The Ratline by Philippe Sands; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.00 (£14.93 at Amazon)
AUSTRIAN art lover Charlotte ‘Lotte’ Wachter was an avid tourist; in 1939, captivated by the treasures of Krakow’s Wawel Palace, ‘with a lot of ceremony she sailed into the gallery’, made her way around and within six months had removed everything, Renaissance chests, armour, bowls, furniture and a Bruegel, to her home, which had previously belonged to ‘the Jewess Bettina Mendl’. While she was busy, her husband Otto was occupied taking lecturers hostage in the Jagellonian University courtyard before deporting them to Dachau. Later he wrote to her, ‘I have to have fifty Poles publicly shot.’
Sands calls this book ‘A sort of Nazi love story,’ and if you’ve ever wondered what it was like to be married to a top Nazi this is the book for you. It took eight years to assemble and started as a BBC Radio 4 podcast in January 2020, with Stephen Fry reading the voice of Otto Wachter.
As in his previous work, including his award-winning book East West Street about the Holocaust in Lemberg, eastern Poland, Sands provides forensic detail tracking the progress of wickedness through countless ordinary acts and relationships. From studying the thousand letters exchanged between Charlotte and Otto, ‘stationery manufactured by Huber & Lerner of Vienna’, there’s also a wealth of what Sands calls ‘unexpected points of detail’. Lotte was educated in England by the sister of Arthur Conan Doyle. Among Wachter’s fellow law students was Hersch Lauterpacht from Lemberg, who in 1945 coined the term ‘crimes against humanity’.
While the killing in Krakow escalated, Lotte, aided by a large staff, gave lunches, afternoon teas and ‘lavish dinners’ in her looted homes (one owner, a former governor of Salzburg, was in a death camp). She battled for one stolen house with Herbert von Karajan. But this is not about the marriage of a wicked couple, luridly fascinating though that is. The byzantine story Sands tells doesn’t begin until page 210, when Hitler is dead and Wachter with a double bounty on his head (from the Soviets and America) is on the run. The book then becomes a finely crafted thriller.
Hunted by the Poles, Brits, Americans and Soviets, Wachter survived for three years in the Austrian Alps, supplied with food parcels by Charlotte. Reaching Rome, he came under the protection of Vatican bishop Alois Hudal, a key figure in the ‘Ratline’, a shadowy pathway helping Nazis including Eichmann and Mengele escape to Syria and South America. As he waited to follow other rats, hidden in a monastery near the centre of Rome, Wachter managed to enjoy himself with fascist contacts, even getting work as a film extra, earning 14,000 lire for his part in the film La Forze del Destino. On July 3, 1949, after a sumptuous picnic and bathing he became ill. Four days later he was dead, his skin ‘black as a negro’ as Charlotte put it. His death has never been explained.
A third narrative is the long and sometimes bitter struggle between Sands and Wachter’s son Horst, the fourth of six children, who still lives in ‘a vast, dilapidated, empty, magnificent castle’ in Austria bequeathed by his mother. For her sake he stubbornly refuses to believe his father was a war criminal. The family hated his involvement with this book, but believing his father was murdered by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Horst shares with Sands every letter, diary and photograph (snaps of Hitler omitted) left by Charlotte. Sands relentlessly presents him with facts about his father, including grim photos of the fifty Poles being executed. You almost feel sorry for Horst having Sands’s implacable moral voice constantly telling him to face the truth, even to return his mother’s looted porcelain.
With great lucidity Sands links these events to the heartbreaking reality of Cold War pragmatism and the ‘festering new political arena’ emerging in post-war Rome. As a Catholic anti-communist, Wachter was supported by the Vatican against the Soviets, and the CIC, forerunner of the CIA, was ready to use such hard-core Nazis for their own ends.
There are some annoying details: ‘Eton School’ instead of Eton College; the Royal Society is a mere ‘scientific academy’, and we get constant Americanisms: ‘train-station’, ‘Rolodex’, ‘gubernatorial’, ‘drafted’, ‘catalysed’. But Sands, fast becoming a ‘national treasure’, doesn’t just provide several fascinating stories: this is a whole archive with an extensive reading list including European novels. He’s a Nazi hunter, barrister, writer and teacher, and one wonders as much about him as about Horst: the obsession, obvious in East West Street, with genocide and forcing people to find and acknowledge the truth, no matter how painful.