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 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 expertise 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.