In the summer of 2020 a court in Hamburg found Bruno Dey, a ninety-three-year-old former member of the SS Totenkopfsturmbann (Death’s Head Battalion) and a guard at Stutthof concentration camp, near Gdańsk, from August 1944 to April 1945, guilty on 5,232 counts of being an accessory to murder. The testimonies of survivors of the camp gave a glimpse into hell. It was normal to see the corpses of those who had died of hunger, exhaustion, and violence lying in the open, Marek Dunin-Wąsowicz told the court. Another witness, Abraham Koryski, spoke of the sadistic “shows” that the SS staged in front of the prisoners; in one such spectacle, a son was forced to beat his father to death. Judy Meisel recounted how she and her mother stood naked in a line leading to the gas chamber: “When I saw the chance to run back to the barracks, my mother urged me to run. I had to leave her behind.” It was the last time she saw her. Dey, who was seventeen when he joined the SS and became a guard at Stutthof, denied the charges against him. He gave a horrific account of his time there, recalling inmates being led to the gas chamber, their screams inside, their desperate banging on its door. Dey was given a two-year suspended sentence.

Trials like this are increasingly uncommon today. Most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust have passed away, but German courts still have an opportunity to prosecute those who remain alive. It is the final chapter in the country’s long and not very successful history of ensuring justice for their victims.

In the chaos that followed the end of World War II, as millions of refugees, returning soldiers, and liberated slave laborers roamed across Europe, it was relatively easy for Nazi criminals to flee abroad. Many escaped from Germany via the legendary “Ratline,” a route that ran across the Alps into the valleys of South Tyrol. In Italy, forged papers were easy to obtain from criminal gangs and former Fascist functionaries. The fugitives also often received help from the Red Cross, which, overwhelmed and operating under a liberal policy of humanitarian aid, issued travel documents without asking too many questions. The Vatican’s relief committee was also deeply involved in the escape route; willing to assist any enemy of communism, it offered shelter, papers, and safe passage to Latin America, North Africa, and the Middle East. The list of those who eluded their pursuers this way is long. It includes Adolf Eichmann, who coordinated the transport of Jews to the extermination camps; the Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele; Franz Stangl, the commandant of Sobibór and Treblinka; Klaus Barbie, Lyon’s sadistic Gestapo chief; Walter Rauff, architect of the gas van; and Eduard Roschmann, the “Butcher of Riga.”

Philippe Sands’s The Ratline traces the escape of the Austrian SS-Brigadeführer Otto Wächter. During the war years, Wächter was governor of Kraków in occupied Poland, where he set up the ghetto, and later governor of Galicia, based in Lemberg (Lviv), where he was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Under his governorship, more than 525,000 Galicians lost their lives. The region’s Jewish population was almost completely exterminated. (Among the victims were many members of Sands’s family.)

Sands depicts a grim world of mass violence that is often difficult to comprehend. “Tomorrow, I have to have 50 Poles publicly shot,” Wächter wrote casually in a letter to his wife, Charlotte, in late 1939. At the same time, the couple had an intense social life, hosting dinner parties, enjoying classical music concerts, and going on extravagant shopping trips. Wächter, a highly educated lawyer and veteran member of the Nazi Party, and his wife, who shared his ideological fanaticism and taste for high culture (and tolerated his womanizing), were prominent members of Nazi high society. They cultivated good relations with his superior, Hans Frank, the governor-general of German-occupied Poland, with whom they regularly played chess, and Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who visited occasionally.

In 1945, hunted as a war criminal, Wächter escaped into the Austrian Alps, where he hid for almost four years in secluded mountain huts, barns, and farms, never staying in one place for more than a few days. Then, in early 1949, following the Ratline, he crossed the snow-covered mountain border into Italy. Arriving at Rome’s Termini Station on April 28, 1949, he found refuge in Vigna Pia, a monastery on the southern outskirts of the city.

The Ratline draws a vivid picture of the twilight world of postwar Rome, a hive of war criminals, former Fascists, and foreign agents. While waiting for his passage to Latin America, Wächter spent his time socializing with old comrades, some of whom were working as informers for the victorious Allies. The Americans were well aware that he was in Rome. With cold war tensions mounting, however, US intelligence officials showed less and less interest in Nazi refugees. The main concern of the Western Allies was now Communists. Sands got firsthand insights into this changing world over tea with his London neighbor David Cornwell—John le Carré—who had been stationed in Austria as a young officer in 1949. “We were also supposedly Nazi hunters, trawling displaced-persons camps, debriefing refugees, wholesale. A pitiful business,” he told Sands. “In a sense, I was a tiny part of the world that Wächter encountered.”


One of the most sobering parts of the book explores the involvement of the Vatican in Wächter’s escape. He received support from the sinister Austrian bishop Alois Hudal, rector of the Anima seminary for German and Austrian priests in Rome. Hudal, an ardent anti-Semite who in his notorious 1936 tract Die Grundlagen des Nationalsozialismus (The Foundations of National Socialism) advocated an alliance between the Nazi regime and the Catholic Church against Bolshevism, facilitated the flight of scores of hunted Nazis along the Ratline, among them Rauff, Stangl, and Mengele.

In the summer of 1949, Wächter, aged forty-eight, suddenly fell ill; shortly afterward he died in Rome’s Santo Spirito Hospital. At his deathbed, holding him in his arms, was Hudal. “I protected him until the end,” the bishop wrote in his memoirs. The official cause was an infection contracted while swimming in the Tiber; Sands convincingly refutes claims that he was poisoned.

Sands’s work on The Ratline took him on a global odyssey, to Berlin, Vienna, Warsaw, Lviv, Rome, Washington, and Jerusalem, where he combed the archives and spoke with witnesses. The most important of them was Wächter’s son, Horst (named after the storm trooper Horst Wessel, who was made into a Nazi martyr by Joseph Goebbels after his murder in 1930). Horst is now in his eighties and living in a dilapidated baroque castle, Schloss Hagenberg, north of Vienna. He fully supported Sands’s research, generously granting him access to the extensive family archives, with photo albums, diaries, and sound recordings. A cache of letters and postcards Otto exchanged with his wife, from their first meeting in Vienna in 1929 to his death in Rome in 1949, allowed Sands to reconstruct his life and postwar flight in remarkable detail.

Horst Wächter remains convinced of his father’s innocence and believed that Sands’s research would reveal his humanity. Even as Sands exposed overwhelming evidence of Otto’s wartime savagery, the son refused to accept his father’s guilt. In the family memory, Otto is idolized as a humble, honorable, hardworking family man. “I know the system was criminal, that my father was part of it,” Horst explained, “but I don’t think of him as a criminal.” Sands also documented Horst’s uneasiness with the family past in the film What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy (2015), in which he appears together with Niklas Frank, who fully acknowledges the guilt of his father, Hans Frank, one of the high-ranking Nazis sentenced to death by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946.

At times, it is hard for readers to reconcile Wächter’s erudition and education with his unspeakable violence and ideological zeal. Historians have long shown an interest in this phenomenon. Wächter is a classic example of the Nazi perpetrators studied in Michael Wildt’s An Uncompromising Generation (2002). Born around the turn of the century, these men were too young to fight in World War I, which made them feel they had been denied the opportunity to prove themselves. They were highly educated (many were lawyers, historians, or philologists), ambitious, elitist, and ideologically radical, sharing a profoundly racist, antidemocratic, anti-Semitic worldview. This picture breaks with both the image of the Nazi perpetrators as primitive, poorly educated, proletarian thugs, as promoted in the early postwar years by conservative writers who wished to distance themselves from their crimes, and that of detached, unpolitical technocrats who, trapped in the structures of a criminal bureaucracy, carried out orders with no feelings of responsibility, as popularized by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963).

Sands’s book is not a general history of the Ratline; readers who want to learn more about it will have to turn to Gerald Steinacher’s brilliant study Nazis on the Run (2011). It is also not the first account of Otto Wächter’s crimes, which have been discussed in studies of the German occupation of Poland and Ukraine by Thomas Sandkühler, Dieter Pohl, and others.* What Sands offers instead is the first intimate biographical study of Wächter’s life from before the Holocaust to his escape.

Finally, The Ratline provides unsettling insights into postwar denial and the whitewashing of the Nazi past. After the war, many Nazi officials who remained in Germany did not have much to fear. The Nuremberg Trial prosecuted only some of the most prominent members of the regime. In West Germany, the Allies’ denazification efforts were not very efficient. Germans routinely helped one another with the testimonies required for obtaining denazification certificates. Arendt, who visited the country after the war, observed that “for many Germans there is a discrepancy between their answers to military government questionnaires and the truth as known to their neighbors,” which strengthened their “bonds of duplicity.” The Western powers, eager to rebuild the Federal Republic into a strong ally against the Soviet Union, showed little interest in hunting former regime officials. Indeed, the cold war offered Nazis an easy route to rehabilitation. “Anticommunism and ex-Nazis entered into an unholy alliance,” the historian Dirk Moses wrote in German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past (2007), “not only preventing a new, moral beginning, but, worse still, facilitating the rehabilitation of ex-Nazis.”


West Germany’s judicial system also posed no serious threat to the perpetrators. Soon, former low- and mid-ranking Nazi officials found positions in the civil service and in industry. The ranks of the police, army, and intelligence service were full of former SS and Wehrmacht officers. Hardly anyone really cared. Germans did not want to hear about their Nazi past. The economic miracle years of the 1950s—a sugarcoated world of VW Beetles, Heimat movies that romanticized the German homeland, and holidays in Italy—were a time of collective amnesia. The prosecution of former Nazis was unpopular.

There were, of course, some exceptions. The most important of them was the work of Fritz Bauer, a German-Jewish state prosecutor who, more or less on his own, organized a series of spectacular trials of Nazi criminals that transformed postwar German society. Ronen Steinke’s biography of Bauer gives a masterful account of the jurist’s dramatic life, drawing on a wealth of primary sources, including court proceedings, private letters, and press reports.

Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Stuttgart in 1903, Bauer was a rising star of the Weimar judiciary, becoming the republic’s youngest judge at the age of twenty-seven. As a Social Democrat, he fought the Nazi movement early in his career. When Hitler seized power in 1933, Bauer was arrested in his office while his colleagues stood silently watching, interned in Heuberg concentration camp, and later imprisoned. He was released after a few months, forced to sign a statement of loyalty to the new regime, and banned from practicing law. In 1936 he went into exile in Denmark, and when the Wehrmacht occupied the country in 1940, he escaped to Sweden.

In 1949 Bauer returned to Germany, determined to help rebuild a democratic state. “We emigrants cherished our own delusions,” he later recalled.

Once the rubble was cleared away, we would build the cities of the future. Big, bright, and humane. Bauhaus. Gropius. Mies van der Rohe. That’s what we believed back then. Everything would be reinvented on a grand scale.

He soon learned that Jews were still not welcome. “Emigrants reminded people of things they wanted to repress. People were afraid of the questions emigrants might ask,” he noted. In 1950 he was appointed attorney general in the city of Braunschweig, and a few years later, in 1956, attorney general of the state of Hesse, based in Frankfurt. This put him in a position to seek justice.

Fritz Bauer with dossiers on prominent Nazi figures

Alexander Kluge/Indiana University Press

Fritz Bauer, right, with dossiers on prominent Nazi figures, Frankfurt, Germany, 1966

The first opportunity presented itself in 1952, when he brought charges against the former Wehrmacht officer Otto Ernst Remer, who after the failed July 20, 1944, assassination attempt against Hitler had been instrumental in suppressing the resistance network around Claus von Stauffenberg. After the war, Remer had publicly called the plotters “traitors to their country,” which resulted in prosecutors charging him with defamation. Bauer, resisting hesitant colleagues who wanted to shelve the case, used the trial to officially confirm the legitimacy of the assassination attempt. Remer was sentenced to three months in prison for “insulting” the resistance group but fled to Egypt before his arrest. The trial attracted enormous press coverage, leading to the gradual public rehabilitation of the July 20 plotters.

Bauer’s greatest triumph, however, was the Auschwitz trial. On January 15, 1959, a journalist sent documents from Auschwitz to his office, among them lists of guards and papers on the extermination process. Seizing the opportunity, Bauer assembled a team of young prosecutors and started investigations. Around the world, via newspapers and radio, they searched for witnesses, eventually finding no fewer than 1,500 survivors; 250 of them testified in court. Bauer’s team indicted twenty-two defendants, not only the camp’s senior officers such as Robert Mulka, who was second in command, but also a cross section of camp personnel, including the man responsible for distributing the striped prisoner uniforms and the personnel who staffed the commandant’s office. The charges were based on the legal assumption that anyone who had worked at the camp, no matter in what position, was guilty. The trial, held from 1963 to 1965 in the packed Frankfurt city hall (and later in a convention center), resulted in scandalously modest sentences. Still, it marked a caesura in the public’s perception of Nazi crimes. “The trial,” Steinke writes, “saw Auschwitz become a metonym for the Holocaust as a whole.” By staging the trial as a media event, Bauer aimed to force German society to confront the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes.

Steinke skillfully portrays a society hostile to Bauer’s quest for justice, capturing well the repressive political climate of postwar West Germany. Anti-Semitism had not disappeared. Many Germans were unwilling to accept that a returning Jewish refugee such as Bauer had the right to speak for the German state. Some, condescendingly alluding to his Jewish background, suggested that he was driven by a thirst for revenge and therefore incapable of judging the past neutrally. He was subject to vile attacks, both open and anonymous, and received bomb threats, hate mail, and abusive late-night calls; sometimes his phone would ring throughout the night at timed intervals. “Whenever I leave my office,” he once remarked, “I find myself in enemy territory.”

Bauer also faced resistance from within the German judiciary, which was riddled with judges, attorneys, and lawyers who had worked for Hitler’s regime; behind the scenes they did everything they could to sabotage his work. Despite the opposition of his colleagues, Bauer pursued his aims with courage, cleverness, and careful maneuvering.

Throughout the 1950s he investigated Eichmann, not only collecting evidence against him but also discovering his hideout in Argentina. Anxious about proceeding through German institutions, because one of his colleagues might tip off Eichmann (as had happened all too often in other cases), he secretly passed on the information he had gathered to Israel. After Bauer repeatedly put pressure on the Israeli authorities, Eichmann was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in 1960, put on trial in Jerusalem, and executed in 1962.

In the end, Bauer’s work took an emotional toll. Steinke depicts the life of an increasingly lonely, exhausted, and disillusioned outsider with just a few friends, among them Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Thomas Harlan (the son of Veit Harlan, the director of Nazi propaganda films, including the infamous Jud Süß). In the summer of 1968, just before his sixty-fifth birthday, he was found dead in his bathtub after having suffered a heart attack. His funeral was attended by guests from around the world; Adorno chose the music—three string quartets by Beethoven.

Steinke’s biography is not the first book about Bauer. It complements Irmtrud Wojak’s 2009 biography and Matthias Meusch’s 2001 monograph on Bauer’s work as attorney general in Frankfurt by putting more emphasis on his personal life. Steinke pays particular attention to Bauer’s relationship with Judaism, which became increasingly unimportant to him after the war, and to his alleged homosexuality, which was illegal in Germany during his lifetime and could have ended his career.

Steinke’s great accomplishment is to have resisted the temptation to write a hagiography. To be sure, Bauer, a brilliant jurist who courageously confronted injustice, was an exceptional figure. Yet Steinke manages to draw a more complicated (and ultimately more interesting) picture of him as a human being with fears and flaws. Bauer demanded a great deal from his younger colleagues, who took serious risks in working for him, and gave them too little support when hostile senior colleagues tried to obstruct their careers. He could also be remarkably opportunistic. Steinke offers a subtle and empathetic, yet not uncritical, portrait of the “quick-witted chain-smoking attorney with the unkempt hair.”

Nevertheless, the book could have said more about the broader historical setting of Bauer’s trials. In the 1960s there was a series of Holocaust trials of personnel from Belzec (Munich, 1963–1965), Treblinka (Düsseldorf, 1964–1965 and 1970), Sobibór (Hagen, 1965–1966), and Lemberg (Stuttgart, 1966–1968), as well as the Eichmann trial. Public awareness of the Holocaust was being reshaped. This could also be observed outside Germany with the publication of new books about the Nazis’ crimes, most notably Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). The Treblinka Affair of 1966, sparked by Jean-François Steiner’s controversial semi-novelistic best seller Treblinka, about the 1943 prisoners’ revolt in the camp—which raised again allegations of Jewish passivity—also significantly influenced this new Holocaust consciousness, as Samuel Moyn showed in his book A Holocaust Controversy (2005). It is a myth that the German student movement of 1968 broke the taboo against speaking openly about the crimes of their parents’ Nazi pasts; the taboo had already been broken.

When the Auschwitz trial ended, polls found that the majority of Germans opposed further trials of former Nazis. “A people with these [great] economic achievements has a right not to want to hear any more about Auschwitz,” reportedly declared Franz Josef Strauss, the West German minister of finance, in 1969. In the same year the German Federal Court of Justice—overturning the conviction of an SS Auschwitz dentist on the grounds that working at the extermination camp did not in itself constitute a crime—ruled that Holocaust suspects could be indicted only if there was evidence linking them to a particular murder. This ruling made it much harder to prosecute Nazi criminals, and Holocaust trials became rare. The situation changed only in the case of the Sobibór guard John Demjanjuk, when a Munich court ruled that contributing to the murder machinery was sufficient grounds to be charged. Although there was no evidence that implicated him in a particular killing, Demjanjuk was convicted in 2011 of being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews, simply for working in the extermination camp. (He died the next year before his appeal was heard.) It was a late triumph of the legal principle that Bauer had used in the Auschwitz trial.

The Demjanjuk ruling set off a final wave of Holocaust trials. Among those found guilty were Oskar Gröning, the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” who in 2016 was convicted of aiding murder in 300,000 cases (he died in 2018, before starting his prison sentence), and Reinhold Hanning, an Auschwitz guard, who that same year was convicted as an accessory to 170,000 murders (he died in 2017 while his appeal was pending). Others were brought to trial but never convicted, among them the Auschwitz guard Ernst Tremmel, who died in 2016 before his trial started; the Auschwitz medic Hubert Zafke, whose trial was suspended in 2017 due to ill health; and the Stutthof guard Johann Rehbogen, whose trial was terminated in 2018, also due to ill health. This fall, trials began in Itzehoe of Irmgard Furchner, the ninety-six-year-old former secretary of the commandant of Stutthof, charged with assisting in the murder of 11,412 prisoners, and in Neuruppin of Josef Schütz, a one-hundred-year-old former Sachsenhausen guard, charged with 3,518 counts of accessory to murder.

These last trials have not been uncontroversial. Many have questioned the purpose of prosecuting elderly, dying men and women—many of whom were teenagers when they committed their alleged crimes. Others, however, have argued that these trials are owed to the victims, noting that the perpetrators of the Holocaust showed no interest in human fragility, and that they send a clear message to potential future genocide perpetrators. And, after all, the trials can also be seen as Germany’s belated attempt to correct, at least to some extent, its earlier failures to bring Nazi criminals to justice. It is now a race against time.