May 1945. As the Allies march through Germany and begin to encircle Berlin, the loyalty of the highest echelons of the Nazi regime begins to falter. Self-preservation starts to trump fidelity to the Fuhrer, with more and more of the top brass beginning to leave the sinking ship. With Hitler slowly losing his mind in his central Berlin bunker, the escape paths of thousands of Nazis begin to spread across Europe, spiriting leading figures away from the fatherland. These became known as the ratlines, the clandestine methods by which some of the Second World War’s biggest villains attempted to flee from justice. They went to South America and to Switzerland, using fake names and passports, friendly fascist regimes and duplicitous double agents from the Allied Forces.
Just months after the war officially ended, the Nuremberg Trials began in Germany, but some of the most wanted men in the world were not there. Some – Himmler, Goebbels, and Hitler himself – committed suicide rather than face the courts, but far more had simply vanished into the chaos that engulfed a continent ravaged by total war. In the months and years that followed, legions of Nazi hunters would scour the world in an attempt to bring the perpetrators of Nazism to justice. Here we discuss some of the most infamous figures that got away from the wreckage of Germany – the Nazis that got away.
1 – Adolf Eichmann
Arguably the best known Nazi to escape was Adolf Eichmann. His notoriety stemmed from both his long career as a high level functionary in the Nazi regime and from his flight, which lasted all the way until 1960. Eichmann was one of the principal administrators of the Holocaust, a man who skilled in organized death that he was the genesis of the now famed phrase “the banality of evil”, coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt at his trial.
Eichmann had long marked himself out within the Nazi Party as an “expert” on Jewish matters, going as far as to learn bits of Yiddish and Hebrew, as well as traveling to Mandatory Palestine with the intention of creating somewhere for the Jews of Germany to immigrate to. He was one of the leading Nazis in charge of “encouraging” Jews to leave the country, whether it be through economic sanctions or outright anti semitic violence and thus when war began, he was the man tasked with the forced deportation of millions of Germany’s Jews.
When the Wannsee Conference was convened on the outskirts of Berlin in 1941, Eichmann was one of the attendees and wrote the briefing from which the total Jewish population of Europe was estimated. When the conference called for the “Final Solution”, that Jews be exterminated, it was Eichmann who was tasked with organizing the deportations and executions, of creating in the ghettos and the logistical methods for the greatest genocide in human history. He was never a maker of decisions, rather an efficient and skilled administrator who put policy into practice. It was not for no reason that the “banality of evil” became associated with him.
As the war turned, Eichmann was posted to Budapest to oversee the deportation of the Jews of Hungary. More than 400,000 Jews would be deported and murdered in the short time that he was in charge, which lasted from early May until early July 1944, with sometimes more than 10,000 people per day sent on trains to the concentration camps. As Soviet troops encircled the Hungarian capital, Eichmann made the remaining Jews of the city engage in a death march to Vienna.
The second act of Eichmann’s life began in captivity. He was taken by the Americans, but he escaped and lived in relative peace in Austria, avoiding the Nuremberg Trials completely. As the court heard evidence of his deeds from other captured Nazis, he plotted a move to South America. Obtaining a humanitarian Red Cross passport through a Nazi-sympathizing bishop in Italy, he travelled through a network of safe houses run by other clergy and eventually caught a ship bound for Buenos Aires in 1950.
He lived peacefully in Argentina, working for the government and later for Mercedes Benz. Nazi hunters, however, were on his tail. As with many fugitive Nazis, South America was widely suspected to be his location and an address was finalized when a chance meeting between the daughter of a Jewish emigre in Argentina and a man boasting of his father’s exploits in Hitler’s regime lead to the woman coming face to face with Eichmann at his home in San Fernando, just outside Buenos Aires.
The Israeli secret service, Mossad, were soon on the case. They surveilled Eichmann for several days, worked out his routine and then struck, taking him captive on May 11, 1960. When he was unveiled in Tel Aviv a few days later, it made worldwide news. After around 11 months in an Israeli jail, Eichmann finally stood trial. He used the same defence that countless other Nazis had: that he was a functionary, carrying out orders that he did not have the power to influence. The defence famously cited a quote from Eichmann in 1945, saying that: I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction”.
He was eventually convicted and hanged in 1962. His trial, death and the subsequent raft of publications that emerged brought the legacy of the Holocaust to a new generation, both in Israel and beyond.