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Free Agent

The merciless Mossad hit man with a tangled Nazi history


Photos: Mishpacha archives

How did a celebrated SS officer and unrepentant Nazi hero become a hit man for the Israeli Mossad? That is the mystery of Otto Skorzeny, a former lieutenant colonel in Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS, leader of a unit of SS commandos, rescuer of Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and Hitler’s own favorite among the special operations officers. It’s also a lesson in the Mossad’s often shocking and unconventional methods for protecting Israel, especially in the early, vulnerable days of the fledgling state.

Based on interviews with former Mossad officers and with Israelis who have access to the Mossad’s archived secrets from decades ago, award-winning Israeli journalist Yossi Melman and Washington-based news correspondent Dan Raviv — coauthors of five books about Israel’s espionage activities and security agencies — uncovered information verifying that Skorzeny was not only recruited as a Mossad operative, but actually pulled the trigger on an enemy scientist as part of an Israeli espionage plot to thwart the development of Egyptian missiles targeting Israel in the early 1960s.

The Mossad mission, known as Operation Damocles, was aimed at targeting the German scientists — former employees of Nazi Germany’s weapons program — who were hired in the summer of 1962 to develop an arsenal of missiles for Egypt to use against Israel. Skorzeny, who worked with the scientists and the companies that were supplying them, was originally on the Mossad’s hit list too — until spymaster Isser Harel thought it would be better to enlist him than to kill him.

It’s not unusual for a spy ring of international reach to sometimes work with partners they’d ideologically prefer to stay away from. But while dancing with the devil was understandable from the Mossad’s vantage point, why would an avowed Nazi like Skorzeny deign to work with the Mossad?

Otto Skorzeny (pronounced Skor-tsay-nee) was born in Vienna in 1908. His father, Anton, owned a successful construction business, and both sides of the family were proud of their military affiliations: Anton would serve as a reserve artillery officer a few years later, in World War I, and his wife, Flora, belonged to an old-time military dynasty that had protected the Austrian empire’s borders for generations.

Defeat of World War I left Austria economically dysfunctional, inflation-ravaged, and deeply embittered. The new democracy was weak, supported by a poverty-stricken, largely jobless middle class. But the young, headstrong Otto Skorzeny was not deterred by adversity. Fortified with the traditional beliefs that he could restore honor to his country with cunning and courage, he relished the challenge of building his future out of the ruins.

As a teen, athletics beckoned — he had shot up to a startling 6’4”, was heavily built, and liberally endowed with muscle. An enthusiastic sportsman with good coordination, he was drawn to sports that involved weapons, and he joined the Schlagendeverbindung, the school’s dueling society. By the time of his graduation, Skorzeny had distinguished himself by winning 14 duels. During the tenth, he received the imposing “schmisse” he had secretly hoped for, a severe slash from ear to chin on his left cheek. True to the society’s traditions, it was stitched up on the spot without anesthetic. This scar became his trademark.

The upper Nazi hierarchy, with which he’d later be affiliated, sported many faces of dueling scars, considered a badge of honor. Himmler had one, and so did SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, although he was accused of having come by his in a car accident. But Skorzeny’s was never subject to doubt — his reputation as a duelist followed him.

Skorzeny was 24 when he joined Austria’s branch of the Nazi Party in 1932. He served in its armed militia and considered Adolf Hitler his hero. He swiftly rose through the ranks of an elite branch of the SA (Sturmabteilung), known as the SS (Schutzstaffel).

In addition, Skorzeny began a career as a mechanic. Within a few years, he became the junior partner in a construction and scaffolding company after marrying the company owner’s daughter, Margareta Gretl Schreiber. Three years later, after buying a majority share in the business, he divorced her.

Hitler seized Austria in 1938, and with his invasion of Poland in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, Skorzeny left the construction firm and volunteered for the Leibstandarte SS Panzer Division that served as Hitler’s personal bodyguard battalion.

In the ensuing months, he took part in battles in Russia and Poland, although in his memoirs, penned after the war, he denied taking part in the extermination of Jews. After spending the first part of the war occupying an eclectic selection of roles, including a transport manager, engineering officer and instructor, and SS-Obersturmfuhrer in a tank battalion, Skorzeny was pulled out of rank and deposited at the headquarters of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA — an extreme equivalent of the Ministry of Interior, with the stated goal to fight all “enemies of the Reich” inside and outside the borders of Nazi Germany).

Desperate for loyalty, Austrian-born Hitler had promoted Ernst Kaltenbrunner — a loyal Austrian landsman — to the position of head of the RSHA, and Kaltenbrunner, similarly anxious to surround himself with friends, swiftly roped in Skorzeny. There, among his responsibilities, he was instructed to train an SS commando unit.

“A big man, with big ideas and a big mouth, he was sorely lacking when it came to administrative detail and the subtle art of diplomacy,” says UK researcher and business journalist Stuart Smith, author of Otto Skorzeny: the Devil’s Disciple. Nevertheless, his big break was not long in coming.

Skorzeny was summoned into Hitler’s room along with five other men, while the Fuhrer moved from one man to the next as each presented a brief summary of his career. Skorzeny blurted out five quick sentences about his birthplace, education, military career, and present assignment. The Fuhrer then asked, “Who among you know Italy?” Silence ensued, until Skorzeny finally answered. He said that he had visited twice before the war and motorcycled as far as Naples.

The next question was even more vague. “What do you think of Italy?”

Suspicious of a trap, the other officers pronounced answers worthy of a propaganda pamphlet. Skorzeny tried a different tack: “I am Austrian,” he said simply. To Hitler, an Austrian himself, this response was loaded with meaning. As one of the victors of World War I, Italy had annexed South Tyrol, a chunk of land home to 200,000 German-speaking Austrians. Resentment ran extremely deep. When he had come to power, Hitler had only restrained himself from claiming it back to stay in Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s good graces.

Hitler’s response was a penetrating stare. “The others may go. I want you to stay, Captain Skorzeny,” he said.

The personal conversation that followed soon revealed the purpose of the Fuhrer’s mysterious summons. Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator and Hitler’s friend and Axis ally, had been replaced by the pro-Allies Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Officially, Mussolini had merely resigned. This was Hitler’s nightmare. Allied forces in Italy would mean that the Balkans, the backdoor to the eastern front, was thrown wide open.

The Fuhrer’s madcap solution to the problem was to rescue Mussolini from captivity and reinstall him as the ruler of Italy. He convinced Skorzeny that the mission was entirely doable, and Skorzeny, with his overconfidence and sense of adventure, got down to work. The success of the mission would be the game changer for Skorzeny, propelling him into the limelight as a daring and capricious Nazi hero and securing his name for future glory.

After several red herrings — Skorzeny relentlessly followed up every lead of the SS foreign intelligence service and even had his plane shot down in one of those sorties, while the Italians moved Mussolini from place to place to thwart any rescue attempts — he finally located Mussolini in a hotel on the slopes of Gran Sasso, a massif in the Italian Apennines.

To Kurt Student, Germany’s foremost expert on airborne warfare, the recapture of Mussolini was a sub-priority politically motivated mission, while to Skorzeny, it was pivotal to his dreams of glory. Student grudgingly developed a double-assault plan together with his staff. Troops would capture the well-guarded cable-car bases and ride up to the hotel, while at the same time, three gliders filled with more troops would land close to the hotel itself.

Skorzeny, despite being Hitler’s personal emissary, was to have left the job of rescuing Mussolini to the professionals. His job, together with his SS commandos, would be a simultaneous rescue of the dictator’s family from their seclusion at the fortress-like Roca Delle Caminate outside Rome. But Skorzeny wanted to make sure he was at front and center of the main, daring rescue.

He wangled a place for himself on one of the gliders and persuaded Student to allow 17 SS commandos to come along with him. He was warned, however, that he and his men would be functioning purely as police — staying out of the assault and protecting Mussolini once he was released.

The commander of the elite paratroopers’ unit was furious when he heard that 19 of his men would be left behind to accommodate Skorzeny’s 17 men, plus a war correspondent and a photographer.

Due to a miscalculation in the glider flight plans, Skorzeny’s glider happened to land first, and he crashed through the hotel’s front door that was barricaded with a mass of furniture. The Italian soldiers on guard took one look at the approaching German force and disappeared, while Skorzeny located Mussolini’s room and strode inside — without firing a shot.

“Duce, the Fuhrer has sent me to set you free,” he announced grandly.

“I knew my friend Adolf Hitler would not abandon me,” Mussolini replied.

Skorzeny beamed as the cameras clicked away. By the time the paratrooper commander arrived with his men, he was incoherent with anger. Skorzeny had stolen the entire show and blatantly disregarded his instructions. To add insult to injury, he had to smile for the cameras.

When the time came for Mussolini’s removal from the hotel, a Storch aircraft, designed to carry two people only — pilot and passenger — awaited to fly him down the mountain. To the pilot’s horror, Skorzeny coolly announced that he would be coming along too. Skorzeny was no lightweight, and his presence would put heavy strain on the engine and undercarriage. But the Austrian threatened the pilot with retribution if he prevented him from coming along and proceeded to compress himself into the luggage compartment.

The Storch struggled into the air and clawed its way into the sky. After a transfer to another flight, Skorzeny accompanied the Duce into Hitler’s presence and began to reap his glory. Not only did he completely deflect recognition from any other member of the raiding party, he talked of directing the glider pilot to the hotel’s location and overpowering the machine guns at the hotel’s entrance.

The escapade earned him the coveted Knight’s Cross, and the media paraded him on the front pages and newsreels for weeks. Skorzeny became Germany’s foremost celebrity — his image of strength and bravery neatly aligned with Hitler’s Aryan stereotype and raised the fast-sinking morale of the German people who suspected they were losing the war.

Hitler swiftly put Mussolini in control of a puppet regime in northern Italy, dubbed the Italian Social Republic, causing a civil war. In late April 1945, in the wake of near total defeat, the Duce tried fleeing to Switzerland, but was captured enroute by Italian Communist partisans and summarily executed by a firing squad.

Skorzeny, riding on his victory, planned more formidable commando raids. (He parachuted into Iran and trained local tribes to blow up oil pipelines serving the Allied armies, although some of the most extreme operations never got off the ground, such as the prospect of assassinating the “Big Three,” Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt at the 1943 Tehran Conference.) In October 1944, Hitler received word that the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy, was secretly negotiating with the Red Army. The surrender of Hungary was unthinkable — it would isolate the million German troops still fighting in the Balkan Peninsula. Skorzeny was appointed to find a solution, which he did: He kidnapped Horthy’s son and demanded a steep ransom — Horthy’s resignation. The devastated father acquiesced, and a pro-Nazi government — the Arrow Cross regime, responsible for the murder and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews — was speedily installed.

Although by this time the Nazis weren’t carrying out more high-profile raids, Skorzeny still hadn’t finished collecting glory. After D-Day in June 1944, with the Allied forces advancing through France, Skorzeny selected 150 soldiers who spoke English, procured captured US uniforms and American tanks, and infiltrated American lines, confusing the Allied troops within their own borders.

Skorzeny heard of Hitler’s suicide just as he was organizing a retreat in the mountains to wait out the war and save his hide. After hearing about the Armistice, he decided to hand himself and his remaining troops over to the Americans, in hope they would be deployed as a local police force. And so, he descended from his hideout and gave himself up to the first American regiment captain he saw. The Americans were thrilled to  have the celebrity in their power. He spent the next two years in interrogation and imprisonment and was tried in the 1947 Dachau trials for war crimes related to stealing US property and wearing US uniforms to infiltrate American lines, all in contravention of international law. He was acquitted in 1947 on the grounds that the uniforms were removed before combat took place — and after a British espionage agent admitted to wearing German uniforms behind enemy lines.

While he was acquitted of the war crimes charge, he was still being detained in an internment camp awaiting the decision of a “denazification” court, a ruling that would establish him as minimally tainted by Nazism and allow him to reassume an official role in German society. He quickly grew impatient and escaped (with the help of some well-placed friends and, according to some researchers, American CIA personnel, for whom he’d done some work).

He eventually moved to Madrid, Spain, where he set up an engineering firm and enjoyed the fame of his reputation as “Europe’s most dangerous man,” publishing his memoirs in various editions and many languages, including the 1957 book Skorzeny’s Special Missions: The Autobiography of Hitler’s Commando Ace — filled with exploits and exaggeration, yet disavowing any role he had in the Final Solution.

Skorzeny’s many contacts from both before and after the war gave him access to all sorts of business opportunities, small-time arms trafficking, running a Nazi escape ratline, and organizing neo-Nazi movements.

He was a pioneer of what has become known as “special operations warfare,” served in an advisory capacity to Argentina’s president Juan Perón n (the import-export business he established was thought to have been a front for shuttling escaped Nazi war criminals to Argentina), and even served as an advisor to the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, training his army in guerrilla tactics. During this period, he also trained Arab fedayeen and masterminded the early terrorist raids into the newly reestablished State of Israel. Among his trainees was arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat, who later became the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

During this period, Skorzeny became friendly with the Egyptian officers running Nasser’s missile program and with the German experts in the country’s employ.

Nasser’s 1950s-era Egypt was the ideal place for a Nazi, and many professionals, weapon experts, and arms smugglers were eager to aid Nasser in his anti-Israel campaign. Skorzeny himself recruited former SS and Wehrmacht officers to train the Egyptian army and commando forces.

And then, one summer day in 1962, Israelis woke up to the horror of the morning’s headlines: Egypt had successfully test launched surface-to-air missiles, while Nasser proudly declared that his army was now capable of hitting any point south of Beirut, and that the missiles would “open the gates of freedom for the Arabs and retake the homeland that was stolen as part of imperialistic and Zionist plots.”

Nasser decided not to rely on the Soviet Union, his otherwise reliable ally, for the procurement of rockets, since it would go against the country’s policy of Cold War nonalignment. And so, Egypt decided to create its own indigenous missile program.

Israel soon learned that a team of German scientists were playing an integral role in developing these missiles, a fact that played on the fresh and fearful memories of the Holocaust less than two decades earlier: Now, former German Nazis were helping Nasser in his genocide project — a devastating reminder of the new Jewish state’s vulnerability.

Israel had a right to be afraid: These German scientists weren’t some obscure technicians, but had been some of the Nazi regime’s top weapons engineers. And the country was further shocked when an intercepted document to the project managers in Egypt — a list of necessary materials to be acquired for the manufacture of 900 missiles — indicated that those missiles would be armed with radioactive and chemical warheads.

Mossad Chief Isser Harel — who two years before had led the squad that captured arch-Nazi Adolf Eichmann and had subsequently become obsessed with post-Holocaust Nazi dangers — placed the entire agency on high alert.

Thanks to a Mossad double agent named Wolfgang Lotz, Isser Harel was painfully aware of the looming threat. Certain that it imperiled the very existence of the Jewish state, he prioritized a response plan called “Operation Damocles,” which suspended a menacing “sword” over the heads of the German scientists. This took the form of threatening notes and phone calls, plus much more lethal harassment, including letter bombs and assassination attempts.

It was during this period that Skorzeny came into surprising direct contact with his ideological arch enemy — Israel.

An isolated installation in the Egyptian desert, known as Factory 333, soon became home to some of West Germany’s brightest technological minds. Professor Eugen Sänger, at the helm of the project, had once been the director of the institute of Jet Propulsion at Stuttgart. The New York Times reported that 500 Germans were on site — ten involved in building rockets to attack Israel and the rest working in two adjoining aircraft factories.

In November 1962, a parcel sent to rocket scientist Professor Wolfgang Pilz, head of the Egyptian team, exploded in his office, injuring his secretary. Another parcel killed five Egyptian workers. A postal worker was hurt when he over-enthusiastically postmarked an envelope addressed to a German aircraft specialist. In February 1963, scientist Hans Kleinwachter was targeted by an assassin in a West German suburb where he was developing guidance systems for the missiles, but the assassination attempt failed due to a weapons malfunction. Two Mossad agents were arrested in Switzerland for threatening Heidi Goercke, daughter of Paul-Jens Goercke, an electronic guidance expert working at Factory 333. They ordered her to persuade Goercke to return to Germany under threat of her safety if she didn’t comply, and told her that only because her father hadn’t taken an active part in the Holocaust, was he being “given a chance.” She managed to lure her Mossad intimidators into a trap, however, and had them arrested for coercion and illegal operation on behalf of a foreign state — a hugely embarrassing incident for Israel, which eventually helped bring the operation to a close.

But there was one flawless operation: the disappearance of Heinz Krug, a German scientist and rocket expert who was part of the Egyptian team and frequently commuted to Cairo from Munich, where his company, Intra, was one of the European front companies involved in procuring and delivering equipment for Egypt’s military projects.

And therein lies the most unbelievable chapter in Otto Skorzeny’s checkered career — his unlikely partnership with the Mossad.

Skorzeny was a marked man. He was on Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s hit list and topped the Mossad’s list as well. As an advisor to the Egyptians running the rocket program and an active smuggler of supplies, the Mossad began to work on a formal plan to eliminate him. But then, Harel decided to think out of the box. They knew that to effectively target the German scientists, they’d need an inside man. What they really needed was an unrepentant Nazi, like the scientists themselves.

“The Israelis would never find a Nazi they could trust, but they saw a Nazi they could count on: Someone thorough and determined, with a record of success in executing innovative plans and skilled at keeping secrets,” said Yossi Melman.

The idea was intriguing, but the question was, was Skorzeny even purchasable? If the Austrian Nazi could be persuaded to work for the Mossad, he would provide direct access to the Nazi scientists — and he would be in a position to harass and even kill them.

Over the decades, the Mossad has had to hold its proverbial nose when it comes to unholy alliances. The task of recruiting Skorzeny — the first step in the plan and a complex operation in and of itself — was especially painful for the person appointed to be in charge: A Mossad operative known as Joe Raanan, an Austrian Jew who lost his family in the Holocaust and barely escaped with his own life.

Originally named Kurt Weisman, he arrived in British-ruled Palestine at age 16 and joined the British Royal Air Force in the hope of an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the Germans. After the creation of the state in 1948, he became one of the first pilots in the IAF, rapidly rising through the ranks and eventually becoming the force’s intelligence chief. Harel recruited him to the Mossad in 1957.

The Viennese Jew found the idea of befriending one of the hated Nazis who destroyed the Jewish communities of his native land very difficult to stomach. But he eventually overcame his disgust and set up preoperational surveillance in Madrid, locating Skorzeny’s home, workplace, and observing his daily routine.

One night in 1962, Skorzeny and his very young third wife, Ilse, were relaxing with cocktails in an opulent Madrid bar, when the bartender suddenly approached them. He introduced a German tourist couple he had been serving, the unfortunate victims of a traumatic street robbery. They had lost everything, from their clothing to their passports. After some time spent getting acquainted, Ilse invited the pair to spend the night with them at their villa. After they had arrived at the villa and spent some time talking, Skorzeny suddenly pulled out a gun. He pointed it at the couple. Melman and Raviv reported on the subsequent conversation, based on reliable, though obviously anonymous, testimonies:

“I know who you are, and I know why you’re here. You are Mossad, and you’ve come to kill me,” Skorzeny announced.

The young couple did not even flinch. The man said: “You are half-right. We are from the Mossad, but if we had come to kill you, you would have been dead weeks ago.”

“Or maybe,” Skorzeny said, “I would rather just kill you.”

Anke (The agent / young German “wife”) spoke up. “If you kill us, the ones who come next won’t bother to have a drink with you. You won’t even see their faces before they blow out your brains. Our offer to you is just for you to help us.”

After a long minute that felt like an hour, Skorzeny did not lower his gun, but he asked: “What kind of help? You need something done?”

The Mossad agent promised the Nazi a handsome payment for some “information.” Skorzeny declined the offer, claiming that he had plenty of money already. He did, however want something else: to be struck off Wiesenthal’s war crimes hit list. Skorzeny protested that he hadn’t committed any war crimes and didn’t want to live out the rest of his life in the shadows, running from an unknown assassin. He wanted life insurance.

The agent hesitated, and then agreed. In truth, Wiesenthal operated privately out of Vienna, and the Mossad had no authority over him. When they did approach him to take the death sentence off Skorzeny however, he categorically refused. And so the Mossad, with characteristic chuptzah, forged a letter from Wiesenthal to Skorzeny that he’d been pardoned.

When the time came to test Skorzeny “out in the field,” Raanan stepped back and assigned the direct management of Skorzeny to two talented operatives: Avraham Achituv, an agent stationed in Cairo, and master spy Rafi Eitan, who played an important role in abducting Eichmann and who would later go down in history as Jonathan Pollard’s handler and abandoner. “Yes, I met and ran Skorzeny,” Eitan confirmed to Melman and Raviv, although he refused to elaborate.

Skorzeny immediately proved his reliability. He flew back to Egypt and compiled a comprehensive list of German scientists and their addresses. He also listed the names of a host of straw companies located in Europe that were supplying Factory 333 with parts. One of them, a Munich company called Intra, was owned by Heinz Krug.

Krug, who was living in Munich, was himself high on the Mossad hit list. The threatening letters and calls were driving him mad. In an ironic twist of fate, he turned to Skorzeny for advice and protection, little knowing that he was working for the very organization Krug so feared.

It was September 11, 1962, when the pair hopped into Krug’s Mercedes and drove out of the city for a tête-à-tête in the forest where they wouldn’t be heard. Skorzeny told Krug that he had arranged for a trio of bodyguards to follow them in another car. When they stepped out of the car, according to Raviv and Melman’s sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, Skorzeny whipped out his gun and murdered Krug on the spot. The “bodyguards” appeared, soaked the body in acid so it would never be identifiable, and then buried the remains in a prepared pit.

The disappearance of the scientist, whose body was never found, was a baffling mystery, although Cairo’s flagship newspaper Al Ahram laid the blame squarely at Israel’s feet, saying that he’d been kidnapped by Israeli agents.

Although Melman and Raviv claim their evidence is impeccable — and indeed they are probably the most well-connected investigators into the history and escapades of the Mossad — Ronen Bergman, a top-tier researcher on Israel’s spy community, believes Krug’s murderer wasn’t Skorzeny but Isser Harel himself. While he corroborates that Skorzeny was indeed a Mossad operative and important information gatherer, in his 2018 best seller, Rise and Kill First, he states that Krug was kidnapped in Munich by a Mossad squad headed by Mossad chief Isser Harel himself, secretly brought to Israel, interrogated and milked for information, and was then killed by one of Harel’s men on a deserted beach. When it was over, an Air Force plane picked up the body and dumped it into the sea. Skorzeny, according to Bergman, was recruited much later by Rafi Eitan, after Isser Harel no longer headed the spy organization. (Eitan passed away in March 2019, taking all his secrets with him, and all the other players are long gone as well, as are many of the secret archives. Still, each of the investigators stands by their version of this little-known chapter in Israel’s spy history.)

By the end of 1963, the combination of death threats and diplomatic pressure drove the scientists away. (A few years later, Egypt again turned to its friend the Soviet Union to supply it with Scud missiles.) But even before that, the days of the operation were numbered. After the two Mossad agents were arrested for intimidating Goercke’s daughter, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion determined that the strategy was too conspicuous and extremely detrimental to Israel’s image, precisely when he was trying to forge positive ties with the Bonn Government of West Germany, which had agreed to supply the Jewish state with arms and other reparations.

In fact, the operation ended in Harel’s own downfall. He had become obsessed with the German threat, planting fearful and frenzied newspaper stories about the Nazis again rising to power and planning another genocide — to the point where opposition leader Menachem Begin attacked Ben-Gurion for not doing enough to stop the life-endangering threat posed by the Germans and for bringing Israel into a conciliation with West Germany when the Holocaust wounds were still so fresh.

Yet when Ben-Gurion ordered an end to the operation, Harel was furious. The intelligence chief angrily submitted his resignation and was flabbergasted when Ben-Gurion actually accepted it. He was replaced with Meir Amit, who believed that the entire threat had been overblown.

Amit did try to use Skorzeny one last time, to arrange a meeting with a high-ranking Egyptian official to explore the possibility of peace negotiations. That, apparently, was decades before its time and never took place.

Why did a Nazi noted for never renouncing his ideology allow himself to help out the very people whom his idol and hero, Hitler, strove to destroy? Even after the war, Skorzeny never relinquished his dreams of a German army based in Spain or distanced himself from neo-Nazi groups. How could he fly in the face of everything he stood for and turn against his own brothers?

Melman and Raviv suggest that it was his overpowering streak of adventurism, coupled with the idea of doing top-secret work with the best in the spy community — the Mossad — even if they were Jewish. Furthermore, for all his admiration for Hitler, it might have been more about longing for his homeland’s glory, and he saw Nazism as a method of restoring Austria to its former splendor. At least according to his own memoirs — which, granted, he highly sanitized — he was a ruthless warrior but wasn’t an indiscriminate murderer of Jews. Or perhaps he had no conscience at all.

Melman and Raviv admit that “he may have been motivated by a combination of all these factors and perhaps even others.” But we will never know the truth, for Otto Skorzeny took his secret to the grave. He died of cancer in 1975, at age 67, and was given an immense Nazi-themed funeral, attended by dozens of German military veterans and their wives who gave Skorzeny the final honor — a one-armed Nazi salute.

But there was one anonymous man in the crowd standing off in a corner, someone used to hiding in the shadows — Joe Raanan, who had since left the world of espionage and had become a successful businessman. It was a gesture from one Austrian to another, from handler to agent — the most reliable, but most despicable, he had ever dealt with.


—Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)

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