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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Ratlines: How the Nazis Escaped Europe

On 20th November 1945, a series of trials designed to draw a line under the horrors of World War II began in the German city of Nuremberg. The legal proceedings that began that day, known as the Nuremberg Trials, included charges against 199 separate accused of their role in the conflict and the Holocaust. 

But while 199 may sound like an impressive round-up of some of the most despicable humans around, it barely scratched the surface. Of those facing charges that included genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace, there were numerous high-profile absentees. Some of the biggest names had already escaped through suicide, while others had simply vanished. But over the coming years, thousands of Nazis managed to successfully evade capture and flee abroad, mostly to South America, along carefully constructed escape routes, known as the Ratlines. 

The story of the Ratlines isn’t always an easy one to tell. Firstly, a lot of the information isn’t exactly clear and often includes plenty of hearsay and vague rumours that would almost certainly not stand up in court. But the second reason is altogether darker. The Second World War was a period when right and wrong, good and evil could be conveniently separated, but those cosy boundaries began to blur as the conflict drew to a close. 

The true scope of the Ratlines has never been fully revealed but rumours, and at times outright facts, have implicated the Catholic Church, Allied secret services and communities in Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Belgium and across South America. It’s easy to assume that anything relating to the Nazis would have been vehemently opposed, especially after the extent of the Final Solution was uncovered, but unfortunately, that just wasn’t the case. In the years after World War II, thousands of war criminals escaped justice, at times helped by the very people you would have bet your house on never helping the Nazis.   

The 7th May 1945, may have brought the final surrender of Nazi Germany, but for many who were accomplices to some of the most heinous crimes ever perpetrated, the story was far from over. 

Fascism and Religion

It can be tempting to begin this story during the final stages of the most destructive and hellish conflict the world has ever seen, but the wheels were set in motion long before then. To really get an idea of how it all started, we have to begin with a relationship that from the outset might appear polarized but was far from it – Fascism and the Catholic Church. 

It’s important to begin by saying that not all fascist countries shared the same relationship with the church. In Germany, the grand uber fascist of them all, the link was considered fairly weak – though certainly still present. But in Spain, Italy and even Vichy France, the link between the far-right and the church at times ran deep – very deep. 

If that sounds like a complete oxymoron considering the terrible events that happened under the banner of fascism during the 20th Century, then you’re probably right. But you need only look at the Crusades and Inquisition to see just how nasty religious extremism can get. The church didn’t support genocide and mass murder but was often quietly – and sometimes loudly – supportive of regimes that aimed to preserve a more conservative and religious way of life.

During the Spanish Civil War, the left had been responsible for attacks on churches, priests and nuns in their attempt to establish a more left-leaning establishment, free from the rigid and traditional hierarchy that had typically placed the church at its core. The church often feared the rise of communism far more than fascism, and while it would be difficult to imagine priests and bishops openly supporting the actions of the Nazis, it was clear they were often willing to turn a blind eye if it meant preserving the church’s power.  

But I also want to caveat this section by saying that this was certainly not a blanket approach. Throughout World War II there were countless stories of members of the Catholic Church providing heroic support for those persecuted by fascism – many of whom lost their lives as a result. This is one reason why this topic has become so contentious because while many stood valiantly against the fascists in their attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, others had absolutely no qualms in aiding those responsible for mass murder.    

Early Lines

Early Ratlines

The first of what we could call ratlines were not set up to allow war criminals to escape Europe, but rather to facilitate Catholic immigration to South America – and in particular Argentina. This early line passed through Spain then Portugal, where ships departed for South America. 

But to even call this a formal line at this point would have been a stretch, if anything it was simply a fairly innocent and rudimentary plan to facilitate immigration overseas. But this is the first time we see the presence of the Vatican and it was said to be Monsignor Luigi Maglione, Vatican Secretary of State, who instigated the idea in 1942. 

It’s not immediately clear why this was set up. Perhaps the Church could see the writing on the wall already and feared the repercussions in Europe if the allies succeeded. Up until 1942, the Nazi war machine had been unstoppable, and while the year marked the beginning of the Battle of Stalingrad which would eventually shatter the aura of invincibility around the German Wehrmacht, its calamitous end wouldn’t come until 1943.

Whatever the reasons behind setting up this early route to South America, it’s important to stress that it does appear to have been established with honest intentions in mind. But as we’ll come to shortly, that honesty didn’t last long. 

Alois Hudal   

Alois Hudal
Alois Hudal 

Readership says a lot about an author, and with Adolf Hitler said to be “very much impressed” by Catholic Bishop Alois Hudal’s book The Foundations of National Socialism, you immediately get a sense of what kind of crowd he was performing for. 

Once held in high regard within the Vatican, Hudal fell out with the Church in spectacular fashion after the publication in 1937, which not only praised the Nazis but also openly questioned Vatican policies. A firm anti-communist, anti-liberal, but very much pro-far right, Hudal would go on to become one of the first key orchestrators of the ratlines. 

In 1944, Hudal held a role as rector of the Pontificio Istituto Teutonico Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome, a seminary for Austrian and German priests. By June, Allied armies had overpowered German defenders and taken the Eternal City, though it would be almost another year until the rest of the country was free. 

With the war effectively over for thousands of German-speaking POWS in Italy, Hudal took it upon himself to assist their situation in any way he could. In the early stages, this mainly involved counselling, passing on messages to family members and generally ensuring their safety while in captivity – or as he put it “a charity to people in dire need, for persons without any guilt who are to be made scapegoats for the failures of an evil system.”

But this soon spawned into something far more devious indeed. By providing fake identity papers, along with a papel guarantee that meant many checks never took place – because surely a bishop wouldn’t lie, right? – countless war criminals were able to escape to South America thanks to the work of Alouis Hudal. And there were some truly big hitters on his list – most notably SS Captain Eduard Roschmann, Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, Gustav Wagner, SS sergeant at Sobibor, Alois Brunner, the man in charge of the deportations from France and Slovakia to German concentration camps, and lastly Adolf Eichmann. Just a quick point on that last name, we’ve already done an entire video on the quite extraordinary pursuit of Eichman by the Israeli Secret Service over on a sister channel Megaprojects, so if this spikes your interest, why not head over there afterwards.  

Sometimes these men had been caught in allied roundups but with so many suspects taken into custody and their true identities carefully hidden, many managed to escape – or were allowed to leave legally thanks to the work of Hudal. Others found themselves on the run but sought out Hudal specifically to help their cause. 

This went on for years right under the noses of the allies in western Europe. A letter dated from 31st August 1948 from Bishop Hudal to Argentinian President Juan Perón, asked for 5,000 visas (for 3,000 German and 2,000 Austrian soldiers). As if just to clarify, Hudal added that these men weren’t Nazi criminals, but rather honest anti-communist fighters who had saved Europe from Soviet domination and now deserved the chance to start a new life. 

Of course, there are layers of what can only be called utter bullshit there. There’s no doubt that Hudal thought he was doing the right thing, but you need only briefly read about the actions of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz to know that if anybody deserved to be on the front row at the Nuremberg Trials, it was this sadistic monster. Then there’s the absurd claim that the Nazi’s had in fact saved Europe from Soviet domination. Last I checked, in 1948 the Soviet Union held sway over almost half of Europe while the Nazi dream lay in a smouldering wreck. Hudal died of natural causes aged 77 in 1963 and was never charged with aiding and abetting the escape of thousands of Nazis.  

The South American Connection  

Now, before we really get into the bulk of the escapees, there is the question of why exactly South America became the Nazi go-to location – and we can only really begin with one man. If you’ve ever seen Madonna’s 1996 film Evita, which tells the rags to riches story of Argentine heroine Eva Perron, you might be forgiven for thinking that her eventual husband, President Juan Perron was quite an upstanding man who fought for his people – especially the working class. We don’t have anywhere near enough time to go through the complexities of this particular idol worshipping, but let’s just say that Juan Perron may well have been on Hitler’s Christmas card list. 

Perron didn’t hold back with his disgust regarding the Nuremberg trials and almost immediately authorised the ratlines and visas to be given to those looking to escape Europe. Perron, and the ideology that emanated from him and his wife, known as Peronism, is littered with contradictions which makes nailing down the reasons behind the ratlines especially difficult. Imagine if the far right and far left had an illegitimate love child and named him Juan, who supported both nationalism and unionism, who ruled with an authoritarian grip, but was also wildly popular with the poor, then you might be on the right track. 

To make things even more complicated, Argentina received more Jewish refugees than any other country in Latin America in the period around World War II. Giving it the frankly bizarre claim of being a safe haven to both a huge number of Nazi war criminals and Jewish refugees. 

One possible explanation could well have been financial with rumours of stolen Nazi loot miraculously finding its way across the Atlantic. An investigation was launched shortly after the war which looked into two Argentine banks, in particular, Banco Germanico and Banco Tornquis, but surprise surprise, a presidential decree in 1946 halted the case before investigators could get too close. 

But Argentina was certainly not the only South American nation to enthusiastically welcome fleeing Nazis. Estimates by German prosecutors have stated that Brazil took in between 1,500 and 2,000 Nazis, Chile between 500 and 1,000, while Argentina trumped them all with roughly 5,000. Of course, these numbers are impossible to corroborate and some believe them to be conservative, to say the least.              

Krunoslav Draganović and The San Girolamo Ratline 

If Hundal’s early work had blazed a trail for escaping Nazis, the San Girolamo Ratline and the work of Roman Catholic Priest Krunoslav Draganović took things up a notch – and it’s here where this story becomes very murky indeed.

Draganović may have ostensibly been a man of the church, but as a lieutenant-colonel of the Ustaše – a Croatian fascist and ultranationalist organization responsible for hundreds of thousands of Serb, Jewish and Roma deaths – he also had his fair share of blood on his hands. When Perron formally authorised the ratlines into Argentina, it was Draganović who played a fundamental role from the San Girolamo degli Illirici Seminary College in Rome. 

But this was certainly not a one-man show and encompassed a wide-ranging network stretching across Europe. With war criminals often hiding in either Germany or Austria, word would be quietly passed to them that they could be safely transferred out of Europe. They would then be brought across the border into Italy and housed secretly until a berth on a ship, along with the required documents, could be procured. Often these Nazis would stay in religious buildings along the way or with those sympathetic to the cause, which significantly widened the numbers of those in the know. 

Once in Italy, those assisting them would apply for a displaced person passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which in turn would lead to a visa for a specific South American country. With both of these in place, there was the relatively simple act of reserving a berth on a ship departing from Genoa. And just like that, the most sought after war criminals in the world were able to slip through the net with relative ease.    

The most famous names to pass along this particular ratline were sadistic freak Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon and the Ustaše founder and head of the Independent State of Croatia, Ante Pavelić. If the name Klaus Barbie sounds familiar it really should be because he was extreme even by Nazi standards. While stationed in Lyon as the head of the local Gestapo, he personally tortured thousands of people and estimates place the number of those killed at the hands of Barbie alone as high as 14,000. He was a monster of monstrous proportions and again the kind of person that it’s difficult to comprehend how anybody could have justified his escape. And sadly, that’s not the end of Klaus Barbie in our story, as we’ll shortly get to. 

Ante Pavelić was both a politician and a man whose direct actions led to hundreds of thousands of deaths during what has been called ” the single most disastrous episode in Yugoslav history” – and considering what happened in the 1990s, that’s really saying something. After the collapse of the Ustaše, he fled to Austria before finding his way into Italy in 1946 disguised as a Peruvian priest. There he was sheltered in a series of safe houses for two years, before departing for Argentina in 1948, with a Hungarian Red Cross passport under the name Pablo Aranyos. 

There he lived in relative peace for almost a decade until 1957 when he was shot several times in a failed assassination attempt by Serbian Blagoje Jovović. In the coming days as he recovered in hospital, his true identity emerged and two weeks after the shooting, the new Argentine government agreed to Yugoslavia’s extradition request. But this wily mass murderer wasn’t done yet. With a bullet still lodged in his spine, he fled the hospital and eventually gained asylum in Spain – the only country in Europe where fascism had triumphed and one which was apparently more than happy to accommodate war criminals. Good news though, the scoundrel did die a year later from his injuries sustained from the assassination attempt.   

Allied Involvement 

And here is where things start to get uncomfortable. I said at the start of the video that for the most part, World War II was easy enough to divide into good vs evil – or at least it seemed like it. But after the conclusion of the war, a new issue entered the fray that blew this convenient black and white completely apart – communism. 

In what is perhaps the most shocking example of short memories being massaged for present gains, the U.S, Britain, France and the West German Intelligence agency began courting Nazis almost immediately after the war in an attempt to gain the upper hand over the Soviets. 

And speaking of shocking examples, can you guess which psychopathic Nazi torturer inexplicably came to work for the allies? You’ve got it, none other than Klaus Barbie himself. In 1947, he was recruited by the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps to help with anti-communist efforts in Europe. When the French discovered he was not only still alive but being sheltered by the Americans, they formally requested he be handed over – the U.S refused and he conveniently found his way to Bolivia soon after where he continued working for the Americans. In 1983, he was finally extradited to France and the U.S made a formal apology to the French people. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 and died of cancer in 1991. It’s not often I say this, but good riddance.  

Then we have all of the scientists and engineers involved in Operation Paperclip, in which the U.S harvested the best and brightest Nazi minds at the time to go and work in the United States. These individuals were sometimes smuggled out through the San Girolamo Ratline with Draganović said to take care of the majority of the logistics – presumably in return for the allies turning a blind eye to the legions of Nazis sailing across the Atlantic to start new lives. 

And it wasn’t just the Americans doing it. The British did exactly the same with their rather brutish sounding military unit known as T-Force. With that name, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that T-Force didn’t exactly apply a soft approach. To put it bluntly, scores of German scientists and engineers were kidnapped and brought across the channel under a program laughably referred to as “enforced evacuation”     

A Dark and Complicated End 

The twisted cultural fabric present in Europe after World War II took some time to unravel and was a process potholed with events and characters that don’t fit into our nicely constructed idea of good and bad. The Nazis may have orchestrated a level of mass murder previously unheard of, but it soon became clear that present self-interest often trumped justice. 

The speed at which western countries shifted their allegiance was shocking, but considering the fractured nature of the Cold War that followed, perhaps not entirely surprising. Let’s be very clear, while the Nuremberg Trials were groundbreaking in that they introduced the world to the word genocide and certainly held many high ranking Nazis to account, in the grand scheme of things, they acted as little more than symbolic acts. Almost every country that fought the Nazis were more than happy to turn a blind eye when it suited them. 

The Ratlines acted as a lingering scab on the wounds of World War II and forced us to confront the fact that things weren’t neatly tied up after May 1945, as history would rather tell us. The subsequent decades saw members of the Nazi party living freely and openly in many areas of the world. Gradually, they were reeled by some quite extraordinary work coming out of Israel. Slowly, one by one, Nazis have been brought to justice, but that number still remains low. We like to think that justice prevails, but as we’ve seen, that’s not always the case.    


Featured image by Yoav Lerman is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA


The ratlines: What did the Vatican know about Nazi escape routes? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.03.2020

Ratlines (World War II aftermath) – Wikipedia

The Ratline by Philippe Sands review – on the trail of the Nazi who got away | History books | The Guardian

‘The Ratline’ Follows Trail Of A Nazi Murderer Who Was Never Caught : NPR

The Shady History of Nazi Ratlines, Covert Programs, and the Escape from Justice (coffeeordie.com)


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