On Monday the Supreme Court refused to intervene in German efforts to extradite John Demjanjuk, an 89 year old Ohio resident alleged to be a wanted Nazi war criminal. He was deported on a 7 PM flight to await his fate in a German courtroom. Elsewhere the Pope was in Israel on Monday speaking about the Holocaust. Unfortunately for the Vatican, these stories are not entirely unrelated.
If you're wondering exactly how in the hell a high profile Nazi concentration camp guard could escape Europe and manage to live for 65 years in suburban Cleveland, answering that question involves delving into one of the more sordid chapters in the history of the Vatican and the post-War West. It is difficult to overstate the chaos that reigned across central Europe and in Germany in 1945. At the beginning of the year it was apparent that the thousand year Reich would not see 1946 (indeed, it collapsed in May) and vast numbers of Nazis realized that the things they had done were about to be discovered and judged by the rest of the world. Understandably, they wanted to get out. That was easier said than done in Germany during and immediately after the end of the War.
There were countries – notably Peron-era Argentina – that accepted guilty-looking and curiously wealthy German refugees without asking too many questions. The Allied armies, however, surrounded and attempted to apprehend as many Nazi party officials and German soldiers as possible, usually to detain them for imprisonment and/or trial.* Many Nazis realized that they were literally running for their lives and their attempts at escape reflect this. Some succeeded; well-known examples include Auschwitz "doctor" Josef Mengele,** who was arrested but escaped after he was not recognized, and Adolf Eichmann, who would famously be hunted down by the Mossad and executed in an Israeli prison.
Those who escaped had help. In many cases that help came from "ratlines", a community of Nazi sympathizers who functioned like the Civil War-era underground railroad. Except it was evil. And unfortunately for today's Catholic Church, the biggest and most productive ratlines ran through a Bishop named Alois Hudal and a large network of Croatian priests loyal to their nation's fascist Ustase government. These were clergy with positions of power and access to resources. Most priests devoted their powers to helping the millions of starving, homeless, maimed, and orphaned people across the continent. A handful worked feverishly to effect the escape of people like Klaus Barbie, Treblinka commander Franz Stangl, Croatian dictator Ante Pavelic, and hundreds of others who participated in Nazi war crimes.
The historical debate over the Catholic ratlines is intense. The Vatican relies on a "few bad apples" argument while many historians and Nazi hunters remain convinced that some, specifically Bishop Hudal, acted with the full knowledge of the Vatican which either approved of their actions or pretended not to notice. The undisputed facts are that Catholic clergy in Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, and South America facilitated ratlines and that Alois Hudal's immediate superior was a Cardinal Giovanni Montini in the Vatican State Department (Cardinal Montini became Pope Paul VI in 1963). Pope Pius XII, who reigned throughout WWII, has been widely described as a Nazi collaborator and anti-Semite in bestselling books like Hitler's Pope and Under His Very Windows. A class action lawsuit in US Federal court allegedly includes (still sealed) testimony from American intelligence operatives who state on the record that the OSS and post-War CIA were fully aware that Pius XII knew of and condoned the ratlines. Michael Phayer postulates in his recent Pius XII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War that the Pope's motivation was not anti-Semitism but the belief that communism was a bigger threat than Nazism combined with his early conclusion (circa 1940) that Nazi victory was inevitable.
Many of the allegations about Vatican involvement in the Holocaust are speculative and irresponsible. Others, like the existence of ratlines running through the Church, are matters of fact. We may never have firm answers about the extent of the involvement of Pius XII, the future Paul VI, and other Vatican bigwigs in the Holocaust and its aftermath (let's safely assume that any damning evidence in the archives has long since been destroyed). Regardless, the coincidence of events like Demjanjuk's extradition and a new (German!) Pope's statements about the Holocaust will continue to dredge up unpleasant questions and memories long after the last few remaining Nazi fugitives join their former colleagues in hell.
*Operation Paperclip is a story for another day.
**When Slayer writes a song about you, you know you've done something bad. Oddly, they were widely accused of being Nazi sympathizers for that song, written by Jewish guitarist Kerry King and Latino bassist Tom Ayala.