> Holocaust Studies > Issues

Nazis on the Run

June 6, 2013 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

How Nazis evaded justice with the help of the Vatican and the Red Cross.

What happened to the Nazis after World War II? How many Nazi officials who sent millions of Jews and others to their deaths paid a penalty? How many Nazis evaded justice and resumed ordinary life, late or never acknowledging their crimes, or paying for the misery they caused?

While the Allies’ Nuremberg Trials judged some high-ranking Nazi officials, and national trials in Germany, Austria, and other countries tried many more, thousands of Nazi soldiers, SS-soldiers and collaborators and sympathizers were never tried. Some simply resumed civilian life. Others – including many high-ranking and infamous Nazi war criminals – were helped in starting new lives – and even assume new identities – by some of the most trusted institutions in Europe after the War.

When Professor Gerald Steinacher was growing up in the picturesque Austrian Tyrol, known for its quaint resorts and Alpine skiing, he heard little about his country’s Nazi past. That began to change in the 1980s, when Kurt Waldheim ran for Austria’s presidency. As he was running for president, many young Austrians were shocked when Waldheim’s wartime activities – which he had managed to keep carefully hidden – came to light. Steinacher decided to become a historian of contemporary history, making studying the Holocaust his profession.

“I wanted to know what happened to Austrian and other Nazis after the War,” Steinacher, now a professor in the United States and author of the ground-breaking book academic Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice, told “In Austria, there were not that many people who wanted to know.”

Debunking the Odessa Myth

One person who did want to know was Simon Wiesenthal, the Austrian Jewish “Nazi hunter” who compiled information on hundreds of former Nazis. In the 1980s, there were few other role models. Steinacher remembers that Wiesenthal “was really hated by many Austrians being a lonely voice in the Austrian desert. He wanted to keep this topic alive.”

Odessa was a myth. The truth was both more surprising and disturbing than fiction.

One way was to promote the “Odessa” theory. Supposedly a secret organization founded by former SS officers, “Odessa” was credited with helping Nazis evade justice and escape from Europe, building new lives in South America or the Middle East. British novelist Frederick Forsyth brought this theory to life in his 1972 novel The Odessa File, and a 1974 film adaptation cemented “Odessa” as the prime explanation of how thousands of Nazis managed to escape justice.

But as Steinacher delved into the history of how Nazis managed to leave Europe, he found that Odessa was a myth. The truth was both more surprising and disturbing than fiction: some of the most prestigious actors in post-World War II Europe actively worked to help Nazis escape prosecution and start new lives abroad.

New IDs and Fresh Starts

For Steinacher, the truth was also personal. Many Nazis’ first stop in their escape was the South Tyrol, his home. “They adopted this Tyrolean identity – they became ‘us’. It was very personal; I realized that many people – including my parents and grandparents – never confronted this past.”

From there, it was easy to assume a new identity, and travel along established smuggling routes into the Italian Alps – and from there to the Italian port of Genoa, where many Nazis sailed to new lives abroad.

To illustrate the warm welcome fleeing Nazis often received, Steinacher documents the case of former SS member Karl Schedereit. After World War II, he escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp, and made his way to the Italian Alps. He described his experience there, in the village of Graun:

‘My standard German will betray me,’ (Schedereit) thought. The friendly, grizzled farmer came over to him with a full glass of red wine in his hand. ‘You have come over the border? Don’t worry, son, there are no…Italians here, just Germans! Prost (drink up)!”

As Steinacher dug through historical documents, he found that some of the most notorious Nazis blended into South Tyrolean communities after the War. The town of Tramin, an Italian municipality, was especially receptive to fleeing Nazis, and the provincial leaders had probably amassed blank ID forms for years for use in case Nazis and Nazi sympathizers ever needed them. In addition, a number of forgery rings operated in the mid-1940s in South Tyrol, pumping out documents that fleeing war criminals and Nazis could use to procure new identities.1

  • Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz physician whose experiments on Jewish prisoners remains one of the more grotesque legacies of the Holocaust, reinvented himself in Tramin as “Helmut Gregor,” a mechanic.2
  • Adolf Eichmann stayed in a number of “safe houses,” including a Franciscan monastery, and eventually was issued new ID by Tamin officials identifying him as “Ricardo Klement.”3 Even though his accent was clearly not Tyrolean, Steinacher notes, “the locals obviously didn’t ask him unpleasant questions.”
  • Josef Schwammberger, the commandant of Rozwadow concentration camp who was known for his “lust for murder” and killed hundreds of Jews – many with his bare hands – escaped to the Tyrol after World War II. His escape was especially shocking, as the police in Innsbruck and the border control at Brenner – two notorious smuggling sites – were on high alert to find Schwammberger. Nevertheless, he was welcomed in his Alpine hometown of Brixen, and given false ID, which enabled him to emigrate to Argentina.4

At a time when millions of refugees were on the move throughout Europe, it was all too easy for wanted Nazis to blend into the teeming masses of travelers. In the South Tyrol, however, many former Nazis found something more: a warm welcome, in some quarters, and local officials who turned a blind eye to mysterious backgrounds.

Complicity in the Vatican

A 1947 memo from the American embassy in Rome reported “The Vatican of course is the largest single organization involved in the illegal movement of emigrants” out of Europe after World War II.5

Historians have long known that the Catholic Church vouched for some former Nazis – even some accused of war crimes. Steinacher’s research has uncovered a far more complex, nuanced picture of the Vatican’s role after World War II.

Welcoming former sinners back to the Church seemed a higher calling than turning them over to war crimes investigators.

One powerful factor in the Vatican’s actions in helping Nazi war criminals was its desire to promote absolute forgiveness, rather than turn Nazis over to Allied justice. “You don’t understand us, but we did the right thing,” Steinacher was told again and again in his research, as he spoke with senior Church officials who helped former Nazis escape justice. For them, welcoming former sinners back to the bosom of the Church seemed a higher calling than turning them over to war crimes investigators. (Few churchmen seemed to question whether the new-found Catholic zeal of many of the former Nazis they were aiding was genuine or not.)

Vatican archives are only accessible for the years until 1939, but Steinacher was able to interview officials who were in positions of power and close to Church decision-makers in the immediate post-war years. “Denazification through baptism clearly operated on the margins of church doctrine,” Steinacher observes, but it did motivate some Catholic officials to overlook the war crimes in these new returnees’ pasts, and gave Church officials incentives to help certain Nazis evade arrest. Millions of former Nazis in Germany and Austria were welcomed back and embraced by their Christian churches again.

Many Vatican officials also felt that lower-level Nazis didn’t bear responsibility for war crimes; only a handful of leaders, such as Hitler and Himmler, were responsible for atrocities. Beyond that, Steinacher maintains, many Vatican officials believed that most Germans – including former Nazi officials – were victims, not perpetrators of the war. Pope Pius XII, who was Pope during and immediately after the Holocaust, had spent 13 happy years in Germany before World War II, and identified closely with the German people. Steinacher posits the Pontiff felt comfortable aiding Germans, whose worlds view he largely shared, even if some of the individuals he helped hid unsavory pasts. The Pope definitely saw the Nazi-regime as an enemy of the Catholic Church, but in 1945 Nazism was no threat anymore.

Much of the Vatican’s actions, too, stemmed from its anti-Communist stance. After World War II, Pope Pius XII saw Communism – both in the Soviet Union and in Italy’s strong domestic Communist political party – as the single greatest threat to the Catholic Church. Aiding former [anti-Communist] Nazis collaborators especially from Eastern Europe – whose right-wing views were seen as a counterweight to left-wing Communist sentiments – was one way to shore up anti-Communist feeling.6

In some cases, Steinacher has uncovered troubling instances of complicity between Vatican officials and Nazis.

  • After the liberation of Rome by American forces, some Georgian priests received permission from the Pontiff to open a Georgian seminary in Rome. Months later, US forces noticed that many of these “seminarians” appeared to have girlfriends. Searching the seminary, they found the students were in reality hiding SS officers, who appeared to be running a state of the art radio station in the cellar.

  • Bishop Alois Hudal, Rector of the College of Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome, saw a direct correlation between Catholic and Nazi values and goals, and identified closely with Germany under Hitler. A fervent Hitler admirer and anti-Semite, Hudal set up organizations in Rome after World War II that issued IDs for former Austrian and German Nazis. Incredibly, Hudal’s activities for "refugees" were supported by the American Catholic Bishop’s Conference, which approved a monthly payment of $200 for support.

  • Monsignor Krunoslav Draganovic assisted Croatian Nazis escaping Europe. Headquartered in the Monastery of San Girolamo in Rome, a number of high-ranking Nazi war criminals received refuge there and were issued with new IDs. (Shockingly, American forces – which had monitored Draganovic’s monastery closely, hoping to arrest senior figures – pulled back in 1947. In that year, the CIA was founded, and Draganovic was seen as a useful informer and contact in the new spy agency’s anti-Communist work in Central Europe.)

  • At local levels, too, there were many contacts between individual Nazis and local priests. In 1946, for example, there was a mass escape at the Rimini POW camp in Italy; as they worked to round up the escaped prisoners, American forces found that SS members were being sheltered in local monasteries and given Red Cross travel papers.

Collusion of the Red Cross

Finally, the issuance of new IDs would have been useless without travel documents that the Swiss based International Red Cross issued to stateless refugees in Europe after World War II.

“The majority of people who approached the Red Cross were legitimate refugees,” Steinacher described to “They were ethnic Germans who were expelled (from Poland, the Soviet Union, and other countries) and lost everything. But because the Red Cross didn’t do checks – no checks at all, basically, a number of Nazi criminals and their collaborators from all over Europe were able to fraudulently obtain the documents as well. “ The number of stateless people in Europe following World War II approached 30 million. Clearly, given the chaos and confusion of that time, it was difficult to verify the claims of each “stateless” applicant.

Steinacher was one of the first researchers to examine the Red Cross archives.

The Red Cross archives in Geneva were closed until the 1990s, when Steinacher was one of the first researchers to examine them. What he learned shocked him.

“Anti-Semitism was very widespread at the time,” he explains. “With the end of World War II it did not just appear overnight. I was nonetheless surprised by the amount of religious anti-Semitism inside the Catholic Church,” Steinacher recalls, and “also among heads of humanitarian organizations,” such as Carl Jacob Burckhardt, president of the International Red Cross. “Burckhardt did not only identify the German people as victims in 1945, but also seemed to have blamed Jews for their suffering.”

In the six years after the end of World War II, the Red Cross issued 120,000 travel documents, with only the most rudimentary background checks, or at times, no checks at all. In many cases, Vatican officials told the Red Cross whom to furnish with travel documents. Red Cross documents also circulated on the black market, available to anyone who was able to pay for passage out of Europe.

How many Nazis were issued travel documents during this period? Steinacher says it’s impossible to say, but guesses the numbers are in the tens of thousands.

  • In 1946, the Red Cross issued travel documents to an entire division of Ukrainian Waffen-SS: 11,000 men and women, some of whom had served as concentration camp guards – and their families. Ukrainian Archbishop Ivan Buchko petitioned the Pope to help this group escape; after receiving a Papal blessing, Buchko petitioned the Red Cross for 9,000 travel documents. The Red Cross issued the documents, and the Ukrainians left Europe, most destined for Canada.7
  • Another example of Red Cross travel documents is seen in the case of Hermann Duxneuner, a provisional administrator from Innsbruck, who took on himself the “de-Judaization” of Tyrol, providing lists of Jews for murder and deportation. He asked for and received a Red Cross travel document good for travel to Holland or Brazil in 1946, but he couldn’t use it. He was actively pursued by Allied forces as a war criminal, and remained in hiding. Nevertheless, in 1948, the Red Cross issued this wanted war criminal a new document, this time allowing him to travel to Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium” – any port which would take him in. Duxneuener eventually moved to Argentina.8

Steinacher wants readers to know the enormity of the Red Cross’ collusion. “In my research,” he says, “I show this isn’t an oversight – this wasn’t a bureaucratic error. Most of these people (wanted Nazis) travelled on their real names, with their real birthdates. The only thing that wasn’t real was their nationality – which said they were stateless because the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) would only give travel documents to stateless people.”

Pursuing Justice

While researching the flight of Nazis from post-War Europe, Steinacher initially worked for the Italian Military Prosecution Office, which investigates war crimes. With the end of the Cold War, he explains, there was finally renewed political will to investigate these old cases.

One case he worked on was Erich Priebke, who shot 335 Italians in a reprisal killing in March 1944. Priebke had emigrated to Argentina long ago, but was extradited to Italy. “I was looking up old archival materials to get proof about these old men,” Steinacher recalls, “and I asked myself: what are you doing, Gerald? Why didn’t we arrest them 50 years ago? Why now? Is this justice?”

There is no shelf-life for justice.

In the end, Steinacher says, he answered the question as a historian. “We produce a lot of new material that is going to be used in research in the future,” he explains. “Bringing Nazi war criminals to justice helps us understand the Nazi period better. Witnesses tell their stories, new research is performed.”

“It’s delayed justice,” Steinacher says. “Most of these people lived their lives, they are very old. But if you read my book, if you look at (the original war crimes trials at) Nuremberg, that was very selective justice too.” Steinacher cites the example of Karl Wolff: Himmler’s deputy until 1943, when he became head of the SS in Italy. Wolff was not prosecuted by the allies – he was at Nuremberg – but only as a witness. He didn’t even have to leave Europe; he didn’t have to escape: he resumed a career as a weapons dealer in southern Germany in the 1950s. Yet if Wolff and thousands of people like him escaped justice, Steinacher believed, it was no excuse not to pursue others.

The Torah demands of us: “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deuteronomy 16:20). There is no shelf-life for justice. Steinacher’s ground-breaking research shows us that, though it might be late, though it might be partial, we still have it in our power to understand how so many Nazi war criminals evaded justice and, in some cases, even bring closure as the very final war crimes trials of World War II conclude.

  1. “Una banda di falsari presente all’appuntamento: Il sequester di valuta italiana e straniera per un ingente valore nonché della attrezzatura per la compilazione di carte d’identitá” Alto Adige, 1 May, 1947, p. 2, quoted in Nazis on the Run.
  2. Pierangelo Giovanetti, “La salvezza arrive da Termeno”, l’Adige newspaper, 30 July 2003, p. 15, cited in Nazis on the Run
  3. “Eichmanns gefalschter Pass entdeckt”, Der Spiegel, 30 May 2007, cited in Nazis on the Run
  4. Aaron Freiwald, Martin Mendelshohn, The Last Nazi: Josef Schwammberger and the Nazi Past [New York: Norton 1994], quoted in Nazis on the Run.
  5. Vincent La Vista to Herbert J. Cummoings, 15 May 1947 (top secret), NARA, RG 84, Austria, Political Adviser, Gen. Records 1945-55, entry 2057, box 2,2, cited in Nazis on the Run
  6. Phayer, Michael, Pius XII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008
  7. Klewe, Ernst, Persilscheine und faalsche Passe: Wie die Kirchen den Nazis halfen (Frankfrut am Main: Fischer, 1991), cited in Nazis on the Run
  8. The political representative of the Austrian government in Rome, Dr. Buresch, to Vice Prefect Giuseppe Migliore in the Minitry of the Interior and with an accompanying letter to Conte Vittorio Zoppi, Direttore Generale degli Affari Politici, Ministero Affari Esteri, Rome, 21 December 1946, ACS, Int. D. G., P. S., Div. AA. Massime 14, “Istruzione di Polizia Militare”, file 83, folder 69, cited in Nazis on the Run

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram