When The Ratline author Philippe Sands asked Horst Wächter how his Nazi father managed to escape justice after World War II, the conversation went in a surprising direction. As he told Seán O’Rourke today, Philippe had come to know Horst, whose father Otto ordered the deaths of thousands of Jews, including several members of Philippe Sands’ family.
“One day, I ask Horst the son to explain to me how Otto escaped. And he describes to me how, on the 9th of May 1945, he meets a young Waffen SS soldier called Buko Rathmann. And Rathmann was a mountain killer, he’d been in service for the Waffen SS in Yugoslavia, in Italy, killing partisans and communists and other anti-Nazis, so he knew how to survive.”
Rathmann’s skills as a Nazi hitman served him well and ultimately saved Otto Wächter from the grasp of post-war justice. Buko and Otto hid together 2000 metres up a mountain in Austria, more or less in plain sight for three years. Philippe Sands has been researching his family’s past and the man who murdered his relatives for years, and this information was gold. But he was not prepared for what came next:
“I ask Horst to tell me about Buko, what was he like, why did he do what he did, what was his motivation? And Horst says to me, ‘Well Philippe, you can ask me all these questions and I’ll give you all the answers or we could telephone him.’ So this was about 2017, so 72 years after these events.”
When he’d recovered from his astonishment that the man was still alive, Philippe managed to interview Buko Rathmann, agreeing first not to ask any questions about events that occurred before the 9 of May 1945. It was the only interview the then 95 year old ever gave.
Philippe Sands has written two books about the unspeakable crimes inflicted on his family by the Nazis: East West Street (2016) and The Ratline (2020). This latest work is about the escape route used by prominent Nazis like Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie to escape from Europe to South America following World War II. Otto Wächter intended to flee the same way, but he died of mysterious causes in a hospital in The Vatican in 1949.
The Vatican is currently the site of a bit of a cliff-hanger in the Philippe’s story, as his research continues. Historians have long debated the role of Pope Pius XII during World War II. The mystery may be about to end, however, with the unsealing of the archives of Pius XII which happened this year in March, as Philippe told Seán today. Much of the mystery, according to Sands, surrounds an Austrian bishop called Alois Hudal who is known to have helped Nazis escape justice via the ratlines. The question is, did he do it with the approval of those higher up the Vatican chain of command?
“Now of course the 64 million dollar question is, did Pius XII know what he was up to, and did he help him in any way? And the jury’s out on that question.”
The pandemic has prevented Philippe Sands from diving into the newly-opened files in the Vatican, so he and the world may have to wait a little longer to find out more:
“The Vatican archive of Pius XII has just been opened on March 2nd, and but for coronavirus, we’d begin to get a few more answers to those questions.”
There is one archive Philippe Sands has full access to. The papers and audio recordings left behind by Charlotte Wächter, the wife of Nazi lawyer Otto. Their son Horst, who is still alive and living in a tumbledown castle in Austria, passed the material on to Philippe. Sands has read it all:
“Everything’s in German, as I say 10,000 pages. We had to get everything transcribed and everything interpreted and translated and of course, nuggets of loveliness and nuggets of horror would emerge.”
If you want to hear more of the historical detective work carried out by Philippe Sands, including the hunt for the mysterious cause of death of Otto Wächter, have a listen to his full interview with Seán O’Rourke here.
The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive by Philippe Sands is out now in book form or as an audio book read by Stephen Fry.
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