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The Ratline Reviews

The Ratline by Philippe Sands, QC

The Ratline

Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive

Philippe Sands, QC

4.38 out of 5

11 reviews

Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publication date: 23 Apr 2020
ISBN: 9781474608121

The new book by the winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize and author of the Sunday Times bestseller EAST WEST STREET - a historical detective story that sets out to uncover the truth behind what happened to leading Nazi Otto von Wachter

  • The BooksellerBook of the Month
5 stars out of 5
Caroline Sanderson
17 Jan 2020

"(an) enthralling and eagerly anticipated (certainly by me) follow-up to his Baillie Gifford-winning East West Street"

In this enthralling and eagerly anticipated (certainly by me) follow-up to his Baillie Gifford-winning East West Street, Sands investigates the truth behind what happened to one of the walk-on characters in that first book. As Nazi governor of Galicia, Otto von Wchter presided over a territory where hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles were killed, including the entire family of Sands' grandfather. Indicted for mass murder when the war ended, Wchter went on the run, taking refuge in Rome, where he hoped to follow the "ratline" to Argentina, the destination of choice for Nazi fugitives. But in 1949, after lunching with an "old comrade" suspected of working for the Americans, he dies after a mysterious and violent illness. Was he poisoned? Sands investigates, weaving in the story of the enduring love between Wchter and his devoted wife; and exploring the Nazi legacy he left behind. Those who saw Sands' documentary "My Nazi Legacy" will know that his son Horst continues to deny that his father was responsible for mass murder. Here, alongside the brilliantly related story of what happened to Otto, Sands persists in his efforts to persuade Horst of the truth. Despite the gulf of horrors between them, he and Horst forge a friendship of sorts, and a degree of mutual understanding.


4 stars out of 5
2 Feb 2021

"“The Ratline” is a Nazi love story, but a fascinating and important one, told in vivid detail"

In the end, “The Ratline” is about the Nazis who didn’t escape and their descendants, like Horst. It’s a reminder that Europe to this day is populated by survivors and perpetrators of World War II — a place of tangled family histories and selective denial, but also intermittent lucidity. This important book makes clear that the more difficult work of history may not be in tracking down the ones who tried to escape, but in confronting the ones who didn’t.

4 stars out of 5
24 Jul 2020

"Sands presents a riveting Nazi love story in four parts "

Sands presents a riveting Nazi love story in four parts (“Love”, “Power”, “Flight” and “Death”), recounting how Otto and Charlotte first met, their courtship, his affairs, her frustrations, their common devotion to Hitler’s revolution and its antisemitic agenda, his escape, and their children’s struggles with this history. The son of a conservative Habsburg monarchist, Baron Otto von Wächter (1901–49) earned a doctorate in law at a young age and was an early supporter of the Nazi Party, joining the Storm Troopers in 1923 and the Party in 1930. One of Charlotte’s first gifts to Otto was a copy of Mein Kampf. She became a Party member in 1931 and they socialized (and plotted) with other Nazi elites at the Deutsche Klub in Vienna. Accepted into the SS in 1932, Wächter participated in an attempted coup in 1934 that resulted in the murder of the Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss. Otto fled to Germany and excelled as a ruthless administrator in the Berlin headquarters of the elite security service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). In 1938, Wächter, like his colleague Eichmann, became a key figure in the Anschluss. While the former focused on emigration and the expropriation of Jews’ property, Wächter purged Jews and other declared enemies from the civil service.

4 stars out of 5
David Herman
17 Jun 2020

"As Phillips Sands’ The Ratline explores, Nazis' complicity in genocide didn’t stop Americans trying to recruit them."

The book is full of fascinating characters and at times reads like Graham Greene’s The Third Man. There is Bishop Udal, a key figure in the Nazi ratline. Wächter, he wrote, “died in my arms” and “I protected him until the end”. There are numerous ex-Nazis, many recruited by the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, the CIC, to help in the new war against Soviet communism. The CIC was active in Rome after the war and Sands creates a world of murky dealings, missing files, double-agents and Catholics helping Nazis to escape from Europe, or recruiting them to serve in the Cold War.

5 stars out of 5
4 May 2020

" a compelling piece of forensic historical research"

Sands’s detective work throws up a range of possible reasons for Wächter’s early death at the age of 48. But finally the opinion of the scientists he consults is decisive. And it’s hopefully not giving away too much of the ending of The Ratline to say that Horst Wächter doesn’t accept the conclusion that Sands reaches.

In the end, the key to Horst’s infuriating attitude probably lies in his confession that “I love my mother [who died in 1985], I have to do this, because of her.” But, ultimately, as Sands demonstrates in this stunning work, it’s highly dangerous to approach history that way. For, while you can deny the past, you can’t escape it.

5 stars out of 5
Ashish Ghadiali
3 May 2020

"a taut and finely crafted factual thriller, reminiscent in density and pace of John le Carré "

Sands is unflinching, though, where Horst cannot be. He pursues the details and we are left with the unsettling, discordant portrait of a man who is conceivably a passionate husband and devoted father, but irrefutably a war criminal with blood, including that of Sands’s own family members, on his hands. It’s treacherous terrain, but in Sands we have an incomparable guide who finds a kind of redemption on every road of the human experience, though never at the expense of responsibility or truth. The outcome is a feat of exhilarating storytelling – gripping, gratifying and morally robust.

4 stars out of 5
25 Apr 2020

"A marathon more than a sprint, but the slog is well worth it."

Sands’s astute deductions, drawn from extensive documentary resources in state archives and private letters, tie together the multiple strands of this narrative with considerable aplomb. The Ratline is a very fine work of what could be termed investigative history. While the sheer deluge of detail and nuanced interconnections can at times be oversaturating, somewhat slowing the pace of the narrative, the investment of effort required of the reader is fully justified by the reward. Legal eagles, lovers of spy novels, sleuths of unsolved mysteries, and aficionados of Nazi lore will all draw much from this thoroughly immersive and edifying read.

4 stars out of 5
Ian Thomson
24 Apr 2020

"(a) grim page-turning life story of a Nazi"

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.

4 stars out of 5
18 Apr 2020

"the picture he evokes is unfailingly clear and lively"

There is, as readers will discover, no absolute or easy answer to the riddle of Wächter’s death — that of a healthy 39-year-old, fit and energetic, who had successfully evaded capture for four years and was determined to go on doing so. If occasionally Sands’s doggedness can seem a little repetitious, the picture he evokes is unfailingly clear and lively. The seething world of post-war Rome, with its senior fascists reprieved and returning to prominence, its war criminals lurking in hiding, its spies and secret services brokering deals and its adventurers and profiteers making fortunes, has seldom been more vividly described.

4 stars out of 5
Rebecca Abrams
17 Apr 2020

"Philippe Sands untangles a web of denial, cover-up and self-deception in the story of Otto Wächter"

What makes The Ratline both so riveting and unsettling, however, is not just what it reveals, but how. Sands proceeds from one person to the next, with a keen yet compassionate eye for the complex messiness of people’s lives and relationships. Not least of these is the bizarre collaboration between the author and Wächter’s youngest son, Horst Arthur Wächter, who enthusiastically supports and assists Sands with his quest. 

4 stars out of 5
Dominic Sandbrook
12 Apr 2020

"Sands’s untangling of the mysteries surrounding Otto von Wächter is masterfully done"

Where the book really shines, though, is in its portrait of Otto’s son, Horst. A polite, kindly man who gladly co-operates with Sands at every turn, he nevertheless steadfastly refuses to admit his father did anything wrong. Is Horst a fool, a liar, or simply a dutiful son? Should we condemn him for denying his father’s guilt, or admire him for his devotion to his parents? It is to Sands’s credit that he avoids glib judgments.