In Chinua Achebe’s poem “Vultures,” the image of a concentration camp commandant buying chocolate for a beloved son raises the thorny issue of whether a monster’s capacity to love is sufficient to redeem him. In The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive, U.K. human rights lawyer Philippe Sands uses the opposite image to ask an equally thorny question: Is a son’s love sufficient to redeem a monstrous father?
Otto Wächter was a loving (if not always faithful) husband, a doting (if not always present) father and the SS Governor of Krakow and Lemberg (known in Ukrainian as Lviv) after the Nazi invasion of Poland and Ukraine. To Sands, Wächter was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles and Ukrainians—including Sands' grandfather’s entire family. But to Charlotte and Horst, Wächter’s wife and son, he was too loving and too humane to be guilty of these crimes. Indeed, in Horst’s eyes, Wächter was almost as much of a victim as the Polish prisoners he ordered to be shot in a hideous reprisal action.
Charlotte is now long deceased, but using her diaries, tapes and letters to and from Wächter, along with extensive interviews with Horst, Sands creates an intimate and intricate portrait of Wächter that is quite jarring when set against the historical record. But despite Horst’s hopes, what emerges from this juxtaposition isn’t redemption but the ragged edges of a soul that has torn itself apart. Wächter’s acts of love do not outweigh his cruelty; they make his crimes even more horrific. They reveal that he is not an utterly depraved monster but someone who could, if he so desired, commit acts of love and courage. And that is the most terrifying aspect of this book. Anyone, it seems—even someone as loving, intelligent and normal as Otto Wächter—could, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, become a monster.
Fascinating and haunting, The Ratline is a disquieting book that raises more questions than Sands could possibly answer. It is a book that should be read and pondered again and again.