Books

Philippe Sands
The Ratline

This is the story of the kind of Nazi no one wants to know about: one you might find sympathetic. Philippe Sands, barrister and professor of law, has written the weirdest and most compelling possible account of Otto von Wächter, who rose to be a governor in Poland, and whose dominion in Kraków saw many thousands of Jews and Poles driven away to the camps or otherwise executed. Sands tells us how this Austrian Nazi escaped after the war and died – suspiciously – in Rome in 1949. It is also the story of Wächter’s wife, Charlotte, as staunch a Fascist as he was, who lived to a ripe old age and loved him with such passion that at one stage Sands describes his book to someone as a Nazi love story. It is also, poignantly and confoundingly, the story of their son Horst, who collaborates with the whole immensely elaborate endeavour, and who strives to believe – blindly, but not unsympathetically – that his father was simply an administrator, that he did what he had to do, and there was no appetite for evil and no responsibility for the deaths that occurred.

What has to be said at the outset is that The Ratline is a masterpiece, an extraordinary but also captivating work of detection about the gravest things in the world. And it also has the spellbinding quality of that rarest of all things, a thriller that is also a work of art – and not only a work of art, but one about the darkness and desolation of a subject we’re inclined to think art should not tread in the vicinity of. This is not only a book that’s liable to appeal to people who like the highbrow trashmeisters of the age – le Carré, Robert Harris, the late Philip Kerr. In a heart-stopping, breathtaking way, it will also trouble the certitudes of those who believe the only way into the mystery of the evil of the Holocaust is via Primo Levi and Shoah – or, to translate Adorno into prose, that there can be no fictionalising after Auschwitz.

Of course, the famous answer to Adorno’s rhetoric about no poetry was Paul Célan, who wrote it. Philippe Sands is different again because he doesn’t give us Célan’s “black milk of daybreak”, where the tread of the music licenses the vision, but offers instead a winding stair of mystery where human faces and fascinating hypotheses jostle with startling epiphanies of genuine feeling and dark betrayal. In The Ratline, every kind of ambiguity crisscrosses and bewilders and ravishes the reader with a world of chimeras and contradictions in which perspectives shift and slide.

Otto is a bright young thug, implicated in an early attempt to wrest power in Austria. In some ways both he and Charlotte – educated in England, a lover of art and literature and music; there she is catching up with her Goethe, her Mozart, and stealing a Bruegel from a Jewish family – are like the people who will gravitate to this book, yet they are not just complicit, they’re actively desecrating every humane belief. Or are they? Horst, their dim old son, a loveable, simple man, won’t have it. He’s introduced to the author by someone else with a notorious Nazi father: this man says to Sands, “You will like him.” And, God help us, so do we as readers.

The Ratline is a book that will play havoc with your attitudes even though it has a profound moral power. After hiding out in the Austrian Alps for several years – alongside a man who’s likeable enough when the author meets him but believes in a blood-curdling credo – Wächter died in Rome. There, he was ministered to by a bishop who seems to have been the most sinister of customers, forever trafficking the Eichmanns and Mengeles to South America. Later we meet his successor as head of the seminary, a bland and suave man of the cloth who suggests that mercy was his predecessor’s aim, and even if there was the odd mass murderer among those he helped, there were Communists, there were Jews (in fact there weren’t).

We hear – and no comment underlines it – that an Italian principessa rushes to Pius XII to get him to intervene when the Germans start rounding up the Italian Jews. He does so immediately, in her presence, but not before 1000 Jews have been sent to Auschwitz. One of the things Wächter feared in Rome was the Americans: various Nazis were in fact in their pay because the United States was willing to use former SS men as double agents against the Soviets as the Cold War got under way. There is also an illuminating chapter where Sands talks to his neighbour David Cornwell (John le Carré), that passionate Germanist, who had been a young postwar soldier – and, according to legend, sometime spook.

One of the central puzzles of this dark, enthralling book, is whether Wächter was poisoned as he lay in the grand Renaissance room in the Vatican. Was his death a misfortune, or a deliberate murder?

It’s one of the characteristic fascinations of The Ratline that it’s constructed as a series of short chapters in which Philippe Sands talks – and listens expertly, with absolute attention – to some of the smartest people in the world about whatever angle of the mystery he’s trying to solve. He asks an eminent Italian gastrologist: Could the far-from-clean Tiber have caused Wächter’s fatal infection? And to the great textual scholar Lisa Jardine: What strikes you about the letters of Otto and Charlotte? Is it the bravura of the love expressed? No, she says, it’s the fact that they’re in code. Sands has used a meticulous, brilliantly sharp investigative technique to arrive at a verdict that may be a foregone conclusion but still succeeds in startling the reader because of the drama with which he presents it.

This is a superb book that adds to our knowledge of a subject we shy away from or shrug at. It is a dizzying journey, full of a calm attention for every dark place or frail resistance in the human heart. Sands earns the right to his mighty epigraphs: “It is more important to understand the butcher than the victim”, from the Spanish writer Javier Cercas; and from Isaiah, “Their bows will slaughter the young men; they will have no mercy on the fruit of the womb; they will not look with pity on the children.”

Peter Craven

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 432pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "Philippe Sands, The Ratline".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Peter Craven