Ratlines were a system of escape routes for German Nationalist Socialists and other fascists fleeing Europe at the end of World War II. These escape routes mainly led toward havens in Latin America, particularly Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as in Switzerland. Other destinations included Australia, 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. The two routes developed independently but eventually came together to collaborate.
Early Spanish ratlines
The origins of the first ratlines are connected to various developments in Vatican-Argentine relations before and during World War II. As early as 1942, Monsignor Luigi Maglione contacted Ambassador Llobet, inquiring as to the “willingness of the government of the Argentine Republic to apply its immigration law generously, in order to encourage at the opportune moment European Catholic immigrants to seek the necessary land and capital in our country”. Afterwards, a German priest, Anton Weber, the head of the Rome-based Society of Saint Raphael, traveled to Portugal, continuing to Argentina, to lay the groundwork for future Catholic immigration; this was to be a route which fascist exiles would exploit. According to historian Michael Phayer, “this was the innocent origin of what would become the Vatican ratline”.
Spain, not Rome, was the “first center of ratline activity that facilitated the escape of Germans,” although the exodus itself was planned within the Vatican. Among the primary organizers were Charles Lescat, a French member of Action Française (an organization suppressed by Pope Pius XI and rehabilitated by Pope Pius XII), and Pierre Daye, a Belgian with contacts in the Spanish government. Lescat and Daye were the first to flee Europe with the help of Argentine cardinal Antonio Caggiano.
By 1946, there were hundreds of “war criminals” in Spain, and thousands of former German Nationalist Socialists and fascists. According to then-United States Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Vatican cooperation in turning over these “asylum-seekers” was “negligible”. According to Phayer, Pius XII “preferred to see fascist war criminals on board ships sailing to the New World rather than seeing them rotting in POW camps in zonal Germany”. Unlike the Vatican emigration operation in Italy that centered on Vatican City, the ratlines of Spain, although “fostered by the Vatican,” were relatively independent of the hierarchy of the Vatican Emigration Bureau.
Early efforts—Bishop Hudal
Bishop Alois Hudal, a Nationalist Socialist sympathiser, 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”. 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 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 for the Drancy internment camp near Paris and in charge of deportations in Slovakia to German concentration camps, and Adolf Eichmann— 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 hid in Italy, and sought Hudal out as his role in assisting escapes became known on the Nationalist Socialist grapevine.
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.” 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’.”
Aarons and Loftus claim that Hudal provided the objects of his charity with money to help them escape, and more importantly, provided them with false papers including identity documents issued by the Vatican Refugee Organisation (Commissione Pontificia d’Assistenza). These Vatican papers were not full passports and thus were not 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 Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which in turn could be used to apply for visas. In theory, the ICRC 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 Austrian writer Gitta Sereny from a senior official of the Rome branch of the ICRC, Hudal could also use his position as a bishop to request papers from the ICRC “made out according to his specifications”. Sereny’s sources also revealed an active illicit trade in stolen and forged ICRC papers in Rome at the time.
According to declassified U.S. intelligence reports, Hudal was not the only priest helping German Nationalist Socialist 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 ICRC 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”.
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 Draganović, who organized a highly sophisticated chain with headquarters at the San Girolamo degli Illirici Seminary College in Rome, but with links from Austria to the final embarcation point at the port of Genoa. The ratline initially focused on aiding members of the Croatian Ustaše including its leader (or Poglavnik), Ante Pavelić.
Priests active in the chain included: Fr. Vilim Cecelja, former Deputy Military Vicar to the Ustaše, based in Austria where many Ustashe and Nationalist Socialist refugees remained in hiding; Fr. Dragutin Kamber, based at San Girolamo; Fr. Dominik Mandić, an official Vatican representative at San Girolamo and also “General Economist” or treasurer of the Franciscan order – who used this position to put the Franciscan press at the ratline’s disposal; and Monsignor Karlo Petranović, based in Genoa. Vilim would make contact with those hiding in Austria and help them across the border to Italy; Kamber, Mandić and Draganović would find them lodgings, often in the monastery itself, while they arranged documentation; finally Draganović would phone Petranović in Genoa with the number of required berths on ships leaving for South America (see below).
The operation of the Draganović ratline was an open secret among the intelligence and diplomatic communities in Rome. As early as August 1945, Allied commanders in Rome were asking questions about the use of San Girolamo as a “haven” for Ustaše.
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.” The British envoy to the Holy See, Francis Osborne, asked Domenico Tardini, a high-ranking Vatican official, for permission that would have allowed British military police to raid ex-territorial Vatican Institutions in Rome. Tardini declined and denied the church was sheltering war criminals.
In February 1947 CIC Special Agent Robert Clayton Mudd reported ten members of Pavelić’s Ustaša 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 Ustashe operatives” guarded by “armed youths”. Mudd 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. Subject to diplomatic immunity it is impossible to stop the car and discover who are its passengers.
Mudd’s conclusion was the following:
DRAGANOVIC’s sponsorship of these Croat Ustashes definitely links him up with the plan of the Vatican to shield these ex-Ustasha 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 Draganović’s ratline has been supported by a highly respected historian of Vatican diplomacy, Fr. Robert Graham: “I’ve no doubt that Draganović was extremely active in syphoning off his Croatian Ustashe friends.” Graham pointed out that Draganović, in running his ‘ratline,’ was not acting on behalf of the Vatican: “Just because he’s a priest doesn’t mean he represents the Vatican. It was his own operation.” At the same time, there were four occasions in which the Vatican did intervene on behalf of interned Ustasha prisoners. The Secretariat of State asked the UK and US governments to release Croatian POWs from British internment camps in Italy.
US intelligence involvement
If at first US intelligence officers had been mere observers of the Draganović ratline, this changed in the summer of 1947. A now declassified US Army intelligence report from 1950 sets out in detail the history of the people smuggling operation in the three years to follow.
According to the report, from this point on US forces themselves had begun to use Draganović’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”.
These were suspected war criminals from areas occupied by the Red Army which the US was obliged to hand over for trial to the Soviets. The US reputedly was reluctant to do so, partly due to a belief that fair trials could hardly be expected in the USSR (see Operation Keelhaul), and at the same time, their desire to make use of Nationalist Socialist scientists and other resources.
The deal with Draganović involved getting the visitors to Rome: “Dragonovich [sic] 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”.
United States intelligence used these methods in order to get important Nationalist Socialist 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 Nationalist Socialist scientists were employed by the U.S., retrieved in Operation Paperclip.
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 Nationalist Socialist war criminals.)
In his 2002 book, The Real Odessa, Argentine researcher Uki Goñi used new access to the country’s archives to show that Argentine diplomats and intelligence officers had, on Perón’s instructions, vigorously encouraged Nationalist Socialist and Fascist war criminals to make their home in Argentina. According to Goñi, the Argentines not only collaborated with Draganović’s ratline, they set up further ratlines of their own running through Scandinavia, Switzerland and Belgium.
According to Goñi, Argentina’s first move into Nationalist Socialist smuggling was in January 1946, when Argentine bishop Antonio Caggiano, leader of the Argentine chapter of Catholic Action flew with another bishop, Agustín Barrére, to Rome where Caggiano was due to be anointed Cardinal. 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 ICRC 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 Émile Dewoitine — later sentenced in absentia to 20 years hard labour. He sailed first class on the same ship back with Cardinal Caggiano.
Shortly after this Argentinian Nationalist Socialist smuggling became institutionalised, according to Goñi, when Perón’s new government of February 1946 appointed anthropologist Santiago Peralta as Immigration Commissioner and 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.
In 2014, 700 declassified FBI documents revealed that the US government had undertaken an investigation in 1947 as to the possible escape of Adolf Hitler from Germany where it was purported that he had not committed suicide in Berlin as reported but had fled Berlin in 1945 and had eventually arrived in Argentina via Spain. Within the pages of these documents are thousands of statements, naming people and places involved in Hitler’s alleged journey from Germany to Argentina including mention of the ratlines that were already in existence. These FBI documents are available for public viewing on the FBI website.
ODESSA and the Gehlen Org
The Italian and Argentine ratlines have only been confirmed relatively recently, mainly due to research in newly declassified archives. Until the work of Aarons and Loftus, and of Uki Goñi (2002), a common view was that ex-Nationalist Socialists 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, in Argentina, Rodolfo Freude. Alois Brunner, former commandant of Drancy internment camp near Paris, escaped to Rome, then Syria, by ODESSA. (Brunner was thought to be the highest-ranking Nationalist Socialist “war criminal” still alive as of 2007.)
Persons claiming to represent ODESSA claimed responsibility for the unsuccessful July 9, 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 …”
Simon Wiesenthal, who advised Frederick Forsyth on the novel/filmscript The Odessa File which brought the name to public attention, also names other Nationalist Socialist 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 Nationalist Socialists 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 Draganović); or through a second route through France and into Francoist Spain.
ODESSA was supported by the Gehlen Organization, which employed many former Nationalist Socialist party members, and was headed by Reinhard Gehlen, a former German Army 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.
Some of the Nationalist Socialists and “war criminals” who escaped using ratlines include:
- Adolf Eichmann, fled to Argentina in 1950; captured 1960; executed in Israel on 1 June 1962
- Franz Stangl, fled to Brazil in 1951; arrested in 1967 and extradited to West Germany; died in 1971 of heart failure
- Gustav Wagner, fled to Brazil in 1950; arrested 1978; committed suicide 1980
- Erich Priebke, fled to Argentina in 1949; arrested 1994; died in 2013
- Klaus Barbie, fled to Bolivia in 1951 with help from the United States, as he had been an agent of the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps since April 1947; captured in 1983; died in prison in France on September 23, 1991
- Eduard Roschmann, escaped to Argentina in 1948; fled to Paraguay to avoid extradition and died there in 1977
- Aribert Heim, disappeared in 1962; most likely died in Egypt in 1992
- Andrija Artuković, escaped to the United States; arrested in 1984 after decades of delay and extradited to Yugoslavia, where he died in 1988 from natural causes
- Ante Pavelić, escaped to Argentina in 1948; died in Spain, in December 1959, of wounds sustained two years earlier in an assassination attempt
- Walter Rauff, escaped to Chile; never captured; died in 1984
- Alois Brunner, fled to Syria in 1954; died around 2010
- Josef Mengele, fled to Argentina in 1949, then to other countries; died in Brazil in 1979