Philippe Sands is an international lawyer and professor of law at University College London. His latest book, The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive, is a shocking and utterly gripping story about Nazi war criminal Otto Wächter, who was indicted for mass murder. The book is also “a tale of love and death” and “a Nazi in the Vatican” in which Charlotte, Wächter’s wife, is also a central character.
The Ratline can be considered a sequel to Sands’s East West Street, an immensely moving book. Published in 2016, East West Street is a story of four men, three of whom were from the city of Lemberg, which was once in Poland but is now in the Ukraine and known as Lviv.
The three men from Lemberg were Sands’s grandfather Leon Buchholz, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. Lauterpacht and Lemkin were “two jurists who put the terms ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ into the Nuremberg trials and international law.” Hans Frank, the Nazi governor-general of occupied Poland, was the fourth man. Frank was hanged in October 1946 for crimes against humanity and the mass murder of four million people. Otto Wächter was Frank’s deputy and governor of Lemberg, and a minor character in East West Street.
Sands had a particular interest in finding out the story of Wächter. As governor of Lemberg from 1942 to 1944, Wächter was responsible for the mass murder of an estimated 100,000 people from Lemberg. “The estimate was low,” Sands writes. Those murdered included the entire families of Sands’s grandfather Buchholz and jurists Lemkin and Lauterpacht.
As governor of Lemberg, Wächter was also most likely responsible for the murder of the Jewish relatives of Leopold Weiss who, like Sands’s grandfather, was born in Lemberg and grew up there. The world knows Weiss as Muhammad Asad, translator of the Holy Quran into English and author of The Road to Makkah.
There was another reason for Sands’s interest in the story of Wächter and Charlotte: their son Horst and how he has chosen to remember his father. Horst admits that his father was a Nazi and does “not deny the horrors, of a holocaust, of millions of people murdered.” However, he insists his father “was not responsible for any crimes.” Sands writes that while Horst “was a son who wanted to find the good in his father”, Horst’s daughter Magdalena recognises her grandfather to be a mass murderer.
An utterly gripping story about the life of an Austrian Nazi war criminal who was indicted for mass murder, but escaped
The story, as narrated by Sands, moves back and forth between the past and the present, between the first half of the 20th century, covering the lives of Otto and Charlotte Wächter, and the second decade of the 21st century, when Sands first meets Horst.
Wächter and Charlotte, both born in the first decade of the 20th century and both members of the Nazi party, married in 1932 and had six children together. In July 1934, Wächter was involved in a failed coup against the Austrian government, resulting in the murder of Austria’s chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss. Wächter escaped to Berlin, where his family joined him, and the arrival of Nazis in Austria in March 1938 made it possible for the Wächters to return home to Vienna.
When, in the same month, Adolf Hitler visited Vienna, Charlotte noted in her diary that he “was standing a metre in front of me” while delivering his speech from the balcony of the Hofburg Palace overlooking the Heldenplatz, or Heroes Square. She described her time in the presence of Hitler as “the best moment of my life.”
The same day, writes Sands, “Otto asked Charlotte if she would prefer that he return to legal practice and make money, or enter public service and accept a position as an official in the new government. ‘Do what interests you the most,’ she told him, ‘we will always have enough to eat.’ With this green light he kissed her hand, a pact perfected.”
Wächter’s new job was to carry out the “cleansing” of the Austrian civil service — a task he carried out, Sands writes, “with single-minded purpose.” Wächter even “targeted some of his former teachers”, two of whom perished in concentration camps.
While Wächter was engaged in removing “public officials from their posts, because they were Jewish or politically unreliable”, Charlotte became “a social butterfly, invited to cocktails, parties and receptions”, rubbing shoulders with the prominent and the powerful. Together, Sands writes, “she and Otto attended concerts and operas” and became a “glamour couple.”
While the glamour couple was enjoying their new life of privilege and power, their fellow Viennese of Jewish faith and heritage were being robbed of their livelihoods and “made stateless and expelled from the Reich by judicial decision.” The author’s grandfather, Leon Buchholz, was one of them.
On Nov 9, 1938, Charlotte recorded in her diary that she had attended the premiere of a new play in Vienna. Happening the same night were the events of Kristallnacht, when Nazi party members “ransacked Jewish businesses, destroyed synagogues and beat up Jews and then arrested them.” Charlotte is silent about the atrocities in her diary.
In 1939, on his first day as governor of Kraków, Wächter “signed an order with the title ‘Marking of Jews in the District of Kraków’.” It required “Jews over the age of 12 to wear a blue Star of David on a white armband, precisely 10 centimetres wide.” A few months later, he ordered the creation of a Jewish ghetto in Kraków.
Sands quotes an eyewitness account of the results of the governor’s order: “Inhuman deportations, monstrous crimes and constant degradation of human dignity and self-respect of the ghetto’s occupants.” Years later, Charlotte “characterised his term of office as governor of Kraków with a single word: humanity.” As Sands writes, “Charlotte was engaged in her own act of cleansing.”
As the Second World War came to an end, Wächter, fearing capture, disappeared. He hid in the Austrian Alps for more than three years. Charlotte’s “determined assistance” and the help of a young man from the Schutzstaffel or SS — the paramilitary force to which Wächter once belonged — helped him survive “during brutal winter conditions.” The two men “moved frequently, from one place to next, high in the mountains, between huts, where they were safe.”
Planning an escape along the “ratline” — the Nazi escape route to South America — Wächter moved to the Vatican in 1949, where he was protected by powerful people. His aim was to get a false identity and travel documents that would help him escape, but he died before he could do so.
The author’s investigative powers are on full display when dealing with the “mysterious death” of Wächter in the longest section in the book. However, instead of drawing a conclusion, Sands leaves it to the reader to make up their mind about the cause of Wächter’s death.
Sands writes that, in Rome, Wächter “believed himself to be hunted but who, it turned out, was not quite as hunted as he thought.” The Americans and the British knew of his presence and protectors in the Vatican, as they knew about the presence in Italy of many other Nazi war criminals responsible for deporting and murdering tens of thousands of Jewish people.
The Americans and the British eagerly, and often successfully, recruited a number of these war criminals to work as paid agents against the Soviet Union and the communists. How quickly the tables had been turned; the allies had become the new enemies and the villains had been recruited as the allies.
The reviewer is working on a book titled Selected Writings of Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi
The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive
By Philippe Sands
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 3rd, 2021