (glass) house in order, it should stop throwing stones.
The writer is a freelance journalist, writing mainly on Irish and Middle Eastern affairs. He is currently preparing a book on the history of Irish-Israeli relations.