Franz Stangl : Nazi Germany

Franz Stangl : Nazi Germany

Franz Stangl, the son of a night-watchman, was born in Altmuenster, Austria, on 26th March, 1908. After working as a weaver Stangl joined the Austrian police in 1931 and soon afterwards the illrgal Nazi Party.

After Anschluss Stangl was quickly promoted through the ranks. In 1940 Stangl became superintendent of the Euthanasia Institute at Schloss Hartheim where mentally and physically handicapped people were sent to be killed.

In 1942 he was transferred to Poland where he worked under Odilo Globocnik. Stangl was commandant of extermination camps in Sobibor (March, 1942 - September, 1942) and Treblinka (September, 1942 - August, 1943). Always dressed in white riding clothes, Stangl gained a reputation an an efficient administrator and was described as the "best camp commander in Poland".

During the Second World War he stole vast sums of money from the inmates and deposited it in Schutzstaffel (SS) bank deposits. This included 145 kilograms of gold from rings and 4,000 carats of diamonds.

At the end of the war Stangl managed to conceal his identity and although imprisoned in Linz in 1945 he was released two years later. Stangl lived in Syria for three years before moving to Brazil in 1951. With the help of friends Stangl found work at the Volkswagen plant in Sao Paulo.

Austria did not issue a warrant for Stangl's arrest until 1961. It took another six years before he was tracked down and arrested in Brazil.

At his trial it was claimed that Stangl was responsible for the deaths of around 900,000 people. He admitted to these killings but argued that: "My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty." Found guilty on 22nd October, 1970, Stangl was sentenced to life imprisonment. Franz Stangl died of a heart attack in prison on 28th June, 1971.

We agreed that what we were doing was a crime. We considered deserting - we discussed it for a long time. But how? Where could we go? What about our families? We also knew what had happened in the past to other people who said no. The only way out that we could see was to keep trying in various and devious ways to get a transfer.

"Would it be true to say that you got used to the liquidations?"

He thought for a moment. "To tell the truth," be then said, slowly and thoughtfully, "one did become used to it."

"In days? Weeks? Months?"

"Months. It was months before I could look one of them in the eye. I repressed it all by trying to create a special place: gardens, new barracks, new kitchens, new everything; barbers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters. There were hundreds of ways to take one's mind off it; I used them all."

"Even so, if you felt that strongly, there had to be times, perhaps at night, in the dark, when you couldn't avoid thinking about it?"

"In the end, the only way to deal with it was to drink. I took a large glass of brandy to bed with me each night and I drank."

"I think you are evading my question."

"No, I don't mean to; of course, thoughts came. But I forced them away. I made myself concentrate on work, work and again work."

"Would it be true to say that you finally felt they weren't really human beings?"

"When I was on a trip once, years later in Brazil," be said, his face deeply concentrated, and obviously reliving the experience, "my train stopped next to a slaughterhouse. The cattle in the pens hearing the noise of the train, trotted up to the fence and stared at the train. They were very close to my window, one crowding the other, looking at me through that fence. I thought then, 'Look at this, this reminds me of Poland; that's just how the people looked, trustingly, just before they went into the tins..."'

"You said tins," I interrupted. "What do you mean?" But he went on without hearing or answering me.

"... I couldn't eat tinned meat after that. Those big eyes which looked at me not knowing that in no time at all they'd all be

dead." He paused. His face was drawn. At this moment he looked old and worn and real.

"So you didn't feel they were human beings?"

"Cargo," he said tonelessly. "They were cargo." He raised and dropped his hand in a gesture of despair. Both our voices had dropped. It was one of the few times in those weeks of talks that he made no effort to cloak his despair, and his hopeless grief allowed a moment of sympathy.

"When do you think you began to think of them as cargo? The way you spoke earlier, of the day when you first came to Treblinka, the horror you felt seeing the dead bodies everywhere - they weren't 'cargo' to you then, were they?"

"I think it started the day I first saw the Totenlager in Treblinka. I remember Wirth standing there, next to the pits full of blue-black corpses. It had nothing to do with humanity, it couldn't have; it was a mass - a mass of rotting flesh. Wirth said, 'What shall we do with this garbage?' I think unconsciously that started me thinking of them as cargo."

"There were so many children, did they ever make you think of your children, of how you would feel in the position of those parents?"

"No," he said slowly, "I can't say I ever thought that way." He paused. "You see," he then continued, still speaking with this extreme seriousness and obviously intent on finding a new truth within himself, "I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass. I sometimes stood on the wall and saw them in the tube. Bu t- how can I explain it - they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips like ..." the sentence trailed off.

"Could you not have changed that?" I asked. "In your position, could you not have stopped the nakedness, the whips, the horror of the cattle pens?"

"No, no, no. This was the system. Wirth had invented it. It worked and because it worked, it was irreversible."

The ratlines: What did the Vatican know about Nazi escape routes?

After World War II, thousands of Nazis fled to South America along so-called ratlines — often with the help of Catholic clergy. The Vatican is now opening its archives from the time. Will it be a moment of truth?

Just how much did Pope Pius XII know about the 'ratlines' used by thousands of Nazis?

In 1948, just three years after the end of World War II, a leading Nazi war criminal managed to escape from a prison in Linz, Austria.

Franz Stangl, a former SS-Hauptsturmführer and commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, was responsible for the deaths of almost 1 million Jews. Via Graz, Merano and Florence, he made his way to Rome and — most importantly for him — to the Vatican.

In Rome, Bishop Alois Hudal, a fellow Austrian, greeted him with the words: "You must be Franz Stangl — I've been expecting you." He then handed Stangl forged documents that allowed the Nazi war criminal to travel to Syria, where his family eventually joined him. In 1951, the Stangl family emigrated to Brazil. The man who perfected mass murder in the concentration camps spent years assembling cars at a Volkswagen plant near Sao Paulo.

Franz Stangl is one of thousands of Nazis and collaborators who, with the help of the Catholic Church, escaped Europve via routes called "ratlines" — some of which ran from Innsbruck over the Alps to Merano or Bolzano in South Tyrol, then to Rome and from there to the Italian port city of Genoa.

Stangl chose a detour via Syria, but the majority of Nazis boarded ships headed directly to South America — mainly to Argentina, the country Holocaust survivor and writer Simon Wiesenthal named the Nazis' "Cape of Last Hope." Argentina was that last country to declare war on Nazi Germany.

Franz Stangl during his trial in Düsseldorf

Spontaneous cooperation?

"The ratlines were not a thoroughly structured system, but consisted of many individual components," said Daniel Stahl, a historian at the Department of Modern and Contemporary History at Jena's Friedrich Schiller University. "It was more of a spontaneous cooperation of different institutions that gradually established itself after World War II."

Some 90% of Nazi perpetrators who escaped Europe are thought to have fled across the Alps to Italy — that was the first loophole.

Their first stop was in the South Tyrol region of northern Italy: the monastery of the Teutonic Order in Merano, the Capuchin monastery near Bressanone or the Franciscan monastery near Bolzano. The war criminals would often hide out in monasteries — these ratlines are also known as the "monastery route" — for years, collecting money to continue their escape overseas. Sometimes, the Nazis were accommodated right next to their former victims, Jews headed to Israel.

Rome was the next stop. The Nazis who had a letter from the Catholic Church confirming their identity were handed a passport by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which issued about 120,000 papers until 1951 — a mere formality.

"The story goes that even before the end of the war, there was a clearly thought-out and elaborate plan for Nazi escapees," Stahl said. "That is wrong, even the likes of Franz Stangl first wandered around Rome without knowing what to do next." Information was passed on word of mouth.

A name that regularly crops up is Alois Hudal. The Austrian bishop had clearly positioned himself as a Nazi sympathizer during Nazi rule, and later he said many of those persecuted were "completely blameless" and that he "snatched them from their tormentors with false identity papers."

Adolf Eichmann's fake passport with the alias Ricardo Klement

Popular clandestine route

"It would have been much more difficult for Stangl and the others to flee" if the Catholic Church had not protected many Nazis, Stahl said.

The list of infamous Nazis who used the ratlines is long.

Using the name Riccardo Klement, the man who organized the Holocaust fled from Bolzano to Argentina in 1950. His family later joined him. Grateful for the Vatican's help in his escape, Eichmann converted to Catholicism. He worked as an electrician at a Daimler-Benz truck factory. In 1960, he was kidnapped by Mossad, Israel's secret service, and brought to trial in Israel. He was executed in the night from May 31 to June 1, 1962.

Eichmann was kidnapped and brought to Israel to stand trial

The sadistic Auschwitz concentration camp doctor fled to South Tyrol in 1949, where supporters provided him with a new passport. His new name was Helmut Gregor, 38, a Catholic and a mechanic, born in the South Tyrolean village of Tramin. The detail of his birth in South Tyrol would prove the most important condition for leaving the country. As a South Tyrolean citizen, he was considered an ethnic German as well as stateless, and therefore entitled to an ICRC passport. Mengele lived in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, where he suffered a stroke while swimming and drowned on February 7, 1979.

The man believed to be Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele, third from right, during a picnic with friends in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Known as the "Butcher of Lyon," the French city's former Gestapo chief set off for South America as Klaus Altmann of Romania. With the help of the CIA, Barbie obtained a visa for Bolivia in 1951 and continued to receive orders from the US foreign intelligence service and the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND). His whereabouts became known to the public in 1970. Bolivia extradited him to France in 1983. He received a life sentence and died of cancer in prison on September 25, 1991.

The SS captain was partly responsible for the massacre of 335 civilians in a reprisal killing in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome in 1944. He fled from Latvia to Bariloche in Argentina under the pseudonym Otto Pape. Argentinian authorities extradited him to Rome in 1995. Three years later, he was sentenced to life in prison and died under house arrest on October 11, 2013.

Rauff invented mobile gas chambers, in which exhaust fumes were fed directly into the back of redesigned vans. According to his arrest warrant, he was responsible for at least 97,000 murders. In 1949, he fled along the ratline together with his wife and two children, to the Ecuadoran city Quito, then continued on to Chile. West Germany requested his extradition in 1963, but it was rejected as the crimes Rauff was accused of had expired under Chile's statute of limitations. Rauff became a wealthy food producer and died of a heart attack on May 14, 1984.

Nazi artifacts found in Argentina

T-4 Euthanasia Programme [ edit | edit source ]

After the onset of World War II, in early 1940, Stangl was instructed to report for work at the Public Service Foundation for Institutional Care (Gemeinnützige Stiftung für Anstaltspflege), a front organization of the T-4 Euthanasia Program. Δ] Stangl purposely solicited for a job in the newly created T-4 program in order to escape difficulties with his boss in the Linz Gestapo. He traveled to the RSHA in Berlin, where he was received by Paul Werner. Werner offered Stangl a job as supervisor in charge of security at a T4 killing facility, and in the language commonly used during recruitment, described Action T4 as a "humanitarian" effort that was "essential, legal, and secret". Next Stangl met with Viktor Brack, who offered him a choice of work between Hartheim and Sonnenstein Euthanasia Centres naturally, Stangl picked Hartheim, which was near Linz. Γ] Through a direct order from Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler issued in November 1940, Stangl became the deputy office manager (Police Superintendent) of the T-4 Euthanasia Program at Hartheim Euthanasia Centre, and in late summer 1941 at Bernburg Euthanasia Centre, where mentally and physically disabled people, as well as political prisoners, were sent to be killed. Β] Ζ]

At Hartheim, Stangl served under Christian Wirth as assistant supervisor in charge of security. When Wirth was succeeded by Franz Reichleitner, Stangl stayed on as Reichleitner's deputy. During his brief posting to Bernburg Euthanasia Centre Stangl reorganized the office at that killing facility. Γ]

In March 1942, Stangl was given a choice to either return to the Linz Gestapo or be transferred to Lublin for work in Operation Reinhard. Stangl accepted the posting to Lublin in the General Government, where he would manage Operation Reinhard under Odilo Globocnik. Β]


Treblinka, together with the camps at Bełżec and Sobibor, was one of the Operation Reinhard extermination camps, so called in memory of Reinhard Heydrich . It was located in the sparsely-populated north east of the Generalgouvernement area, on the Warsaw-Białystock line, close to an existing penal camp founded in 1941. Work on the camp's construction started in the end of May 1942 , and by the 22nd of July of the same year the camp was completed.

The station at Treblinka. The photo comes from the archive of camp commander Kurt Franz, 1942 - 1943. (Photo: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)

The camp was divided into three parts. The first was for the use of the staff, who consisted of Germans and Ukrainians, as well as Jewish prisoners who worked there in carpentry, cobblers' and metal-working workshops. The second consisted of space for the reception and assembly of prisoners. The third part was the extermination area, in which the gas chambers, mass graves and woodpiles for the cremation of prisoners were situated. This part was connected with the reception part by a narrow broken alley known as the pipe - Schlauch - along which the Jews were driven into the gas chambers.

Treblinka was a true death factory. Immediately after getting off the train, people went to the gas chambers. There was no tattooing, no huts with wooden bunks, no louses, not even any harsh labour. From the start, three gas chambers were in operation, with dimensions of 4 by 4 metres and a capacity of 300 to 500 people an hour. In September 1942, a further ten gas chambers were added, with a much greater capacity. They allowed between 1 000 and 2 000 people to be put to death in an hour.

Jews arrested after the suppressed uprising in the Warsaw ghetto leave for a transport to Treblinka, 19. April - 16. April 1943. (Photo: National Archive, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)

The transport trains, each with forty to fifty trucks and carrying 6 000 to 7 000 prisoners, ended their journey at the station in the village of Treblinka, 4 km from the camp. From there, they were sent to the camp 20 trucks at a time. The deportees were driven out of the trucks, the men were separated from the women and children and all were forced to strip naked. Then they were driven down the Schlauch into the bath house , where they died of gas poisoning within about 15 minutes. After the procedure was finished, Jewish prisoners dragged the corpses out through the back doors. Initially the bodies were buried in mass graves, but later they were burned, on the orders of Heinrich Himmler , who visited the camp in late February and early March 1943. This was also required of the victims that had already been buried, and so the mass graves had to be opened and the bodies burned. The remains and the ash were thrown back into the graves.

In the reception part was a building above which there was a flag with a red cross, the Lazarett . This is where people unable to walk to the bath house by themselves were taken. Instead of receiving medical care, however, they were immediately killed.

The abandoned trucks were cleared out, another twenty trucks arrived in their place and the whole process was repeated. The clothes and items left by the victims in the deportation barracks before the shower were sorted. Gradually, bankers and goldsmiths were selected from the transports and formed into a commando called the Goldjuden - Gold Jews. Their job was to collect and classify any valuables, which were then vigorously traded by Germans, Ukrainians and the local population.

The first transports to Treblinka came from the Warsaw ghetto. Between the 23rd of July and the 21st of August 1942, a total of 254 000 Jews from Warsaw and 112 000 from other parts of the Warsaw region were murdered here. 337 000 Jews were killed from the Radom area, and 35 000 from Lublin and its surroundings. In total 738 000 Jews from the Generalgouvernement area were killed in Treblinka.

More than 107 000 people were deported here from the Białystok area, the majority between November 1942 and January 1943. 7 000 Jews came from Slovakia, who were first imprisoned in the Polish ghettos, dying in Treblinka in summer and autumn 1942. There were ten transports from Terezín with 18 000 people, in September and October 1942. In March and April 1943, approximately 11 000 Jews from Macedonia and Thrace, areas newly attached to Bulgaria, were deported to Treblinka, while at the end of March 2nd,800 Jews also came from Thessaloniki. Over 2 000 Roma also died here.

The total number of people murdered in Treblinka is estimated at 870 000.

Franz Stangl, commander of the Treblinka extermination camp from 1942 - 1943. (Photo: The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)

The first commander of the camp was SS-Obersturmführer Imfried Eberl . In August 1942, he was replaced by SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl , previously the commander of Sobibor. From April 1942 on, the camp's commander was Kurt Franz , Stangl's erstwhile deputy. The staff consisted of 20 to 30 Germans, who held leading functions, and approximately 120 Ukrainians, who served as guards. Most of them were Soviet prisoners of war, trained in Trawniki. In addition, over 700 Jewish prisoners were used for slave labour, which included keeping the gas chambers working and burying the bodies of the victims.

In 1943, a resistance group emerged among the prisoners used for slave labour, joined by many of the kapos and leaders of working groups. Its attempt to create a rebellion failed, however. The leadership of the resistance movement was taken over in the end by a former officer in the Czechoslovak army, Zelo Bloch . The uprising, planned from April 1943, began on the 2nd of August 1943 . The prisoners took weapons and grenades out of a storeroom for which they had made a key. They managed to set fire to the building in which the Germans and Ukrainians lived, and gradually all the buildings in the camp caught fire. The prisoners tried to climb over the barbed fortifications, but many of them were shot from the watch towers. Others managed to flee into the marshy woods, but of the seven hundred prisoners, only around 70 escaped.

The rest of the prisoners, who did not manage to escape, were forced to destroy and obliterate all evidence of the activities that had gone on in the camp. Afterwards they too were shot, and a farm was built on the site of the extermination camp.

Between 1959 and 1969 a memorial was constructed on the site of the camp, in the form of a cemetery. Hundreds of stone tombs bear the names of the countries and districts from which the victims came.

The symbolic cemetery on the site of the former extermination camp, 2001. (Photo: M. Stránský)

After the war, Franz Stangl fled to Brazil, from whence he was extradited back to Germany. He stood on trial between the 13th of March and the 22nd of December 1970 , and received a life sentence. Asked How many people could be killed in Treblinka in a day? he replied: According to my estimation, a transport of thirty freight cars or with 3 000 people was liquidated in three hours. When the work lasted for about fourteen hours, 12 000 to 15 000 people were annihilated. There were many days that the work lasted from the early morning until the evening. I have done nothing to anybody that was not my duty . My conscience is clear.

Evading Justice

Following postwar trials of Nazis, the search continued for perpetrators of the Holocaust. Only a small percentage of these criminals have been brought to justice. Among them was Franz Stangl, who had been commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka killing centers.

This content is available in the following languages

“It is not the murderer in Stangl that terrifies us—it is the human being.” —Elie Wiesel

“If I had done nothing else in my life but get this evil man [Stangl], I would not have lived in vain.” —Simon Wiesenthal

Following postwar trials of Nazis, the search continued for perpetrators of the Holocaust. Only a small percentage of these criminals have been brought to justice. The search for and prosecution of Holocaust criminals raises complex moral questions, as well as tangled problems of international law and jurisdiction. As they reach the end of their lives, the vast majority of Nazi offenders have escaped punishment.

Franz Stangl was the commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka killing centers, where over one million people were systematically murdered. Stangl's superiors commended him as the camp commandant who “made the largest contribution to the extermination program.” In 1967, Stangl was arrested while leaving the automotive plant where he worked. An informant sold Stangl's new home address to noted Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Stangl had been living with his wife and three daughters in Brazil since 1951 under his own name. He was extradited to West Germany and, after a long trial, sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 400,000 people.

Only six months after being sentenced, Franz Stangl died in prison of a heart attack.

Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka killing center. - The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives ( See archival information )

Mass Murder

Incoming trains of about 50 or 60 cars bound for the killing center first stopped at the Malkinia railway station. Twenty cars at a time were detached from the train and brought into the killing center. The guards ordered the victims to disembark in the reception area, which contained the railway siding and platform. One building erected on the platform was disguised as a small railway station, complete with a wooden clock and fictive rail terminal signs and railway schedules.

German SS and police personnel announced that the deportees had arrived at a transit camp. Deportees were required to hand over all valuables. The reception area contained a fenced-in "deportation square" with two barracks in which deportees—with men separated from women and children—had to undress. It also contained large storerooms. This is where the possessions relinquished by victims were sorted and stored. Next, the goods were shipped to Germany via Lublin.

A camouflaged, fenced-in path led from the reception area to the gas chamber entrance, located in the killing area. This was known as the “tube” [“Schlauch”]. Victims were forced to run naked along this path to the gas chambers, deceptively labeled as showers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, a large diesel engine installed outside the building pumped in carbon monoxide exhaust. All those inside were killed.

Discussion Questions

1. How did obedience to authority affect Franz Stangl’s perception of his responsibility? Explain. What other factors, biases, or pressures may have affected his perception?

2. Based on Stangl’s description of guilt while in prison, do you think he believed his previous claims in court? Why or why not?

3. What might have helped Stangl at the time to see his actions for what they were? Do you think this would have led Stangl to act differently? Why or why not?

4. Can you think of other historical examples in which obedience to authority may have played a significant role in the actions of individuals? Explain.

5. What do you think the moral responsibility of an individual is within a bureaucracy? Explain.

6. Does one’s position in a hierarchy affect one’s moral responsibility? Why or why not?

Bill Downs, War Correspondent

There was bitter irony in the news from West Germany yesterday—just days before Christmas and on the opening night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights—Düsseldorf court convicted one Franz Stangl for the murder of at least 400,000 Jews.

Of course, we ancients over the age of fifty find it a little hard to explain to today's children how this killing all came about, particularly when most Christian families are up to their necks in yuletide presents and decorations and the Hebrew children are fascinated with lighting what some call the Hanukkah bush.

But back in the 1930s and '40s, Franz Stangl was a leader of the Nazi SS elite guard, and when Hitler's armies invaded Poland he became commander of the notorious Treblinka death camp. There he earned a Nazi medal for devising ways of exterminating so-called "inferior races"—that's what the Nazi Herrenvolk called the Hebrew and Slavic peoples and all others opposing Hitler.

Heinrich Himmler's SS corps produced many mass-murder experts like Franz Stangl, because the Nazi death camps killed an estimated six million Jews before Hitler was stopped. But at Treblinka, Stangl was very efficient, murdering about 18,000 Jews a day between the years of 1942 and '43.

When World War II came to an end, SS Captain Franz Stangl escaped from an Austrian jail and made his way to Syria and the Mideast. In 1951, he and his family fled to Brazil, where he became a safety official in the Volkswagen auto plant at São Paulo.

And that's where a private Jewish organization headed by Simon Wiesenthal of Vienna, and dedicated to tracking down Nazi war criminals, located Stangl and arranged for his extradition back to West Germany to face charges of committing 400,000 murders.

The Düsseldorf court sentenced him to life imprisonment, and the 62-year-old war criminal will probably spend the rest of his life behind bars.

How do you explain this bit of twentieth century history to a child lighting his first Hanukkah candle? How do you explain how allegedly civilized men have failed to heed the moral of the birth more than nineteen hundred years ago of one Hebrew child in Bethlehem?

The man, Jesus of Nazareth, would face his own Captain Stangl in the person of Pontius Pilate a few decades hence in Jerusalem.

But take a look at our own society at this 1970 holiday season of peace and goodwill. Look into the eyes of the ghetto, the migrant farmer, the Indian reservation, the segregated school or union hall. Perhaps you will see something there of what Stangl saw at Treblinka.

The saga of Franz Stangl is not a pleasant holiday story. But history seems to be full of ironic parallels. The anti-Nazi Jewish organization which spent more than twenty years locating the former SS captain in Brazil brought about his capture on information purchased for $5,000. The money was paid to Franz Stangl's son-in-law, who also was a former SS stormtrooper.

The Shady History of Nazi Ratlines, Covert Programs, and the Escape from Justice

From the largest and most sophisticated militaries in the world to small teams operating behind enemy lines, contingencies are put in place in the event a plan falls apart. When Nazi Germany fell, some of the most notorious war criminals faced justice at the infamous Nuremberg Trials , where they were tried and convicted of crimes against humanity. News cameras and reporters covered the trial of the century but noticed that other high-ranking Nazi officials were absent — either assumed dead or having mysteriously disappeared.

Questions arose as to where these leaders could have gone, and some shady back-end deals were committed by several agencies and conspirators despite the knowledge of wartime atrocities. NASA recruited Nazi engineers and researchers in secret to help with the space program . The CIA supported the Gehlen Organization — a post-World War II intelligence network developed by Nazi General Reinhard Gehlen and comprised of more than 100 former Nazi SS or Gestapo officers — in West Germany, which was largely infiltrated by Soviet double agents. The U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) secured the refuge in Bolivia for Klaus Barbie, called “ the Butcher of Lyon ” by the French, in exchange for his work as an informant against communist activities and his knowledge of counter-guerilla tactics.

The dark mark on history doesn’t focus solely on America’s missteps. No matter how ethical their post-World War II judgements were considering the threat of communism, many other nations were complicit in the successful escapes and providing safe passage for the most heinous war criminals of the 20th century. Those who weren’t recruited into covert programs fled using “ratlines,” or secret pre-planned routes through parts of Europe. Simon Wiesenthal, a world-renowned Nazi hunter, suspected Nazis fled to Middle Eastern nations early on.

Franz Stangl, a former SS-Hauptsturmführer and commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka concentration camps who was suspected of murdering over 1 million Jews, hid in Syria with his family until in 1951. Assisted by the Catholic Church and the Vatican in Rome, he emigrated to Brazil.

The Red Cross had the responsibility of sifting through millions of refugees’ paperwork and, knowingly or not, helped Nazi war criminals with false documents supplied by the Vatican Refugee Commission in their evasion plans following ratlines into Italy and then to Spain across the Atlantic. Some 9,000 Nazi officers were harbored in South American and Latin American countries. Wiesenthal famously tracked and brought Stangl to justice in 1967. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and Wiesenthal’s attention honed in on communities that shielded these criminals in their German towns.

When Adolf Eichmann’s wife issued a death certificate for her SS-affiliated husband in 1947, Wiesenthal grew suspicious. Ricardo Klement, the false name of Eichmann, who was the architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” passed through customs with his Red Cross passport, boarded a steamship to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950, and lived a quiet life for a decade. Wiesenthal provided information to a snatch-and-grab team of Mossad agents, Israeli’s elite intelligence service, who kidnapped Eichmann and snuck him out of the country by plane using disguises to not draw attention. He was brought to trial and sentenced to death in 1962.

The ratlines, according to Wiesenthal, were also supported by organizations of Nazi collaborators codenamed ODESSA. Most notably, Otto Skorzeni, referred to as “ Hitler’s Trigger-man ,” was a Nazi commando who had launched a daring rescue raid on Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s mountaintop retreat, had organized an underground ratline organization called Die Spinne , or “The Spider.” The Spider network took Nazis by plane from Paris to Buenos Aires. Argentina was the last country to declare war on Nazi Germany during World War II and an estimated 12,000 Nazis lived comfortably in Argentina, drawing cash from Swiss Banks . At one point, when the heat was too heavy on Skorzeni’s trail, he hid in a sanctuary in a small suburb of Cairo, Egypt.

Although some Nazi officials received the justice they deserved, there are many who escaped from their past lives, some of whom still live anonymously in fear of being discovered. As recently as 2018, two new names, Alois Brunner and Aribert Heim, made Wiesenthal Center’s Most Wanted Nazi War Criminals list and will be hunted as long as they live freely amongst the rest of society.

J. Murrey Atkins Library


1 online resource (116 pages) : PDF

Degree Granting Institution

On April 23, 1978, Brazilian authorities arrested Gustav Wagner, a former Nazi internationally wanted for his crimes committed during the Holocaust. Despite a confirming witness and petitions from West Germany, Israel, Poland and Austria, the Brazilian Supreme Court blocked Wagner’s extradition and released him in 1979. Earlier in 1967, Brazil extradited Wagner’s former commanding officer, Franz Stangl, who stood trial in West Germany, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. These two particular cases present a paradox in the international hunt to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. They both had almost identical experiences during the war and their escape, yet opposite outcomes once arrested. Trials against war criminals, particularly in West Germany, yielded some successes, but many resulted in acquittals or light sentences. Some Jewish survivors sought extrajudicial means to see that Holocaust perpetrators received their due justice. Some resorted to violence, such as vigilante justice carried out by "Jewish vengeance squads." In other cases, private survivor and Jewish organizations collaborated to acquire information, lobby diplomatic representatives and draw public attention to the fact that many Nazi war criminals were still at large. One particular individual, Simon Wiesenthal, communicated with contacts, governments and private organizations all over the world to track, locate, extradite and prosecute former war criminals.