Author interviewSands chillingly mixes family letters with banal killings

Nazi’s son plays devil’s advocate to defend murderer father to Jewish lawyer

In ‘The Ratline,’ Philippe Sands befriends son of Otto von Wachter, SS officer involved in killing his ancestors. Despite wealth of evidence, son says father was ‘a great man’

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

  • Horst Wachter talks about his father SS officer Otto Gustav von Wachter's actions during the Holocaust in 'What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy.' (Screenshot YouTube)
    Horst Wachter talks about his father SS officer Otto Gustav von Wachter's actions during the Holocaust in 'What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy.' (Screenshot YouTube)
  • Otto von Wächter alongside Hans Frank, center. (Public domain)
    Otto von Wächter alongside Hans Frank, center. (Public domain)
  • Otto von Wachter with his family in Austria during the summer of 1948. (Courtesy Horst Wächter)
    Otto von Wachter with his family in Austria during the summer of 1948. (Courtesy Horst Wächter)
  • Author and lawyer Philippe Sands. (John Reynolds)
    Author and lawyer Philippe Sands. (John Reynolds)
  • Horst Wachter, with Charlotte, Otto von Wachter, and daughter Traute and the Zell-am-See station in 1944. (Courtesy Horst Wächter)
    Horst Wachter, with Charlotte, Otto von Wachter, and daughter Traute and the Zell-am-See station in 1944. (Courtesy Horst Wächter)

LONDON — When British academic and international lawyer Philippe Sands received an invitation in 2010 to deliver a lecture in the East European city of Lviv, he could never have imagined the decade-long journey that it would spark.

It is one that has seen Sands attempt to uncover the truth about the life and death of Otto von Wächter — the Nazi governor of the city where 80 members of his grandfather’s family perished during the war.

And it is a quest that Sands undertook in a partnership — complex, frank, but also, warm — with Wächter’s 81-year-old son, Horst.

The extraordinary story is told by Sands in his engrossing new book, “The Ratline.” It recounts Wächter’s responsibility for the horrors which occurred on his watch in wartime Galicia. It also lays bare the grubby betrayals and compromises of the early years of the Cold War as Wächter sought to evade justice before his mysterious death in Rome in 1949.

It is also, though, a very human tale about relationships — ones which touch on the themes of love, lies and denial — and how highly educated, intelligent and cultured people came to commit monstrous crimes.

Otto von Wächter alongside Hans Frank, center. (Public domain)

Lawyer Sands accepted the invitation to speak in Lviv about his work on crimes against humanity and genocide because he wanted to travel to the city where his grandfather was born in 1904. He knew a little about Leon Buchholz’s life, but much about the fate of the family he left behind when he moved to Vienna in 1914 with his mother and sister, was shrouded in secrecy.

Referring to visits to his grandparents’ home in Paris in the 1960s, Sands told The Times of Israel: “I think for a lot of people, I now realize on different sides of the story, you have a sort of respect for silence. You grow up, you learn these things are painful. You shouldn’t talk about them, don’t ask questions, it hurts too much.”

Philippe Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, left, in 1936. (Courtesy)

The visit to Lviv helped to answer many of Sands’s unasked questions. It was also the inspiration for his acclaimed and multiple award-winning 2016 book “East West Street.” Part family memoir, part biography, it weaves together the story of his grandfather’s life with that of two other Jewish sons of Lviv: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. The two jurists introduced the terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” into international law, which played critical roles in the Nuremberg Trials.

Their stories were, however, intimately intertwined with that of another lawyer, Hans Frank, the notorious governor-general of German-occupied Poland. Frank’s 1942 speech in Lemberg (as Lviv was then called) unleashed the Final Solution in Galicia which claimed, among countless others, the lives of the families of Lauterpacht, Lemkin and Leon.

Raphael Lemkin, top row on the right, with some of the first state representatives to sign the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA)
Raphael Lemkin, top row on the right, with some of the first state representatives to sign the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA)

Sands’s interest in Frank led him to the executed war criminal’s son, Niklas, a German journalist who had written a searing account of his father’s life in the 1980s. Through Niklas, Sands was, in turn, introduced to Horst — the son of the man who served as Frank’s deputy and willing accomplice, before disappearing at the end of the war and slipping into obscurity.

The introduction was accompanied by a warning. While Niklas has an unremittingly bleak view of his father — “I am against the death penalty, except in the case of my father,” he tells Sands — Horst had a “different attitude” towards Otto.

That different attitude lays at the heart of the Sands’s relationship with Horst. It is a relationship which produced a 2015 documentary, “My Nazi Legacy,” a highly popular podcast three years later, and now “The Ratline” (which will be published in Hebrew by Kinneret next year).

‘A game of double advocacy’

Sands writes that through it all, the two men engage in “a game of double advocacy.” Horst attempts to convince Sands of the essential decency of his father; an honorable man who, he believes, followed orders but tried to improve the system from within.

Horst is convinced, too, that his father’s death in 1949 — indicted for war crimes in 1946, Wächter hid in the Austrian Alps for three years, and then escaped to Rome, where he was assisted by a highly placed Catholic bishop — was the result of foul play, and he was murdered on the orders of Josef Stalin.

At the same time, Sands painstakingly assembles the evidence to prove to Horst his father’s guilt. He also conducts a thriller-like investigation into the curious circumstances which surround Wächter’s death.

Author and lawyer Philippe Sands. (© Antonio Zazueta Olmos)

In a bid to prove his case, Horst opens his family’s vast archive — which includes over 8,500 pages of letters, postcards, diaries, photographs, news clippings and official documents — to both Sands and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. While the archive does nothing to further Horst’s cause, the huge cache of personal correspondence between Wächter and his wife, Charlotte, provide a fascinating, if chilling, glimpse into the relationship between a perpetrator of the Holocaust and his complicit spouse.

Horst’s defense of his father rests on what is, in his mind, a crucial distinction.

“I know the system was criminal, that my father was part of it, but I don’t think of him as a criminal,” he tells Sands after they met for the first time on 2012. Wächter, Horst argues, was part of Poland’s civil administration, which ran day-to-day life, and cannot thus be held responsible for the “maniacal actions” of the parallel SS government which, he acknowledges, committed terrible crimes. “He acted humanely, as far as he could,” Horst says at one point, “the thing with the Jews, he was not responsible, he tried to help them.”

To buttress his argument, Horst insists to Sands that there “exists no document he signed to show that he ordered any death sentence.”

Horst Wachter talks about his father SS officer Otto Gustav von Wachter’s actions during the Holocaust in ‘What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy.’ (Screenshot YouTube)

“My father was a real, great figure, not just an SS man, running around shooting, killing people,” he claims on another occasion.

Sands, however, has no doubt about Wächter’s guilt.

“My view is clear and firm: if he had been caught, he would have been put on trial, he would have been convicted for mass murder, crimes against humanity, genocide, and he would have been hanged. I have no hesitation in that view at all. There is not the least bit of exonerating evidence,” he says.

Sands also speaks of a “real sense of sadness and disappointment and horror” that in 10,000 pages of material he examined he did not find “a single hint of regret at anything that had been done… Nothing towards the Poles, nothing towards the Jews. Nothing. Nothing. I hoped I might find something and, if I had, I would have put it in [the book].”

A fatal combination of ideology and ambition

Otto von Wächter in uniform. (Wikimedia Commons)

The evidence Sands amasses is compelling and indisputable. Wächter’s actions are driven, he believes, by a fatal combination of ideology and ambition. Born in Vienna, he grew up in a family that was both deeply nationalistic and anti-Semitic.

He was arrested at age 20 after taking part in a protest in which Jewish shops and streetcar passengers were attacked.

“If you’re doing that at that age,” Sands drily remarks, “something has gone seriously wrong at an early stage.”

An early recruit to the Nazi cause, Wächter joined the party in 1923, and led the plot which saw the assassination of the Austrian chancellor, Engelbert Dolfuss, in 1934. Having escaped to Germany, Wächter joined the SS and rose rapidly through its ranks.

After the Anschluss, Wächter returned to Vienna and took a role in the new Nazi administration. His task was to root out thousands of Jews — including his own former university lecturers — from their jobs in public service. Wächter’s rise was sped by Austria’s Nazi boss, Arthur Seyss-Inquart. His old comrade and Horst’s godfather, Seyss-Inquart recommended Wächter for the governorship of Krakow after the German invasion of Poland. There he oversaw the expulsion of the city’s Jews and the establishment of its ghetto.

‘Governing with love’

Charlotte later claimed that her husband often cited the need to “understand the people and govern with love.” Wächter, she insisted, “refused to shoot innocent people.”

The reality was very different: in December 1939, for instance, Wächter oversaw the notorious reprisal execution of 50 Poles from the town of Bochnia after partisans killed two German police officers.

In a letter to Charlotte on the eve of the executions, Wachter wrote excitedly that Frank was “very delighted” by his first days of governor and noted the “great success” of a visit by the Vienna Philharmonic. But, he continued, some “not so nice things” had also occurred. “Tomorrow, I have to have 50 Poles publicly shot,” he told his wife as he warned her it might not be an ideal time for a visit.

Anti-Semitic orders signed by Otto Wächter. (Public domain)

Just over two years later, Wächter was promoted to become governor of the District of Galicia, which included the city of Lemberg.

Again, Charlotte’s later claims that he implemented “his own ideas on humane and good governance” have a decidedly hollow ring.

“Within a few weeks Otto had signed a decree prohibiting Jews from certain employment,” Sands writes, “and a year later most of the Jewish population had been ‘liquidated’ — more than half a million human beings.”

As the Grosse Aktion commenced in August 1942 and Lemberg’s Jews were herded to the Belzec extermination camp, Wachter wrote to Charlotte. “There was much to do in Lemberg after you left,” he breezily informed her: the transfer of 250,000 Poles to slave labor camps had been completed and the “current large Jewish operations” were also underway. Everything was, he continued, “lovely” at home. A couple of weeks later, Wächter provided Charlotte with a further update: “The Jews are being deported in increasing numbers,” he wrote, “and it’s hard to get powder for the tennis court.”

Banality of evil embodied

Much of the power of Sands’s book lies in the horrifying contrasts provided by Wächter and Charlotte’s correspondence. While his letters occasionally hint at the terrible events unfolding in Lemberg, her replies detail the “unbelievably lovely” excursions — hikes, swimming and soaking up the “grandeur of nature” — she and their children were experiencing on their Alpine holiday.

Charlotte’s mind was, though, not entirely free of concerns about what was happening back in Lemberg. But these concerns were not about the plight of the Jews. “What happened to the ovens,” she asked of the kitchen in their large, handsome villa in the city.

Hans Frank. (Wikimedia commons/German Federal Archives)

Charlotte later described the Wächters’ time in Lemberg as one of “enormous joy.” Indeed, as her husband climbed the Nazi hierarchy, she reveled in parties, socializing and concerts at Salzberg and Beyreuth. In Krakow, she became a “lady of the court,” gossiping with Frank’s wife and playing chess with the governor general himself (with whom, she confided to her diary, she had fallen in love). She also helped herself to treasures from the city’s national museum (“we are not robbers,” she assured the director) and delighted in gifts from Heinrich Himmler.

Sands agrees with one reviewer of “The Ratline” that the book demonstrates “how cheerful normality can coexist with chilling amorality.”

“It is precisely that juxtaposition that is so chilling,” he says. “It’s how humanity and gross inhumanity can live side by side in this way.”

But it is, he maintains, “only when you descend into the minute detail of [the] relationship between Otto and Charlotte that I think you can begin to get a sense of what motivated them, of why they did what they did… and how they were able to justify the utterly unjustifiable.”

Otto von Wachter with his family in Austria during the summer of 1948. (Courtesy Horst Wächter)

Check, and mate

Ultimately, the “game of double advocacy” in which Horst and Sands are engaged ends in a checkmate.

“I have a responsibility for him,” Horst says of his father, “to see what really happened, to tell the truth, and to do what I can for him.”

But this is a circle that Horst cannot square. His attempts to do so are encapsulated by the moment when Sands shows Horst a copy of three photographs he has found in a Warsaw archive of Wächter overseeing the Bochnia executions. After a silence, Horst can only repeat the words of his mother that her husband was “very much against shooting… hostages.”

The family of Leon Buchholz, grandfather of Philippe Sands, circa 1910. (Courtesy)

“I don’t think he felt very happy about that,” Horst weakly offers. Recalling the conversation, Sands says: “Confronted with black and white reality he literally cannot accept it. I think that indicates the depth of his problem.”

However, there was, believes Sands, a brief moment where Horst edged towards “embracing the reality.” It came when, together with Niklas Frank, the three men stood by a mass grave in a wood close to the center of Lviv. “My father was involved in the system, I know, this is why we are here,” Horst says. Briefly and tentatively ajar, the door then shut.

“I think his position is not going to change. It cannot change,” says Sands now. “I think his survival depends on his maintaining this house he has constructed.”

A relationship based on honesty

The relationship between the two men has, however, endured. Sands speaks and writes warmly, if not uncritically, of Horst. He admires his openness and recognizes that, as his family has distanced themselves from him, the elderly man has paid a price for his cooperation on their project.

“We’ve spoken very honestly to each other,” says Sands. “I have not hidden my views from him. He has not hidden his views from me.”

‘The Ratline,’ by Philippe Sands. (Courtesy)

Sands is confident that Horst will not like “The Ratline” (he didn’t much like the documentary or podcast either). Nonetheless, he says, in writing the book, it was very important to him to treat Horst fairly.

“I promised him I would make sure the reader could understand what his views were and I would allow him a shot at setting out his arguments without trashing them or giving a negative interpretation, and I’ve done that,” Sands says. “I don’t know where we go from here, but I suspect the door will remain open in some sort of way.”

Throughout the story — one which, he understandably argues, is “very personal” to him — Sands maintains a patience with Horst that many may find surprising. He loses his temper just once. The occasion — referred to by Sands’s mother-in-law as his “elder abuse” moment — came when they stood with Niklas in the room where Frank delivered the speech in Lviv announcing the extermination of Galicia’s Jews. Sands snapped when Horst dismissed a postwar Polish indictment which charges Wächter with “mass murder.” Soviet propaganda, Horst responded, “general suppositions.”

“You have to remember, I’m a courtroom litigator,” Sands says, “and one of the things you learn in any court is that is you don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.”

“I have strong passions, but readers are entitled not to have me impose those feelings upon them. They should get the material pretty much as it is and form their own view,” he says.

A Nazi until the day she died’

Sands suggests, too, that, as he came to understand what motivates Horst he “felt able to be a bit more generous to him,” however much he may dislike or disagree with some of his views. Horst’s actions, Sands believes, are driven less by feelings towards the father he barely knew and more by a deep love for his mother.

To recognize that his father was the war criminal that he was would be to undermine his respect for his mother

“Because his mother venerated his father… it’s an act of homage not to his father, on his part, but to his mother,” says Sands.

“I love my mother, I have to do this, because of her,” Horst tells Sands at one point. But, as the author points out, “to recognize that his father was the war criminal that he was would be to undermine his respect for his mother.”

Horst Wachter, with Charlotte, Otto von Wachter, and daughter Traute and the Zell-am-See station in 1944. (Courtesy Horst Wächter)

Whatever qualities she showed as a mother (especially when her husband disappeared at the end of the war), Charlotte was, as Sands demonstrates, both complicit in Wachter’s crimes and responsible for attempting to whitewash them after his death.

“I do not want my children to believe that he is this war criminal, who has murdered hundreds of Jews, a matter that was never within his power,” she told a journalist in the 1970s.

Still worse than this, Charlotte was, as Horst’s late wife, Jacqueline, confides to Sands: “A Nazi until the day she died.”

That assessment is borne out by a long and rapturous account Charlotte wrote in the late 1970s recalling the days after the Anschluss. Standing alongside Otto behind Hitler on the balcony of Heldenplatz in Vienna was, she wrote, “the best moment of my life.”

The perpetrator as victim

If Sands is utterly convinced that Wächter was guilty of war crimes, he admits to a sliver of doubt about how the former SS officer came to die in Rome just over four years after Hitler’s defeat. Wächter had fled to the Eternal City in the spring of 1949 and was sheltered in the Vigna Pia monastery. He was helped by, among others, Bishop Alois Hudal, a Nazi sympathizer and staunch anti-Communist. Hudal was later found to have helped a slew of war criminals including Josef Mengele; Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka; and Walter Rauff, inventor of the mobile gas chamber, as part of the “Ratline.” This escape route helped to smuggle some of the Third Reich’s most notorious killers to safe havens in South America.

But in July 1949, Wächter’s luck ran out before he, too, could slip away on the Ratline. Hours after enjoying lunch and a swim in Lake Albano with a man he identified to Charlotte in a letter as “a very kind old comrade,” he fell desperately ill. On his deathbed, Wächter told Hudal he had been poisoned. The theory is further reinforced by Charlotte’s later recollection that, when she arrived in Rome, she found her dead husband’s blackened body, “all burnt inside, he was like a Negro.”

Former Nazi SS Major Karl Hass assisted by his daughter Ernica in his resthome hideout in the hills outside Rome, Wednesday, July 23, 1997. (AP Photo/Angelo Scipioni)

The “old comrade,” Sands discovers, was Karl Hass, who was convicted in 1998 for his part in the notorious 1944 Fosse Ardeatine massacre. With the help of declassified American intelligence files, he further reveals that Hass was, by 1949, the chief source for an American spy ring codenamed “Los Angeles” which used former Nazis, Vatican officials and Italian fascists to gather information on the-then growing Communist threat in Italy. But Hass, the intelligence files also show, came to be suspected by the Americans as a possible Soviet double-agent. Unsurprisingly, Horst latches on to the possibility that Hass attempted to recruit Wächter for the Soviets and then murdered him when he refused.

Sands recognizes that Horst’s growing certainty that his father was murdered “had the merit of allowing Otto to be seen as a victim rather than a perpetrator.” And, although Sands ultimately dismisses the notion, there is, he suggests, enough murkiness surrounding his discoveries that he cannot be entirely certain.

As he pulled on these intriguing threads, Sands confesses to have been disturbed to learn about the recruitment of former senior Nazis and fascists for intelligence work by the victorious Allies.

“I’m not a historian of the Cold War so when this emerged I was pretty stunned,” he says. “It’s very distressing for me.”

By the close of the book, though, Horst and Sands remain poles apart. “His views had not shifted, nor had mine. If anything, his had firmed up,” the author writes.

Despite all of this, Sands admits to being an optimist. And, just as he completes his investigation, Horst’s daughter, Magdalena, comes to the fore and provides a cause for hope. Sands quotes the words of a favorite song, “Anthem,” by Leonard Cohen — “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Magdalena, he suggests, “is the crack.”

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