Picture the scene. You’re staying at a dilapidated baroque castle in the Austrian countryside, with thick stone walls and an overgrown moat. The septuagenarian owner, Horst, a tall, friendly man with an “embracingly guttural, warm, hesitant, gentle voice”, makes you feel thoroughly at home. Over tea he tells you about his family history: his parents’ youthful love affair; his memories of his wartime childhood; the sad loss of his father when he was still a boy.
Then, almost idly, you pick out a book from the shelves, “black cover, no title, a gilded eagle astride a swastika”. Inside is a heartfelt inscription, from Horst’s mother to his father in 1931: “Through struggle and love to the finish.” The book’s title is Mein Kampf.
Whatever you might think of your find, Horst is delighted. “I didn’t know I had that!” he says happily. He explains that he lost his other copy, a present from his godfather Arthur — or as the world knows him, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the chancellor of Nazi Austria and Reichskommissar of the Netherlands, hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity after the Nuremberg trials.
At this point many of us would be heading out of the door. But for Philippe Sands, lawyer, academic and historical Nazi hunter, this stuff is gold dust. In his previous book, the brilliant, award-winning East West Street, Sands explored the story of the Holocaust in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Now he turns his attention to one of that book’s supporting characters, the SS officer Otto von Wächter.
After serving as the Nazi governor of Kraków and then the Polish-Ukrainian region of Galicia, von Wächter vanished at the end of the war, spent years on the run and finally surfaced in Rome in 1949, where he died in very murky circumstances. He was also Horst’s beloved father; for Sands, that makes him an irresistible subject.
Sands’s untangling of the mysteries surrounding Otto von Wächter is masterfully done. Otto, it turns out, was a Nazi of long standing. Born in Vienna in 1901, he became a handsome, sporty young man. Drawn into German nationalist politics after the First World War, he joined the party’s Viennese branch. After training as a lawyer, he joined the SS, climbed the party hierarchy and worked tirelessly for Austrian unification with Germany, even taking part in a failed coup in 1934.
After the Anschluss four years later, Otto’s career blossomed. The Nazi top brass saw him as a safe pair of hands — hence the postings to Kraków and Lviv, where he was in charge of building the ghetto, rounding up Jews and executing Poles. In all this he could count on ideological support from his wife, Charlotte, an Austrian businessman’s daughter.
Thanks to Otto’s extramarital affairs, their relationship had its ups and downs. However, Charlotte never wavered in her Nazi fervor. When she got to stand behind Hitler in Vienna after the Anschluss, it was the “best moment” of her life. Later, during the war, she developed a passionate crush on one of her husband’s colleagues, whom she nicknamed “my Hansl … so spirited, so full of zest”. History remembers him as Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of Poland and one of the most infamous war criminals in history. He too was hanged at Nuremberg.
Never, not once, did Otto and Charlotte have moral qualms about what they were doing. Life was good. They had a big house with a tennis court and Charlotte helped herself to paintings from Kraków’s Cloth Hall. If they mentioned the Jews at all, it was only to chuckle about how nice things were now that they were no longer around. Then, unfortunately for the von Wächters, the wheel of history turned.
As the Third Reich crumbled, Charlotte retreated with their children to lakeside Austria. Meanwhile Otto vanished — or seemed to.
In fact, Sands discovers that he was hiding in the mountains nearby with a younger SS man. For three years he remained on the run, meeting Charlotte every few weeks for a romantic rendezvous. However, at the beginning of 1949 he was spotted by her neighbors, and that was the end of that.
So Otto set off for Italy, heading over the Dolomites and into Rome. There, in a city seething with Cold War intrigue, he made contact with local Nazi sympathizers. Among them was the Catholic bishop Alois Hudal, who was notorious for running the “ratline” route along which war criminals fled to exile in South America. But on July 2 Otto went on a day trip to visit an old comrade near Lake Albano, just outside the capital. After a bracing swim and a hearty lunch, he started to feel ill. Eleven days later he was dead.
Never, not once, did Otto and Charlotte have moral qualms about what they were doing. Life was good.
On the face of it, the second half of the book, with its cast of war criminals, secret agents and Nazi bishops, sounds almost impossibly thrilling. Yet, as Sands’s search for the underwhelming truth about Otto’s death leads him down one rabbit hole after another, much of it reads like high-class padding.
There is also far too much literary-London name-dropping. At one point the historian Lisa Jardine pops up to offer some archival tips; then Sands has tea with his neighbor John le Carré; then he discusses the case with the director of the Royal Society over dinner. A stronger editor would have cut all this.
Where the book really shines, though, is in its portrait of Otto’s son, Horst. A polite, kindly man who gladly cooperates with Sands at every turn, he nevertheless steadfastly refuses to admit his father did anything wrong. Is Horst a fool, a liar, or simply a dutiful son? Should we condemn him for denying his father’s guilt, or admire him for his devotion to his parents? It is to Sands’s credit that he avoids glib judgments.
Yet it has to be said that Horst is rarely his own best advocate. In the book’s most extraordinary scene, he and Sands go to Lviv with a television crew for the annual commemoration of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division, which Otto founded.
When they get there, elderly Ukrainians in gray SS uniforms line up to say hello. One declares that Otto was a “fine and decent man”, and his son beams with delight. Then another man invites Horst to inspect an old open-topped SS automobile. The cameras are rolling. “Please don’t get in,” Sands thinks. And of course Horst gets in. “This day was the best for me,” Horst exclaims afterward, clearly overjoyed. “So many people wanted to shake my hand, because of my father, [and] say that he was a decent man. That’s all I want, nothing else.”
Sands says nothing. After all, what could he have said?