The Sound of Mass Murder

The Ratline by Philippe Sands

This is a love story. And it is one that most Americans will find familiar. During the interwar years a young and earnestly Catholic woman meets an older man, an Austrian baron. They meet cute, have their differences but inevitably fall into one another’s orbit. They marry and have a large family. The love story of Charlotte and Otto Wächter has many of the same threads as The Sound of Music, including conflict and confrontation with the authorities and a flight to escape arrest. But in The Ratline we don’t have to wait until after intermission for the Nazis to show up. The Nazis are there early. Both Otto and Charlotte are party members. They joined early, and in Otto’s case, more than once. The authorities Otto flees are Austrian police, seeking him in connection with the failed coup against the Austrian government in 1934 that resulted in the murder of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss. Unlike the von Trapps, who had flee their homeland after the German incorporation of Austria into the German Reich, the Anschluss gave Otto his opportunity to return in triumph to celebrate Hitler’s victory and Nazism’s ascendancy.

Always ambitious, Otto had joined the SS during his stay in Germany and rose into the outer margins of Nazi leadership. Back in Austria his talents and loyalty were rewarded, and when the Reich moved east, so did Otto. He served as governor of Krakow, subordinate to Hans Frank who led the General Government in Poland. Later, Otto was made governor of Galicia, a region the German military seized from the Soviets in 1941. His administrative center was Lemberg, Lwow under the Poles and Lviv today, part of Ukraine.

Otto and Charlotte Wächter, with Horst and his older sister Traute, 1944.

All of this is well known. Raul Hilberg wrote of Wächter in Pepetrators Victims Bystanders, providing an overview of his career, including that he ”presided over the ghettoization of the Jews in Krakow and Galician districts, and over the deportations of Jews in Galicia and Italy.” (47) But details of Otto’s family life we know thanks to Philippe Sands, a British barrister and expert in international law. Sands’ family had lived in Lemberg for generations before the German occupation. He wrote an extraordinary account of the ways his family’s history overlapped and intertwined with that of Hersch Lauterpracht, the jurist who developed the legal theory behind “crimes against humanity” and actively supported the Nuremberg war crimes trial; and also of Rafael Lemkin, who developed the conceptual framework of genocide. In his research Sands met Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, and through Niklas Frank he met Horst Wächter, Otto and Charlotte’s son. Whereas Niklas had long recognized his father’s criminality, Horst maintained his father’s fundamental decency. The contrasts between the two men, and the wide ranging discussions they held with one another and Sands, led Sands to bring them together for a public discussion, and also to make them the basis for a documentary, What our Fathers Did.

Amazingly, Philippe Sands and Horst Wächter became friends, or at least friendly, to the point that Horst finally made available to the inquisitive lawyer his archive of material, mainly consisting of his mother’s diaries and letters, but also letters (and one diary) of his father. Through this Sands could write the love story of Charlotte and Otto and also give a three dimensional portrait of Otto’s life, loves and adventures.

If there is anyone we can see as a sympathetic character in this family saga, it is Horst, who consistently appears both as likable and frustratingly obtuse. He wants to believe in his father’s decency, and he continues to honor his memory and adore mother. He wants to love his parents. But they were horrible people. Charlotte joined the Nazi movement without hesitation, and she completely gave herself over to her husband’s ambitions and career. She takes her anti-semitism straight, and her papers reveal no tremor in her Catholic soul over the treatment of Jews in Krakow or Lemberg. At least one of her several abortions was in vengeance on Otto for one of his many infidelities. And after the war she supported the family in part from the sale of artwork she had stolen from Krakow and Lemberg. Otto, for his part, frequently ignored his family in service to his ambitions, and also no doubt sometimes preferred the company of a mistress to family events. But he has blood on his hands. In Krakow, he oversaw arrests and deportations of Polish intellectuals to concentration camps. He coordinated, and attended, the execution of 50 Poles in reprisal for assassinations of German soldiers. Those executed were not suspects, but chosen at random. His anti-semitism and Nazism flowed together seamlessly, and he never hesitated to use his authority to advance the racial beliefs of his movement.

I made a point of reading no other reviews of this book so as not cadge from from my betters. But I noticed a brief passage from another review that claimed the Sands work cast serious doubt on the idea of the banality of evil. Hannah Arendt’s theory, as I understand it, is that Holocaust perpetrators could ignore the horrors they instituted by seeing them as just part of their life, their own contributions merely implementing orders arising from far away and therefore not subject to one’s own ethical qualms. The reviewer apparently sees Wächter as a true believer who recognized his culpability. On my reading, on the other hand, Wächter’s career seems an almost ideal expression of quotidian evil. He was a true believer, no doubt about that, but he also saw himself as a career civil servant and an exemplar of good administration.

Consider: As governor of Krakow, Wächter ordered the construction of the ghetto where Jews would be concentrated and then denied many of the necessities of life, pending their removal to the camps. Otto’s father wrote to intercede on behalf of a friend whose daughter had married a Jew. Could something be done to help the woman’s child?

Otto responded promptly, with affection and firmness. “Dear Papa!,”Herr Schremmer’s case was “complicated and unpleasant,” so he passed it to the head of his Ministry of Interior, Herr Engler, who reviewed the matter and concluded, in a written report, that Herr Schremmer’s granddaughter was correctly to be “considered a Jew.” She was not entitled to a normal identity card. The law was the law, Otto told his father, and he hoped the clarification was helpful. Such cases of nationality and race had an “unpleasant” aspect, but he wanted to be clear: the laws may be “unfortunate” for the individuals concerned, but they were “necessary for the public benefit,” for the good of the group. (90)

The final third of the book provides the book’s title. The Ratline was the escape route for many Nazis, who crossed into Italy seeking shelter, new identities, and passage to safe havens in the Middle East or Latin America. Here Sands slows down, follows the trail of Otto Wächter and also shows us his own work to uncover the mysteries of Wächter’s disappearance and eventual death in Rome. Sands relies less on Charlotte’s archive and more on other sources, including an interview with David Cornwall (John Le Carré), who served as a second lieutenant in postwar Austria. “He was aware that there was an escape route, and mentioned a figure of 10,000 ex-Nazis making their way to South America, often with the help of the Vatican.” While that number may not be precise, the work of historian Gerald Steinacher (who Sands meets and interviews in the last section) has shown well established systems for the escape of Nazis, including high ranking ones. Eichmann, Barbie, Priebke all used the Ratline. David Cornwall also points out that “The commandants of Treblinka and Sobibór were successfully sent to South America.”

How Otto Wächter escaped, where he hid, and how he died makes a great story, as does Philippe Sands work in uncovering the truth. I won’t spoil any of it. I should note that most of the the remarkable incidents of this book were contained in Sands’ BBC podcast, also titled The Ratline. You can choose your own medium to spend time with Philippe Sands and Horst Wächter. I recommend both.

Sands, Philippe. The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive. First American edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. ISBN: 978-0-525-52097-9

Also cited here:

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.
Sands, Philippe. East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes against Humanity.” First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Steinacher, Gerald, and Shaun Whiteside. Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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