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Philippe Sands, The Ratline – Love, Lies, and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive

Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2020

ImagePhillippe Sands is a human rights lawyer who teaches at University College, London and who writes a true story with the skill of a John Le Carré novelist.

His brilliant 2016 book East West Street is an intellectual thriller that tells the stories of the Nazi holocaust and the attempts to hold its perpetrators to account, made possible by two former students of Lviv Law Faculty: Hersch Lauterpacht (who promoted the idea of 'crimes against humanity') and Rafael Lemkin (who coined the term 'genocide').

It is also intensely personal: Sands' family lived in Lviv. It became even more real and relevant for me when I visited Lviv in 2019 to walk the streets and see the places he mentions. Human rights law is currently under threat, in Europe and elsewhere, and Sands book helped me understand its history and importance today in a vivid, wonderfully accessible way.

Ratline is the follow up story of Otto Freiherr von Wächter, the governor of Nazi occupied Galicia, who lived and worked in its capital, Lviv, and oversaw the holocaust in his territory. The book is again very personal. It tells the story of Otto and his wife Charlotte’s romance and marriage, their six children, his many affairs, and Charlotte’s continuing commitment to her husband.

One of their children, Horst, hardly knew his father but was devoted to Charlotte. Horst is open to discussing his father and his record, with Sands and this book would not have been possible without that remarkable openness. At the same time Horst cannot join Sands in seeing that the evidence points to his father having been fully involved in implementing the Nazi genocide. Horst believes that his father was a decent and honest man trapped in the Nazi system, who did his best.

After the war Wächter escaped capture and accountability at the Nuremberg trials. He was on the run, and for three years hid in the Austrian mountains. Then in 1949 he arrived in Rome, hoping to get on the ‘ratline’ to a new safe life, possibly in Argentina, with the help of the Vatican and, perhaps surprisingly, the Americans. The latter were now recruiting former Nazi leaders to help in in the fight against Soviet communism in this early period of the Cold War.

Wächter died in July 1949 in the arms of a Catholic Bishop and with the last rites of the church. Charlotte arrived just too late to say goodbye to her husband. Was there foul play? Was Wächter poisoned and if so by whom?

Again, Sands writes with the care and precision of an academic and yet with the accessibility and beautiful prose of the best thriller writer. There are twists and turns and the ending is dramatic; a revelation which I will not share here. I just announce that it is coming, and that reading the whole book is worthwhile to understand both butchers and their victims. Sands has a ferocious intellect, a rigorous legal training, and a commitment to the truth of what happened. However, he is also a compassionate person, open to both the victims and the children of perpetrators.

If we have any humanity we must be alert and active in defending the human rights of everyone in Europe, especially those who are most vulnerable today: refugees, migrants, Muslims, people of colour, and (still) Jews. Auschwitz and Lviv never again.