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

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This book traces the career, and the attempts to escape retribution, of SS Brigadesfűhrer Otto Freiherr von Wächter, a Nazi officer who commanded various armed groups during the Second World War. Charged with ‘mass murder’ and indicted, Wächter escapes the unstoppable American and Russian forces by taking to the Austrian Alps and calling in favours from fellow Nazis. His death in 1949, attributed by some to poison, draws his part of an untidy life to a close.

This book has a double-barrelled title, one part of which doesn’t match the other. ‘The Ratline’ is the route or routes followed by fleeing Nazis that led from European starting points, via the Vatican many believe, to safety in Argentina or Brazil. ‘Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive’ is closer to what the book is about. This is a detailed account of Wächter’s career and subsequent flight, richly adorned by the efforts of his wife to see him safe. It has nothing to do with the Ratline, which is mentioned, virtually in passing, by a few characters already safe in Argentina. Wächter is dead before he puts a foot on this route.

An additional feature of the telling of this story is a narrator, who is planning a podcast. He is reporting on his research in 2012 or thereabouts, and there is a tale, set in the 1940s, told, not so much by the escapee, as by his wife. She is so much immersed in the story that readers have an almost mile by mile narration of her husband’s career and, when the war turns to defeat, a description at such a micro level as supplying him with shoes, while he covers the miles endeavouring to avoid the hangman. It is as much the story of the joys and privations, the petty triumphs and amoral psyche, of Charlotte Wächter as it is of Otto. The story swaps from twenty-first century to the Nazi era, back and forth, but does not annoy as this practice often does.

Readers are treated in this book to careful descriptions of certain parts of Germany and Switzerland, the Austrian Alps and Vienna, Galicia and Italy…the locations are numerous and the descriptions outstanding. The author projects a view that he has personally visited these locations. The character penmanship is thoughtful and its subjects rendered with accuracy within the limits of my understanding. There are monochrome portraits of the major players scattered throughout. The one of Adolf Hitler on page 152 is a classic!

Wächter finds his way to Rome where he lives a penurious existence before falling ill and dying in hospital. Such an outcome was decidedly unexpected. The question of foul play is mooted and believed by some but not by others. Charlotte has the body buried five times, the Roman Catholic Church is a player, the situation appears farcical. Adding to the confusion is Otto’s son Horst in the following century stoutly maintaining that his father did not murder half a million people; he was a saint. It’s a Gilbert and Sullivan scenario.

With the death of Otto Wächter, one might expect the tale to be told. This is not the end. Philippe Sands’s research was in large part an activity paying homage to Lisa Jardine, a researcher colleague at University College London. The matter of Wächter’s poisoning or non-poisoning was not settled. Hence, from approximately page 200 until the end at page 333, the reader observes some of the most scrupulous research he is likely ever to see. Observation, ratiocination, and reduction of procedures less likely, lead to the next step in identifying who might have poisoned the fugitive and, having reached a conclusion, taking the next step to the final, unambiguous result.

There are so many other aspects to this marvellous book. Charlotte Wächter, on her own, could keep a psychologist happy for years. I assert in the strongest possible terms that readers should buy the book and enjoy the text to the extent that I did.

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

(2020)

By Philippe Sands

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978-1-4746-0813-8

$34.99; 432pp

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