August 11, 2022


Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Review: Philippe Sands tells a Nazi story in “The Ratline”

On the Shelf

The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive

By Philippe Sands
Knopf: 448 pages, $30

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Can a book about a powerful Nazi and the struggle to pierce his son’s abiding belief in his father’s blamelessness be relevant seven decades after the end of World War II? After the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the answer is obvious: Yes, in 2021, America has a Nazi problem. In the coming months we’ll be facing questions about what accountability looks like and how to talk to those who love and support the militants in their families.

At a safe remove we have “The Ratline” by Philippe Sands. A British human rights lawyer and author, Sands has now spent many years working with Horst von Wächter, whose prominent father Otto von Wächter disappeared after the war and was largely forgotten. Horst, now in his 80s, is a fascinating character, willing to explore his father’s ugly history in great detail without letting go of the belief that he must have been a “good” Nazi.

Of course, he was not. Start with the end and it hardly seems a question: Otto was a high-ranking Nazi official in Poland and Ukraine during World War II; he oversaw the creation of Jewish ghettos and deportations and two of his close colleagues were executed at Nuremberg, Germany. After the war, Otto fled and lived under an assumed identity before dying in Rome in 1949. But Horst needs convincing, so Sands lays out a riveting, deeply researched case that builds chronologically to show who and what Otto was.

Essential to the story are diaries and letters kept by Otto’s wife, Charlotte. She was from a wealthy industrial family; he was a young lawyer with a title and military background. Like many in Austria and Germany in the 1930s, they both liked skiing and mountaineering and had a long courtship that ended only when she became pregnant.

Horst, the fourth of their six children, was the most devoted to her and shared Charlotte’s archives with Sands. Charlotte held onto the papers through many moves, across decades, in an effort to prove her husband wasn’t culpable, which is exactly Horst’s rationale for passing them along. Yet when laid out side by side with the historical narrative Sands is able to reconstruct her documents instead to show what she did not see, or what she left out, or what she later tried to forget.

Otto and Charlotte’s fate rose and fell with the Nazis. He was involved in the July Putsch in 1934, during which Austrian Nazis assassinated the chancellor but failed to take over the Austrian government. Afterward Otto fled to Germany, where Charlotte eventually joined him. As Adolf Hitler’s armies marched across Europe, the Wächters moved to German-held regions — Austria, Poland, Ukraine — and into ever grander homes left empty, Charlotte scarcely acknowledges, by fleeing Jewish families. In Poland and the Ukraine, they lived a glamorous Nazi life, Otto hard at work and Charlotte hosting parties for the party’s elite.

Philippe Sands has been tracking the subjects of “The Ratline” for many years.

(John Reynolds)

It’s the intimacy of Charlotte’s letters and daily diary entries that give this project its unique shape. Sands has been here before. His 2015 documentary about Horst and Niklas Frank, released in the U.S. as “What Our Fathers Did,” and his 2018 BBC4 podcast “The Ratline” explore this story, but neither has the space this book does to dig into the emotional pull between Charlotte and Otto. Reams of documents reveal everything from mundane daily details to Charlotte’s bitterness over Otto’s mistresses, followed inevitably by renewed devotion and denial.

Few of Otto’s papers remain, but those that do show him sometimes being curt, others being needy. Like any relationship, I suppose, but here we’re talking about a Nazi in the middle of WWII and then on the run, and the documents provide a text from which we are trying to parse subtext. How much did Charlotte know about what the Nazis were doing to the Jews of Poland and Ukraine? Was Otto a true Nazi believer, a killer, a mass murderer? If Sands can build a painstaking enough case, can he finally convince Horst to see the truth?

At the end of the war, as his colleagues were being tracked down and prosecuted, Otto fled. He lived in the mountains for three years, something he couldn’t have survived without Charlotte, who secretly hiked up to meet him with supplies. He finally descended to Rome, where he hoped the Ratline (an affiliation of fascists and their allies who helped Nazis leave Europe and escape justice) might help him. But in 1949, before he found his way to Argentina or Syria like other Nazis before him, he suddenly fell ill and died.

The last quarter of the book is devoted to the slow unraveling of this 60-year-old medical mystery, aimed at addressing Horst’s conviction that his father was poisoned. For someone who listened to the podcast and remembered the answer, this section dragged at first. Then I realized Sands was building a narrative of spycraft and power shifts so breathtaking in its twists that it requires each tiny block to resonate fully. What’s more, it includes a cameo by Sands’ neighbor David, a retired spy who’d been in Italy at the time, better known to us as John le Carré. If Otto had survived amid the shifting allegiances in the early days of the Cold War, he might have found himself to be an asset to the Americans, the very people he was hiding from.

Sands’ last book, “East West Street,” was a history based in the same part of Ukraine commanded by Otto, exploring the genesis of the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” The same Nazis pass through the pages of both books; most of Sands’ family didn’t survive their atrocities. It was through that book that Sands was introduced to Horst.

That the author has now spent so many years dedicated to the story of Otto — hoping to convince his son of the truth — is remarkable. Carefully, gently, meticulously, he’s engaged every protest, every excuse, every question Horst has raised to show exactly who Otto was and what he did. If he cannot break him out of his prison of belief, what hope is there for us now, in America, where we have to fight Nazis all over again?

Kellogg is a former Books editor of the L.A. Times.