- The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, by Philippe Sands. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. $34.95.
As forensic history, The Ratline is about as good as it gets. In this book you feel and smell the documents on which all history is based. You work on them, you tussle with them. You participate in the interpretation and the explications of the documents as if you need to write the history yourself.
It is an absorbing intellectual exercise and also as engaging as a John Le Carre novel. (David Cornwell, John Le Carre in real life, is also one of a host of witnesses in this book).
The author, Philippe Sands, is an academic working in Britain with as tenacious a mind as you will ever encounter.
The plotline is relatively simple and straightforward. Otto Wachter, a well-educated, middle class citizen of Vienna marries into a wealthy family and would seem to have a good career in front of him. But he has to chose between commerce and politics and he chooses politics. Nazi politics. He, and his wife Charlotte, passionately believe in the ideas and world that Hitler will build and they desperately want to be building it with him.
Wachter progresses and, indeed, wins the high approval of Heinrich Himmler and, with his patronage, travels up the Nazi hierarchy to great heights.
After a series of important postings Wachter becomes governor of Galicia (western Ukraine) and with his headquarters in Lvov (known to the Germans as Lemberg) he is responsible for the deportation and death of possibly 800 000 Jews, disabled and gypsies. Previously Wachter had erected ghettos wherever he was posted including Krakow.
Sometimes Charlotte is with him on his postings, often she remains behind in Austria supervising the care of their six children. Wachter is a good husband, though he strays, and an attentive and loving father.
At one point, improbably, Sands describes his work tracking Wachter down to the BBC as "a sort of Nazi love story". It is so much more than that.
Wachter's dream of National Socialism dies with the Allied victory in Europe and Wachter will be sought for Nuremberg as a war criminal. He takes flight, lives in the Austrian Alps for three years, with another younger and more practical former SS man, supported and frequently visited by Charlotte before making his way to Italy and to Rome.
There, helped by an avowedly Nazi supporting Catholic bishop, and housed in a fairly dilapidated monastery, Wachter tries to find a place on the 'ratline' to transport him to South America. He dies in Rome in 1949, but was he poisoned or was there some other cause?
The last part of the book, 'Death', is murky in the extreme. It turns out that the bishop, for example, who has helped Wachter, had written a book in favour of National Socialism 1937, regarded it as his mission to assist former Nazis, but was also in the pay of the Americans. Thus the Americans knew precisely when Wachter had arrived in Rome, where he lived and how he was seeking to sustain himself.
Far from sending Wachter to Nuremberg, it is possible the Americans were seeking to recruit him as a useful operative on their side.
To give the reader of this review more of the plot would be to reveal too much. It is the author's command of his material and his relentless pursuit for all the answers that is so impressive in The Ratline.
We meet Horst Wachter, the fourth child of Otto and Charlotte Wachter at the very beginning of this book and he is a constant and perplexing presence throughout. He makes his mother's extensive archive available to Philippe Sands, allowing us to know an enormous amount about his father.
Despite overwhelming evidence, Horst continues to believe that his father was merely following orders and had no particular responsibility for the atrocities that took place while Wachter was in charge. He also believes that Charlotte adhered to Nazi ideologies to the end of her life and does not see this as utterly wrong.
Philippe Sands, whose own family suffered cruelly at the hands of the Nazis, might be expected to reject Horst and all his confused thinking. While they disagree on the fundamental interpretation of most of the documents they read together, it is a strange and somehow warming aspect of the book that they remain almost friends with a mutual respect and liking. Sands sees Horst as "open and transparent, in a way that is rare".
Philippe Sands also comes to know Horst's daughter, Magdalena, who is not on speaking terms with her father and together they travel to significant places where Wachter holed up while he was on the run. Sands finds her "a person of inspiring courage and fortitude", but does not let her father know that he is in her company and that of her husband.
This is an odd lapse in the author's own sense of transparency and honesty, and may worry some readers. It can be justified, however, as a means of showing just how determined Philippe Sands is to reveal the whole truth about, Wachter, this Nazi monster. It is the domesticity of evil that this remarkable book explores. That ordinary, average, likeable people are capable of severe delusion and the utmost horrible cruelty.
If you have treasured Le Carre's spy thrillers across the years, as a huge audience has, but wondered if his depiction of evil and duplicity was somewhat exaggerated, read this absorbing excursion into the real world of the puzzle of human evil.
What is ultimately disturbing is how banal and ordinary it is.
- Michael McKernan is a Canberra historian.