The Investigator, the Nazi and His Son

Lawyer Philippe Sands, grandson of persecuted Jews, investigated the character of Otto von Wächter, Austrian SS and governor of Krakow during the war, with the help of the latter’s son.

After the success of Back to Lemberg In 2017, Philippe Sands, a Franco-British lawyer and law professor in London, continued in The Ratline his investigation into the traces of the genocide in Galicia. A secondary character in his previous book, Otto von Wächter (1901-1949), SS and governor of Krakow from 1939 to 1942 and then of Galicia until 1944, becomes the main character here. Even if he mentions his grandfather’s family, engulfed in the Shoah, Philippe Sands moves away from his quest, that of the third generation, which he intertwined so well with the emerging notions of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The search for truth

A family memory of another type is at the heart of this new work, which could not have existed without the special relationship he established with the Austrian Horst von Wächter, Otto’s son. If the Austrian memory of Nazism has evolved since the 1980s, the Waldheim affair and the bitter observation made at the time by the writer Thomas Bernhard (“There are more Nazis in Vienna today than in 1938”), Horst admitted, during a debate in London, that “this kind of discussion would be impossible in Austria where we know nothing and want to know nothing” (p. 64).

Quite common for Germany, this family investigation is rarer for a high-ranking figure in Austria, where the status of “victim” of Nazism was granted to the country by the Allies in 1943. Horst has no doubt about his parents’ total adherence to Nazism, but he is searching for the truth, which is less the case for the other members of his family.

The entire work, an exploration of the articulations between individual and collective responsibilities, is traversed by this quest for the degree of Wächter’s involvement in the crimes committed by the Nazis in Vienna, Krakow and Galicia. His son and Sands, despite many reasons to oppose each other, most often join forces in a fruitful dialectic, full of twists and turns. Horst is helped by the gaps in the family archives (expurgated?) or official archives, which do not contain a direct signed order for execution.

It is Sands’ talent to manage to obtain access to family photos, diaries and letters, without showing any complacency. He undoubtedly arrives at the right time and accomplishes this work in a remarkable way, with the active complicity of Horst, who investigates for the defense. The relationship between a son of a Nazi and a grandson of a persecuted Jew is one of the powerful plots of the book, already present in the 2015 film.

Horst never ceases to provide proof of the “humanity” of his father, whom he knew little, but whose memory he defends out of loyalty to his mother Charlotte, who died in 1985. We think again of Bernhard and his image of “fathers who are dead or conscientiously devoid of conscience”. Horst seeks this link with Sands and sometimes expresses shame. But his view of the past remains hampered by this willful and stubborn blindness to his father’s crimes. As Welzer rightly says,

a past marked as criminal in the public culture of remembrance must be brought into line with a family memory which, taking into account the demands of coherence, identity and mutual loyalty, forces each member to maintain and prolong the “good history” of the family.

A career as a Nazi

Sands does not set himself up as a historian, but he does indeed do the work of a historian, starting with the story of the Wächter couple. He deploys all the insight and methods he usually uses to conduct investigations into crimes against humanity (he regularly pleads in The Hague). It is regrettable that the legal aspects are not much discussed here. It would have been interesting to insist on the exact nature of the crimes in the eyes of the law.

Wächter, the son of an Austro-Hungarian officer from a recently ennobled family, was from the “war generation”, too young to have fought in 1914-1918, but marked by the conflict, in a country that had changed in size and status. He was one of those deeply anti-Semitic Austrians who were won over to the Nazi cause early on, from 1923, and who fought against the Republic. Having become a lawyer, he took part in the plot against Chancellor Dolfuss in 1934.

Forced to flee to Nazi Germany, he renounced the Catholic religion, met Himmler and Heydrich and worked in SD. He is naturally part of the new leaders of the country after the Anschluss. Sands gives us a glimpse of the delirious atmosphere of Hitler’s arrival, thanks to Charlotte’s diary, which recounts “the most beautiful moment” of her life (p. 60).

In his new role, he rubbed shoulders with other prominent Nazis: Seyss-Inquart and Eichmann, as well as his former comrades from German ClubKaltenbrunner, Fischböck and Globocnik. In this euphoria, the family grew, with the birth of Horst Arthur on April 14, 1939 (who bore the first names of the Nazi “martyr” Horst Wessel and his godfather Seyss-Inquart) and occupied a villa looted from Jews.

The Crimes of Baron Wächter

At the start of the war, Wächter became governor of Krakow under Hans Frank, governor general for all of unannexed Poland. In Bochnia in December 1939, he had civilian hostages executed, a proven war crime, and was present at the scene (“tomorrow I have to have 50 Poles shot”). In Krakow, he imposed a distinctive sign on the Jews, locking them up in 1941 in a ghetto whose aesthetics his wife praised. As in Vienna, he purged the university of many Polish professors, including Jews. Many would die in deportation.

Wächter’s hateful relationship with Krüger is an aspect that is mentioned, but which would probably have deserved more attention. Classifying him, at the beginning of the book, as Wächter’s “comrade” seems inappropriate. In his biography, Nicolas Patin devotes a few pages to their disagreements. Exploring the nature of their dispute and the responsibilities of each in the massacre of the Jews would probably have allowed us to better understand the exact role of the civil administration, led by Wächter. Being himself SSbut serving in the administration, he did not have the same role as his comrade Globocnik, head of the SS and the police (SSPF) from Lublin and direct executor of the killing.

According to Horst, Wächter did not participate in the genocide. This is of course false, given the complementarity between the SS and the civil administration is blatant. The bad relationship with Krüger does not hinder the process, if we are to believe the report submitted by Katzmann, SSPF in Lemberg, on June 30, 1943. He worked in good understanding with Wächter to carry out the “solution to the Jewish problem” in Galicia, announced in Lemberg in 1942 by Frank in the presence of Wächter, and draws up the balance sheet of more than 400,000 Jews “evacuated”, that is to say murdered.

By cross-referencing official documents and letters exchanged with his wife, Sands demonstrates that Wächter not only knew, but participated in a system and a logic from which he never sought to escape. A writing from Himmler mentions his proposal, refused by Wächter, to occupy a less exposed position, in Vienna, at the height of the ” Actions » against the Jews in 1942. Another damning document is the intimate correspondence between Charlotte and Otto. On August 28, 1942, in the midst of the “Reinhardt action” in Galicia, he wrote to his wife: “The Jews are being deported in increasing numbers, and it is difficult to find clay for the tennis court.” (p. 97).

In Lemberg (now Lviv in Ukraine), Wächter was also behind the creation, in the summer of 1943, of the division SS Galizien, composed of Ukrainians. A commemoration of the veterans of this division, organized in 2014 in connection with the Ukrainian extreme right, gives rise to a surreal encounter. Sands meets men who still venerate Wächter and measures the blindness of Horst who sees it as an argument in favor of his father’s “decency.”

Flight and Death

The last part of the book, probably the most original and methodical, is devoted to the post-war period. There is indeed a mystery to be solved, that of Wächter’s death in Rome in July 1949. Sands seeks to remove all the uncertainties and is very convincing. After hiding for several years in Austria, Wächter is forced to leave for Italy. He is helped by the Pontifical Commission for Aid to Refugees, whose Austrian branch is headed by Bishop Alois Hudal, a former Nazi sympathizer. He allows many Nazis (Franz Stangl, commander of Treblinka) to flee to Argentina, where Perón is willing to welcome them.

It’s this ” ratline “, the Nazi exfiltration route, which gives its name to the book. Wächter’s death and the revelation in the press of the help received by Hudal forced the Vatican to officially distance itself from it. The opening of the archives of the Pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958) since March 2020 will undoubtedly allow us to better understand the role of this commission, the origin of the money and the degree of involvement of Pie XIIfriend of Hudal.

Sands introduces us to the complex role of the American and Soviet secret services at the beginning of their confrontation. He highlights the action of the CIC American who, far from leading the hunt for fleeing Nazis, seeks to recruit them against the communists. He manages to trace Wächter’s last contacts with the Nazi Karl Hass. Hass works, with Hudal, for the CIC and maybe also… for the Soviets.