As the Allies closed in on the ruins of the Third Reich from east and west, Hitler’s paladins were confronted with the prospect that they may finally be held accountable for their crimes. Many leading Nazis, including Hitler himself, chose to commit suicide rather than submit to Allied justice. Others would be captured after the end of the war and stand trial at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal or one of the many subsequent trials held by various nations across the world. A few, though, managed to escape from Germany and found refuge on the other side of the Atlantic in South America.
The covert network of escape routes for former Nazis, called “Ratlines,” developed following the war. One route ran from Germany to fascist Spain before terminating in Argentina, while another departed from Rome and cut through Genoa on the way to other South American countries. The most notorious Nazi escapees would flee through Rome under false identities, aided by Bishop Alois Hudal who provided the fugitives with Vatican papers. Once they reached their destination, the escapees could expect to be welcomed in their new homes. Argentinian President Juan Peron, himself a Nazi sympathizer, was particularly happy to support the arrival of these criminal immigrants.
Some of the highest profile Nazis in South America would later be arrested and face trial, but quite a few managed to live out the rest of their lives in peace. The following are the most infamous of those who, for at least a time, evaded justice.
More than any other person, Adolf Eichmann was responsible for the day to day operations of the Holocaust. He was present at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, in which a concrete plan for the conduct of a genocide was developed. A career bureaucrat, Eichmann’s role in the unfolding Holocaust would be to coordinate the logistics of identifying, collecting, and deporting the Jews of Europe to their deaths in extermination camps.
Once the war came to an end, Eichmann was captured by the Americans. He avoided immediate discovery by using a false identity, and when an opportunity presented itself he escaped from American captivity. For the next five years he lived as Otto Heninger, a small time farmer. While hiding out on his farm he made contact with Bishop Hudal’s operation in Rome. They provided him with a new identity, “Ricardo Klement,” along with Argentinian papers that would allow him to leave Europe for Buenos Aires in June 1950.
Eichmann found work in Buenos Aires, eventually becoming the department head of Mercedes-Benz there. Even half a world away from Germany, though, he could not maintain his cover indefinitely. Both the new Israeli government and a few dedicated private Nazi hunters were quite eager to find him. They got their most important lead when the daughter of a half-Jewish German immigrant to Argentina reported that she had been dating a man with the last name Eichmann who liked to talk about his father’s importance in the Nazi regime.
Because the Israeli government expected than Argentina would not extradite Eichmann, they dispatched a team from their intelligence agency, Mossad, to kidnap Eichmann and bring him to Israel. In May 1960, after confirming Eichmann’s identity, Mossad agents seized him in Buenos Aires as he got off of a bus. He was sedated before being slipped on board an airplane and secreted out of the country to stand trial in Israel. During that trial the following year he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was hanged just after midnight on 1 June 1962.