Early Spanish Ratlines
The origins of the first ratlines are connected to various developments in Vatican-Argentine relations before and during World War II. As early as 1942, Monsignor Luigi Maglione contacted Ambassador Llobet, inquiring as to the “willingness of the government of the Argentine Republic to apply its immigration law generously, in order to encourage at the opportune moment European Catholic immigrants to seek the necessary land and capital in our country”. Afterwards, a German priest, Anton Weber, the head of the Rome-based Society of Saint Raphael, traveled to Portugal, continuing to Argentina, to lay the groundwork for future Catholic immigration, this was to be a route which fascist exiles would exploit – without the knowledge of the Catholic Church. According to historian Michael Phayer, “this was the innocent origin of what would become the Vatican ratline”.
Spain, not Rome, was the “first center of ratline activity that facilitated the escape of Nazi fascists”, although the exodus itself was planned within the Vatican. Charles Lescat, a French member of Action Française (an organization suppressed by Pius XI and rehabilitated by Pius XII), and Pierre Daye, a Belgian with contacts in the Spanish government, were among the primary organizers. Lescat and Daye were the first able to flee Europe, with the help of Argentine cardinal Antonio Caggiano.
By 1946, there were probably hundreds of war criminals in Spain, and thousands of former Nazis and fascists.
According to US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Vatican cooperation in turning over asylum-seekers was “negligible”. According to Phayer, Pius XII “preferred to see fascist war criminals on board ships sailing to the New World rather than seeing them rotting in POW camps in zonal Germany”. Unlike the Vatican emigration operation in Italy, centered on Vatican City, the Ratlines of Spain, although “fostered by the Vatican” were relatively independent of the hierarchy of the Vatican Emigration Bureau.
The Roman Ratlines