The ODESSA, from the German Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, meaning “Organisation of Former SS Members,” is believed to have been an international Nazi network set up towards the end of World War II by a group of SS officers. The purpose of the ODESSA was to establish and facilitate secret escape routes, later known as ratlines, to allow SS members to avoid their capture and prosecution for war crimes. Most of those fleeing Germany and Austria were helped to South America and the Middle East.
Books by former Jewish refugees T.H. Tetens and Joseph Wechsberg (both of whom later had affiliation with the War Crimes Commission) claim to have verified the organization's existence and provided details of its operations. Czech-born Wechsberg, whose mother had died at Auschwitz and who later wrote about the Nazis, studied Simon Wiesenthal's memoirs on the ODESSA and correlated them with his own experiences in the book The Murderers Among Us. However, historian Guy Walters, in his book Hunting Evil, claimed he was unable to find any evidence of the existence of the organisation.
According to Simon Wiesenthal, the ODESSA was set up in 1946 to aid fugitive Nazis. Interviews by the ZDF German TV station with former SS men suggest instead that the ODESSA was never the single world-wide secret organization that Wiesenthal described, but several organizations, both overt and covert, that helped ex-SS men. The truth may have been obscured by antagonism between the Wiesenthal organization and German military intelligence. It is known that Austrian authorities were investigating the organization several years before Wiesenthal went public with his information
Long before the ZDF TV network, historian Gitta Sereny wrote in her 1974 book Into That Darkness, based on interviews with the former commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, Franz Stangl (see References following), that the ODESSA had never existed. She wrote:
- The prosecutors at the Ludwigsburg Central Authority for the Investigation into Nazi Crimes, who know precisely how the postwar lives of certain individuals now living in South America have been financed, have searched all their thousands of documents from beginning to end, but say they are totally unable to authenticate (the) 'Odessa.' Not that this matters greatly: there certainly were various kinds of Nazi aid organizations after the war — it would have been astonishing if there hadn't been.
This view is supported by historian Guy Walters in his book Hunting Evil, where he also points out that networks were used, but there was not such a thing as a setup network covering Europe and South America, with an alleged war treasure. For Walters, the reports received by the allied intelligence services during the mid-1940s suggest that the appellation "ODESSA" was "little more than a catch-all term use by former Nazis who wished to continue the fight."
While Nazi concentration camp supervisors denied the existence of the ODESSA, US War Crimes Commission reports and the American OSS neither confirmed nor denied claims about the existence of such an organization. Wechsberg, who after emigrating to the United States had served as an OSS officer and member of the US War Crimes Commission, however, claimed that in interviews of outspoken German anti-Nazis some anti-Nazis asserted that plans were made for a Fourth Reich before the fall of the Third, and that this was to be implemented by reorganizing in remote Nazi colonies overseas: "The Nazis decided that the time had come to set up a world-wide clandestine escape network." "They used Germans who had been hired to drive U.S. Army trucks on the autobahn between Munich and Salzburg for the 'Stars and Stripes,' the American Army newspaper. The couriers had applied for their jobs under false names, and the Americans in Munich had failed to check them carefully... (the) ODESSA was organized as a thorough, efficient network... Anlaufstellen (ports of call) were set up along the entire Austrian-German border... In Lindau, close to both Austria and Switzerland, (the) ODESSA set up an 'export-import' company with representatives in Cairo and Damascus."
In his interviews with Sereny, Stangl denied any knowledge of a group called the ODESSA. Recent biographies of Adolf Eichmann, who also escaped to South America, and Heinrich Himmler, the alleged founder of the ODESSA, made no reference to such an organization. However, Hannah Arendt, in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, states that "in 1950, [Eichmann] succeeded in establishing contact with ODESSA, a clandestine organization of SS veterans, and in May of that year, he was passed through Austria to Italy, where a Franciscan priest, fully informed of his identity, equipped him with a refugee passport in the name of Richard Klement and sent him on to Buenos Aires." Notorious Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele also escaped to South America.
Sereny attributed the escape of SS members to postwar chaos and the inability of the Roman Catholic Church, the Red Cross, and the American military to verify the claims of people who came to them for help, rather than to the activities of an underground Nazi organisation. She identified a Vatican official, Bishop Aloïs Hudal, not former SS men, as the principal agent in helping Nazis leave Italy for South America.
Argentine writer Uki Goñi, in his 2002 book The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina, suggested that Sereny’s more complex, and less conspiratorial, story was closer to the truth. In 1938, on the verge of World War II, and with Hitler’s policies on Jews in transit, Argentina’s government sanctioned an immigration law restricting access by any individual scorned or forsaken by his country’s government. This law was alleged to have implicitly targeted Jews and other minorities fleeing Germany at the time, and was denounced by Uki Goñi, who admits that his own grandfather had participated in upholding it. Between 1930 and 1949, however, Argentina took in more Jewish refugees per capita than any other nation in the world, with the exception of Israel. Dr. Leonardo Senkman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem says that "the reopening of post-war European emigration to Argentina during the first Peron Presidency in 1946 pushed up the net immigration figure to 463,456 persons between 1947 and 1951..." the highest in thirty years. The legislation, though already in disuse for many years, was repealed on 8 June 2005 as a symbolic act. The Jewish Virtual Library writes that while Juan Perón had sympathized with the Axis powers, "Perón also expressed sympathy for Jewish rights and established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949. Since then, more than 45,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel from Argentina."
Of particular importance in examining the postwar activities of high-ranking Nazis was Paul Manning's book Martin Bormann: Nazi in Exile, which detailed Bormann's rise to power through the Nazi Party and as Hitler's Chief of Staff. During the war, Manning himself was a correspondent for the fledgling CBS News, along with Edward R. Murrow in London, and his reporting and subsequent researches presented Bormann's cunning and skill in the organization and planning for the flight of Nazi-controlled capital from Europe during the last years of the war—notwithstanding the strong possibility of Bormann's death in Berlin on May 1, 1945, especially in light of DNA identification of skeletal remains unearthed near the Lehrter Bahnhof as Bormann's.
According to Manning, "eventually, over 10,000 former German military made it to South America along escape routes set up by (the) ODESSA and the Deutsche Hilfsverein..." (page 181). The ODESSA itself was incidental, says Manning, with the continuing existence of the Bormann Organization a much larger and more menacing fact. None of this had yet been convincingly proven.
ODESSA in popular culture
In the realm of fiction, the Frederick Forsyth best-selling 1972 thriller The Odessa File brought the organization to popular attention. (The novel was turned into a film starring Jon Voight.) In the novel, Forsyth's ODESSA smuggled war criminals to South America, but also attempted to protect those SS members who remained behind in Germany, and plotted to influence political decisions in West Germany.
In the 1976 thriller novel by Ira Levin titled The Boys from Brazil, Dr. Josef Mengele, the concentration camp medical doctor who performed horrific experiments on camp victims during World War II, is involved in ODESSA. According to the young man, Mengele is activating the "Kameradenwerk" for a strange assignment: he is sending out six Nazis (former SS Officers) to kill 94 men, who share a few common traits. In the book the terms "Kameradenwerk" and "ODESSA" are used interchangeably.
It was mentioned in three Phoenix Force novels: Ultimate Terror (1984), The Twisted Cross (1986), and Terror In The Dark (1987). It also was mentioned, sometimes in veiled terms, in Philip Kerr's 2006 novel, The One From the Other — one of Kerr's Bernie Gunther mysteries. It also was mentioned, sometimes in veiled terms, in Eric Frattini's 2010 novel, The Mephisto's Gold — one of Frattini's cardinal August Lienart's thrillers.
- David Emory
- Die Spinne
- Operation Paperclip
- SIS, a secret FBI intelligence agency operating in South America during and immediately after World War II
- Stille Hilfe
- Mysteryquest, Rise of the Fourth Reich (Season 1, Episode 6)
- Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness (Pimlico 1974), 274
- Guy Walters, Hunting Evil p.215,Bantam Books, Transworld Publishers, London 2010
- Wechsberg, The Murderers Among Us (New York, 1967), p. 80
- Wechsberg, The Murderers, p. 82
- Hannah Arendt (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking.
- David Cesarini, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (Vintage 2004); Peter Padfield: Himmler: Reichsfuhrer SS (Macmillan 1990)
- Daniel Blinder, "El peronismo y los judíos", La Voz y La Opinión
- Weiner, Rebecca. "Argentina: Post World War II.". The Virtual Jewish History Tour. Jewish Virtual Library.
- "A la caza del ultimo Nazi". El Mundo. October 30, 2005.
- Goñi, Uki (2002): The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina. New York; London: Granta Books. ISBN 1-86207-581-6 (hardcover); ISBN 1-86207-552-2 (paperback, 2003)
- Eric Frattini (2011): El Oro de Mefisto Madrid, Espasa Calpe. ISBN 978-84-670-3422-6
- Infield, Glenn (1981) Secrets of the SS. New York: Stein and Day, ISBN 0-8128-2790-2
- Lee, Martin A. (1997): The Beast Reawakens. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-51959-6
- Manning, Paul (1980) Martin Bormann: Nazi in Exile. Lyle Stuart, Inc., ISBN 0-8184-0309-8, also available online
- Sereny, Gitta (1974): Into That Darkness. From Mercy Killings to Mass Murder. Republished (1983) as Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience. New York: Vintage. ISBN 0-394-71035-5
- Stahl, Daniel. "Odessa und das 'Nazigold' in Südamerika: Mythen und ihre Bedeutungen" ['Odessa and "Nazi Gold" in South America: Myths and Their Meanings'] Jahrbuch fuer Geschichte Lateinamerikas (2011), Vol. 48, p333-360, says historians agree ODESSA did not exist
- Wechsberg, Joseph (1967): The Murderers Among Us. New York: McGraw Hill. LCN 67-13204
- Information on ODESSA — From the Jewish Virtual Library
- "What's the True Story on South American Nazis?". The Straight Dope.
- ZDF.de (2002). “Mythos Odessa: Wahrheit oder Legende?” (German) (“The Myth of ODESSA: Truth or Legend?”)