Book Review: Gerald Steinacher's Nazis on the Run

How some of the most wanted SS members lied, hid and faked their way to freedom, and who helped them along the way

Top Stories | Nicholas K. Smith | December 2012 / January 2013

Peter Baer, Josef Mengele, Rudolf Höss all fled to other continents (Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Schemes and Escape Routes

On 14 July 1950, a man named Ricardo Klement stepped off a boat in Buenos Aires, ready to make a new life for himself. The 37-year-old technician from Bozun, South Tyrol was allowed to emigrate thanks to his special Red Cross documents.

To the authorities, Klement seemed like just another European moving to Argentina. To the rest of the world, he was Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust and the most high-profile Nazi to flee Europe.

In the years following WWII, many Nazi war criminals and SS members were able to escape Europe thanks to help from groups like the Red Cross and the Vatican. How and where they escaped is the subject of Gerald Steinacher’s recent book, Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice.

Thanks to Frederick Forsyth novel The Odessa File, and the film that followed, the popular myth that a secret Nazi organisation built escape routes and helped its members out of Europe is all most people know on the topic. But as Steinacher, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska, is quick to point out, ODESSA was a complete fabrication. The actual flight of Nazis was more mundane, but no less interesting.

Many escapees used Eichmann’s method: Pretend you’re from a stateless area (in this case, German-speaking, Italian-controlled South Tyrol), obtain a travel pass from the Red Cross, get help from the Catholic Church and move far away.

Steinacher devotes separate sections to each of the prevailing methods, picking apart just how easy and, more shockingly, how accepted it was for mass murderers to outsmart justice. It’s an approach that allows for an in-depth look at each case, but also leads to many repeated stories – the main fault in an otherwise interesting read.

After the War, millions of displaced people were looking for a new start. In the spring of 1945, 1.5 million foreigners made their way through Austria alone. Thousands without proper documents were caught in Italy and sent back. If you wanted to be smuggled over the Brenner Pass connecting Tyrol with its severed southern district, it would’ve cost you 500 schillings, slightly more if you were Jewish, and 1,000 schillings if you were a notorious Nazi.

The race to South Tyrol was not without justification. The territory was in political limbo from the end of WWI until 1946. If you could claim to be a stateless citizen of South Tyrol, you were eligible for a travel document from the International Committee of the Red Cross. De-Nazification was not automatic after V-E Day. Many South Tyrol Nazi mayors were still in place as late as the summer of 1945, and as such were able to issue fake residency documents.


Who’s helping whom?

Eichmann was able to obtain one without too much difficulty as was Josef Mengele, the notorious "Angel of Death" Auschwitz doctor, another well-known escapee.

Ironically, the Red Cross’ efforts to help Jews escape to Palestine also helped ex-Nazis obtain travel documents that allowed them to escape Europe. The Red Cross did little in the way of verifying identities, and while it didn’t actively help anyone escape, it was "guilty of gross negligence at the very least," Steinacher quotes journalist Heiner Liechtenstein.

The Catholic Church was also in a greyzone after the war. One popular stop was the Anima church in Rome, run by Bishop Alois Hudal, an Austrian, who tried to cosy up to Hitler during the war in order to be in a better position to fight the "godless communists". Four to five Nazis were always under the care of the "brown bishop" (Hudal’s CIA nickname), who kept them in rooms conveniently close to a secret passage to the church crypt.

Eichmann wrote: "It was curious that Catholic priests kept helping me on my journey. They helped without asking any questions. In their eyes, I was just one person among many who needed their help."

The post-war attitude that the Soviet Union was the bigger enemy serves to explain one of the book’s more shocking revelations: Governments actively sought out war criminals and SS members for future employment in the Cold War. "Usefulness rather than morality was at the top of the U.S. agenda," writes Steinacher in his book.

No sooner had the War ended than the U.S., Soviet Union and others began scooping up newly available intelligence, military and scientific talent. The most well-known of these recruits was Wernher von Braun, whose V2 rocket programme used forced labour, to head up the NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

More sinister acquisitions include Klaus Barbie, aka "the Butcher of Lyon". In 1947, Barbie was recruited to work for the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps after a stint with the British. Notoriously, the U.S. had helped Barbie through an escape route, or "ratline" in spy-speak, to South America, something that the U.S. was forced to apologise for after his arrest in 1983.

Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s endless search for these war criminals helped keep the matter in the spotlight and while there have been some successes, time and a cold trail meant many escaped justice.

Adolf Eichmann was finally caught in 1960. Josef Mengele never was.

Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice

by Gerald Steinacher

Oxford University Press (2012)

pp. 382

Order this book online

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