The Ratline

Love, Lies and Justice on

 the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive


Philippe Sands

London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson (Hachette UK),  2020

Paperback   431pp    RRP $34.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, July 2020


Phillipe Sands is a British and French lawyer at Matrix Chambers, and Professor of Laws and Director of the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals at University College London. In 2010 he was asked to give a lecture at Lviv University in the Ukraine on the subjects of genocide and crimes against humanity. [After the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, Lviv became part of the Soviet Union, to be occupied by Germany in 1941 (when Lviv became Lemberg). In 1991, it became part of the independent nation of Ukraine.]


Visiting the city, Sands located the house of his maternal grandfather – the sole family survivor of the purging of the city’s Jewish population. In 2012 research led to him meeting Niklas Frank, the youngest child of Hans Frank, the wartime Governor General of German-occupied Poland. Niklas knew a Horst Wächter, the son of Franks deputy Otto Wächter, a wartime governor of Lemberg. From these encounters Sands wrote his acclaimed East West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes against Humanity’ (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).

Subsequent meetings with Horst Wächter revealed that he had inherited his mother’s documents that included letters, photographs and tape recordings. Over a period of seven years, a much-travelled Sands gathered the material for The Ratline. An October 2018 BBC podcast of The Ratline saw contributors with additional material come forward.

Otto Wächter, was an athletic young law student who joined the Austrian National Socialist Party in 1923. He met Charlotte in 1926, and attended a five-week summer school for aspiring young Nazis in 1931. Charlotte was a student of arts and opened an atelier business in Vienna, travelling across Germany and to England selling fabric designs, and joining the party in 1931. She and Otto married in September 1932.

In 1934 Otto led the failed July Putsch to overthrow the Austrian Government, and as a consequence was indicted for high treason and went into hiding. This was to be the start of a married life punctuated by lengthy periods living apart. Otto was spirited into Germany and underwent four years military service with the SS, quickly gaining promotions. In March 1938 Austria came under Nazi rule, and Otto returned to Vienna to live in grand style with Charlotte while he purged all ‘non-believers’ from public office and virtually eliminated Jews from commerce and public positions.

As a reward Otto was made Governor of the Kraków District (26 October 1939 – 22 January 1942), creating the Krakow ghetto on March 3, 1941. From 22 January 1942 until the fall of Lemberg in July 1944 he was Governor of the District of Galicia (with the SS rank equivalent to lieutenant general (three stars)). He was responsible for creating and overseeing the Waffen-SS Galicia division manned by local Ukrainians early in 1943. Charlotte continued her social life including music and theatre performances in their time in Lemberg. From Lemberg, Otto was posted as the military administrator in northern Italy, before being recalled to Berlin as deputy head of Group D Reich Main Security Office before disappearing on 10 May 1945.

Over the next four years Otto hid with a colleague in the Austrian Alps, with a constant exchange of coded letters and occasional clandestine meetings with Charlotte. [The book cover is a photo taken with Charlotte by Otto’s mate in hiding.] Eventually making his way to Rome, and after three months hiding in a monastery, he was unable to obtain the necessary documents to escape to Rome and fell ill, dying on 13 July 1949. Both Charlotte and son Horst believed him to be poisoned. In his seven year’s research, Sands has left no aspect of this saga unexplored. He consulted with forensic world experts in his quest to find the cause of Otto’s death.

As one would expect from an international lawyer, this work has been thoughtfully compiled with the reader in mind. Four pages of the principal characters precede the narrative. Chapters have been kept short, incorporating a total of 83 low-resolution black and white photographs and labelled by date and locations. Sources occupy four pages, there are in excess of 40 pages of Notes and an Index runs to 39 pages.

This is a most enlightening account of the lives of the German elite during Hitler’s rise and fall in the middle of the last century; the total lack of conscience and humanity as they devastated the lives of millions of Europeans, and the back story to the infamous ‘Ratline’.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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