Nazis on the Run: The Ratline

After the Second World War, a number of high-ranking members of the Nazi regime stood trial at Nuremberg. But some of those who should have faced justice escaped. The routes they took to flee are known collectively as the ‘ratline’.

Who co-ordinated the flight?

The idea of a powerful international conspiracy has captured the imagination of journalists and writers, including Frederick Forsyth in his thriller The Odessa File. But in reality there was no overarching organisation pulling the strings, like SPECTRE in James Bond. For most fleeing Nazis, the experience was a haphazard and perilous one.

Where does the term ‘ratline’ come from?

The word ‘ratline’ was used by US intelligence officers after the war to describe a network taking Croatian war criminals to South America. It came to wider use after a 1983 US Department of Justice report on the flight of Klaus Barbie, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’. In 1951, Barbie was the subject of a French extradition request, but US intelligence officers used the ‘ratline’ to send him to Bolivia, rather than admit that they’d been employing him.

Who escaped?

Some of the most famous figures to get away include Josef Mengele, the doctor at Auschwitz who performed fatal experiments on prisoners, and Adolf Eichmann, one of the most important co-ordinators of the Holocaust. Eichmann was tracked down and captured in Argentina by the Israeli secret service – he stood trial for his crimes and was executed in 1962. But Mengele remained at large until his death in 1979.

Where were they going?

Many countries in South America had developing economies and pro-immigration policies, and were a popular destination for all sorts of refugees, not only those with tainted pasts. In addition, Juan Perón’s government in Argentina was offering clandestine support to fleeing Nazis, as Uki Goñi’s book The Real Odessa revealed in 2003.

How does Otto Wächter fit into the picture?

Otto Wächter was the Nazi Governor of Galicia, now western Ukraine, a region where almost the entire Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust. After the war, he spent three years in the Austrian mountains, before crossing into Italy and obtaining forged identity papers.

The term “ratline” is now used to describe all the various means by which members of the Nazi regime left Europe after the Second World War.

He headed to Rome on the hunt for a passport in his false name. At this time, the Red Cross was issuing travel documents to refugees, many of whom were lacking passports for legitimate reasons. He stayed in a monastery and met Alois Hudal, the Rector of the German Pontifical College, a Nazi sympathiser and supporter of those on the run.

What happened?

After lunch with a man whom Wächter describes in a letter to his wife Charlotte simply as “a very kind old comrade”, he fell ill and died, perhaps the victim of poisoning. Philippe Sands investigates series Intrigue: The Ratline.

Intrigue: The Ratline is available as a podcast. James Everest was the academic researcher.