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Escape aid for Nazis: the Vatican and the rat line

The Second World War was just over three years ago, in West Germany the Marshall Plan came into force in 1948, when one of the greatest Nazi war criminals managed to escape from prison in Linz, Austria: Franz Stangl, former SS Hauptsturmführer and commander of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps , responsible for the deaths of nearly a million Jews. Stangl marches on foot via Graz and Meran to Florence.

His destination is 300 kilometers further south: Rome, capital of Italy, but above all the seat of the Vatican. "You must be Franz Stangl, I've been waiting for you," the Roman Bishop Alois Hudal greets him there and Stangl gets false papers. With this, Stangl left for Syria, had his family follow him and emigrated from Damascus to Brazil in 1951. The man who perfected the mass murder in the concentration camps assembled automobiles for Volkswagen near Sao Paulo for years.

The Austrian Franz Stangl is one of thousands of Nazi war criminals and collaborators who managed to escape with the help of the church. Via the so-called rat line: from Innsbruck over the Alps to Merano or Bozen in South Tyrol, then to Rome and from there to the Italian port city of Genoa. Stangl chooses the detour via Syria, most National Socialists flee by ship directly to South America, especially Argentina - the "Cape of Last Hope" for the National Socialists, as the author and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal put it.

After his arrest in Brazil in 1967, Franz Stangl was extradited to the Federal Republic and sentenced to life imprisonment in Düsseldorf. He died of heart failure in prison on June 28, 1971

No elaborate plan, rather spontaneous collaboration

"The rat line was not a well-structured system, but consisted of many individual components," says the historian Daniel Stahl from the Chair for Modern and Contemporary History at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. "It was more of a spontaneous cooperation between various institutions that gradually established itself after the Second World War." First there is the flight over the Alps to Italy, a loophole for 90 percent of the Nazi perpetrators.

Then the first stopover in South Tyrol: In the monastery of the Teutonic Order in Merano, in the Capuchin monastery near Brixen or in the Franciscan monastery near Bozen - which is why the Rattenlinie is also called the monastery route - the war criminals often hide for several years, collecting money for the escape overseas. There the absurd situation sometimes arises that the perpetrators are housed right next to the victims of National Socialism: Jews who want to go to Palestine.

"A bishop like Alois Hudal had a decidedly National Socialist conviction" - historian Daniel Stahl

And from there it goes on to Rome. If there is a letter from the Catholic Church about the identity, the passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which issued around 120,000 papers by 1951, is only a matter of form.

"The story goes back again and again that even before the end of the Second World War there was a clearly thought-out and elaborate plan for the Nazis to flee. But that is wrong. Franz Stangl also wandered through Rome once without know what to do next, "explains Stahl. Much goes through word of mouth. But the name of Alois Hudal is often mentioned, who later remembers that many of the persecuted were "completely innocent", which is why he "snatched them from their tormentors with false identity papers".

Fake passport for Adolf Eichmann: As Riccardo Klement, he flees to Argentina

The same Austrian bishop and helper who clearly positioned himself as a Nazi sympathizer during the Third Reich. What would have happened if the Catholic Church hadn't held out a protective hand over many Nazi war criminals? "It would definitely have been much more difficult for Stangl and the others to flee," said historian Daniel Stahl with certainty.

Long list of Nazi war criminals who flee via the rat line

And so, with the further stop in Genoa, the rat line developed into an escape route that was later even used by the US secret service to smuggle spies into the Soviet Union. The list of mass murderers who settled in Argentina (which was the last state in the world to declare war on Germany on March 27, 1945) is long:

Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Israel on April 12, 1961

The organizer of the Holocaust flees as Riccardo Klement from Bolzano to Argentina in 1950 and later brings his family to join him. Thanks to the Vatican's help to escape, the Protestant Eichmann even joined the Catholic Church. At times he works as an electrician in the Daimler-Benz truck plant. In 1960 he was kidnapped by the Israeli secret service Mossad in a spectacular operation, brought to justice in Israel and executed on the night of May 31st, 1962.

Josef Mengele

The Auschwitz concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele met President Juan Domingo Perón several times in Argentina

The sadistic concentration camp doctor from Auschwitz flees to South Tyrol in 1949, where helpers get him a new passport. The new identity: Helmut Gregor, 38 years old, Catholic, mechanic. Born in the South Tyrolean wine town of Tramin, with which Mengele fulfills the most important condition for an exit: As a South Tyrolean, he is considered an ethnic German, a stateless person, and is therefore entitled to a passport of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Mengele remained undisturbed in South America until his death, living in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. On February 7, 1979, he suffers a stroke while bathing in the Brazilian seaside resort of Bertioga and drowns.

Klaus Barbie

Code name Adler: The Federal Intelligence Service recruited Klaus Barbie in 1966 in Bolivia as an informant for a year

The former Gestapo chief of the French city, known as the "butcher of Lyon", left Romania for South America as Klaus Altmann. With the help of the CIA, Barbie receives a visa for Bolivia in 1951 and continues to receive orders from the US foreign intelligence service and the Federal Intelligence Service BND. His whereabouts have been known to the public since 1970. In 1983 Bolivia extradited him to France, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment and died in custody on September 25, 1991 of cancer.

Erich Priebke

In a first trial in Rome in 1996, Erich Priebke was initially acquitted, which resulted in worldwide protests

The SS captain, who was jointly responsible for the massacre of 335 hostages in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome in 1944, flees as Otto Pape from Latvia to Bariloche in Argentina. The Argentine authorities extradited him to Rome in 1995, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment three years later and died under house arrest on October 11, 2013.

Walther Rauff

Walther Rauff even worked for the BND in South America for five years between 1958 and 1963

Rauff was the inventor of the gas truck killing machines, in which the exhaust gases were directed into the car interior. According to the arrest warrant, he has committed at least 97,000 murders. In 1949 he escaped with his wife and two children via the rat line, first to Quito, Ecuador, and then moved to Chile. The Federal Republic's application for extradition was rejected in 1963 because the crimes of which Rauff had been charged were statute-barred under Chilean law. Rauff died of a heart attack on May 14, 1984 in Las Condes, Chile, as a wealthy canning company.

What did Pope Pius XII know. from the rat line?

As much as historians have already collected about the rat line, one question has not been answered clearly to this day, 70 years later: How much did Pius XII know. from that? The Italian Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, who became Pope on March 2, 1939, just before World War II began, and remained pontiff until his death on October 9, 1958.

Hubert Wolf wants to find out. The church historian flew to Rome on February 29 and will now rummage through the Vatican archives for four months with dozens of other colleagues from all over the world. Because the Papal States made all files from Pius' term of office accessible on March 2nd. "It is a huge opportunity to answer many open questions about this time and a great challenge. We are talking about 300,000, 400,000 archival units with 1,000 pages each," says the professor of church history at the University of Münster.

"Sometimes you can find very surprising things in the archives that you could never have guessed before" - Hubert Wolf

Such a Herculean task is nothing new to Wolf. He has already scoured the archives of the Inquisition and the Index Congregation. "Around 400 years of book censorship, Pius' 20 years are manageable," explains the church historian. This also includes finding absolutely nothing important for three weeks and then suddenly stumbling across a box that is a real gold mine.

Church historian Wolf hopes for answers to many questions

Hubert Wolf urges patience nonetheless. A serious overall assessment of the archives takes a few years. But he is already hoping for some answers to the questions about the rat line, especially how the internal communication in the Curia worked: "Did the Pope give direct instructions or were there general suggestions, for example that we have to help the people who do not Papers are there. Or is there actually evidence that the Pope, inspired by the CIA, says: 'If we could send nationally reliable people to the Latin American countries, that would be good because the communists are at work there who are overthrowing the entire continent be, see Cuba '. "

That Pius XII. Fear of communism is well known, as the church helpers of the rat line also pleaded: No matter what role the National Socialists played during the Second World War, they had fought communism and should therefore be protected from political persecution. After all, communism was seen as the greatest threat to the Catholic Church.

"It can turn out that the Pope did not know anything about the concrete help and that some people have relentlessly exploited this. Or Pius knew everything and closed his eyes," says church historian Wolf, the two possibilities that his research in the archives could reveal, the all-important question is therefore: "Was the Pope manipulated or did he really know about people like Mengele? That would actually be a whole new dimension!"