Seeking the truth about a Nazi war criminal — with the help of the killer’s son
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Insight into a mind that consigned 100,000s to their deaths

Seeking the truth about a Nazi war criminal — with the help of the killer’s son

In a gripping new BBC production, Philippe Sands examines the mysterious ‘loving husband’ in Lviv responsible for the death of his grandfather’s family and most of Galicia’s Jews

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

Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)
Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)

LONDON — “There’s a lot going on in Lemberg,” Otto von Wächter wrote breezily to his wife, Charlotte, in the spring of 1942.

For the recently installed Nazi governor of Galicia, they were indeed busy times.

His promotion to oversee the newly conquered territory — then part of Poland, now part of Ukraine — came in the same month the Wannsee Conference approved the greatest crime in human history, the attempted annihilation of European Jewry.

Over the next 18 months, on Wächter’s watch, the Nazis deported and murdered almost every Jew in Lemberg — modern-day Lviv — and the surrounding countryside. In total, an estimated 500,000 Jews were slaughtered in Galicia.

Wächter’s responsibility is of special interest to the British attorney, academic and international law expert Philippe Sands, whose grandfather’s family — some 80 men, women and children — perished in the city.

The author of the acclaimed 2016 book “East West Street,” Sands returns this month with a new project. “The Ratline” — a BBC-backed podcast which is also currently being broadcast on the corporation’s principal news channel, Radio 4 — goes in search of Wächter’s story. A follow-up book entitled “A Death in the Vatican” is set to follow in 2020.

But this is no ordinary investigation of the atrocious acts of a man who, as Sands concedes in the first of 10 gripping episodes, many people have never heard of. Instead, much of the drama turns on the extraordinary relationship between Sands and his accomplice, Wächter’s 79-year-old son.

Living alone in Schloss Haggenberg, a 17th century baroque castle one hour’s drive from Vienna, Horst Wächter is surrounded by books, letters, documents and recordings which, he believes, will prove that his father was a good and decent man who did his best in tragic and difficult circumstances.

He is also convinced that Wächter’s death in 1949 — indicted for war crimes in 1946, he hid for three years high in the Alps, and then escaped to Rome where he was assisted by a highly placed Catholic bishop — was no accident, but took place on the orders of Josef Stalin.

As the programs unfold, Horst clings grimly to the hope that he can convince Sands that Otto von Wächter is not the man which the evidence overwhelmingly shows him to be.

“The Ratline,” described by one newspaper as “the hunt for the monstrous Nazi that’s got the nation hooked,” has proven to be something of a hit. After the podcast was launched, it swiftly soared to No.1 in Britain’s daily iTunes chart and then remained in the top five. One critic deemed it “scholarly, revelatory, dramatic and intriguing.”

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)

Its popularity is unsurprising. Aside from the UK’s seemingly insatiable appetite for stories related to World War II, Wächter’s tale is one of love, betrayal, unspeakable crimes and denial. It takes listeners on a journey from Austrian castles to Alpine hideouts, the bloodlands of Eastern Europe to the beautiful piazzas of Rome.

Moreover, thanks to Horst’s willingness to open his family’s archives to Sands, listeners get to eavesdrop on the relationship between Wächter and his wife. Their huge cache of letters provides a shocking insight into the mentality of a cool-blooded killer who signed documents consigning hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths — and who never appeared to evince any sign of doubt, regret or contrition for his terrible actions.

Sands first met Horst when he was researching the origins of international criminal law. That interest was both academic and personal: Lemberg was not only the home of Sands’s grandfather, but also of two of the lawyers who played a critical role at the Nuremberg Trials. Hersch Lauterpacht introduced the notion of “crimes against humanity” into the Nuremberg Charter, while Rafael Lemkin invented the term “genocide.”

Sands was also interested in another lawyer — Hans Frank, the governor-general of occupied Poland who was tried, convicted and executed at Nuremberg for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Through Frank’s son, Niklas, who in 1987 published an excoriating biography of his father, Sands was introduced to Horst.

Otto Wächter (Wikimedia Commons)

“Horst takes a rather different attitude to mine,” Frank warned the barrister. Sands, Niklas and Horst later joined together for the 2015 BBC documentary, “My Nazi Legacy.”

The charge sheet against Horst’s father is a long one. Wächter was born in Vienna, the son of a decorated World War I military hero, and an early recruit to the Nazi cause, joining the party in 1923. A lawyer, he was involved in the coup and assassination of the Austrian chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, in 1934.

Narrowly escaping arrest — he fled on a coal freighter bound for Budapest — Wächter spent time in Berlin before returning to his home city in 1938. When Hitler addressed the crowds in the Heldenplatz after the Anschluss — “the most wonderful moment of my life,” his wife recalled 40 years later — Wächter was on the balcony just behind the Fuhrer. Wächter then took a post overseeing the removal of 16,000 Austrian Jews from their jobs in public service.

When Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Horst’s godfather and the Austrian Nazi leader, became Frank’s deputy in Poland in 1939, he invited his old comrade to join him. Wächter became the governor of Krakow. While he was signing orders expelling Jews from the city and establishing the ghetto which incarcerated and entrapped those who remained, Charlotte plundered Krakow’s national museum for Gothic and Renaissance art and furniture which German soldiers hauled back to the family’s palatial residence. Horst later returned some of his mother’s stolen booty.

In 1942, news of the first of two indictments against Wächter broke. The New York Times reported that the Polish government-in-exile had named 10 Nazis — including Frank and Wächter — collectively responsible for the death of 400,000 of its citizens. Wächter was, according to the paper, “especially infamous for the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia.”

Four years later, a second indictment, issued by the Central Registry for War Criminals, followed. Wächter, it charged, was “responsible for mass murder, shooting and executions under his command as governor of the district of Galicia.”

Otto Wächter alongside Hans Frank (center) (Public domain)

The noose tightens

At the Department of Justice in Washington, Sands uncovered three documents which directly implicated Wächter in the terrible events which unfolded soon after he took up his post in Galicia.

The first — a memorandum issued just days before he arrived in the city — set in motion the deportation of economically unproductive Jews from Lemberg. The noose was tightened by the second document, signed by Wächter on March 13, 1942, which placed strict limits on the work Jews in Galicia could undertake. Two days later, Operation Reinhardt — the secret plan to exterminate Poland’s Jews — commenced in Wächter’s territory with the transportation to Belzec of thousands of Lemberg’s Jews.

But it was the third of the three documents which is perhaps the most damning. It is a letter signed by Heinrich Himmler after he traveled to Lemberg in August 1942. The visit took place at the height of the month’s Great Aktion against Lemberg’s Jews in which 40,000 were murdered after the Ukranian police systematically swept through the city arresting and transporting Jews to Belzec.

In it, Himmler writes: “I recently was in Lemberg and had a very plain talk with the governor, SS-Brigadeführer Dr. Wächter. I openly asked him whether he wants to go to Vienna, because I would have considered it a mistake, while there, not to have asked this question that I am well aware of. Wächter does not want to go to Vienna.”

Hans Frank (Wikimedia Commons/ Bundearchiv bild)

As the Department of Justice’s Eli Rosenbaum, a 30-year veteran of US government efforts to prosecute Nazi war criminals, tells Sands: “The Wächter case is the only one I’ve seen where someone was actually offered an opportunity to go somewhere else, to cease involvement in Nazi crimes, and actually turned it down.”

Himmler certainly seemed to approve of Wächter’s dedication. The governor remained in Lemberg for another two years, and, on his 43rd birthday in 1944, received a greetings card signed by Himmler. It is one of the family mementos — which also include an inscribed copy of “Mein Kampf” given to his godson by Seyss-Inquart — that clutters Horst’s home.

For Sands, there is “no real ambiguity about the responsibility of Otto Wächter for these actions.” The evidence, he believes, is “incontrovertible” and, had he been caught, he would suffered the same fate as Frank and Seyss-Inquart at Nuremberg.

Horst, however, is apparently unwilling to accept this assessment. He believes that there were two governments under the Nazi regime: a civil administration running day-to-day life, for which his troubled father worked, and an SS government, which bears ultimate responsibility for the murder of the Jews. He takes refuge in the apparent absence of any signed documents in which Wächter directly orders the murder of Jews — an argument which, it is pointed out by the Department of Justice prosecutors, Adolf Hitler’s family could similarly deploy.

“He acted humanely as far as he could,” Horst tells Sands at one point. “The thing with the Jews, he was not responsible. There were other people who took care of them. He tried, you know,” he says as his voice trails off.

The loving father was a cold-blooded killer

There is a surprising warmth — even, at times, joviality — in their relationship. Sands describes Horst as “warm and generous” and comforts him as the elderly man chokes up when reading for the first time a letter sent by Charlotte to the Catholic bishop who was with Wächter when he died.

But underneath there crackles an inevitable tension. As Sands bluntly puts it in the program’s opening episode: “I believe his father bears a significant degree of responsibility for the murder of my grandfather’s family. He thinks I’m wrong.”

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

Sands is an astute and empathetic enough interlocutor to recognize that beneath Horst’s belief that it was “never quite Otto’s fault,” there lies a much more complex picture.

“His views on his father — a man he never really knew — are filtered through the mother he loved and, I think it can fairly he said, worshiped. For Charlotte, Otto was a shining light, a man misrepresented by history, a man who didn’t necessarily believe in what was going on around him but was powerless to stop it,” says Sands.

And yet, Sands admits that it is “immensely frustrating to talk to someone who is intelligent, curious and … also open to knowing all about his parents’ past, yet at the same time cannot accept what seems to me to be so clearly true.”

Maybe, he speculates, “there’s some unconscious part of Horst that does want to get to the real truth, and that’s perhaps why he maintains his relationship with me.”

But what of the other relationship which dominates “The Ratline” — that between Wächter and his adoring wife, a woman who shared, and never repudiated, his Nazi beliefs?

Thanks to Horst’s willingness to open his treasure trove of letters and documents to Sands and his small team, it is brought back to life in the program. Its power lies not simply in the snippets of correspondence which intersperse the episodes, but in the voices who read them. Sands picked the Hollywood star Laura Linney, who captures Charlotte’s tone — at times imperious, at others cloying and romantic — perfectly. He also chose the popular British writer, actor and comedian Stephen Fry to read Wächter’s words.

Stephen Fry. (‘Freedom Fry’/ Matt Lee/ Andrew Sampson/via Wikimedia commons)

As Sands told one interviewer: “I liked how unsettling it is to have such a problematic character’s letters read by a voice you trust. The substance of what’s being read is so brutal, but his voice is so lovable.”

The letters are bone-chilling. In one from December 1939, Wächter moves seamlessly from telling his wife about the “lovely” concert he staged in Krakow to telling her about “not such nice things” which had occurred. “Sabotage. Nasty business … Tomorrow I have to have another 50 Poles shot.”

Ever helpful, Horst jumps in with an explanation: “He writes ‘I have to’ … Every army did reprisal killings. He didn’t decide to kill them. It was some judge from the Gestapo.”

The Jews are being deported in increasing numbers and it’s hard to get hold of powder for the tennis court

In another, from August 1942, Wächter apologizes for his failure to write so often. “There’s been a lot to do in Lemberg since you’ve been away with registering the harvest, providing workers for the Reich … and the great Jewish actions which are currently taking place,” he writes, signing off cheerily, “Much love to the children. Lots of love.”

Two weeks later, the Jews are in Wächter’s thoughts again. “Things are going very slowly in the garden, unfortunately,” he tells Charlotte. “There’s not much labor around. The Jews are being deported in increasing numbers and it’s hard to get hold of powder for the tennis court.”

Laura Linney. (CC-2.0/ Neil Grabowsky / Montclair Film Festival)

In the last years of her life, Charlotte began a great effort — taken up on her death by Horst — to redeem her husband’s reputation.

She recorded hours of tapes about the couple’s lives, interviewed friends, and sat down with a German journalist who was interested in Wächter’s mysterious death in Rome.

Never revealed before, the tapes show how Charlotte aided and abetted Wächter as he evaded justice by hiding high in the Austrian Alps along with a young SS officer he hooked up with when the two men found themselves in Italy at the war’s end.

Emboldened, the couple and some of their children spent an idyllic month together in the summer of 1948 in a rented hut. Wächter even rejoined the family in Salzburg that Christmas, although fear of exposure led him to leave for Italy in the new year.

In April 1949, Wächter arrived in Rome. He traveled under a new identity: Alfredo Reinhardt, the surname eerily — but maybe deliberately — echoing the operation against the Polish Jews.

The heart of the ratlines

Wächter’s letters reveal that, among others, he had the assistance of “a religious gentleman” who told him that his “case was well-known to him.” That man was Bishop Alois Hudal, a Nazi sympathizer, anti-Semite and fanatical anti-Communist who ran a German seminary in Rome and was close to the late Pope, Pius XI.

Hudal was at the heart of the ratlines — the effort to assist Nazi war criminals escape capture and ferret them to safe havens such as Argentina. Wächter was soon sheltered at Vigna Pia, a monastery and orphanage. Flicking through its guest book, Sands easily identifies the names of other notorious murderers — such as Walter Rauff, the inventor of the mobile gas chamber — who stayed there.

By July 1949, Wächter’s fortunes had taken a turn for the better. He had, somewhat bizarrely, managed to find occasional work as a film extra — he appeared in the dramatization of the Verdi opera “La Forza del Destino” — and planning for his escape from Europe was underway.

But, hours after enjoying lunch and a swim in Lake Albano with a man he identified to Charlotte as “an old comrade,” Wächter fell desperately ill. He died in the arms of Hudal days later, telling the bishop he had been poisoned. Charlotte arrived in Rome to find 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)

Sands unmasks the “old comrade” as Karl Hass, one of the ring leaders of the notorious 1944 Ardeatine massacre. With the help of declassified CIA files, he further reveals that Hass was, by 1949, the chief source for an American spy ring — Project Los Angeles — which used former Nazis, Vatican officials and neo-fascists to gather information on the-then growing Communist threat in Italy. Another of its sources was Hudal.

Hass apparently made an offer at their lunch which Wächter refused. It seems unlikely that Wächter — a virulent anti-Communist — would have turned down an offer to work for the Americans. CIA files offer a tantalizing clue: Hass was also suspected by some “close acquaintances” of being a Soviet double-agent.

The tapes underline Charlotte’s desperate but futile attempt to cast Wächter’s actions in a more heroic light. “He always took pleasure in doing what he thought was the right thing to do,” she attests. “Until the very end he refused to compromise his conscience but sometimes he just couldn’t do what he thought was right.”

“Everyone has light and dark sides,” Wächter’s wife suggests at another point. “We should only see the good things in everyone.”

Everyone has light and dark sides. We should only see the good things in everyone

These words might carry an ounce more weight if Charlotte’s diaries do not expose her as unrepentant Nazi. After watching TV coverage of the 40th anniversary of the Anschluss in March 1978, she writes: “I’m glad and thankful to God that I was able to live through this time.”

Central to Charlotte’s effort is the notion that Wächter was murdered. It is this to which, perhaps more than anything else, Horst hangs doggedly throughout the programs.

It is possible, as Horst appears to believe, that Hass poisoned Wächter, perhaps after he turned down an approach to join him in working for the Soviets. It is also possible, the thriller writer John Le Carre tells Sands, that Jewish “vengeance teams” tracked down and murdered Wächter. Le Carre, who was a British intelligence officer in Austria after the war, admits that he “admired” such efforts to exact the justice so many had escaped.

A further explanation offered by a UK-based liver specialist, that Wächter succumbed to a fatal bout of Weil’s disease after swimming in the filthy waters of the Tiber, does not meet Horst’s desire for his father to have met a rather more meaningful and heroic end.

But this detective story pales beneath the great mystery: What kind of man does Horst really believe his father was?

Buried – probably unintentionally – among the family papers he allows Sands to riffle through, there is a 2007 email from Horst to his new nephew: “Attached are the two letters from your grandfather that I’ve compared with Himmler’s diary. They incriminate him more than any other documents I have encountered. It’s no use. He knew everything. Saw everything. And agreed in principle. A sad uncle Horst.”

Confronted by Sands, Horst clams up and mutters, “I wouldn’t say that my father killed 800,000 Jews or something like that.”

All of which leaves his English friend, whose grandfather’s family was murdered seven decades ago in Lemberg, to wonder: How many is too many?

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