JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ
How did so many Nazis and Nazi collaborators manage to escape Europe after World War II? Who helped them flee and why? What routes did they take on their way to freedom?
These and other questions are answered in painstaking detail in a new book, Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice, by Gerald Steinacher, an assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The book, originally written in German, was translated into English by Oxford University Press and hit bookstores last month. The Jewish Press recently spoke with Steinacher.
The Jewish Press: According to your book, a great many Nazis escaped Europe through Italy. Why Italy?
Steinacher: Because the Allies were in Germany and Austria but had retreated from Italy. There was no Allied government there after December 1945, so once you were in Italy, you were free. This is one reason. The other reason is that for many people from Eastern and Central Europe the ports in Italy were just the closest in terms of geography.
Who gave Nazis the travel documents they needed to escape?
The International Committee of the Red Cross. They were in charge of giving documents to [the 12 million] Volksdeutsche – ethnic Germans – who were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe after 1945. But there was one condition for obtaining these documents, and this was that the person had to be stateless.
So war criminals like Eichmann, Mengele, and many others went to Italy and, once there, stated, “I’m an ethnic German from South Tyrol, Italy and I am stateless.”
Why would someone from South Tyrol, Italy be considered stateless?
That’s a good question. South Tyrol is a border region. It’s in Italy but it’s mostly German speaking. It was annexed to Italy after the first world war (it had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for hundreds of years) and in 1939, as part of Hitler’s policy with Mussolini, the South Tyrol minority in Italy was given a choice: They could stay and become completely Italianized or they could become German citizens and move to the Reich or some newly annexed territory. Most of them became German citizens.
At the end of the war, this agreement between Hitler and Mussolini was not recognized by the Allies and these South Tyrolans were considered stateless like most ethnic Germans from Eastern and Central Europe.
But didn’t the Red Cross realize that some of these “South Tyrolans” applying for travel documents were in fact former Nazis?
They did. But you have to realize that the Red Cross had no, or at least not much, experience with issuing travel documents and they were completely overwhelmed. They told the Allies and the Italian authorities: “We don’t want to do this job anymore because we are not the police. We can’t screen the backgrounds of these people. We have to take for granted whatever these people tell us. If Adolf Eichmann tells us he is Richard Klement from South Tyrol and he’s stateless and he wants to go to South America to start a new life, we have to believe him.”
My interpretation is they realized there was massive abuse, but they thought, “We are still helping many, many normal refugees who need these travel documents to start a new life. There may be some black sheep with Nazi backgrounds among these refugees, but the majority are innocent people.”
How many travel documents did the Red Cross issue?
Around 120,000-140,000 between 1945 and 1950.
How many “black sheep” were among them?
It’s extremely difficult to give exact numbers. One reason is definition. Are you only looking at Austrians and Germans who were perpetrators of the Holocaust? Then you have very small numbers. If you look at Austrians and Germans who were Nazis or in the SS, but maybe not technically or legally perpetrators of the Holocaust, then of course the numbers are much higher. And if you also include collaborators and fascists from all over Europe – from the fascist regimes in Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Belgium, Ukraine, or Vichy, for example – then you have tens of thousands of people. So it depends very much on definition.
What was the role of the Vatican in all this?
The Vatican relief commission for refugees worked in close cooperation with the Red Cross. A Nazi would come to the Red Cross with a reference letter from the Vatican commission, and say, “I’m stateless, this is my name, date of birth, location of birth” and so on, and the Red Cross officials wouldn’t ask questions because the recommendation came from the Vatican.
That’s how Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, escaped Europe.
Why would a Vatican official give Stangl a letter of recommendation?
In this particular case the official was a bishop by the name of Alois Hudal, who was known to be very pro-Nazi. In 1937, Hudal had written a book by the title The Foundations of National Socialism, which he sent to Hitler with a dedication.
But members of the clergy helped Nazis for various reasons. Some of them did it because they were former Nazis; others because they were pro-fascist; and others out of religious motivations. They said we want to help these people come back to the herd. They got lost; we have to bring them back into the church and forgive them. Christian mercy also played a role. In fact, there were some clergy who helped Jews hide during the war and then helped Nazis escape after it – both times acting out of mercy.
What’s your take on Pope Pius XII?
Well, I don’t think he was “Hitler’s Pope,” but it’s clear that he was very anti-communist and anti-communism played a crucial role in all of this. The fear of a communist takeover in Italy was widespread after 1945. There was a strong communist party in Italy, and the possibility that Rome – the heartland of the Catholic Church – would become communist was a horror scenario for many people inside the Vatican. So there was a strong motivation to help anti-communists even if they had a Nazi background.
In 1945 the Nazis were gone, but the communist enemy was still there and more dangerous than ever before.
You write in the book that the CIA also helped former Nazis escape Europe. Why would the CIA do that?
Again, you have to keep in mind the background of the early Cold War. These Nazis were anti-communists and the new enemy was the communists. The United States thought some of these Nazis could be useful. They didn’t have experts on the east who knew the Ukrainian, Yugoslavian, Italian and French communists, for example. But there were people who knew these communists and these were former German intelligence officers.
But this is a complete myth. There is no evidence of it whatsoever. Such a perfectly- and centrally-organized organization with these powerful means never existed. It’s an invention by Simon Wiesenthal and Frederick Forsyth, who wrote The ODESSA File, which was a best-selling novel – and later made into a movie – based on Wiesenthal’s reports.