Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice

How German war criminals evaded justice.

Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice
Gerald Steinacher
Oxford University Press, 416pp, £20

The title of Gerald Steinacher's inquiry into how Nazi war criminals escaped from Europe at the end of the Second World War may echo the title of the comedy film Nuns on the Run, but that's as far as the laughs go. This is a scholarly, sober and troubling study, based on interviews with some of the surviving players and exhaustive research in a wide range of archives.

Steinacher demolishes the myth of the Odessa organisation. The idea of a well-heeled groups of ex-SS men devoted to saving their hunted comrades came into existence when the Americans became worried that the Nazis would ship plundered loot abroad to fund a Fourth Reich. This turned out to be fantasy, but the "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal picked it up and used the notion to explain why so many Nazi criminals had got away. Wiesenthal in turn inspired Frederick Forsyth to write The Odessa File. It was all nonsense. The truth was more prosaic, and all the more shocking.

Even before the war was over, SS men were preparing their escape. They used existing networks and agents to plan the exit routes. Bonds forged in battle or in Allied POW camps provided the basis for mutual aid, but where could they go? The Allies had occupied Germany and were in control of its borders. Yet there was one extraordinary corner of Europe that could have been designed for fleeing Nazis.

South Tyrol was a short step from southern Germany. To reach it entailed crossing two frontiers, but the Austrians did not look too closely at who was passing through, and there were long-established smuggling routes leading into Italy. Jews in flight from the Third Reich had previously used the same safe houses, passes and guides. When Adolf Eichmann set out from Germany in 1950, dressed in South Tyrolean costume, the system "worked like clockwork". He later recalled, "Once it was the Jews - now it was Eichmann."

After crossing the border, Nazi functionaries and SS men could relax. The people of South Tyrol were ethnically German and identified fiercely with German nationalism. In December 1945, the Allies had turned the peninsula over to Italian control, but the Italian security services were grossly inadequate. The government in Rome believed that the best solution to the presence of thousands of refugees and displaced persons was to let them go where they would.

The towns of Merano (Meran, in German) and Bolzano (Bozen) became hubs for the escapees and those aiding them. The Fascist mayor of Termeno (Tramin) was happy to hand out residence certificates that enabled fugitives such as Josef Mengele to get ID cards. The region had been a base for wartime forgers, who kept up the business, now supplying papers to men who needed a new identity. It was hardly a secret; even the local newspaper noted that South Tyrol was an "Eldorado" for former Nazis.

Northern Italy was special for another reason. In the final weeks of the war, Allan Dulles, the representative of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) in Switzerland, had negotiated the surrender of German forces in that theatre with the SS general Karl Wolff. Dulles thereby ended the fighting earlier than in northern Europe and developed channels of communication with high-ranking SS officers. As Dulles was already looking to rehabilitate Germany as an ally against the rampant Soviet Union, these initial connections would prove doubly useful - to both sides.

Eventually American intelligence organisations would help wanted Nazi war criminals to escape. At first, though, the Germans had to make their own way. They took advantage of the chaos when the fighting stopped and the presence of millions of people, sloshing around the continent without any official papers. Although the United Nations Relief and Rescue Administration and its successor, the International Refugee Organisation, would assist only "genuine refugees", citizens of the defunct Third Reich and ethnic Germans could get emergency travel passes from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

For sound humanitarian reasons, the headquarters of the ICRC in Geneva sent thousands of blank passes to the Red Cross offices in Rome and Genoa. Local officials hugely abused the system. The identity checks on applicants were superficial at best. Nazis were able to get affidavits from church organisations that were supposed to be assisting refugees from Catholic countries. However, the Pontificia Commissione di Assistenza (PCA), based in the Vatican under the supervision of the papal secretary of state Giovanni Montini, was interested mainly in helping anti-communists flee the Soviets.

Steinacher provides damning evidence of Vatican complicity. Montini - who in 1963 became Pope Paul VI - permitted Bishop Alois Hudal of Austria, Monsignor Krunoslav Draganovic of Croatia and Father Eduard Dem­öter, a Hungarian, to run aid committees that were used blatantly by fleeing Nazis and Nazi collaborators. In the Diocese of Bressanone (Brixen), Bishop Johannes Baptist Geisler threw open church properties and monasteries to shelter them. In return, many SS men allowed themselves to be rebaptised. Steinacher argues convincingly that this procedure was part of a Vatican strategy to re-Christianise Europe.

American intelligence agents soon joined the clients of the PCA. By mid-1946, they were uncovering "ratlines" and their operatives, in order not to shut them down, but to evacuate men whom they perceived as potential assets. These were former German officers who once ran agents behind Soviet lines or knew Russia well. The beneficiaries included Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyon", and Walter Rauff, who had pioneered the use of gas vans.

Most of the fugitives aimed for Argentina, which was recruiting technicians and scientists among Germans who wanted to leave Europe. Here, Steinacher draws heavily on the work of Uki Goñi and the Argentinian commission, established in 1997, which researched Nazi activity in the country. He criticises the "one-sided focus on Argentina as a Nazi refuge", but gives little information about other choice destinations such as Syria and Egypt. Nor does he add much about those who reached the US.

The author could also have furnished more context on what was known about the fugitives at the time. The main efflux was under way before the completion of the Nuremberg Trials, with all they revealed. Until the trial of Einsatzgruppen commanders in 1947, few Allied officials had much idea which SS officers were responsible for the mass shooting of Jews in Russia or ghetto clearances. The list of escapees, including Franz Stangl, Eduard Roschmann, Josef Schwammberger and Otto Wächter, is stunning - but how many of them were as notorious then as they became?

Steinacher is undoubtedly correct to see the cold war as critical to American behaviour, but he fails to note that fugitive Nazis in Italy had little to fear from British intelligence, either, though for different reasons. Whitehall was so concerned with stopping European Jews getting to Palestine and Palestinian Jews getting to Europe (to attack British targets) that it had little energy or resources to spare for the likes of Erich Priebke. However, these are minor omissions from a well-written book that is packed with startling information and grubby stories about the moral cost of political exigency.

David Cesarani is a professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide