Arrested for daubing swastikas and putting up posters, he was eventually smuggled over the border into Germany in 1934 in order to avoid further arrest. He reported to a local SA detachment and was employed on guard duty outside a camp.
Having joined the SS, he was sent in 1940 to Schloss Hartheim near Linz, a centre for killing off the mentally sick and handicapped. The institution was run from Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, headquarters of the so-called ‘Foundation for Institutional Care'. Handpicked on the basis of his Hartheim record to help build the Sobibor camp (he arrived there in March 1942), he was promoted in September 1943 to SS-Oberscharfuhrer and received the Iron Cross from Himmler for his proficiency as a mass murderer.
Sentenced to death in absentia by the Nuremberg Tribunal, he laid low as a building labourer in Graz, where he met his Austrian compatriot, Franz Stangl, the ex-Commandant of Treblinka. The two men proceeded south to Rome, escaping with the help of the Vatican via Syria to Brazil, where Wagner was admitted as a permanent resident on 12 April 1950. There he lived happily and freely in a Bavarian-style house outside Sao Paulo until his arrest on 30 May 1978. Wagner had been spotted among the guests at an old comrades’ gathering to celebrate Hitler’s eighty-ninth birthday by two reporters of a Rio de Janeiro newspaper. Extradition requests from Israel, Austria (where Wagner had been a citizen) and Poland were rejected by Brazil’s Attorney-General.
On 22 June 1979 the Brazilian Supreme Court also turned down a West German extradition request. Wagner, a dedicated Nazi, showed no remorse for his crimes.
Quotations: In a television interview about the exterminations at Sobibor (BBC, 18 June 1979), he commented: ‘I had no feelings. ... It just became another job. In the evening we never discussed our work, but just drank and played cards.'
Between May 1942 and its closure in late October 1943, approximately 250,000 Jews were killed in Sobibor. As the senior NCO in the camp and second-in-command at Sobibor - he was also Franz Stangl's deputy at Treblinka - Master-Sergeant Wagner was in charge of ‘selection' and ordered the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Known to his victims as the ‘Human Beast’, he has been described as an insatiable sadist and ‘one of the most brutal thugs’ in the camps, who incited others to hang, beat and kill prisoners.
Not by chance, the revolt at Sobibor in October 1943 took place during Wagner's vacation. On his return he was ordered to close the camp and was subsequently transferred to Italy where he again participated in the ‘Final Solution'. He ended the war in an American POW camp, from which he was released on producing false papers.
Quotes from others about the person
According to one survivor, Wagner ‘didn’t eat his lunch if he didn't kill daily. With an axe, shovel or even his hands. He had to have blood.' Another survivor recalled: ‘He was an Angel of Death. For him, torturing and killing was a pleasure. When he killed he smiled.’