In the morning of May 9, 1945, SS Gruppenführer Otto Wächter wakes up near the Austrian city of Graz, with a serious problem to be solved.
A few hours earlier, Germany signed the final act of military surrender. The war in Europe is over, the first VE day was celebrated in London and Washington.
Watchman hastily calls his wife Charlotte, who is with the children in the family home overlooking Lake Zell in central Austria. Destroy my papers, he tells her, everyone. He then heads west in a chauffeur-driven car, hoping to join the remains of the Waffen-SS division he had two years earlier in Lemberg, the capital of Galicia in Nazi-occupied Poland, where he was governor.
The car never gets there. Caught between a Soviet tank division from the east and the British coming from the west, he must make an immediate decision. He has been charged with the massacre of Jews and Poles and is being hunted by the Allies, Soviets and Jews. It is a matter of life or death. Do I surrender to the British, kill myself or try to escape?
Charlotte and Otto Wächter laugh at a photo with Horst and his sister Traute in Zell-am-See, Austria, 1944
VE Day looks different depending on your perspective. Otto’s wife Charlotte Watcher calls it “The Collapse”. It puts a stop to the gilded lifestyle of her and her husband. After that call, she doesn’t hear from him. Silence.
Charlotte has no information as grim news about their friends slowly comes through. For her, the newspapers report another aftermath of VE Day, a litany of charges, arrests, suicides and disappearances. “Austrian war criminals indicted” is a well-known headline, with lists of names that could have been taken from Otto’s address book.
In May, the Nazi leader of the Austrian government – the godfather of their son Horst – was caught by the Canadians. Another comrade, Odilo Globočnik, who built extermination camps across Europe and was one of the meanest people to ever live, disappears. Otto’s patron Heinrich Himmler commits suicide with a cyanide tablet.
Charlotte dumps her husband’s papers in the lake near her house, but she fears the worst. Otto has disappeared into thin air.
I have researched the Watchers and have written about them for years. The extensive material I picked out with a team of fine young researchers contributed to a BBC podcast I presented in 2018 called The Ratline.
Now I have written a new book about it with more extraordinary material, part of which is generated by the podcast. My research put me at the heart of the world of high-ranking Nazis, allowing me to get a glimpse of how they continue their loving family life and deal with everyday everyday problems, even as they committed their atrocities.
Horst von Wachter recently took a photo at his 17th-century baroque castle Schloss Haggenburg
The Watchers unexpectedly entered my life in 2010 when I visited Lemberg – now Lviv in Ukraine – to lecture on crimes against humanity and genocide, which is my daily job as a lawyer and academic. I also wanted to find the house where my grandfather Leon was born in 1904.
There I heard of the terrible events of the summer of 1942, when Hans Frank, Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland and Hitler’s former lawyer, gave a speech unleashing the “final solution” in the area. What followed was the extermination of hundreds of thousands of families, including my grandfather’s.
About 80 of my relationships died when 150,000 Jews from Lemberg were “resettled” in ghettos and “camps.” And Lemberg Governor Brigadefuhrer Wächter was unmistakably at the center of the operation.
One thing led to another and soon I arrive at Horst Arthur Watcher, the fourth of Charlotte and Otto’s six children, in his huge, dilapidated, empty, beautiful castle in Upper Austria.
I love him, friendly and talkative and open, dressed in a pink shirt and Birkenstocks. We talk, eat and drink, while sharing family photo albums, holiday snaps interspersed with images of Dachau and life at the Nazi top table. I randomly take a book from a shelf. It comes with Himmler’s warm birthday wishes.
Horst is not a Nazi apologist and acknowledges the role his father played in the Final Solution. Still, he refuses to see him as a bad man. “I hardly knew him,” he explains, “but it is my duty as a son to find the good in him.” We become friends and during several visits Horst tells me about the Nazi beliefs of his parents, their great love for everyone else.
A registered book donated by Heinrich Himmler to Otto Wächter in July 1944
I already know the contours of his father’s story. He joined the Nazi party in 1923 as a student and then worked his way up the Viennese ranks. He becomes a lawyer, meets Charlotte, they get married in 1932. Two years later he takes part in the murder of the Austrian chancellor Dollfuss who had banned the Nazi party in Austria and fled to Berlin.
There he joins the SS, working under Heinrich Himmler, who becomes his mentor. In 1938, after the Nazi takeover of Austria, the Anschluss, he is brought back to Vienna to stand on the public square Heldenplatz with Hitler. Charlotte excitedly records that the Fuehrer was “a meter ahead of me.”
I only know about Charlotte’s excitement, because on my suggestion, Horst one day decides to give his mother’s documents to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the United States in Washington DC. He also sends me a USB stick with 13 gigabytes of digital images, 8,677 pages of letters, postcards, diaries, photos and memories, and digitized cassette tapes.
I can listen to high Charlotte. In one conversation she reminisces fondly about a former Nazi journalist about Oswald Mosley, a ‘real personality’.
“I was an enthusiastic Nazi,” says Charlotte on the tape. “Me too,” replies the journalist. ‘Still.’
I can read her deepest thoughts, for example of the day Otto, ‘in his black SS coat with white lapels and SS uniform. . . looked beautiful ‘.
Philippe Sands spent years researching the Watchers and presented the BBC podcast The Ratline. Now he has written a new book about it with more extraordinary material, part of which was generated by the podcast
In some ways, Charlotte is the beating heart of my new book. No one has really written the story of the husband, a sort of “diary of a Nazi housewife.” We do not normally have access to their diaries and letters. In her case, they show that she is fully complicit in her husband’s crimes. She claims it for self-cultivation and cocktail parties and sits at the top table. She likes the benefits.
The Nazi takeover of Austria is a festive moment: “Every Nazi felt such joy over this miracle,” Charlotte writes. It gives the Watchers a life of strength and opulence. Otto accepts a job with the new government, removing Jews and political opponents from the public service, including some of his own university teachers. In 1939, after Germany attacked Poland, Otto got a new job; he was appointed governor of Krakow by Hitler. He soon authorizes the execution of Poland, focuses on Jews and builds the infamous Krakow Ghetto. “50 Poles are yet to be publicly shot tomorrow,” he wrote in a letter to Charlotte.
The Wächters acquire a beautiful building in Vienna. A friend “got the house of the Jewess Bettina Mendl for us,” Charlotte writes. And another “small summer house” with 16 hectares overlooking the lake at Zell-am-See, in central Austria, previously owned by the governor of Salzburg who ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp.
They help themselves to an impressive collection of stolen art. In 1942 Otto becomes governor of Galicia and is involved in “Aktions” which will lead to the murder of over half a million people. I’m looking for a touch of regret in Charlotte’s papers. Nothing can be found.
Otto, on the other hand, regrets the fact that manual labor was difficult to find, because “the Jews were increasingly deported and it is difficult to get powder for the tennis court.” After the Red Army invades from the east, Otto flees to Berlin, after which he gets one last post in Northern Italy.
The “Millennial Kingdom” ends far too early, Charlotte complains, the enemy has invaded too quickly. She is shocked by the “refugee army” pouring in from the east, chased by Russians, with rumors of rape and looting. “When the Russians come, they’ll hang you as the wife of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Wächter,” she warns, so she hides the younger children. May 8, 1945 arrives. “The great day of victory for the enemies,” she writes, “I am speechless.” A few days later, the United States military enters Zell-am-See. “Have you been a Nazi?” They ask Charlotte. “Of course, a very happy Nazi,” she says.
Like the Führer, he served with unshakable loyalty, Otto Wächter was an Austrian. But unlike the ‘Austrian corporal’, Watchdog (above) was a large part of the officer class
And what about Otto? From Charlotte’s letters and diaries I finally learn about the fate of Otto after VE Day. He makes his decision immediately. He does not surrender to the British or anyone else and does not commit suicide.
He decides to hide, hoping to escape to freedom in South America. He takes the Nazi escape route known as The Ratline.
The premise is a line in her diaries about someone called Buko, a “younger man with an adventurous spirit” who saved her husband’s life.
Burkhardt Rathmann appears to be a young member of a Waffen SS Mountain Division specializing in high altitude survival. Who was Buko? What did he do during the war? Why did he help Otto? I have many questions when I discuss it with Otto’s son Horst in his Austrian castle. “Want to know more about Buko?” Horst says. I nod. “I could answer your questions and tell you about Buko,” he continues. Then he pauses. “Or we can call him.”
The words surprise me. It is 2017. Buko is still alive? Yes. A few weeks later we meet him, 92 years old, at his home in Reinhardshagen, a small town in the center of Germany.
The only condition he imposes on the only interview he ever gives is that there should be no question about anything he did before May 9, 1945. If we ask, the interview is over. After 70 years, he is still concerned about the arrest for his role in killing partisans in Italy and Yugoslavia.
Otto Wächter (left) during meeting with leader Schutzstaffel, Heinrich Himmler (center)
Buko explains what happened in May 1945. We have Charlotte’s old maps covered in green pencil marks. “That’s where I met Otto Wächter,” says Buko. Horst puts a finger near the town of Mariapfarr. Buko nods. “That’s it,” he says before church. He tells us that he did not know who the man he met, that he called himself “W”. I soon found out, he said, “I’m not stupid.” The SS-Grüppenfuhrer and former governor is known for obvious reasons.
Buko knows exactly what to do to avoid capture. Go high into the mountains, avoiding valleys and inhabited areas, from one cabin to another. “The Americans and the English were usually too lazy to venture into the mountains,” he says.
Contact is made with Charlotte, who visits every few weeks, on the way from Zell-am-See to a pre-arranged secret appointment. She brings supplies, food and clothing, as well as newspapers. Otto wants the sports pages.
This will take three years. Churchill gives a speech about the new Cold War (“an iron curtain has descended on the continent”), the Poles are resuming their hunt for Watchdog. Buko describes their close escapes and hiding places. They hear about the famous Nuremberg trial, the death sentences imposed on Otto’s comrades for “crimes against humanity”, acts of the sort Otto was involved in. He was angry but optimistic, Buko says.
As we talk my eyes wander to the bookshelves behind Buko. I scan the titles and various objects on the shelves. There is a small, round frame with an unclear photo.
After the conversation is over, I take a closer look. It is a small black and white photo, a seated man. He wears a bracelet thoughtfully and looks at us in conversation. It is Adolf Hitler, who sat on a shelf with us in early 2017.
In the summer of 1948, everything changed for Buko and Otto. “I was suddenly plagued with a guilty conscience because I hadn’t told Buko’s mom that her son was alive,” Charlotte writes in a notebook. “I thought she should know.”
She contacts Frau Rathmann. “And so my mother unexpectedly shows up,” Buko laughs. “Time to go home,” Buko leaves with his mother. When he dies, 70 years later, he is still concerned about the arrest for crimes committed long ago in Italy.
And what happens to Otto Watchdog? Charlotte persuades him to rejoin the family in Salzburg, but it only takes a few weeks. A neighbor sees him and threatens to tell the Soviets.
He decides to go south to cross the Dolomites to Italy. Last summer I followed his path with my daughter, high in the mountains, up to 3,000 meters, with no soul in sight. On April 29, 1949, he reached friends in the Vatican.
He now has a fake name – Alfredo Reinhardt – and needs other documents to get him to South America. “That was the plan,” says Buko, to travel along “the Reich migration route,” the path followed by men like Josef Mengele and Adolf Eichmann, The Ratline.
Otto Watchdog never makes it to Argentina. In Rome, where he expects the protection of a Catholic bishop, he meets a nest of spies, a world of intrigues from the Cold War, of unholy alliances between old SS comrades, Italian fascists, high Vatican officials and British and American soldiers.
The hunt for Otto Watcher is led by Thomas Lucid of the US Army Counter Intelligence Corp. During a warm weekend in July, Otto takes the bus to Lake Albano, near Rome, to spend the weekend with another ‘old comrade’, someone who is in contact with Lucid, a fact Otto is unaware of is.
Ten days later he is dead. Charlotte arrives late in Rome to see her dying husband, but remembers the shock of seeing his corpse, “all black as wood and burned.”
She goes to her grave convinced that he is poisoned. Horst is also convinced of that. But that is a completely different story.
- Philippe Sands is professor of law at UCL. The Ratline is published by W&N in hardback and costs £ 20. The fee for this item will be donated to the Baobab Center for Young Survivors in Exile. See baobab survivors.org.