Rick Eaton cuts an intimidating figure – tall, elegant, imbued with authority, yet at the same time, he’s almost grandfatherly in his storytelling. You would hardly guess that he has spent decades of his life buddying up to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and extremist figureheads across the globe.
“I’m probably still a member in good standing of a lot of extremist groups,” he says with a chuckle.
Eaton started with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1985, and among his early responsibilities, he was tasked with subscribing to hard-copy publications of extremist groups – writing to them, compiling their content, and keeping up with their general activity.
Having formerly worked in the publishing industry, “I got into this work purely by accident,” he explains, detailing how he came to work for the influential Jewish human rights organisation. “But it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Now a senior researcher at the Center, focusing at present on hate speech online and cyberterrorism, Eaton has spent over three decades infiltrating hate and extremist groups worldwide.
But perhaps his most thrilling saga took place 27 years ago, when he found himself in Argentina’s Patagonia region, forming part of the team pursuing the capture of Erich Priebke, a former SS commander.
Priebke was implicated in the 1944 massacre of Fosse Ardeatine, in which 335 people, most of them Italians, were executed in response to a bombing by the Italian Resistance that had killed 33 German personnel. Allegedly, Adolf Hitler ordered the execution of 10 Italians for every dead German.
The victims were bound and loaded into trucks, then driven out to a sparsely populated rural suburb of Rome. In groups of five, they were marched into a cave system, forced to kneel on a growing pile of bodies, and shot through the head. Midway through the executions, it was discovered that there were five extra people present, moving beyond the order of 10 for 1.
It was decided to kill them anyway, to ensure that the location of the murders would remain a secret.
WITH A VENGEANCE
Eaton’s chapter of the story begins nearly half a century after the crime was committed, in 1992. Germany was reeling after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Neo-Nazism had returned with a vengeance, and extremism was on the rise.
Eaton was introduced to Nazi-hunting by Israeli investigator Yaron Svoray, who at the time was following the story of several GIs who had reportedly buried diamonds in a foxhole during the war. As he pursued a lead, Svoray was approached by several Germans who offered to help him. When the men took Svoray to a snuff film, giving him his first real look into the rising neo-Nazi movement in Germany, the detective quickly abandoned his line of investigation and decided instead to explore the rise of white nationalism in the country. Svoray turned to the Wiesenthal Center for support.
“You have to understand, Yaron is an Israeli,” says Eaton. “And he is a very obvious Israeli – accent and the whole thing. They didn’t understand that. He actually told them he was Australian!”
With the Germans seemingly oblivious to his actions, Svoray spent the next several months working his way up to higher levels of the neo-Nazi movement, travelling back and forth to Los Angeles to meet with Eaton and others at the Center.
Eventually, “he put together a meeting of some of the highestlevel Nazis in Germany,” Eaton explains.
At the meeting, Svoray, in all his bravado, convinced the neoNazis that he was working for a right-wing magazine in the United States, and that he had a backer who would offer generous financial support. He assumed that, having gathered many names and recordings of leaders within the movement, his investigation had been concluded and that he would never have to follow through on his promise.
“Yaron had a habit of enhancing every story that he told,” says Eaton. “He figured he was done, so he said at the end of the meeting as they were leaving, ‘The next time I see you, I’m gonna bring you satchels full of money because my rich millionaire backer likes what you’re doing. We’re gonna help support your movement.’ He never thought he was going back to Germany.”
There was just one problem. The Wiesenthal Center’s dean and founder, Rabbi Marvin Hier, wanted more.
“‘If these guys are actually planning a coup, or some kind of future fascist government in Germany, who are the average people who are going to support them?’” Eaton remembers Hier asking.
“He wanted Yaron to go back and meet the average people.”
But Svoray was adamant; he couldn’t return without exposing himself as a false agent. That’s where Eaton came in.
“Rather than give them the money, we gave them the next best thing – the millionaire that was going to supply the money,” says Eaton. “And that was me.”
The duo flew to Germany and spent several days driving around the country, meeting these average people who supported the neo-Nazi movement. Their escort was a former US soldier, Roy Godenau, Svoray’s contact in Germany, who was well-connected within the movement.
“In the course of our driving around, we recorded everything [Godenau] said. One of the things he told us was, ‘I work for a guy in Argentina… and he’s a war criminal. He had ‘cleaned up the partisans in Yugoslavia,’” says Eaton. “That obviously, at the Wiesenthal Center, peaked our interest.”
This information eventually led Eaton to Bariloche, the picturesque city tucked away in the foothills of the Andes near the Chilean border. It was there he would meet Reinhard Kopps.
In the aftermath of World War II, Argentina had become a haven for former Nazi soldiers, many of whom received protection from Juan Perón and his government. A series of so-called ‘ratlines’ were established in the 1940s and 1950s to funnel Nazi war criminals from Europe to the relative safety and obscurity of South America.
Many set up new lives in Bariloche. With its alpine lakes and European architecture, the city bears an uncanny resemblance to Germany, and it became home to German settlers as early as the 1840s. By the end of the 19th century, the city boasted a thriving German community.
“When I got to Bariloche, I said, ‘This is like little Bavaria,’” said Eaton. “It would be very comfortable for Germans. A good place to keep a very low profile, certainly.”
According to Godneau, Kopps had worked on one of the ratlines – a monastery route – that channelled Nazis through the Vatican and out to Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay. Kopps, an ex-SS officer who was then living under the pseudonym Juan Maler, was not too difficult to pin down.
“One day, Sam Donaldson from ABC News shows up on the streets of Bariloche and starts talking to Kopps,” Eaton recalls. “He said to him, ‘Are you Reinhard Kopps?’ And Kopps responded, ‘No, my name in Juan Maler. But I used to be Reinhard Kopps.’”
Kopps denied working on the ratlines, but Donaldson played Eaton’s recording to him on camera, implicating him. He began to look for another way out.
“Kopps got a little bit nervous,” says Eaton. “He pulls Donaldson aside, away from the camera, and he forgot he had a lapel mike on. He says, ‘Why are you talking to me? You want the big fish in town. You want to talk to Priebke.’”
Kopps would flee soon after the interview, but Eaton and his team had what they needed. Donaldson went on to speak with Priebke, and – 50 years on from the atrocities – Priebke confessed to his role in the massacre. The explosive footage was aired on 20/20, the ABC news programme. The very next day, both Italy and Germany asked for Priebke’s extradition, kicking off a long legal battle.
After 17 months of back-andforth, during which Priebke remained in Bariloche, he was sent to Italy to appear in court. Priebke pleaded not guilty, and refused to take moral responsibility for his actions. He was eventually acquitted on the basis that he was merely following orders, but persistent public outcry landed Priebke back in court. After another long fight in the courts, he was sentenced in 1998 to life imprisonment, to be served under house arrest.
Although the prime era of Nazihunting has long passed, Eaton continues to combat hate speech and hate crimes in his work today, specialising in the online world. He has continued to observe the evolution of extremist movements – from old-school bulletin board postings to complex ties enabled by social networking platforms.
“The extremists were ready and waiting for when the Internet came along, because they had already been on digital communications. They took advantage of the fact that they knew digital as well as anybody at that time. When the web came along, they started in right away,” he says.
Today, Eaton spends much of his time travelling around to schools teaching media literacy. He shows the children – often 12 or 13 years old, and deeply entrenched in Internet culture – examples of online hate speech. The key, he says, is for them to feel comfortable both identifying and reporting such issues.
“Hate speech affects not only you, as the one that was targeted, but a larger group – whatever you were targeted for, there’s a larger group out there that has the same qualifications,” he tells the Times.
Returning to Erich Priebke, he explains how the old and the new even met in a strange ending drenched in hate.
“He recorded a video for YouTube on the anniversary of his 100th birthday, and in it he was unrepentant. He said, ‘If you travel to Germany, please give them my regards,’” says Eaton.
Soon after, in 2013, Priebke died of natural causes at his home in Rome.
“He lived to the ripe old age of 100,” Eaton says, shaking his head. “His victims certainly didn’t get to see their grandchildren grow up.”
The room falls silent.
“That’s as much retribution as anyone can get,” Eaton says, puncturing the pause. “It just proves the point that no matter how old they were, to bring them to some sort of justice – even if it’s only house arrest – is better than none at all.”
And so, online and off, facing increasingly steep challenges, Eaton continues to fight for justice, one case at a time.