Life for Nazis after the Third Reich was never easy. Many top Nazis were tried and punished for their wartime activities. Others attempted to hide or escape – South America was a popular destination for many, although a surprisingly large number lived for decades in Europe or the USA under aliases. Some were simply shunned from public life. But two men – one still alive, one now dead – went on to wield great influence after service for the Third Reich, although exactly how much they served Hitler’s cause remains hotly disputed.
Kurt Waldheim (1918-2007) spent a decade as Secretary General of the United Nations, and was elected to serve six years as President of Austria. He had been an interpreter and liaison officer for the Nazis in 1941 and 1942; critics claim prisoners were executed within metres of his office, although Waldheim always denied a role in Nazi atrocities.
Joseph Ratzinger (1927-) spent eight years as Pope Benedict XVI before his highly-unusual resignation in 2013. He had been conscripted into the Hitler Youth, helped operate an anti-aircraft battery and trained as an infantryman. In 1945, he deserted from the army and fled to his family home – the building became a local headquarters for the advancing American army.
Other former Nazis tried to put their wartime years behind them, but didn’t succeed. Ernst Achenbach (1909-1991), who had spent three years as Head of the Political Department in the German Embassy in Paris, was elected the West German Bundestag. He became a leading spokesman on Foreign Affairs with a prominent role in the European Commission. But in 1974, Achenbach was forced to resign when an investigative journalist exposed his complicity in the execution of French Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Other famous people who had provided active support to the Nazi regime include the acclaimed German journalist and newspaper editor Hans Walter Aust, distinguished rocket scientist Werner von Braun, and physicist Werner Heisenberg. Several top Germans – including 1500 scientists – were resettled in the United States under the wonderfully named ‘Operation Paperclip’ – the controversial project to conscript former Nazi talent to the Western cause in the Cold War.
Despite an intensive De-Nazification programme, which was intended to expunge Hitler’s ideology and key Nazis from public life, many who had served the Third Reich were rehabilitated. Of the 53,000 civil servants in West Germany at the end of the war, some 51,000 were allowed to keep their jobs.