While I was reading Philippe Sands’ The Ratline, published in 2020, I happened to see the obituary of the late spy, George Blake, in The Daily Telegraph. I was struck by one paragraph near the end: “Blake argued that none of the agents he named perished because he had reached an agreement with the KGB that guaranteed their lives would be saved. A senior KGB officer who knew him well commented that he must have known, but did not like to acknowledge, that this was not the case.” 

For me, this encapsulated perfectly the moral pathology underlying the attitude of Horst Wächter, the most intriguing character in this disquieting study. The Ratline is ostensibly an investigation into the life of Horst’s father, Otto Wächter, a prominent Austrian Nazi, senior member of the SS and governor of the district of Galicia between 1942-1944, who escaped capture and judgement at Nuremberg after the War and died in a Rome hospital in 1949.

But Otto’s story is overshadowed by the story of Horst, who was born in 1939 and lost his father when he disappeared six years later. Horst admits he neither knew nor loved his father — but nonetheless is consumed by a futile, filial duty to have the world recognise Otto as “a decent man”. He states forlornly: “That’s all I want, nothing else.” 

Horst, who still protests his father was a “good Nazi” who “did the best he could in trying circumstances”, is a man who, in TS Eliot’s words, simply cannot bear very much reality. Yet there was nothing debatable about Otto’s life described here: born into comfortable circumstances in Austria in 1901, he graduated in law at the university of Vienna and as early as 1923 joined the National Socialist Party of Austria.

It is this last appointment which has caused Horst to struggle under an emotional and intellectual burden: how to explain and excuse a man to whom Himmler, head of the SS, wrote warmly of “the real cooperation between your administration and the SS and police in your district”; whom the Polish authorities in 1946 stated was “responsible for mass-murder (shootings and executions), under whose command… more than 100,000 Polish citizens lost their lives”.

Even more damning, a former director of the German Federal Criminal Police and an expert on the crimes committed by the Nazis in Poland, Dieter Schenk responded in reply to a communication from Wächter that under his father’s authority more than half a million people had died in Galicia. Schenk added that his crimes were “monstrous” and had been organised with the “energetic support of the civil administration” led by Otto. Schenk concluded by courteously but firmly asking Horst to delete his name from his address book. Sands comments that “there was no ambiguity, nothing to discuss, and all the facts and proof lay in the archives”.

The title to Sands’ book is slightly misleading, suggesting that it is about the “ratline”, whereby prominent Nazis were allegedly helped to escape to South America after the War by members of the Catholic hierarchy. Certainly, an Austrian bishop, Alois Hudal, at the time living in Rome as chaplain at the German seminary, played a disgraceful, influential role in this respect, but he seems to have acted on his own; if there had been others, Sands, in his painstaking fashion, would have ferreted them out. 

Hudal did hide Otto Wächter in a monastery outside Rome in 1949 and was with him when he died (most probably of Weil’s disease rather than the poisoning that his son infers). He also admitted that he had helped several senior Nazis to evade capture with money, false passports and tickets abroad. Described as “a German nationalist with Nazi sympathies”, he was forced to resign from the seminary when the scandal of the help he gave Otto Wächter eventually came to light. 

The author, Professor of Law at University College, London and a practising barrister, comes from a Jewish background and wrote the best-selling East West Street about his own family’s murder during the Holocaust in the very area, Galicia, when Otto Wächter was the civil administrator. His personal interest in discovering the facts of Otto’s crimes as well as his determination to try to get Otto’s son to acknowledge them, is very evident in these pages. 

His book could have done with tighter editing; it loses focus and impetus towards the end, as he laboriously follows red herrings and shady minor figures in the chaos of Italy in 1945. But it is still an absorbing study of a son tormented by a malign inheritance. Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, who was described as the “butcher of Poland” and who was hanged after the War, befriended Horst and, as these pages reveal, has tried without success to get him to confront the truth about his father. He himself gives public talks about his own father’s crimes and carries a picture of Hans’ corpse, following his execution, in his wallet — evidence that he, too, has his own struggles with the past, albeit suggestive of revenge rather than exoneration. 

Otto’s personality remains a mystery; an obedient and ambitious functionary and ladies’ man, he seems bereft of a moral conscience. In all his letters to his wife there is no indication of regret or even reflection. Perhaps the key to Horst’s psychology lies with his mother, Charlotte, to whom he was devoted.

“A Nazi until the day she died”, according to Horst’s’ wife, Jacqueline, she remained loyal to and defensive of her husband’s memory until her own death more than three decades later. The reader learns that alongside her six living children, she also had three abortions — in 1935, 1943 and 1948 — about which she appears shockingly pragmatic and unconcerned, which elicit no comment from either her son or Sands. 

Another Austrian, from a privileged Jewish family, who later became a famous philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, commented in an aphorism in 1939 — the same year Horst Wächter was born — “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself”.

That is Horst’s predicament. I suspect that despite Philippe Sands’ exhaustive research and the devastating facts that, barrister fashion, he has brought to light, readers will pity this unhappy son.