What did the Nazis do after World War II

Country Profiles Migration: Data - History - Politics

Gerald J. Steinacher

To person

Gerald J. Steinacher is Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the USA. Previously, he was at Harvard University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. active as Research Fellow. One of his most important publications is the book “Nazis on the run. How war criminals escaped overseas via Italy ”, published in 2010 in German by Fischer Verlag. The English edition, published by Oxford University Press, won the US National Jewish Book Award in 2011.

After the end of National Socialism, Nazis, members of the SS, collaborators and fascists fled the post-war justice system. Many came to Argentina via Italy. The Red Cross, the Papal Auxiliary Commission and the Argentine government played an important role in the escape.

Forged passport of Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann, which he presented when he entered Argentina in 1950. After 1945, Argentina was one of the most sought-after escape destinations by Nazis in order to evade criminal prosecution. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, Cezaro De Luca)

After the end of the "Third Reich", some leading National Socialists were tried by the International Military Court in Nuremberg. Later it was captains of industry, diplomats, SS officers, doctors, lawyers and generals who had to answer for their crimes in twelve follow-up trials in Nuremberg. These trials, which symbolically brought the elites of the Nazi state to justice, lasted until 1949. There were also a number of other war crimes trials in Europe, in Germany for example in Dachau with 1,700 accused. But thousands of Nazis, SS members, collaborators and fascists from all over Europe fled to Spain - where the fascist dictatorship under Francisco Franco had been established - or overseas to escape punishment and start anew at work.

It is widely known that Argentina was one of the most sought-after escape destinations by Nazis after 1945. The discussion about how this Nazi escape took place, however, was shaped more by fiction than by facts until recently. One example of this are conspiracy theories surrounding all-powerful secret organizations that SS criminals are said to have smuggled into Argentina. So there is still the notion that after the war, former SS members united to form the secret organization "Odessa". Current research shows that reality was far more complicated - but no less exciting. [1] Nazi networks did exist, but they were by no means omnipotent and centrally controlled. In addition, their goal was usually not, as is often assumed, the establishment of a "Fourth Reich", but rather to protect Nazi perpetrators from prosecution and to build a new existence for themselves and their families. Such networks alone were not enough: After the end of National Socialism and the beginning of the Cold War, there were a number of institutions and governments that helped the National Socialists and their collaborators to restart.

Italy as a hub overseas

Most of the SS members, accused and war criminals chose to escape via Italy, which from 1946 functioned as a hub to North or South America, Spain or the Middle East. In order to understand the situation in Europe at that time in the immediate post-war period, one must be aware of the chaos of those years. Millions of the uprooted were on the move: displaced 'Volksdeutsche' (members of German-speaking minorities) from the East, Nazi collaborators and anti-communists from Eastern Europe, deserters, prisoners of war, soldiers and survivors of the Holocaust. Italy offered people from Central and Eastern Europe with Trieste and Genoa the closest overseas ports. After the Allied military government in Italy was largely disbanded in December 1945, the Italian authorities wanted to get rid of the uprooted as quickly as possible. The presence and care of homeless people from all over Europe was seen as a burden in war-torn Italy. Therefore - and also because of the prevailing chaos after the war and civil war - there were only slack controls at the borders and in the hinterland.

This escape route was no secret at the time: Italian, Swiss and German newspapers reported repeatedly about the Nazi escape routes around 1948. [2] Especially the border region of South Tyrol became a popular stopover on the way to Genoa and played an important role as a 'Nazi loophole' through which countless war criminals - including relevant Nazi perpetrators such as Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Otto Wächter and Ludolf von Alvensleben - opened an escape route from Europe with new papers [3], it is estimated that thousands of Nazis and SS members from all over Europe fled via Italy alone.

The role of the Red Cross

International travel was not officially possible for Germans in the first post-war years - and especially for those affected by the Nazi regime - due to Allied regulations. As a result, Nazis on the run avoided contact with the authorities. You could make your way to Italy illegally and without a passport, but a valid travel document was required to travel by ship to South America. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) remedied this. Since 1945 the ICRC has issued "replacement passports" for stateless refugees, especially in Genoa and Rome. The ICRC was committed to a neutral concept of humanity and helped everyone who asked for help - victims and perpetrators alike. Further checks were not planned, and the charitable organization was overwhelmed by the crowd. The only requirement was real or alleged statelessness of the applicant. The ICRC delegates often only relied on the information provided by the travelers. Many Holocaust perpetrators used this method to get travel documents and at the same time created a new identity. Adolf Eichmann, the former head of the so-called Judenreferat, which had coordinated the murder of the Jews, and Josef Mengele, the former camp doctor of the extermination camp, acted accordingly Auschwitz-Birkenau, as stateless 'Volksdeutsche' from South Tyrol. Other Nazi criminals traveled under their real names. The former commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, Franz Stangl, only changed his first name - Franz became Paul Stangl. Even the place of birth remained unchanged. With the ICRC travel documents it was possible to travel to Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Syria or Egypt. The leadership of the Red Cross in Geneva was confronted by US authorities with the realities of Nazi smuggling as early as 1947, but reacted evasively and referred to the chaotic refugee situation and the resulting ongoing need for an identity card service. It should be noted that many Nazi perpetrators were in no hurry to leave Europe: the well-established escape route with ICRC travel documents was used until around the beginning of the 1950s. Adolf Eichmann, for example, only fled to Argentina in 1950, three years after the massive abuse of ICRC papers became known. [4]

Help to escape from the Vatican

The procurement of travel documents for the Red Cross and visas for South American states was supplemented by activities of the Vatican. During the war, Pope Pius XII. responsibility for the welfare of prisoners and refugees to the papal relief agency (Pontificia Commissione Assistenza - PCA). The organization based in Rome confirmed the identity of the refugees in a simple letter of recommendation to the Red Cross, which then (usually without further investigation) issued the 'stateless person' with a travel document. The Pontifical Relief Agency saw itself as fundamental Christian values ​​in the sense of the Good Samaritan and therefore, like the Red Cross, committed to a neutral idea of ​​humanity. All those seeking help should be helped - regardless of national origin, religion or political convictions. In addition to a humanitarian goal, it was probably also about strengthening Catholic influence worldwide. Because a prerequisite for the help was often a commitment to the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church. Quite a few Nazi perpetrators converted or returned to the Catholic faith after 1945. The church leadership had the goal of freeing the former Hitler supporters from the "false beliefs of National Socialism". Anti-communism also played an important role. Especially the foreigners department of the Pontifical Relief Organization saw itself committed to the global fight against "godless" communism. It set up a number of sub-committees to deal with the high numbers of refugees from Central and Eastern Europe. The Austrian sub-committee was headed by Bishop Alois Hudal. Hudal, a Christian anti-Semite, anti-communist, German national and Catholic theologian, willingly and knowingly helped wanted Nazi criminals to flee. The majority of the Hudal protégés wanted to emigrate to Argentina via Italy. Hudal's subcommittee was no exception. Other sub-committees (especially the Croatian and Ukrainian) worked in a similar way, providing safe havens for fascists and Nazi collaborators from across Europe.

Argentina as an escape destination

The Argentine head of state Juan Domingo Perón also promoted the immigration of Germans and other Europeans in the post-war period. Argentina - a country of immigration since colonial times and a popular destination for German-speaking emigrants even before the First World War - should be modernized. To do this, Perón needed specialists to make use of their expert knowledge, for example for arming the air force. When recruiting German skilled workers (e.g. engineers, technicians, pilots, officers), the authoritarian president competed with the victorious powers (especially the USA). In this competition, Argentina's advantage was existing contacts, as relations between Argentina and Germany had been very close since the late 19th century. Since the Argentine government knew the routes of the former Nazi elites, Buenos Aires concentrated its recruitment activities on Italy. A functioning system soon established itself on the route South Tyrol - Genoa - Buenos Aires: The Catholic Church provided accommodation, food and logistics, the Red Cross issued the travel documents and the Argentine Consulate General in Genoa issued them in coordination with the immigration authorities in Buenos Aires Visa and also paid for the ship's passage in many cases.

Perón's diplomats were happy to avail themselves of the help of Argentines of German origin. In cooperation with SS members in hiding in Italy and SS officers from South Tyrol, they organized an effective system of recruitment. The SS members had the appropriate contacts, and they often pursued their own interests. In addition to recruiting specialists for Perón, they also wanted to help their comrades escape - including war criminals who had been seriously charged. The Nazi helpers were able to act more and more freely, because the interest in criminal prosecution decreased in the Early Cold War. An estimated 300 to 800 exposed Nazis fled to Argentina from 1946. At the end of the 1990s, the state-appointed Argentine Commission of Historians reconstructed 180 biographies of prominent Nazi war criminals from Austria, Germany, Belgium, France and Yugoslavia who had fled to Argentina. The far larger number of simple SS soldiers and Nazi collaborators from all over Europe who found refuge in Argentina was not recorded. [5]

New start in Argentina

The new arrivals disembarking in the port of Buenos Aires were not always welcomed with open arms. The economy's absorption capacity was damaged by the war and the aid of the Argentine state was concentrated on top European workers. Most immigrants - Nazis as well as Holocaust survivors - went into their new life with debts and had to pay off the often advanced costs of the crossing in installments. There were also language and cultural barriers. Regardless, most of them had a solid education and were used to hardship from the war. The German-speaking community with its clubs, associations and schools also made integration easier. German companies also had a strong presence again in Argentina in the late 1940s. Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, noted that the headquarters of Siemens, Krupp and Volkswagen were "pure Nazi nests" in Argentina. [6]

But these clusters alone do not explain the extensive impunity of German war criminals in exile in Argentina. As long as President Perón held his protective hand over the Nazi criminals, National Socialists and fascists had little to fear in the country. In July 1949, Perón even issued a general amnesty for foreigners who entered the country illegally or under false names. Ultimately, however, the immigration of war criminals was more of a tolerated by-product than Argentina's official policy. Wiesenthal called Argentina the "Cape of Last Hope", and it was in many ways: The Nazi criminals could hope for a safe refuge there, and long-established German settlers said full of wishful thinking that the National Socialists were not criminals. [7] There were only a few extraditions and subsequent war crimes trials during the Cold War - the extradition of Franz Stangl and the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann were exceptions. Only in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, were there renewed efforts To hold Nazi perpetrators accountable. But by then most of them were either dead or old. There are still isolated deportations and trials against Nazi perpetrators who have fled.