The ODESSA network (from the German: Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, meaning: Organization of Former SS Members) was a purported international Nazi underground organization set up towards the end of World War II by a group of SS officers with the aim of facilitating secret escape routes – later known as ratlines – allegedly to allow the SS members to avoid capture and prosecution for war crimes and to escape to Argentina, Brazil or the Middle East under false names.
The codeword Odessa – as known by the Allies – appeared for the first time in a memo dated July 3, 1946, by the American Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) whose principal role was to screen displaced persons for possible suspects. The CIC discovered Odessa at the KZ Bensheim-Auerbach internment camp for the former SS men who used this watchword in their secret attempts to gain special privileges from the Red Cross, wrote historian Guy Walters, but neither the Americans nor the British were able to verify the claims extending any further than that.
The existence of the organisation is a matter of dispute. Guy Walters, in his book Hunting Evil, claimed he was unable to find any evidence of the existence of the network although numerous other organisations such as Konsul, Scharnhorst, Sechsgestirn, Leibwache and Lustige Brüder have been named, including Die Spinne ("The Spider") run in part by Hitler's commando chief Otto Skorzeny. Historian Daniel Stahl in his 2011 essay stated that the consensus among historians is that Odessa did not actually exist. However, books by T.H. Tetens and Joseph Wechsberg claim to have verified the organisation's existence and provided details of its operations. Wechsberg studied Simon Wiesenthal's memoirs on the Odessa and correlated them with his own experiences in the book The Murderers Among Us. Today, ODESSA is best known from its appearance in spy novels and fictional movies.
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According to Simon Wiesenthal, the ODESSA was set up in 1944 to aid fugitive Nazis. Interviews by the ZDF German TV station with former SS men suggest instead that the ODESSA was never the single world-wide secret organisation that Wiesenthal described, but several organisations, both overt and covert, that helped ex-SS men. The truth may have been obscured by antagonism between the Wiesenthal organisation and West German military intelligence. It is known that Austrian authorities were investigating the organisation several years before Wiesenthal went public with his information.
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 (see References following), that the ODESSA had never existed. Sereny 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.' Not that this matters greatly: there certainly were various kinds of Nazi aid organisations after the war — it would have been astonishing if there hadn't been.
This view is supported by historian Guy Walters in his book Hunting Evil, where he also points out that networks were used, but there was not such a thing as a setup network covering Europe and South America, with an alleged war treasure. For Walters, the reports received by the allied intelligence services during the mid-1940s suggest that the appellation "ODESSA" was "little more than a catch-all term used by former Nazis who wished to continue the fight."
Nazi concentration camp supervisors denied the existence of the ODESSA. The US War Crimes Commission reports and the American OSS neither confirmed nor denied claims about the existence of such an organisation. Wechsberg, who after emigrating to the United States had served as an OSS officer and member of the US War Crimes Commission, however, claimed that in interviews of outspoken German anti-Nazis some asserted that plans were made for a Fourth Reich before the fall of the Third, and that this was to be implemented by reorganising 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 'Stars and Stripes,' the American Army newspaper. The couriers had applied for their jobs under false names, and the Americans in Munich had failed to check them carefully... (the) ODESSA was organized as a thorough, efficient network... Anlaufstellen (ports of call) were set up along the entire Austro-German border... In Lindau, close to both Austria and Switzerland, (the) 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 the ODESSA. Recent biographies of Adolf Eichmann, who also escaped to South America, and Heinrich Himmler, the alleged founder of the ODESSA, made no reference to such an organisation. However, Hannah Arendt, in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, states that "in 1950, [Eichmann] succeeded in establishing contact with ODESSA, a clandestine organisation of SS veterans, and in May of that year, he was passed through Austria to Italy, where a priest, fully informed of his identity, equipped him with a refugee passport in the name of Richard Klement and sent him on to Buenos Aires." Notorious Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele also escaped to Brazil.
Sereny attributed the escape of SS members to postwar chaos and the inability of the 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 organisation. She identified a Vatican official, Bishop Aloïs Hudal, not former SS men, as the principal agent in helping Nazis leave Italy for South America, mainly Brazil.
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 CBS News in London, and his reporting and subsequent researches presented Bormann's cunning and skill in the organisation and planning for the flight of Nazi-controlled capital from Europe during the last years of the war—notwithstanding the strong possibility of Bormann's death in Berlin on 1 May 1945, especially in light of DNA identification of skeletal remains unearthed near the Lehrter Bahnhof as Bormann's.
According to Manning, "eventually, over 10,000 former German military made it to South America along escape routes set up by (the) ODESSA and the Deutsche Hilfsverein..." (page 181). The ODESSA itself was incidental, says Manning, with the continuing existence of the Bormann Organisation a much larger and more menacing fact. None of this had yet been convincingly proven.
ODESSA in popular culture
In the realm of fiction, Frederick Forsyth's best-selling 1972 thriller The Odessa File brought the organisation to popular attention. (The novel was turned into a film starring Jon Voight.) In the novel, Forsyth's ODESSA smuggled war criminals to South America, but also attempted to protect those SS members who remained behind in Germany, and plotted to influence political decisions in West Germany. Many of the novel's readers assume that ODESSA really existed.
In the 1976 thriller novel by Ira Levin titled The Boys from Brazil, Dr. Josef Mengele, the concentration camp medical doctor who performed horrific experiments on camp victims during the Second World War, is involved in ODESSA. According to the young man, Mengele is activating the "Kameradenwerk" for a strange assignment: he is sending out six Nazis (former SS Officers) to kill 94 men, who share a few common traits. In the book the terms "Kameradenwerk" and "ODESSA" are used interchangeably.
It was mentioned in three Phoenix Force novels: Ultimate Terror (1984), The Twisted Cross (1986) and Terror In The Dark (1987). It was also mentioned, sometimes in veiled terms, in Philip Kerr's 2006 novel, The One From the Other — one of Kerr's Bernie Gunther mysteries. Novelist Eric Frattini has emphasised his belief in ODESSA and incorporates elements in his novels, such as the 2010 thriller, The Mephisto's Gold.
In 1000 Ways To Die, the segment "Master E-Rased" shows a Nazi soldier who survived WW2 and escaped to the USA thanks to ODESSA. He was shot in the head in the war and still had the bullet lodged inside his brain; when he went to go get milk from the refrigerator, he bumped his head and the said bullet moved and hit a major artery, killing him.