The Shady History of Nazi Ratlines, Covert Programs, and the Escape from Justice

June 17, 2020Matt Fratus
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The mugshot and fingerprints of Gen. Reinhard Gehlen. Shortly after the war, under the auspices of both the United States and Britain, Gen. Reinhard Gehlen was encouraged to create Germany’s postwar spy network. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

From the largest and most sophisticated militaries in the world to small teams operating behind enemy lines, contingencies are put in place in the event a plan falls apart. When Nazi Germany fell, some of the most notorious war criminals faced justice at the infamous Nuremberg Trials, where they were tried and convicted of crimes against humanity. News cameras and reporters covered the trial of the century but noticed that other high-ranking Nazi officials were absent — either assumed dead or having mysteriously disappeared. 

Questions arose as to where these leaders could have gone, and some shady back-end deals were committed by several agencies and conspirators despite the knowledge of wartime atrocities. NASA recruited Nazi engineers and researchers in secret to help with the space program. The CIA supported the Gehlen Organization — a post-World War II intelligence network developed by Nazi General Reinhard Gehlen and comprised of more than 100 former Nazi SS or Gestapo officers — in West Germany, which was largely infiltrated by Soviet double agents. The U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) secured the refuge in Bolivia for Klaus Barbie, called the Butcher of Lyon” by the French, in exchange for his work as an informant against communist activities and his knowledge of counter-guerilla tactics.

The dark mark on history doesn’t focus solely on America’s missteps. No matter how ethical their post-World War II judgements were considering the threat of communism, many other nations were complicit in the successful escapes and providing safe passage for the most heinous war criminals of the 20th century. Those who weren’t recruited into covert programs fled using “ratlines,” or secret pre-planned routes through parts of Europe. Simon Wiesenthal, a world-renowned Nazi hunter, suspected Nazis fled to Middle Eastern nations early on.

Franz Stangl, a former SS-Hauptsturmführer and commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka concentration camps who was suspected of murdering over 1 million Jews, hid in Syria with his family until in 1951. Assisted by the Catholic Church and the Vatican in Rome, he emigrated to Brazil.

The Red Cross had the responsibility of sifting through millions of refugees’ paperwork and, knowingly or not, helped Nazi war criminals with false documents supplied by the Vatican Refugee Commission in their evasion plans following ratlines into Italy and then to Spain across the Atlantic. Some 9,000 Nazi officers were harbored in South American and Latin American countries. Wiesenthal famously tracked and brought Stangl to justice in 1967. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and Wiesenthal’s attention honed in on communities that shielded these criminals in their German towns. 

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Document under the name of Ricardo Klement that Adolf Eichmann used to enter Argentina in 1950. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When Adolf Eichmann’s wife issued a death certificate for her SS-affiliated husband in 1947, Wiesenthal grew suspicious. Ricardo Klement, the false name of Eichmann, who was the architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” passed through customs with his Red Cross passport, boarded a steamship to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950, and lived a quiet life for a decade. Wiesenthal provided information to a snatch-and-grab team of Mossad agents, Israeli’s elite intelligence service, who kidnapped Eichmann and snuck him out of the country by plane using disguises to not draw attention. He was brought to trial and sentenced to death in 1962.  

The ratlines, according to Wiesenthal, were also supported by organizations of Nazi collaborators codenamed ODESSA. Most notably, Otto Skorzeni, referred to as Hitler’s Trigger-man,” was a Nazi commando who had launched a daring rescue raid on Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s mountaintop retreat, had organized an underground ratline organization called Die Spinne, or “The Spider.” The Spider network took Nazis by plane from Paris to Buenos Aires. Argentina was the last country to declare war on Nazi Germany during World War II and an estimated 12,000 Nazis lived comfortably in Argentina, drawing cash from Swiss Banks. At one point, when the heat was too heavy on Skorzeni’s trail, he hid in a sanctuary in a small suburb of Cairo, Egypt. 

Although some Nazi officials received the justice they deserved, there are many who escaped from their past lives, some of whom still live anonymously in fear of being discovered. As recently as 2018, two new names, Alois Brunner and Aribert Heim, made Wiesenthal Center’s Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals list and will be hunted as long as they live freely amongst the rest of society.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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