Saturday, 6 October 2012

NAZIS ON THE RUN by Gerald Steinacher

NAZIS ON THE RUN: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice
Oxford University Press, 2011, 382 pages, $20.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The Odessa File,  Frederick Forsyth’s 1972 novel, popularised the idea of the ‘Nazi-hunter’, Simon Wiesenthal, that a powerful, secret organisation of the Nazi elite, Odessa, organised the escape from Europe of prominent Nazis after World War 11, primarily to Argentina, where they plotted to revive global Nazism.  This, says Professor Gerald Steinacher in Nazis on the Run, is a myth.

The devoted escape managers of the defeated Nazis were actually to be found in the Vatican, the Allied intelligence services and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  With communism the new, official, post-war enemy, a “Cold War political shield” protected from justice tens of thousands of prominent SS officers and other war criminals who were responsible for the Nazi machinery of Jewish genocide but who possessed the redeeming virtue of being zealous anti-communists.

Nazi war criminals hid amongst the hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons in the chaos of post-war Europe as they exploited an overburdened Red Cross refugee service to escape.  The Red Cross was the reluctant, de facto post-war authority for issuing overseas travel documents and identity cards.  With just the testimony of two witnesses sufficient to establish identity, escaping fascists clubbed together in massive, easily perpetrated, identity fraud.  Red Cross field workers did not deliberately help the Nazis to escape but Red Cross senior echelons bore moral responsibility, or at the very least were guilty of gross negligence, argues Steinacher, for collusion.

Paul Ruegger (ICRC President from 1948), for example, was aware of the scandal but chose not to intervene.  Ruegger was of aristocratic background, a conservative Catholic and an admirer of Mussolini whilst his wartime predecessor had pro-German sympathies, was latently anti-Semitic and shared the strong anti-communist convictions of Ruegger.  Their politics allowed a wave of war criminals to escape with Red Cross transit papers, amongst them Adolf Eichmann (the “bureaucrat of mass murder”) and Josef Mengele (the Auschwitz ‘Angel of Death’).

The ICRC covered its backside by arguing that its moral standing as a neutral humanitarian intermediary mandated assistance to all regardless of nationality, race, religion or political opinion.  Or, apparently, war crimes, it could be added.  The Red Cross had never been strictly neutral - its infamous failure to speak out against the Holocaust (for fear of endangering its ability to carry on aid work in German-occupied Europe) was outdone in moral failure by its eyes-open assistance to fleeing Nazis.  The Red Cross, concludes Steinacher, “allowed itself to be used as a weapon in the Cold War”.

The Catholic Church also another Nazi-friendly Cold War enlistee.  Whilst Catholic monasteries hid tens of thousands of war criminals from Nazi Germany and its fascist European satellite states, the Vatican’s refugee relief commission procured visas.  Thousands were provided by President Juan Peron’s fascist groupie regime in Argentina, sold on the Vatican’s character reference that the escaping fascists were ‘anti-Bolshevik fighters’.

The Vatican’s fear of socialism, which had seen unproblematic Church relations with the anti-socialist Mussolini, saw it unite with escaping Nazis to oppose the threat of post-war communism in Roman Catholic heartland, Italy, which had the strongest post-war communist party in Western Europe.  Religious anti-Judaism also eased the Church’s conscience about its failure to assist Holocaust victims.

The final plank in the post-war, anti-communist redemption of Nazis was US military and civilian intelligence.  Swiftly abandoning the tracing and arrest of fascists and Nazis under war-time accords, the US Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps used Vatican Nazi-escape ‘ratlines’ to smuggle out those it deemed useful for the new Cold War.  Agents from German military counter-intelligence and the Gestapo were in great demand as were Nazis with technical and scientific expertise.  One beneficiary was Wernher von Braun, the designer of the V2 rocket which terrorised Britain and Holland, who was an SS officer in charge of a missile factory that starved were worked to death thousands of forced labourers and concentration camp inmates.  Von Braun helped Americans to be the first on the moon and that is what mattered.

Steinacher’s painstaking documentation of dozens of detailed case studies of fascist war criminals saved by US intelligence, the Catholic Church and the Red Cross justifies his portrait of the West’s anti-communist Nazi rescue operation as a “story of expediency and hypocrisy in service of the Cold War”.

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