War makes for strange bedfellows

An exiled Spanish Socialist tells how he warmed to his Nazi boss in Argentina

Bernhardt with his hat in his hand and Diego Álvarez in a white suit.
Bernhardt with his hat in his hand and Diego Álvarez in a white suit.

Johannes Bernhardt was a Nazi boss, a man who became an honorary general of the SS, a uniform he only wore on special occasions. He was also a crafty businessman who quietly built a German economic empire in Madrid thanks to Franco’s support for Hitler.

Although he is a little-known figure, Bernhardt played a key role in the coup against the Spanish Republic and subsequent victory by Franco’s forces. He was also an affable man who liked a good joke, and who enjoyed eating paella with his workers on Sundays.

Bernhardt was all that and other, more obscure things as well, both in finance and politics. Diego Álvarez, then a young member of the Spanish Socialist Party, knew Bernhardt’s kinder side. The two met in 1957 in Argentina, where the Alicante native had gone into exile fleeing the misery of post-war Spain.

Álvarez was considered a communist by his neighbors in the quiet rural neighborhood of La Xara in Dénia, in the province of Alicante. His father had been the Socialist mayor of Dénia at the close of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Diego joined the Socialist youth groups in 1936 and enlisted as a volunteer to contain the rebel offensive in Castellón in 1939. Four months later Valencia, one of the last Republican strongholds, fell to Franco’s forces. The young Socialist felt humiliated: his father was sentenced to three years in prison and Diego was forced to provide for his mother and younger sister. He also had to give up on a stable job with the postal service, which he’d been hankering for prior to the war.

“The war ruined my plans,” lamented Álvarez, 92, in a voice weakened by the terminal disease that took his life last month.

Diego Álvarez was unaware that his friend had helped Franco win the war

Dénia had become a mousetrap. In the county of La Marina Alta, 96 people were executed between 1939 and 1942, according to the historian Vicent Gabarda. After that came poverty. A friend told Álvarez to try his luck in Argentina. A former neighbor from La Xara was now working at an estate in Buenos Aires province called La Elena, where he had become the right-hand man for a wealthy German businessman, Johannes Bernhardt, who wore hats and long coats and spoke perfect Spanish.

The Nazi had settled down there around 1952 with his wife, Ellen Wiedenbrüg, daughter of the former German consul in Rosario, and their children. They were seeking the peace and quiet that they had lost in Spain following Hitler’s defeat. Bernhardt ranked number seven on a black list of 104 Nazis living in Spain, drawn up by the Allies and delivered to Franco. The winners of the war were claiming Bernhardt, whom they described thus: “General of the SS and president of Sofindus, an institution belonging to the German state. In charge of the clandestine supply of material to German troops under siege in western France during and after the liberation of that country.” Franco granted him Spanish nationality to protect him from the Allies.

Sofindus was a giant conglomerate of 350 German companies operating out of Spain for the greater glory of the Third Reich. It included iron and copper mines, shipyards, agricultural outfits, insurance companies, slaughterhouses and banks worth more than 750 million pesetas (around 4.5 million euros) at the time. Sofindus was also filled with Spanish front men.

“Sofindus acted as the Nazis’ pincers to exploit the Spanish economy and turn it into a satellite economy. Bernhardt was Goering’s man in Spain,” asserts Ángel Viñas, the Spanish historian who has explored his life the most.

Bernhardt’s Spanish aide in Argentina, Eleuterio Contrí, had first met his boss when the latter lived in Dénia, where he had settled into an elegant villa at 17, Tossalet de Oliver. Contrí worked there as an employee. When Bernhardt decided to emigrate to Argentina, he took Contrí with him, and Contrí in turn hired Diego Álvarez to come to the Argentinean estate. Five other Spaniards worked there as farm hands as well.

Álvarez knew nothing of his new boss’s Nazi past; he did not know that this smart, ambitious German had helped Franco win the Civil War.

Bernhardt’s history was closely tied to Nazism. After becoming a party member, he worked as a collaborator for the security service and joined the SS. But he was a businessman rather than a military man, a passion he had inherited from his father. By the age of 25 he was already a millionaire, and after a stint as a stockbroker he bought two small banks, did business in Brazil and married Ellen. After losing his fortune in the economic crisis of the 1920s, the family moved to the Spanish protectorate of Morocco, where Bernhardt sold equipment to the Spanish Legion and befriended military leaders, including some who were already conspiring against the Republic.

Bernhardt personally met with the Führer in Bayreuth and handed him a letter from Franco

At age 39, the astute entrepreneur decided to take part in a risky mission: go to Germany to ask Hitler to help Franco during the Civil War. Bernhardt personally met with the Führer in Bayreuth and handed him a letter from Franco asking for 10 transport aircraft, six Heinkel bombers, 20 anti-aircraft batteries, rifles, machine guns and ammunition. The mission was a success and the equipment was delivered, except instead of 10 transport planes there were 20.

Álvarez did not ask himself too many questions about the individual who was going to hire him in Argentina. All he knew is that the man in the hat had once resided just five kilometers from his own home in Dénia. Diego arrived at La Elena in 1957, aged 36, to help grow maize and wheat, and he soon befriended the owners and their three children, all of whom shared a paella with their employees on Sundays. After lunch, Bernhardt liked to engage in discussions about Spanish politics.

Bernhardt always introduced himself as a “friend” of Francisco Franco. He never denied the Holocaust, and barely ever mentioned Hitler. Neither his villa in Dénia nor his estate in Argentina sported any Nazi symbols. “They were very friendly, they were good people,” recalled María Contrí, Eleuterio’s daughter, who ended the conversation abruptly when she was asked about Bernhardt’s ties to the Führer.

At his 92 years of age, Diego Álvarez could still recall the passionate after-lunch debates with his German “friend,” who once even spoke well of Fidel Castro: his anti-American sentiment was more important than his Marxism. Another time Bernhardt criticized Franco’s “excessive repression” during the postwar years.

Bernhardt confessed to Diego that he had trade ties with far-right Latin American leaders, and that the success of his Madrid conglomerate rested on his personal relationship with Franco.

“Do you want something from Uncle Paco?” he used to joke when he was about to embark on his annual trip to Madrid. Álvarez never asked him for favors, but suspects that Bernhardt would have done whatever he asked of him. The relationship ended in 1960, when he stopped working at La Elena following a disagreement with Eleuterio, the man who had recommended hiring him three years earlier. Diego Álvarez and Bernhardt met one last time fortuitously in 1967 at a post office. The German returned home in the 1970s, living off his investments until his death in Munich in 1980.

Álvarez returned to Spain with the advent of democracy and helped relaunch the local branch of the Socialist Party in Dénia, acting as its president and secretary general. He never ran for office, and instead focused on a farming cooperative project employing women. He never married and lived with his sister in the same humble home where their father had been arrested seven decades earlier, until his own death in June.