Forgive and Forget

The Vatican and the Escape of Nazi War Criminals from Justice


  • Gerald J. Steinacher University of Nebraska-Linkoln



Catholic Church, Pope Pius XII, war crime trials, Early Cold War, Nuremberg system


Vatican and other Catholic leaders had ideas about crime and punishment that were different from those of the Allies. The leadership of the Catholic Church - Pope Pius XII, his closest advisors, and many cardinals and bishops - opposed the Allied war crime trials and denazification efforts after World War II, and their opposition intensified over time. This included numerous direct interventions with Allied authorities in favor of Nazi perpetrators as well as coordinated PR campaigns to undermine and discredit the denazification program.

At the same time the Vatican was also shielding Nazi collaborators from extradition to stand trial. In some instances, Vatican officials were even hiding wanted war criminals inside the Vatican City or on Vatican property. Institutions, such as the Papal Aid Commission and Catholic dignitaries, were helping Nazi criminals and their collaborators escape Allied justice by fleeing overseas to the Americas, Spain, or the Near East.

While actively aiding Nazi escape and shielding perpetrators from prosecution represent different points on a spectrum, it is often unclear where one ends and the other begins. The author argues that Catholic help for Nazi war criminals was ultimately an aspect of the Vatican’s reaction to the new postwar order and the Early Cold War. The Vatican responses to the Nuremberg system in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust also offer a unique and under-explored avenue for evaluating competing models of transitional justice.

Author Biography

Gerald J. Steinacher, University of Nebraska-Linkoln

Gerald J. Steinacher is the James A. Rawley Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (USA). He is the author of numerous publications on twentieth-century European history, most recently Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust (2017), and Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice (2011), both published by Oxford University Press.


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How to Cite

Steinacher, Gerald J. 2022. “Forgive and Forget: The Vatican and the Escape of Nazi War Criminals from Justice”. S: I.M.O.N. Shoah: Intervention. Methods. Documentation. 9 (1):4-28.