The Most Dangerous Man in Europe: Who was Otto Skorzeny?

Otto Skorzeny earned himself the nickname of the “Most Dangerous Man in Europe,” but how did this German soldier manage to achieve this title?

Apr 30, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
otto skorzeny photographs

 

World War II was certainly a dangerous time to be alive. Some people, however, thrive in dangerous times, making names for themselves by taking personal risks and achieving the most astounding results. Their actions turn them into legends, and they garner respect from friends and foes alike. One of these legends was Otto Skorzeny, whose escapades won him widespread recognition and earned him the title of “the most dangerous man in Europe.”

 

Otto Skorzeny’s Life Before the War

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A propaganda postcard of Otto Skorzeny, via stampcircuit.com

 

Otto Skorzeny was born on June 12, 1908 into a middle-class Austrian family. He had an aptitude for languages from an early age, and apart from his native German, he became fluent in French and proficient in English.

 

At school, he was an avid fencer and often engaged in dangerous duels with live steel. He took part in fifteen personal duels, the tenth one being particularly important as it left him with a large scar across his face.

 

Otto Skorzeny joined the Austrian Nazi Organization in 1932, and the Austrian branch of the Sturmabteilung (SA) in 1934. He was known as a highly charismatic character, and during the Anschluss, according to his own account, he saved the Austrian president, Wilhelm Miklas, from being shot by Austrian Nazis. He argued that executing the president would create a martyr and provide an impetus for anti-Nazi sentiment in Austria.

 

World War II

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The Anschluss of March 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Otto Skorzeny played an important role, saving the life of Austrian president Wilhelm Miklas; via armorama.com

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After the invasion of Poland, Otto Skorzeny tried to join the Luftwaffe, but he was told he was too tall (6’4”), and at 31 years in 1939, he was already too old. Instead, he ended up joining the Waffen-SS and trained with the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, which was the Führer’s personal bodyguard regiment.

 

He fought in Operation Barbarossa, was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class, and was wounded in the back of the head by shrapnel. He was removed from the front and given a staff job, at which time he developed his ideas of unconventional warfare, and envisioned the creation of a unit able to commit various acts attributed to commando roles.

 

Skorzeny’s ideas caught the attention of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), who forwarded his plan to Walter Schellenburg, head of the SS foreign intelligence service department of the RSHA. He gave Otto Skorzeny the charge training soldiers in sabotage, espionage, and paramilitary techniques, and appointed him the head of Waffen-SS Sonderverband z.b.V. Friedenthal, later renamed SS Jagdverband 502, which was a special forces unit of the Waffen-SS.

 

Operation Oak

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Gliders on Gran Sasso from Operation Oak, via arsof-history.org

 

The most famous action undertaken by Otto Skorzeny was on September 12, 1943. “Operation Oak” was Skorzeny’s rescue of Benito Mussolini, who was being held captive in the Hotel Campo Imperatore on the Gran Sasso d’Italia massif.

 

The operation involved Otto Skorzeny and 16 Fallschirmjägers (paratroopers), who reached their target via gliders. Meanwhile, the lower end of the funicular station, which provided access to the Hotel Campo Imperatore, was captured in a swift ground attack, which saw two Italians dead and two others wounded

 

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Otto Skorzeny and Benito Mussolini make their escape in their Storch light aircraft, via The Times

 

Within moments, Skorzeny and his special troopers, along with the Fallschirmjägers, took the Italians completely by surprise and overwhelmed the 200 carabinieri holding Mussolini captive. Skorzeny’s part in the raid saw Mussolini freed without a shot being fired. He accompanied the deposed dictator and performed an extremely risky but successful take-off in a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch. Barely ten minutes after Skorzeny landed on the mountain, Mussolini was in a plane flying to safety.

 

The outcome of the mission led to fame for Otto Skorzeny, who became known throughout Europe as a hero to the Axis and a dangerous commando to the Allies.

 

Other Operations

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Miklós Horthy and Adolf Hitler in 1938, via History is Now Magazine

 

Operation Long Jump was a supposed plan to assassinate the Big Three (Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt) at the Tehran conference in Iran. The Soviets claimed they had received information via counter-intelligence that Otto Skorzeny was heading up a team that would attempt to kill the leaders during the conference. Churchill claimed this was Soviet propaganda, and Otto Skorzeny later claimed the operation never existed.

 

Early in 1944, Operation Rösselsprung was conducted, where Otto Skorzeny and his commandos attempted to capture Josip Broz Tito, the recognized president of Yugoslavia who was leading a partisan group against Nazi occupation. After visiting Zagreb, Skorzeny realized the plan had been compromised by German agents, and argued to cancel the operation. It went ahead anyway and was a disaster. The plan was to infiltrate the cave where Tito was hiding out, but the partisans were waiting for the first wave of Fallschirmjägers. The second wave also missed their target. Tito easily escaped, and the Germans suffered heavy casualties.

 

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Lieutenant-Colonel Otto Skorzeny, from the Bundesarchiv via ThoughtCo

 

In October 1944, the defeat of the Reich was looming closer. Hungary was a member of the Axis, and the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy, began secret negotiations with the Soviets. A million German troops in the Balkans risked being cut off as a result. Operation Panzerfaust saw Otto Skorzeny kidnap Admiral Miklós Horthy’s son in a daring raid. This was done in order to force Horthy to resign as head of the Hungarian government. A pro-Nazi government was then installed, which continued the fight against the Soviets. As a result of this operation, Otto Skorzeny was given the rank of Obersturmbannführer, which was the SS equivalent of lieutenant-colonel.

 

Before the Battle of the Bulge, around two dozen of Otto Skorzeny’s English-speaking troops infiltrated the US forces in a bid to sow confusion. While the plan worked to some degree, most of the agents were caught and executed by US forces.

 

Otto Skorzeny After the War

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Otto Skorzeny awaiting trial after the war, via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC

 

For two years after the Second World War ended, Otto Skorzeny was interned, awaiting trial on charges of stealing food parcels from the Red Cross, theft of US military uniforms, and improper use of military uniforms. Wearing enemy uniforms is against the Laws of War.

 

All charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence and the fact that the Allies had been prepared to commit the same crime.

 

Nevertheless, Skorzeny’s days of incarceration were not over, as his next hurdle was the Denazification trials designed to rid Germany of all the top Nazi officials and top SS members. While awaiting trial in the Darmstadt internment camp, Otto Skorzeny, along with several other of his SS comrades, escaped.

 

Skorzeny joined the Gehlen Organization, which was made up mostly of Nazis and was created as an intelligence agency under the command of the US occupation forces. In 1950, he moved to Madrid, where he started a small engineering business.

 

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Skorzeny in Mallorca, Spain, via Majorca Daily Bulletin

 

He was then recruited as a military advisor in Egypt, where he trained Egyptian and other Arab forces, including Palestinians, who he helped organize raids into Israel. Among the soldiers trained by him was Yasser Arafat.

 

It is rumored that Skorzeny set up a secret organization called Die Spinne (The Spider), which helped former SS members escape prosecution. As many as 600 former SS members were assisted in escaping punishment and finding new homes in Spain and Argentina.

 

Because of his past, Otto Skorzeny was a man wanted by Mossad, but instead of killing him, Skorzeny ended up working for Mossad. His motives for doing so are unknown, but it is likely a combination of a desire for adventure and a fear of being killed by Mossad, which led him to work for the Israeli government.

 

In the 1960s, Skorzeny was heavily involved in the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE, and in 1970, he officially founded the Paladin Group, which was an international far-right paramilitary organization. Through his activities, Skorzeny managed to gain huge influence throughout Europe and South America in the post-war period. It is alleged that he even worked as an advisor and bodyguard for Juan and Eva Perón.

 

Otto Skorzeny’s Death

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Otto Skorzeny’s profile shots from after the war, via ib3.org

 

On July 5, 1975, while living in Madrid, Otto Skorzeny died of lung cancer. His body was cremated and later taken to Vienna, where his remains were interred with the rest of his family. Two funerals were held – one in Madrid, and one in Vienna. They were both attended by many former Nazis, and both events involved many Nazi salutes.

 

Otto Skorzeny was a highly capable soldier, risk taker, and planner who had great significance as an individual during the Second World War. Even after the war, his influence continued to grow as he moved around the world and got involved in organizations firmly on the right of the political spectrum.

 

What made him dangerous was his confidence, audacity, and intelligence, all of which were employed in the machinations that guided his career as “the most dangerous man in Europe.”

Author Image

By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.