Alois Brunner Talks About His Past
By Mark Weber
"I first heard about gas chambers after the end of the war," says Alois Brunner, the "most wanted Nazi war criminal" still at large.
Following the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, SS Captain Brunner directed the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Vienna, through which large numbers of Jews migrated to foreign countries.
The man known as "Eichmann's right hand" later organized deportations of Jews from Berlin, France, Slovakia and Greece to ghettos and camps in eastern Europe.
Since the 1950s he has been living in exile in Damascus, Syria, under the name of "Georg Fischer." Letter bomb attacks in 1961 and 1980 cost him one eye and the fingers of his left hand. Bodyguards constantly protect Brunner, who is now 76 or 77 years old; West Germany, Austria and France have asked for his extradition.
In 1985, the West German magazine Bunte published an interview in Damascus with Brunner, accompanied with color photographs. He told the Munich weekly that he had "no bad conscience" about his wartime work. Two years later, a rather widely reported Chicago Tribune interview gave the impression that an unrepentant Brunner admitted involvement in exterminating Jews.
What are the facts? Was Brunner really a mass murderer?
To pin down the truth, Austrian journalist Gerd Honsik flew to Damascus to interview Brunner. Honsik publishes the Austrian periodical Halt, which first made public the important 1948 Müller/Lachout document. (See the Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1988.)
Honsik met and talked at some length with Brunner in August 1987 in his apartment in the Syrian capital. Honsik reported in some detail on the meeting in his book, Freispruch fur Hitler?, which was published last year in Vienna. The illustrated work, which has been banned in Austria, is a collection of statements by 36 "witnesses," including six former concentration camp inmates and several historians.
Brunner is a bitter and temperamental old man, reports Honsik, and it took some time to win his confidence.
"When did you learn about the gassing of Jews?" Honsik asked. Brunner's reply: "After the war, from the newspapers!"
Honsik asked about widely reported remarks by Brunner in recent years, such as apparently incriminating comments like "I would do it again." Actually, this is a reference not to extermination but to deportation work, Honsik relates.
Brunner described his rather cordial relations with Dr. Josef Löwenherz, the wartime head of the Jewish community in Vienna.
With official German authorization, Löwenherz visited Lisbon in neutral Portugal (apparently in 1940 or 1941) to meet with representatives of the World Jewish Congress, including Dr. Parlas, secretary to Chaim Weizmann, and WJC financial affairs director Tropper. Löwenherz wanted to negotiate an agreement for mass emigration of Jews from German-controlled Europe.
After he returned from the Lisbon meeting, Löwenherz "wept when he entered my office," Brunner told Honsik. The World Jewish Congress officials had told him that the Allies wanted to keep the Jews under German control to increase Germany's logistic problems. (This is also confirmed in David Wyman's detailed study, The Abandonment of the Jews, pages 99, 114-115.)
An offer by Löwenherz to exchange Jews in German internment for the 200,000 German nationals who were being held by the British was met with silence.
In reply to a question about Löwenherz's personality and character, Brunner said that the Jewish leader was "a distinguished character." To test him. Honsik then asked: "Even though he was a Jew?" Brunner shot back: "There are exceptions! Spare me your sophistry."
Brunner made sure that the Jewish leader and his family were not interned, and after the war Löwenherz publicly expressed his appreciation for Brunner's support for a Jewish state by publicly intervening on his behalf. Honsik is not able to be "more specific about this," he writes, but he adds that this is confirmed in an Austrian court case.
"In addition," Honsik goes on, "there are five persons living in Austria with whom I am on friendly terms who have confirmed this information in similar conversations with Alois Brunner."
Brunner is "an innocent man," and those who believe that he is a mass murderer or criminal are "victims of a great Allied propaganda lie," Honsik insists.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1990 (Vol. 10, No. 1), pages 123-125.