Life & Culture

Philippe Sands: ‘I’m standing up for what is right’

The barrister's latest book is about a high-ranking Nazi who escaped justice after the war


From his cosy red-walled study in Hampstead, the amiable Philippe Sands, barrister, professor of law at University College London, award-winning author and all round polymath says that he’s not feeling too downcast about the lockdown just yet. Stacks of books and papers are visible in the background — we’re meeting on Skype — and a music stand peeks out from behind his right elbow (it makes for a handy bookstand, he says). He’s hoping to use the hiatus to start work on a new project but today, we’re meeting to talk about his latest book, The Ratline, a sequel of sorts to the extremely popular East West Street, which came out in 2016.

East West Street — a compelling family memoir and an exploration of the foundation of international human rights laws — spawned a film, My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, in which Horst Wächter and Niklas Frank, children of prominent Nazis, follow in the steps of their fathers, shepherded by Sands. As a result, Horst agreed to make public his late mother’s personal archive, a treasure trove of letters, diaries and family photographs, which Sands and his assistants combed through to piece together the life and work of Horst’s father, Otto von Wächter — a high-ranking Nazi and war criminal who escaped justice after the war.

The archival work formed the basis for a podcast and then a book, which reads like a gripping detective novel: dashing Otto and his wife Charlotte’s early courtship, the high life as an up-and-coming Nazi official in Vienna, then as governor of Krakow and then the District of Galicia (in Ukraine) — and their eventual downfall, followed by Otto’s escape via the Alps to Rome, where his story takes an unexpected turn. It’s to this that the title of the book refers — the escape route for Nazis after the war became known as “the ratline”. For Sands, the work has been highly personal. Otto had presided over territories where millions of Jews and Poles were murdered, including members of Sands’ own family. “It was Wächter in Vienna who took measures that caused people like my grandfather to lose everything,” he says. “So it’s a very direct relationship. But of course I don’t hold Horst responsible in any way for that.”

But it’s not just Otto’s story — it’s Charlotte’s too. Sands is fascinated by a woman who kept diaries throughout her life, made tape recordings in the 1970s for posterity, but only mentioned what was happening to the Jews around her in passing and never once showed any contrition. “Her story is something nobody ever really writes about, what the spouses got up to,” he says. “We don’t normally have access to their diaries and letters. I think she was completely complicit, she knew exactly what was going on. She egged her husband on for self-advancement and cocktail parties and sitting at the top table. She loved it. She absolutely loved it.”

She also clearly loved her husband, and Sands believes that her personal archive could have been carefully filleted to exonerate Otto and distance him from wartime atrocities. “We don’t have some diaries. There are no photographs of Otto with Hitler,” says Sands, adding that in the course of his archival research he found several.

But what of Horst? Now in his early 80s, he’s a peculiar man who’s as set on trying to prove the good in his father as when Sands first met him nearly a decade ago. His refusal to budge must have been exasperating. “It was like a waltz where I’m trying to persuade him of the horrors his father had done, and he’s trying to persuade me of the greatness of his father. We both fail. But he accepts completely that his father had a role in what happened but what he does not accept that his father engaged in any activity that can be categorised as criminal,” he explains.

Sands’ frustration comes through more clearly in the film, particularly in a poignant moment when Horst, Niklas Frank and Sands are standing at a mass Jewish grave. “This our fathers did,” says Niklas. Horst squirms and is clearly uncomfortable — this is still not proof enough. “My feelings about Horst is that he’s a damaged person and he’s never really come to terms with the loss that happened in 1945,” says Sands. “And perhaps one doesn’t think about that side. I grew up in a household where we only thought about our side of the story. I can’t begin to think what it must be like to be Niklas Frank where your dad was hanged for the murder of three million Jews and one million Poles.”

Horst is treated fairly in the book and is given full credit for releasing his family’s archive, something that happens rarely, if at all, in Austria. “I’m very careful to avoid expressing my own judgments of people and let readers form their own view,” says Sands. “Horst has a desire to be open but at some point, something clicks in, a steel door shuts, and he’s not going there,” says Sands. “It’s a very fine line, when does the failure to condemn become complicity? I don’t think Horst is complicit.” Perhaps he’s trying to protect his family? “I think he loves his mother.”

Sands grew up in north London, where he lives with his wife Natalia Schiffrin, also a lawyer, with whom he has three children — Leo, Lara and Katya. He studied law at Cambridge, and went on to co-found Matrix Chambers, representing a wide variety of clients before the international courts (while declining to act for some, notably former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, instead deciding to help those pursuing Pinochet for violations of international law). Does he think that his family’s history had something to do with his career choice? “I can’t point to a conscious decision but it can’t be a complete coincidence that my mother’s story as a hidden child and my grandparents’ story as refugees from the Nazis must have caused me, when I was 20 years old and studying law at university, to find comfort in a single course, namely international law.”

His career has certainly helped him deal with immersing himself in reams of difficult material. “I’m steeled by my day job, I deal with a lot of horror stories. I’ve just done the Rohingya case in The Hague. It’s not that it doesn’t leave an impact, it does. But my training helps me deal with this stuff.”

The search for connection with his maternal grandfather, Leon Buchholz, who had lost his entire family during the Holocaust but could never bring himself to speak about it, was a factor in wanting to dig into the Wächter story. “It’s a sense of completing unfinished business and standing up for what is right,” says Sands. “It’s a story about justice — or an injustice. Wächter’s name had been whitewashed out of history. I don’t want to hurt his family. But the story needs to be told.”

Does he feel that this work has brought him closer to his roots? “In Britain there is this slight sense when engaging with the establishment of feeling something of an outsider if you’re Jewish. You know, are you really British, are you really part of the system — and so I would never wear all of that too much on my sleeve. But now I am entirely comfortable. I celebrate it. It doesn’t define me but it’s a big part of my life. I wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago.”

An unexpected and welcome revelation came about after the publication of East West Street: Sands had thought that his grandfather was the last to survive from that side of the family. “I got a letter from Los Angeles from my grandfather’s cousin’s son who said his father had spent the rest of his life looking for any member of the family and had never found one. That’s so bloody sad.” Sands has now met his LA relations —“great people” – and is curious to see what further surprises might be turned up by the publication of The Ratline.

With speaking engagements and court hearings on pause for now, Sands can begin planning his new book, which will trace the life of Walter Rauff, a bit character in The Ratline. Rauff, another former SS man on the run, washed up in Rome, and then escaped along the ratline to Syria and on to South America, where he worked for Pinochet as an interrogator. The work will eventually take Sands to Argentina and Chile —“for an international lawyer, there’s always an archival trail” — and will be another monumental task of researching, following clues, making connections, meeting the right people and bringing this story to life through his clear, precise prose. Sands doesn’t seem fazed by the job at hand — quite the opposite.

‘The Ratline – Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive’ (W&N) will be reviewed in next week’s JC

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