Nazis on the Run
How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice
University Press 2011
When I was a kid I loved movies about Nazis who had escaped justice after the war. There was “The Marathon Man” (“Oh, don’t worry. I’m not going into that cavity. That nerve’s already dying.”). There was “The Boys from Brazil” (“The right Hitler for the right future! A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s, 90s, 2000!”). And there was “The ODESSA File” (“Germany believes she doesn’t need us now…but one day she’ll know that she does!”). “The ODESSA File” was my favorite because it explained what really happened, how the evil Nazis formed a super-secret group (Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angeheorigen) to get themselves out of Germany so they could one day return to power.
The trouble is that’s not what happened at all. In fact, there was no ODESSA. In 1947, someone tricked Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal into believing “ODESSA” existed (he was quite willing to be tricked). Then Fredrick Forsyth amplified the myth in his book “The ODESSA File” (1972). Then Hollywood gave the story the full Hollywood treatment in movie “The ODESSA File” (1974). Hollywood tricked me into believing it existed (I was quite willing to be tricked).
If you want to know the truth about how the Nazis got away, read Gerald Steinacher remarkably thorough Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice (Oxford University Press, 2011). He shows that there was a sort of conspiracy to get the Nazis out, it just wasn’t very conspiratorial. Even before the war the Nazis (and the SS particularly) were thinking about how to get away from the crumbling Reich. They talked to one an other, made contacts abroad, and traded tips. After some experimenting with various routes, they determined one was far and away most effective: through Austria, into Italy, and then overseas. They had a lot of help. Some of it was for hire, for example in South Tyrol where a kind of Nazi-smuggling industry arose. Some was gratis, for example that offered by a German bishop in Rome. Add some bungling by the International Red Cross, some skullduggery by the OSS, some complicity by foreign powers (e.g., Argentina) seeking German “experts,” and–just like that–the “Ratlines” were clear and known to anyone paying attention. Steinacher shows that no ODESSA-like organization was necessary for the Nazis to escape. All they had to do was follow the well-trodden, clearly marked path that lead away from justice in Europe and into safety abroad. That’s more disturbing than ODESSA.