True life story of SS beast General Otto Wächter becomes major BBC podcast hit

Wächter joined the Nazi party as early as 1930, and when Germany invaded Poland and established the General Government, became governor of the Kraków district. Public domain

In the closing stages of World War II, SS General Otto Wächter went into hiding.

As Hitler’s wartime governor of Galicia, under his watch an estimated 500,000 Jews had been sent to their deaths in gas chambers while thousands more had been shot dead. 

A major war criminal accused by the Polish government-in-exile of war crimes as early as 1942, Wächter spent the next four years on the run, staying one step ahead of Allied agents who were hunting down the men and women who perpetrated the Holocaust.

Making his way to Rome in the hope of using the ratline, a secret network set up to help senior Nazis flee Europe, before he could board a plane to South America he died in hospital, most likely as a result of poisoning.

Now a fascinating podcast from the BBC about his life has become a major sensation. 

The 10-part series called Ratline has all the elements of a great hit: Nazis, spies; love, death, secrets and lies, creaking castles, dodgy bishops and more twists than a neurotic pretzel.

The BBC has not released listener or download figures yet, but the well-researched, pacey and ambitious series, launched on September 16, reached No 1 on the UK daily iTunes chart on September 23 and has hovered in the top five ever since.

Wächter and Hitler's henchman Himmler. Wächter was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of JewsFamily archive

The true crime series focuses on Austrian-born Nazi zealot Otto Wächter.

He joined the party as early as 1930, and when Germany invaded Poland and established the General Government, Wächter become governor of the Kraków district.

It was in this role that he issued an execution warrant for 52 Poles in Bochnia on 18 December 1939 as reprisal for the killing of two Viennese police officers.

In December 1940, he signed a decree expelling 68,000 Jews from Kraków and on 3 March 1941 he ordered the remaining 15,000 Jews to move into the newly created Kraków Ghetto.

In 1942, he was transferred to Lwów to take over civilian control of the district of Galicia, which was part of Poland before the war.

During his time there, up to 800,000 Jews were sent to their deaths in Operation Reinhardt. Although Wächter was not directly involved, as the civilian commander of the district he would certainly have lent practical help to his SS colleagues.

Operation Reinhardt in Kraków, often referred to by its original codename in German as Aktion Krakau, was a major 1942 German Nazi operation against the Jews of Kraków, Poland.Public domain

This is the story that respected international law barrister Phillipe Sands illuminates in the gripping podcast series The Ratline.

Sands’ way into Wächter’s life is through his son Horst, who is a man obsessively reluctant to admit his father’s guilt despite all the evidence. When his father writes in a letter: “Tomorrow I have to have 20 Poles shot,” Horst dismisses it as poor phrasing.

Sands, whose family members were murdered in Galicia, shows an awkward fondness for Horst, which is surprising given his inability to empathise with his father’s victims. However, it is this unlikely friendship which gives the podcast series a lot of its intrigue.

‘I really understand the desire to find the good in a parent. It’s misguided, but I understand. His love for his father is really his love for his mother. He’s protective of his father to protect her, even though she’s dead,” Sands said in a film about his meetings with Horst.

Sands access to Horsts’ archive of his parents’ letters allowed the British lawyer and author to discover the workings of the ratline and to get close to the truth about the SS general’s death.

At the end of the war, perpetrators of the Holocaust were hunted down and put on trial in Nuremburg.Public domain

Wächter’s letters are read by Stephen Fry, whose familiar avuncular voice gives the content a chilling quality.

One letter to his wife at the height of the Holocaust shows Wächter’s callous indifference to the murder of vast numbers of Jews: “Things are going very slowly in the garden unfortunately,’ he wrote. ‘There’s not much labour around. The Jews are being deported in increasing numbers, and it’s hard to get hold of powder for the tennis court.”

Other surprising names appear in the series. Episode 6 includes an enlightening interview with espionage novelist and post-war army intelligence officer John le Carré.

He describes how the Americans, the Russians and the British were all trying to find Nazis whose knowledge could be useful. Meanwhile, Israelis were aggressively hunting for men like Wächter and sometimes exacting retribution. Murder and unexplained deaths were common at the time.

The Ratline is a fascinating story about a man and his father on one level, and about spies in the Cold War on another. The story also has an echo in today’s Europe. Who are our real friends? Who can we really trust?