What are some mysterious facts of life

The mysterious death of Otto Wächter

His end is miserable and comes as a surprise. On July 6, 1949 Otto Wächter wrote a last, barely legible letter to his wife: He had severe reflexes to vomit, a high fever and the impression that the blood was boiling in his veins. Three days later, the man, who had just turned 48 years old, was admitted to a hospital in Rome under a false name, where he was wasting away in a delusional fever. On July 13, he died shortly before midnight in the presence of the Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal.

The controversial clergyman noted the following in 1953 in his memoirs, which were only published posthumously in 1976: "In the Roman hospital 'Santo Spirito', the Vice Governor of Poland, Lieutenant General and Sturmbannführer of the SS, died in my arms, looked after by me to the end Baron von Wächter, who was wanted by allied and Jewish authorities everywhere. " Not least thanks to the touching, selfless help of Italian clergymen, Wächter had managed to live in Rome for months under a strange name, Hudal continued, "until he was poisoned, which he himself attributed to the American espionage service (a former German worked in Rome Major), fell victim ".

There were good reasons why the bishop dealt again in detail with the Wächter case in his memoirs: With his overly caring care for the wanted Nazi war criminal, which was reported in detail in the Italian press in 1949, the bishop maneuvered himself with his superiors Vatican finally sidelined - and Hudal ultimately had to resign (albeit with some delay) as rector of the German priestly college in Rome. The fact that he went down in history primarily as an escape helper for high-ranking Nazis filled him with a certain pride in his memories.

Lots of open questions

But what was Hudal's role in supporting Otto Wächter in Rome? Is it plausible that he was actually poisoned, especially by a "former German major" who worked for a US secret service? Who was this man And what could - if it was a murder - have been the motive for the crime?

These are just a few of the questions about the mysterious death of Otto Wächter, which the British writer, lawyer and university professor Philippe Sands devoted several years of his life to answering. And he was not alone: ​​a whole team of employees was involved in the extensive research. The result is now available in German translation, bears the title "Die Rattenlinie" and provides on more than 500 pages (including an extensive appendix) not only the brilliantly reconstructed story of the life, love and death of an Austrian National Socialist in the context of his time. It's also a book about how much these stories linger well into the 21st century.

A long history

But how does a British author come to deal in such detail with the biography of an Austrian National Socialist who is not all that well known internationally? "That goes back a number of years," says Sands during a conversation (before the lockdown) in a Viennese coffee house, "and began my research on the book East West Street." In this multi-award-winning international bestseller, which was published in 2016 and is published in German under the title "Return to Lemberg", Sands traces the story of his Jewish family, who came from Lemberg and lost numerous members in the Shoah.

He combined this family history and the description of the events with the biographies of the international law experts Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who also came from Lemberg and who, with the terms "crimes against humanity" and "genocide", have shaped the facts that have largely determined international criminal law since 1945.

Two sons of leading Nazis

During his research, Sands, who is professor of international law at University College in London, got to know the sons of Hans Frank and Otto Wächter around ten years ago, i.e. of the two men who were politically responsible for the Nazi terror regime in Lviv and the surrounding area Mainly responsible were: Hans Frank as governor general of the occupied Polish territories and Otto Wächter as his deputy and governor of Galicia.

While Niklas Frank, one son, settled accounts with his father in an absolutely ruthless manner, Horst Wächter, the other son, was convinced, despite all the facts, that his father had behaved as correctly as possible given the circumstances as a Nazi politician. Sands made these two very different sons of two high-ranking Nazis from Germany and Austria the main characters in a documentary that shows the two of them together at original locations in Poland and the Ukraine and was released in 2015 under the title "My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did" came.

"Horst did not like the film," recalls Sands, "but it also motivated him to study his family history in more detail." So it happened that Horst Wächter, on the advice of Sands, had the entire remaining estate of his parents scanned by employees of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum located in Washington, D.C., and sent him a digital copy of it informally on a USB stick to London.

Extensive search for clues

"This material is unbelievable," says the 60-year-old about the almost 10,000 pages of letters, diaries and documents, and it will not be the last time that he will use this attribute in our conversation - in almost every case justifiably. In fact, it is always almost unbelievable what Sands tells in the book and in the interview about his search for clues, which led him from today's Lviv in the Ukraine to Albuquerque in New Mexico and from London to Rome.

In London, for example, Sands met for an interview with his neighbor John le Carré, who became world famous for his spy novels. What is less well known: From 1949, le Carré worked in the British secret service in Graz and is therefore very well informed about the turbulent agent activities at the beginning of the Cold War in Austria and the surrounding area.

Sands also spent a good deal of research time in Austria, where he visited Horst Wächter several times in his castle in Hagenberg, Lower Austria, around an hour's drive north of Vienna. And last year he even hiked the route across the Ötztal Alps to South Tyrol on which Wächter had fled Austria 70 years earlier.

Encrypted letter content

The most important basis of the book, however, remains the original sources, which Sands evaluated primarily together with two doctoral students from the now deceased British science historian Lisa Jardine. These letters also helped to clear up the riddle surrounding Otto Wächter's mysterious death, which was not that easy: "The letters that he and his wife Charlotte exchanged between Rome and Salzburg in 1949 and the diary entries from this time are all encrypted. The names given are pseudonyms and had to be laboriously decoded by us. "

Otto Wächter's final months in 1949 in Rome are at the center of "Die Rattenlinie" and the no less great ten-part podcast, which was produced by the BBC in 2018 under the title "The Ratline". In espionage jargon, "rat lines" are the escape routes through which endangered persons or agents are smuggled into or out of enemy areas. The term became best known in connection with high-ranking Nazis and war criminals such as Klaus Barbie, Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele or Franz Stangl, who after 1945 were mostly able to move to South America or the Middle East via Italy.

But it is by far not just about a "Nazi on the run", as the subtitle promises. Sands has also compiled new details about the Nazi career of the law graduate: for example, on his participation in the July coup in 1934, when Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was shot, or on his membership in the German Club, whose network he owed that he was after the " Anschluss "rose to state commissioner in March 1938 and, as such, took care of the racist and political" cleansing "of the bureaucratic apparatus.

Turbulent private life

From the end of 1939, Wächter continued his career in the East, which he also chose voluntarily: initially as governor of the Krakow district and from the beginning of 1942 to summer 1944 as governor of Galicia.

Even if the tangible evidence of Wächter's direct involvement in the "final solution to the Jewish question" is sparse, Sands describes the terror regime for which Otto Wächter and his immediate superior Hans Frank were responsible and for which the two were wanted as war criminals after 1945 .

With all this, the sometimes turbulent private life is not neglected: In 1932, Wächter married the daughter of an industrialist from Upper Styria, Charlotte Bleckmann, who was also a staunch National Socialist, with whom he had a total of six children and who stood by her husband even in difficult times, especially after the end of the war: while Hans Frank, the "butcher of Poland", was caught in 1945 and sentenced to death in Nuremberg in October 1946 for the murder of four million people, his deputy successfully evaded justice for years.

Three years in the mountains

How this was possible is another of the many almost unbelievable stories that Sands tells in detail in the book, but only mentioned incidentally in conversation: "Wächter was able to hide in huts in the Hohe and Niederen Tauern for three years from 1945. All two up to three weeks Charlotte came to visit and brought her husband food, clothing and other things of life. "

Otto Wächter was accompanied by a certain Burkhard "Buko" Rathmann, who had previously served in the 23rd Waffen-Gebirgs- (Karstjäger-) Division of the SS. This successful game of hide-and-seek in the Austrian mountains did not end until 1948, when Charlotte Wächter informed the mother of the then 24-year-old Rathmann that her son was still alive and that he returned home.

But without the mountain experienced Buko, whom Sands met for a detailed interview in Germany in 2016, Otto Wächter could hardly continue. After a brief secret visit to his own family, who meanwhile lived in Salzburg, Wächter fled in February 1949 over the mountains to South Tyrol and from there to Rome, where he arrived on April 29th.

Amazing agent networks

"And now comes one of the most incredible stories that we came across," says Sands: "While Wächter thought they were being hunted down by the Allies as a Nazi, at least the Americans knew from day one that Wächter was in Rome even if his passport was made out in the name of Alfredo Reinhardt. " But how was that possible? "Quite simply: Because Bishop Hudal, whom the guard met on the very first day in Rome, had already been working as a paid agent for the Americans for two years and was collecting $ 50 a month for it." This in turn means that the flight of high-ranking Nazis via Rome to South America happened with the knowledge of the Americans.

But it gets even worse: "Hudal reported to the former SS-Sturmbannführer Karl Hass, who coordinated a network of agents called 'Project Los Angeles' for the Americans." The fact that Hass was involved in the massacre in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome in 1944 did not prevent the Americans from making him an employee of the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) during the Cold War. And Otto Wächter met Hass, with whom he had previously worked, on July 2, 1949 at Lake Alban near Rome, shortly before he became seriously ill and died a little later in the arms of Hudal.

Much more than a detective story

More should not be revealed at this point, after all, "Die Rattenlinie" is also a highly exciting detective story, which is based solely on facts and en passant many new insights into the complex political and secret service situation in Austria and Italy at the beginning of the Cold War gives. At the same time, the famous book is much more than that: Its brilliantly arranged chapters tell, among other things, of the rise of an Austrian Nazi to top Nazi positions or of the terror in the occupied eastern territories.

And last but not least, Philippe Sands reports with great empathy how those events that happened more than seventy years ago continue to have an impact today - and continue to cause problems for the families affected. (Klaus Taschwer, ALBUM, November 22nd, 2020)