Does Collective Violence Demand Collective Punishment?

February 2, 2021   •   By Mark Ellis

The Ratline

Philippe Sands

LAST YEAR WE CELEBRATED the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe (VE Day). Unsurprisingly, a plethora of books on the War has hit the market. One of them is Philippe Sands’s new book, The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive, a follow-up to his critically acclaimed East West Street.

The Ratline is a difficult piece of history that is also part detective story and part love story. With the skills of a gifted historian and a highly regarded international criminal lawyer, Sands tells the story of Horst Wächter struggling to come to terms with his father’s past as a Nazi war criminal. We discover Otto Wächter, the father, rising through the Nazi Party and the notorious SS (Schutzstaffel), and learn of his zealous participation in the extermination of Jews. Through Horst’s eyes, the reader gains insight into the Nazi machine and ways that it empowered relatively low-ranking SS-men to carry forward a campaign of death through the governance of entire countries.

Otto was an Austrian nationalist and hardened antisemite who joined in the drive to strip Jews of their citizenship and property. He confessed his support for Adolf Hitler at the tender age of 22.

By the time he was 36, Otto had committed himself unconditionally in service to the Führer. When Otto was promoted to a position in the intelligence services of the SS, the die was cast. From that moment, he became a willing executioner within the Nazi’s grand plan to eradicate Jewish life in Europe and to strive for a Greater Germany. Otto’s actions were calculating and vicious. For me, he was pathologically incapable of empathy. Charismatic and overflowing with ambition, Otto rose up the chain of command. There was no titanic ideological struggle or doubt in his mind. A mixture of venomous intolerance, a sense of duty to the nation and Hitler, and a weaponized hatred against Jews made his job uncomplicated.

As governor of Krakow, Otto efficiently rid the administration of Jewish civil servants and ordered Jews over the age of 12 to wear armbands with a Star of David. On March 3, 1941, he signed the notorious decree that created the Krakow Ghetto. He expelled tens of thousands of the city’s Jewish population, and oversaw the entire operation. In 1942, when he assumed the post of governor of Galicia, he oversaw the liquidation of Lemberg’s destitute Jewish population.

Later, during the Nuremberg trials, the court would hear vivid accounts of Otto’s barbarism, including the killing of over 8,000 children in Lemberg. Between 1942 and 1944, more than 525,000 of Galicia’s citizens were murdered; less than three percent of its Jewish population survived.

Otto was not one to reassess or lament his actions. He was unrepentant, even as the Allied victory loomed, declaring that “we can march into the future with our consciences clear and our heads held high, staying true to our conception of this world and this life.”

Still, and despite overwhelming historical evidence, Horst has never been able to accept his father as a criminal. He describes his father as a “decent man” who tried to do good. He contends that his father was “a mere cog” in a powerful system, caught up in the “horrors occasioned by others.” He was trying “to do something good, to get things moving, to find a solution” to problems. Notwithstanding the fact that the “solution” was the Final Solution to the “Jewish problem,” nothing has disabused Horst of this view.

Horst does not deny the Holocaust, nor the millions of victims who perished. He claims that his father followed orders but was an “honourable man who believed the system could be improved.” In Horst’s eyes, his father bore no criminal guilt for the atrocities that occurred and could not be responsible given his “decent character.”

Sands’s ability to tease out Horst’s emotional, and often contradictory, views of his father as an indicted war criminal is fascinating. It’s abundantly clear that Sands and Horst created a bond of trust over their years of friendship. No doubt this relationship was a catalyzing factor in Sands’s desire to explore deeper the entangled pathways of the Wächter family.

But the story line of a son trying to reconcile love for his father with the difficult facts of history is not sufficiently compelling to sustain the entire book. Neither is it new nor surprising. In fact, in another recently published book — I Met Hitler by Karl Höffkes (2020) — people who met or worked with Hitler, including generals, servants, and his own godson, depict Hitler as kind, friendly, and well intentioned. Relatives of Im Chaem, the mass murderer accused of crimes of humanity during the Khmer Rouge regime, still see her as innocent and simply not capable of committing the crimes. [1]

This may be why Sands includes other story lines in his book. However, they read as divergent threads that do not always work. For example, Sands spends considerable time pursuing a theory, advanced by Horst, that Otto did not succumb to a severe illness but was assassinated. Sands’s detective work on this point, which includes extensive interviews, travel, and research, is impressive but ultimately unsatisfactory. Early on, it’s apparent that the assassination theory has little merit. More importantly, I was never convinced that it was a central theme of the story.

The author also touches on the reference in the book’s title — The Ratline — but here too, the tangent is superficial. Before the Americans coined the term ratline, escape routes called the Klosterlinie were used frequently by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. In the postwar period, thousands of Nazis made it either through Italy or through Franco’s Spain to find refuge in Argentina or the Middle East. Sands includes very little history on this important topic, and the reader is left wanting much more.

Sands does touch on the role of the Catholic Church in supporting the ratline — a church more concerned with the rise of communism in Italy than embracing any moral indignation against Nazi criminals. But the reader expects more. What about the role of the Church hierarchy in organizing the routes? What about the involvement of the Italian Red Cross, and the papacy itself, in facilitating this flight from justice? Why did the Americans not only tolerate the flight paths, but use them to transfer their own spies and also high-ranking Nazi officials out of zones occupied by the Soviets? Perhaps these topics are best left for another book, but considering the title of this book, the reader rightfully expects greater insight.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the book came when Sands turned his attention to Otto’s wife, Charlotte Wächter. Whether intentional or not, he unlocks here a series of provocative questions about culpability, collective guilt, and the advancement of international law.

Sands had access to a vast archive of letters, memorabilia, and, most important, Charlotte’s personal diaries. The latter reveal intimate details about her husband’s life as a Nazi, and Charlotte’s own knowledge of and complicity in his crimes. Among other things, she was actively involved in Otto’s flight from justice after the war and his abscondment to Italy.

In 17 years of marriage, at least until 1945, Charlotte lived a charmed life. She was a materialistic woman, surrounded by gardeners, chauffeurs, bodyguards, housekeepers, and cooks. In occupied Krakow, when it was governed by her husband, Charlotte and her children (including a young Horst) lived in grand residences vacated by Jewish owners and decorated with items that she personally confiscated from the Krakow museums. Charlotte was, in her own words, “a happy Nazi.” Like her husband, she was a nationalist, spoke often of “Jewish plots,” and saw Hitler as a savior. Her view of her husband’s wartime atrocities mirrored her son’s. Even knowing about Otto’s role in executing the Nazis’ genocidal scheme, she saw Otto as acting with “humanity.”

As I read this section of the book, I felt contempt for Charlotte and rage that she lived and acted with impunity. I wanted her to be held accountable for her complicity.

International criminal law is fundamentally based on the concept of individual responsibility. Otto’s actions unequivocally met this standard. But the more interesting question is whether culpability should be attached to those who knew of and supported Otto’s actions, even if they did not directly participate in the crimes. Charlotte was clearly a collaborator who aided and abetted her husband’s crimes. Should Charlotte be held responsible for the actions of her husband? Should the hundreds of thousands of local Nazi leaders and lesser members of the Nazi Party Leadership be seen as collectively responsible for the crimes committed by Otto and his cohorts? [2] Should we exclude a moral or collective guilt by those countries that feigned neutrality (e.g., Switzerland, Portugal) but eagerly accepted Nazi loot owned by Holocaust victims? Doesn’t collective violence demand collective punishment?

Sands is reticent about this paradigm. I reached out to him before embarking on this review and asked him about “the complicit role of citizens in the perpetration of evil.” He answered that he was “not attracted to the idea of collective responsibility, of an entire community or country.”

Yet, the concept of collective guilt has important moral and legal significance. International crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity are by their very definitions perpetrated systematically and on a mass scale. This necessitates the involvement of vast numbers of people who voluntarily support those carrying out the crimes. Collectively, they too hold responsibility.

I remember living in former Eastern Europe during the mid-1980s. The authoritarian governments of the era could not have survived without average citizens playing a complicit role in maintaining the structure of oppression. It is estimated that by 1989, East Germany’s state security service had nearly 100,000 employees and likely up to two million informants whose job was to keep track of virtually “every aspect of the lives of East German citizens.” [3]

Judges at the Nuremberg trials grappled with the concept of collective guilt. The debate continues today. In Germany, the nationalist AFD party’s ultra-right wing “Der Flügel” continues to aggressively oppose any notion of collective responsibility for the crimes committed by the German Reich.

From a legal perspective, the concept of collective responsibility remains contentious, but it has evolved in significant ways. The concept of Joint Criminal Enterprise, while based on individual responsibility, now contains a degree of collective responsibility embodied within. Customary international law permits criminal responsibility to attach to those who support the criminal activity without physically carrying out any of criminal acts.

I saw this principle play out when I was involved with the Tadić case before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Duško Tadić worked as a guard at the Omarska Concentration Camp. His involvement might have been seen as de minimis. However, the Court held that his behavior was not innocuous, but amounted to crimes against humanity. Tadić acted on behalf of a common purpose and, thus, he also bore responsibility for the killings at the camp.

This past year, a court in Hamburg, Germany, found a 93-year-old former guard of the Stutthof concentration camp, Bruno Dey, guilty of complicity to murder. At 17 years old, Dey was a guard on one of the surrounding watch towers. Although he had no direct participation in the crimes, Dey was sentenced as an accessory to murder in 5,230 cases. The court ruled that a person who serves a place designed for the industrial annihilation of human beings, is equally guilty, even without directly participating in the torture and killings. As articulated by the prosecutor,“When you are a part of mass-murder machinery, it is not enough to look away.” The ruling is part of a trend reversing a long-standing position held by German courts that concentration camp guards were not convicted without proof of direct participation in the crimes.

Evil in the form of genocide and crimes against humanity does not occur through the actions of a few. Crimes proliferate through the participation of many. The 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers who were murdered in the Rwanda genocide were not the victims of just a few perpetrators.

In Nazi Germany, the fact that individuals were held responsible for atrocities should not canvas over the truth that a large majority of Germans (and others for that matter) bear guilt by participation, by exploitation, and by merely looking the other way. In 1945, the Frankfurter Rabbi Leopold Neuhaus wrote about the Kristallnacht (night of broken glass), saying that those who stood by and watched, letting the destruction take its course, were complicit and equally guilty.

It’s important to remember that only a small minority of Germans followed their conscience. They resisted. They hid Jews. They sacrificed their own lives. They did not accept that crimes could be committed in their name, and had the moral courage, resilience, and decency to do what was right.

While history is clear about the crimes committed by Otto Wächter, the story of his family exposes a more difficult level of culpability. What does it mean to have supported or defended the Nazi enterprise, remained silent or simply carried on the status quo? The Ratline opens a window into the complex narrative of collective responsibility, including how to come to terms with those who move in the protracted shadow of evil. In today’s toxic political environment, it is a concept worth reexamining.

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Dr. Mark Ellis is executive director of the International Bar Association, London, England.

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[1] “The Bucolic life of a Cambodian Grandmother Accused of Mass Killings” by Julia Wallace, The New York Times, (February 24, 2017)

[2] See the excellent book by Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler’s First Victims: And One Man’s Race for Justice. The Bodley Head (2015).

[3] Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, Joseph Wright, “The Digital Dictators – How Technology Strengthens Autocracy,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020)