Wish you were here: the Church, the Red Cross and the Nazis' great escape

HISTORY: Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice, By Gerald Steinacher, Oxford University Press, 416pp. £20

HISTORY: Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice,By Gerald Steinacher, Oxford University Press, 416pp. £20

ON JULY 14TH, 1950, a German “technician” whose forged papers declared him to be “Ricardo Klement” arrived in Argentina. Despite his disguise, the Argentinean authorities were well aware that “Mr Klement” was, in fact, Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for coordinating the eastward deportations of millions of European Jews to extermination camps during the second World War. Eichmann was not the only senior Nazi official who managed to escape prosecution by fleeing to South America: several other serious war criminals, including the former Auschwitz camp doctor, Josef Mengele, had similarly evaded justice and left behind their old lives for a fresh, care-free existence in the New World.

The story of fugitive "Nazis on the run" is not really a new one, but it has been subject to numerous elisions and distortions ever since it first came to the world's attention in the 1960s. According to the most widely known conspiracy theory about the mass escape of Nazis to South America – first circulated by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and then popularised by Frederick Forsyth's best-selling thriller The Odessa File– these flights were organised by a secret society of ex-SS men named ODESSA (Organisation of Former SS Members), which paid for forged visas and travel costs with money stolen from their Jewish victims.

In his new book, Nazis on the Run, the Austrian historian Gerald Steinacher deconstructs this version of events. After six years of intensive research on the subject, Steinacher concludes that ODESSA never really existed as a centrally organised network. Instead, he offers a detailed and chilling analysis of the three organisations that were in fact largely responsible for facilitating the escape of German war criminals: the International Red Cross, the Catholic Church, and the American CIA. Steinacher emphasises from the start that the motivations of this unlikely coalition of escape route facilitators can only be understood against the backdrop of the start of the Cold War, during which Communism seemed a much more pressing problem than prosecuting former Nazis, however implicated they were in the Holocaust.


The CIA’s attitude towards ex-Nazis – and in particular to former SS “intelligence experts” – was essentially pragmatic: after Germany had been defeated and relations with the USSR had begun to deteriorate, the CIA was willing to give exit visas and new identity papers to middle-ranking Nazis in exchange for valuable intelligence information on the new Soviet enemy.

Even more intriguing is the role played by the Red Cross. In a genuinely fresh contribution to the subject, Steinacher establishes that the International Red Cross issued about 25,000 new identity documents to men whose past was often more than dubious. Although this assistance primarily came from individual Nazi sympathisers within the organisation, Steinacher argues that all senior members of the International Red Cross knew about the misappropriation of identity documents. In particular, he demonstrates that the two presidents of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the post-war decades, Carl Jacob Burckhardt, and his successor, Paul Ruegger, consciously decided to turn a blind eye to the frequent abuse of Red Cross identity documentation, largely because of their latent anti-Semitism and anti-Communism.

The Catholic Church’s involvement in the escape of ex-Nazis is, by comparison, well known. It has long been established that individual Nazi sympathisers within the clergy, such as Bishop Alois Hudal in Rome and the Archbishop of Genoa, Giuseppe Siri, actively supported the flight of Nazi war criminals. However, Steinacher disputes the Vatican’s insistence that these men were misguided black sheep within an otherwise unblemished institution.

Instead, Steinacher argues that the “aid programme” for ex-Nazis within the Church was systematic and intentional, and that it has to be understood in the context of the Catholic Church’s post-war crusade for a re-Christianisation of Europe.

Fearing the emergence of a “godless” Europe full of pagans and communists, the Church was willing to help Nazi war criminals – many of them lapsed Protestants who had left their church in the 1930s – if they converted to Catholicism. Steinacher’s argument that the Vatican pursued a systematic policy of “de-Nazification through conversion” to Catholicism is unlikely to gain him many friends in Rome, but he provides plenty of evidence for his theory.

Steinacher’s painstaking reconstruction of the main escape route (which led from Innsbruck across the Alps to Genoa or Rome) underlines the heavy involvement of the Catholic clergy. Along the way, numerous monasteries provided shelter for men on the run and 90 per cent of the Nazis that escaped used that route before they embarked on a passage to South America.

Argentina, in particular, became the preferred destination for Nazi refugees. According to Steinacher’s estimate, at least 350 high-ranking Nazis escaped to Argentina. The Argentinean dictator Juan Perón even hoped to attract up to half a million Germans after the war, notably military experts. New immigrants primarily had to fulfil two qualifications: they had to be skilled labourers or academically trained experts; and they were not allowed to be Communists. Ex-SS officers usually fulfilled both criteria. A Nazi past was not a requirement for an immigration visa to Argentina, but it was certainly no obstacle either.

Steinacher’s book focuses on Argentina, but it also offers intriguing new perspectives on other “safe havens” in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. The post-war journey of former SS colonel Walter Rauff, who invented the mobile gas vans used to kill thousands of Jews along the Eastern front, exemplifies the transnational dimension of Nazi escape routes: after the war, he was first hidden by Bishop Siri of Genoa, before fleeing to Damascus in 1947. In late 1949, he used Red Cross documentation to move to Ecuador, where he worked for Bayer pharmaceutical company. In the early 1960s, Rauff retired to Santiago de Chile, where he died peacefully in 1984.

North Africa and the Middle East also proved to be very popular destinations for ex-Nazis, most notably after the fall of Perón’s regime in 1955, which made Argentina a much less hospitable place for them.

At least three dozen Nazi refugees found a new home in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran, where active participation in the Holocaust was not always seen as a terrible thing. But there were also individuals who were not prominent Nazi perpetrators who found new lives abroad due to employment opportunities; one example being the Austrian engineer, Walter Hassler, presented in the book as an example of a skilled labourer in demand after the second World War.

During the war, the Nazis had established links with influential Muslim circles, including the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who actively supported the German crusade against the Jews. After the war, such connections continued. The former Nazi agitator Johann von Leers, for example, was recruited by Nasser to offer his “know-how” for anti-Israel campaigns sponsored by the Arab League.

Although much has been written in the past three or four decades about the escape of senior Nazi personnel from prosecution in post-war Europe, Steinacher’s book stands out as the first “total history” of this complex topic.

He uses a wealth of sources – memoirs, secret service papers, the files of the Red Cross and the Pontifica Comissione Assistenza – in order to substantiate his provocative but ultimately well documented claims. In so doing, he has raised the bar for all future studies on this subject.

Robert Gerwarth is director of UCDs Centre for War Studies (ucd.ie/warstudies)