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East West Street author Philippe Sands uncovers secrets and lies on the trail of Otto Wächter, his devoted wife – and the son brought up to believe his father was a decent man

Otto Wächter, in black coat, centre, supervising an execution in Bochnia, December 1939.

Otto Wächter, in black coat, centre, supervising an execution in Bochnia, December 1939. Photograph: (Instytut Pami?ci Narodowe

‘I do not want my children to believe that my husband is a war criminal’
Charlotte Wächter, 1977

In the 1960s, my brother and I often visited our grandparents in Paris, near the Gare du Nord. As children, we understood that the past was painful, that we should not ask questions. Their apartment was a place of silences, one haunted by secrets. They only really began to be addressed when I was in my 50s, the consequence of an invitation to deliver a lecture in Lviv, in Ukraine. Come talk about your work on crimes against humanity and genocide, it said.

I went to Lviv, and one thing led to another. I found the house where my grandfather Leon was born in 1904. I learned of the terrible events that occurred there, unleashed with a speech delivered by Hans Frank, governor general of Nazi-occupied Poland, on a warm day in August 1942. His words exterminated my grandfather’s family, and hundreds of thousands of other families. Four years later, the speech-giver was hanged in the courtyard of Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice, for crimes against humanity. A year after going to Lviv, I met Frank’s son Niklas, a fine journalist who despised his father. It was he who introduced me to Horst Arthur Wächter, the son of Otto Wächter, an Austrian, the governor of Krakow and later of Galicia, based in Lviv. Wächter the father was indicted for mass murder but never caught. He died in Rome in 1949, in unexpected circumstances. In due course I would learn all about the virus that was said to have killed him.

“You will like Horst,” Niklas tells me, “although he is different from me: he loves his father.” In the spring of 2012 I make the first of many visits to Horst, to the dilapidated 12th-century castle in the village of Haggenberg, north of Vienna. Horst, who is in his early 70s, is genial and chatty, dressed in a pink shirt and Birkenstocks. We talk, we eat, we drink. He speaks of his parents’ Nazi beliefs, his love for his mother Charlotte (“a Nazi until the day she died”, Horst’s wife, Jacqueline, whispers), and a childhood of plenty (“I was a Nazi child,” he says with a smile, named in honour of the “Horst Wessel” song and Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who ran Austria after the Anschluss and was Horst’s godfather). He can’t say he loves Otto, he explains. “I hardly knew him, but it’s my duty as a son to find the good in the father.”

Horst shares albums filled with black and white photos from the 1930s and 40s, images of family holidays on lake or mountain interspersed with the occasional swastika, a picture of Hitler, a haunting photograph of a child in the Warsaw ghetto. The scrapbook tells me that the Wächters sat at the top Nazi table. There is apparently an extensive collection of diaries and letters, scrapbooks filled with Charlotte’s handwritten reminiscences. These I will only see much later. I leave on that first visit intrigued by Horst and his papers. I like him, as Niklas predicted.

Otto, Charlotte, Horst and Traute, Zell-am-See station, 1944.

Otto, Charlotte, Horst and Traute, Zell-am-See station, 1944. Photograph: Permission of Horst Wächter

A year passes. I write a profile of Horst and start writing East West Street, which catalyses a commission for a BBC documentary. Filming in the archives of Lviv, Niklas wonders aloud whether Horst is a “new Nazi” (an accusation he later retracts). This upsets Horst, who wants to counter the claim. Be open, I suggest, making it clear that I do not think of him as a Nazi. I’ve seen a few pages from his mother’s diary, and one or two letters, but nothing more from the family archive. Give all the materials to a museum, so others can review it. It seems to be a unique collection, tracing the life of a leading Nazi couple from their meeting in 1929 to Otto’s death, two decades later. Horst offers the material to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, digitised, made public. Would I like a set? A few days later, a USB stick drops through my letterbox: 13 gigabytes of digital images, 8,677 pages of letters, postcards, diaries, photographs, news clippings and official documents.

The collection includes Charlotte’s Erinnerungen (Memories), written for Horst and the couple’s five other children, reminiscences grouped by time: 1938–1942, 1942–1945, etc. There are also Tonbänder, sound recordings, 14 old cassette tapes, digitised, allowing me to hear Charlotte’s German cadence, methodical and rhythmic, high-pitched, anxious and, I feel, not warm. “Conversation with Melitta Wiedemann”, she labelled a 1977 tape, recorded at the Four Seasons Hotel in Munich. Glasses are clinked, toasts offered, views expressed. A “real personality”, Charlotte exclaims of Oswald Mosley. “I was an enthusiastic Nazi,” she adds. “So was I,” Frau Wiedemann replies. “Still am.” “Great times,” Charlotte says. “Hitler was our saviour.”

Maybe the material will offer answers to the questions that arise, as I immerse myself in governor Wächter’s nefarious work in Krakow and Lemberg, and his apparent role in heaping misery on my grandfather’s family, and on so many others. What exactly did he do? Why did he travel to Rome, and what caused him to die there, at just 48 years old? How much did Charlotte know, and what support did she provide? What kind of relationship did they have?

‘The Jews are being deported in increasing numbers, and it’s hard to get powder for the tennis court’
Otto Wächter, August 1942

The material is voluminous, and mostly handwritten. It lingers for several weeks, until my colleague, the historian Lisa Jardine, intercedes. She has recently delivered an inaugural lecture at University College London, “Temptation in the Archives”. How do you assess archival material of a personal nature? What is the historical value of personal documents?

Brilliant Lisa, who has terminal cancer, nevertheless summons a few of us to her flat in the shadow of the British Museum. Bring documents, she instructs. Lisa gravitates towards the personal correspondence and diaries. She is struck by the sheer number of letters written in the last months of Otto’s life, while he was on the run. “Why would a husband and wife write to each other so often, at such length and detail?” she asks. “Because they loved each other?” I venture.

Charlotte and Otto, near Going, Austria in late 1948.

Unstinting support … Charlotte and Otto, near Going, Austria in late 1948. Photograph: Permission of Horst Wächter

Lisa is ahead of us. “No, there’s more there, sharing things they don’t want others to see.” Focus on the last year of Otto’s life, she advises, and the nature of Charlotte’s role. So begins a research project over several years, an exploration of what lay between the lines and behind the words. It takes four years, opening unexpected doors. We stumble into a world of escape and espionage, of double dealing and duplicity, of exhumations and reburials, travelling from the Vatican to Syria and South America, into monasteries, over lakes, across mountains, and enter the world of the “ratline” – the escape route used by Nazis to travel from Italy to Argentina and other places – barely imaginable. At the heart of the story is a relationship, one that survived, the wife believed, “because our love was without any limits and even went beyond death”.

Charlotte fascinates and repels. Born into a wealthy family of steelmakers, in the small Styrian town of Mürzzuschlag, she was, on her own account, a difficult and rebellious child, intelligent if not intellectual. She enrolled as a student at the Women’s Academy and School for Free and Applied Art, developing a fine artistic eye, helped by teachers such as Josef Hoffmann, of the Wiener Werkstätte. A career blossomed, designing fabrics, sold with success in Germany and Britain.

A fine sportswoman, in the spring of 1929 she travelled to the local Schneeberg ski resort, sharing a train compartment with a stranger, a striking young lawyer. “My new ‘Baron’ was tall, slender, athletic, with delicate features, very beautiful hands,” she recorded. “He wore a diamond ring on the little finger of his right hand and had a noble appearance, one that any girl would notice.” 6 April: “I fell in love with good-looking, cheerful Otto.”

They courted for three years before they married. He qualified and became increasingly active in the Austrian chapter of the Nazi party. She supported and encouraged his politics. In the summer of 1934, Otto participated in an unsuccessful coup attempt on the government of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. He fled to Berlin and joined the criminal division of the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, the intelligence service of the SS, working in the same building as Adolf Eichmann. He entered the orbit of Heinrich Himmler, who became his patron. Charlotte joined him in Berlin in 1936, with Horst’s two oldest siblings.

Two years later, in March 1938, Germany seized Austria and they were able to return home. “Every Nazi felt such joy about this miracle,” Charlotte recorded. She drove to Vienna to pave the way for her husband’s return, a moment of unbridled happiness. “There he was, in the doorway of my parents’ flat in Vienna, as a Brigadeführer, in his black SS coat with white lapels and SS uniform,” she recalled four decades later. “In spite of the strain and the fatigue, he looked splendid.”

A page from Charlotte’s photograph album.

A page from Charlotte’s photograph album. Photograph: Permission of Horst Wächter

They made their way to the Hofburg palace, through crowds overcome with “a spontaneous and heartfelt outburst of joy”. “Seyss-Inquart and his wife and a number of others came with the Führer, who slowly climbed the stairs of the Hofburg, up to the balcony. He was standing a metre in front of me, and I could see and hear him well.” At the bottom of those stairs, after the joy, she told Otto he should accept Seyss’s offer of a senior job in the new Nazi government, rather than return to the life of a lawyer. The decision changed their lives, as well as those of their children and grandchildren and, it turned out, that of my own family.

Charlotte’s diaries pass in silence on the substance of Otto’s new position. As a state secretary, his function was to remove Jews and other undesirables from public positions, from the federal chancellery to the postal service. He axed thousands of individuals, including his own university teachers. As Otto crossed lines, Charlotte offered unstinting support. She loved the perks, the Mercedes and cocktail parties, the concerts at the Salzburg festival and Bayreuth (“Marvellous,” she wrote to Otto, “the Führer is here, eating with H[immler]”). And she appreciated the new homes, freshly emptied and appropriated. In Vienna, they occupied a large villa with its own park (a friend “obtained the Jewess Bettina Mendl’s house for us”, Charlotte recorded, along with the china and art works). Later, on Lake Zell, they acquired a “small summer house” with 16 hectares, previously owned by the governor of Salzburg, who ended up at Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The arrival of war, in September 1939, propelled Otto’s career to even greater heights. Seyss-Inquart procured a new position for Otto, as governor of Krakow in western Poland, newly occupied by Germany working under Frank. Charlotte was fully aware of what he was up to. “There’s a lot going on here,” Otto wrote in December. “Tomorrow I have to have another 50 Poles publicly shot,” a first and notorious act of reprisal killing, on the orders of Hitler. Otto signed off on acts against the city’s Jews and Polish intellectuals, then ordered the construction of the Krakow ghetto. I looked for a hint of regret in Charlotte’s papers. None was to be found.

Three years later, the Krakow job completed, Charlotte celebrated when Hitler chose her husband to move to Lemberg and clean up Distrikt Galicia, recently occupied by Germany. Frank visited in August 1942, lodged with the Wächters, announced the implementation of the Final Solution and played and lost a few games of chess with Charlotte. Otto kept her abreast of developments. “There was much to do in Lemberg after you left.” The harvest was gathered, Polish workers sent to labour camps (“already 250,000 have been sent from the District!”) and “the current large Jewish operations (Judenaktionen) implemented. Lots of love, forever”, he signed off. “With Hitler – all or nothing.” Himmler visited, to check on progress and Otto’s commitment to the job. “I was almost embarrassed about how positively he talks about me,” Otto reported. On the other hand, manual labour was proving to be difficult to find, as “the Jews are being deported in increasing numbers, and it’s hard to get powder for the tennis court”.

As the deportations and exterminations proceeded, Charlotte spent time with the children on the Schmittenhöhe. There were picnics in solitude, near a pond, with naked dips in the sun. She missed Otto. “We stayed for four hours, on the moss and in the blazing sun, overwhelmed by the sheer extent of nature.”

‘I hope that the English will be fed up and unite with us’
Charlotte Wächter, July 1944

Charlotte’s papers sometimes refer to a big political event: war, France occupied, eastern front difficulties, march of the Red Army, collapse. Throughout, and particularly in her later reminiscences, life with Otto is often presented as an idyll. Lurking below the surface, however, are hints that things aren’t perfect. In the midst of the tumult and unmentioned mass murder, mundane life continues. Meals are to be cooked, children fed, grandparents tended to. A husband’s absence may be a matter of pride (if visiting Herr Himmler) or irritation (if he forgets a daughter’s birthday).

Charlotte’s papers provide secret details of Otto’s escape from Austria to Italy; his dramatic arrival in Rome, assisted by Vatican figures

There is, too, the matter of sex. Otto’s looks and power brought ample opportunities, causing Charlotte much unhappiness. Why didn’t he take her to Budapest, like lovely Hans Frank, who took his wife? Charlotte finds ways to get her own back. She terminates a pregnancy. She names their second daughter Traute, after one of her husband’s lovers. “That should please you,” she tells him.

Digging deeper, Charlotte’s diary reveals more. Working as a volunteer nurse at a hospital in Lviv, she records in an English that Otto cannot read that she has lost her heart to a young soldier. And in the spring of 1942, as the Final Solution is being implemented, she falls for Otto’s boss, Hans Frank. I send the pages to Niklas. “Sensational!” he responds by mischievous return: perhaps he and Horst are brothers.

The letters trace the bitter last weeks of war. At the most acute moments, as the Red Army approaches Lemberg and the end nears, Charlotte and Otto still find time to write to each other, and to hope. Ever the Anglophile, Charlotte imagines a new ally in the struggle against the dreaded Soviets. “I hope that the English will be fed up and unite with us,” she writes. There is an impediment, however – the Jews, “always getting involved, contaminating everything”.

On 9 May 1945, the war is over. Otto is indicted for mass murder and promptly disappears. His name is in the papers, listed as a “wanted war criminal”, with Seyss-Inquart, who is caught, put on trial at Nuremburg, convicted and executed. (Seyss’s photograph hangs near Horst’s bed.) To survive, Otto must rely on Charlotte. The tables are turned. A new chapter opens. Evasion and escape require new friends and allies, in the Vatican and beyond. Charlotte’s papers provide secret details of Otto’s escape; the time spent hiding in the Austrian mountains with a young companion, who I would come to meet; the manner in which he made his way across the Dolomites from Austria into Italy; the friends and lovers who provided refuge and other forms of assistance and comfort on the way, in Bolzano and other places; and the dramatic arrival and stay in Rome, assisted by senior Vatican figures, including a “very positive … religious gentleman” with connections to the top. There is, too, the matter of what the Americans were up to in the Eternal City, who their new allies were, and what exactly they knew about his whereabouts, and when. The path to the “ratline” comes into view.

‘I am so grateful that there are still people today who … have positive things to say about my husband’
Charlotte Wächter, 1977

What is it about Horst and his family that captures my imagination? There is no simple answer. I pondered the question a couple of months ago, doing my other job, sitting in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, listening to Aung San Suu Kyi. It could just as easily have been any other leader associated with gross wrongdoing, male or female. She sought to persuade the judges that the Myanmar military’s actions against the Rohingya community might be excessive but they were not plausibly genocidal. None of the 17 judges was persuaded. How could she not see the facts as others did? Some who know her believe the reason lies in her relationship with her father, the architect of Burmese independence, founder of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces), assassinated six months before independence. As she addressed the court, I thought of Horst and Charlotte.

Aung San Suu Kyi at the the UN’s International Court of Justice, December 2019/

Aung San Suu Kyi at the the UN’s International Court of Justice, in December 2019. Photograph: Koen van Weel/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Love blinds. Over time, it transforms perceptions of reality, and then reality itself. Like me, Horst was born into a family of silences. When the war ended, he – as Charlotte’s favourite – was protected, nourished and loved, and taught that his father was a fine and decent man. “I am so grateful that there are still people today who … have positive things to say about my husband,” his mother told Melitta Wiedemann. “I do not want my children to believe that he is a war criminal who murdered hundreds of Jews.”

Horst doesn’t want to believe it, either, even if he knows the facts point elsewhere. Together, he and I have stood before a site of mass murder, near Lviv. There, the pain on his face is plain. He does not deny what happened, or his father’s connection to the horrors, or his mother’s support of them. He just wants to characterise them differently, as Charlotte did. It’s a way of being able to live, a means of survival. I cannot share Horst’s characterisation of the facts yet I feel an affection for him, and respect his open spirit, his willingness to engage in this project, to respond to suggestions that the looted objects his mother passed on to him should be returned to their rightful owners (we are still working on the china from Villa Mendl, which the owner’s daughter, who lives in Australia, has asked for). I feel, too, anxiety for the price he has paid for sharing these personal papers, cutting himself off from much of the rest of his family.

Horst and I are bonded by a sense of dislocation, and to events distant in time and place. Our points of departure were different, opposite sides of a shared story, yet our paths crossed and we arrive at an endpoint. It’s a curious waltz, a constant movement, a double act in which each seeks to lead and persuade the other. What emerges are secrets – and questions of lies, justice and love.

Philippe Sands is professor of law at University College London and a barrister at Matrix Chambers. The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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