Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 29, 2020

Author event: Philippe Sands in conversation with Mark Raphael Baker (Melbourne Jewish Book Week, online)

As regular readers will know, the distinguished human rights lawyer and author of East West Street, the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, Philippe Sands was featured at the (digital) Auckland Writers Festival (see here), but at that event he was one of three authors in a one hour session.  In this hour-long MJBW interview with Melbourne’s Mark Raphael Baker (author of The Fiftieth Gate, A Journey through Memory), there is more scope for discussing Sands’ new book The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive.  At the time of the interview the book was still not available in Australia due to COVID_19 postal delays because of limited international flights in and out of the country.  (Never have we booklovers felt the’ tyranny of distance’ so keenly!)  But the advantage of this was that Sands and Baker discussed the book knowing that it had not been read by most of those listening…

The Ratline is unusual because it traces the activities of a Nazi with the cooperation of that Nazi’s son, Horst von Wächter, who us not a Nazi but who still believes his father was not a criminal guilty of crimes against humanity.  This is the blurb:

As Governor of Galicia, SS Brigadeführer Otto Freiherr von Wächter presided over an authority on whose territory hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles were killed, including the family of the author’s grandfather. By the time the war ended in May 1945, he was indicted for ‘mass murder’. Hunted by the Soviets, the Americans, the Poles and the British, as well as groups of Jews, Wächter went on the run. He spent three years hiding in the Austrian Alps, assisted by his wife Charlotte, before making his way to Rome where he was helped by a Vatican bishop. He remained there for three months. While preparing to travel to Argentina on the ‘ratline’ he died unexpectedly, in July 1949, a few days after spending a weekend with an ‘old comrade’.
In The Ratline Philippe Sands offers a unique account of the daily life of a senior Nazi and fugitive, and of his wife. Drawing on a remarkable archive of family letters and diaries, he unveils a fascinating insight into life before and during the war, on the run, in Rome, and into the Cold War. Eventually the door is unlocked to a mystery that haunts Wächter’s youngest son, who continues to believe his father was a good man – what happened to Otto Wächter, and how did he die?

Baker asked Sands an interesting question: how did he balance his authorial role of prosecutor-in-chief presenting a forensic dissection of von Wächter’s activities, with his own personal story as the grandson of people killed by von Wächter?  He said that one of the first things you learn as a lawyer is not to let emotion show, but it’s not easy — and in the documentary that was made about this book he says you can see his frustration that Horst will not acknowledge what the obvious truth about his father.

And yet it was when Horst sent the diaries and letters of his parents to Sands, that the catalyst for this research project began.   Charlotte and Otto were two rabid anti-Semitic Nazis, and these documents from the family archive, which in some ways resemble the love story of the couple, invite the question that haunts us still: how could a people so cultured, so educated, so decent in their own lives to each other, participate in such a horror?   Sands said that the term ‘banality of evil’ is often invoked to suggest that somehow people almost ‘sleepwalk’ into acts of horror to become complicit in them… but Otto Wächter went into his activities knowingly and willingly and with purpose.  Which is why — had he lived — he would have been convicted of both genocide and crimes against humanity. Equally shocking is that his wife was 100% by his side…

Charlotte’s role is, Sands says, the beating heart of the book because she was egging him on, supporting him all the way and relishing the social advantages of the evil work she knew he was doing.  The intimate side of their lives is revealed in detail, showing us how ordinary life went on despite the mendacity and corruption of their art thefts; the cruelty of their treatment to individual human beings; and their enthusiastic implementation of evil public decrees. Sands quoted from one of the letters: ‘Tomorrow my darling, I have to have another 50 Poles shot’.  It is hard to imagine the kind of relationship that would make this sort of communication the norm, and yet it was, for them.

Sands is still baffled by it, as we all are.  Baker quoted Spanish author Javier Xercas (and recommended Soldiers of Salamis if you do not know this important author) who says it is more important to understand the butcher than the victim.  And yet it seems we are no closer to an answer now than before.  How did these people go on living with themselves when embroiled in this horror?  He looked for any sign of remorse, and there was none of it, not even in the seventies when Charlotte — as a macabre kind of family history project to celebrate Otto’s legacy  — interviewed and recorded old comrades toasting the golden days under the Fuhrer.

Sands’ research became this book, called The Ratline because Otto disappeared for four years after the war but emerged in a Vatican hospital, hoping to get to South America through channels called The Ratline.  But in the course of the conversation — so absorbing that I forgot to take notes, and so listened to it twice — it transpires that it was not only the Vatican which betrayed the postwar quest for justice, but also the British government aiding and abetting the US because of the Cold War — and these were the very countries which were so instrumental in setting up the international rules of law in 1945.  (One fascinating snippet was that Sands is a neighbour to John Le Carre in London, and it was Le Carre who told him that as a young man he was secretly recruiting ex-Nazis as spies, not hunting them down to answer for their crimes.  He recommended Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy if you want to know the story.)

And what is so distressing now, Sands says,  is that it is these same countries that are now instrumental in attacking the international rules of law and its institutions: the US, with the UK as cheerleader in chief.  Who at the Nuremburg Trails would ever have imagined that 75 years later, the chief flagcarrier for the rule of law and liberal democracy would be Germany?

You can watch this and other Melbourne Jewish Book Week events, free, at their website.




  1. I’m sure there is some kind of cognitive dissonance going on in cases like this, where they have managed to find justification for what they are doing & are thus able to still continue with their normal lives. I read an interesting book recently (I’ve forgotten the title!) which observed that the Swastika is now a universally recognised sign of evil. When I was in Tahiti years ago I noticed signs around indigenous Tahitians’ plantations which said Tapu (taboo) and underneath, very surprisingly in Tahiti – the symbol of a Swastika. When I asked the indigenous Tahitians why the sign (I had to point to it, they didn’t know what it was called) they told me they didn’t know what it meant, just that white people found it very bad and they wanted to stop white people from coming onto their land – and the sign repelled Western tourists.

    I think the Germans have acknowledged the evils of the holocaust and have made huge efforts to distance themselves from this part of their history – maybe Western nations such as the USA, UK haven’t had this experience (yet).


    • I can’t think of many things more difficult to deal with, than having a parent who committed terrible crimes. Presumably there’s a period of innocence when you know nothing about it, and then you find out. I think here, in modern times, kids would get some kind of counselling to help them manage their feelings but I don’t imagine that happened in Germany at all. And then on top of it, to have someone write a book about it… I’m not criticising Sands for doing that, it’s a story that has to be told, but it would make it even harder to reconcile your feelings about it all…


  2. Thanks for this, Lisa. Sands appeared on Hay and Charleston Festival digital sessions over here and was fascinating. I have East West Street lurking on the TBR and want to get to it soon. I can’t imagine how it must feel to have a parent with a history like that, but I don’t know that I could ever understand it – I might just have to walk away…


    • I taught a child once, whose parent committed a dreadful crime. The boy was eleven when he did it, and it was all over the media. He didn’t stay at our school long (the welfare services were involved) but I remember telling him that you can love the person but not the things they’ve done (which is good advice for all of us).
      But that was different. The thing that no one can understand about Nazi Germany was that these people, Otto and Charlotte, were not aberrations. They were what was normal in that society. And so their children, who came of age in that period and its aftermath, had to shake off the values they grew up with and to despise those values and the perpetrators who lived by those values, and yet (presumably) still maintain family bonds.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Lisa, In my comment I was thinking about what the parents had done & the cognitive dissonance it takes to do what they did and still continue with a “normal” family life. I’m sure there was a documentary about this fairly recently on TV as reading your outline it’s familiar to me. I was watching something not long ago where the son realized his father had been a dreadful Nazi but insisted he was a kind loving father to him – I’ll bet it was this.

    I don’t watch Insight on SBS as often as I used to, but not long ago there was an episode where one woman found out her grandfather had been a cruel, vicious Nazi – she said she was frightened that something of his personality might still come out in her and was forever watchful about it. It must be incredibly difficult to live with, worse if it’s a parent. It still must be some kind of denial/dissonance on the part of the son in this story. Perhaps that’s the only way he copes with his background.

    I have Jewish friends in their 90s who have horrifying stories about life under the Nazis – and they survived to make it to Australia after the war but have never recovered from the trauma. I’d love to discuss things like this with them but it’s too upsetting for them especially at their age now.. She remembers her father taking her to listen (secretly) to one of Hitler’s rallies, then hoisting her onto his shoulders and running to safety. Her husband (they met in Sydney) lost all his family – one brother escaped to New York and shot himself in the head once he got there. They’ve written their memoirs so their grandchildren and great-grandchildren have all the stories to read.


    • Yes, I see what you mean. And I’ll hand a bit of a hunt around on SBS to see if that doco is still available On Demand. (Since my eyes have improved a bit, I haven’t watched anything except MasterChef, so I’ve probably forgotten my SBS password *groan*).
      I read something recently-ish along these lines of cognitive dissonance. A child/children growing up somewhere in ?rural Victoria initially unaware of what a parent had done, but becoming ostracised in the community without fully understanding why. It’s niggling away at me, trying to remember which book this was…


  4. Oh, goodness, this is hard to read and must have been even harder to research and to accept as a family member.


    • Yes, I always find books about the Holocaust hard to read. But I read them as a kind of homage to the perished because they had to endure situations much harder than reading a difficult book, and we must never forget.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I know a family whose father was a famous murderer, whose name still appears in books and newspaper stories. They seem to carry it relatively lightly, certainly no-one blames them or looks down on them. The guy I know best I see from time to time at reunions. I can’t imagine what he thinks when he sees his father mentioned – just shuts it out I suppose.

    As for Nuremberg and so on, the Americans and their allies talk a good game when it comes to democracy, but by their actions have always clearly preferred dictators to left-leaning independence movements and over and over have forced those movements into the arms of the Russians and Chinese.


    • It must be hard when the media won’t let things be.
      Every time I see the words, so-and-so was approached for an interview about #InsertCriminal’sName but declined, I feel for them,,,


  6. Thank you. And on my list it goes.


    • I’m No 8 in the queue at my library!
      (It’s really frustrating not to be able to order overseas books. I tried the other day and got a nice email telling me that they were sending these but not that because of the postal delays. But I’m still resisting the Kindle.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • And I am No 36 at my library! They are buying three copies. I succumbed to the Kindle some years ago: it’s my travel companion :-)


        • You know, one of the things I learned when reconstructing my TBR is that I have dozens of books on my Kindle that I had forgotten all about because they are not there waving to me from my shelves…


  7. I’m No. 3 in the library queue for this – but they’re allowing borrowing for two months at a time, so who knows when I’ll finally get hold of it!


    • I don’t understand why they’re doing this, it doesn’t take any longer to read a book during a pandemic than at any other time, and it means people have to wait longer for a book that they want.


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