Unearthing Nazi Ratlines
1948. A mere three years after the end of the most devastating and grim war known to humankind; a chief kingpin, who basked in the glory of being in Hitler’s inner circle, successfully escaped from a prison in Linz, Austria.
Franz Stangl, a former SS-Haupsturmführer (a high ranking official of Hitler’s secret police) and Commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka concentration camps, was responsible for the systematic genocide of more than one million Jews. Through Florence, he made his way to Rome where he was welcomed with the following words “ You must be Franz Stangl - I’ve been expecting you.” The man in question, Bishop Alois Hudal, a fellow Austrian, would go on to hand him forged documents that would permit Stangl to travel to Syria, where his family would eventually join him. Emigrating to Brazil in 1951, the man who played a key role in the most brutal genocide in recent human history would spend his next years assembling cars at a Volkswagen plant near Sao Paulo. Franz Stangl is one of the thousands of Nazis and abetters who, with the help of covert organisations and clandestine escape routes called ‘ratlines’, would one-up fate and walk away from their past, scot-free.
They were known as ‘Ratlines’, a system of surreptitious escape routes for Nazis and other Nazi abetters fleeing Europe following the backwash of the Second World War. More than 10,000 German transgressors were believed to use these ratlines in the early years after the war. They ultimately led to the sanctuary and relatively obscured havens in South America including Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Bolivia as well as the United States and Switzerland. There were two primary routes - the foremost being from Germany to Spain and then Argentina (the Iberian route) and the other being from Germany to Rome to Genoa and then, South America (the Vatican route). These ratlines were sustained by underground organisations like ODESSA - an organisation of former SS members - and some contentious clergy of the Catholic Church, most notably the Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal and Priest Krunoslav Draganović.
Almost 90% of Nazi perpetrators who escaped are believed to have fled across the Alps to Italy, under the patronage of Hudal and Draganović. They would hide in monasteries for years, collecting money to escape overseas. Sometimes, the Nazis were accommodated right next to their former victims: Jews heading to Israel. Nazis who were granted a letter from the Catholic Church, by the contentious Godfathers looking over their shoulders, were given passports by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which issued almost 120,000 papers till 1951. Eichmann, also known as the ‘Architect of the Final Solution’, was so grateful for the assistance that he is believed to have claimed to become ‘an honorary member of the Catholic Church’ despite being a Protestant. Whilst there is no definite evidence for the existence of the nefarious ODESSA ( codename for Organisation of Former SS members ), if the rumour is to be believed, they were responsible for rescuing Mussolini from imprisonment in 1943.
Adolf Eichmann’s new passport, under the alias Riccardo Klement
However, it wasn't just former Nazis and Nazi sympathisers who were running the ratlines across Europe. The American and British secret services helped some Nazis escape by recruiting them as spies. With the rampant rise of communism in Eastern Europe, former Nazis served as informants on communist activities. In Britain’s 1988 all-Parliamentary report, Britain was described as “a haven for men who had willingly worked with the Nazis and committed atrocities against Jews and other civilians during the war.” USA’s Operation Paperclip aimed to seize as many German scientists as possible, in the wake of the looming Cold War. The American Counter Intelligence Corps ( CIC ) with the assistance of Draganović helped Gestapo functionary Klaus Barbie, known as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, escape and used him as an informant despite knowing his implication in crimes against the French Resistance and Jews.
After the war, it was Argentina of all places that welcomed thousands of Nazi war criminals including the likes of Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann, under the Juan Peron regime. So the question that remains to be asked is: Why on Earth would Argentina want these men? During the war, Argentina favoured the Axis side given its close ties with Germany and Italy. Nazi Germany cultivated this sympathy, promising important trade concessions following the war. Peron’s government was a fan of the fascist fanfare of Nazi Germany - the uniforms, the parades, and the institutionalised anti-Semitism. Many Nazis scattered to the neighbouring countries of Chile, Paraguay, and Brazil following the fall of Peron’s regime in 1955, fearing that the new anti-Peron government would extradite them to Europe. Adolf Eichmann, chief architect of the genocide, was snatched off the streets of Buenos Aires in 1960 by Mossad agents and then sent to Israel, where he was tried, and consequently executed. Josef Mengele, known as the ‘Angel of Death’ for his horrific experiments on Jewish children, would drown in 1979.
The manhunt for these fugitives would continue with some Holocaust survivors seeking justice for these criminals. Of those, Simon Wiesenthal would go on to become the face of ‘Nazi hunting’ in the 20th century. Following the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp, Weisenthal worked with ally authorities to trace Nazi escapees and would go on to help capture many of them. Some of his famous feats include the capture and extradition of Eichmann and Barbie, and the reveal of many Nazis living in the United States including Mrs. Russell Ryan, a housewife from New York, who had been Hermine Braunsteiner during the war, a cruel SS guard at a concentration camp. The Simon Wiesenthal centre, named in his honour, serves as a human rights organisation known for Holocaust research and remembrance, and for combatting anti-Semitism.
Efforts to bring Nazi perpetrators to justice persist even today, albeit slowly. Most war criminals are over 90 years old but this does not deter Efraim Zuroff, born 3 years after the war, and seeks these fugitives to this day. The face of Nazi-hunting in the 21st century, the nature of his work involves locating former nazis, gathering evidence to build a case, and ensuring a trial. Describing himself as “ the only Jew who prays for the good health of the Nazis”, he believes that, “They’re old but still guilty.” Spanning 40 years, he has submitted names of more than 3,000 suspects to 20 countries. He watched his biggest catch, Dinko Sanič, commandant of a Croatian concentration camp, laugh as he was being arrested in 1998, after hiding in Argentina for more than 50 years. He is currently focusing on apprehending nazi collaborators in the Baltic states.
Almost 75 years after the war, the pursuit of justice carries on and although all the war criminals might never be brought to justice, their unfortunate freedom will serve as a grim reminder of a past that should never have happened and the need to prevent it from ever happening again.