With its cult of destruction and self-sacrifice, German National Socialism might have been designed for adolescence. Nazi Party members indulged Teutonic pagan myths and a sub-Wagnerian kitsch of death’s heads, breastplates and lances. Not all Germans were swayed by Hitler, but the majority were. Otto von Wächter, an SS-Brigadeführer and minor Austrian aristocrat, displayed a dog-like devotion to the Nazi leader, and scorned the Judaeo-Christian morality of compassion for the weak. Jews were mere “useless mouths” deserving of death by plague or worse.

In reality, according to his now elderly son, Horst von Wächter, the SS-Brigadeführer was a soft-hearted and “honourable” family man. Of course he had to carry out unpleasant duties, but that did not mean he had no conscience. If anything, Otto von Wächter was a typical tüchtiger-Deutsch — an “efficient German” with a specialist’s tunnel vision. He viewed Nazism chiefly in terms of his specialist competence, and was thus kept unaware of the moral consequences of his work. “I have to find some positive aspect in my father,” Horst tells Philippe Sands, the author of this extraordinary book.

The Ratline, an amalgam of history, personal quest and biography, centres on the “deluded idolisation” of Horst von Wächter, who seeks at all costs to find a saving humanity in his dubious parent. Sands has been here before. His bestselling non-fiction East West Street unfolds in wartime Lemberg, the capital of Galicia (today the city of Lviv, in Ukraine), where Otto von Wächter had served as Nazi governor from 1942. More than 150,000 Jews — the city’s entire population — were “resettled” from Lemberg to ghettoes and death camps. Among them were Sands’s Jewish grandparents and some 80 of their relations. The SS-Brigadeführer was irrefutably at the heart of these operations. “Tomorrow I have to have 50 Poles publicly shot,” he wrote home to Vienna on a postcard, as though it was rather a nuisance for him.

In fast-paced, John le Carré-like pages (spies, Nazi-hunters, dark Vatican forces), Sands charts his own changing relationship with the deluded Horst von Wächter, who lives in some splendour with his Swedish wife in a 17th century baroque castle outside Vienna. Horst seems to get on with most people, and Sands clearly grew to like him. Unfailingly generous, he opens up family archives, photograph albums and diaries for Sands’s inspection. From these sources, Sands constructs the Nazi Otto’s life-story. It is not one that consoles Horst in his quest to “find the good” (as he puts it) in his parent.

By the time Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the tall, Aryan-blond Otto was married to the steel magnate’s daughter Charlotte Bleckmann, a fellow Hitler enthusiast who liked to embroider swastikas onto garments. Later, in Nazi-occupied Lemberg, she plundered Gothic and Renaissance works of art for her domestic collection. (“We are not robbers,” she insisted.) Not only did her husband Otto sanction regular “Aktions” against the Jewish populations under his control, he was the confidant of Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of Nazi-conquered Poland, hanged at Nuremberg for his war crimes.

On Hitler’s defeat, von Wächter lay low in the Austrian Alps, where he sought ways to escape to Latin America through the so-called “ratline” — the Reich migratory route used by Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann and other Nazi war criminals. In the end he went to ground in Rome, where he was protected by a Right-wing Austrian Catholic bishop and assorted ex-Fascist diehards. The former Nazi governor died in Rome in 1949 while holed up in a Vatican-subsidised pontifical college. His death was as a consequence of liver failure and not, as poor Horst stubbornly maintains, a political assassination on the orders of Joseph Stalin.

Sands, a practising barrister, turns a forensic eye on the widow Charlotte’s own self-exculpatory letters, diaries and tape-recorded reminiscences kept over a period of 30 years until her death in 1985. The evidence for her husband’s war crimes is “incontrovertible”, says Sands. Had Otto von Wächter been caught by the Allies, he too would have been tried and hanged at Nuremberg. With enough twists and turns to keep the reader grimly absorbed, Ratline is an electrifying true crime for the contagion lockdown.

This review appeared in the London Evening Standard on 23 April 2020