ODESSA, the Organization of Former SS Members ("Organization Der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen"), was an organization founded in 1944 with the express purpose of helping Nazi members flee Europe and escape justice.
As early as 1947, Simon
Wiesenthal began to identify routes used by Nazis to escape
from Germany knowing that
the fugitives had little or no difficulty obtaining false papers and
seemed to have enough money available to establish
new lives. Wiesenthal concluded that a secret organization with substantial resources had to be
involved in helping these fugitive Nazis.
As it turned out, this organization not only existed then but its seeds had been planted
even before World War II ended.
By 1944, it was clear that the fortunes of war had turned
against Nazi Germany. Many Germans began to anticipate defeat and to
plan for that eventuality. On August 10, 1944, a secret meeting of top
German industrialists and bankers was held at the Maison Rouge hotel
in Strasbourg to devise a means of insuring a secure future for the Nazis.
Among those attending were coal tycoon Emil Kirdorf, Georg von Schnitzler
of IG Farben, Gustav
Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, steel magnate, Fritz Thyssen, and
banker Kurt von Schroeder.
The Nazis recognized that Germany's assets would fall
into the hands of the rapidly approaching enemy if they were not transferred
and hidden. The nation's wealth, much of it acquired through the plunder
of the nations it invaded and the people the Nazis murdered, had to
be transferred so they would be out of judicial reach, but accessible
to fund a future movement to resurrect the party and build a new Reich.
Leading Nazi officials also feared retribution from the Allies and,
rather than face likely punishment for their war crimes, they decided
to seek safe havens outside Germany, and beyond the reach of justice.
According to the protocol from the meeting:
The party leadership is aware that, following the
defeat of Germany, some of her best-known leaders may have to face
trial as war criminals. Steps have therefore been taken to lodge the
less prominent party leaders as "technical experts" in various
German enterprises. The party is prepared to lend large sums of money
to industrialists to enable every one of them to set up a secret post-war
organization abroad, but as collateral it demands that the industrialists
make available to it exisitng resources abroad, so that a strong German
Reich may re-emerge after the defeat.....
The outcome of the meeting in Strasbourg was the genesis
of an organization; one well-financed and well-organised, with the express
purpose of helping fleeing Nazis escape justice. This organization was
called the "Organization Der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen"
( "The Organization of former SS members) — better known as Odessa.
Wiesenthal learned of Odessa accidentally during conversations with a former member
of German counter-espionage who he met during the Nuremberg
trials.The source said the organization was set up in 1946 after
many Nazis already had been imprisoned. Those in jail contacted friends
and aid committees that had been established to promote the welfare
of prisoners. The assistance often went beyond humanitarian aid to abetting
In short order, Odessa, built a large and reliable
network geared to achieve its ends, and began operations. Routes were
mapped and contacts were established. Influential Nazis vanished as
they were secretly ushered out of Germany and assisted in starting new
lives under false names in foreign countries. At the end of the war,
only a handful of high-ranking Nazi officials stood trial. Many who
were guilty of war crimes escaped with the help of Odessa.
Some war criminals remained in Germany and took on
new identities, managing to get themselves smuggled out of Germany and
to freedom during the chaos at the end of hostilities. An underground
network called "Die Spinne" (The Spider) supplied false papers
and passports, safe houses, and contacts that could smuggle war criminals
across the un-patrolled Swiss borders. Once into Switzerland, they moved
on quickly to Italy, using what
some called "The Monastery Route." Roman Catholic priests,
especially Franciscans, helped Odessa move fugitives from one monastery
to the next until they reached Rome. According to Wiesenthal,
one Franciscan monastery, Via Sicilia in Rome, was virtually a transit
station for Nazis, an arrangement made possible by a bishop from Graz
named Alois Hudal. Wiesenthal speculates that the motive for most of the priests was what he viewed
as a misguided notion of Christian charity. Once in Italy, the fugitives
were out of danger, and many then dispersed around the globe.
Some countries may not have known about their new immigrants'
pasts, but many did and chose to look the other way. Others, including
the United States, looked to exploit the knowledge of Nazis. Fascist
countries, such as Spain under
Franco, as well as those in South
America, became safe havens. The establishment
of the state of Israel after World War II led some Arab nations
to welcome Nazis who shared their hatred of the Jews in the hope they
would use their experise in areas such as rocketry to tilt the balance
in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Adolf Eichmann was one of the most notorious of the Nazis to escape Germany thanks
to ODESSA, but he was eventually captured in South America by Israeli
Intelligence agents and brought back to Israel to stand trial for his
crimes against the Jewish people.