May 3, 2013 6:49 pm

My father, the good Nazi

Otto von Wächter was an indicted war criminal implicated in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews. So how can his son Horst refuse to condemn him?
Horst von Wachter sits in the vast dining room in Schloss Haggenburg. He can only afford to heat part of the house so most of the degraded, old, grand house is terribly cold hence the hat and coat©Jillian Edelstein

Horst von Wächter: ‘I must find the good in my father. My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse’

Haggenberg

Schloss Haggenberg is an imposing 17th-century baroque castle about an hour’s drive north of Vienna and a little short of Austria’s border with Slovakia. Built around an enclosed courtyard, it stands four storeys high, a foreboding stone structure that appears impenetrable aside from the large, double wooden doors at its front. It has seen better days.

For the last quarter century the schloss has been the home of Horst von Wächter and his wife Jacqueline, who live in a few of its many sparsely furnished rooms. Without central heating, the bitter cold is staved off by wood-burning fires and the odd electric heater, improbable under crumbling baroque cornice-work and the fading paint of its walls.

In one room, under the rafters that support a great roof, Horst has kept his father’s library. He has invited me to look around the collection. I extricate a book at random from a tightly stacked shelf. The first page contains a handwritten dedication in a neat German script. To SS-Gruppenführer Dr Otto Wächter “with my best wishes on your birthday”. The deep blue signature beneath, slightly smudged, is unforgiving. “H. Himmler, 8 July 1944”.

The signature’s power to shock is heightened by its context. The book is a family heirloom, not a museum artefact. It was offered to Horst’s father as a token of appreciation, for services rendered. It draws a direct line between Horst’s family and the Nazi leadership.

One floor down, in the main room used by Horst as his study, he has gathered some family photo albums. Horst is equally generous and open with these. They contain the stuff of normal family life: images of children and grandparents, skiing holidays, boating trips, birthday parties. Yet among these unsurprising images, other kinds of photographs are interspersed.

A single page offers the following: August 1931, an unknown man is chiselling around a swastika carved into a wall. Above this is an undated photograph of a man leaving a building under a line of arms raised in Nazi salute. The caption reads “Dr Goebbels” – Hitler’s propaganda minister. Another image records three men in conversation in a covered railway yard or perhaps a market. Under this undated photo are the initials “A.H.”. I look more closely. The man at the centre is Hitler, and next to him I recognise his photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, who introduced Hitler to Eva Braun. The third man I don’t know.

Photographs from the Wächter family albums. Middle row, from left: Adolf Hitler (centre), identified as “A.H.”; “Dr Goebbels” receiving a Nazi salute

Photographs from the Wächter family albums. Middle row, from left: Adolf Hitler (centre), identified as “A.H.”; “Dr Goebbels” receiving a Nazi salute

I turn to another page: Vienna, the autumn of 1938. Wächter is in uniform at his desk in the Hofburg Palace, pensive, examining papers. The date on the page is November 9 1938. The horrors of Kristallnacht would begin a few hours later.

Another page: Poland in late 1939, images of burnt-out buildings and refugees. At the centre of the page is a small photograph of a crowded street in Warsaw, with people dressed against the cold. My eye is drawn to a white armband that identifies its bearer, an old lady in a headscarf, as a Jew. A few feet behind her, at the very centre of the striking image, a serene young woman looks straight at the photographer, who may have been Wächter’s wife, Charlotte. She studied at architect Josef Hoffman’s Wiener Werkstätte and had a good eye for a line.

Warsaw ghetto. The woman in the foreground is wearing an armband that identifies her as Jewish

Photographs from the Wächter family albums. Warsaw ghetto. The woman in the foreground is wearing an armband that identifies her as Jewish

These pages hold more pictures of Nazi colleagues: the Wächters with Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer, hanged at Nuremberg for his crimes against Poles and Jews, including the murder of three million Jews, while he was governor general of Nazi-occupied Poland; Wächter with “my Galician SS Division”; Wächter with Himmler in Lemberg, the capital of Galicia (now the city of Lviv, in Ukraine) where he served as Nazi governor from 1942 and from where more than 150,000 Jews – the entire population – were “resettled” in less than two years.

These photographs place Otto von Wächter at the heart of Nazi operations. They are personal mementos of international crime committed on the greatest scale imaginable. They are in Horst’s family albums and their implications are terrible.

. . .

Father and son

I came to Schloss Haggenberg by accident. For several years I’ve been researching a book on the origins of international criminal law and its connection with Lemberg. My grandfather was born there in 1904, when it was on the eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the city was the home of two remarkable international lawyers who were deeply involved in the Nuremberg trials: Hersch Lauterpacht (who introduced the concept of “crimes against humanity” into the Nuremberg Charter) and Rafael Lemkin (who invented the term “genocide”). My research also focused on a third lawyer, Hans Frank, whom the Nuremberg judges found guilty of responsibility for the murder of virtually the entire Jewish population of Lemberg and the surrounding towns and villages.

I looked into Frank and came across an interesting book written by his son Niklas. Der Vater, published in 1987, was a bestseller in Germany and deeply controversial. It exposed a son’s horror at the crimes of his father and so broke a taboo: the first time a child of a high-ranking Nazi had made such an unequivocal condemnation. I interviewed Niklas last year at the Hay Literary Festival, where he told the audience that his father had been rightly hanged. He showed me the photograph he keeps in his wallet, of his father’s body immediately after the hanging.

Photographs of Otto von Wächter (centre) and Arthur Seyss-Inquart (right)

Photographs of Otto von Wächter (centre) and Arthur Seyss-Inquart (right)

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.”

A few weeks later, Niklas, Horst and I spent a day together at Schloss Haggenberg. I liked Horst from the outset, a generously proportioned man in a pink shirt and sandals, with a bespectacled face, grey hair and the same smile as his father. He was engaging and friendly and captivated by the schloss he had bought a quarter of a century earlier. He was proud that the actor Geoffrey Rush had recently filmed there, with director Giuseppe Tornatore, who made Cinema Paradiso (the film is The Best Offer, to be released later this year). I was impressed by Horst’s openness, his willingness to bare his struggle with his family history, and even to share documents and photographs. He opened the doors of his castle without any need to do so.

I was surprised, however, by his attitude to his father, an indicted Nazi leader. Unlike Niklas, who did not shirk from the horrors perpetrated by his father, Horst was struggling to come to terms with his father’s actions, in a way akin to Austria’s failure to fully recognise its role in that period.

“I must find the good in my father,” he told me. It was indeed a mission of rehabilitation, against all the odds. Our tentative exchanges began to grow more comfortable. “My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best,” he said. “Others would have been worse.”

He had sent me a biographical record of Otto von Wächter, which I needed to study. Let’s talk more, I said. “Of course,” Horst replied, “you will come back.”

. . .

Otto von Wächter

Horst sent me a detailed account of his father’s life, with a passport-style photo of a smiling, handsome blond face, in a Nazi jacket. Otto von Wächter was born in Vienna in July 1901, lived in various parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire and enrolled at the law faculty at the University of Vienna in October 1919 (ironically enough, at the same time as Lauterpacht). He joined the Nazi party in 1923, graduated a year later and started to practise law. By the time Hitler took office in Germany in January 1933, Wächter had married Charlotte Bleckmann, joined the SS and worked as a lawyer for the Austrian Nazis. In 1934 he played a role in the assassination of Austrian chancellor Dollfuss and was forced into exile in Germany. He returned to Vienna on March 13 1938, the day after the Anschluss, and soon got a job working with his friend, the leading Austrian Nazi, Arthur Seyss-Inquart. This was Horst’s godfather – his middle name is Arthur – who gave his infant godson a copy of Mein Kampf. He was later hanged at Nuremberg.

Wächter at his desk in the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, 1938, a few hours before Kristallnacht. Images taken by his wife Charlotte

Wächter at his desk in the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, 1938, a few hours before Kristallnacht. Images taken by his wife Charlotte

In 1939 Wächter became Nazi governor of Krakow, working with Frank and Seyss-Inquart. In January 1942, Hitler appointed him governor of the recently conquered Galicia, describing him as “the best man” for the job (the same month that, in Berlin, the Wannsee Conference endorsed the “final solution”, largely to be carried out on Hans Frank’s Polish territory). Wächter remained in Lemberg until July 1944, a few days after receiving Himmler’s birthday book, when he left the city. Identified as a war criminal since 1942, he evaded capture, went into hiding in Rome, protected by the Austrian bishop Alois Hudal, and died there of kidney disease in July 1949.

I was interested in Wächter’s activities in August 1942, when he was head of the civilian government in Lemberg. He would have worked closely with the SS, policing the Jewish ghetto created a few months earlier. Over a period of 18 months, Wächter’s administration supported the deportation and murder of just about every Jew in the city and surrounding areas.

Regular “Aktions” against the Jewish population took place during 1942, with the most notorious of the round-ups in August, shortly after Frank visited to mark the anniversary of the conquest of Galicia. Just three months later The New York Times listed Wächter among the “unholy ten”, indicted as a war criminal by the Polish government-in-exile. According to the NYT his speciality was “the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia”.

Among the victims of the August 1942 Aktion was Hersch Lauterpacht’s entire family, with the exception of his niece Inka, who was 12 when Wächter arrived in the city. She gave me a first-hand account of how Lauterpacht’s family was taken by the Germans, aided by Ukrainian auxiliaries. Simon Wiesenthal claimed that Wächter was “personally in charge” in August 1942 when his mother was taken and sent to her death, although this account is challenged.

Those events continue to have consequences. In March 2007, a US district judge stripped one of the Ukrainian auxiliaries involved in the August 1942 Aktion of his US citizenship, having found John Kalymon to be directly involved in killing Jews. The judge relied on an expert report prepared by a German academic, and his report included references to Wächter. From this report I was directed to three documents held by the US Department of Justice that directly implicated Wächter in the events in Lemberg in 1942.

. . .

The conversation

My second conversation with Horst took place last December, in an office in the schloss that doubled as a bedroom. It lasted seven hours. We broke only for lunch and a short walk in the courtyard (the image it recalled was of Rudolf Hess, in Spandau prison). Snow and an arctic chill had descended on Haggenberg and the room was barely warmed by a great wood-burning stove, its white tiles blackened by decades of use. Horst installed himself in a large armchair. I sat opposite in a smaller wooden chair. On the other side of the room, above the bed, hung a portrait of his grandfather, a distinguished Austrian military figure. We were surrounded by pictures and maps including a 17th-century map of Krakow that Horst said his mother might have stolen from Poland.

Horst von Wächter in his bedroom/library©Jillian Edelstein

Horst von Wächter: ‘I know that the whole system was criminal and that [my father] was part of it, but I don’t think he was a criminal. He didn’t act like a criminal’

Horst was born in April 1939, the second son and fourth of six children. He moved to Lemberg with his family in 1942, but has no recollection beyond memories jogged by photographs (and some home movies that seem to have been hidden or lost). During his childhood his father was mostly absent, and after the war, when Otto was in hiding, the family moved to Salzburg.

Horst’s mother Charlotte dominated the household. She wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps, so he enrolled at the law faculty in Vienna, but never graduated. He joined the army, resumed his studies, and moved between short-term jobs. Eventually he was introduced to the Austrian artist Hundertwasser, working as his secretary from 1965, and later sailing his boat to New Zealand. Horst drifted around, married and divorced Jacqueline, and following his mother’s death in 1985 bought Haggenberg with the inheritance. He got back together with Jacqueline, and dreams about restoring the schloss.

He had few actual memories of his father, and fellow family members did not wish to engage on the subject. His nephew Otto, also a lawyer, had counselled against our conversation. The family silence has entrapped Horst. “They don’t want to know anything, if I mention my father,” he said. There was a sense of shame. “For them”, he quickly added, “not me”. All four of his sisters left Austria and their dominating mother, who had revered Wächter until her death.

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.

Horst von Wächter walking in the courtyard of Schloss Haggenburg©Jillian Edelstein

Horst von Wächter in the internal courtyard at Schloss Haggenberg, Austria, which he bought with his family inheritance

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.”

A silence hung around the large, magnificent room. After a while it was punctured by Horst offering an exonerating thought: his father had simply been overwhelmed by the situation, by its inevitability and catastrophic proportion, by the orders and their immediacy.

Nothing was inevitable, I said. Not the signature, not the oversight. He could have left. There was another long silence, the sound of snow. Faced with such a document, could he still not condemn his father? Was it love, or something else?

“I cannot say I love my father,” Horst said. “I love my grandfather.” He looked towards the portrait of the old military man.

“I have a responsibility for my father in some way, to see what really happened, to tell the truth, and to do what I can do for him.”

He paused.

“I have to find some positive aspect.”

This family past had damaged him, he knew that, but it was his father’s “gift”. It had brought him to the schloss, he explained, which he hoped to restore. The gulf between that great project and the small, cold, uncomfortable space he occupied inside of himself seemed very great.

It was impossible to comprehend, yet I felt an unexpected sadness, not anger. By failing to condemn, was he not perpetuating the wrongs of the father?

“No,” he said bluntly. Yet friendly, warm, talkative Horst offered nothing more. He simply could not bring himself to condemn. It was the fault of Frank’s Government General, of the SS, of Himmler. But not of Otto von Wächter.

We had reached the end, and then he said:

“I agree with you that he was completely in the system.”

A crack.

“Indirectly he was responsible for everything that happened in Lemberg.”

Indirectly?

Horst was silent for the longest moment. I noticed his eyes were moist.

-------------------------------------------

Philippe Sands is a writer and barrister who teaches international law at University College London. This article is drawn from research for a book on the origins of international crime, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf

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