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Otto von Wächter: On the trail of the Nazi who disappeared

In his new BBC Radio 4 series and podcast, Philippe Sands is trying to discover how a senior Nazi eluded justice. He talks to Rob Attar about the troubling questions that emerged from his quest

Otto von Wächter, who went on the run after the Second World War.
Published: October 4, 2018 at 7:42 am
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In February 2012 the author Philippe Sands arrived at a faded 17th-century castle 50 miles north of Vienna where he had been invited to stay by its genial owner, Horst von Wächter. The two men struck up a rapport. “Horst is a lovely man,” Philippe says. “A lovely man who loves his dad, who was a serious Nazi.”

Horst’s father was Otto von Wächter, an Austrian-born Nazi politician who held several senior positions in Hitler’s regime, including serving as governor of the districts of Kraków and Galicia during the occupation of Poland and parts of the Soviet Union. Philippe had first heard about Otto while researching his award-winning historical memoir East West Street and was introduced to Horst by the child of another Nazi heavyweight, Niklas Frank (son of Hans Frank, governor-general of occupied Poland).

Living under the shadow of a Nazi parent has provoked very different reactions among their descendants. Niklas Frank retains a deep horror for his father’s actions, once saying to Philippe: “You must understand I’m against the death penalty in all cases… except for my father.” Yet in Horst von Wächter’s case, while he accepts that the actions of the Third Reich were reprehensible, he absolves his late father of blame. “Horst loves his father,” Philippe explains, “and believes that there is no evidence to show he was culpable of anything. He was simply a pawn swept up in a bigger system.”

In his castle, Horst introduced Philippe to a vast family archive containing a treasure trove of letters, diaries, photographs and sound recordings relating to Otto’s actions during and after the Nazi era. It is these remarkable documents that have inspired Philippe’s new BBC Radio 4 series and podcast, The Ratline.

Number one target

At the conclusion of the Second World War Otto von Wächter went on the run. And he had good reason to. “He was indicted for mass murder,” says Philippe, “and if he had been caught there is no doubt that he would have been convicted and I have no doubt that he would have hanged.” While Horst may believe in his father’s innocence, Philippe, a barrister by training, believes the case against him was damning. “My background is law. I know all about command responsibility and he, for example, signed the document to create the Kraków ghetto; he was responsible for the entire civil administration of Kraków and the district of Galicia; he was responsible for organising labour, transportation. He knew everything that was going on. In my view he was deeply implicated.”

Yet Otto von Wächter never did face trial. He survived on the run for four years before dying, in mysterious circumstances, in Italy in 1949. Philippe won’t be drawn on the exact circumstances of Otto’s death – “you’ll have to listen to the podcast!” – but he does shed some light on how he escaped justice.

“Otto was hunted. He was hunted by the Americans, he was hunted by the Poles, he was hunted by the Soviets, he was hunted by the Jews, he was hunted by some Austrians. He was a number one target for a lot of people. He was not safe, he needed to get away and so he used his connections with the Catholic church – the ratline.”

Dedicated to spiriting Nazis out of Europe to safer locations, typically in South America, the ratlines had Vatican connections and were successful in extracting the likes of Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann. Through the Wächter archive, Philippe has gained a new insight into what it was like “to be inside the ratline as you are trying to get out. We can see who Otto met, how he tried to get passports, how he got income. Some of the stories are absolutely breathtaking, including the moment when Otto, an indicted war criminal on the run, managed to pick up work as an extra in a film that was being made in Rome. You could not invent it!”

On the one hand Otto von Wächter was involved in the most heinous crimes, but on the other hand he was also a loving father and husband

For some of his time in hiding, Otto was accompanied by a very young former Waffen-SS soldier, who was still alive when The Ratline was being made. He spoke to Philippe for the series – his only ever interview on the subject – but only on the condition that, as Philippe recounts, “we did not ask a single question about what he did before 9 May 1945 because he remained – even in his 90s – fearful that he was going to be indicted”. From the books he had on his shelf, Philippe was able to work out which SS division the soldier had been part of, and believes “he had got good reason to have a certain amount of anxiety – although he was a lowly person of only 18 or 19 at the time”.

Meeting this SS veteran made Philippe feel that he was “in the presence of history. His memory was crystal clear. He remembered aspects as though it was yesterday.” Philippe holds up a photograph of the meeting and points out a small photograph in a frame on one of his interviewee’s shelves. It is a portrait of Adolf Hitler.

The disconnect

“Stephen Fry has an extraordinary voice, a voice of great warmth. You empathise when you hear it on the radio or reading a Harry Potter novel. There is a generation of kids who can’t sleep at night without hearing Stephen’s voice… I hoped Stephen might read the letters of a man who was indicted for mass murder.”

Philippe is explaining why he was so keen for one of Britain’s best-loved broadcasters to read Otto’s letters in the radio series – and why he was delighted that he agreed. “His voice induces in the listener a feeling of empathy and warmth and then suddenly you’ve got to say to yourself: actually, I shouldn’t be feeling like this. But [Otto] is intelligent, he is warm, he is loving and it’s that disconnect that I think, in a sense, is the beating heart of this series.”

It points to one of the great mysteries of the Nazi period. Says Philippe: “How do we explain that people who are highly educated, highly intelligent and deeply cultured can become involved in mass murder? It’s one of the great mysteries. It’s not correct in my view to simply label them as monsters. It’s much more complex, and through this series and the letters and diaries you get this sense of the double identity of Otto von Wächter. On the one hand he was someone involved in the most heinous crimes, but on the other hand he was an incredibly loving father and husband.”

For Philippe these questions have a deep resonance. His book East West Street, winner of the 2016 Baillie Gifford Prize, is part family history, describing how his Jewish ancestors were caught up in Nazi-occupied Europe and how many of his relatives lost their lives. His interest in Otto von Wächter is related to the fact that he was governor of Galicia where around 80 members of Philippe’s grandfather’s family were killed. (Only two survived, Philippe’s grandfather and his grandfather’s cousin, neither of whom ever discovered that the other was still alive).

So when Philippe meets with Horst, there is a personal connection on both sides, as he explains. “Otto von Wächter was part of the apparatus that was responsible for the killing of my grandfather’s entire family: his mother, his siblings, vast numbers of people. But it’s years later, it is decades later. Horst is not responsible for what his father did and we are able to talk about it in a very grown-up and sensible way. Horst plainly feels the sadness for it, so although he defends his father in a certain way, I don’t necessarily feel that this is an attack on what happened to my family – but there is that tension.”

And why, after seeing all the evidence Philippe has presented to him, does Horst still continue to try to absolve his father of blame? “I think to understand Horst,” Philippe says, “you have to remember that he was a little boy when the war came to an end [he was six in 1945] who has spent the rest of his life trying to reconstruct what he has

Radio: The Ratline, a 10-part series by Philippe Sands, begins on 8 October. The accompanying podcast is available to download now

Book: East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands (W&N, 2016)


On the Podcast: Listen out for more of our conversation with Philippe at historyextra.com/podcasts


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