Famous Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped Punishment

WWII and the gruesome tactics carried out by the Third Reich will forever have a grasp on the world’s consciousness - both because the brutality exhibited by those German fascists was previously unimaginable, and because we have to remind ourselves that atrocities like the Holocaust could always happen again.

Directly after WWII, Europe fell into chaos as German officers were detained and people from internment camps tried to flee the countries where they were held. In that confusion, many Third Reich officials managed to get out of Europe through underground safety systems set up by the Catholic Church (called "ratlines"). Because of this escape system, there were a handful of German war criminals who were never caught. Some of those escaped Germans lived successful post-WWII lives, while others stayed on the run until the day they perished.

Most students of history know about all of the Nazis in South America. While it sounds like a conspiracy theory, the truth is that many Argentinian politicians at the time were German sympathizers and happy to help Third Reich officials live their lives in relative obscurity. But not all of those who were never apprehended lived in South America. Some of them were given jobs with British and American intelligence agencies, and others simply faded into history, where they became the stuff of rumor and legend. 

  • Nazi Labor Camp Guard Jakiw Palij Lived In New York Until He Was 95


    Jakiw Palij lived in the United States for decades after WWII. He immigrated to the US in 1949 and became a citizen eight years later. When asked what he did for a living in Europe during WWII, Palij told officials he worked in a factory and on a farm. 

    But Palij didn't work on a farm or a factory - he was a guard at the Trawniki Labor Camp, where over 6,000 Jewish inmates were slain in "one of the single largest massacres of the Holocaust," according to a White House press release. Palij repeatedly denied any responsibility, saying he and other Polish citizens were forced to work for the Third Reich. 

    Palij's US citizenship was revoked back in 2003, but no European country would have him. For years after the confession, Palij existed quietly in a duplex in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in Queens. On August 21, 2018, he was finally deported to Germany. Even though Palij was technically caught, he lived a relatively normal life up until the age of 95. Immigration authorities sent him to Düsseldorf. Officials then took him to a nursing home near Münster to live out the rest of his days. 

  • Josef Mengele Lived A Long And Fruitful Life
    Photo: Karl-Friedrich Höcker / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Josef Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death," spent most of his life committing vicious acts in the name of fake science and the eradication of people he believed to be a subspecies. After WWII, he fled Germany through a series of ratlines and made his way to South America, where he became a suspiciously humble country doctor.

    Mengele was almost apprehended in the '60s by the Mossad (the Israeli National Intelligence Agency), but they had to call off their hunt for Mengele in order to detain Adolf Eichmann. 

  • Horst Wagner Gets A Little Help From The Catholic Church

    Horst Wagner Gets A Little Help From The Catholic Church
    Photo: US Army Photographers / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Horst Wagner was one of the worst Nazis to walk the face of the Earth - not because he was performing medical experiments or operating a gas chamber, but because he made sure the bureaucracy that kept track of the demise of 350,000 Jewish people ran like clockwork.

    After WWII, Wagner escaped from a Nuremberg jail in 1948 and made his way to Rome through the Kloster Line, a ratline made up of convents and churches that housed German fugitives, before fleeing to Argentina to join his pals Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann. 

  • Paul Schäfer Moved To South America And Spent Decades Abusing Children
    Video: YouTube

    It's hard to quantify which member of the Third Reich is the worst, but Paul Schäfer makes a very good case for the title.

    After WWII, Schäfer fled child mistreatment allegations in Europe and ended up in Chile and Argentina. By the late '90s, Schäfer had a litany of abuse claims surrounding him, and he disappeared for almost a decade until he was discovered by Argentinean authorities. In 2006, Schäfer was sentenced to 20 years behind bars for inappropriate relations with 25 children and was ordered to pay 770 million pesos (approximately $1.5 million) to some of his victims. In 2010, he perished while in custody.

  • After WWII, Klaus Barbie Got A Job With The American Military
    Photo: Research Section of the National Gendarmerie of Lyon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During WWII, Barbie personally tortured French captives while he was stationed in Lyon, France. After WWII, the United States military caught Barbie and gave him a job. He helped the US further their anti-Marxist and anti-communism efforts in Europe, and when France found out that Barbie was living it up, they applied to have him extradited to their country so they could put him trial. Instead of doing the right thing, the US military helped Barbie escape to Bolivia, where he lived under the alias Klaus Altmann and joined the Bolivian Armed Forces. 

    Things were going great for Altmann (AKA Barbie) until Nazi hunters from France identified him and brought him back to their country in 1983 to stand trial. After a lengthy trial, he received a life sentence and perished of cancer while serving time.

  • Thank The Red Cross For Helping Adolf Eichmann Escape
    Photo: Israel Government Press Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the means that fugitives utilized for fleeing Germany during the post-WWII chaos was the overwhelming amount of people applying for refugee status with the Red Cross. Directly after WWII ended, it seems like the people in charge of approving visas and passports threw up their hands and gave everyone the paperwork they needed to leave Europe. Adolf Eichmann, the man in charge of working out the game plan for the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps, used the Red Cross and his connections at the Vatican to escape to South America, where he was captured in 1960 by Israeli forces.

    He was hanged in a correctional facility near Tel Aviv.