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Saturday 5 March 2016

Review: Gerald Steinacher, Nazis on The Run

This review was first published on 27June 2011. It has been posted,unchanged,here to link to the immediately preceding Blog about book publishing.

This is the most unsatisfactory academic work that I have read for a long time. I will explain why shortly.

At the end of World War Two, hundreds of thousands of people were on the move right across Europe. As Allied soldiers in vast numbers moved deeper into Italy and Germany, vast numbers of people moved in the opposite direction.

Who were they? There were civilians trying to get back to homes they had left, either as forced labourers or refugees. There were Jews who had survived the Holocaust, many or most of them traumatised, not trying to return home but instead looking to find a route out of Europe and - generally - a route to Palestine. There were those who, for many reasons, did not want to end up in Russian-occupied or Soviet-subservient areas, including not only those from eastern Germany and central Europe but also from the Balkans. There were "ordinary" criminals who had pursued regular criminal lives, thieving and profiteering, under the shelter of Nazi criminality. There were probably some ordinary German soldiers who had done nothing particularly wrong but who did not want to live in Germany any more. And there were SS and Nazi personnel, including war criminals, large and small.

Many of these very many people gravitated southwards, down into Austria, across the border into Italy and then, quite often, out of Europe altogether through the northern Italian ports: their destinations were Latin America, the Middle East, North America, Australia.

Steinacher is primarily interested in those who were wanted or who knew they should have been wanted by the Allies: the criminals and the war criminals, high-ranking and lowly, many of whom evaded justice and emigrated, mostly to Latin America and mostly to Argentina. But some of them just hid out in Italy and, in due course, made their way back to Austria or Germany with new identities.

Steinacher's book fails for a number of reasons.

First, it is less like a book and more like a notebook: lots of miscellaneous facts, disjointed, endlessly repetitive, the chronology erratic. I find it hard to believe that anyone at the English-language publisher, Oxford University Press, read the book before agreeing to publish it. Read it cover to cover, as I have done, and it is like reading the first draft of a Ph. D.

Second, though it points the finger at the civil authorities in South Tyrol, at the Vatican, at the International Red Cross and at the US intelligence services as aiders and abetters of criminal escapes, the finger wobbles. Steinacher gives us no precise idea as to the proportion of criminal elements among the many thousands of people on the move who sought help from these agencies. He simply fails to paint the larger picture, clearly and in detail. At the end of the book, you have no idea whether the criminal element was one in two or one in two thousand desperate people knocking at those doors (except that you can figure that the US intelligence services were in a different position - they knew who they were dealing with and they only wanted to deal with dodgy characters, especially after the anti-communist dynamic came to dominate after 1947).

Third, the book is largely useless to anyone of a straightforward lawyerly frame of mind. Steinacher constantly suggests answers, but rarely can one pin down a clear answer to these kind of question (let's use the Vatican as an example):

What civil or criminal offences , if any, did Vatican official X commit in rendering assistance to a fugitive of justice or as-yet uninculpated criminal, Y?

Was the whole Vatican orgnisation implicated in the activities of its individual officials, so that it should be regarded as a criminal organisation rather than just as an organisation which housed criminal officials?

To answer these questions, you have to work out if official X knew or had good reason to suspect that Y was being sought for crimes committed or was on the move because of such crimes, even if not yet inculpated. Steinacher simply doesn't work it out for most of his illustrative cases.

And you have to look at funding decisions and at euphemisms and "Confidential" markings in official correspondence.

True, there is the obstacle that the Vatican archives for this period are still closed to outsiders - the best evidence for the claim that they will incriminate, all the way up.

Some of the things Vatican officials did can be explained without imputing criminal intent. Many people had no documents and officials were willing to take your word for who you were and give you a document saying that you were who you said you were. This then allowed you to present yourself to the International Committee of the Red Cross who would furnish you with a one-way travel document to which you could then get a Latin American visa affixed.

The slackness of these procedures can be explained both in terms of having to work under pressure - there were a lot of people knocking at your door - and as a basically charitable, humanitarian response to human distress.

But when someone told you they had been born in A when you could tell from their accent (or their mother tongue) that they had never been near the place, then you became a party to fraud when you helped them fabricate a new identity for themselves. Even more so, when you suggested a suitable identity. (South Tyrol figures largely in Steinacher's story because its unsettled legal status meant that if you claimed to have been born there, you could also claim to be stateless and that meant the Red Cross, rather than the International Refugee Organisation, could deal with you).

In addition, Steinacher is able to claim that when high authorities in the Vatican and ICRC were told that their on-the-ground bureaucrats and systems were allowing wanted war criminals to escape from justice, they did little or nothing to change personnel or tighten up procedures. In both cases, it began to look as if the only "identity" you needed was that of being anti-communist.

All this said, Steinacher leaves us in no general doubt that in 1944 - 47 there were numerous Nazis and Nazi-sympathisers in South Tyrol, in the International Committee of the Red Cross and in the Vatican, who helped Nazi war criminals escape from Allied justice. This included people in senior, powerful positions - like the Pope's friend, Bishop Hudal - who knew exactly what they were doing and why.

Many Nazis ended up in Latin America, especially Argentina. Some ended up working for the CIA. It would be another book, but an interesting one, to trace the part they played in the reactionary politics of their adoptive countries and the amoral realpolitik of the CIA. Perhaps the invasion of the Falkland Islands was not just about Argentinian nationalism but also about Nazi revenge.

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