The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive by Philippe Sands

‘It is said that a line divides fact and fiction, the real and the imagined.  Where it lies, and how it shifts over time is not always so clear.’

In this book, Mr Sands provides an account of the life of Otto Wächter and his wife Charlotte both before, during and after World War II. As an SS Brigadefuhrer, Freiherr von Wächter was the governor of Galicia and presided over a territory where hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Polish people were murdered (including the family of Mr Sands’s grandfather).

At the end of World War II, Wächter, indicted for mass murder, went on the run.  The last sighting of him was on 10 May 1945.  With the help of his wife Charlotte, he spent three years hiding in the Austrian Alps.  Then he made his way to Rome where, hiding in a monastery while attempting to join the Ratline to reach safety in South America, he died in 1949. How he died (whether by deliberate poisoning or as a result of swimming in the highly toxic Tiber River) is one aspect of this book.

Mr Sands spent time with Horst Wächter, the second son (born in 1939) of Otto and Charlotte.  Horst Wächter allowed Mr Sands access to family archives and photograph albums, as well as his mother Charlotte’s diaries.

I found this a challenging and uncomfortable read.  I could find nothing likeable about either Otto or Charlotte Wächter.  While I could understand that Horst Wächter would have little memory of his father, I find it difficult to accept that the son found it so difficult to acknowledge the father’s criminality.  Simply following orders is no excuse.

Challenging and uncomfortable, but an important part of the history of World War II.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith