The real Nazi hunters: how the infamous escaped – and those who brought them to justice

After WW2, many high-profile Nazis succeeded in fleeing Europe and escaping justice for their crimes. But where did they go, and who helped them? And how were they finally held accountable? Historian Bill Niven explains more about the Nazis who eluded capture, and how they continue to haunt our culture today

Simon Wiesenthal, who became famous after World War II for his work as a 'Nazi hunter'. (Photo by: SeM/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 1950, the man now known as the ‘architect of the Holocaust’, Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann, fled Europe for Argentina. He was later hunted down in 1960 and brought to Israel. Eichmann’s abduction by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, was legally questionable (because it arguably violated Argentinian sovereignty). But his resulting trial on the charge of organising the mass deportation of Jews to their deaths in concentration and extermination camps – along with the 1963–65 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, and the showing of Marvin Chomsky’s 1978 television miniseries Holocaust – is seen as a founding moment of Holocaust memory. Amazon’s recent TV series Hunters (2020) implies, however, that we should not just be remembering the capture of Nazis, but the fact that they escaped in the first place. How did this happen?

Advertisement

How did many Nazis escape – and who helped them?

Rumour has long had it that the nefarious ODESSA, codename for a supposed ‘Organisation of Former SS Members’, sluiced Nazis out of Europe to South America – particularly Argentina, where Argentine president Juan Perón had a soft spot for Nazis. While there is no convincing evidence that such an organisation existed, there were probably smaller, largely independent Nazi groups operating to secure escape. One of these, reputedly, was ‘The Spider’, involving SS-Obersturmbannführer [assault unit leader] Otto Skorzeny, famous for rescuing Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from imprisonment in the Gran Sasso region of southern Italy in 1943.

There were various escape routes, known as ‘ratlines’. Some Nazis escaped from Denmark to Sweden, and from there to Argentina (the ‘Nordic’ route). Most, however, escaped through Italy to Argentina, either through Spain (the ‘Iberian’ route) or via Rome and Genoa (the ‘Vatican’ route). The real scandal is not that Nazis wanted to help Nazis, which is not a surprise, but that one of the key ratlines operated with the collusion of the Vatican. So grateful was Eichmann for this assistance that he claimed for himself – although a Protestant – the status of an ‘honorary member’ of the Catholic Church.

Ratlines through Italy were in part orchestrated by the Croatian priest Krunoslav Stjepan Draganović, and the Rome-based Austrian bishop Alois Hudal. Escaping Nazis were issued false identity papers which, of course, would not have succeeded without the International Red Cross, which casts a shadow over their work. Many key Nazis escaped through ratlines: as well as Eichmann, escapees also included Josef Mengele, notorious for his monstrous experiments at Auschwitz; and Ante Pavelić, the leader of the Croatian Ustaša, responsible for the deaths of over 100,000 Jews and Serbs.

Passports issued by the the Red Cross bearing false names for Nazi war criminals Josef Mengele, Klaus Barbie and Adolf Eichmann. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
Passports issued by the the Red Cross bearing false names for Nazi war criminals Josef Mengele, Klaus Barbie and Adolf Eichmann. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

It was not just Nazis and their supporters who ran ratlines. The United States Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) helped some of their postwar informants reach South America via Italy, including Gestapo functionary Klaus Barbie, the so-called ‘butcher of Lyon’. The CIC used Barbie as an informant on communist activities – even after it was known that he was implicated in crimes against the French resistance and Jews – and refused to hand him over to the French for trial. Eventually, with the help of Draganović, the Americans enabled his escape to Bolivia. The British, moreover, resisted pressure to arrest Pavelić, though they knew of his whereabouts; handing Barbie over to Josip Broz Tito, prime minister of Yugoslavia, would have meant that Ustasha agents working for the British in the campaign against Tito’s communism would have been less happy to collaborate.

The American and British secret services helped some former Nazis escape investigation by recruiting them after the war for espionage purposes. In 1988, an all-party parliamentary report revealed that Britain, as historian David Cesarani put it in his book Justice Delayed, had been a “haven for men who had worked willingly with the Nazis and committed atrocities against Jews and other civilians during the war”. As Amazon Prime’s recent drama Hunters reminds us, the Americans also brought in Nazi scientists to help build up their military research, and so did the Soviets. Operation Paperclip, for example, was a US programme to seize as many German scientists as possible in anticipation of the Cold War.

That’s not to say that the Allies had not been tracking down Nazis at the end of the war. In his 2013 bestseller, Hanns and Rudolf, writer Thomas Harding describes how his great uncle Hanns, a Jewish emigrant to Britain in 1936, joined the British War Crimes Investigation Team in 1945 and helped to find Rudolf Höss, who had served as commandant of Auschwitz. The Americans captured Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich Security Main Office, in the Austrian mountains in May 1945. The Nuremberg trials, and the follow-up trials, would hardly have been possible without efforts to arrest Nazis. Nor would de-nazification, given that the Allies, in all four zones of Allied-occupied Germany, interned some 250,000 former Nazi officials. Yet the escape to South America of many Nazis neverthless raises questions about Allied laxity.

How were Nazis hunted after WW2, and by whom?

Hunting Nazis has become synonymous with the dogged pursuit of those who escaped Allied capture and lay low for years, even decades. No organisation was more dogged than Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency which seized Eichmann. But it was the district attorney of Hessen in West Germany, Fritz Bauer, who had alerted Mossad to Eichmann’s whereabouts in Argentina. Bauer, who had fled Nazi Germany in 1935, was Jewish and homosexual, and in postwar West Germany, he fought a lonely battle to bring Nazis to justice.

The televised trial of Eichmann had helped to establish the Holocaust at the heart of Israeli identity. But by the early 1960s, Mossad lost interest in pursuing Josef Mengele, focusing instead on present-day threats against Israeli security.

The pursuit of Nazis is also associated with Simon Wiesenthal (1908–2005), an Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivor. Wiesenthal played a key role, for instance, in the capture and bringing to trial of Franz Stangl in 1967, former commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, who had escaped to Brazil. Wiesenthal has come under criticism for fabricating parts of his biography, for instance by exaggerating the part he played in Eichmann’s capture. While Wiesenthal’s biographer Alan Levy claims in Nazi Hunter that it was Wiesenthal who discovered Eichmann’s hideout, Guy Walters (in Hunting Evil) argues that Wiesenthal “played no direct part either in successfully locating Eichmann, or indeed in his capture”. Given that Wiesenthal thought Eichmann to be living in Europe when he was actually living in Argentina, Walters is probably right. But Wiesenthal’s centrality to the hunt for Nazis is undeniable, whatever his embellishments in his memoirs. He also found Nazis closer to home: in 1970, he pointed out that four members of the new Austrian government were former Nazis. He was accused by some of Nestbeschmutzung – denigrating his country by ‘fouling the nest’. But Wiesenthal’s Nazi hunting encouraged Austria to face its Nazi past.

The hidden home of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, where he fled after World War Two, c1960. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The hidden home of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, where he fled after World War Two, c1960. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Beate Klarsfeld (née Künzel) played a similar role in West Germany. In 1971, she and her French husband Serge Klarsfeld staged a spectacular, if botched attempt in Cologne to kidnap Kurt Lischka – former commander of the Security Police in Nazi-occupied Paris who was guilty of deporting some 75,000 French Jews. France had sentenced him to life imprisonment, but the West German Basic Law prohibited the extradition of Germans. The Klarsfelds were also instrumental in detecting the whereabouts of Klaus Barbie in Bolivia in 1971. Most famous is Beate’s slapping of West German Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger in 1968. “Nazi, Nazi, Nazi”, she shouted at him. (Nobel-prize winning novelist Heinrich Böll sent her 50 red roses as a sign of his approval.)

Nazi hunting in modern culture

The hunt for Nazis was motivated by the wish to bring criminals to justice. It was not really motivated by fear that ex-Nazis might launch a Fourth Reich. But in the world of culture, this is precisely the fear that drives the Nazi hunters. The most famous fictitious hunt of all is surely that of the character of German crime reporter, Peter Miller, in Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Odessa File (1972). Miller goes in search of Eduard Roschmann – who, in both his fictional and real life role – was the commandant of the Riga ghetto in Latvia, who escaped to Argentina in 1948. In the novel, Miller infiltrates ODESSA, and ultimately ODESSA’s plan to wipe out the state of Israel is foiled. If ODESSA ever existed, it certainly did not transmute from a Nazi escape network into an instrument of liquidation. But Forsyth’s novel reflected a cultural angst that saw uncaptured Nazis as the source of world threats. It was an angst heightened by constant sightings, eagerly reported in the press, not only of surviving Nazis, but of those long since dead, notably of Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann, or even of Hitler himself. Nazi spectres stalked the European imagination.

Forsyth’s novel reflected a cultural angst which saw uncaptured Nazis as the source of world threats

But the Nazi who caused the most angst was one who was indeed still alive – until 1979 – and that was the ‘Angel of Death’, Josef Mengele. He died in Brazil of a stroke, having never been captured.

Again and again it was Mengele, notorious for human experimentation of the most inhumane kind, who was summoned up in fiction and film as the embodiment of destructiveness. In Franklin J Schaffner’s film The Boys from Brazil (1978), Mengele (played by Gregory Peck) has cloned 94 Hitlers from Hitler’s DNA; while in Lucia Puenzo’s Argentinian film The German Doctor (2013), Mengele continues with human experiments in exile in Argentina. In Ernst Ritter von Theumer’s 1988 German/American horror film Hell Hunters, Martin Hoffmann, styled on Mengele and played by Stewart Granger, plans to use a spider venom to poison the population of Los Angeles until he is stopped by Nazi hunters. There are plenty of other examples. Eichmann has certainly also received his fair share of filmic representations: one thinks, for instance, of Peter Collinson’s The House on Garibaldi Street (1979), or Chris Weitz’s Operation Finale (2018). The focus on his capture and trial in these films provides reassurance, reaffirming the moment where Eichmann’s past caught up with him. The contrast to the films that evoke an untamed Mengele is striking.

There is a moment in Weitz’s Operation Finale where Peter Malkin, played by Oscar Isaac, considers strangling Eichmann, but then he desists: Eichmann must stand trial. There are no such compunctions in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) or David Weil’s series Hunters (2020). These films about Nazi hunting take us back to the war itself and the 1970s respectively, and imagine a very bloody Jewish revenge. Rough justice, of the most drastic and even sadistic kind, replaces court justice. If the avengers come to resemble the avenged, and the victims become perpetrators, are we not in danger of eliding the very fundamental ethical distinction on which hunting Nazis rests? It is a worrying question.

Advertisement

Bill Niven is professor in Contemporary German History at Nottingham Trent University. Read his review of Amazon Prime’s “Holocaust revenge saga” Hunters here