BERLIN // Allegations that the German secret service destroyed hundreds of documents relating to the Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner have sparked calls for a closer examination of the activities of former top Nazi officials who fled to the Middle East after the Second World War.
Between 1994 and 1997, the Bundesnachtrichtendienst, or BND, shredded 581 documents about the aide to Adolf Eichmann, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on July 20, citing Bodo Hechelhammer, a scholar who heads a research team commissioned by the BND to explore the history of the foreign intelligence agency.
The report has reinforced speculation that Brunner, a former officer in Adolf Hitler's paramilitary organisation, the SS, who was responsible for the deportation of more than 128,500 Jews to concentration camps, worked for the BND after the war.
The disclosure has also led to renewed public pressure for a detailed investigation into the post-war lives of former Nazi officials who escaped Germany to the Middle East as allied troops closed in - in Brunner's case, to Syria.
Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which among its activities, campaigns for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, said the latest revelations about the BND cast Germany, as well as the agency itself, in an especially bad light.
"It flies in the face of our whole perception that Germany had done a complete turnabout and was totally committed to democracy and to atoning and compensating for the crimes. We see here that the public face of Germany was doing the right thing, while the private face was doing the exact opposite," Mr Zuroff said.
The document destruction, Mr Zuroff said, "clearly shows" the BND "have something to hide".
Without present or past German or Syrian officials coming forward, what secrets those documents might contain is a matter of speculation.
Mr Zuroff said Bruner may have served as an agent for the BND in Syria. He described it as likely, though, that the former SS officer worked for the Syrian government, even as an adviser to the late Syrian President Hafez Al Assad.
Brunner, an Austrian, was nicknamed "the bloodhound" because of the zeal with which he rounded up Jewish families in Vienna, Berlin, Greece and France.
After his boss Eichmann was caught by Israeli agents in Argentina, put on trial for war crimes in Jerusalem and executed in 1962, Brunner was the most senior Nazi war criminal still at large.
"We received information about four years ago that he was dead, from someone who has very good sources inside Syria, but we haven't been able to prove it yet and it's not clear if it will ever be proved," said Mr Zuroff.
If he were still alive, Brunner would be 99. He escaped capture in the immediate aftermath of the war partly because he did not have the giveaway SS tattoo on his left arm showing his blood group.
Syrian authorities steadfastly denied that Brunner was in Syria, even though he repeatedly gave interviews to journalists there.
Prosecutors in France, Germany and Austria later established that he had been living in Damascus under the alias "Dr Georg Fischer" since the 1950s. Repeated extradition requests came to nothing. French courts prosecuted him in absentia and sentenced him to death in 1954 and to lifelong imprisonment in 2001.
"Brunner is believed to be among the people who helped set up the Syrian police apparatus," Bettina Stangneth, a historian and author of Eichmann Before Jerusalem, said. "The Nazis had close ties in the Middle East and were welcomed as specialists, in Egypt as well.
"Everyone here knew that Brunner was in Syria calling himself Dr Georg Fischer. Journalists interviewed him in Damascus, tourists spotted and photographed him, and he told them in cafes who he was. He even contacted Eichmann's lawyer to testify on Eichmann's behalf at the trial."
In 1985 Brunner told a reporter for Bunte, a German magazine, that Israel would never get him.
"I'm not going to be a second Eichmann," he said, pulling a poison capsule out of his breast pocket. He was targeted twice by letter bomb attacks believed to have been sent by Israeli agents - he lost an eye in the first, in 1961, and several fingers in the second, in 1980.
Brunner, just 1.70 metres tall, and described as having a slightly crooked nose and dark eyes, remained unrepentant, telling people how proud he was to have played a part in the Holocaust. In 1987, he told an Austrian journalist: "Be happy that I cleared all the Jews out of beautiful Vienna."
The BND, which had former Nazi agents in its ranks when it was set up in 1956, has recently faced criticism for failing to shed light on whether it did all it could to track down war criminals half a century ago, and whether it worked with some of them.
The agency lost a court dispute last year over its refusal to open its files on Eichmann, and it has since been confirmed that the BND knew Eichmann's whereabouts years before he was captured in Buenos Aires.
Former heads of the BND insist they did not know that documents about Brunner had been destroyed.
"I would never have ordered it," one of them, Konrad Porzner, whose grandfather had been jailed in Dachau concentration camp, told Der Spiegel.
Ms Stangneth said the shredding was suspicious. "If the BND did destroy its Brunner files, it will have had a reason for doing so. One doesn't need to be a conspiracy theorist to raise one's eyebrows at this news."
She and other researchers say Brunner initially worked as a trader in Syria, importing beer, sauerkraut and dark German bread. Some claim his business was a front for weapons trading.
He is then believed to have been recruited as a consultant for the Syrian security authorities.
He moved house several times in Damascus and at one point was spotted by witnesses living in the Hotel Meridien. "Brunner lived at the heart of a circle of fugitive Nazis," said Ms Stangneth, noting that the role played by Nazis in the Middle East after the war has never been fully documented.
"It is a myth that the Nazis in exile were fundamentally afraid. Men like Eichmann or Brunner who wielded such power over life and death, who were cut off in the prime of their lives, would have seen living quiet, private lives as too much of a comedown. That made them receptive to offers from governments or secret services, for whom such bribable people were of course useful, especially if they were eager to resume playing a role in the history of the world."
As far as Brunner and the Syrian chapter of his life are concerned, there is still some hope that the details may yet come to light.
It was likely, Ms Stangneth said, that copies of the shredded documents might still be in the files of Germany's domestic intelligence, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or BfV.