by Philippe Sands
Reviewed by Rachel Donadio for The New York Times, February Feb. 2, 2021.
Following the Trail of a Nazi Mass Murderer Who Was Never Caught
Otto Wächter and his family, 1948
Photo Credit: Horst Wächter
In his brilliant, deeply moving 2016 book “East West Street,” Philippe Sands wove the story of his own Eastern European Jewish family with those of two jurists who forged the legal framework for the Nuremberg trials: Hersch Lauterpacht, who put forth the concept of “crimes against humanity,” and Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide.” Both men and Sands’s maternal grandfather hailed from Lemberg — now Lviv, in Ukraine — and all had relatives slaughtered in the Holocaust. His latest book, “The Ratline,” is a gripping sequel.
This time around, Sands, a human rights lawyer, follows the trail of a big fish who was never caught: Otto Wächter, a high-ranking Nazi official in occupied Poland who was indicted on a charge of mass murder after the war, but escaped. Wächter had been chosen by Hitler himself to govern Galicia and on his watch the Krakow ghetto was constructed and more than 130,000 people from the area, including 8,000 children, died in death camps. After the war, while much of the Nazi high command wound up at Nuremberg — tried, convicted and hanged — Wächter spent more than three years hiding in the Austrian Alps before escaping to Rome. He died there in 1949 in mysterious circumstances under the assumed name of Reinhardt, given last rites by a prominent Austrian Catholic bishop who had helped him in Rome — entirely aware of his identity, sympathetic to his cause and well connected at the Vatican.
Wächter had crossed the Alps on foot in the snow and made his way to Rome, where he lived in a religious residence. He had intended to flee to South America via the so-called “Ratline,” the clandestine network that helped many prominent Nazis evade justice with the aid of Catholic Church officials, some perhaps even inside the Vatican. Sometimes, Sands discovers in his research, the Ratline had the implicit or explicit support of the United States, which valued these men’s intelligence about the growing Soviet threat and turned a blind eye to their murderous pasts. This is the swampy world of postwar Rome in which Wächter died, believing himself “to be hunted by Americans, Poles, Soviets and Jews,” as Sands writes.
In truth, this book’s title is a bit of a misnomer. “The Ratline” is less about the escape route per se than about Wächter’s life and times — his education in Austria, his rise through the ranks of the Nazi Party, his courtship of and marriage to Charlotte Bleckmann, a bright, well-educated art student. “The Ratline” is a Nazi love story, but a fascinating and important one, told in vivid detail because Sands was able to make use of an extraordinary cache of documents: thousands of pages of personal papers and diaries, and years of correspondence between Otto and Charlotte. While Wächter was busy overseeing the deportation of Galicia’s Jews, and then in hiding between 1945 and 1949, the two wrote to each other using lovey-dovey nicknames.
Sands was given access to this trove by one of the most intriguing central characters in “The Ratline”: Horst Wächter, the fourth of Otto and Charlotte’s six children, who had been safeguarding the papers in his crumbling Austrian schloss. Horst is an interesting case — forthright but also perversely myopic. He steadfastly refuses to acknowledge his father’s complicity in the Holocaust, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, including the evidence in documents in his possession. The tension between Sands and Horst, the questioner and the questioned, gives “The Ratline” much of its driving force. Sands had met Horst while researching “East West Street,” and the two men later became part of a documentary, “My Nazi Legacy,” in which Sands brought together Horst and Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, the Nazi governor general of occupied Poland, who was tried and hanged at Nuremberg.
While Niklas, a journalist, is unforgiving of and unsparing about his father — he carries a photograph of his dead body, snapped in Nuremberg after his trial, “to make sure that he is really dead,” he tells Sands in “East West Street” — Horst, in sharp contrast, refuses to acknowledge his father’s actions, and prefers to see his father as a good man caught up in a bad system. He was especially close to his mother and believes his father was poisoned — a hypothesis Sands spends much of “The Ratline” pursuing. And yet for all his blindness, Horst has done a great service to history. Rather than destroying the documents in his possession, he let Sands scrutinize them, a move that put him at odds with members of his family, who didn’t want to call attention to their ugly past.
And ugly it was. The correspondence is a grotesque, intimate look at total commitment to Nazism, horrific evil interspersed with the banality of upper-middle-class life. In the summer of 1942, when the “Grosse Aktion,” or mass deportation of Galicia’s Jews, was well underway in territory Wächter governed, he and Charlotte moved into a lovely villa outside Lemberg, with a swimming pool and a tennis court. He entertained Himmler, and a close aide to Hitler praised Wächter’s skills to the Führer. Returning from a summer holiday in 1942, Wächter wrote to Charlotte: “Jews are being deported in increasing numbers. It’s hard to get powder for the tennis courts.”
Charlotte, who died in 1985, was utterly dedicated to her husband and to the Nazi cause. On the shelf in Horst’s castle, Sands found a copy of “Mein Kampf,” which she had inscribed to Otto: “Through struggle and love, to the finish.” When Otto was in hiding in Rome and in need of money, Charlotte sold off works of art she had looted from collections in Krakow. And after Otto’s death in Rome, Charlotte managed to transport his body back to Austria, illegally.
It’s a testament to Sands — his fiercely inquiring mind, his excellent researchers, the wealth of documents and his ability to make them come to life — that the book is so suspenseful. “The Ratline” was a podcast for the BBC before Sands put it into book form, and his style here is to bring us along on the quest. There are many extraordinary secondary characters and subplots. Rather than citing the work of scholars, he pops in for visits, including one with David I. Kertzer, whose excellent book “The Pope and Mussolini” offers a vivid picture of the Vatican during the 1930s.
There’s an intriguing cameo by David Cornwell, the late John le Carré, who tells Sands he believes Wächter would have been “naturally attractive” to the Vatican and to the Americans, as a “talent-spotter” able to identify former Nazis who might want to work for the West. Cornwell also tells Sands he believed Wächter’s death was “basically a Jewish operation, however indirectly,” but offers little evidence. “It’s a hunch, really,” he says, “no more than that,” adding, “I would have to say I admired it.”
From recently declassified C.I.A. files, Sands learned about an operation conducted by the United States Army Counter Intelligence Corps, or C.I.C., which enlisted former Nazis to help recruit intelligence assets. A key figure in the operation was Karl Hass, a high-ranking SS officer and one of the last people Wächter had visited before his death. Hass had lived quietly for years after the war, before becoming a household name in Italy in 1996, when he was arrested and eventually convicted on charges of “crimes against humanity” for his role in the March 1944 killing of 335 Italian civilians at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome. Another former SS officer involved in the massacre, Erich Priebke, had escaped via the Ratline to Argentina, where he was arrested, extradited to Italy and also convicted. One of the last war-crimes trials in Europe, it remains a flash point of historical memory in Italy.
In the end, “The Ratline” is about the Nazis who didn’t escape and their descendants, like Horst. It’s a reminder that Europe to this day is populated by survivors and perpetrators of World War II — a place of tangled family histories and selective denial, but also intermittent lucidity. This important book makes clear that the more difficult work of history may not be in tracking down the ones who tried to escape, but in confronting the ones who didn’t.