The Ratline

Wachter family

  • Philippe Sands, The Ratline: love, lies, and justice on the trail of a Nazi fugitive (2020)

is an extraordinary sequel to his book East West street and film A Nazi legacy. In those works we learned of the shameful careers of Hans Frank and Otto Wächter, Nazi governors in Poland/Ukraine who oversaw the murder of countless Jewish families, including that of Sands himself. A major theme in both book and film is Sands’s relationship with their sons; whereas Frank’s son Niklas vehemently denounces his father’s crimes, Wächter’s son Horst somehow clings onto an image of his father as a humane leader who was caught up in the evil. Horst

did not deny the horrors, of a holocaust, of millions of people murdered. It happened and it was wrong, period. “I know the system was criminal, that my father was part of it, but I don’t think of him as a criminal.”

Ratline cover

The Ratline focuses on Otto Wächter and the story of his attempted flight from justice after the war. It supplements Sands’s ten-part series on BBC Radio 4; both make a most captivating detective story, with plot twists at every chapter.

The book is in four parts: Love, Power, Flight, and Death. It sets forth from the papers of Otto Wächter’s wife Charlotte, handed down to their son Horst.

Otto took part in anti-Jewish activism as early as 1921, before his 20th birthday. As he moved up the Nazi ranks, he met Charlotte in 1929. She gave him a copy of Mein Kampf in 1931, just before she too joined the party; they married in 1932, going on to have six children.

In 1934 the family was separated for two years when Otto went into hiding after Engelbert Dolfuss was killed in a Nazi attempt to overthrow his government in Vienna. By 1936 he was working in Berlin alongside Heydrich, Himmler, and Eichmann. Following the 1938 Anschluss, he was promoted yet higher.

In Vienna, as Jews were persecuted ruthlessly, Charlotte held lavish dinner parties and took her growing family on idyllic holidays in the mountains. To read of her cultural tastes is unsettling (cf. Alex Ross, The rest is noise, Chapter 9): she attended the Ring cycle, Der Freischütz, and The marriage of Figaro at the Salzburg festival, as well as Bruckner 7 (“her favourite piece of music”); Falstaff, Don Carlos, and Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera; and she heard Furtwängler conducting Mozart and Beethoven.

Upon the Nazi occupation of Poland, Otto was made governor of the District of Kraków, overseeing ever more extreme measures against the Jewish population. In 1941 he created the Kraków ghetto; plans for the Final Solution were coming into action. Charlotte was proud of his “humane” work. The Vienna Phil came to Kraków; the city’s own orchestra performed Brahms’s 2nd piano concerto and Beethoven 7.

The following year Otto was made governor of the District of Galicia, based at Lemberg (Lviv), already ravaged by Soviet occupation. His house there had a big garden, a swimming pool and tennis court, and a large staff. On a visit, Hans Frank announced the implementation of the final Solution in Galicia, his odious speech received with “lively applause”:

Party comrade Wächter! I have to say, you did well. Lemberg is once again a true, proud, German city. I do not speak about the Jews who are still here, we will deal with them, of course. […]

Incidentally, I don’t seem to have any of that trash hanging around here today. What’s going on? They tell me that there were thousands and thousands of those flat-footed primitives in this city once upon a time—but there hasn’t been a single one to be seen since I arrived. Don’t tell me that you’ve been treating them badly?

Otto found time to attend Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

By 1943 Galicia was proclaimed Judenfrei. Otto took advantage of this “success” to create the Waffen-SS Galicia Division by drafting Ukrainians in the territory, as the war with the Soviet Union became increasingly ominous. Typically, Charlotte commented, “He knew how to govern, with Austrian charm and warmth”; she hoped the move would make him popular with Ukrainians.

Horst too consistently claims that others were responsible for the atrocities, maintaining this position even when Sands confronts him with irrefutable evidence; but at the same time their relationship remains cordial, and Horst keenly continues to supply him with more information. Sands eventually finds that Horst’s defence of his father is more about his devotion to the memory of his mother.

In 2014, following the Purcell Room event (shown in A Nazi legacy) at which Horst claimed his father was still venerated in Ukraine, Sands, Niklas Frank, and Horst travelled there to film some of the most disturbing scenes in the documentary, visiting an event west of Lviv in commemoration of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division. While relations among the trio have somehow remained civilised, this event prompted Niklas to regard Horst conclusively as a Nazi.

By summer 1944, as Russian troops advanced, Otto retreated to Berlin, from where he was soon transferred to a post in Italy, liaising between Hitler and Mussolini’s Republic of Salò. In a speech he disingenuously claimed that Germany

“wanted clean factories, decent housing for workers, mothers and children, improved living conditions created for the masses”, not conflict. It had been forced to draw its sword, “to defend against envious, rapacious neighbours”, in a war started by the “powers of the eternal subversion of capital and Judaism”.

But privately Otto and Charlotte recognised that defeat was imminent. He returned to Berlin in February 1945, still working in support of Ukrainian forces against Stalin. After Hitler’s suicide on 29th April, Charlotte took steps to have the children taken to safety, and faced the US occupation at home on Lake Zell in Austria; fearing the worst, she found the American troops remarkably friendly, and was able to summon the children back.

Meanwhile, hunted by the Americans, British, Poles, Jews, and Soviets, Otto went into hiding, heading south across the mountains towards Italy.

* * *

So far, the story overlaps with that of East West street. In Part Three Sands traces Otto’s years on the run. The publicity surrounding the release of A Nazi legacy prompted Horst to renew his efforts to defend the memory of his father. It was now that he began to show Sands the voluminous papers of his mother, which he agreed to house at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

This archive offered new leads on the mysterious post-war years leading up to Otto’s death in Rome in 1949, apparently the result of bathing in the polluted Tiber.

By late 1945 news was reaching Otto and Charlotte of the fate of other senior Nazis, “a litany of indictments, arrests, suicides, and disappearances”. Among many of Otto’s colleagues captured was Hans Frank, leading to his sentencing at the Nuremburg Trials and execution.

It turned out that after Otto disappeared, Charlotte was in constant contact with him as he evaded detection by moving around in the mountains of Austria. Throughout the period she was exchanging letters with Otto, and they furtively met up every few weeks in hill farms, or in a tiny mountain hut, Charlotte bringing along supplies for the fugitive, as well as providing him with fake identity papers. By 1947, with the spacious family homes confiscated, Charlotte managed to buy a house in Salzburg.

In the mountains Otto had a companion known as Buko, a junior SS man also on the run, who took care of him; remarkably, he was still alive in 2017, and he provided details on the period for Sands and Horst when they went to visit him at home in Germany.

In summer 1948 Otto at last resolved to head south alone towards the Vatican, staging point on the Ratline, an escape route for Nazis to flee to safety in South America. First, Charlotte took the risk of secretly bringing him home to Salzburg for Christmas with the children (see photo above). She had just had another abortion, her third since 1934. But as neighbours found out that Otto was there, he made his way south, reaching Bolzano by Easter 1949. Sands learned that the Polish authorities were already on his trail.

Among the works of art that the Wächters had stolen from the Kraków museum was a version of Bruegel’s The fight between Carnival and Lent. Short of funds, Otto subsidised his journey by selling such works. With a new identity card, he now took the train to Rome. The support network with which he eventually met up arranged for him to lodge at Vigna Pia, a monastic establishment south of the city whose murky clientele included many such fugitives. The previous occupant of Otto’s cell was an SS man who “designed gas vans used to murder Jews and persons with disabilities”, and who went on to serve as senior adviser to Pinochet.

Taking great care, Otto and Charlotte remained in frequent contact by letter. As she continued attending concerts in Salzburg, Otto explored escape routes. With Otto short of money again, Charlotte continued selling off looted art works. But he needed to find employment; incongruously, he now found work as an extra for a filmed version of La forza del destino. Tito Gobbi, who starred in the leading role, “could not have been aware that one of the extras was a man indicted for mass murder, for shootings and executions”. Another film followed.

But Otto and Charlotte were ever more anxious that he would be exposed. In July 1949 he visited a “kind old comrade” outside Rome, going for a swim and eating heartily. But he soon began to feel unwell, and after returning to Rome he consulted a German doctor. As his fever became more serious, he was admitted to the Ospedale di Santo Spirito, a Vatican-supported institution. By the time that Charlotte arrived on 15th July, she learned that he had died two days earlier.

* * *

But there’s still much more to unravel: in Part Four, the most remarkable part of the book, the plot thickens yet again, with staggering twists in every chapter.

On the 16th July Charlotte met Bishop Hudal, in whose arms her husband had died. Doubts were soon aired as to whether Otto was really dead, but records show that Charlotte had viewed his corpse in the mortuary, “black as wood, all burnt inside, like a Negro”. That day his body was taken to the cemetery for interment, the first of five burials over the following decades: at the family home in Salzburg, at another of Charlotte’s properties and then a cemetery nearby, and finally in a different plot at the same site along with Charlotte after her own death in 1985.

This story only emerged in 2016, after the documentary and the first book. From Charlotte’s papers and Otto’s diary, a web of shady contacts in Rome began to emerge. Sands begins his quest with Bishop Hudal, who gave refuge to Nazis during and after the war—including Erich Priebke, responsible for the Fosse Ardeatine massacre outside Rome; Josef Mengele; and the mass-murderer Franz Stangl, whose interviews with Gitta Sereny shortly before his death in 1971 provided further clues about the Bishop.

After Hudal’s death in 1963, his posthumous memoir revealed that Otto had told him that he had been poisoned “by a former German major working in Rome”, at the behest of the American secret service—a suggestion that hardly appears in Charlotte’s papers.

With Horst, Sands now began to delve into the clue, scrutinising Otto’s address book. By now the fear of Communism was replacing the old enemy of Nazism. An expert on the history of Italy at the time doubted that Otto could have been poisoned: most violence was aimed at settling scores with Italian fascists. Otto’s pursuers might at first have been keen to have him arrested, jailed, tried; but by 1949, as the Communist threat loomed, the Americans were more concerned to turn such Nazi criminals into agents against their own new opponents—as indeed were the Russians.

Sands makes use of the archives of the American Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), whose concerns moved from denazification to the recruiting of former Nazis in the face of the Communist threat. They were well aware of the Ratline (indeed, they may even have created it) and the Vatican connection.

Sands now consults his neighbour David Cornwall (John Le Carré!), with his own rich experience of espionage—he was even in Austria in 1949, hunting Nazis. He could see that Otto would have been attractive to the Americans as a “talent-spotter”; “the incidental fact that he was a monster would play no part. If they looked him over and liked the cut of his jib, I’d be surprised if they didn’t recruit him.” The Americans would follow this up with Persilschein, washing whiter than white, disguising the recruit’s background.

The ever more labyrinthine trail eventually leads to Karl Hass, a former SS major then working in Rome as a spy for the Americans. A former colleague of Otto, he had been caught by the CIC in November 1945, but escaped several times. By 1947 he had come to an arrangement with the CIC, approved by Thomas Lucid, commanding officer of the 430th detachment. Hass agreed to run a new network of agents, codenamed Project Los Angeles. Many names on the list were contacts of Otto’s in Rome, including Bishop Hudal: Otto had walked into a nest of secret agents.

So it transpires from the CIC Archives that the “kind old comrade” whom Otto went to meet in July 1949 was none other than Hass. Already concerned that Hass might be a double agent, the CIC later dropped him. Remaining in Italy, he even followed in Otto’s footsteps, landing parts in The house of intrigue and Visconti’s The damned; cast as an SS officer, he hardly had to act.

One of those whom the Ratline had helped escape to Argentina was Erich Priebke. In 1994 a US documentary team tracked him down there; while curtly admitting his involvement in the Ardeatine massacre, he adopted the “just following orders” gambit, just like Otto. But he was now extradited and put on trial in Rome—which led to Hass also being charged with crimes against humanity. They were both sentenced in 1998; Hass died in 2004.

By 2017 it was clear that Bishop Hudal helped Nazis escape to South America; that he helped Otto; and that he was a paid agent of the Americans.

By this time Horst was convinced that Otto had been poisoned—which allowed him to portray his father as a victim rather than a perpetrator. He went to Rome with Sands to seek further clues. They visited Vigna Pia, the hospital where Otto died, and the Ardeatine Caves. Next the group visited Lake Albano, scene of the fateful weekend when Otto visited Karl Hoss and fell ill. There they met an old priest who confided yet another revelation: Thomas Lucid, Hass’s CIC controller, had a son Viktor (b.1946) as a result of an affair with his secretary; and Viktor married Hass’s daughter Enrica in 1974. Sands travelled to Geneva to meet him, learning more (but never enough) about Hass. Brought up by a stepfather, only in 1960 did Viktor learn that Lucid was his biological father.

To fill in more details about Lucid, Sands then went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to talk with his other son Tom Junior, to whom his wife gave birth in 1947. He too received Sands genially (on the topic of fieldwork rapport, I may add that in the midst of such deeply traumatic material, the people whom Sands seeks out are won over by his sensitivity and integrity). Eventually Sands revealed to Tom Junior that he had a brother in Geneva—not quite news to him, but a secret that he had discreetly buried.

Meanwhile Horst was hoping to have his father’s remains exhumed, with a view to getting DNA tests done to show any traces of poison. Consulting various scientists, Sands learned that this would be a tall order; and from his detailed notes they tended towards the view that Otto was more likely infected after swimming in polluted waters.

Horst’s latest suspect for the murder of his father was the famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Documents in Wiesenthal’s archive provided more details on Otto’s time in Kraków and Lemberg, but nothing to hint that he might have been involved in his murder.

In 2018 Sands reported back to Horst, who gave his blessing to the forthcoming Ratline podcast—while still defending his father, even when Sands asked him about incriminating documents that Horst himself had worried over in 2007.

Ratline page

The podcast produced further memories from listeners. Sands returned once again to Horst’s home, showing him some more photos, including the Bochnia executions (above), without changing Horst’s mind. And he shared a new document showing that immediately after meeting Otto in May 1949, Bishop Hudal had divulged the news to his American minders, yet they had taken no steps to apprehend him; Otto’s fear of the Americans was misplaced. The document further claimed that Otto had offered his service to the Italians.

* * *

Even if the mystery of Otto Wächter’s death still remains unsolved despite all these intrepid investigations, Sands has showed the most extraordinary persistence in tracking down sources—to which Horst kept on leading him, even while insisting on his father’s innocence. The Ratline is an object lesson in how to unearth buried truths. It makes an utterly compelling story—further essential material on this hideous, complex period of the mid-20th century.

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