Ratlines, in espionage jargon, are networks of agents who smuggle fugitives or undercover operatives in and out of hostile foreign territories. These escape and evasion routes, as they are sometimes called, are a standard part of the clandestine operations of every major power, and there were hundreds of such ratlines snaking out of the Soviet-occupied territories in Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II.
The story of one of these ratlines is of special interest here because it reveals the manner in which the United States became entangled in the escape of large numbers of Nazi and Axis criminals, many of whom remained ardent Fascists as contemptuous of American democracy as of Soviet-style communism. In hindsight it is clear that many of the ratlines used by the United States during the cold war began as independent, unsanctioned Nazi escape organizations that later turned to selling their specialized services to U.S. intelligence agencies as a means of making money and protecting their own ongoing Nazi smuggling efforts. Some of the exiles involved in this dangerous work did it for money; some, for ideological reasons, some, for both.
The most important Western ratlines that have come to light thus far, including those that smuggled Nazis, operated in and through the Vatican in Rome. Unraveling the reasons why and how the Catholic Church became involved in Nazi smuggling is an important step in understanding the broader evolution of the postwar alliances between former Nazis and U.S. intelligence agencies. One organization is worthy of close scrutiny. It is the prominent Catholic lay group known as Intermarium. During its heyday in the 1940s and early 1950s leading members of this organization were deeply involved in smuggling Nazi fugitives out of Eastern Europe to safety in the West. Later Intermarium also became one of the single most important sources of recruits for the CIA's exile committees. This can be said with some certainty because about a score of Intermarium leaders ended up as activists or officials in Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberation, and the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN), each of which the U.S. government has since admitted as having been a CIA-financed and -controlled organization.
For much of the Catholic Church's leadership, it will be recalled World War II had been an interlude in a deeper and more important struggle against "atheistic communism" that had been raging for decades. This more fundamental struggle had closely aligned the Vatican hierarchy with a half dozen conservative Christian Democratic and clerical-Fascist political parties that were willing Nazi pawns during the war, even when the Church of Rome was itself under ideological attack from the German Nazi party. The majority of the Nazis' Axis partners in Eastern Europe, as well as Vichy France, had been led by Catholic political parties during the war. The puppet government in Slovakia, for example, was run by a Catholic priest, Monsignor Jozef Tiso. Croatia, a terrorist breakaway state from Yugoslavia, described itself as a "pure Catholic state" whose leader, Ante Pavelic, had been personally received by the pope, while clerics in Admiral Nicholas Horthy's Hungary enjoyed a more profound influence in that country's wartime government than did its own parliament. It is well established, of course, that some Catholic Church leaders bravely resisted Nazi crimes sometimes at the cost of their lives. Even so, it is also true that the church-based political parties mentioned above played a central role in Axis military aggression. These organizations used the mantle and the moral authority of the church to help carry out the preparations for, and in some cases the actual execution of, the Nazi genocide of the Jews.
As Nazi Germany collapsed during late 1944 and early 1945, many senior church officials helped organize a massive campaign of refugee relief for millions of Catholics fleeing from Eastern Europe. Once this was under way, few distinctions were made between the Catholics responsible for the crimes against humanity committed in the Axis states and those being persecuted simply for opposition to the Soviets. The vast majority of the refugees who swept through Rome in the wake of the war had left their homelands for reasons that had nothing to do with war crimes, obviously; they had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time when the German or Soviet armies had stormed through their villages.
At the same time, however, these refugee routes became the most important pipelines out of Europe for Nazis and collaborators fleeing war crimes charges. Factions within the church that had long been sympathetic to the Nazis' extreme anti-Communist stand organized large-scale programs to facilitate the escapes of tens of thousands of Nazis and collaborators from Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovakia, the Ukraine, and a number of other Eastern I European states. The pivotal role of the church in the escape of the l Nazis has been emphasized by Luftwaffe Colonel Hans Ulrich Rudel, the highly decorated German air ace who became an international spokesman for the neo-Nazi movement after the war. "One may otherwise view Catholicism as one wishes. But what the Church, especially certain towering personalities within the Church, undertook in those years [immediately after the war] to save the best of our nation, often from certain death, must never be forgotten!" Colonel Rudel exclaimed in a speech at Kufstein in 1970. "In Rome itself, the transit point of the escape routes, a vast amount was done. With its own immense resources, the Church helped many of us to go overseas. In this manner, in quiet and secrecy, the demented victors' mad craving for revenge and retribution could be effectively counteracted."
The Vatican's principal agencies for handling refugees were a group of relief agencies in Rome that divided the assistance work according to the nationality of the refugee. Lithuanians went to see Reverend Jatulevicius at No. 6 on the Via Lucullo, for example, while Padre Gallov at 33 Via del Parione aided Hungarians and Monsignors Dragonovic and Magjerec at the Istituto di St. Jeronimus were in charge of Croatian relief, and so forth.
According to a top secret U.S. State Department intelligence report of May 1947, "the Vatican ... is the largest single organization involved in the illegal movement of emigrants . . . [and] the justification . . . for its participation in this illegal traffic is simply the propagation of the Faith. It is the Vatican's desire to assist any person, regardless of nationality or political beliefs, as long as that person can prove himself to be a Catholic." The classified study confirmed that Nazis and their collaborators were not excluded from the effort: "n those Latin American countries where the [Catholic] Church is a controlling or dominating factor, the Vatican has brought pressure to bear which has resulted in the foreign missions of those countries taking an attitude almost favoring the entry into their country of former Nazis and former Fascists or other political groups, so long as they are anti-Communist. That, in fact, is the practice in effect in the Latin American Consulates and Missions in Rome at the present time."