Philippe Sands wrote an exceptional history book in East West Street which looks at the creation of human rights law, the modern concept of genocide and how the Nuremburg trials operated. This book (which I review here) was very readable because he talked about people, looked at their history and deuced why they held such strong beliefs. It’s a book that has received much acclaim.
The Ratline is also about WW2 and the same area of Europe but it is more a biography of Otto von Wachter and his family. Von Wachter and his wife Charlotte were avid Nazis from the beginning of the movement and soon he advanced in the ranks until he became Governor of Galicia (now Western Ukraine) which is the area from where the author’s own family originate and which was the base for the events in his previous book. The book shows us what von Wachter did in Galicia (spoiler – it was not good) but the majority of the book is about what happened to him when the conflict ended and he had to flee for his life.
The author was privileged to have access to documents held by von Wachter’s son who wanted him to use them to vindicate his father and prove that he was really a good man who wanted peace and did no evil (spoiler – the evidence is clear and his son’s opinion is not held by anyone else including other children in his family). We do, however, have letters between Otto and Charlotte and diary entries which help to bring the couple alive.
As hostilities ended von Wachter fled the Allied advance and remained in hiding for several years aided and abetted by his wife. Eventually he fled to Italy on the first stage of a journey taken by many Nazi criminals on their way to semi-freedom in South America. He was taken in and hidden by the Roman Catholic church and eventually died there – part of this book is about the author investigating that death to determine if it could have been murder as his wife and son have always suspected.
This book brought to my attention the structures which existed to allow senior Nazis to evade justice and which were very often successful. The author also outlines the roles of many within the Roman Catholic church who were involved in setting up the “escape” route and hiding fugitives. The element of the book, however, which made it stand out for me was the interaction between the author and Horst von Wachter, the son of Otto, and his strongly held belief that his father has been vilified by history. I found his denial of accepted facts fascinating and also rather sad but it does bring to the fore the difficulties that children of war criminals often face and how easy it is for them to become involved in conspiratorial thinking. I was reminded of the book My Grandfather Would have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege (co-written by Nikola Sellmair and translated by Carolin Sommer) where the author, who has German and Nigerian heritage, discovered that her grandfather was Amon Goeth who was executed for war crimes after the war and whose wife also claimed his total innocence. I recommend this book as well.
Philippe Sands is an excellent writer and his books are very readable. They open up areas of the war which I had not really understood previously and illuminate the discussions of crimes and atrocities with details of the lives of real people. I found this book fascinating.