Monday, March 23, 2020

South Tyrol and Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice

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Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice, Gerald Steinacher, Oxford University Press

The title of Gerald Steinacher's inquiry into how Nazi war criminals escaped from Europe at the end of the Second World War may echo the title of the comedy film Nuns on the Run, but that's as far as the laughs go. This is a scholarly, sober and troubling study, based on interviews with some of the surviving players and exhaustive research in a wide range of archives.

Steinacher demolishes the myth of the Odessa organisation. The idea of a well-heeled groups of ex-SS men devoted to saving their hunted comrades came into existence when the Americans became worried that the Nazis would ship plundered loot abroad to fund a Fourth Reich. This turned out to be fantasy, but the "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal picked it up and used the notion to explain why so many Nazi criminals had got away. Wiesenthal in turn inspired Frederick Forsyth to write The Odessa File. It was all nonsense. The truth was more prosaic, and all the more shocking.

Even before the war was over, SS men were preparing their escape. They used existing networks and agents to plan the exit routes. Bonds forged in battle or in Allied POW camps provided the basis for mutual aid, but where could they go? The Allies had occupied Germany and were in control of its borders. Yet there was one extraordinary corner of Europe that could have been designed for fleeing Nazis.

South Tyrol was a short step from southern Germany. To reach it entailed crossing two frontiers, but the Austrians did not look too closely at who was passing through, and there were long-established smuggling routes leading into Italy. Jews in flight from the Third Reich had previously used the same safe houses, passes and guides. When Adolf Eichmann set out from Germany in 1950, dressed in South Tyrolean costume, the system “worked like clockwork”. He later recalled, “Once it was the Jews - now it was Eichmann.”

After crossing the border, Nazi functionaries and SS men could relax. The people of South Tyrol were ethnically German and identified fiercely with German nationalism. In December 1945, the Allies had turned the peninsula over to Italian control, but the Italian security services were grossly inadequate.  (more...)


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