Husband, father, war criminal: Chasing the memory of a Nazi fugitive across Europe
A review of The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive. By: Philippe Sands. Publisher: Orion books, London, United Kingdom, 2020.
In 1945 the Polish government indicted SS Brigadeführer Otto von Wächter for mass murder. He was never brought to trial, instead he escaped justice, living in hiding, first in the Austrian Alps and then in Rome. His plan was simple – escape to South America via the Ratline (a post-war system of escape routes for Nazis and other fascists from Europe, primarily to South America). However, in 1949 he was suddenly taken ill and died a week later. Was this a result of foul play? And how exactly did the former SS Governor of the district of Kraków, and later of Galicia, manage to escape being brought before the Nuremburg Trials?
In his latest book, renowned international human rights lawyer, Phillipe Sands, delves into the biography of Otto von Wächter. The result is a tale of love, deception and mystery, found among the personal and affectionate letters and memories of the wife of a man who for most is a symbol of an evil, totalitarian regime.
Born in Austria in 1901, Otto von Wächter quickly became a committed Nazi Party member, joining the SA storm troopers in 1923 and then becoming a fully registered member in 1930. As a lawyer, many of his clients included members of the Nazi Party and this led him to play a key role in the failed July Putsch of 1934 in Austria, and his first acquaintance of avoiding justice as he fled to Nazi Germany. At the beginning of 1932 he entered the SS, having proved himself to the highest ranks of the Nazi Party.
The German occupation of Poland following the 1939 September campaign saw the creation of the General Government state which was governed by high ranking SS officer, Hans Frank. Von Wächter was appointed first as deputy and later the Governor of the District of Kraków. Under his governing, an execution warrant for 52 people from the town of Bochnia (east of Kraków) was signed, as well as a decree calling for the expulsion of the city’s Jewish community and the organisation of the Kraków Ghetto.
Seeing von Wächter’s potential and his effective methods of administration, Adolf Hitler selected him to be the General Governor of Galicia (an area which now largely lies within Ukraine), in January 1943, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of areas which had previously been occupied by the Soviets. Directly answerable to Heinrich Himmler, von Wächter proposed the establishment of an SS Waffen group made up of local Ukrainians willing to collaborate with the Nazis. The SS Division Galicia was inaugurated on March 1943 and used to fight the Bolsheviks and locals of the occupied area who the Nazis greatly despised. All the while von Wächter was keeping correspondence with his wife, Charlotte, whom he married in 1932. At the close of the war they had six children, the youngest being Horst Wächter, who plays a prominent role in Sands’ discovery of all the sides of Horst’s Nazi father.
Criminal on the run
Otto von Wächter’s story goes beyond the close of the Second World War and Sands leaves no stone unturned (or in this case, document). Here it is worth mentioning that Sands embarked on this project in part on the request of Horst, who wanted to show that his father was, in fact, a “good Nazi” and his sudden death in Rome in 1949, while aiming to escape to South America, was a targeted killing.
Von Wächter’s years as a fugitive see that he spent three years in the Austrian Alps, all the while keeping contact with his wife and on occasions meeting in secret. The full documentation of these meetings and exchanges can be found in Charlotte’s letters and diaries which make up a large body of the sources from which Sands writes his book. They reveal an intimate and personal side to an individual whose war time record reveals him to be a war criminal. Furthermore, the documents allow Sands to not only focus on the character of von Wächter, but on the person who arguably knew him best and despite her frustration at his womanising and lack of time for the family, supported and loved him dearly. The space given to Charlotte as an individual is also refreshing, as it provides an interesting female perspective on the rise and fall of the Nazi party. There is no doubt as to Charlotte’s devotion and love for her husband, but Sands also presents her as a strong, independent and stubborn character, with her own experiences of the war.
In 1948, the letter exchanges move to between Austria, where Charlotte is with the children, and Italy – more specifically Rome. Here, Sands touches upon another infrequently remembered element of post-war Nazi history: the involvement of parts of the Vatican in aiding the escape of Nazis and fascists. The opening of the Vatican archives to documents from the Holocaust era, as well as from the papacy of Pope Pius XII in March 2020, may create a whole new avenue of academic publications on this topic. Sands succeeds in painting an astonishing picture of the life that von Wächter was living in the protection of Vatican bishop Alois Hudal, a fascist sympathiser. Despite having to live under an alias and be careful of his movements, his days are filled with swimming in lakes, meeting various individuals (some fellow Nazis) and even dabbling at being a film extra.
Through careful research, The Ratline, unpicks the various personalities that von Wächter meets, many who appear under coded names with his letters to Charlotte. Rome becomes the setting of post-war espionage, secret services and double dealings. This gives the book the feeling of a detective novel, as the reader is taken on a journey with Sands and Horst to discover who von Wächter was communicating with, especially in the final days before his sudden illness and subsequent death. Even following his death, the investigation continues to discover the cause and possibility of foul play, as well as the explanation of multiple movements of his body.
Personal memory vs. factual evidence
What makes The Ratline a gripping read is the way in which the author cleverly interlinks the present and the past. Biographical chapters stand alongside genealogy chapters, as well as Sands’ own memories of his meetings with various international experts from various speciality areas. In the background is the elephant in the room in the form of Horst’s approach to his father – a man who to him was morally good but forced to do bad things by a system which exploited his administrative and organisational talents. This is not always easy to read, and indeed Sands relays his own feelings to the difficulty of getting Horst to accept his father’s crimes. Despite this, Sands has a lot of respect for Horst, and sees him as an open individual, willing to discuss his father’s actions, more so than the rest of his family members.
The topic of memory, and how we choose to remember the past, and those who were a part of it, is never far from Sands’ mind when he writes about von Wächter. In his previous book, East West Street, Sands touches on this topic even more, following his own family history to the city of Lviv (now in Ukraine, but in the interwar years it was part of Poland and known as Lwów). Here the figures of his grandfather and of Rafael Lemkin, Hersch Lauchterpact, Hans Frank (Governor of General Government), Otto von Wächter, are weaved together in a narrative which brings together the city of Lviv/Lwów/Lemberg, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the Nuremburg trials.
Throughout East West Street, Sands refers to the sons of both Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter – with whom he has close contact and who both hold different views of their fathers’ wartime record. Frank’s son sees his father as an evil individual, Horst, on the other hand, defends his father’s actions. With a greater focus on Horst Wächter in The Ratline, Sands gives space for the exploration of how one may choose to remembered their loved ones, those who one looks up to, even in the face of the globally recognised cruel deeds they have committed.
In his recollection of the various meetings with historians and those who in some way knew Otto Wächter’s story, Sands does not shy away from sharing Horst’s interpretation. This exercise serves as a testament to how different people will interpret the same information and facts differently, depending on what narrative they may be seeking to support or alternatively disprove. Horst, for all his defending of his father’s actions, does not deny that he was a Nazi and admits that the wider organisation of which his father was a part of was evil – but it is when it comes to the individual, the personal individual, that Horst is adamant to hold onto the positive image of his father.
Sands has a definite gift for writing and weaving together an engrossing narrative – this may reflect his profession as a barrister. But for anyone looking for something other than a traditional historical account, The Ratline is not just a biography. It is an investigation, a love story, a questioning of morality and the extent we are prepared to go to prove the innocence of those we refuse to see in a negative light. Packed with primary sources – snippets of diary entries, letters, photographs, and maps carefully selected and ordered to pull in the reader, The Ratline falls within a plethora of genres. Sands makes the reader consider individuals’ actions within the collective, and how many individual stories can weave together and become more interconnected than one could ever expect. With several plot twists and unexpected revelations, The Ratline will inform, horrify but also enthral.
Maria Suchcitz has a Master’s degree in Central and Eastern European Studies from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. She currently works in Warsaw, and in her free time writes on topics including Polish history, culture and the politics of memory.