The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive by Philippe Sands - review by Timothy W Ryback

Timothy W Ryback

Gruppenführer on the Run

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


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 411pp £20 order from our bookshop

Last month, the Vatican opened its archives on Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff who has long been suspected of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust and possibly also the postwar ‘exfiltration’ of Nazi war criminals to safe havens outside Europe. The opening of the Apostolic Archive promises to give scholars new insights into Vatican complicity in Nazi crimes. As the BBC reported, ‘Historians still have many questions about the notorious “ratline” – an escape route facilitated by some Catholic clergy who helped Nazi war criminals flee to South America after the war.’

The coronavirus pandemic has blocked access to the Vatican archives, postponing – only temporarily, we all hope – any potential epiphanies relating to the clergy’s dark trade in Nazi war criminals. In the interim, we have Philippe Sands’s The Ratline.

The Ratline traces the life of Otto von Wächter, an Austrian aristocrat who served as governor of the district of Kraków in Nazi-occupied Poland, then later, handpicked by Hitler, as governor of the district of Galicia, in present-day Ukraine. Wächter was complicit in myriad atrocities, including the virtual eradication of Galicia’s Jewish population; less than 3 per cent survived. Wächter also collected art, attended concerts and held elegant soirées with his wife, Charlotte. He played chess with Hans Frank, who was later hanged at Nuremberg for his central role in the Holocaust. He socialised with the Himmler family. The SS Reichsführer inscribed a book he gave to Wächter, ‘With my best wishes on your birthday – H Himmler, 8 July 1944’. Hitler welcomed Wächter’s initiative to form the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, and in 1944 the Führer granted his forty-something governor life tenure as a civil servant with full pension rights.

After the war, Wächter slipped into hiding in the Austrian Alps, outside Salzburg. An indicted war criminal responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands, the former Nazi governor and SS Gruppenführer spent the next four years in Alpine seclusion, provisioned by his wife, before following the ‘ratline’ across the border into Italy. He arrived in Rome on 24 April 1949, where he took up residence in the Vatican-subsidised Anima Institute, one of several pontifical colleges in Rome. Wächter passed his days exercising on the monastery roof and swimming in the Tiber. He also made a cameo appearance in an Italian film, using the alias Alfredo Reinhardt, while he awaited exfiltration to South America.

In The Ratline, as in his acclaimed bestseller East West Street, Sands plays several roles: historian, investigative reporter and, occasionally, psychotherapist and moral guide to the children of Nazi war criminals. In East West Street, the London-based barrister joined the repentant son of Hans Frank in tracing their separate but interwoven family roots back to the Ukrainian town of Lviv, scene of some of Wächter’s worst atrocities. Sands returns to Lviv in The Ratline, this time with Wächter’s unrepentant son, Horst, who refuses to accept his father’s involvement in war crimes. ‘You have put my father on the same level as the executors of the Holocaust,’ Horst tells Sands in the book’s early pages. ‘I see no sense in continuing this.’ Sands persists in his efforts to expose and document the father’s guilt. He travels to Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw, New York and Lviv, scours archives, consults experts and converses with his London neighbour David Cornwell, the former MI5 agent better known as the thriller writer John le Carré. ‘In a sense,’ Cornwell tells Sands, ‘I was a tiny part of the world that Wächter encountered.’

The Ratline is a book of twists and intrigues as complex as any le Carré thriller, with American, British and Soviet operatives stalking the streets of Rome, along with ‘Jewish vengeance teams’, all seeking to rescue, capture or kill fugitive Nazi war criminals. At the centre of these intrigues is a bespectacled, middle-aged Roman Catholic bishop, originally from Austria, named Alois Hudal, who believed that Nazis and Catholics could find common cause against Bolshevism, an argument he outlined in his 1937 book, The Foundations of National Socialism, a copy of which he sent to Hitler with the inscription ‘to the new Siegfried of Germany’s greatness’. To his credit, Pope Pius XII refused to embrace the Hudalian approach and the bishop was banished from the inner circles of the Vatican to run the Anima Institute on the outskirts of Rome, but that did not hinder Hudal in his efforts.

After the war, Hudal became a central player in the exfiltration operations. He facilitated the escape of Franz Stangl, the commander of the Treblinka extermination facility, along with the Auschwitz doctor, Josef Mengele, and the chief architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. All the while, he was on the payroll of the CIA, receiving $50 per month. Sands opens his story in July 1949 with Wächter, using the Reinhardt alias, lying in a hospital bed in Rome’s Santo Spirito Hospital while awaiting his exfiltration along Hudal’s seemingly well-functioning ratline, only for an unexpected complication to arise that was to prove fateful for Wächter as well as Hudal.

As a great admirer of East West Street, I welcomed Sands’s return in The Ratline to some familiar characters and landscapes. The Ratline, like its predecessor, is replete with vivid descriptions and Sands brings to it the same relentless narrative momentum. However, I missed some of the depth of the previous book, exemplified by Sands’s exploration of the origins of the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’. While delivering the ‘loves, lies and justice on the trail of a Nazi fugitive’ promised in the subtitle of The Ratline in abundant and sometimes astonishing ways, Sands leaves the reader with a number of unresolved questions. He led us through East West Street with moral and narrative certitude. The Ratline proves to be a more complex and twisted path to follow. Perhaps we need to wait for the pandemic to end and the Apostolic Archive to be reopened for some of the questions posed by The Ratline to be answered.

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