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'The Ratline' Follows Trail Of A Nazi Murderer Who Was Never Caught

NOEL KING, HOST:

Philippe Sands is a human rights lawyer who has worked on cases involving crimes against humanity. Sands' grandfather was a Jew who lived in what is today the city of Lviv, Ukraine. The Nazis killed him, his family and tens of thousands of other people there. The Nazi officer who governed the city at that time was called Otto Wachter. While researching his own family, Sands met Wachter's son, Horst, and found him to be a decent man. They became friendly and Horst Wachter gave Sands a cache of data - the Wachter family archive.

PHILIPPE SANDS: A USB popped through my letterbox in a tatty envelope. I remember putting it in my diary and being astonished by what I saw - 10,000 pages, family photo albums; Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels; Mom, Dad, skiing, lakes. It was extraordinary because it is from the family archives that you really learn what happened.

KING: There were years of letters between Otto Wachter and his wife, Charlotte. Sands writes about them in his new book called "The Ratline," which was the method by which Nazis escaped Europe after the war. He told me the story of the Wachters is the story of many things.

SANDS: What you learn is it's a story about love and about lies and about justice. It's a love story. This is the painful truth. Here is a couple that really loved each other and here is a couple in which - frankly, for me, Charlotte Wachter is the beating heart of the book. Otto's writing home and saying, yeah, tomorrow, I've got to have 50 Poles shot; a couple of years later, the Jews have been deported, so there's no one to put powder on the tennis court. It's a real nuisance. She knew everything, and she supported him. So you learn that. It's a story about lies. And then, of course, it's this extraordinary story of the flight from justice because in 1945, the Americans indict Otto Wachter for mass murder, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. And on the 9 of May by 1945, he disappears off the face of the Earth.

KING: And where does he go?

SANDS: He didn't go very far. He went and hid in the mountains near to Saltzburg, near to Zell am See, where his wife Charlotte was living with the six children. She looked after him in the mountains for three years. He hid with a young SS soldier called the Buko Rathmann, who unbelievably I met because he was still alive in 2017. And so he was able to tell me the whole story. And then in 1948, he decided he would go to Argentina on what is called the ratline, the Nazi escape route to South America. And to do that, he had to get to Rome. He had to get help from characters within the Vatican, and he had to get passports, false identity, all the papers necessary to go.

KING: Why did the Vatican help a Nazi war criminal?

SANDS: I think what we can say is there were certain elements within the Vatican who helped Nazis on the run. I came across with the help of an extraordinary historian the true story of the ratline, which was that Otto Wachter stumbled into a spy ring in which the United States counterintelligence corps, the U.S. Army, recruited nine individuals to run an anti-communist spy ring in Rome. Of the nine, four were Nazis, three were Italian fascists. They were all American spies, paid $50 in cash each year - each month for four years.

KING: What was it about these men that made high-ranking officials in the Vatican say, you are worth saving, you are worth working with? What did they have?

SANDS: To that, Noel, I can give you a very simple answer. They were virulently anti-communist. In 1948 and '49, there was a tremendous concern amongst the British and the Americans in particular that Italy would be the launching pad for the Soviet Union.

KING: So the Nazis may have committed horrible crimes, but the Soviet Union was considered enough of a threat that it was worth overlooking those crimes in order to get the Nazis to give information to, among others, the United States.

SANDS: Absolutely. And I'm hearing the incredulity in your voice. And, yes, the British and the Americans started recruiting them and, indeed, I think, used the ratline, the escape route to Argentina, as a recruitment tool.

KING: Horst Wachter cannot believe that his father was an evil person. He acknowledges he was a Nazi, but he's convinced that he was sort of a bureaucrat following orders, doing what he needed to do to survive. You were determined to prove Otto's culpability in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. How did you go about doing that?

SANDS: Well, one thing I want to make clear is that Horst is in denial about what his father did and his criminal responsibility, but he's not in denial about the Holocaust. He's not a racist. He's not an anti-Semite. He's not a Nazi. And that is why I'm able to have a relationship with him, which continues to this day. I feel that I've come to understand that these things are complex, that Horst is driven not by malign intentions. He wants to find the good in his father. It's a mechanism of survival for him. You know, it's the way he's able to get through the day. Noel, imagine for a moment, as I try to do sometimes, what if my father had killed half a million people? Would I continue to love my father or would I hate my father? I have to put my hand on my heart and say, I don't know the answer to that question.

KING: There are so many twists and turns in this book. There are so many surprises. There is so much research that is extraordinary, especially in the year 2021. For you, what was the most surprising bit? What was the question you thought you might never get an answer to and then you, in fact, did?

SANDS: I think that the parts that surprised me the most was indeed the discovery that things were not quite as black and white as I thought they were. I wanted to know what happened to Wachter, the father, Otto, after the war. How did he flee? Who helped him? What did he want to do? And I thought I'd got to an answer to that. And what I learned was that we, the British and the Americans, actually, rather than doing the right thing, which was to hunt, to capture and to prosecute, and decided to recruit these people. And that, I think, in these days reminds us that nothing is quite black and white. Nothing is simple.

KING: Philippe Sands - his new book is called "The Ratline." Thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

SANDS: Noel, I'm hugely thrilled to be doing this with you, and I'm extremely grateful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.