ODESSA, (German Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, “Organization of Former SS Members”) is believed to have been an international Nazi network set up toward the end of World War II by a group of SS officers in order to avoid their capture and prosecution for war crimes. A fictional account of the organization was manifest in Frederick Forsyth’s 1972 best-seller thriller The Odessa File. Forsyth’s ODESSA smuggled war criminals to Latin America. However, several authoritative books by professionals involved in the U.S. War Crimes Commission (including T.H. Tetens and Joseph Wechsberg) have verified the organization’s existence and given details of its operations. Wechsberg studied Simon Wiesenthal’s memoirs on ODESSA and verified them with his own experiences in the book The Murderers Among Us.
The purpose of ODESSA was to establish and facilitate secret escape routes, later known as ratlines, for smuggling SS members out of Germany and Austria to South America and the Middle East. Persons alleging to represent ODESSA claimed responsibility in a note for the July 9, 1979 car bombing in France aimed at anti-Nazi activists Serge and Beate Klarsfeld.
According to Simon Wiesenthal, ODESSA was set up in 1946 to aid fugitive Nazis. Interviews by the ZDF German TV station with former SS men suggest instead that ODESSA was never the single world-wide secret organization that Wiesenthal described, but several organizations, both overt and covert, that helped ex-SS men (with participation from the CIA, several Latin American governments and an Italy-based network of Catholic clerics). The truth may have been obscured by antagonism between the Wiesenthal organization and German military intelligence.
Long before the ZDF TV network, historian Gitta Sereny wrote in her 1974 book Into That Darkness, based on interviews with the former commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, Franz Stangl, that ODESSA had never existed. She wrote: “The prosecutors at the Ludwigsburg Central Authority for the Investigation into Nazi Crimes, who know precisely how the postwar lives of certain individuals now living in South America have been financed, have searched all their thousands of documents from beginning to end, but say they are totally unable to authenticate (the) “Odessa” organization. Not that this matters greatly: there certainly were various kinds of Nazi aid organizations after the war — it would have been astonishing if there hadn’t been.”
However, while Nazi concentration camp supervisors denied the existence of ODESSA, neither US War Crimes Commission reports nor American OSS officials did. In interviews of outspoken German anti-Nazis conducted by Joseph Wechsberg, former American OSS officer and member of the US War Crimes Commission, it was verified that plans were made for a Fourth Reich before the fall of the Third, and that this was to be implemented by reorganizing in remote Nazi colonies overseas: “The Nazis decided that the time had come to set up a world-wide clandestine escape network. They used Germans who had been hired to drive U.S. Army trucks on the autobahn between Munich and Salzburg for the American Army newspaper, the ‘Stars and Stripes’. The couriers had applied for their jobs under false names, and the Americans in Munich had failed to check them carefully. ODESSA was organized as a thorough, efficient network… Anlaufstellen (ports of call) were set up along the entire Austrian-German border… In Lindau, close to both Austria and Switzerland, ODESSA set up an ‘export-import’ company with representatives in Cairo and Damascus.”
In his interviews with Sereny, Stangl denied any knowledge of a group called ODESSA. Recent biographies of Adolf Eichmann, who also escaped to South America, and Heinrich Himmler, the alleged founder of ODESSA, made no reference to such an organization.
Sereny attributed the fact that SS members could escape to postwar chaos and the inability of the Roman Catholic Church, the Red Cross, and the American military to verify the claims of people who came to them for help, rather than to the activities of an underground Nazi organization. She identified a Vatican official, Bishop Aloïs Hudal, not former SS men, as the principal agent in helping Nazis leave Italy for South America.
Argentine writer Uki Goñi, in his 2002 book The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina suggested that Sereny’s more complex, and less conspiratorial, story was closer to the truth. In 1938, on the verge of World War II, and with Hitler’s policies on Jews in transit, Argentina’s government sanctioned an immigration law restricting access by any individual scorned or forsaken by his country’s government. This law was alleged to have implicitly targeted Jews and other minorities fleeing Germany at the time, and was denounced by Uki Goñi, who admits that his own grandfather had participated in upholding it. Between 1930 and 1949, however, Argentina took in more Jewish refugees per capita than any other nation in the world, with the exception of Palestine. Dr. Leonardo Senkman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem says: “the reopening of post-war European emigration to Argentina during the first Peron Presidency in 1946 pushed up the net immigration figure to 463,456 persons between 1947 and 1951…” the highest in thirty years] The legislation, though already in disuse for many years, was repealed on 8 June 2005 as a symbolic act. The Jewish Virtual Library writes that while Juan Perón had sympathized with the Axis powers, “Perón also expressed sympathy for Jewish rights and established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949. Since then, more than 45,000 Jews have immigrated to Israel from Argentina.”
Of particular importance in examining the postwar activities of high-ranking Nazis was Paul Manning’s book Martin Bormann: Nazi in Exile which detailed Bormann’s rise to power through the Nazi Party and as Hitler’s Chief of Staff. During the war, Manning himself was a correspondent for the fledgling CBS News, along with Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite in London, and his reporting and subsequent researches presented Bormann’s cunning and skill in the organization and planning for the flight of Nazi-controlled capital from Europe during the last years of the war–notwithstanding the possibility of Bormann’s death in Berlin on May 1, 1945.
According to Manning, “eventually, over 10,000 former German military made it to South America along escape routes set up by ODESSA and the Deutsche Hilfsverein…” ODESSA itself was incidental, says Manning, with the continuing existence of the Bormann Organization a much larger and more menacing fact. None of this had yet been convincingly proven.