What happened to the Nazis after World War II?
Those who took active part in the annihilation of Europe’s Jews, who orchestrated mass murder in the ghettos and death camps numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Millions more were Nazi party members and functionaries. What became of them all after Nazism’s defeat?
The Nuremberg Trials, organized by the Allies to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, ended in the convictions of just 22 men. Eleven were given the death penalty, three were acquitted, three sentenced to life imprisonment and four given prison sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years.
Hundreds of additional convictions—including death penalties—were imposed on Nazi top brass by Soviet, American, British and Polish war crimes courts in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The Frankfort Auschwitz Trials of 1963-1965 prosecuted two dozen more war criminals and in later decades, a number of other Nazis would be extradited from various countries and brought to trial.
But those who were tried and punished represent just a tiny fraction of the mass murderers who carried out genocide across Nazi-occupied Europe.
What became of the myriad soldiers in the SS and Wermacht who committed unspeakable atrocities? What of the thousands of SS officers, soldiers and Einsatzgruppen who machine-gunned entire communities into burial pits after forcing the Jews to dig their own graves?
What of those who tortured prisoners to death, crammed them into gas chambers, administered Zyklon B pellets that choked the life out of millions? The sadists who drove thousands of prisoners on death marches, shooting to death all those who could not keep up?
According to historians Gerald Steinacher (Nazis on the Run; How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice (2011) and John Loftus (Ratlines, 1991), the vast majority of these criminals melted right back into society after the war’s end, resuming civilian lives. Very few were tried or paid any kind of penalty.
Many of the most notorious war criminals managed to escape justice by fleeing Europe, the historians attest. And they did so with the help of the most trusted institutions in post-war Europe—the Vatican and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—as well as US intelligence agencies.
A 1947 memo from the American embassy in Rome, cited in “Nazis on the Run,” noted that “The Vatican, of course, is the largest single organization involved in the illegal movement of emigrants.”
The ICRC and the Vatican often worked together to enable fugitives from justice to escape on the so-called “ratline,” as the escape routes became known.
These routes mainly led toward safe havens in South America, particularly Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia. Other destinations included the United States, Great Britain, Canada and the Middle East.
There were two primary routes; the first went from Germany to Spain, then Argentina; the second from Germany to Rome to Genoa, then South America.
Thanks to the contribution of historian Loftus who was among the first to bring to light declassified material on the ratlines, the role of the ICRC and the Vatican in setting up these escape routes was exposed in the early 1990s.
Subsequent new research indicates that the actual number of Nazis these institutions aided was much higher than thought. It also shows that that the ICRC took orders from the Vatican in providing travel documents to fugitive Nazis.
In a 2011 interview with Robert Lindley of History News Network, Harvard historian Steinacher said he would place the numbers of war criminals helped to escape through the ICRC-Vatican ratline “in the tens of thousands.”
In the six years after the end of World War II, the historian said, the Red Cross issued 120,000 travel documents, often with no background checks at all. In many cases, Vatican officials communicated a list of names to the Red Cross with a request for travel documents, and the Red Cross complied without any questions.
“These documents were so easy to obtain,” Steinarcher said. “You needed nothing. There was no screening. You gave your name and perhaps you had a letter of recommendation from the Vatican or a priest, and then you got a document that was valid and recognized by many countries.”
At a time when millions of refugees were on the move throughout Europe—some historians place the number of stateless people at thirty million—it was all too easy for wanted Nazis to blend into the teeming masses of travelers.
Anti-Semitism in ICRC Top Ranks
Steinacher was one of the first researchers to examine the Red Cross archives in Geneva which were closed until the 1990s. What he learned from his research shocked him, prompting him to write a separate work, Humanitarians at War; The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust.
“Anti-Semitism was very widespread at the time,” he explains. “I was shocked by the amount of religious anti-Semitism inside the Catholic Church, and also among heads of humanitarian organizations, such as Carl Jacob Burckhardt, president of the International Red Cross.”
“Burckhardt not only identified with the German people as victims in 1945, but he blamed Jews for their suffering. Echoing Nazi propaganda, he held Jews responsible for the outbreak of war,” said Steinacher.
A private letter to a friend in 1933, quoted in “Nazis on the Run,” reeked of Burckhardt’s anti-Semitism. “There is a certain aspect of Judaism that a healthy Volk has to fight,” Burckhardt wrote.
The ICRC president minimized Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and opposed the convening of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, dismissing them as “Jewish revenge.”
It wasn’t just its parroting of Nazi propaganda or its refusal to help Jews in the camps that indelibly stained the ICRC’s reputation as a humanitarian organization. What Steinacher and other historians single out as most shameful was Burckhardt’s sympathies and efforts on behalf of Nazi war criminals after Germany’s defeat.
A Papal Blessing for SS Killers
In one of the most egregious examples of cozying up to the Nazis even after the war, the Red Cross in 1946 issued travel documents to an entire division of Ukrainian Waffen-SS. This encompassed 11,000 men and women—some of whom had served as concentration camp guards—as well as their families, Steinarcher outlined in History News Network.
“Ukrainian Archbishop Ivan Buchko petitioned the Pope to help this group escape; after receiving a Papal blessing, Buchko petitioned the Red Cross for 9,000 travel documents. The Red Cross issued the documents, and the Ukrainians left Europe, most destined for Canada.”
Another example of the Red Cross collusion in issuing travel documents to help a known war criminal escape is the case of Hermann Duxneuner, a Nazi administrator from Tyrol, Austria. This gangster facilitated the annihilation of Jews in Tyrol, providing lists of Jewish residents for murder and deportation.
Duxneuner received a Red Cross travel document that would have taken him to Holland or Brazil in 1946, but because the Allies were closing in on him, he remained in hiding for two years. Then in 1948, he received a new document from the Red Cross allowing him to travel to Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, any port which would take him in.
Duxneuener eventually moved to Argentina where he joined a community of Nazi fugitives.
“The post-war situation was chaotic,” Steinacher said, “but there is no doubt that some people in the Catholic leadership and some ordinary parish priests were knowingly helping Nazis, fascists, perpetrators and war criminals to get out of Europe.”
Through the Vatican Refugee Commission, war criminals were knowingly provided with false identities in Genoa, Rome and Geneva.
Chief among the Catholic leadership in spiriting Nazis out of Europe was Alois Hudal, a Roman bishop and fervent fascist who supported Hitler’s racial theories. He espoused the conspiracy belief that Jews were intent on dominating world banking and, through that, the world.
Following World War Two, Hudal took the lead in setting up the ratlines, designating a series of monasteries and churches through which escaped Nazis could be temporarily hidden during their flight from Europe. Using the Vatican Refugee Commission, he gave wanted men and women false identity documents and church money to aid in their escape.
The church’s motivations in rescuing Nazis rested in part on political calculations, historian Steinacher writes. He cites the Pope’s fear of a communist take-over in Italy as an overriding factor in his willingness to bestow “forgiveness” on “repentant” Nazis.
“The threat of the Nazis and the Third Reich was gone. Hitler was dead. The only remaining enemy was communism. And while communism was far away in Moscow, there was a very strong Communist Party in Italy,” Steinarcher said, adding that Vatican officials were desperately hoping for a revival of European Christianity as a counterforce.
They were willing to take Nazis back into the fold to help boost church ranks, regardless of the atrocities these individuals had committed.
A striking fact that shows that ICRC and Vatican aid to Nazis was offered with clear knowledge of the criminals’ identities, was that most of those on the run from Allied forces “traveled on their real names, with their real birthdates.”
“The only thing that wasn’t real was their nationality. They claimed to be stateless because the ICRC would only give travel documents to stateless people,” explained Steinarcher in the History News Network interview.
What Did the Red Cross Know?
The historian maintains that leadership of the ICRC certainly knew their documents were being used by war criminals and fleeing Nazis.
“The U.S. Ambassador in Berne had meetings with the Red Cross…They were screaming that the whole process was ramshackle, that there were virtually no checks and the criminals could easily obtain travel documents,” Steinacher said.
The system was a simple one, almost too good to be true for Nazi fugitives. The Vatican would issue a letter of endorsement, and the refugee seeking travel documents would hand over the letter to the ICRC, who then issued the travel document using information in the Vatican’s letter of reference. No checks or screenings were made.
Historical documents show that some of the most notorious Nazis availed themselves of this system. The church also provided food and free accommodations to those who, like Adolf Eichmann, “architect of the Final Solution,” had no money. He hid in a Franciscan monastery until with the help of the Vatican and ICRC, he was issued false identity papers identifying him as “Ricardo Klement.”
Eichmann then made his way to Argentina where he lived in peace until 1960, when the Israeli Mossad captured him and smuggled him to Israel. He was put on trial for genocide, convicted and executed.
Josef Mengele, the depraved Auschwitz physician who conducted selections and performed medical experiments on Jewish prisoners, also took advantage of the ratline. With the help of a false ID, he re-invented himself as “Helmut Gregor,” a mechanic.
Another notorious war criminal, Josef Schwammberger, the commandant of Rozwadow concentration camp who murdered hundreds of Jews – many with his bare hands – escaped the hangman’s noose with the help of the ratline. His escape was especially suspicious, as he was the target of a manhunt by police and Allied forces when he was spirited away.
Other major Nazi mass murderers who escaped Europe via the ratlines included Alois Brunner, Eichmann’s assistant who fled to Syria in 1954; and Herberts Cukurs, butcher of Latvian Jews, who escaped to Brazil in 1945. (Cukurs was assassinated by Mossad in Uruguay in 1965).
Leon Degrelle, one of the most active Belgian Nazi collaborators, fled to Spain in 1945 with the help of the ratline and started a new life, founding a neo-Nazi organization in 1956. Ante Pavelic, murderous leader of the Croatian Ustasha, responsible for the death of over 100,000 Jews and Serbs was helped to safety as well.
Finally, “Butcher of Lyons” Klaus Barbie, one of the most savage dregs of humanity was brought through the ratlines to a safe haven, with the help of US intelligence agencies that had recruited him as well as other wanted Nazis, for espionage.
Despite justice denied and justice delayed in terms of the vast majority of Nazi war criminals, efforts to bringing surviving perpetrators to justice continues into the 21st Century.
War Criminals Who Didn’t Reach the Ratlines
After the Nuremberg War Crimes trials, the battle to bring war criminals to justice lost momentum in the face of an escalating Cold War and new political divisions in Europe.
Despite the shifting political climate, from 1946-1949, scores of Nazis accused of wartime atrocities who had not succeeded in escaping, were put on trial in Poland, and by American, British and French tribunals then stationed in Europe.
In Poland, over 2000 Nazis were extradited from the American zone in Germany and put on trial in Warsaw. Only 63 ended up standing trial.
Thirty-one death sentences were passed and carried out. The most publicized was that of Auschwitz first commandant Rudolf Hoss, who was sentenced to death in April 1947, and hung on a gallows erected right outside his Auschwitz headquarters.
The same tribunal sat in Cracow for Auschwitz Command Post trial at which 40 people were indicted. Twenty-three, including notorious women’s camp director Maria Mandel, were sentenced to death, and six to life imprisonment.
Other trials for lower-ranking members of the Auschwitz SS command were held between 1946 and 1953 before regional and special courts in Katowice, Cracow, Cieszyn, Gliwice, Racibórz, Sosnowiec, and Wadowice. The most common sentences were three or four years in prison.
Most of the war crimes trials of members of the Auschwitz SS garrison in Germany and Austria were a joke, resulting in very light sentences or outright acquittals. Many of the post-war judges had been members of the Nazi party; despite lip service renouncing Nazi doctrine in the de-Nazification period, they had clearly not rejected their former ideology.
American, British, French Tribunals
SS men from the Auschwitz command post were also tried before American, British, and French military tribunals in the late 1940s. Survivors came forward to give testimony at these trials, often breaking down under the stress of reliving the trauma and abuse they had suffered.
Notorious Auschwitz commandant Josef Kramer, Birkenau women’s camp director Franz Hossler, and female SS overseers Irma Grese and Elisabeth Volkenrath, were sentenced to death at the trial of the Bergen-Belsen garrison in 1945. [See Sidebar for survivor testimony.]
Also, in 1945, at the trial of the Dachau Command, an American military tribunal sentenced a Birkenau camp commandant and chief of the crematoria to death by hanging.
The Americans also passed death sentences on two depraved SS doctors at the trial of the Mauthausen Camp Command. At the trial of Ravensbruck SS Command, the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau men’s camp was sentenced to death.
The British sentenced two sadistic Auschwitz doctors to death in 1946 at the trial of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Command. And a French Military Tribunal at the trial of the Natzweiller garrison in 1946, sentenced three of the most brutal SS officers from Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz-Monowitz, to death on the gallows.
‘While I Was in Birkenau…’
Ilona Stein, 21, a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, testified at the British war crimes trial of Bergen Belsen Commandant Josef Kramer and SS officer Irma Grese.
Excerpts of Ilona’s testimony follow below.
“While I was at Birkenau I witnessed an SS woman named Irma Grese beat many prisoners, instigate one murder, and send many people to the gas chamber. What I speak of now, I speak of from my own direct knowledge.
In July 1944, I was working in the kitchen at Birkenau when I saw a woman, whose daughter was in an adjoining camp, approach the dividing wire in order to speak to her daughter. Grese who was passing on a bicycle, immediately got off, took off her leather belt and began beating the woman.
She also used her fists to strike the woman on her face and head. When the woman fell to the ground, she trampled on her. The victim’s face became swollen and blue. A friend of the woman’s daughter took her away; she was in the hospital for three weeks suffering from the effects of the beating.
While at Birkenau, I saw Grese making selections with Dr. Mengele of people to be sent to the gas chamber. In one selection in August 1944, between 2,000 and 3,000 prisoners were selected. Grese and Mengele together did the selecting. It was general knowledge in the camp that persons selected were to be killed.
People who were selected would sometimes sneak away from the line and hide themselves in the barracks under their beds. Grese would go and find them, beat them until they collapsed and then drag them back into line again.
Sometime in August or September 1944, at one of these selection parades, one Hungarian woman who had been selected tried to escape from the line and join her daughter in another line which was for those who were not chosen.
Grese noticed this and instructed one of the SS guards to shoot the woman, which he did. I did not hear the order, but saw Grese speak to the guard and the prisoner was shot at once. In the company of some nurses from the hospital, I took the dead body to the mortuary.
SS Officer Irma Grese on the Witness Stand
Prosecutor Blackhouse: Madame Grese, you wore heavy top-boots and you liked to walk around with a revolver strapped on your waist and a whip in your hand, did you not?
Grese: I did not like it.
Prosecutor: You thought it very clever to have a whip made in the factory and even when the Commandant told you to stop using it you went on, did you not?
Prosecutor: What was this whip really made of?
Grese: Cellophane paper plaited like a pigtail. It was translucent like white glass
Prosecutor: The type of whip you would use for a horse?
Prosecutor: Then most of these prisoners who said they saw you carrying a riding whip were not wrong, were they?
Grese: No, they were not wrong.
Prosecutor: Did the other Aufseherinnen (women guards) have these whips made too?
Prosecutor: It was just your bright idea?
Prosecutor: In Lager “C” you used to carry a walking stick too, and sometimes you beat people with the whip and sometimes with the stick?
Prosecutor: Were you officially allowed to beat people?
Prosecutor: So it was not a question of having orders from your Superiors to do it. You did this against orders, did you?
Prosecutor: Did you give orders to other Aufseherinnen working under you to beat prisoners?
Prosecutor: Did you have the right to give such authorization?
- • • • •
Bergen Belsen was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945, amidst indescribable scenes of horror. The camp Commandant, Josef Kramer, along with forty-four others, including Irma Grese, were arrested and indicted before a British Military Court on June 14, 1945.
The trial took two months. Grese was convicted and sentenced to be hanged, along with two other female guards. Josef Kramer received the death sentence as well. All three were hanged on the gallows on December 13, 1945 in Hamelin prison, Germany.