Alois Brunner (April 8th, 1912 – c. 2010) was an Austrian Schutzstaffel (SS) officer who worked as Adolf Eichmann's assistant. Eichmann referred to Brunner as his "best man." Brunner is held responsible for sending over 100,000 European Jews to the gas chambers. He was commander of the Drancy internment camp outside Paris from June 1943 to August 1944, from which nearly 24,000 people were deported.
After some narrow escapes from the Allies in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Brunner fled West Germany in 1954, first for Egypt, then Syria, where he remained until his death. He was the object of many manhunts and investigations over the years by different groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Klarsfelds and others. He was condemned to death in absentia in France in 1954 for crimes against humanity. He lost an eye and then the fingers of his left hand as a result of letter bombs sent to him in 1961 and 1980, possibly by the Israeli Mossad. The government of Syria under Hafez el-Assad came close to extraditing him to East Germany, before this plan was halted by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Brunner survived all the attempts to detain him, unrepentant about his activities to the end.
During his long residence in Syria, Brunner was reportedly given asylum, a generous salary and protection by the ruling Ba'ath Party in exchange for his advice on effective torture and interrogation techniques used by the Germans in World War II.
Starting in the 1990s and continuing for two decades, there was periodic media speculation about Brunner's exact whereabouts and his possible demise. Finally in November 2014, the Simon Wiesenthal Center reported that Brunner had died in Syria in 2010, and that he was buried somewhere in Damascus. The exact date of death and place of burial remain unknown.
Born in Nádkút, Vas, Austria-Hungary (now Rohrbrunn, Burgenland, Austria), he was the son of Joseph Brunner and Ann Kruise. He joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and the Sturmabteilung (SA) in 1932. After joining the SS in 1938, he was assigned to the staff of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Austria and became its director in 1939. He worked closely with Eichmann on the Nisko Plan, a failed attempt to set up a Jewish reservation in Nisko, Poland, later that same year.
Brunner was a trouble-shooter for the SS and held the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) when he organized deportations to Nazi concentration camps from Vichy France and Slovakia. He was commander of a train of Jews deported from Vienna to Riga in February 1942. En route, Brunner shot and killed the well-known financier Siegmund Bosel, who, although ill, had been hauled out of a Vienna hospital and placed on the train. According to historian Gertrude Schneider, who as a young girl was deported to Riga on the same train, but survived the Holocaust:
Before being named commander of Drancy internment camp near Paris in June 1943, Brunner deported 43,000 Jews from Vienna and 46,000 from Salonika. He was personally sent by Eichmann in 1944 to Slovakia to oversee the deportation of Jews. In the last days of the Third Reich he managed to deport another 13,500 from Slovakia to Theresienstadt, Sachsenhausen, Bergen-Belsen, and Stutthof of whom a few survived; the remainder, including all the children, were sent to Auschwitz, where none survived.
After the war and escape to Syria
In an interview with the German magazine Bunte, in 1985, Brunner described how he escaped capture by the Allies immediately after World War II. The identity of Brunner was apparently mixed up with that of another SS member, Anton Brunner, who was executed for war crimes, instead of Alois, who, like Josef Mengele, lacked the SS blood type tattoo, which prevented him from being detected in an Allied prison camp. Anton Brunner, who also worked in Vienna deporting Jews, was confused after the war with Alois Brunner, even by historians such as Gerald Reitlinger.
Claiming that he "received official documents under a false name from American authorities", Brunner professed he found work as a driver for the United States Army in the period after the war. It has been alleged that Brunner found a working relationship after World War II with the Gehlen Organization.
He fled West Germany only in 1954, on a fake Red Cross passport, first to Rome, then Egypt, where he worked as a weapons dealer, and then to Syria, where he took the pseudonym of Dr. Georg Fischer. In Syria, he was hired as a government advisor. The exact nature of his work is unknown, but it is believed he advised the Syrian government on torture and repression techniques, some dating from his time as an SS torturer. Syria had long refused entry to French investigators as well as to Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld who spent nearly 15 years bringing the case to court in France. Simon Wiesenthal tried unsuccessfully to trace Brunner's whereabouts. However, communist East Germany led by Erich Honecker negotiated with Syria in the late 1980s to have Alois Brunner extradited and arrested in Berlin. The government of Syria under Hafez el-Assad was close to extraditing Brunner to East Germany, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 severed contacts between the two regimes and halted the extradition plan.
In the Bunte interview, Brunner declared that his sole regret was not having murdered more Jews. According to a US State Department document (which cites a 1987 telephone interview with the Chicago Sun Times), he is quoted as saying:
However, this is has been brought into question by an article in the right wing publication, The New Observer, which claims that the author of the Chicago Sun Times article falsified and embellished the reality of the situation. The Chicago Sun Times fired the author of the article Charles R. Ashman after he had written a series of articles on past Austrian president Kurt Waldheim.
Clemens Coreth the Austrian general consul in Chicago then criticized
the stories as "misrepresenting" and "misinterpreting" information. This is backed by a later interview then performed by Hungarian author and Holocaust denier Gerd Honsik in July 1987 in Damascus, the site where Brunner fled to following the fall of the Third Reich. Hosnik personally questioned Brunner on the quote, to which Brunner responded that he denied the quote, stating specifically that he had only said that he would “do it again” in reference to his attempts to resettle Jews outside Europe.
He was reported to be living in Damascus under the alias of "Dr. Georg Fischer".
Up to the early 1990s, he lived in an apartment building on 7 Rue
Haddad in Damascus, meeting with foreigners and occasionally being photographed.
In the 1990s, the French Embassy received reports that Brunner was
meeting regularly and having tea with former East german nationals. According to The Guardian, he was last seen alive by reliable witnesses in 1992.
In December 1999, unconfirmed reports surfaced, stating that Brunner had died in 1996, and had been buried in a Damascus cemetery. However, he was reportedly sighted at the Meridian Hotel in Damascus by German journalists that same year, where he was said to be living under police protection. The last reported sighting of him was at the Meridian Hotel in late 2001 by German journalists.
In 2011, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the German intelligence service Bundesnachrichtendienst had destroyed its file on Brunner in the 1990s, and that remarks in remaining files contain conflicting statements as to whether Brunner had worked for the BND at some point.
In 1961 and 1980, letter bombs were sent to Brunner while he was resident in Syria. As a result of the letter bomb he received in 1961, he lost an eye, and in 1980 he lost the fingers on his left hand when the parcel blew up in his hands. The senders of the letter bombs were unknown parties although some believe it was the work of the Israeli Mossad.
Convictions in absentia
Germany and other countries unsuccessfully requested his extradition. He was twice sentenced to death in absentia in the 1950s; one of those convictions was in France in 1954. In August 1987 an Interpol "red notice" was issued for him. In 1995, German State prosecutors in Cologne and Frankfurt posted a $330,000 reward, for information leading to his arrest.
On 2 March 2001, he was found guilty in absentia by a French court for crimes against humanity, including the arrest and deportation of 345 orphans from the Paris region (which had not been judged in the earlier trials) and was sentenced to life imprisonment. According to Serge Klarsfeld, the trial was largely symbolic—an effort to honour the memories of victims. Klarsfeld's own father, arrested in 1943, was reportedly one of Brunner's victims.
Later attempts to locate
In 2003, British newspaper The Guardian
described him as "the world's highest-ranking Nazi fugitive believed
still alive." Brunner was last reported to be living in 2001 in Syria, whose government had long rebuffed international efforts to locate or apprehend him, but was presumed dead as of 2012.
In 2004, for an episode titled "Hunting Nazis", the television series Unsolved History used facial recognition software to compare Alois Brunner's official SS photograph with a recent photo of "Georg Fischer", and came up with a match of 8.1 points out of 10, which they claimed was, despite the elapse of over 50 years in aging, equivalent to a match with 95% certainty. Brazilian police are said to be investigating whether a suspect living in the country under an assumed name is actually Alois Brunner. Deputy Commander Asher Ben-Artzi, the head of Israel's Interpol and Foreign Liaison Section, passed on a Brazilian request for Brunner's fingerprints to Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, but Zuroff could not find any.
In July 2007, the Austrian Justice Ministry declared that they would pay €50,000 for information leading to his arrest and extradition to Austria.
In March 2009, the Simon Wiesenthal Center admitted that the possibility of Brunner still being alive was "slim".
Despite this awareness, Brunner resurfaced in media reports in 2011 as
being one of the most wanted men globally who many insist could still be alive.
Brunner was removed from the Simon Wiesenthal Center's List of Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals in 2014.
On November 30, 2014, the Simon Wiesenthal Center reported receiving credible information that Brunner had died in Syria in 2010. He would have been 97 or 98. Partly due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, the exact date of his death and place of burial are unknown at present.
According to the director of the Wiesenthal Center, Dr Efraim Zuroff, the information came from a "reliable" former German secret service agent who had served in the Middle East. The information was also widely reported in the press. The new evidence revealed that Brunner was buried in an unknown location in Damascus around 2010, unrepentant of his crimes to the end. Zuroff said that, owing to the civil war in Syria, the exact location of Brunner's grave is impossible to know.