Ratlines (World War II aftermath)

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Ratlines were systems of escape routes for Nazis and other fascists fleeing Europe at the end of World War II. These escape routes mainly led toward safe havens in South America, particularly Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Chile. Other destinations may have included the United States, Canada and the Middle East.

One ratline, made famous by the Frederick Forsyth thriller The Odessa File, was run by the ODESSA (Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen; "The Organization of Former SS-Members") network organized by Otto Skorzeny. However, more recent research shows that this organisation played at most a minor part in the organised smuggling of some tens of thousands of Nazi war-criminals. The reality was both more prosaic and possibly more shocking: national governments and international institutions played a larger role than secret societies.

The Roman ratlines

Early efforts—Bishop Hudal

Catholic Bishop Alois Hudal was rector of the Pontificio Istituto Teutonico Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome, a seminary for Austrian and German priests, and "Spiritual Director of the German People resident in Italy" [1]. After the end of the war in Italy, Hudal became active in ministering to German-speaking prisoners of war and internees then held in camps throughout Italy. In December 1944 the Vatican Secretariat of State received permission to appoint a representative to "visit the German-speaking civil internees in Italy", a job which was assigned to Hudal.

Hudal used this position to aid the escape of wanted Nazi war criminals, including Franz Stangl, commanding officer of Treblinka, Gustav Wagner, commanding officer of Sobibor, Alois Brunner, responsible of the Drancy internment camp near Paris and in charge of deportations in Slovakia to German concentration camps, and Adolf Eichmann [2] — a fact about which he was later unashamedly open. Some of these wanted men were being held in internment camps: generally without identity papers, they would be enrolled in camp registers under false names. Other Nazis were in hiding in Italy, and sought Hudal out as his role in assisting escapes became known on the Nazi grapevine [3]

In his memoirs Hudal said of his actions: I thank God that He [allowed me] to visit and comfort many victims in their prisons and concentration camps and to help them escape with false identity papers. [4]

He explained that in his eyes:

"The Allies' War against Germany was not a crusade, but the rivalry of economic complexes for whose victory they had been fighting. This so-called business ... used catchwords like democracy, race, religious liberty and Christianity as a bait for the masses. All these experiences were the reason why I felt duty bound after 1945 to devote my whole charitable work mainly to former National Socialists and Fascists, especially to so-called 'war criminals'."

According to Mark Aarons and John Loftus in their book Unholy Trinity [5], Hudal was the first Catholic priest to dedicate himself to establishing escape routes. Aarons and Loftus claim that Hudal provided the objects of his charity with money to help them escape, and more importantly with false papers including identity documents issued by the Vatican Refugee Organisation (Commissione Pontificia d'Assistenza).

These Vatican papers were not full passports, and not in themselves enough to gain passage overseas. They were, rather, the first stop in a paper trail—they could be used to obtain a displaced person passport from the International Red Cross (IRC), which in turn could be used to apply for visas. In theory the IRC would perform background checks on passport applicants, but in practice the word of a priest or particularly a bishop would be good enough. According to statements collected by Gitta Sereny from a senior official of the Rome branch of the IRC [6], Hudal could also use his position as a bishop to request papers from the IRC "made out according to his specifications". Sereny's sources also revealed an active illicit trade in stolen and forged IRC papers in Rome at this time.

According to declassified US intelligence reports, Hudal was not the only priest helping Nazi escapees at this time. In the "La Vista report" declassified in 1984, Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) operative Vincent La Vista told how he had easily arranged for two bogus Hungarian refugees to get false IRC documents with the help of a letter from a Father Joseph Gallov. Gallov, who ran a Vatican sponsored charity for Hungarian refugees, asked no questions and wrote a letter to his "personal contact in the International Red Cross, who then issued the passports" [7].

The San Girolamo ratline

According to Aarons and Loftus, Hudal's private operation was small scale compared to what came later. The major Roman ratline was operated by a small, but influential network of Croatian priests, members of the Franciscan order, led by Father Krunoslav Draganovic. Draganovic organised a highly sophisticated chain, head-quartered at the San Girolamo degli Illirici Seminary College in Rome, but with links from Austria to the final embarcation point in the port of Genoa. The ratline initially focused on aiding members of the Croatian Ustashi fascist movement, most notably the Croat wartime dictator Ante Pavelic [8].

According to Aarons and Loftus, priests active in the chain included: Fr. Vilim Cecelja, former Deputy Military Vicar to the Ustashi, based in Austria where many Ustashi and Nazi refugees remained in hiding; Fr. Dragutin Kamber, based at San Girolamo; Fr. Dominic Mandic, allegedly an official Vatican representative at San Girolamo and also "General Economist" or treasurer of the Franciscan order — Aarons and Loftus allege he used this position to put the Franciscan press at the ratline's disposal; Monsignor Karlo Petranovic, based in Genoa.

Cecelja would make contact with those in hiding in Austria, and help them across the border to Italy; Kamber, Mandic and Draganovic would find them lodgings, often in the monastery itself, while they arranged documentation; finally Draganovic would phone Petranovic in Genoa with the number of required berths on ships leaving for South America. (See below for the operation of the South American end.)

The operation of the Draganovic ratline was an open secret amongst the intelligence and diplomatic community in Rome. As early as August 1945, Allied commanders in Rome were asking questions about the use of San Girolamo as a "haven" for Ustashi [9]. A year later, a US State Department report of 12 July 1946 lists nine war criminals, including Albanians and Montenegrins as well as Croats, plus others "not actually sheltered in the COLLEGIUM ILLIRICUM [i.e., San Girolamo degli Illirici] but who otherwise enjoy Church support and protection." [10] In February 1947 CIC Special Agent Robert Clayton Mudd reported ten members of Pavelic's Ustashi cabinet living either in San Girolamo or in the Vatican itself. Mudd had infiltrated an agent into the monastery and confirmed that it was "honeycombed with cells of Ustashi operatives" guarded by "armed youths". Mudd also reported:

"It was further established that these Croats travel back and forth from the Vatican several times a week in a car with a chauffeur whose license plate bears the two initials CD, "Corpo Diplomatico". It issues forth from the Vatican and discharges its passengers inside the Monastery of San Geronimo [sic]. Subject to diplomatic immunity it is impossible to stop the car and discover who are its passengers."[11]

Mudd's conclusion was the following:

"DRAGANOVIC's sponsorship of these Croat Quislings definetly [sic] links him up with the plan of the Vatican to shield these ex-Ustashi nationalists until such time as they are able to procure for them the proper documents to enable them to go to South America. The Vatican, undoubtedly banking on the strong anti-Communist feelings of these men, is endeavoring to infiltrate them into South America in any way possible to counteract the spread of Red doctrine. It has been reliably reported, for example that Dr. VRANCIC has already gone to South America and that Ante PAVELIC and General KREN are scheduled for an early departure to South America through Spain. All these operations are said to have been negotiated by DRAGANOVIC because of his influence in the Vatican."

The existence of Draganovic's ratline is admitted by the Vatican historian Fr. Robert Graham, who told Aarons and Loftus: "I've no doubt that Draganovic was extremely active in syphoning off his Croatian Ustashi friends." However Graham insisted that Draganovic was not officially sanctioned in this by his superiors: "Just because he's a priest doesn't mean he represents the Vatican. It was his own operation." [12]

US intelligence gets involved

If at first US intelligence officers had been mere observers of the Draganovic ratline, this was to change in the summer of 1947. A now declassified US Army intelligence report from 1950, authored by "IB Operating Officer" Paul Lyon of the 430th Counter Intelligence Corps, sets out in detail the history of the people smuggling operation in the three years to follow [13].

According to the report, from this point on US forces themselves had began to use Draganovic's established network to evacuate its own "visitors". As the report put it, these were "visitors who had been in the custody of the 430th CIC and completely processed in accordance with current directives and requirements, and whose continued residence in Austria constituted a security threat as well as a source of possible embarrassment to the Commanding General of USFA, since the Soviet Command had become aware that their presence in US Zone of Austria and in some instances had requested the return of these persons to Soviet custody."

That is, these were suspected war criminals and quislings from areas occupied by the Red Army—legally US Forces were obliged to hand them over for trial to the Soviets. The deal with Draganovic involved getting the visitors to Rome—"Dragonovich handled all phases of the operation after the defectees arrived in Rome, such as the procurement of IRO Italian and South American documents, visas, stamps, arrangements for disposition, land or sea, and notification of resettlement committees in foreign lands." US intelligence used these methods in order to get important Nazi scientists and military strategists, to the extent they had not already been claimed by the Soviet Union, to their own centres of military science in the US. Many Nazi scientists were employed by the US, retrieved in Operation Paperclip.

The Argentine Connection

In Nuremberg at that time something was taking place that I personally considered a disgrace and an unfortunate lesson for the future of humanity. I became certain that the Argentine people also considered the Nuremberg process a disgrace, unworthy of the victors, who behaved as if they hadn't been victorious. Now we realize that they [the Allies] deserved to lose the war.

Argentine president Juan Perón on the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals.


On the other side of the Atlantic, the ratline escapees found their warmest welcome in Peron's Argentina. In his 2002 book The Real Odessa [14] Argentine researcher Uki Goñi used new access to the country's archives to show that Argentine diplomats and intelligence officers had, on Peron's instructions, vigorously encouraged Nazi and Fascist war criminals to make their home in Argentina. According to Goñi the Argentines not only collaborated with Draganovic's ratline, they set up further ratlines of their own running through Scandinavia, Switzerland and Belgium.

According to Goñi, Argentina's first move into Nazi smuggling was in January 1946, when Argentine bishop Antonio Caggiano, bishop of Rosario and leader of the Argentine chapter of Catholic Action flew with Bishop Agustín Barrére to Rome where Caggiano was due to be anointed Cardinal. While in Rome the Argentine bishops met with French Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, where they passed on a message (recorded in Argentina's diplomatic archives) that "the Government of the Argentine Republic was willing to receive French persons, whose political attitude during the recent war would expose them, should they return to France, to harsh measures and private revenge."

Over the spring of 1946 a number of French war criminals, fascists and Vichy officials made it from Italy to Argentina in the same way: they were issued passports by the Rome IRC office; these were then stamped with Argentine tourist visas (the need for health certificates and return tickets was waived on Caggiano's recommendation). The first documented case of a French war criminal arriving in Buenos Aires was Emile Dewoitine—later sentenced in absentia to 20 years hard labour. He sailed first class on the same ship back with Cardinal Caggiano [15]

Shortly after this Argentinian Nazi smuggling became institutionalised, according to Goñi, when Perón's new government of February 1946 appointed anti-semitic anthropologist Santiago Peralta as Immigration Commissioner and alleged former Ribbentrop agent Ludwig Freude as his intelligence chief. Goñi argues that these two then set up a "rescue team" of secret service agents and immigration "advisors", many of whom were themselves European war-criminals, with Argentine citizenship and employment [16].

ODESSA and the Gehlen Org

The Italian and Argentinian ratlines have only been confirmed relatively recently, mainly due to research in recently declassified archives. Until the work of Aarons and Loftus, and of Uki Goñi (2002), a common view was that ex-Nazis themselves, organised in secret networks, ran the escape routes alone. The most famous such network is ODESSA (Organisation of former SS members), founded in 1946 according to Simon Wiesenthal, which included SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny and Sturmbannführer Alfred Naujocks and allegedly, in Argentina, Rodolfo Freude. Alois Brunner, former commandant of Drancy internment camp near Paris, allegedly escaped to Rome then Syria by ODESSA (Brunner is thought to be the highest-ranking Nazi war criminal still alive as of 2007). Persons claiming to represent ODESSA claimed responsibility in a note for the 9 July 1979 car bombing in France aimed at Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. According to Paul Manning (1980), "eventually, over 10,000 former German military made it to South America along escape routes ODESSA and Deutsche Hilfsverein..." [17]

Simon Wiesenthal, who advised Frederick Forsyth on the novel/filmscript The Odessa File which brought the name to public attention, also names other Nazi escape organisations such as Spinne ("Spider") and Sechsgestirn ("Constellation of Six"). Wiesenthal describes these immediately after the war as Nazi cells based in areas of Austria where many Nazis had retreated and gone to ground. Wiesenthal claimed that the Odessa network shepherded escapees to the Catholic ratlines in Rome (although he mentions only Hudal, not Draganovic); or through a second route through France and into Francoist Spain [18]

ODESSA was supported by the Gehlen Org, which employed many former Nazi party members, and was headed by Reinhard Gehlen, a former Nazi intelligence officer employed post-war by the CIA. The Gehlen Org became the nucleus of the BND German intelligence agency, directed by Reinhard Gehlen from its 1956 creation until 1968. Apart of the Gehlen Org, the CIA organized parallel and juxtaposed stay-behind networks in Germany. CIA documents released in June 2006 under the 1998 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act show that the CIA organized "stay-behind" networks of German agents between 1949 and 1955 [19].

In 1952, former SS officer Hans Otto revealed to the criminal police in Frankfurt the existence of the fascist German stay-behind army BDJ-TD. The arrested right-wing extremists were found non guilty under mysterious circumstances.

One stay-behind network included Staff Sergent Heinrich Hoffman and Lieutenant Colonel Hans Rues, and another one, codenamed Kibitz-15, was run by Lieutenant Colonel Walter Kopp, a former Wehrmacht officer, described by his own North-American handlers as an "unreconstructed Nazi." [20] In an April 1953 CIA memo released in June 2006, the CIA headquarters wrote: "The present furore in Western Germany over the resurgence of the Nazi or neo-Nazi groups is a fair example — in miniature — of what we would be faced with." Therefore some of these networks were dismanteled. These documents stated that the ex-Nazis were a complete failure in intelligence terms. According to Timothy Naftali, a US historian from the University of Virginia who reviewed the CIA documents then released, "The files show time and again that these people were more trouble than they were worth. The unreconstructed Nazis were always out for themselves, and they were using the West's lack of information about the Soviet Union to exploit it." [20] The US NARA Archives themselves stated in a 2002 communiquee, concerning Reinhard Gehlen's recruiting of former Nazis, that "Besides the troubling moral issues involved, these recruitments opened the West German government, and by extension the United States, to penetration by the Soviet intelligence services." [21]

Hans Globke, who had worked for Adolf Eichmann in the Jewish Affairs department and helped draft the 1935 Nuremberg laws, became Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's national security advisor in the 1960s, and "was the main liaison with the CIA and NATO" according to The Guardian [20]. A March 1958 memo from the German BND agency to the CIA wrote that Adolf Eichmann is "reported to have lived in Argentina under the alias CLEMENS since 1952." However, the CIA did not pass the information on to the Israeli MOSSAD, as it feared revelations concerning its use of former Nazis for intelligence purposes — Eichmann, who was in charge of the Jewish Affairs department, was abducted by the MOSSAD two years later. Among these informations that might have been revealed by Eichmann were the ones concerning Hans Globke, CIA's liaison in West Germany. At the request of Bonn, the CIA persuaded Life magazine to delete any reference to Globke from Eichmann's memoirs, which it had bought from his family [19].

Allegations of world powers' involvement in ratlines

There have been allegations of collusion or active support by various governments for the ratlines. Accusations have been levelled against the United States government of acting through the Central Intelligence Agency to help smuggle Nazi scientists and officers to safety. Similar accusations have been made against the KGB.

The case against the Vatican

It is accepted that Catholic priests, notably Hudal and Draganovic, were actively involved in smuggling wanted war criminals. What is disputed is the extent to which their actions were sanctioned by higher authorities within the Church.

In his role as apostolic visitator to the imprisoned Croats, Draganovic reported to Bishop Giovanni Battista Montini, then secretary in charge of 'extraordinary affairs' at the Vatican's Secretariat of State - he would later become Pope Paul VI. Some evidence that Montini was aware and approved of Draganovic's actions has come out recently in a San Francisco courtroom where a class action suit of holocaust survivors against the Vatican Bank is currently underway. One witness in the trial is William Gowen, a former US Army intelligence stationed in Rome in the years after the war and charged with investigating the Draganovic ratline. Gowen's testimony has not been officially published, but a copy was obtained by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz which printed an article in January 2006 accusing Montini based on Gowen's evidence [22]. According to the Haaretz article:

"I personally investigated Draganovic - who told me he was reporting to Montini," emphasized Gowen. Gowen related that at a certain stage Montini learned, apparently from the head of the OSS unit in Rome, James Angleton, who nurtured relations with Montini and the Vatican, of the investigation Gowen's unit was conducting. Montini complained about Gowen to his superiors and accused him of having violated the Vatican's immunity by having entered church buildings, such as the Croatian college, and conducting searches there. The aim of the complaint was to interfere with the investigation. In his testimony, Gowen also stated that Draganovic helped the Ustashe launder the stolen treasure with the help of the Vatican Bank: This money was used to fund its religious activities, but also to fund the escape of Ustashe leaders on the Rat Line.[22]

List of Nazis who escaped using ratlines

Famous Nazis war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Erich Priebke, Aribert Heim, Ante Pavelic "using papers allegedly provided by the Vatican, and disguised as a priest", found refuge in Latin America and the Middle East [23].


  1. ^ Aarons and Loftus, Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, The Nazis, and the Swiss Bankers (St Martins Press 1991, revised 1998), p. 36
  2. ^ Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust
  3. ^ Gitta Sereny Into That Darkness Picador 1977, p. 289. Her account comes from testimony of Nazi war criminals helped by Hudal, such as Otto Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka extermination camp.
  4. ^ Hudal Römische Tagebücher (English translation quoted in Aarons and Loftus, p. 37)
  5. ^ Aarons and Loftus, chap 2 'Bishop Hudal and the First Wave'
  6. ^ Gitta Sereny, op. cit., pp. 316-7
  7. ^ See Aarons and Loftus, pp. 43-5
  8. ^ # Aarons and Loftus, chapter 5 'Ratline'
  9. ^ Declassified US Army File: 'Rome Area Allied Command to the CIC', 8 August 1945
  10. ^ Declassified State Department File: 'Alleged Vatican Protection of Jugoslav War Criminals', 12 July 1946
  11. ^ Declassified CIA File: 'Background Report on Father Krunoslav Draganovic', 12 February 1947
  12. ^ Aarons and Loftus, p. 89
  13. ^ Declassified US Army File: History of the Italian Rat Line
  14. ^ a b From the 'Perón tapes' he recorded the year before his death, published in Yo, Domingo Perón, Luca de Tena et al.; this translation as quoted in Uki Goñi The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón's Argentina, Granta (revised edition) 2003 p. 100
  15. ^ Uki Goñi, The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón's Argentina, Granta (revised edition) 2003, pp. 96–8
  16. ^ Goñi ch. 8
  17. ^ Paul Manning, Martin Bormann: Nazi in Exile (Lyle Stuart, Inc., 1980, ISBN 0-8184-0309-8 (page 181)
  18. ^ Simon Wiesenthal Justice not Vengeance, George Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1989 - particularly chap. 6 'Odessa'.
  19. ^ a b CIA Ties With Ex-Nazis Shown, The Washington Post, June 7, 2006
  20. ^ a b c Why Israel's capture of Eichmann caused panic at the CIA, The Guardian, June 8, 2006
  21. ^ Opening of CIA Records under Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, May 8, 2002 NARA communiquee (in English)
  22. ^ a b 'Tied up in the Ratlines' by Yossi Melman, Haaretz, 17 January 2006
  23. ^ "Nazi-Era Victims Demand Army, CIA Release Documents on Vatican". CNS News. September 4, 2000.


  • Mark Aarons and John Loftus, Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, The Nazis, and the Swiss Bankers, St Martins Press 1991 (revised 1998)
  • Gitta Sereny Into That Darkness, Picador 1977
  • Uki Goñi The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón's Argentina, Granta (revised edition) 2003
  • Robert Graham and David Alvarez, Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage against the Vatican, 1939-1945, London: Frank Cass, 1998.
  • Simon Wiesenthal Justice not Vengeance, George Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1989
  • The Pavelic Papers - online collection of declassified intelligence reports and essays on Ustashi escape routes
  • Gerald Steinacher The Cape of Last Hope: The Flight of Nazi War Criminals through Italy to South America, in: Klaus Eisterer, Günter Bischof (Ed.), Transatlantic Relations. Austria and Latin America in the 19th and 20th Century (Transatlantica 1) New Brunswick 2006, p. 203 – 224.

See also