Sands had met Niklas in the course of his research, and Niklas urged him to speak to Horst von Wächter, the son of Otto; now 79, Horst occupies the family’s ancestral home, Schloss Hagenberg, in Austria. Sands described that meeting for the Financial Times in 2013—the chilly and threadbare public rooms; Horst’s personal warmth; and the photo albums with their family snapshots of beach vacations, Hitler and Himmler, mountain jaunts, and the Warsaw Ghetto. Unlike Niklas, Horst was hoping to recover some trace of good in his father. To that end, he shared with Sands a trove of family correspondence mouldering in boxes under the rafters. Sands cautioned that the outcome might not be the one Horst desired, and Horst accepted this. He agreed to give copies of the original materials to the Holocaust Museum, as he has done, and sent Sands a complete set for his own research and use.
What America taught the Nazis
Otto von Wächter had served during the war as governor of Galicia, answering to Hans Frank. He was responsible for creating the Krakow Ghetto and for implementing the Final Solution in the region he controlled. As the killing intensified, Hans Frank thanked Wächter for “making Lemberg a proud city.” With Germany’s defeat, in 1945, Wächter became a hunted man, sought by the Americans, the Poles, and the Russians. He hid for more than three years in the mountains, aided by Charlotte, then in April 1949 slipped into Italy, where he was given a new identity (and protection) by the notorious pro-Nazi Austrian bishop Alois Hudal. Hudal presided over the German national church in Rome, Santa Maria dell’Anima, not far from Piazza Navona, and had been instrumental in setting up one of the major ratlines. (In 1950, Adolf Eichmann would escape to Argentina with Hudal’s assistance.) Wächter had only a few months to enjoy Rome. He took a bit part in a movie, La Forza del Destino, based on the Verdi opera. He socialized. He planned his escape. But in July he suddenly took ill. “I’m a poor little Hümmchen today,” he wrote to Charlotte, “lying in bed with a fever. The day before yesterday was Saturday and an old comrade, who’s been very kind to me, invited me to Lake Albano.” His fever grew worse, his organs shut down. He was dead within days. Bishop Hudal was with him at the end.
What had happened to Wächter? Charlotte went to her grave believing that Otto had been murdered—poisoned—and spent her remaining years exploring various theories with friends and associates, which she helpfully preserved on tape. She had arrived in Rome too late to see her dying husband, but recalled his body appearing “completely black like wood, and burned.” Rome at the time was aswarm with ruthless characters maneuvering within a lattice of Cold War rivalry. The atmosphere was more like that of The Third Man than of Roman Holiday. Russians and Americans were active, whether to bring war criminals to justice or recruit them for other purposes. Nazi remnants had their own agendas, open or covert. For whatever reason—sympathy? self-interest? naivete?—powerful prelates within the Church had played an ignominious role throughout the war, and continued to play one afterward. Israelis, too, were on the scene—aggressively hunting for men like Wächter and sometimes exacting retribution.