The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive

Philippe Sands

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

Review by Brian Morton

In 1963 Hannah Arendt coined a phrase that has been misunderstood almost as often as it has been quoted, which is often enough to have turned it into a cliché. Writing about the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, she spoke of “the banality of evil”, which everyone took to mean that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not fanged monsters or strutting demagogues in Ruritanian uniforms but mild, grey-suited men with clipboards and timetables to keep.

Setting aside the complexities of Arendt’s phrase, the implications have morphed into everything from mild revisionism to outright Holocaust denial. Hitler ate only vegetables, patted dogs and had a cracking sense of humour. Mussolini liked a bit of jazz on the side. The man who commanded the death camp went home at night, washed up and hugged his children.

So it was with Otto Wächter. In the eyes of the woman who would marry him, he was “tall, slender, athletic”, of “noble appearance”, flirtatious, ambitious, “with delicate features, very beautiful hands”. The same hands that gallantly waxed her skis were a dozen years later signing orders for the reprisal killings of dozens of Poles, and writing letters home to Charlotte, who after a certain shilly-shally on both sides and several affairs on Otto’s, married him. The affairs continued but Lotte continued to bear his children.

Philippe Sands has investigated the human dimensions of the Holocaust before, in the acclaimed East West Street, but this time his focus is on the youngest Wächter son. Horst was born on April 14 1939, too young to have reached the age of discretion by the time his father was appointed Governor of Galicia, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Eichmann, Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, the puppet ruler of post-Anschluss Austria or “Ostmark” Arthur Seyss-Inquart, and in the orbit of Adolf Hitler himself, who must have liked having a tall, blond Austrian on his staff.

Even seventy-plus years later, Horst refuses to believe that his father was complicit in genocide, insisting that there are no documents signed by those very beautiful hands that implicate him in monstrosity. To Horst, his father was kind, loving, revered even by the population he governed. One of the many piquancies of Sands’ account is that Wächter studied law in the same classes as Hersch Lauterpacht from Lemberg, who a quarter of a century later would help frame the legal concept of “crimes against humanity”.

Sands’ account is complicated in many ways. First by a narrative that oscillates between present contact with Horst, who willingly talks until he feels that Sands has gone too far, or not far enough in exonerating his beloved father, and detailed reconstruction of Otto Wächter’s life as a Nazi. Second, in dealing with a geography that shifts constantly; in the same way that a man can be many things under different uniforms and ideologies, Lemberg is also Lviv, Lvov and Lwów, part of the Austrian empire, of Poland, of Greater Germany, of Ukraine.

There is a further complication. Otto Wächter is also Alfredo Reinhardt, a patient in a Rome hospital in the summer of 1949, self-described with excruciating irony as a “writer” (of what?) and now dying. We learn later that Wächter lived in Trieste for a time and spoke musical Italian. His success or failure at passing for a native would have determined whether he eventually escaped to South America – the Marigold Hotel for ageing Nazi war criminals – or shared the fate of his former boss Hans Frank, who was hanged at Nuremberg.

In one of the book’s most extraordinary confrontations Horst Wächter and Frank’s son join Sands for an in-conversation event on the South Bank. Unlike Niklas Frank, Horst cannot or will not come to terms with his father’s guilt. He tells a crowded room “I see the structure of the whole annihilation of the Jews quite differently”, which is an astonishingly complex evasion: in acknowledging the annihilation, it does not stray into Holocaust denial, and yet it seeks not just to exculpate one man but to suggest that he actually wanted to help, “to do something positive”.

Horst goes on, “It’s my duty as a son to put things straight with my father, that’s all,” a statement that reduces a defining event of the 20th century to a form of family therapy. The twist in the story is that Horst believes his father did not die of natural causes, but was poisoned either by the Americans or the Soviets. He has the corpse exhumed, but refuses to accept the original verdict of leptospirosis, or Weil’s disease, often caught through contact with the urine of rats. Though Sands’ title refers to the escape route favoured by fugitive Nazis, it has that further tinge of irony. Nothing, though, to Horst’s subordination of the Final Solution to a murder mystery with dad as the corpse.

Any self-respecting psychotherapist would be looking into the mother’s role in all this. Charlotte married a man who already had a criminal record, an early-adopting Nazi who would go on to involvement in the assassination of Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who would purge the Austrian civil service of Jews and other “unreliables”, including some of his own former teachers.

Charlotte is no less ruthless and iron-hard. She punishes Otto for an affair by aborting their child and then naming the next one after his mistress. She survives scarifying medical issues and an excruciating leg fracture, all with a soldier’s stoicism. And she becomes the book’s key witness not just because she is the mother and main influence on Horst but because she preserves all of Wächter’s letters and keeps a diary. We’re used to (particularly female) diarists offering a faintly bathetic, Mrs Miniverish view of history - “Church this morning, then lamb for lunch. War. Oh dear.” – but Charlotte’s are astonishing. It is she who arranges Otto’s return to Austria (where he was still technically a criminal) to witness the Anschluss celebrations, and stands behind the new regime on the balcony. It is she who can claim to go ski jumping with Hitler, though it’s impossible to imagine the Fuhrer using the Kongsberger technique, and then on the day Germany occupied the Rhineland closing her entry with “evening, cinema”. Her diary is that of a spoilt political wife for whom war simply extends her social and cultural orbit. It suited her to keep the philandering Otto on side and to preserve his charisma in the eyes of at least one child.

Horst admits that his family are angry with him, not for washing dirty linen in public, but for co-operating with a journalist and then refusing to condemn their father and grandfather. In May 2013, the Financial Times published Sands’s interview under the headline “My Father, The Good Nazi” and a photograph of Horst in greatcoat and red hat, looking like a slightly impoverished Graf.

Wächter had given up the “von” the family had acquired in order to devote himself more thoroughly to Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Horst did not like the article, but did not change his view. Sands’s research continued, even after the connection was broken and his narrative is punctuated by fuzzy, uncaptioned on-page family photos. Horst’s last words on the subject are equally out of focus. “I know the system was criminal, that my father was part of it, but I don’t think of him as a criminal.” One of the most remarkable and troubling books about fathers and sons, and mothers, ever written.