Philippe Sands’ The Ratline (2020)

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time–it’s well-written, insightful, thought-provoking, moving, and disturbing all at once–and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since reading it.

Sands is an attorney who specializes in international human rights law. He readily acknowledges that his own family history no doubt played a part in developing his interest–his mother’s parents were Polish and Austrian Jews who barely escaped Vienna with their lives and spent the war in further danger in Paris. In the course of writing another book, he came into contact with Horst Wächter, the son of the Nazi official who was responsible for the murder of many of Sands’ more distant relatives in what is now Ukraine during the war.

Sands and Wächter develop an incredibly odd sort-of friendship. The older man is very open with sharing his family’s archives, which significantly aids Sands’ research. Sands spends a lot of time as a welcome guest in Wächter’s home, interviewing him and poring through old documents and tapes–he readily admits that he likes Horst as a person–yet for all of Wächter’s willingness to do these things and to condemn the actions of Nazi Germany, he is absolutely adamant that his father is not a war criminal and hopes that Sands will find some material to acquit his father’s memory.

He and Sands, essentially, have to agree to disagree on his dad. The Ratline is at once a biography of Horst Wächter’s father Otto and a chronicle of the at times uneasy relationship that Sands forms with the son.

I usually am not a fan of books that try to shoehorn the author’s story of how the book came about into the main narrative. Often, it’s just not very interesting, and I feel like authors are often trying to draw attention to themselves in a way that can come across as whiny or self-aggrandizing, but that is not so in this one. Sands’ work on the book is integral to the story itself, and I think The Ratline would be poorer for not having it included.

What unfolds is at once a biography, a memoir, a reflection on history and memory, a thriller, and even a murder mystery (there are rumors Otto Wächter was murdered after the war) as Sands pores through old archives beyond what Horst shares with him, tenaciously and patiently fact-checking and delving deeper into the historical events in question. I’d initially wondered when I started reading it if the book would seem all over the place because it was talking about so many disparate threads, but Sands weaves everything together seamlessly.

Though she’s not the ostensible focus of the book, I found Otto’s wife and Horst’s mother Charlotte one of the more interesting and terrifying figures in the book. Charlotte and Otto both came from sophisticated, cultured Austrian families, and they were both dedicated Nazis long before Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Much of the archival material Horst shares with Sands is written by Charlotte, especially her letters and diaries from before and during the war. They’re a disturbing in-real-time chronicle of the Nazis’ rise to power and reign of terror, written from the perspective of a true believer who is immensely proud of her husband. It’s an angle I’ve not really seen before in another book like this.

I’ve been an avid WWII buff for about 20 years and have read a lot of books on the topic, but The Ratline is easily one of the most unique, memorable, and haunting ones I’ve picked up. Highly recommend.

P.S. The book Sands was working on that introduced him to Horst Wächter, East West Street, is also an excellent and similarly unforgettable read that includes more on his own family’s wartime story. It’s not in the system, but we can order it through ILL if you’re interested.

Have you read this book? What’s your favorite nonfiction book about World War II? What are you reading? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on this book or to place it on hold.

Author: berryvillelibrary

"Our library, our future"

5 thoughts on “Philippe Sands’ The Ratline (2020)”

  1. Excellent review as always. I am not a fan of non-fiction, nor am I a fan of the WWII Nazi genre, finding it just so painful to read about the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on so many, but your review makes the book sound fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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