Monday, October 17, 2011

Review of Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice by Gerald Steinacher (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Nazis on the Run details through detailed archival research the escape routes and hiding places of Nazis and their collaborators, many of whom were wanted war criminals, in the aftermath of World War Two. In particular it concentrates on documenting the ‘ratlines’ through Austria, South Tyrol and Italy on to South America and the Middle East. South Tyrol proved to be an ideal place in which to lay low before being shepherded onwards because it had a large number of ethnic Germans who were technically living in Italy and were effectively stateless at the war’s end; it was on the north/south route for people who had been scattered by the war and thus used to the mass movement of out-of-place or stateless people; and it was in easy orbit of church organisations, notably the Vatican. Steinacher details five main groups that aided Nazis and collaborators along the ratlines – Nazis themselves and the South Tyrol Ethnic German community; The Red Cross and other aid organisations; religious orders including the Vatican; the US intelligence Services; and South American consuls and representatives, notably Argentina. Often working in tandem, these groups ensured those fleeing had shelter, work, finance, and suitable paperwork to evade justice. Over time the ratlines evolved into quite sophisticated networks and were fairly robust.

Steinacher creates a convincing weight of evidence from documentary sources to back-up his story, however, the story itself leaves a lot to be desired. The book is marketed as a popular history tome, but it is academic in its presentation and writing style. The result is rather dry and stogy. Even then, the analysis is rather descriptive in nature, detailing lots of information and anecdotal stories, but really fails to shift to explanation or a wider discussion of what the analysis means for how we interpret what happened. The conclusion starts to do this, but is relatively short and underdeveloped. More problematically, the book could have done with a really good edit to sort out issues of repetition and poor structuring. Given the high standards of OUP, I was quite surprised that this basic editorial work had not been undertaken. The level of repetition in particular is very noticeable. With a decent edit, about a twenty percent reduction in length, and the addition of some explanation, this would have been a first class book. As it is, whilst the research work seems sound, it just about passes muster.


Sarah said...

Interesting review Rob. I would like to read the book as the subject matter interests me, but your review suggests rather dry style of writing. What a shame as there are some really well written popular histories out there.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Too bad because this is a subject a lot of non-academics would love to read. It's hard though, isn't it, when you are used to writing a certain way to change it.

Rob Kitchin said...

This is an academic book. That inevitably gives it a certain kind of style. Moreover it is poorly structured and edited. It's a shame as the book fails to deliver to a certain extent on both fronts - popular and academic - despite containing fascinating material. I've just looked up other reviews to see if I'm off-beam on this, but they concur.