- Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice by Gerald Steinacher
Scholarship on the postwar escape of thousands of former Nazis and fascist collaborators long lagged behind popular fascination with the subject. Like many others, I found books such as Ladislas Farago’s Aftermath and Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File captivating thrillers, all the more so since they were fact-based. Even those with a serious and consequential stake in tracking former Nazis could not always resist sensationalism. On flimsy evidence, Simon Wiesenthal promoted the myth of “ODESSA” as a clandestine organization of former SS officers, a myth that would not only provide the title and subject of Forsyth’s best-seller, but, as Gerald Steinacher points out in his important new study, offered the public a “serviceable symbol to keep alive public anxiety and outrage about conniving former SS-men and the impunity of their actions” (p. xvii).
This situation has changed in recent years. While sensationalism endures, European, American, and South American historians and journalists have scoured [End Page 510] archives around the world—energized by the declassification or opening of numerous collections—and are providing a more detailed narrative cartography elucidating how so many criminals escaped Europe after the war. What have we learned from this outpouring of research? For one thing, there was no “ODESSA,” as Heinz Schneppen and Uki Goñi demonstrated conclusively—though without question former SS-men aided and protected their own very effectively. As Steinacher argues, five interrelated factors—rather than any shadowy conspiracy—intersected to ensure the escape of so many Nazis and their collaborators.
The first factor was the geography and politics of Italy, especially the border region of South Tyrol, in the aftermath of defeat and occupation. Not only was most of the region’s population German-speaking, but its mountainous terrain and ambiguous political status made it uniquely suitable for hiding and for escaping to the nearby ports of Genoa and Trieste. It became, in one of the book’s memorable phrases, “the Nazi Bolt-Hole Number One,” through which—to name only the best-known cases—Erich Priebke, Josef Schwammberger, Adolf Eichmann, and Josef Mengele would escape (p. 33).
Steinacher identifies the three organizations most responsible—the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a “Vatican network,” and American intelligence services—demonstrating how these worked together to facilitate escapes. The author’s research on the ICRC is his most significant contribution. He shows that the ICRC became the most important source of the crucial false papers. Anxious to be relieved of refugees, the Italian government eagerly granted the documents official recognition. Catholic Church relief organizations in Italy provided various forms of assistance, up to outright protection and smuggling of individuals or helping fugitives hide their identities with Red Cross travel documents; these services often required conversion, or at least re-baptism (“denazification through baptism,” p. 148). The fourth factor was American intelligence services, above all the OSS and the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), both of which protected and recruited former Nazis for their—often imaginary—value as intelligence assets. Steinacher reveals how some fugitive Nazis benefitted from assistance by all three sources.
The final factor was governments willing to shelter hundreds of such fugitives. While noting that many fled to and settled for long periods in Spain, Syria, Egypt, Canada, and the U.S., Steinacher singles out Argentina as “the most popular refuge for Nazi criminals” (p. 211). In many ways, the country was ideal: it had a large German-speaking population and a right-wing leader who demonstrated a fondness for fascism and who desired to “modernize” his nation with the help of German “specialists.” Once again, various factors contributed: “the Catholic Church provided … shelter, the Red Cross supplied the documents, and the [Argentine consulate] in Genoa distributed the visas” (p. 233).
Its sensationalist title notwithstanding, Nazis on the Run is the most thoroughly-researched scholarly study now available. Steinacher has synthesized recent scholarship [End...