May 5, 2013


My father, the good Nazi (Philippe Sands, 5/03/13, Financial Times)

The father and son theme interested me. At the time I met Niklas I was writing a piece about Saif Gaddafi's relationship with his father, and about Saif's failure to break with him at a crucial moment in Libya's history, in February 2011. Niklas and I talked at length about patricide, literary and political.

Knowing of my interest in Lemberg, Niklas suggested I might want to meet Horst, the son of Lemberg's Nazi governor, Otto von Wächter, who worked closely with his father, Hans. He added a note of caution: "Horst takes a rather different attitude to mine." [...]

The last time Horst saw his father was in 1948, around Christmas. He remembered a man with a moustache who visited at night, but recalled no conversation, or any real connection. This made his desire to rehabilitate Otto even more incomprehensible.

"My whole life is dominated by him," Horst offered. After the war the family was ostracised even in Salzburg, and this caused a great feeling of insecurity and led to a recurring question: "Was my father really a criminal?" In the face of overwhelming evidence he was unable to confront the reality.

It was plain that Horst had developed various techniques to sanitise the facts. There was a distinction between Wächter and the system, between the individual and the group. "I know that the whole system was criminal," Horst says, "and that he was part of it, but I don't think he was a criminal. He didn't act like a criminal."

The answer was bemusing, but I understood the reluctance. He was not alone in Austria. (After my first visit to Horst, I had collected my 15-year-old daughter at the airport, and in response to my inquiry as to which museum she might want to visit, she suggested the Museum of the Anschluss. There is of course no such place, and we made do with a single room at the small, private Third Man Museum - named after the classic film - which rather impressively tries to make up for the state's unwillingness to confront its own past.)

The more I pushed, the more Horst insisted on varnished truth. Wächter was a father. He saved Jews. He had responsibilities to others. He followed orders and an oath (to Hitler). He had to provide for the family. He was an idealist. He was honourable. He believed the system could be improved. In a court these arguments would be hopeless. Yet Horst maintained that Wächter was "very much against the criminal system" even if hard put to offer any convincing examples.

Could his father have walked away from Lemberg and the murderous operations his administration oversaw?

"No, after 1934 he had no chance to leave it. He had an idealistic idea of a better system."

If there had been a chance to walk away in August 1942, before the "Great Aktion", would he have taken it?

"There was no chance to leave the system," Horst said quietly.

The US Justice Department documents said otherwise, and to these we turned. Horst had seen plenty of evidence tying his father to those times, but he had managed to find a way to rationalise the material, which was merely "unpleasant" or "tragic". Now I showed him new material. He took each document and read it carefully, head lowered, eyes intent.

The first document was a note of a meeting held in Lemberg on January 10 1942, shortly before Wächter arrived in the city. It was entitled "Deportation of Jews from Lemberg", ostensibly the removal of the economically unproductive to the countryside. The reality was a one-way trip to Belzec concentration camp and the gas chambers, in late March 1942. "If feasible, the term 'resettlement' is to be avoided," the note said.

The second document was an order of March 13 1942, actually signed by Wächter. Intended to restrict the employment of Jews throughout Galicia, it was issued two days before the first ghetto operation (March 15), and took effect the day after the transfers to Belzec (April 1). It cut off access to the gentile world for working Jews, making them more vulnerable to later Aktions. Horst's improbable reaction? His father acted against the order, he employed Jews in his own household.

How did he feel reading his father's signature on such a document, in black and white?

He paused, then suggested that Wächter must have known what this would mean. "He was helplessly involved."

Helplessly? He could have left, I said. Horst's answer floored me.

"He knew that if he left Lemberg, they would put some brutalists there, instead of him."

More brutal than killing every Jew?

Horst is unable to offer an answer.

We proceeded to the third, devastating document. It was a short memorandum from Heinrich Himmler to Dr Stuckart, the Reich minister of the interior in Berlin, on Wächter's future. It was dated August 25 1942, the last day of the Great Aktion that had begun on the 10th.

"I recently was in Lemberg and had a very plain talk with the governor, SS-Brigadeführer Dr. Wächter. I openly asked him whether he wants to go to Vienna, because I would have considered it a mistake, while there, not to have asked this question that I am well aware of. Wächter does not want to go to Vienna."

Himmler had spoken with Wächter about his future career. What transpired was unclear, but Himmler offered him a chance to return to Vienna. This was declined, no doubt, as a career-killing move. Himmler ended with an additional thought:

"It now remains to be seen how Wächter will conduct himself in the General government as Governor of Galicia, following our talk."

Wächter must have conducted himself well, as he finished the job and stayed on in Lemberg for two more years.

The context was important. Himmler met Wächter in Lemberg on August 17, and by the time he wrote to Stuckart the operation to remove 40,000 Jews to Belzec was under way. Among them were the parents and siblings of Hersch Lauterpacht and, apparently, Simon Wiesenthal's mother. As civilian leader, Wächter supported the operation.

The document offered no ambiguity, or escape.

Horst stared at it, without expression. If his father stood before him, what would he say?

"I don't really know," Horst said. "It's very difficult ... Maybe I wouldn't ask him anything at all."

Posted by at May 5, 2013 12:37 PM

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