The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, by Philippe Sands, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 411 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1474608121
Massacre in Rome is a film starring Richard Burton, as an SS security chief, and Marcello Mastroianni, as a priest attempting to get the Vatican to stop the Germans carrying out mass murder. The movie is based on the events in March 1944 that led to the shooting of 335 civilians in Rome’s Ardeatine Caves. They were murdered as a reprisal for a partisan attack during which thirty-three German soldiers were killed in the city’s Via Rasella.
Some months after this massacre Otto Wächter, the governor of Galicia, moved from Lemberg (now Lviv in Ukraine, then the Galician capital) to a new role in Italy as the link between Hitler’s forces and Mussolini’s newly-created puppet state. Originally a lawyer, he had had a successful career in the SS, at one stage walking the same corridors in Berlin as Adolf Eichmann. As the Red Army advanced, however, Wächter had to flee Galicia. The Germans were on the run on all fronts in 1944. In desperation, his wife Charlotte – the “first lady” of Lemberg as she called herself – hoped the British (and the Americans?) might join Germany in the battle against the Russians. Sadly, in her fantasy, “the Jews” of the world, always “contaminating everything”, made this unlikely.
The Americans liberated Rome ten weeks after the Ardeatine Caves massacre. An Italian military tribunal later sentenced Herbert Kappler to life in prison for mass murder, while one of his subordinates, Erich Priebke, was acquitted. Unlike the character (Kappler) played by Burton, SS commanders did not hesitate when it came to reprisals. Wächter complained that Mussolini’s anti-partisan actions were not “as drastic as we would like”. Germany’s foes – the “Bolsheviks” and the “Anglo-Saxons” – could not be defeated unless harsh methods were employed. The Germans prosecuted their anti-partisan war ruthlessly in Italy. They slaughtered 560 civilians in a village in Tuscany; in another village south of Bologna close to 800 people were murdered in this reprisal strategy, otherwise known as “cold terror”.
Four years earlier Wächter dealt with partisans when he ran things in Kraków. In a letter to Charlotte he wrote that some things were going very well – the Vienna Philharmonic had performed in the city – but there was also bad news to report in the shape of sabotage and shootings. When partisans attacked a police station, killing two German policemen, they were caught and hanged in the street. Then came the first reprisal in German-occupied Poland. “Tomorrow, I have to have 50 Poles publicly shot,” Wächter told her. She should postpone her visit to him. The shooting dead of fifty or so Poles at Bochnia – the exact number is not recorded – is still commemorated in Poland. The victims were buried in a mass grave prepared by local Jews.
At the point, in September 1942, when 50,000 Jews had been murdered under Wächter’s watch in Galicia, the Americans alerted the Vatican to the horrors being committed in Europe. President Roosevelt’s special envoy to Pope Pius XII asked the Vatican secretary of state whether the pope had “suggestions as to any practical manner in which the forces of civilised public opinion could be utilised in order to prevent a continuation of these barbarities”. Wächter had no doubts about the morality of pursuing his cause. He believed that Germany had not caused the Second World War: it had been started by the twin powers of “capital and Judaism”.
Charlotte told her children their heroic father – “a king without a country” – had been the last German to leave Lemberg. “His greatest wish,” she claimed, was to save his Waffen-SS Galicia Division from the Russians. Naturally, she did not outline how her husband could actually do this. Nobody questioned Wächter’s loyalty, and Charlotte was shocked to hear he had been asked in Berlin to participate in a plot to kill Hitler. Wächter was still highly thought of by the most senior Nazis. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, sent her a half kilo of coffee – gold dust at this time – as a gift when her new baby was born.
Wächter’s son Horst plays an important role in Philippe Sands’s absorbing book as the defender of his father’s reputation. Sands travelled with Horst to Ukraine for the annual event to commemorate Wächter’s Waffen-SS division. This would prove, Horst explained, that his father was “venerated” in Ukraine. Visiting the Lviv archives, he signed the visitors’ book as “son of the governor”. Elderly veterans at the commemoration, some with regimental flags, wore SS uniforms, and exchanged black and white photographs in which Wächter stood out. “A fine and decent man,” one veteran said. To Horst’s delight, many others said the same to him. However, he was not too pleased when Sands showed him the Polish (and US-supported) criminal indictment of his father as a “mass murderer”. Horst dismissed this document as “Soviet propaganda”. This visit to Lviv finally pushed Niklas Frank, who disagreed with Horst’s views on war criminals, into concluding that he was a latterday Nazi. Niklas opposed the death penalty, with one exception: his father, Hans Frank, the governor general of Poland, who was hanged in 1946. When Sands visited Rome with Wächter’s son, Horst chose not to visit the Ardeatine Caves. Instead, he paid his respects to the thirty-three soldiers who were blown up on the Via Rasella as they sang the “Horst Wessel Song”.
The Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis began some months after the end of the war, by which time Wächter had disappeared into the mountains. The Polish authorities wanted him badly. Under his rule in Galicia, more than 525,000 people lost their lives between 1942 and 1944. The 15,000 Jews who survived comprised just 3 per cent of the territory’s pre-war Jewish population. Wächter surfaced in Rome in April 1949, armed with a new identity and a tiny diary which doubled as an address book. He was being helped. Sympathetic Germans in the city soon found him accommodation in a monastery, where he felt secure. He was short of money and needed to find a job urgently, he wrote to Charlotte, to pay for expensive documents and tickets to escape from Europe. When he first found work as a film extra he asked his wife to send him his tuxedo – he might find a role next time as “a distinguished gentleman”. His predecessor in his monk’s cell, Walter Rauff, now in Syria, offered advice on life on the run in Rome. Rauff, who designed gas vans during the war, eventually made his way to Chile, where he lived freely.
A lot had changed in Rome in the five years since the Ardeatine Caves atrocity. The Christian Democrats had won the Italian general election, supported by the Vatican and the Americans. With the Cold War under way, the communists were now the enemy of their former allies, Britain and the US. However, Wächter never made it to South America as he became suddenly ill and died in a Roman hospital. Charlotte arrived in Rome two days later and was told that he had been in the arms of a bishop when the end came.
The newspapers reported Wächter’s death and his link with the bishop, Alois Hudal, and the coverage became heated and ideological. “The Vatican protects the fascist criminals,” L’Unità, the communist daily, declared. On the other side of the ideological divide, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, claimed the controversy served to allow the communists and the left in general to attack the Church. Hudal soon joined the fray and went on the offensive, a classic response. Leftists and foreigners had attacked, not Wächter, but the church and the bishop himself, because of his uncompromising approach to “communism”. Hudal went further. He would never hand over anyone under his protection to any “secular” court since none were “completely neutral”. And he would not ask to see their papers. His attitude to the law of the state, then, was uncompromising. In addition, the time had arrived to draw a “thick line” over the past. Where were the defenders of human rights, he concluded, when it came to those incarcerated in the prisons of France, Germany or the Soviet occupation zone? His hopes that the Wächter controversy had ended were illusory. Under pressure, he resigned two years later.
An Austrian, Hudal became rector of a seminary in Rome, the Anima, in 1923. In the 1930s he wrote on issues such as race, relations between church and state, and the fate of “the German people”. During the war the Anima became a place of refuge for Germans and Austrians. Hudal in 1944 became head of the Austrian section of the Pontifical Commission for Assistance, created by Pope Pius to “help refugees”. This organisation appeared in Wächter’s address book, along with the name of one of its employees, Monsignor Karl Bayer. This cleric, decades later, supplied details about Hudal’s work with “refugees”.
These included the former commander of the Treblinka extermination camp, Franz Stangl, who received assistance to get to Syria, and then Brazil, where he found employment in a Volkswagen plant. Tracked down by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, he was extradited to West Germany in 1967. Hudal obtained a Red Cross passport for Priebke, one of the organisers of the Ardeatine Caves massacre, who escaped from Italy to Argentina. Then there was Rauff. He also helped Josef Mengele – the doctor who experimented on twins at Auschwitz – to escape to South America. Unlike Eichmann, captured by the Israelis in Argentina, Mengele evaded his pursuers until his death in 1979. So senior Catholic clergymen, on the Vatican payroll, provided crucial assistance to some of the best-known war criminals of the twentieth century: Mengele, and one of the principal organisers of the Holocaust, Eichmann.
Monsignor Bayer confirmed that Hudal provided assistance to a “comparatively small” number of Nazis and SS personnel as fulfilment of his obligation to those “in need of help”. Assistance included money – “most certainly” from the Vatican – and “batches of passports”. Unlike Hudal, Bayer adopted a disingenuous tone when pressed about the background of those he helped. “How could we have known what they had done? After all, they didn’t tell us; they weren’t that stupid. And they weren’t famous, you know.” Really? Stangl, an extermination camp kommandant, Wächter, Priebke, who had faced a tribunal, Mengele, who did not flee Europe until 1949 … Eichmann?
The abduction of Eichmann in 1960 renewed interest in Hudal’s role in helping war criminals, and one newspaper article even speculated that Wächter had escaped from Rome and was still alive. Three years later Hudal died, embittered at what he saw as his unfair treatment by the Vatican. In his posthumous memoir, The Roman Diaries, he outlined a litany of complaints about Pius XII. One newspaper reviewer identified him as an important source for The Deputy, a play first staged in 1963, which highlighted the failure of the pope to protect the Jews during the Holocaust. Wächter had been cared for by a “touchingly selfless” community of Italian monks, Hudal wrote. “I protected him until the end.” He further claimed that Wächter had also expressed regret that the Nazis and the church had not been able to reach an understanding on how to constrain their common enemy, “Bolshevism”.
In 1949, when Wächter arrived in Rome, the Americans and the British knew that many of the “refugees” who had entered the country had a Nazi past. “They were aware too of the Nazi escape routes,” Sands observes, “the use of false identities, how travel documents were obtained, and the role of the Red Cross and certain individuals associated with the Vatican.” A State Department report written in 1947 stated that the Vatican was the “largest single organisation involved in the illegal movement of emigrants”. At the same time, the Western allies were now recruiting Nazis to use as operatives in the intelligence war against the Soviets. And this could involve assisting war criminals to avoid prosecution in countries such as Italy. For example, the Americans knew about Eugen Dollmann, sought by the Italians for his role in the Ardeatine Caves killings, and spirited him out of the country.
Wächter came to Rome in a “pivotal year” during the Cold War, Sands writes, “with the Vatican working hand-in-hand with the Americans. Moreover, Poland was now firmly in the Soviet sphere, which meant that the Americans would be less inclined to cooperate with a request for his extradition. The hunt for ex-Nazis was diminishing.” The priority from 1949 was in finding valuable Germans, who had worked in intelligence or as scientists, and putting them to work against the Russians. Reinhard Gehlen, who had worked at Hitler’s headquarters with responsibility for intelligence operations on the Eastern Front, recruited former Wehrmacht and SS personnel into his espionage organisation from 1945. Gehlen then became the first chief of the West German intelligence agency. For their part, the Soviets were looking to place fugitive Nazis in the same agency to use them as spies against West Germany or the US.
David Cornwall, better known as the spy novelist John le Carré, himself a former junior intelligence officer at this time, was one of the experts consulted by Sands for this book. Italy and Austria were at the heart of the Cold War struggle between East and West. “It was bewildering,” le Carré said. “I’d been brought up to hate Nazism and that stuff, and all of a sudden, to find that we’d turned on a sixpence and the great new enemy was to be the Soviet Union …” Le Carré contends that the Americans knew about the escape route to South America – the “ratline” – and may have helped to set it up. As many as 10,000 “refugees”, it is said, availed of this emergency exit. Thus, in 1949, Wächter’s dream might well have come true: he could have been recruited, with the blessing of the Church, to fight “Bolshevism”. Or, at least, sent far away out of the reach of the Russians. The reality is that he died, not of poisoning by assassins, as Charlotte always believed, but probably as a result of contact with contaminated water. Unwisely, he had been fond of swimming in the not too clean Tiber.
Despite the dense detail, The Ratline is a great read. It is not great history: Sands does not adequately explore the issues or analyse the creation of an escape route for war criminals. With drama and suspense, however, and a brisk pace and skilful visualisation, the book could provide the outline for a movie screenplay. A thriller, it would, like Massacre in Rome, have more bad guys than good guys.
John Mulqueen is the author of ‘An Alien Ideology’: Cold War Perceptions of the Irish Republican Left (Liverpool University Press, 2019).