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17 June 2020updated 15 Jul 2020 5:13pm

How the US helped leading Nazis escape Europe

As Philippe Sands’ The Ratline explores, Nazis' complicity in genocide didn’t stop Americans trying to recruit them.

By David Herman

A new, fascinating literary genre has recently emerged. The best examples include Louise Kehoe’s In This Dark House (1995), Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes (2011), East West Street (2016) by Philippe Sands, and Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell (2017). They have three things in common. They all draw the reader in with a compelling family mystery. As we read on, we find that the mystery has something to do with the dark history of the mid-20th century. Finally, in most of these books there is another fascinating story about art or the history of ideas: Japanese ceramics (de Waal), a famous architect (Kehoe’s father, Berthold Lubetkin) and the founders of modern human rights (East West Street).

Sands’ East West Street told the story of four men: his Jewish grandfather, Leon Buchholz, born in Lemberg in Ukraine; Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who both studied law in Lemberg, and became jurists who put the terms “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” into the Nuremberg trials and international law; and Hans Frank, governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, hanged at Nuremberg for war crimes. The millions of Jews killed by the Nazis in Poland included the families of Buchholz, Lauterpacht and Lemkin. The book is essentially about the relationship between the origins of human rights law and Nazi genocide.

In 2015 Philippe Sands and the director David Evans made a superb television documentary, My Nazi Legacy, for BBC Four, which drew on some of the research from Sands’ book, published a year later. In the programme, Sands interviewed two men: Niklas Frank, the son of the Nazi mass-killer Hans Frank, and Horst Wächter, the son of Otto Wächter, who served under Frank as the governor of the district of Kraków in the General Government, and then of the District of Galicia (now for the most part in Ukraine). Niklas faced up to the enormity of his father’s crimes; Horst didn’t. He could not accept that his father was a war criminal.

The Ratline is a fascinating follow-up to East West Street. It tells the story of Otto Wächter, his rise through the Nazi ranks, from 1930s Austria – where he took part in the failed July putsch of 1934, which resulted in the assassination of the Austrian chancellor – to Wächter’s mysterious death in Rome in 1949. It begins as a love story – describing how Wächter met and fell in love with his wife, Charlotte – but quickly becomes an account of the Nazi regime in Poland. Perhaps the most interesting part of these early chapters, though, is the story of Wächter’s meteoric rise through the SS.

Like so many leading Nazis, he was from Austria, not Germany; like Hans Frank, Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich he was born in the 1900s, part of a generation formed by the First World War, and was barely 30 when Hitler came to power. Wächter was a lawyer, educated at the University of Vienna, and a family man, not an ill-educated thug; he was part of a network of Nazis whose paths kept overlapping, in SS headquarters in Berlin or wartime Poland. Even before the war, Wächter was ruthless in dismissing public officials from their posts. On the basis of archives in Vienna, writes Sands, “it seems that Otto dismissed or reprimanded at least 16,237 civil servants”, nearly 6,000 of whom were “high ranking”. They included some of his former law professors, at least two of whom died in the camps.

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Worse was to come. Sands is a leading human rights lawyer and he makes a compelling case for Wächter’s guilt as a Nazi war criminal. Wächter created the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, comprised of Ukrainians from his territory, “the first Waffen-SS Division composed of non-Germans”. “Under Otto’s rule in the District of Galicia,” Sands writes, “more than 525,000 people lost their lives, between 1942 and July 1944. No more than 15,000 Jews survived, less than 3 per cent of the pre-war population.”

When the Nazi regime collapsed, Wächter went into hiding and ended up in Rome in 1949, where he died under strange circumstances. The main part of the book attempts to solve the mystery of his death. Did he die of natural causes or was he murdered, and if so by whom? Was he killed by Soviet agents, by Americans or perhaps by a double-agent, by the Polish government or by Jews seeking revenge against one of the worst perpetrators of the genocide in Poland?

Sands weaves Wächter’s story into the larger story of the “ratlines”: how leading Nazis, including Josef Mengele, Eichmann and Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, were helped to escape from Europe to Syria or South America by a network that included former Nazis, right-wing nationalists, American Cold War warriors and Catholic clergy.

Sands’ book is superbly researched and brilliantly told. He draws on the papers of Wächter’s devoted widow Charlotte, and interviews with leading historians, archivists and experts on the early years of the Cold War, including John le Carré. Sands is often accompanied on his travels by the unrepentant Horst Wächter, keen to prove his father’s innocence and obsessed with the idea that he was murdered.

The book is full of fascinating characters and at times reads like Graham Greene’s The Third Man. There is Bishop Udal, a key figure in the Nazi ratline. Wächter, he wrote, “died in my arms” and “I protected him until the end”. There are numerous ex-Nazis, many recruited by the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, the CIC, to help in the new war against Soviet communism. The CIC was active in Rome after the war and Sands creates a world of murky dealings, missing files, double-agents and Catholics helping Nazis to escape from Europe, or recruiting them to serve in the Cold War.

Nazis’ complicity in genocide didn’t stop the Americans trying to recruit them. “The incidental fact that [Wächter] was also a monster would play no part,” Le Carré tells Sands over tea and cakes in Hampstead.

Files were destroyed or went missing, names and identities were changed. “The Germans,” writes Sands, “had a term for it: a ‘Persilschein’, a reference to a laundry detergent, one that washed whiter than white.”

East West Street was one of the outstanding books of the past decade, mixing the story of Sands’ family, the dark history of the Holocaust, and the development of human rights law. The Ratline – part history, part thriller – is a superb companion piece, shedding light on the astonishing cynicism of the early years of the Cold War, when Nazis, Americans and Catholic clergy made strange bedfellows. Both should be read together. They are a fascinating account of the war between law and barbarism. 

The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive
Philippe Sands
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 432pp, £20

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This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars