Philippe Sands, The Ratline (2020)

I started by listening to the BBC podcast series, but it was so rich and fascinating that I thought listening (while cooking, taking the train or doing chores) was not good enough. I wanted to learn more about it, so I bought the e-book, which is a bit unprecedented for me. I usually buy books I hear about on podcast about books, never before had I bought a book that was the exact object of the podcast. The title is a bit misleading, because it’s not really about the Ratline, but it is so engrossing that I can easily forgive this. It kept me turning the pages during September, and for those who have read this blog for a while, that hardly ever happens to me for nonfiction books.

The Ratline is the story of two people, Otto Wächter and his wife Charlotte, Austrian citizens born at the beginning of the 20th century and who were early ardent supporters of the Nazi movement. We are so used to have Nazis made into cardboard evil characters in movies that it’s hard to read about “normal” people being genuinely enthusiastic about this ideology and adhering to this way of life. Wächter tried to overthrow the Austrian liberal government and suffered a momentary setback, but a few years later as Austria was absorbed into the Nazi empire there was almost no limit to the social climbing of these two. Wächter became a SS General, the Governor of the district of Kraków Government (in Poland) and then of the District of Galicia (in Ukraine nowadays).

Charlotte became the wife of the governor and the mother of his children, and because of his rank and career she got to choose any kind of available villa she fancied when Jews were expelled from the country, and she got to choose any kind of paintings in the museums of the district his husband ruled over. And she did it without qualms, and even with glee, as we see in pieces of her diaries and letters. She had fun, and no regrets whatsoever, and probably remained so until the end of her life. Little by little we get to see the heartless monstrosity of their attitudes but they never seem to realize it.

It’s rare and a bit of a surreal experience to get a glimpse of what Nazi rulers’ daily life. That part of the book was well before the Ratline (i.e. the escape route to South American Nazi officials found after their defeat thanks to friends and sympathizers, among which high-ranking prelates of the Catholic church) and this makes up for about half of the book. Wächter escaped at the end of the war, went into hiding and took false identities, making his way to Rome with the hope to find this route abroad. But money was lacking and connections didn’t fully deliver on his hopes, and he died in 1949 in Rome. The book takes a sharp turns when Sands ponders the causes of death, going into CSI-like details of post-mortem etc. Was Wächter death natural or suspect? If so, who would have killed him?

The book also explains how Philippe Sands came to this very strange investigation project. Otto Wächter’s and Charlotte’s younger son Horst collaborated with Sands to an extraordinary extent, while remaining convinced throughout the book that his parents were fundamentally decent, good people. He gave Philippe access to private papers and information even though the rest of the family didn’t agree. Philippe and Horst have a weird relationship throughout the investigation, going to the same places his parents lived and seeing radically different things. This book is a fascinating combination of biography, spy novel, scientific and historical research, and so evidently it is rather long (400+ pages), but I am convinced it is worth every minute of it.

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