The Church, the Red Cross and the Nazis' great escape

Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice, By Gerald Steinacher, Oxford University Press, 416pp. $A49.95

The story of fugitive "Nazis on the run" is not really a new one, but it has been subject to numerous elisions and distortions ever since it first came to the world's attention in the 1960s.

According to the most widely known conspiracy theory about the mass escape of Nazis to South America, flights were organised by a secret society of ex-SS men named ODESSA (Organisation of Former SS Members), which paid for forged visas and travel costs with money stolen from their Jewish victims.

In his new book, Nazis on the Run, the Austrian historian Gerald Steinacher deconstructs this version of events. After six years of intensive research on the subject, Steinacher concludes that ODESSA never really existed as a centrally organised network.

Instead, he offers a detailed and chilling analysis of the three organisations that were in fact largely responsible for facilitating the escape of German war criminals: the International Red Cross, the Catholic Church, and the CIA.

The CIA's attitude towards ex-Nazis – and in particular to former SS "intelligence experts" – was essentially pragmatic. More intriguing is the role played by the Red Cross. The Catholic Church's involvement in the escape of ex-Nazis is, by comparison, well known.

It has long been established that individual Nazi sympathisers within the clergy, such as Bishop Alois Hudal in Rome and the Archbishop of Genoa, Giuseppe Siri, actively supported the flight of Nazi war criminals. However, Steinacher disputes the Vatican's insistence that these men were misguided black sheep within an otherwise unblemished institution.

Instead, Steinacher argues that the "aid programme" for ex-Nazis within the Church was systematic and intentional, and that it has to be understood in the context of the Catholic Church's post-war crusade for a re-Christianisation of Europe.

Fearing the emergence of a "godless" Europe full of pagans and communists, the Church was willing to help Nazi war criminals – many of them lapsed Protestants who had left their church in the 1930s – if they converted to Catholicism.

Steinacher's argument that the Vatican pursued a systematic policy of "de-Nazification through conversion" to Catholicism is unlikely to gain him many friends in Rome, but he provides plenty of evidence for his theory.

Although much has been written in the past three or four decades about the escape of senior Nazi personnel from prosecution in post-war Europe, Steinacher's book stands out as the first "total history" of this complex topic.

FULL REVIEW: Wish you were here: the Church, the Red Cross and the Nazis' great escape (The Irish Times)


Vatican helped Nazis escape after war, book claims (CathNews)

Gerald Steinacher

US Holocaust Museum

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