May 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. Two recent works of particular relevance for the before and after of the story, Jack Fairweather's The Volunteer and Philippe Sands' The Ratline are worthy of attention.
The Volunteer Jack Fairweather (Penguin, paperback)
In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, an underground operative called Witold Pilecki accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interned at Auschwitz, then the new concentration camp on the border of the Reich.
Witold was charged with becoming an underground operative whose reports on the Nazi atrocities would be smuggled out of the camp during the next two- and- a-half years. He also formed a secret army to mount a rebellion. His reports from the camp had a marked influence on how the Allies responded to the Holocaust.
Pilecki's story was virtually ignored for decades until journalist and historian Jack Fairweather discovered it. He saw material for a fascinating story, one which ultimately won him the Costa Award for Biography in 2019. Earlier this year, the book appeared in paperback and it indeed proves a compelling read and meritorious of the award.
Fairweather’s is the first significant account of Pilecki’s life to draw on unpublished family papers, newly released archival documents and exclusive interviews with surviving resistance fighters. "On the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, it’s hard to imagine a time when the Holocaust did not dominate our thinking about World War II, " the author writes. "Yet after the immediate horror that greeted the liberation of the camp, and the other Nazi camps in 1945, the mass murder of Europe’s Jews scarcely lodged in the public’s consciousness."
"It wasn’t until the early 1960s and the publication of Raul Hilberg’s monumental book, The Destruction of The European Jews, and Hannah Arendt’s dissection of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, that we started coming to terms with mankind’s darkest act," declares the journalist and author.
Interestingly, Claude Lanzmann's landmark eight-hour documentary, Shoah - which gave victims, perpetrators and bystanders the chance to speak in their own words - helped Fairweather enormously to contextualise his book on Pilecki. Like any of us who have seen Shoah, he too found it "utterly compulsive, and (it) inspired me in my own research, tracking down witnesses and retracing Witold Pilecki’s footsteps ."
Fairweather makes reference to Witold Pilecki’s own writings in Polish, which have been translated into English and represent an early attempt to understand the Holocaust before the term 'Holocaust' had even been coined.
"Because of the circumstances of his life – captured by the Communists at the end of World War II, executed, and his wartime records hidden for half a century – his contribution to our understanding of the Holocaust hasn’t attracted much attention, " declares the journalist-historian.
"Yet he was one of the first to grapple with that question I think we have all struggled with since: how was so much evil possible?"
The Ratline Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback)
Philippe Sands' thrilling work made its first appearance more recently, its hardback incarnation appearing in fact just before we all suddenly had more time for gardening, binge-watching, painting and, eh, reading.
Described as 'part history, part memoir, part detective story', the book is already a BBC Sounds podcast, narrated by Stephen Fry and Laura Linney.
Fry describes the work in the following terms: "a gripping adventure, an astounding journey of discovery and a terrifying portrait of evil in all its complexity, banality, self-justification and madness." John Le Carré has also paid tribute to Sand's scholarship, declaring The Ratline to be 'hypnotic, shocking and unputdownable.'
Listen to Stephen Fry's podcast interview with Philippe Sands in front of a live audience, recorded in 2018.
The author's 300-page account - an extra 100 pages or so make up notes and an index - tells the story of Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter, the Governor of Galicia. Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles were murdered under his authority, including members of the author's own family.
When the war ended in May 1945, von Wächter, who was born in Vienna in 1901, was indicted for mass murder. Like many a Nazi leader, he went on the run, pursued by Soviet, American, Polish and British authorities to be punished for his war crimes.
The former SS general spent three years hiding in the Austrian Alps before he was sheltered by a Vatican bishop in Rome for a period of three months. While preparing to travel to Argentina - the refuge of many former Nazis at the time, the route there was known as The Ratline - he died unexpectedly in July 1949. He died of Leptospirosis, or Wiel's disease, his death occurring a few days after lunch with an 'old comrade' whom he suspected had been recruited by the Americans.
Sands' book is an enthralling account of von Wächter's life, the terrible effects of his rule in Galicia but also the love, tenderly expressed, between him and his wife Charlotte. The couple continued to write to each other regularly while he was on the run. The author also constructs a fascinating picture of life in Rome among the coterie of American and Soviet spies as the Cold War got underway.
Von Wächter's youngest son, and the fourth of his six children, Horst always maintained that his father was an honourable man.
In 2013, the author, Philippe Sands went to visit Horst von Wächter and his wife Jacqueline at their schloss, situated about an hour's drive north from Vienna, close to the border with Slovakia. The couple were living at the time in a house of many sparsely-furnished rooms, without central heating, 'the bitter cold staved off by wood-burning fires and the odd electric heater,' as the author noted in a piece for the Financial Times.
"I must find the good in my father, " Horst declared. "My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse."
Horst von Wächter has often been in the news, quite aside from his vivid depiction in The Ratline. In 2017, The Guardian reported how the then 78-year old son of the Nazi general had spent years trying to return a painting taken by his parents from the Potocki Palace.
On Sunday February 26 of that year, 2017, he attended a ceremony in Kraków at which three stolen works were returned to the Polish government. These were works that his mother had stolen, and included a painting of the Potocki Palace, a map of 17th-century Poland, and an engraving of Kraków during the Renaissance.
"This is probably the first time that the member of a family of one of the most important Nazi occupiers is giving back art that was stolen from Poland during the war," declared Ryszard Czarnecki, then vice-president of the European parliament, as reported by the newspaper.
"I do not return the sole objects for me but for my mother, " declared von Wächter, as his extraordinary offer to make good on behalf of his family was finally accepted.