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‘The Ratline’ by Philippe Sands

In The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, barrister Philippe Sands tells the story of Nazi war criminal Otto von Wachter.

As Governor of Galicia, von Wachter presided over an authority on whose territory hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles were killed. By the time the war ended in May 1945, he was indicted for mass murder. Wachter went on the run. He spent three years hiding in the Austrian Alps before making his way to Rome. He remained there for three months. While preparing to travel to Argentina via the so-called ‘ratline’, he died unexpectedly.

“There is a lot of literature that tells the story of the war from the viewpoint of the persecuted. It feels transgressive to read the story from the other side.”

The Ratline offers a chilling insider view of Nazi bureaucracy and the practical application of Hitler’s policies, followed by a detailed investigation into the network of Nazi sympathisers who enabled many war criminals to escape in the post-war years. 

As with his first book, East West Street, Sands is forensic on the details, but stitches together his research so vividly it makes for a surprising page-turner. The main hook is the mystery of what Wachter eventually died from, and whether his son, Horst, will come to acknowledge his father’s culpability in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Equally fascinating is the relationship between Wachter and his wife, Charlotte. Moments of sweetness and tenderness are chillingly offset by knowledge of the terrible consequences of Nazi policies – policies that Charlotte at best turned a blind eye to, and at worst actively supported. Sands consistently offers a balanced view, withholding judgement, and so the reader remains in a curious state of suspension, weighing up the evidence. It makes for a fascinating read.

East West Street had a grand finale: the Nuremburg trials and a satisfying sense of justice being served. The Ratline’s conclusion is quieter, with less resolution for the reader, but there’s still a sense of long-buried mysteries being brought into the light and explained. If you’re looking for a cheerful bit of escapism this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you want a book that will draw you in, challenge and absorb you, I highly recommend The Ratline.


Don’t Miss…

podcast icon

For the full book club discussion of East West Street by Philippe Sands listen to episode 18.

East West Street featured as one of our Top 10 Book Club Books in episode 60.

East West Street also cropped up in our 2018 bookshelf roundup, episode 29.

Book recommendations

If you like the sound of The Ratline, here are two more book suggestions you might like to try.

East West Street book cover

East West Street by Philippe Sands

It’s no secret to regular pod listeners that Laura and I feel about Philippe Sands the way that Bridget Jones feels about top human-rights lawyer Mark Darcy (and for more on that theme check out the episode linked above). His first book, East West Street won one of our favourite prizes, the Baillie Gifford, in 2016 and was a surprise bestseller, given that people probably weren’t expecting a somewhat dry sounding history of legal terminology and Nazi war trials to be quite so riveting. In it, Sands tells the story of two lawyers, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, who were instrumental in introducing the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ into the Nuremburg Trials. Interwoven is Sands’ own personal history as he traces the events surrounding his grandfather’s flight from the Polish city of Lviv. The book culminates with the trial of Hans Frank, the Governor of the region ultimately responsible for thousands of deaths.

It’s an incredibly absorbing read that will leave you with a new understanding of how a legal framework for prosecuting those who commit crimes against humanity came to be, and why we shouldn’t take it for granted. It made for a fantastic book club read and discussion, we can’t recommend it highly enough.

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

We discovered Erik Larson when we read The Devil in the White City for book club, and some of us became lifelong fans. Larson is a superb storyteller who can make history read like a thriller, with characters that leap off the page and plot hooks that keep the pages flying by. In The Garden of Beasts tells the story of William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered academic who was appointed US ambassador to Germany in 1933, a year that proved to be a turning point in history. As in The Ratline, we learn the story of the events in Berlin from the point of view of Nazi insiders, as Dodd through necessity dealt with senior figures in the regime. His increasingly concerned messages to his own government were ignored while his daughter Martha began to be drawn into the world of the ‘new Nazis’ and their vision for the future. As with The Ratline, this is an incredibly interesting read for anyone curious to better understand the Nazi hierarchy from the inside, how Hitler was able to attain so much power so quickly, and why America didn’t act against him sooner. A great read, and lots of threads for really good discussion if you’re considering it for book club

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