Born into a middle-class Austrian family with a long history of military service, Skorzeny was a noted fencer as a student in Vienna in the 1920s. He engaged in fifteen personal duels, and on the tenth of these he received a wound that left a dramatic scar on his cheek. He joined the Austrian Nazi Party in 1931 and soon became a Nazi storm trooper. He showed aptitude as a leader of men from the very beginning, and even played a minor role in the German takeover of Austria on March 12, 1938, when he saved the Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas from being shot by Nazi roughnecks.
When the war broke out a year later, Skorzeny, then working as a civil engineer, volunteered for service in the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) but was turned down because he was over the age of 30. Failing that, he turned to the Waffen-SS, the military branch of Germany's elite storm troopers. On February 21, 1940, Skorzeny went off to war with one of its most famous units, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and fought with distinction in the campaigns against the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942 before being wounded and returning to Germany in December of 1942, a winner of the Iron Cross for bravery under fire.
After Skorzeny had recovered from his wounds, a friend in the SS recommended him to the German military leadership as a possible leader of commando forces Hitler wanted to create. It was in this role, in July 1943, that he was asked personally by Hitler to rescue Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy and a friend of Hitler's, who had been removed from power and imprisoned by the Italian government.
Almost two months of cat-and-mouse followed, as the Italians moved Mussolini from place to place in order to frustrate any would-be rescuers. Finally, on September 12, Skorzeny led a daring glider-based assault on the Gran Sasso Hotel, high in the Apennines mountains, and rescued Mussolini with very few shots being fired. The exploit earned Skorzeny worldwide fame, promotion to major and the Knight's Cross, another major German military honor.
On July 20, 1944, Skorzeny was in Berlin when a plot against Hitler's life was hatched, with German officials attempting to seize control of the country's vital organs before the dictator recovered from his injuries. Skorzeny helped put the rebellion down in the capital, actually spending 36 hours in charge of the German army's central command center before being relieved.
In October 1944, Hitler sent Skorzeny to Hungary when he received word that the country's Regent, Miklos Horthy was secretly negotiating his country's surrender to the Red Army. This surrender would have cut off a million German troops fighting in the Balkan peninsula. Skorzeny, in another daring "snatch" operation, kidnapped Horthy's son Nicolas and forced his father to abdicate as Regent. A pro-German government was installed in Hungary and fought with Germany until that country was overrun by the Red Army.
Two months later, Skorzeny led a panzer brigade of German soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge disguised as American soldiers in an operation known as Operation Greif. A handful were captured by the Americans and spread a rumor that Skorzeny was leading a raid on Paris to kill or capture General Eisenhower; this was untrue, but the Americans believed it and Eisenhower was confined to his headquarters for weeks.
He spent the first two months of 1945 commanding regular troops in the defense of the German province of Pomerania as an acting major general. For this defense, Hitler awarded him Germany's highest military honor, the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross.
Skorzeny surrendered to the Allies in May and was held as a prisoner of war for more than two years before being tried as a war criminal for his actions in the Battle of the Bulge. However, he was acquitted when a British colonel testified in his defense that Allied commando forces also fought in enemy uniform. Still, he continued to be held until he escaped from a prison camp on July 27, 1948.
He settled in Fascist Spain with a passport granted by its dictator, Francisco Franco and resumed his prewar occupation as an engineer. In 1952, he was finally cleared by the German government of any wrongdoing in the war, which enabled him to travel abroad. Later on, he worked as a consultant to the Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser and the Argentine dictator Juan Peron, and is rumoured to have assisted several of his friends in the SS escape arrest in the years after the war.
Skorzeny died a multi-millionaire in Madrid in 1975.