On the trail of a Nazi

In his new BBC Ra­dio 4 se­ries and pod­cast, Philippe Sands is try­ing to dis­cover how a se­nior Nazi eluded jus­tice. He talks to Rob At­tar about the trou­bling ques­tions that emerged from his quest

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Ac­com­pa­nies the BBC Ra­dio 4 se­ries The Rat­line

Philippe Sands talks to Rob At­tar about the quest to bring a se­nior of­fi­cial from Nazi Ger­many to jus­tice

In Fe­bru­ary 2012 the au­thor Philippe Sands ar­rived at a faded 17th-cen­tury cas­tle 50 miles north of Vi­enna where he had been in­vited to stay by its ge­nial owner, Horst von Wächter. The two men struck up a rap­port. “Horst is a lovely man,” Philippe says. “A lovely man who loves his dad, who was a se­ri­ous Nazi.”

Horst’s fa­ther was Otto von Wächter, an Aus­trian-born Nazi politi­cian who held sev­eral se­nior po­si­tions in Hitler’s regime, in­clud­ing serv­ing as gover­nor of the dis­tricts of Kraków and Gali­cia dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of Poland and parts of the Soviet Union. Philippe had first heard about Otto while re­search­ing his award-winning his­tor­i­cal me­moir East West Street and was in­tro­duced to Horst by the child of an­other Nazi heavy­weight, Nik­las Frank (son of Hans Frank, gover­nor-gen­eral of oc­cu­pied Poland).

Liv­ing un­der the shadow of a Nazi par­ent has pro­voked very dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions among their descen­dants. Nik­las Frank re­tains a deep hor­ror for his fa­ther’s ac­tions, once say­ing to Philippe: “You must un­der­stand I’m against the death penalty in all cases… ex­cept

for my fa­ther.” Yet in Horst von Wächter’s case, while he ac­cepts that the ac­tions of the Third Re­ich were rep­re­hen­si­ble, he ab­solves his late fa­ther of blame. “Horst loves his fa­ther,” Philippe ex­plains, “and be­lieves that there is no ev­i­dence to show he was cul­pa­ble of any­thing. He was sim­ply a pawn swept up in a big­ger sys­tem.”

In his cas­tle, Horst in­tro­duced Philippe to a vast fam­ily archive con­tain­ing a trea­sure trove of let­ters, di­aries, pho­to­graphs and sound record­ings re­lat­ing to Otto’s ac­tions dur­ing and af­ter the Nazi era. It is these re­mark­able doc­u­ments that have in­spired Philippe’s new BBC Ra­dio 4 se­ries and pod­cast, The Rat­line.

Num­ber one tar­get

At the con­clu­sion of the Se­cond World War Otto von Wächter went on the run. And he had good rea­son to. “He was in­dicted for mass mur­der,” says Philippe, “and if he had been caught there is no doubt that he would have been con­victed and I have no doubt that he would have hanged.” While Horst may be­lieve in his fa­ther’s in­no­cence, Philippe, a bar­ris­ter by train­ing, be­lieves the case against him was damn­ing. “My back­ground is law. I know all about com­mand re­spon­si­bil­ity and he, for ex­am­ple, signed the doc­u­ment to cre­ate the Kraków ghetto; he was re­spon­si­ble for the en­tire civil ad­min­is­tra­tion of Kraków and the dis­trict of Gali­cia; he was re­spon­si­ble for or­gan­is­ing labour, trans­porta­tion. He knew ev­ery­thing that was go­ing on. In my view he was deeply im­pli­cated.”

Yet Otto von Wächter never did face trial. He sur­vived on the run for four years be­fore dy­ing, in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances, in Italy in 1949. Philippe won’t be drawn on the ex­act cir­cum­stances of Otto’s death – “you’ll have to lis­ten to the pod­cast!” – but he does shed some light on how he es­caped jus­tice.

“Otto was hunted. He was hunted by the Amer­i­cans, he was hunted by the Poles, he was hunted by the Sovi­ets, he was hunted by the Jews, he was hunted by some Aus­tri­ans. He was a num­ber one tar­get for a lot of peo­ple. He was not safe, he needed to get away and so he used his con­nec­tions with the Catholic church – the rat­line.”

Ded­i­cated to spir­it­ing Nazis out of Europe to safer lo­ca­tions, typ­i­cally in South Amer­ica, the rat­lines had Vat­i­can con­nec­tions and were suc­cess­ful in ex­tract­ing the likes of Josef Men­gele and Adolf Eich­mann. Through the Wächter archive, Philippe has gained a new in­sight into what it was like “to be inside the rat­line as you are try­ing to get out. We can see who Otto met, how he tried to get pass­ports, how he got in­come. Some of the sto­ries are ab­so­lutely breath­tak­ing, in­clud­ing the moment when Otto, an in­dicted war crim­i­nal on the run, man­aged to pick up work as an ex­tra in a film that was be­ing made in Rome. You could not in­vent it!”

For some of his time in hid­ing, Otto was ac­com­pa­nied by a very young for­mer Waf­fen-SS sol­dier, who was still alive when The Rat­line was be­ing made. He spoke to Philippe for the se­ries – his only ever in­ter­view on the sub­ject – but only on the con­di­tion that, as Philippe re­counts, “we did not ask a sin­gle ques­tion about what he did be­fore 9 May 1945 be­cause he re­mained – even in his 90s – fear­ful that he was go­ing to be in­dicted”. From the books he had on his shelf, Philippe was able to work out which SS di­vi­sion the sol­dier had been part of, and be­lieves “he had got good rea­son to have a cer­tain amount of anx­i­ety – al­though he was a lowly per­son of only 18 or 19 at the time”.

Meet­ing this SS vet­eran made Philippe feel that he was “in the pres­ence of history. His mem­ory was crys­tal clear. He re­mem­bered as­pects as though it was yes­ter­day.” Philippe holds up a pho­to­graph of the meet­ing and points out a small pho­to­graph in a frame on one of his in­ter­vie­wee’s shelves. It is a por­trait of Adolf Hitler.

The dis­con­nect

“Stephen Fry has an ex­tra­or­di­nary voice, a voice of great warmth. You em­pathise when you hear it on the ra­dio or read­ing a Harry Pot­ter novel. There is a gen­er­a­tion of kids who can’t sleep at night with­out hear­ing Stephen’s voice… I hoped Stephen might read the let­ters of a man who was in­dicted for mass mur­der.”

Philippe is ex­plain­ing why he was so keen for one of Bri­tain’s best-loved broad­cast­ers to read Otto’s let­ters in the ra­dio se­ries – and why he was de­lighted that he agreed. “His voice in­duces in the lis­tener a feel­ing of em­pa­thy and warmth and then sud­denly you’ve got to say to your­self: ac­tu­ally, I shouldn’t be feel­ing like this. But [Otto] is in­tel­li­gent, he is warm, he is lov­ing and it’s that dis­con­nect that I think, in a sense, is the beat­ing heart of this se­ries.”

It points to one of the great mys­ter­ies of the Nazi pe­riod. Says Philippe: “How do we ex­plain that peo­ple who are highly ed­u­cated, highly in­tel­li­gent and deeply cul­tured can be­come in­volved in mass mur­der? It’s one of the great mys­ter­ies. It’s not cor­rect in my view to sim­ply la­bel them as mon­sters. It’s much more com­plex, and through this se­ries and the let­ters and di­aries you get this sense of the dou­ble iden­tity of Otto von Wächter. On the one hand he was some­one in­volved in the most heinous crimes, but on the other hand he was an in­cred­i­bly lov­ing fa­ther and hus­band.”

For Philippe these ques­tions have a deep res­o­nance. His book East West Street, win­ner of the 2016 Bail­lie Gif­ford Prize, is part fam­ily history, de­scrib­ing how his Jewish an­ces­tors were caught up in Nazi-oc­cu­pied Europe and how many of his rel­a­tives lost their lives. His in­ter­est in Otto von Wächter is re­lated to the fact that he was gover­nor of Gali­cia where around 80 mem­bers of Philippe’s grand­fa­ther’s fam­ily were killed. (Only two sur­vived, Philippe’s grand­fa­ther and his grand­fa­ther’s cousin, nei­ther of whom ever dis­cov­ered that the other was still alive).

So when Philippe meets with Horst, there is a per­sonal con­nec­tion on both sides, as he ex­plains. “Otto von Wächter was part of the ap­pa­ra­tus that was re­spon­si­ble for the killing of my grand­fa­ther’s en­tire fam­ily: his mother, his sib­lings, vast numbers of peo­ple. But it’s years later, it is decades later. Horst is not re­spon­si­ble for what his fa­ther did and we are able to talk about it in a very grown-up and sen­si­ble way. Horst plainly feels the sad­ness for it, so al­though he de­fends his fa­ther in a cer­tain way, I don’t nec­es­sar­ily feel that this is an at­tack on what hap­pened to my fam­ily – but there is that ten­sion.”

And why, af­ter see­ing all the ev­i­dence Philippe has pre­sented to him, does Horst still con­tinue to try to ab­solve his fa­ther of blame? “I think to un­der­stand Horst,” Philippe says, “you have to re­mem­ber that he was a lit­tle boy when the war came to an end [he was six in 1945] who has spent the rest of his life try­ing to re­con­struct what he has lost. It’s not ma­lign, it’s a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity. That’s how I see it and that’s how I ex­plain it.”

On the one hand Otto von Wächter was in­volved in the most heinous crimes, but on the other hand he was also a lov­ing fa­ther and hus­band

Philippe Sands gains ac­cess to a vast archive of fam­ily let­ters and pho­tos at the home of Horst von Wächter, son of prom­i­nent Nazi Otto von WächterIn June 1941, Wehrma­cht sol­diers ar­rest Jews in Lviv. Otto von Wächter’sdministration over­saw the mur­der of the Gali­cian city’s JewsHorst von Wächter in his fam­ily’s Aus­trian cas­tleOtto von Wächter, who went on the run af­ter the Se­cond World WarHorst’s mother’s al­bum shows his fa­ther in uni­form

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