THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE by Philippe Sands

The twisting tale of the career and flight of Otto von Wächter sounds like something that would make a superb film or a TV box set. Photo / Horst Wächter

(Otto Wachter)

Who was Otto Wachter?

According to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal at the conclusion of World War II he served as Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland’s deputy, the Governor-General of Krakow, and a number of other positions in the SS and SD in Austria.  He was indicted for mass murder of at least 100,000 people, if not thousands upon thousands more.  Wachter is the subject of Philippe Sands latest book, THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE, the “Ratline” was an organization that Wachter and the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and countless others used as an escape route out of Europe as the war ground to a close.  Sands builds upon his previous book EAST WEST STREET: ON THE ORIGINS OF ‘GENOCIDE’ AND ‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY” were he wove together the story of his quest to uncover family secrets in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the 1940s and the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II.  The route Sands describes, known as the “Ratline” was popularized in Frederick Forsyth’s THE ODESSA FILE, and thoroughly researched by Uki Goni, an Argentinian researcher in his book, THE REAL ODESSA and other monographs exploring how Nazis were able to avoid justice, the most important of which was Gerald Steinacher’s NAZIS ON THE RUN.  These works among many other titles uncover the role of the Vatican, the governments of Argentina, the United States, Switzerland among a host of countries each for its own reasons assisted former Nazis in their attempts to avoid prosecution.

Sands, a British and French lawyer, and Professor of Laws at the University College London is the author of seventeen books dealing with international law, many of which focus on the concept of genocide.  In his latest effort Sands traces the life of Otto Wachter, with special emphasis on his marriage to Charlotte Wachter, as he rose through the Nazi Party ranks, first in Vienna and later in Germany landing in his positions in occupied Poland.  After recounting his subjects’ Nazi career, he follows his attempts to avoid justice as he meanders his way employing the Ratline from 1945 to 1949.   Sands research is noteworthy as one of his main sources was through the relationship, he established with Wachter’s fourth child, Horst.  Through a series of interviews that resulted in a 2013 article for the Financial Times, Sands was able to extract a great deal of documentation dealing with the family from his mother’s diary, copiously kept from 1925, except at times when it came to the atrocities her husband was involved in.   But what must be kept in mind during Sands’ quest to decipher the life of a man on the run, and his wife’s attempts to help him; can be described as some sort of a “Nazi love story!”

Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)

(Philippe Sands, author)

Horst was adamant during their many conversations that his father had done nothing wrong.  Horst argued that “his father was not responsible for any crimes…Rather, he was an ‘endangered heretic’ in the National Socialist system, opposed to racial and discriminatory actions applied in the German-occupied territories of Poland and Ukraine.”  His father was “an individual, a mere cog in a powerful system, part of a larger criminal group.”  Horst did not deny the horrors of the Holocaust and saw the process as criminal, but he did not think his father’s actions were criminal.

Sands does a remarkable job piecing together Wachter’s personal life and SS/SD career.  He takes the reader through the important events in Europe culminating with the Anschluss (union) between Austria and Germany and the role played by Horst’s god father Arthur Seyss-Inquart who served as Chancellor of Austria after it was taken over by Hitler’s forces.  Following the Anschluss, Wachter’s career advanced rapidly as he starts out as a lawyer in the Criminal Division of the SD ending up as Governor of Krakow were he implemented the creation of the Jewish ghetto for the city, the execution of numerous Poles, and advanced the process of Jewish deportation to the concentration camps.

Sands interest in Wachter is deeply personal as his grandfather, Leon Bucholz who lived in Lemberg, Galicia was deported from the city to his death during the Holocaust.  Between 1942 and 1944 Wachter was installed as Governor of the District of Galicia and supervised the city of Lemberg and probably signed the death warrant of Sands’ grandfather.

Horst Wächter

 Horst Wächter: ‘I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother.’

The most important  aspect of the book revolves around the 1945-1949 period.  This period comes to light once Horst agreed to make available his mother’s archive.  After the material was digitized Sands had access to “8677 pages of letters, post cards, diaries, photographs, news clippings, and official documents.” This required a painstaking act of reconstruction and interpretation that evolved over a number of years.  The result was detailed information how Charlotte Wachter assisted her husband even though she believed she was under surveillance.  Charlotte Wachter was the only reason Otto survived along with the vast network that supported him in the Austrian mountains in the Lower Tauerin area.

What becomes clear as the narrative unfolds is no matter how much documentation to the contrary concerning his father’s culpability in the death of thousands, Horst refuses to accept his guilt.  No matter how many interviews with people who were involved, scholars etc., Horst remained adamant.  As Otto Wachter came down out of the mountains and left for Rome in late April 1949, he took on the identity of Alfredo Reinhardt and would make his way to a monastery in Rome called Vigna Pia where Catherine Wachter sent money, clothes, and other survival necessities.  After living in the monastery for three months, Otto Wachter would die of a liver ailment leading to Sands’ investigation of how he died.  Horst was convinced that he was poisoned, probably by the Soviet Union, or perhaps by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, or even the Americans.

The last third of the book is spent analyzing Otto’s death.  What emerges is documentation of the role of a number of individuals, two of which stand out, Bishop Alois Hudal and SS Major Karl Hass.  It is clear from the evidence that Hudal was a focal figure in the escape of a number of important Nazis employing the “Ratline” and contacts within the Vatican.  Hass is an example of former Nazis that were used by the United States after the war in the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, he would escape and turn up working for the United States Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) on Project Los Angeles in Rome recruiting spies to be used against the Italian Communist Party.  It is clear from the evidence that  Otto was in contact with Hass right before he died.  Horst was certain that Hass might have been the double agent who murdered his father.

Black and white portrait photograph of Hudal

(Alois Hudal)

As Sands investigates the last three months of Otto’s life, he pieces together his movements and who assisted him with life’s necessities and the forged documents to survive.  What cannot be questioned is that Charlotte Wachter, Nazi acquaintances, and others from the Vatican were Otto’s prime enablers, many of which facilitated the “Ratline” for others like Walter Rauff, Joseph Mengele, Franz Stangl, Erich Priebke, Karl Hass, and others.  In effect Otto Wachter walked in the footsteps of his “old Nazi comrades.”

Sands has composed a remarkable historical detective story, bordering on a “thriller.”  Through the life of the Wachters, the Nazi “Ratline” comes into full focus, in addition to how Otto Wachter’s actions, a man who oversaw numerous atrocities during the war was not accepted by his son Horst.  As a result, the book has a great deal to offer about the mindset of a Nazi murderer, but also the lengths people went to, to allow him to maintain his freedom.

(Otto and Charlotte Wachter and their children))

THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST by Rafael Medoff

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One of the questions that has been foremost in the minds of Holocaust historians and the Jewish community since World War II centers around the actions and policies of  President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Nazi agenda became clear resulting in millions of Jews perishing in the death camps.  In his latest book, THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST, Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies augments traditional documentation of the Holocaust with recently discovered materials that fosters a reassessment of Roosevelt’s actions.  Building on Wyman’s work, particularly his PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941, THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HLOCAUST, 1941-1945 , and his documentary, THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST, Medoff paints a very unflattering portrait of Roosevelt’s handling of the Jewish question during World War II along with his duplicitous treatment of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Jewish leadership during the war.

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(Historian, David S. Wyman)

This chapter in American immigration history is hard to ignore and Medoff’s work does a better job chronicling and analyzing US policy than previous historians in terms of Roosevelt’s private attitude toward Jews that motivated him to close America’s doors and shut down Jewish access to Ellis Island in the face of Nazi extermination.  The reader will be exposed to Roosevelt’s convictions as early as 1931 and it is obvious that Jewish leadership should have tempered expectations once the New York governor assumed the presidency.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt meeting with American Rabbis in March, 1943)

Medoff’s focus centers around Roosevelt’s relationship with the Jewish community in particular their titular leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, in addition to how the president’s State Department implemented an immigration policy that he totally supported.  What is clear is that Roosevelt played Wise like a fiddle.  The president described by numerous biographers and scholars as a “master manipulator” knew just what string to play upon in dealing with Wise in order to keep his true feelings about Roosevelt’s non-existent refugee policy out of the public eye.  The president would use dinner engagements, personal notes, oval office visits and other gestures to keep criticism to a minimum.  Medoff effectively argues that Roosevelt’s practice of “glad-handing” and making policy-related promises he had no intention of keeping was especially effective with Wise and Jewish leaders who were profoundly reluctant to press Roosevelt to follow through on his unfulfilled pledges. The dilemma for Jewish leadership was should they criticize a president whose domestic agenda they totally embraced.

Jews themselves realized their precarious position in American society.  High levels of anti-Semitism, accusations they were trying to drag the United States into war in Europe, and hardships from economic depression exacerbated Jewish concerns.  The publicity afforded Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist views and the anti-Semitic diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin who had over 3.5 million radio listeners unnerved the Jewish community.

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(Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long)

The examples of Roosevelt’s vague promises, lack of interest, political calculations, and outright apathy presented by Medoff are many.  Each is based on sound research, mostly appearing in other monographs, but there is a new element of seriousness and commitment in the author’s arguments.  This is not to say that Wise and his cohorts should not share some of the blame for the lack of an American response.  Wise’s “tendency to embrace the likeminded and exclude those whom he felt politically and religiously uncomfortable ultimately weakened his hand as a national Jewish leader.”  However, no matter Wise’s faults it was Roosevelt who must accept the blame for America’s lack of empathy and his own political calculations when confronted by the Nazi horrors.

Examples of Roosevelt’s actions are many.  His support of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long who was in charge of the visa section of the State Department whose policy was to create as many obstructions as possible to thwart any attempt to lift barriers to Jewish immigration is clear in the documents.  Long’s strategy was clear, “put every obstacle in the way and require additional evidence to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the grinding of the visas.”  In case after case the two men were on the same page to prevent any opportunity to allow numbers of Jews to enter the United States.  The possible use of the Virgin Islands as a haven for small numbers of Jews was rejected.  The ship, “The St. Louis” with 907 passengers was denied admission to the United States and turned back to Europe.  The Evian Conference in 1937 and the later Bermuda Conference of 1943 were farces to make it appear that something might be done when in fact nothing was offered.

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When evidence of the extermination of Jews was being disseminated to London and Washington, Roosevelt administration policy was to delay and delay in not confronting Germany for its atrocities until the United States entered World War II.  Even after Kristallnacht in 1938 any American comments left out any criticism of Germany as well as references to Hitler, Goebbels, and others by name.    When Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland cabled allied leaders in August 1942 providing evidence of the depth of Nazi atrocities, which was followed by a second telegram from Yitzchak and Recha Sternbuch rescue activists in Europe, in addition to reports from the Jewish Agency in Palestine the following month saw the State Department try and keep the information from Wise to prevent what the Roosevelt administration was learning from reaching the public.  In fact, it took eighty-one days for Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Wells to get back to Wise that confirmed his greatest fears.  This was part of a pattern pursued by the Roosevelt administration who took advantage of Wise’s fear that if he pushed too hard it would create an anti-Semitic backlash that Jews were trying to push their own wartime agenda.  More and more Wise feared he was seen as Roosevelt’s “court Jew,” and Medoff points out that the Rabbi had a habit of embellishing Roosevelt’s responses of support in saving the Jews and the tragedy that befell them.

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(Secretary of the Treasury Hans Morgenthau, Jr.)

Medoff leaves no stone unturned in delineating Roosevelt’s deceitfulness.  He describes numerous examples of Roosevelt’s opposition to the rescue of Jews; not enforcing immigration quotas; talking out of both sides of his mouth depending on his audience; refusing to reign in the State Department; refusing to support the admission of Jewish children, but had no difficulty allowing the admission of British children who were endangered by Nazi bombing; refusing to consider bombing Auschwitz and other concentration camps, while at the same time assisting the Polish Underground through the air;  creating obstacles for the creation of the War Refugee Board and then underfunding it, are among many actions taken or not taken by President Roosevelt.  Medoff also explores what may have been Roosevelt’s motivations as he points to his family’s societal views which were decidedly anti-Semitic.  The author points to numerous statements by Roosevelt bemoaning the mixture of Jewish and Asiatic blood with American blood.  He wanted these groups to be spread out across America to reduce their impact on American society. He saw America as a “Protestant country” with the Jews and people of other backgrounds present only based “on sufferance.”  With these types of beliefs, it is not surprising that he was disposed to oppose the admission of too many Jews during the war.

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(Peter Bergson)

Wise does not emerge unscathed by Medoff’s analysis.  The author points to Wise’s own ego issues brooking little or no opposition by Jews to his leadership in the Jewish community.  Examples include Hillel Silver or groups outside the Jewish community like Peter Bergson and his group that was much more effective in pressuring Roosevelt to support the War Rescue Board.  Wise spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with his opponents’ criticism, time that could have been spent fighting to rescue Jewish refugees and pressuring the president.  Medoff is quite correct in pointing out that Wise was a flawed leader with his own powerful ego much like Roosevelt and perhaps that is in large part why he was able to swallow his own principles and do the President’s bidding in controlling negative Jewish commentary and actions against his “friend in the White House.”

Some might argue that Medoff’s monograph is too polemical in spots, but to his credit he provides supporting documentation for his viewpoints, integrates a great deal of the comments made by Wise and Roosevelt, and he tries to integrate differing viewpoints.  All in all, Medoff has written a serious analysis and though he has reached what some might consider a scathing indictment of Roosevelt, in many instances his commentary is dead on.

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(Rabbi Steven S. Wise)

 

FILM AND GENOCIDE: SUGGESTED READINGS

FILM AND GENOCIDE: Suggested Readings

Armenian Genocide:

Akcam, Tanker  A SHAMEFUL ACT: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND THE QUSTION
OF TURKISH RESPONSIBILITY.

Balakian, Gregoris  ARMENIAN GOLOTHA: A MEMOIR OF THE ARENIAN GENOCIDE,

1915-1918

Balakian, Peter  THE BURNING TIGRIS: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND AMERICA’S
RESPONSE.

Bloxham, Donald  THE GREAT GAME OF GENOCIDE

de Bellaigue, Christopher  REBEL LAND: UNRAVELING THE RIDDLE OF HISTORY IN A
TURKISH TOWN.

Kiernan, Ben  BLOOD AND SOIL: A WORLD HISTORY OF GENOCIDE AND EXTERMINATION
FROM SPARTA TO DARFUR.

Lowy, Guenther  THE ARMENIAN MASSACRE IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE:  A DISPUTED
GENOCIDE.

Molson, Robert F.  REVOLUTION AND GENOCIDE: ON THE ORIGINS OF THE ARMENIAN
GEOCIDE AND THE HOLOAUST.

Power, Samantha  A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA IN THE AGE OF GENOCIDE.

The Holocaust:

Anderson, Alan, Ed. THE DIARY OF DAWID SIERAKOWIAK: FIVE NOTEBOOKS FROM THE
LODZ GHETTO.

…………………………….  LODZ GHETTO: INSIDE A COMMUNITY UNDER SIEGE.

Burleigh, Michael THE THIRD REICH: A NEW HISTORY.

Cesarean, David  FINAL SOLUTION: THE FATE OF THE JEWS 1933-1949.

Crowe, David M. OSKAR SCHINDLER

Dawidowicz, Lucy  THE WAR AGAINST THE JEWS: 1933-1945.

Dobroszycki, Lucian  THE CHRONICLE OF THE LOD GHETTO 1941-1944.

Evans, Richard  THE THIRD REICH AT WAR

Friedlander, Saul  NAZI GERMANY AND THE JEWS 1939-1945, THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION.

Hackett, David A.  THE BUCHENWALD REPORT.

Hilberg, Raul, Ed. THE DIARY OF ADAM CERNIAKOW: PRELUDE TO DOOM.

Ihrig, Stefan  ATATURK IN THE NAZI IAGINATION.

Kath, Abraham Ed. THE WARSAW DIARY OF CHAIM A. KAPLAN.

Kielar, Westlaw  ANUS MUNDI 1500 DAYS IN AUSCHWITZ AND BIRKENAU.

Lanzmann, Claude  SHOAH: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST.

Mark, Ben  UPRISING IN THE WARSAW GHETTO.

Rotem, Simha  MEMOIRS OF A WARSAW GHETTO FIGHTER.

Sloan, Jacob Ed.  NOTES FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO: THE JOURNAL OF EMANUEL
RINGELBLUM.

Tory, Avraham  SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST: THE KOVNO GHETTO DIARY.

Wachsmann, Nicokolaus  KL: A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRTION CAMPS.

Wentz, Eric D.  A CENTURY OF GENOCIDE: UTOPIAS OF RACE AND NATION.

The Killing Fields:

Brinkley, Joel  CAMBODIA’S CURSE: THE HISTORY OF A TROUBLED LAND.

Karnow, Stanley  VIETNAM: A HISTORY.

Kiernan, Ben  THE POL POT REGIME: RACE, POWER AND GENOCIDE IN CAMBODIA UNDER THE

KHMER ROUGE, 1975-1979

Logevall, Fredrik  EMBERS OF WAR: THE FALL OF AN EMPIRE AND THE MAKINGS OF
AMERICA’S VIETNAM.

Ngor, Haing  SURVIVAL IN THE KILLING FIELDS.

Pran, Dith  CHILDREN OF CAMBODIA’S KILLING FIELDS.

Schanberg, Sydney H. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF DITH PRAN.

Shawcross, William  SIDESHOW: KISSINGER, NIXON, AND THE DESTRUCTION OF
CAMBODIA.

Short, Philip  POL POT: ANATOMY OF A NIGHTMARE.

Ung, Loung  FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: A DAUGHTER OF CAMBODIA REMEMBERS.

Rwanda:

Dallaire, Romeo  SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: THE FAILURE OF HUMANITY IN RWANDA.

Editor, Gail THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE.

Gourevitch, Philip  WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR

FAMILIES: STORIES FROM RWANDA.

Hatzfeld, Joseph  MACHETE SEASON: THE KILLERS IN RWANDA SPEAK.

Kinzer, Stephen  A THOUSAND HILLS: RWANDA’S REBIRTH AND THE MAN WHO DREAMED IT.

Prunier, Gerard  AFRICA’S WORLD WAR: THE CONGO, THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE AND THE MAKING OF A

CONTINENTAL CATASTROPHE.