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The unmasking of evil: a good Nazi father or a murderous monster?


The Ratline

Philippe Sands

Weidenfeld & Nicolson €16.99

Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death

David G Marwell

WW Norton



Otto von Wachter, Charlotte, Horst and Traute at Zell-am-See station in 1944. Photograph: permission of Horst Wächter

Otto von Wachter, Charlotte, Horst and Traute at Zell-am-See station in 1944. Photograph: permission of Horst Wächter

Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death by David G Marwell

Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death by David G Marwell

The Ratline by Philippe Sands

The Ratline by Philippe Sands


Otto von Wachter, Charlotte, Horst and Traute at Zell-am-See station in 1944. Photograph: permission of Horst Wächter

The Ratline was a podcast before it was a book. When it aired two years ago on the BBC, Philippe Sands made great use of the letters between the story's two central characters: SS member Otto von Wachter - an Austrian lawyer - and his wife Charlotte.

"The Jews are being deported in increasing numbers, and it's hard to get powder for this tennis court." So wrote Wachter to his beloved Charlotte in 1942. Normalising genocide as a trivial task is what the German political theorist Hannah Arendt would later label "the banality of evil". Evil is a recurring theme in The Ratline, as it was in Sands's last book, East West Street, also set in Lemberg, the former regional capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Lemberg - now called Lviv, in western Ukraine - was the birthplace of Sands's grandfather, Leon Buchholz, whose family perished in the Holocaust along with the rest of the city's thriving Jewish population. On the eve of the Second World War, that population stood at 150,000. Less than one percent survived.

Lemberg's strategic importance to the Third Reich shifted in June 1941 following the city's incorporation into the General Government - the lawless Nazi colony in German-occupied Poland from where Jews were transported to all over Europe. Sands notes why Nazi bureaucrats viewed Lemberg's location as particularly attractive: the city provided excellent rail connections to an extermination camp in the nearby town of Belzec.

As governor of Lemberg from January 1942, Wachter was an efficient and loyal Nazi bureaucrat. Sands believes there is no doubt regarding Wachter's guilt: had he stood trial at Nuremberg like many of his Nazi comrades, he too would have gone to the gallows. Wachter's son Horst disagrees. "All the guilty ones have been judged," he tells Sands.

But the author's background as a barrister who has worked closely with the International Criminal Court ensures his argument is a tad more convincing. Numerous historical documents are laid out for the reader. There isn't much ambiguity on Wachter's ideological position: he was a committed anti-Semite and fully complicit in administration work overseeing details implementing the Holocaust under his jurisdiction. This included a decree Wachter signed that helped set up the Krakow Ghetto. The most convincing document Sands provides comes from the Central Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes in Poland. It stated: "Subject [Wachter] is responsible for mass murder."

Still, Horst is not for turning. He sees his father as a decent man. A committed Nazi, yes, but no murderous monster. The Catholic Church took a similar sympathetic view of Nazi war criminals. That's why Wachter relocated to Italy after the war. His final days were spent hiding out in a Roman monastery. Support and money came from a notorious Austrian Catholic bishop, Alois Hudal.

Some questions remain as the book concludes. Was Wachter poisoned by a Cold War double agent? And what exactly was the connection between Counter Intelligence Corps spies and the Vatican? Finding conclusive evidence to pin-point the precise cause of Wachter's death in July 1949 is about the only issue that Sands leaves open for debate. Wachter died in Bishop Hudal's arms. He mistakenly believed the bishop's contacts would eventually help him flee Europe, via the Ratline: an escape route used by wanted Nazis to get away to a life of freedom in South America.

Other senior Nazis had better luck. Adolf Eichmann and Dr Josef Mengele were among them.

The American historian David G Marwell notes in Mengele: Unmasking the Angel of Death how Mengele's arrival to Argentina on June 20, 1949, via the Ratline, with a Red Cross passport was fairly seamless. In fact, life in the New World was relatively calm and hassle-free for the notorious doctor for almost a decade. That situation changed in 1958. Juan Peron, the Nazi-sympathising Argentine president who publicly opposed the Nuremberg trials, was now gone from power. An arrest warrant had been issued for Mengele. Paraguay offered some momentary comfort. But after May 1960 Mengele was once more a man on the run: when Mossad agents secretly abducted Eichmann to stand trial in Israel, Eichmann told his captors about meeting Mengele three times in Argentina.

Mengele arrived in Brazil in October 1960 under the name Peter Hochbichler. He died on February 7, 1979 in Bertioga of a stroke. The world didn't learn of this until 1985 following an international manhunt involving scientific evidence and political cooperation between the US, Germany, and Israel. Marwell worked for the American delegation and he provides first-account details of the numerous highs and lows the investigation entailed.

The other half of his book looks at Mengele's role as the so-called 'Angel of Death' at Auschwitz, in Nazi-occupied Poland during the war. As camp physician, Mengele's role was sorting prisoners who arrived by train at the infamous ramp. This efficient process was known as 'selection': it stripped prisoners of their remaining property first, then sorted out who was fit to work and who would be murdered.

Mengele became notorious at Auschwitz for his vigorous pursuit of racial scientific research which lacked ethical boundaries. It focused on the research of twins. Mengele was trying to find a scientific breakthrough to enable Germans to drastically increase their birth rate. Until his death, Mengele was committed to Nazi pseudoscience and never showed any remorse.

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Sunday Independent