“The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive” by Philippe Sands; Weidenfeld & Nicolson (432 pages, $30).
Published in 2020, Philippe Sands’ bestselling historical exposé, The Ratline, follows the trail of one Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter. Wächter held many titles in his life, having been an Austrian lawyer, husband, father, high-ranking Nazi official, senior S.S., former governor of Galicia, and the creator and overseer of the brutal Krakow ghetto. After the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, Wächter was indicted as a war criminal for the genocide of over 100,000 Poles. He spent the final four years of his life fleeing from justice, being hunted by Soviets, Americans, and British alike. He was even pursued by famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.
“Ratlines” (in German: Rattenlinien) were a system of escape routes for Nazis and other fascists fleeing Europe in the aftermath of World War II. These ratlines usually led toward established Nazi safe havens located in Latin America, particularly Argentina though also in Paraguay, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Bolivia, as well as the United States, Spain and Switzerland.
There were two major ratlines: the first led from Germany to Spain, then to Argentina; the second ratline lead from Germany to Rome to Genoa, then to South America. The two ratlines developed independently but eventually merged. These ratlines were maintained by pro-Nazi clergy among the Catholic Church, such as Alois Hudal and Krunoslav Draganović. Similar routes were used by U.S. Intel. officers during the Cold War.
Following Germany’s total surrender on May 7th, 1945, Wächter remained with the staff of the 1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army until May 10th. He parted ways with them near Tamsweg in the Salzburg mountain district to avoid being taken prisoner and inevitable extradition to the Soviet Union. Together with a young S.S., he successfully managed to hide from international investigators for four years. Wächter’s wife had kept both men supplied with food and equipment via secret dead drops. In the spring of 1949 Wächter crossed the border to South Tyrol in Italy. It was there he met his wife and elder children for the last time.
On April 24th, 1949, Wächter discreetly arrived in Rome. Here, pro-Nazi Bishop Alois Hudal provided him with simple room and board within the clerical institute Vigna Pia within the southern outskirts of Rome. He had lived here using the pseudonym “Alfredo Reinhardt”. The name Alfredo meant “sage” or “wise” while Reinhardt was a Germanic personal name composed of the elements “ragin” meaning “counsel” plus “hard” as in “hardy; brave; strong”, so it seems the cowardly outlaw had held a mighty high opinion of himself.
In June of 1949 Wächter took part in an Italian film, playing the part of an actor while on the side he was in the process of collecting information about a flight to South America, nearing the final destination of his Nazi escape route, where he’d find proper safe haven established by Nazi sympathizers and fellow outlaws. But, as fate would have it, the runaway Nazi war criminal did not live to see his grand escape plan come to fruition.
Philippe Joseph Sands has written a wonderfully detailed and suspenseful historical documentary covering everything from Wächter’s rise to political power within the Nazi regime to his last days as a wanted man hiding in plain sight, all the while giving interesting historical context and insight into those who aided in his escape from justice and those who hunted him. If you have any interest in either real life crime dramas or the history and political intrigue of post-World War II Europe, then Sands’ The Ratline is definitely for you.
Philippe Sands himself is a lawyer of both British and French citizenship, as well as a Law Professor and the Director of the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals at University College London. As a specialist in international law, he appears as counsel and advocate before many international courts and tribunals. His historical expertise on international law and those who dodged it greatly shows in the pages of this book.
Donavon Anderson is a Reference Library Assistant at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.