As early as 1947, Simon Wiesenthal began to identify escape routes used by Nazis to escape from Germany. The main route he discovered was from the small Bavarian town of Memmingen to Innsbruck, Austria. From there, it was possible to cross into Italy over the Brenner pass. Wiesenthal later learned the Nazis referred to this as the "B-B" route, from Bremen in Germany to the Italian port of Bari. He also knew that the fugitives had little or no difficulty obtaining false papers and seemed to have enough money available in their new home to establish comfortable new lives. Wiesenthal concluded a secret organization with substantial resources had to be involved in helping fugitive Nazis. The seeds of that project were planted 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 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 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 their escape.
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.
Sources: Simon Wiesenthal, Justice Not Vengeance. NY: Grove, 1990; Lee Saunders, from “The Puzzle” project, Crystal Music International