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Guilt trip: in search of Otto von Wachter

In his new book, Philippe Sands unearths the story of a Nazi war criminal who was never tried for the crimes he was accused of

29 May, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Otto von Wachter and his family

AS Allied troops swept through occupied Europe and on to Berlin, senior Nazis were desperately searching for ways to escape the righteous justice they knew was coming.

While some took their own lives rather than face retribution, others shed their uniforms, hid their past and tried to make new lives in South American and the Middle East.

One such war criminal was Otto von Wachter, a senior Nazi in Poland and Ukraine where genocide took place.

He was sought by the Allies when the war ended – but was never tried for the crimes he was accused of.

Now author Philippe Sands reveals what happened to Wachter in his new book, The Ratline, and considers Wachter’s legacy.

The Hampstead-based UCL professor’s 2016 book East West Street was a mixture of personal history, ruminating on how geo-politics affected the individual members of his family, and the emergence of his career specialism – international law and genocide.

East West Street led to a documentary film, My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, which focused on the sons of two prominent Nazis.

Niklas Frank’s father Hans was a senior Nazi in Occupied Poland, while Horst Wachter is the son of Otto, the Austrian lawyer who governed areas of Poland and Ukraine, areas where thousands were murdered.

Niklas makes no excuses, no attempt to re-write history or whitewash the immense evil his father was responsible for.

Horst, however, has never accepted his father’s guilt and hopes by engaging with Phillipe his father’s reputation may somehow be salvaged.

Wachter’s guilt is hard to dispute – but what makes Horst’s attitude even more surprising is a family archive he has in his possession. He handed it to Sands after the documentary was made, hoping evidence will emerge that provides some mitigation – and it is the trawling through this archive that provides the basis for The Ratline.

The past comes to the present via this cache of documents and papers, detailed diaries, tapes and letters between Otto and his unreformed wife Charlotte, who remained a Nazi up until her death in 1985.

Philippe Sands

Drawing on his personal interest – Sands lost family in the Holocaust, combined with his knowledge of international law and the birth of concepts of genocide at the Nuremberg trials – he pieces together the Wachters’ life stories and seeks to find out what happened to him.

The Ratline refers to the underground route taken by Nazis in the immediate post-war period to find a haven in Fascist-sympathising Argentina. Wachter joined the Nazis in 1923 and became a senior figure who would hold high office in Krakow, Poland, soon after the invasion in 1939. Under his watch, Wachter saw the “expulsion” of three quarters of the area’s Jewish population while the 15,000 who remained temporarily were herded into a ghetto.

There is plenty of evidence of crimes. Poles who put up posters marking a national day of independence were murdered, a male from each house in which a poster was displayed was shot dead. He also took away 120 “hostages”, and many never returned from the camps.

“Otto’s association with the action, and apparent support for it, coloured his reputation among locals. He was seen then, and still today, as a man of brutality,” writes Sands.

It was not an isolated incident – for example, he oversaw anti-Jewish legislation and brutal reprisals against acts of resistance.

What also emerges is the extraordinary contrast between Wachter’s living conditions and his days at work. He lived in luxurious surroundings, sleeping in homes stolen from their owners where servants waited on his needs. He fathered children, had affairs. All this was done while spending his working hours issuing orders that carried out Hitler’s murderous vision. It makes for distressing reading.

Switching between the darkness of the 30s and 40s to the present day, the book tells not just the story of a Nazi criminal, but considers how we look back at the past: how we assign responsibility, and how we indict for war crimes. Sands explains how Wachter disappeared after being indicted for war crimes. He spent three years hiding in the Austrian Alps before appearing in Rome. Here, he was helped by Nazi sympathiser, Vatican-based Bishop Alois Hudal.

Sands wants to know what happened to Wachter: did he escape and live out his years under a new name? Did he die of natural causes – was his love of swimming in the Tiber responsible for the illness that reportedly put paid to him – or was he in fact murdered by a shady reprisals unit? Sands provides answers through diligent research.

That Wachter’s son cannot believe his father was capable of such evil, despite overwhelming facts, prompts more questions. Is Horst blinded by a warped sense of loyalty? Or, just as sinisterly, is his apologist stance a sign that Horst is possibly a Nazi?

There have been Nazi butchers whose names have been carved on the annals of 20th century history – but The Ratline will make you wonder how many others have been allowed to slip into historical obscurity? To allow them to escape history books is to allow them a peace they do not deserve, and is an insult to the memories of those they murdered.

  • The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive. By Philippe Sands, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

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