Horst von Wächter, Philippe Sands (facing away) and Niklas Frank on the edge of a mass grave site near Zolkiew, western Ukraine, in a scene from Sands’ film 'My Nazi Legacy'
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On the surface there was nothing remarkable about the place. Bright white crosses in neat rows marked the graves of the fallen, set in bright green grass with a backdrop of impenetrable, gloomy woods. Yet in one corner of the military cemetery we noticed fresh graves were being dug. “To hold the mortal remains of Germans and Ukrainians who died fighting the Soviet Red Army in the summer of 1944,” someone said to us. The soldiers’ bodies had been discovered only recently by farmers as they ploughed. The sound of metal on earth was accompanied by the unexpected and beautiful lament of a small choir and orchestra, with a prominent double bass.

Several hundred people were gathered on this warm July day on the side of a gentle hill between Lviv and Brody in western Ukraine. They included a smattering of elderly second world war veterans, replete with walking sticks, medals and ribbons. There were locals — families with children — and some sympathisers associated with the extreme Ukraine nationalist party, Svoboda (Freedom). We were treated with polite curiosity. No one objected to our presence, or the camera crew.

It was 2014 and we were in Ukraine to make a film. A year earlier, while working on a new book on the origins of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”, I had written a piece for FT Weekend Magazine about two men, both of whom I had met in the course of my research. One, Niklas Frank, was the son of Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and, from October 1939, governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, which came to include Galicia, the district around the city of Lviv (Lemberg in German) where we now stood. The other man was Horst von Wächter, also the son of a high-ranking Nazi, Otto von Wächter, one of Hans Frank’s deputies, governor of Krakow and then Galicia. Between 1939 and 1945 the two men were responsible for actions that led to the deaths of millions of Jews and Poles. And in 1943 Otto von Wächter had created the first Waffen SS division to include Ukrainians — nationalists who volunteered in large numbers to fight the hated Red Army on the approaching eastern front. In July 1944 they had suffered a major defeat near Brody and this military cemetery was where some of the dead were buried.

In the year since the article had come out, I had become involved in making a documentary film about the two men, whose families had spent time together when they were children. Decades later the two had reconnected, but there the similarities stopped. The tension at the heart of the original piece had been the conflict between the men, now in their seventies, and what they felt about their respective father’s actions and responsibilities. Niklas believes that his father was a criminal. (“I am against the death penalty,” he once told me, “but not in the case of my father.”)

Knowing of my interest in Lemberg, he had introduced me to Horst. He has a “different approach”, Niklas explained: a son who wanted to love his father, believing him to be an essentially decent man. And indeed, Horst did not disappoint. “My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best,” he would tell me. Now, here we were, together in Galicia, where the SS Galizien Division had been founded 71 years earlier.

Father figures: Hans Frank, front, and Otto von Wächter, fourth from left, Wawel Castle, Krakow, August 16 1942

At a certain point during the afternoon the camera fixed on Horst in conversation with a man who called himself Wolf Sturm. It wasn’t the oversized leather boots or the dark glasses, or even the machine gun slung over his shoulder, that was so shocking. It was the uniform, worn with obvious pride: the well-pressed and familiar (from second world war movies) grey uniform of the Waffen SS, complete with Death’s Heads, swastikas and a Ukrainian lion. And Wolf was not alone: several other men formed a little group of smiling, comfortable, modern Nazis. Horst gave the impression of enjoying himself; Niklas was horrified.

The road that led to Herr Sturm was unexpected. My research had taken me to Lemberg, where my grandfather was born in 1904. It also happened to be the city that had produced two celebrated figures in international criminal law, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. Both studied law at the university there, and from their ideas emerged the concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”, which had been introduced into the proceedings of the Nuremberg trials (the 70th anniversary of their opening will be marked this November). My research led me first to Niklas, whose father was defendant number seven at the first Nuremberg trial, and he in turn introduced me to Horst. My portrait of Horst in the FT generated some attention, dividing views. Emil Brix, then Austrian ambassador to London, objected to Horst’s failure to condemn his father, something he believed to be unacceptable in modern Austria, while others saluted Horst’s attempt to find the good in his parent. A “slightly noble” act, as one described it, referring to the son’s love of the father, all the more so compared with the attitude of Niklas, who kept a photograph of the hanged body of his father in a jacket pocket.

Several months after the article was published, the director David Evans suggested the piece might make an interesting documentary, and we began to explore, using the events of that time, the more universal theme of how a son deals with a father who has been engaged in activities universally condemned as criminal in the highest degree.

We knew it would need something more than a rehash of the article, but what exactly? Two elderly men explaining their feelings about their fathers would hardly be riveting, even if necessary by way of introduction. A greater tension was needed, and this challenge occupied us as we travelled across Europe, setting the scene. In Bavaria we visited the Schoberhof, Niklas’s childhood summer home, now a ruin. North of Vienna we froze in Horst’s dilapidated castle, Schloss Haggenberg, where our host reacted with happy surprise to my discovery of a copy of Mein Kampf lurking on a bookshelf, inscribed by his mother to Otto (“for our struggle”). In Krakow’s Wawel castle, Niklas stood silently before Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, the portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, which had been seized by the Nazis in 1939, and which Niklas had last seen at the age of five, in the summer of 1944, when it hung in his father’s quarters in the castle.

Both Horst and Niklas were open and generous, sharing memories and family photographs, and giving us access to some extraordinary home movies. To this day, I am touched deeply by a piece of rare colour footage that shows the smiling face of a young girl in a red dress, filmed for Hans Frank in the Krakow ghetto circa 1940. Who was she? It evoked the memory of a scene in Schindler’s List, in which a small girl in a red dress — one of the very few moments of colour in the three-hour black-and-white film — is picked out during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. (The coincidence is remarkable but Steven Spielberg couldn’t have seen it as it only surfaced after his film came out.) Later we would go to Nuremberg and the courtroom where Niklas’s father was tried, and sit in a prison cell where Niklas mused about his father’s last night on earth. These were very personal scenes but we needed something more.

The SS Galizien reunion near Brody, western Ukraine, in July last year; Horst von Wächter (left) and, in Waffen SS uniform, Wolf Sturm

Would Niklas and Horst be willing to talk publicly about their differences? Would they agree to an encounter that would crystallise their conflicting approaches? After a few false starts, they accepted. On a cold February evening in 2014 we three sat on the stage of an intimate, packed, expectant Purcell Room at London’s Southbank Centre. The event ran for an hour beyond the scheduled 90 minutes, with no break. The audience listened in total silence as claim and counterclaim were put with passion and occasional humour. (“Do you regret that we are sitting here in front of an audience today?” I asked Horst. “Yes, of course,” he replied, producing a rare moment of laughter, a momentary release of tension.)

Reactions to what was said that evening varied but one strong theme did emerge. Widespread sympathy for Niklas’s attacks on his father was tempered by discomfort at the sheer level of vitriol and apparent absence of filial warmth. His father was a “big coward”, Niklas said, a man who “knew everything about the Holocaust” yet “went on and on and on”; a man who refused to take responsibility for the crimes he had committed. As for Horst, his resolute unwillingness to condemn at all made many uncomfortable, yet there was also a recognition of his desire to find some good in his father, to cling on to the possibility of a paternal embrace. “I never would accept the [Nazi] system,” he said in response to a question from the audience, “but I am accepting this father as my father.” And there was respect that he had turned up at all.

I found myself torn during the evening. I had come to feel affection and understanding for both men and wanted to maintain a balance in my approach, to keep a somewhat neutral role. Yet this desire for equilibrium faced challenges. As both men knew, I have a personal interest in what their fathers did: the large Jewish family into which my grandfather was born in Lemberg was entirely destroyed by the acts they oversaw. Niklas was acutely aware of this fact, and frequently evoked it in conversation. Horst also knew of it but had never once asked me anything about the details. That grated.

The other challenge, in which I failed, was to create a moment of catharsis, one that might have been occasioned by a collapse in one of the men’s emotional fortifications. That didn’t happen: over the course of an evening neither man budged an inch. “You told me once I should make peace with my father,” Niklas said sharply to Horst. “I have peace with my father because I acknowledged his crimes, and so I could lead a really good life, and also a happy one.” “Well, I see it different,” Horst retorted. “I see the structure of the whole annihilation of the Jews quite different, and I see who was really responsible and who really did it.” His father was not responsible. He went to Lemberg and “from the first moment . . . he actually tried to do something positive”.

In the days that followed, Horst wrote to me describing the visit to London as a “pure delight”, although he regretted he hadn’t said more to “stress the responsibility of my father as part of the system” (a responsibility, he assured me, that did not admit any criminal responsibility). He continued his struggle, writing to Niklas with new material that he believed would exonerate his father. “What is he doing now, our beloved Horst?” Niklas asked in an email, enclosing their correspondence. “Your father was an accessory to crime,” Niklas replied to Horst, not mincing words.

A scene from a private home movie filmed for Hans Frank in the Krakow ghetto c1940

The three-way communications triggered a new possibility. Later on at the Southbank, almost as an afterthought, Horst had let out that his father was venerated in Ukraine today, as a man who helped to forge a sense of national consciousness and identity in the struggle against the Soviets. Perhaps we should travel to Lviv to witness for ourselves the level of esteem for Otto von Wächter, and also to visit the places where their fathers had worked. Horst was enthusiastic, Niklas less so. Horst told us about the “annual Galician Division day”, held every year in July to celebrate his father’s Waffen SS Division. “Anti-semitic or anti-Russian statements are to be categorically excluded,” he warned, adding, “only anti-Soviet references [would] be allowed”. And so, unexpectedly, our film took a new turn.

Our evolving triangular relationship coincided with international developments in Ukraine of historic and current political significance. Russia has a long history of incursion into the land of Galicia, today’s western Ukraine: the Russian army briefly occupied Lemberg (or Lwow) from September 1914, returned as the Red Army in September 1939, and came back again in July 1944, evicting the Nazis and Otto von Wächter. Stalin persuaded Roosevelt and Churchill to place the city to the east of what became the Iron Curtain, and to detach it from Poland. The Red Army remained in the city until July 1991, when Ukraine achieved independence.

The Schoberhof, Bavaria, c1942. Niklas is in front of father Hans Frank, next to his wife Brigitte, who is next to Otto von Wächter

A quarter of a century later, Ukraine was once again engaged in a struggle with Russia, torn between east and west. In February 2014, as we met in the Purcell Room, a wave of protests was erupting against efforts by Russia to prevent Ukraine from associating with the EU, leading to the famous events in Kiev’s Maidan Square (“Everyone to Kiev! Let’s support the Maidan”, Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov noted in his diary on the day we three gathered at the Southbank). A week later, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich was removed from office and replaced by a new government that promptly signed the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement and infuriated Vladimir Putin. By the time we arrived in July 2014, Russia had seized control of the Crimea — an act widely recognised to be illegal. War was once again on the agenda in Ukraine’s eastern territory. It was as though history had come full circle since the Russian invasion exactly a century earlier in the summer of 1914, a turn of events I had not foreseen when I first met Niklas and Horst.

Niklas Frank gazes at Leonardo da Vinci’s 'Lady with an Ermine' in Krakow’s Wawel castle. He had last seen it aged five in his father’s quarters

A hundred years later, we stood on Lviv’s Castle Hill to admire the vista of a city that changed hands eight times in the years between 1914 and 1945. We visited the house at 133 Ivana Franka Street where Horst lived as a child, now a children’s centre with a small zoo. We admired the splendid debating chamber of the former Galician parliament of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the room where on August 1 1942 Hans Frank announced the extermination of all the city’s Jews, an announcement applauded — according to the minutes of the meeting — by Otto von Wächter, governor of Galizie.

We searched for documents in the city archives, a former monastery. When Horst signed the visitors’ book, he added the words “Son of the Governor” after his name. In nearby Zolkiew, we stood in the 17th-century synagogue where my grandfather’s family worshipped, a building that has stood empty and bereft in the town centre since being torched by the Nazis in the summer of 1941. We walked through a birch wood, along a sandy path that led to the site of a mass grave, sandpits today filled with water and reeds, in which 3,500 bodies still lie, forgotten and untouched by any ceremony of remembrance. The stifling heat of that day, with the flies and mosquitoes, did not soften the experience. “This our fathers did,” Niklas said imploringly to Horst, who plucked the petals off a small white flower and spoke of his grandfather’s war on this land a century earlier.

'This our fathers did': cameraman Sam Hardy filming at the mass grave site near Zolkiew

There is an intensity to such moments that cannot easily be reduced into words. The three of us carried our own personal histories, the baggage of our families. Yet there was also a collective connection, something shared, as we explored the events of seven decades earlier. It was impossible for me to maintain the calm of distance, the stance of objective interlocutor. I felt myself pulled in different directions, as Horst’s obvious psychological frailty triggered a protective instinct towards him on my part, even as he clung to the possibility of defending his father’s “decent character” in the face of terrible, incontrovertible, enraging facts. In such places it was difficult to rein in the imagination and not to feel a bond with those who came before. I understood, too, Niklas’s anger and grief, and the unvarnished, absolute, ceaselessly bitter condemnation of his father that so offended his “dear friend” Horst.

By the time we reached the field near Brody and the festivities to honour Wächter’s SS Galizien Division, we had the material to make a film, one constructed around disparate tensions driven by a swathe of different emotions, sincerely held. Horst felt uninhibited enough to allow us to see for ourselves how comfortable he was in surroundings that recalled — and celebrated — another age. His actions offered an insight into the nature of complicity, one that flows through the channels of filial affect and family history. For him, blood will always be thicker than water. But not for Niklas.

As for me, I found myself caught between pillars of love and hate, walking a tightrope that connected extreme and apparently unshakeable sentiments. I could understand the human instincts that drove each son in his own direction, the love of the father, the cruelty of the facts. Yet it was inevitable that the journey would alter the shape of our triangle, each shift recorded by the camera. The deeper we went, the more difficult it was to play the role of moderator. In these bloody places, submerged into the experiences of those whose lives had been destroyed by the actions of Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter, I was no longer able to resist the pull of becoming their representative.

Philippe Sands is a professor of law at University College London. His book ‘East West Street: On the Origins of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide’ will be published in June 2016 by Alfred Knopf (US) and Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK). ‘My Nazi Legacy’ screens at the BFI London Film Festival on October 11 and 18 and is released in cinemas on November 6 (US) and November 20 (UK).

Photographs: Sam Hardy; Polish National Digital Archives; Niklas Frank; Horst Von Wachter; ‘Lady with an Ermine’ by Leonardo da Vinci reproduced by kind permission of the Fundacja XX, Czartoryskich, Krakow, Poland, © Philippe Sands

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