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The Flight from Justice: Historian Gerald Steinacher on How Nazis Fled Europe after World War II

At the end of the Second World War, thousands of Nazi Party members, war criminals and collaborators fled Europe and escaped arrest and prosecution for their role in war crimes including genocide.  Perpetrators such as leading Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann and Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele were on the run after the defeat of Germany in 1945.  They eluded justice with the assistance of sympathizers as well as the knowing or inadvertent aid of overwhelmed and imperfect humanitarian, religious and political institutions.

In his new book, Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice (Oxford University Press), historian Dr. Gerald Steinacher reveals how war criminals and collaborators evaded justice after the war.  He begins his account by debunking the myth of a secret ODESSA organization that assisted fleeing Nazis.  He then traces their actual escape methods and routes, especially through Italy, and investigates the involvement in particular of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Vatican and the U.S. intelligence agencies.  The book is a study of intrigue, duplicity, chaos, human smuggling, Cold War dread, anxious nations, and overburdened institutions. 

Nazis on the Run has been praised for its meticulous research.  Historian Richard Breitman called the book “The latest and broadest effort to dispel the fog of myths regarding the fate of Nazi war criminals after World War II.  This is a work based on careful and impressively wide research; it is a reliable guide to a controversial and fascinating subject.”

Dr. Steinacher is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  He was a Joseph A. Schumpeter Research Fellow at Harvard University during 2010-2011 and in 2009 a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.  He is an affiliate at the Institute of Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck (Austria).  From 2000 to 2011 he worked as historian at the State Archives of Bolzano in Northern Italy.  He is the author of numerous publications on German, Austrian and Italian twentieth-century history, with a focus on Italian Fascism, National Socialism, the Holocaust and intelligence history.

Dr. Steinacher recently discussed his research and findings by telephone from his office at Harvard University.

Robin Lindley:  What sparked your meticulous study of Nazis who fled justice after World War II?

Gerald Steinacher:  I was an historian for the last 12 years in northern Italy, in Bolzano, near the Italian-Austrian border.  Being an historian there, I was interested in National Socialists and Italian fascists in this border area where they met.  When the first studies in the 1990s appeared on the escape of perpetrators and war criminals after 1945 (especially the groundbreaking book by Uki Goñi), researchers mentioned that people like [Adolf] Eichmann and [Josef] Mengele got new identity papers and new identities essentially in these border regions, and in Bolzano especially.

 I was wondering what in the world this wonderful, beautiful Dolomites mountain region had to do with perpetrators of the Holocaust like Eichmann, Mengele and the others.  It took me five years to figure it all out.

Robin Lindley:  What was your research process?

Gerald Steinacher:  First, I studied regional history to understand why these people went to South Tyrol and why this border region became a Nazi loophole. 

Then I had a wider focus.  I realized Italy in general was important because these war criminals and SS officers went through Italy to leave Europe and to escape justice and start a new life.  I had to do more and more research, not only in regional archives but also in more international archives, especially in Switzerland in the archives of the International Red Cross in Geneva, and also in the United States in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  The research became wider and wider, and away from a regional or national history  to a transnational history because I realized, to put all the pieces together, I could not just focus on the region.

Robin Lindley:  As with many history projects, it must have been difficult to know where to stop your research.

Gerald Steinacher:  It was very difficult, because I realized some historians had focused on individual aspects of this larger topic.  For example, some U.S. historians focused on the intelligence history:  why the U.S. intelligence services, the CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) and the CIA used or recycled some of these war criminals and/or SS officers to fight the new enemy, the communist Soviet Union.  So some historians, especially in the U.S., focused on this aspect.  Other historians looked at individual cases like Eichmann, Mengele, and others.  And some historians focused on Argentina as a destination country, and its government under Juan Peron and his policies. 

All these elements were important pieces of the puzzle.  But what I wanted to do is have a more complete picture.  Now we have a better idea of how these people actually got out of Europe—how they got identity papers and new identities and which routes they used, what transportation, and what institutions helped them, and so on.  And I finally realized I had to come to a conclusion.  Otherwise, you could go on forever.

Robin Lindley:  Did you do many personal interviews?

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes, especially with the people from the Catholic Church, and people who were close to Bishop Alois Hudal in Rome, a key figure in helping some of the worst perpetrators escape from justice.  I talked to people who were people smugglers who helped not just perpetrators, but refugees and survivors of the Holocaust, to reach Italy.  This helped me get a better sense of what they were doing to help these people.

Robin Lindley:  What should have happened to the escaping Nazis, and who do you include in those who left Europe?

Gerald Steinacher:  I tried to come up with some definitions, and this is one of the most difficult things to do because you have perpetrators and war criminals, some of them convicted and some not, and then you have SS officers and soldiers, and Nazi Party members, and a large number of collaborators from all over Europe—not just Germany and Austria, but from Croatia, Russia, Ukraine, Slovenia, Belgium and France.  So there are large numbers.

I’m not saying all of these people were criminals in a legal sense, but in a moral sense, if they were part of the SS or part of the whole machinery of oppression and terror and horror and discrimination and war, then these people have moral [responsibility], at least from our point of view now.

It’s extremely difficult to draw the line.  But I was more interested not in what the people actually did, but how they got away.  And the structure is the same, whether the structure Adolf Eichmann used or a simple soldier of the SS.  It’s the same system, and I was interested in the system and how it worked, not the individual cases, although I had to describe individual cases to give examples of how it worked.  I was interested in how they got out, how they got Red Cross documents, how they were issued.  We didn’t know anything about the Red Cross involvement at all, and that’s the real interest. 

Robin Lindley:  You begin the book by debunking the idea of a central ODESSA organization that helped Nazis escape. 

Gerald Steinacher:  Recent research shows that the ODESSA organization was a myth that said this organization operated worldwide with endless financial support—Swiss bank accounts, gold here and there—and centrally organized.  All of these things are not true.  There’s no evidence whatsoever that such a centrally-organized group with these funding possibilities ever existed.  The myth is based more or less on a few documents from post-war years about a small group of men in an Austrian prisoner-of-war camp.

Later on, Simon Wiesenthal used the ODESSA “tool” to keep the idea alive because he was living in a time when no one was interested anymore in these “old stories.”  It was the Cold War and there were these Nazis out there living new lives without being held responsible. 

Simon Wiesenthal was a lonely voice, especially in Austria, and many people hated him for that.  They didn’t want to be reminded.  And ODESSA was a tool for him to keep this topic alive.   Of course, Frederick Forsyth’s novel and then the movie based on it, The ODESSA File, became very popular.  To this day, when I tell people I’m writing about these perpetrators—SS officers and so on—they immediately respond, “You’re writing about the ODESSA?”  Of course I say no, such an organization never existed.

But people liked the idea of an ODESSA because it’s an easy explanation for a complex issue, but there is no evidence of such an organization.

Robin Lindley:  It seems some people embrace conspiracy theories because, as you say, they provide an easy explanation. 

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes.  When you look at the books of Simon Wiesenthal, he states certain things such as meeting in 1944 in Strasburg of high-ranking officials of big German industries such as Krupp , but these meetings never happened.  Some of these people who allegedly met, according to Wiesenthal, were already dead.  

Robin Lindley:  Why did so many Nazis escape through Italy after the war?

Gerald Steinacher:  One thing is very important.  Most of the Nazis or criminals in a legal sense did stay in Germany and Austria.  After the war, it was popular to say that the people responsible for the war and the Holocaust killed themselves, like Hitler and others, or were tried by the Allies or by German and Austrian courts, and all the others escaped overseas.  Many people were happy to have this ODESSA notion that all the others escaped and [in Europe] there was nobody anymore.

Robin Lindley:  But the Nazis who did escape tended to leave through Italy, as you point out in your book.

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes.  Look at the geography.  For people who wanted to leave Europe in Austria and Germany after the war, Italy was very close.  The Italian seaport of Genoa is the closest seaport if you’re in southern Germany or Austria.  By December 1945, the Allied military government was abolished in Italy, so there were no military controls.  Once people got to Italy, they  could travel freely.  The situation was much different in Austria and Germany with occupation forces for many years.  The Allied forces strictly controlled overseas traffic in cities like Hamburg, which was not attractive for people who wanted to escape with unofficial travel documents. 

But once in Italy there were no such Allied checks, and nothing to fear, especially after 1947 when the Cold War became hot and Italy was not interested in these people anymore.  In addition, Italy was full of refugees of all kinds, and it was easy to hide among these refugees from all over Europe, including many ethnic Germans from central and eastern Europe who were expelled after 1945.  The Italian government just wanted to get rid of these refugees as soon as possible. 

Italy was also one of the first battlefields of the Cold War in Europe.  In the election of 1948, Italy had one of the strongest communist parties in Europe, and the Catholic Church and the Pope were terrified of a Communist victory in the election.  All these elements made for a safe haven for Nazis and Italian fascists.

Robin Lindley:  You explore in depth for the first time the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross in providing travel documents to fleeing fugitives.

Gerald Steinacher:  This is new.  The Red Cross is very helpful now and they support my research.  They also were very surprised to learn about the travel documents because there was no [earlier] research.  Nobody knows where [the travel documents] came from, when they were introduced, the conditions to get the travel documents, where they were issued, who issued them, how long were they issued, which countries recognized them.

I have some answers in my book.  It’s clear that the Red Cross was overwhelmed by the refugee situation after the war, and taking care of refugees was not a mandate of the ICRC.  They were in charge of prisoners of war.  Because of the humanitarian emergency, especially with the ethnic Germans, the Red Cross helped.  A consequence was a massive abuse and misuse of these travel documents not just by high-ranking Nazis, war criminals or SS members, but also by common criminals, as these travel documents were so easy to obtain.  You needed nothing.  There was no screening.  You gave your name and perhaps you had a letter of recommendation from the Vatican or a priest, and then you got a document that was valid and recognized by many countries.

In the correspondence at the time, official documents sometimes referred to “Red Cross passports,” although they weren’t passport.

Robin Lindley:  Did the leadership of the ICRC know of the use of their documents by war criminals and fleeing Nazis?

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes, they knew about it.  The State Department also was very concerned about it.  The U.S. Ambassador in Berne had meetings with the Red Cross about how the travel documents could be used by the wrong people and there were hardly any checks.  They were screaming that the whole process was ramshackle to the extreme.  The U.S. government was worried about the situation and they knew that problematic figures with a tainted past and criminals would use the documents.

But the Red Cross was in a dilemma if you read between the lines about these meetings.  Let’s say they had one hundred refugees, simple people who lost everything and survived and now wanted to find a new life overseas.  Some countries were welcoming these people, but these people had nothing and they needed travel documents.  They had no documentation.  They could save only their lives—that was it.  We have maybe one guy among these one hundred with a problematic background or was a former SS member or Nazi, but should we stop helping the others just because of one case?  Very difficult decisionmaking.

 It’s important with the many humanitarian emergencies now that we learn from the Second World War experience and screen for problematic people and invoke checks, because it could happen again. Among simple refugees may be the perpetrators who use humanitarian help to escape justice, as in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Robin Lindley:  Some people may be surprised that the ICRC helped prisoners of war but not concentration camp victims.

Gerald Steinacher:  The ICRC’s work is based on the Geneva Convention, and the Geneva Convention of 1929 was designed for prisoners of war.  With civilian nationals of all kinds, such as German Jews in concentration camps, the Red Cross had no legal authority to intervene.  These prisoners would be considered an internal affair of Germany.  

Now there are possibilities of humanitarian intervention and state sovereignty is not everything, thankfully.  But in the 1940s, that was not the case.    

Robin Lindley:  In contrast to the Red Cross, it seems the Catholic Church and the Vatican systematically offered assistance to fleeing Nazis.

Gerald Steinacher:  We have to be careful.  The Catholic Church—and its leadership at the Vatican—is a large, international organization, and there are many voices and many different positions.  But there is no doubt that some people in the Catholic leadership and some ordinary parish priests were helping Nazis, Fascists, perpetrators and war criminals to get out of Europe.

These priests and bishops had different reasons, and you have to look case-by-case to find the reason.  In some cases it was political, as in the case of Bishop [Alois] Hudal or the priest Krunoslav Draganovic in Rome.  They were pro-Fascist and believers in the National Socialist cause before the war. 

And there were some Catholic priests and bishops who helped out of forgiveness, and the notion of forgiveness is very strong in the Catholic Church.  Whatever these people had done, they were forgiven so they could start a new life, and it was not the job of the Catholic Church or the Catholic clergyman to be a judge and bring these people to justice, which was the job of the Allies or the national governments.  This was the religious position of some priests on forgiveness to bring people back to the Church.  Many ordinary Germans became Nazi party members and left the Church, and then came back to the Church after the war.  These brown sheep were re-accepted in the Catholic Church and brought back to the herd.

So there were religious and political motivations.  And, of course, very important was the strong anti-communism of the Pope and those close to him.  The Nazis and the Third Reich were gone.  Hitler was dead.  The only remaining enemy was communism.  And while communism was far away in Moscow, there was a very strong Communist Party in Italy.  When you read the Catholic correspondence in Italy and the U.S., the fear of a communist takeover is extreme.  This played a very important role.

Robin Lindley:  What was the character of aid that the Catholic Church offered the traveling Nazis?

Gerald Steinacher:  Like the Red Cross, the Vatican set up an infrastructure for travel documents for refugees.  Also, they had a Vatican Commission for Catholic Refugees in Rome after the war, and it would work with refugees in close cooperation with the Red Cross. 

The system was simple.  The Vatican would issue letters of reference for refugees.  The person seeking travel documents would hand over the letter of reference to the International Red Cross, and the Red Cross would issue travel documents based on information stated in the letter of reference without any checks or screening.  They would believe what the bishop or Vatican Commission for Refugees would state.  It was a sort of ping pong system.  When someone said there should be checks, the Vatican Commission for Refugees would refer to the Red Cross [and vice versa]. 

It was a simple system that helped not just with obtaining travel documents but also often helping refugees such as Eichmann, who had no money, and he could stay in a monastery while waiting for money and travel documents to travel overseas.   Also [the Church] provided food, clothing and sometimes money for travel.

Other people had enough funds, such as Josef Mengele at Salzburg, a perpetrator of the Holocaust, who had money from his family and would stay in hotels, not in a monastery.   People on the run, especially if they were Catholic, would seek help from the Church.

Robin Lindley:  How much did Pope Pius XII knew about the Church’s assistance to refugees?

Gerald Steinacher:  He was very interested in the Vatican Commission on Refugees, and he ordered this set up.  One of his closest aides, Giovanni Montini, was head of the Vatican Commission on Refugees, and Montini later became Pope Paul VI, and he would never forget that most of the money for the Vatican Commission on Refugees came from the U.S. Catholic Church. 

Robin Lindley:  Did the Pope know the Church was assisting former Nazis?

Gerald Steinacher:  I don’t know.  One thing I do know is that the understanding of guilt or responsibility was very different at that time.  People then believed that those responsible for the war and the Holocaust and the other horrible crimes were a handful of leaders such as Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels and so on, and most of the others only followed orders.  That was the widespread perception at the time, and now we have a completely different understanding of responsibility.

At the time, many priests had no sense of doing something wrong.  That’s very important to understand.  And many of these former Nazis made careers in Germany and Austria in the government, in public service, and in business, and it was considered normal.  Only much later, [after] more trials, such as the [1961] Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, did things slowly change, and especially after the end of the Cold War. 

For many years, the perception was that a small group was responsible [for war crimes] and the majority, including SS officers and Wehrmacht generals, were just doing their duty.  Nobody now would say the Wehrmacht didn’t commit any crimes.  We know now that they were involved in war and other crimes, and there is no doubt about that.

Robin Lindley:  Wasn’t there a recent exhibit in Germany on the war crimes of the Wehrmacht?

Gerald Steinacher:   There was an exhibit in the 1990s and it was revolutionary and controversial.  Many people had the idea of a “clean Wehrmacht,” a “clean army,” and of course that was not the case.  But in the 1950s and 1960s that was a popular idea and a picture of the recent past that people wanted. 

Robin Lindley:  With a historical study, it seems you must place yourself in the context of the period you study.

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes.  Now you ask why would these priests help Nazis or the SS.  In the context of the time, most of these priests had probably no bad conscience at all about helping.  Bishop Hudal in Rome would say he is just helping anti-Communist fighters who are fighting for Europe against the Bolsheviks.  He was playing the anti-Communist card.  In the 1950s, he said he was acting out of Christian mercy and forgiveness.  So it seems some of these people were completely convinced they were doing the right thing with no sense of guilt at all. 

Robin Lindley:  You also write of the role of the U.S. and the CIA in recruiting Nazis and SS members for intelligence and other duties.

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes.  This has been well researched in the past few years, especially with the release of formerly classified CIA documents at the National Archives since the Cold War.  The U.S. recruited not just former Nazis and SS members, but also people who were war criminals and perpetrators.  Even those people were “recycled,” as I call it, to fight the new enemy.

Robin Lindley:  Were these people recruited mainly for espionage?

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes.  Mainly for espionage and their knowledge of the communists. Karl Hass, for example, had a lot of knowledge about the Italian communists.  In France, Klaus Barbie, head of the Gestapo in Lyon, was an expert on French communists.  And you had Wilhelm Hoettl in Austria who was an expert in central Europe.  All of these people had useful knowledge.  And some didn’t have useful knowledge, but said they did and lied to the Americans in order to be hired and protected from prosecution.  Some of them were really useful and some were not. 

You have to keep this picture in mind.  During the war, you had the OSS [U.S. Office of Strategic Services].  At the end of 1945, it was disbanded and its trained agents were sent home.  The U.S. was left with no functioning, experienced intelligence agency, especially for foreign intelligence.  The CIC, the Counterintelligence Corps of the U.S. Army, was put in charge but it had to improvise.  They had little experience in active intelligence gathering in Eastern Europe and were completely overwhelmed by the new situation, which may explain why they hired these people.  They didn’t have the personnel and they were desperate. 

Robin Lindley:  Was Allen Dulles, the first CIA director, aware of U.S. hiring of war criminals?

Gerald Steinacher:  Of course.  He himself was protecting war criminals and perpetrators of the Holocaust.  One of the  most famous cases was Karl Wolff, an SS general who was a deputy of Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS.  Karl Wolff surrendered at the end of the war in Northern Italy and made a secret deal with the Americans.  And Allen Dulles was very thankful and promised Karl Wolff protection. 

Robin Lindley:  The case of rocket scientist Werner von Braun and the use of slave labor for the German rocket program is rather well known in the U.S.

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes.  That’s another side of the story.  Of course, manufacturing and the war industry was destroyed in Germany, but the minds were still there.  A lot of progress was made in armaments and rocket technology.  Everybody wanted to get German experts, and not just the United States.  The French, the British and the Soviets all wanted German experts in various fields, not just in the military.  Also, countries like Argentina wanted German experts for modernizing their [economy].  All of these countries wanted German experts, and the experts did not have a future in Germany.  There were no jobs and much was destroyed.  If they had SS backgrounds they could have faced problems post de-Nazification, and they were willing to accept an invitation.

Robin Lindley:  Why was Argentina so welcoming to the fleeing Nazis?

Gerald Steinacher:  There are a couple of reasons.  {Argentine President] Juan Peron was pro-German and pro-Italian.  He admired Mussolini and the fascists.  He was an exchange officer in Italy for one year so he knew about fascism and he was fascinated.  So there was a certain sympathy for these people.  Then he wanted to modernize his air force, so he welcomed German experts.  And in Argentina, there were traditionally three large ethnic groups: the Spanish-speaking immigrants, the German-speaking immigrants and the Italian-speaking immigrants.  There were always strong German and Italian communities, so there were many possibilities for these immigrants after 1945.

Robin Lindley:  Weren’t Russians also recruiting ex-Nazis?

Gerald Steinacher:  Yes.  Everybody was recruiting.  Every country that could wanted to get German experts.  And many continued working in the GDR (German Democratic Republic in East Germany).  And the Soviets, during the Cold War, wanted to set up an Eastern German army to face the West Germans.  The West Germans did the same. They started with officers from the Wehrmacht.  They needed these experts.

Robin Lindley:  What would you like people to take from the book?

Gerald Steinacher:  My hope is that people understand there are no easy answers.  We like to have explanations like ODESSA and conspiracy theories, but the reality is much more complicated.  And maybe one more thing comes from the book:  how the perception of guilt and responsibility have changed over the years. 

Robin Lindley:  What’s your next project?

Gerald Steinacher:  I’ll be writing about the Red Cross and the Holocaust and the constraints on aid for Jewish victims.  Thankfully, the Red Cross supports my research and they are interested in learning more about what happened [during the war].