This is the story of how the daughter of a Nazi ended up joining an insurgent group: National Liberation Army (ELN) in Bolivia and not only participated actively, but was also the “avenger” of the bloodthirsty Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. And, paradoxically, she was later caught by the “butcher of Lyon”, who at the time called himself Klaus Altmann, but who was actually called Klaus Barbie and had been living in Bolivia since 1955.
“Victory or death. ELN”. That was the message left by Monika Ertl “Imilla” (girl in the Aymara language), daughter of Hans Ertl – Reich cameraman – in Colonel Quintanilla’s office after she had assassinated him with a Colt Cobra 38 Special in 1971. Colonel Roberto “Toto” Quintanilla Pérez, former Bolivian intelligence chief and later Bolivian consul in Hamburg, had ordered the amputation of the hands of the iconic revolutionary “Che”.
Monika Ertl was born in Munich in 1937 and emigrated to the depths of Bolivia around 1952, to the farm bought by her father, who had escaped from Germany via the “ratlines”, the Nazi and collaborationist escape routes to South America, initially to Argentina and Brazil.
Hans Ertl was Hitler’s occasional photographer, but, in reality, he was “Rommel’s photographer”, that legendary general, known as “the desert fox” and regarded as a “national hero”, indeed, of such great honour, that he did not ultimately approve of Hitler; and he was involved in the “attempt of 20 July 1944” that planned to assassinate the dictator and stage a coup d’état. Under the name “Operation Valkyrie”, Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow and Count Col. Claus von Stauffenberg executed the failed attempt to overthrow Nazism.
Ertl, after having worked for General Rommel whom he admired and idolised, went on to work for Leni Riefenstahl, “Hitler’s director”, with whom he fell in love, and they became lovers. Ertl said, “Leni was the great love of my life. Together with Riefenstahl, they filmed “Olympia”, the documentary film documenting the 1936 Summer Olympics at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. It was Ertl who invented the first underwater camera and a ski-mounted camera, which transformed the film industry. In addition to being a cameraman and filmmaker, he was also a war correspondent, writer and mountaineer.
Hans Ertl went deep into the Bolivian Amazon and in the middle of the jungle he bought a farm called “La Dolorida”, which was next to the hacienda of Hugo Banzer Suárez, later dictator and president of Bolivia, whose grandfather was German. In Banzer’s government, the Nazi Klaus Barbie would later take part.
Monika was Hans Ertl’s favourite daughter, but he did not allow her to use “La Dolorida” as a guerrilla training camp for her ELN “comrades”. And when Monika was murdered in 1973 by Bolivian security forces on Camacho Avenue in the centre of La Paz, her father said: “It’s a good thing they killed her. She’s dead. Ertl feared she had been tortured, although the body was never released to the family, which is why she later said she had been tortured to death.
The favourite daughter learned filmmaking and photography from her father, and worked for the Bolivian documentary filmmaker Jorge Ruiz, making her perhaps the first female documentary filmmaker in Latin America. Monika married and lived in the copper mines of northern Chile. Ertl then ran a home for orphans in La Paz, before joining the Bolivian guerrilla ELN in 1969.
After two years in the insurgent organisation, he travelled from La Paz to the other side of the world for one purpose: to assassinate Colonel, now Consul “Toto” Quintanilla, who had been appointed in Hamburg for his security. He posed as a young Australian woman who was applying for a visa for a folk music group, made an appointment with Quintanilla, shot him a few times at point-blank range and then fled. Monika Ertl became the most wanted “public enemy”. Intelligence services, including, most importantly, the CIA, were now after her.
A blonde wig, black glasses, a handbag, a Colt Cobra 38 Special (bought by the Italian communist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli), together with the paper that read: ‘Victory or death. ELN, was what Monika Ertl left behind, before arriving in France and then in Cuba, where she met with French socialist Régis Debray, a friend of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara. Together with Debray, Ertl planned to kidnap Klaus Barbie, to deliver him to France, via Chile. But Barbie would beat him to it. In fact, she had known him since his youth as Klaus Altmann, who, posing as a prosperous German businessman, had befriended Monika’s father and family. In fact, Monika knew him as “Uncle Klaus”.
Klaus Barbie, who had escaped across the rat line with the help of the American “Counter Intelligence Corps”, had been wanted for decades, initially for the deportation of thousands of Jews and for having tortured and murdered the heroic Jean Moulin, remembered as the “head of the army in the shadows”. Despite this, Barbie Altmann secretly collaborated with intelligence services, including the CIA, the German, Argentine and Bolivian intelligence services. On top of that, he had been appointed honorary lieutenant colonel in the Bolivian army.
Barbie, who knew Ertl very well, was the one who identified her and denounced her so that she could later be killed by the Bolivian authorities. Her former “Uncle Klaus” recognised her in the middle of the centre of La Paz, although she was dressed as a hippie, her physical appearance did not go unnoticed, she was a very attractive and imposing woman. And so it was that the Nazi fugitive Barbie ended up betraying the daughter of his former friend Hans Ertl.
In conclusion, such a paradoxical, passionate story, with many ups and downs, is still relevant. It is not unusual to find those characters within a specific group who go in the opposite direction. And usually with fatal outcomes. It is then that passion, with its ardour and calm, unleashes struggles without end and without a future. Just like revolutions without a cause, which overshadow those that do have a cause, in a world full of lies.