Often thought of as just another Latin American caudillio, Argentine dictator Juan Perón is often overlooked in more popular histories in favor of other dictators. Sure, you probably vaguely remember that Madonna starred in a very forgettable musical about Perón and his wife titled Evita, but what do you really know about Juan Perón?
In most ways, he was pretty normal and far less brutal than the other dictators in this book. Yes, Perón was a true dictator who employed repression and occasional violence to keep his hold on power, but he used those means far less than our other dictators.
Yet during his rule over Argentina from 1944 to 1955 and again from 1973 until his death in 1974, Perón managed to make some pretty crazy decisions that led to the downfall of his rule, split his political movement into factions, and ultimately ended with a brutal military regime in the 1970s and civil war.
Perhaps the craziest thing Juan Perón did; was to manage, or at least attempt to manage, a bizarre tight rope between Jews and former fascists. In a policy that historians today still don’t completely understand, Perón accepted more Jewish refugees into Argentina after World War II than any other country in Latin America.
But he also gave thousands of Nazis and other fascist’s asylum in Argentina. And make no mistake, many of these guys were some big names in fascist circles: Erich Priebke, Josef Mengele, and Ante Pavelic all made Argentina their home after World War II.
Sometimes those two communities butted heads, such as when former Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped by Israeli Mossad agents from a neighborhood in Buenos Aires in 1960. The intelligence that led to Eichmann’s capture was provided by Argentine-Jews. Other less publicized incidents also happened.
In the end, the crazy and seemingly dissociative policy of allowing Jews and fascists to find asylum in Argentina became another piece in the puzzle of Perón’s downfall. Neither group could help him when the inevitable came and both pointed toward his supposed implicit support of the other group as a legitimate reason for his removal from power.
Lucky in the Military, Unlucky in Love
Growing up in the town of Lobos, Argentina, Juan Domingo Perón always had a presence. He was tall, athletic, handsome, and charismatic. Young Juan never had problems meeting women or getting men to follow him, but unless you were a well-connected person at the top rungs of society, making your way in 1920s Argentina could be tough. So Juan, like many other young Argentine men in his position, joined the military and worked his way up the ranks rather quickly.
The problem with being in the Argentine military, though, was coups and military juntas were a regular part of life and if you didn’t play with the right team, you were likely to be exiled, or worse.
So Perón lingered in military obscurity for a while because he didn’t support the right team, which gave him time to focus on his personal life.
Perón met Aurelia Tizon in the 1920s and the two married in 1929, but she died of cancer in 1938. The marriage with Tizon was the beginning of a streak of bad luck that Perón had with women and marriages. His second marriage, while he was dictator, was to the well-known actress Eva “Evita” Duarte, but she also died of cancer.
In addition to two of his three wives dying of cancer, Perón had no children. The official Argentine line is that Perón was sterile, which in Latin America is an extremely emasculating label to have if you are a man, especially a man who is the leader of a country. It may have played a role in some of his later repressive activities, although there have been claims that he fathered illegitimate children.
As Perón struggled with his personal life in the 1930s, his professional life took a positive turn. He was back in with the good graces of the military and was sent to Europe to study military tactics in Italy, which allowed him to see the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy first-hand. Perón was truly impressed by what he saw, but he was quick to point out that Argentina was unique and couldn’t necessarily institute the same system as those countries.
Perón’s big break came when the military overthrew the president in 1943, instituting yet another military junta. But Perón had bigger plans—he wanted to be President.
Things started out well for Perón in 1946. He was a populist who knew how to whip crowds into a frenzy, yet he stayed away from demagoguery for most of his first term. With the help of Evita, he portrayed himself as a patriot who wished to keep Argentina out of the Cold War struggles and instead focus on internal reforms.
It worked, earning him a landslide victory.
But as Perón neared the end of his first term in 1952, he inched closer and closer to becoming a dictator. Perón had particular contempt for universities, so he had many closed down and had thousands of professors fired from their positions. He then focused on leaders of both left-wing and right-wing opposition parties, imprisoning, killing, and torturing anyone he perceived to be a threat.
By the time the 1952 election came, Perón easily won through a combination of intimidation, fraud, and repression.
Then there was that thing with the Nazis.
An Open Door Policy
Many believe that one of the craziest things Perón did while in power was giving asylum to so many fascists accused of war crimes, while simultaneously giving refuge to Jews fleeing Europe. The policy left Argentines divided, was one of the factors leading to his first downfall in 1955 and has made Argentina synonymous with Nazis to many people.
So why did Perón pursue this apparently crazy policy?
The answer to this question is as complex as Perón was himself. The Argentine dictator was never much of an anti-Semite. In fact, some of Perón’s top government ministers and advisors, such as Raul Apold and Jose Bar Gelbard, were Jewish. Perón also didn’t hesitate to recognize the State of Israel.
But Perón was also very open in his admiration for certain elements of fascism, especially the order the philosophy espoused, and he was an ardent anti-communist. Perón’s political philosophy and movement, known as “Perónism,” claims to follow a third political way that is neither communist nor capitalist, so to him, anyone who opposed the USA or USSR was a potential ally, Nazis included.
There were probably also practical reasons to give asylum to wanted fascists.
Many of these fugitive fascists had skills that Perón found useful for his own military and others had funds that they invested in Argentina. It should also be pointed out that there are large German-Argentine and Italian-Argentine communities who supported Perón during his rule, with some of them looking the other way when fascists landed in Argentina after World War II.
When Perón was removed from power in 1955, it was in the same way he assumed power, through a military coup. The country had become so divided through his economic policies that the event seemed inevitable to most.
Although the open door policy of giving asylum to Jews and fascists wasn’t the deciding factor in the coup, it perhaps was symbolic of what was taking place.
Perón came out of exile in 1973 and briefly ruled before dying at the age of 78. His third wife briefly ruled before the government was turned over once more to a military junta and the country descended into what was known as the “Dirty War.”
Today, Juan Perón is loved in many quarters of Argentine society and reviled in others, but to the rest of the world, he is remembered as the guy who made the decision to give the Nazis leaders asylum.
Did You Know?
- Evita Duarte-Perón was a well-known and beloved Argentine actress before meeting Juan. She was 24 years Juan’s junior. Evita had naturally black hair, but she always dyed it blonde.
- Perón spent most of his exile from 1955 to 1973 in Francisco Franco’s Spain (we’ll get to Franco a bit). While in Spain, Perón demonstrated his political complexity once more by making connections with far-left and far-right political groups in Argentina before he returned.
- Among some of the more popular measures Perón enacted while president were a national minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, allowing women to vote, and socialized medicine.
- As part of his “third position” philosophy, Perón refused to join the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Argentina finally joined in 1956 after he was removed from power.
- Other repression methods that Perón employed were removing the justices of the Supreme Court and replacing them with those he chose.