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How the Vatican Helped Nazis Escape

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

An escape network known as “ratlines” enabled thousands of Nazis evade responsibilities for the atrocities they committed during the Second World War. One of the key enablers of the ratlines was the Roman Catholic Church.

St. Peter's Square, Vatican City.

St. Peter's Square, Vatican City.

Pope Pius XII

Just as the storm clouds of war built up in Europe, Eugenio Pacelli was selected by the conclave of cardinals to be the next pope; he took the name Pius XII.

In an editorial, The Guardian gave its opinion that “he was―unremarkably so by the standards of his time and class―anti-Semitic . . . [and] ferociously anti-Communist.”

Action française was a far-right, Fascist group in France that was condemned by Pope Pius XI in 1926. One of Pope Pius XII’s first actions on becoming pontiff was to rehabilitate Action française.

Recently opened Vatican archives also reveal a pope who chose to remain silent rather than speak out against the horrors of the Holocaust. One incident speaks volumes.

In 1943, the German occupiers of Italy rounded up about 1,100 Jews who lived in a ghetto in Rome. The pope knew they were slated for deportation to a concentration camp and almost certain extermination.

David L. Kertzer in The Atlantic writes that among the archives he has found “memoranda, steeped in anti-Semitic language, [that] involve discussions at the highest level about whether the pope should lodge a formal protest against the actions of Nazi authorities in Rome.”

Pius chose to say nothing and his inaction condemned hundreds to death. Another question emerges; did Pius XII help the Nazi criminals escape justice after the war?

Historian Hubert Wolf has been digging through the Vatican archives, a process interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. He told the German newspaper Die Welt, “Did the pope issue direct instructions or was it a more general order to help people without papers? Or, is there concrete evidence that the pope, with encouragement from the CIA, thought: ‘it would be a good idea to send nationalistic people to Latin America because Communists were actively trying to overthrow the continent’?”

Pope Pius XII.

Pope Pius XII.

South American Haven

It was clear the Nazis would get a warm welcome in many South American countries that were led by right-wing anti-Communist, and anti-Semitic governments.

Argentina’s President Juan Peron made it clear where his sympathies lay when he condemned the Nuremberg war crimes trials: “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.”

Argentina was happy to shelter some of the world’s most odious characters. Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal called the country “The Cape of Last Hope” for war criminals.

According to history.com, as many as 9,000 Nazis found sanctuary in South America, the biggest number in Argentina. They were able to live comfortable lives by drawing on money from Swiss banks that was likely looted from Jews.

False travel documents issued to Adolf Eichmann with the help of the Catholic Church. He was captured in Argentina in 1960 by Israeli agents, found guilty of war crimes and executed.

False travel documents issued to Adolf Eichmann with the help of the Catholic Church. He was captured in Argentina in 1960 by Israeli agents, found guilty of war crimes and executed.

Alois Karl Hudal

Whether or not Pius XII was deeply involved in the ratline program, one thing is certain; there were people in the Catholic Church who aided Nazi war criminals avoid the consequences of their actions.

In 1937, a book entitled The Foundations of National Socialism was published. It praised Adolf Hitler and his policies and was written by a Roman Catholic priest named Alois Karl Hudal.

Hudal had been born in Graz, Austria in 1885. He was ordained into the Catholic priesthood in 1908. He rose through the church hierarchy, becoming rector of a theological seminary for German-speaking priests in Rome in 1923. He was ordained a bishop in 1933.

Hudal was a supporter of pan-German nationalism and the annexation of Austria by Germany (Anchluss). He espoused the conspiracy belief that Jews were intent on dominating world banking and, through that, the world. Along with that, went support for Hitler’s demented racial theories. He was a through-and-through Fascist.

Following World War Two, he worked to set up the ratlines, a series of monasteries and churches through which escaped Nazis could be spirited out of Europe. Using the Pontifical Commission for Assistance, he gave wanted men and women false identity documents and church money to aid in their escape.

According to Bishop Hudal, he was providing “a charity to people in dire need, for persons without any guilt who are to be made scapegoats for the failures of an evil system.”

One of those “scapegoats” was Franz Stangl.

Alois Karl Hudal.

Alois Karl Hudal.

Franz Stangl

In 1948, one of the Holocaust’s leading characters escaped from the prison in Linz, Austria, in which he was held. Franz Stangl linked up with a ratline and made his way to Rome. There, he met Bishop Alois Hudal and was greeted with the words “You must be Franz Stangl―I’ve been expecting you.” Clearly, Hudal had received word that Stangl was in the escape pipeline.

The bishop gave Stangl fake documents and sent him on his way to Syria and, eventually, to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

It was Stangl who perfected (although that hardly seems the right word) the efficiency of the killing machines in the Sobibór and Treblinka death camps.

In 1967, Stangl was tracked down by Simon Wiesenthal and extradited to West Germany to face trial for the murder of approximately 900,000 people. He did not deny the killings and excused himself by saying “My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty . . .”

In October 1970, Stangl was sentenced to life imprisonment; he died eight months later in Düsseldorf Prison at the age of 63.

Bonus Factoids

  • Others who escaped through the ratlines include: Adolf Eichmann, often called the architect of the Holocaust; Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon;” Joseph Mengele, who carried out medical experiments in Auschwitz; and, Walther Rauff, who designed mobile gas chambers.
  • The Allies were complicit in spiriting Nazis out of Europe. NASA recruited rocket engineers such as Wernher von Braun, who was a Nazi Party member and an SS officer, to work on its space program. Nazi General Reinhard Gehlen was given help with the CIA because he had an anti-Communist intelligence network in West Germany.
  • In December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI began the process of having Pius XII declared a saint, saying he lived a life of “heroic virtues.”

Sources

  • “Models of Political Meddling by Clerics.” Fr. Jerry Pokorsky, Catholicculture.org, July 24, 2020.
  • “Bishop Hudal, the Ratline, and the Croatian Connection.” Jure Krišto, Review of Croatian History, September 2013.
  • “Franz Stangl.” Jewish Virtual Library, undated.
  • “The Guardian View on Pius XII: A Pope not a Saint.” The Guardian, March 10, 2019.
  • “The Pope, the Jews, and the Secrets in the Archives.” David L. Kertzer, The Atlantic, August 27, 2020.
  • “The Ratlines: What Did the Vatican Know about Nazi Escape Routes?” Oliver Pieper, Die Welt, January 3, 2020.
  • “How South America Became a Nazi Haven.” Christopher Klein, History.com, August 31, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 05, 2020:

Very interesting article on the activities of the Catholic Church. We are all aware that the Nazis were getting sympathy from the church but the fact that so many war criminals were sent out to safety is a revelation

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