What does one feel about one’s parent if one’s father is culpable of some heinous crime? Is it denial or loathing? It can never be both or even some adulterated commingled version. Whenever the latter occurs, ones protestations in support of one’s parent become self-serving, irrational and tenuous whilst never addressing the real issue at hand. Such is the case with Horst von Wächter, son of Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter, Governor of Galicia during WW2.
How does Horst today at 77 years of age, reconcile his vision of a loving father with that of a monster who was responsible for the deaths of at least 100,000 Jews?
This is the tale of convoluted denial against all the evidence to the contrary.
Main picture: Horst Von Wachter, Philippe Sands and Niklas Frank behind the scenes of My Nazi Legacy
Horst von Wächter was born in 1939 in Austria. His father, Otto von Wächter, had become an early disciple of Adolf Hitler. As such he was implicated in the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss on 25th July 1934.
According to Wikipedia: Otto von Wächter (8 July 1901, Vienna, Austria-Hungary – 14 July 1949, Rome, Italy) was an Austrian lawyer and Nazi politician and administrative officer. During World War II, he was the Governor (head of the civil administration) of two parts of occupied Poland: first of Kraków in the General Government and, then, of District of Galicia (now part of mostly Ukraine), before being appointed as head of the German Military Administration in Fascist Italy.
68,000 Jews were expelled from Krakow in 1940 and the Kraków Ghetto was created in 1941 by his decrees. After WWII, the Soviets-controlled Polish government petitioned the Americans in control of Allied-occupied Germany that Wächter be delivered for trial for being responsible for the mass murder of one hundred thousand Polish citizens, but he was successfully hiding for 4 years. In 1949, Wächter was given refuge by pro-Nazi Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal in the Vatican where he died from kidney disease in July 1949, allegedly poisoned.
Otto’s superior was the infamous Hans Frank who was sentenced to death at the Nuremburg Trials. His son, also born in 1939, Niklaus Frank, has long since acknowledged his father’s criminal acts. In doing so, he openly despises him and never attempts to defend his actions in any way. As a youngster during the war, he was introduced to Horst von Wächter at Wawel Castle in Krakow Poland. Much later in life, he again made contact with Horst.
That is how a Jewish American human rights lawyer by the name of Philippe Sands made contact with Horst through Niklaus. Unlike Niklaus Frank, Horst von Wächter is unrepentant of his father’s actions especially his part in the grossaktion which resulted in the deaths of countless Jews. As well as a professional motive for meeting children of former Third Reich functionaries complicit in the extermination of the Jews, Sands himself is the grandson of the only survivor of their 80 strong family unit in Lviv due to the actions of Horst’s father.
Thus Phillippe’s quest for the truth is deeply personal.
Initially Sands meets both men in the comfort of their own homes where he is shown pictures of their families in their domestic settings. Naturally for Niklaus it was Wawel Castle. Originally this building was built as the residence of the King. After the fall of the monarchy, it became the official residence of the President. As Sands and Frank amble through this luxurious castle which was once the residence of his father who trained as a lawyer, one is apprized of the opulent lifestyle that the Frank family led. Niklaus is conflicted. He is at once dismissive due to its connotation with stolen property and yet he can clearly recall tender moments with his dad, the Butcher of Krakow. While still dear to him, Niklaus is forthright in his response. Due to his culpability, he has openly rejected him as his father.
Horst von Wächter was named after a Nazi SA thug and stalwart, Horst Wessel, who in January 1930 was shot in the head by two members of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). After his death, he became a major Nazi propaganda symbol. His name was used for several civilian and military purposes during the time of the Third Reich.
Sands then met Horst. Even at that initial meeting Horst is defensive about his father’s actions as if the murder of 100,000 Jews was merely the action of a man implementing his superior’s orders. In a putative coup de grace, Sands produces a letter from an imperious Heinrich Himmler in which he offers to release Otto from his duties as he felt that they were too depressing for him. Otto’s reply is that he will continue to perform the duties as delegated by Hans Frank. There is something compelling in the verbal sparring that eventuates. Sands’ contention that he might have been willing to exonerate Otto for the crimes already committed if he had agreed to relinquish his duties with Hans Frank, but he did not. Horst Frank then changes tack. “Above all else,” Horst concluded, “Was Otto’s loyalty to Hans Frank which precluding him accepting Frank’s magnanimous offer.”
Notwithstanding this incontrovertible evidence, Horst refused to accept this interpretation & hence his father’s culpability.
The Financial Times in London then came to hear of the three whose pasts are all inextricably linked to a Nazi legacy. They all accept the newspaper’s invitation to a public discussion at the Purcell Room in London.
The focus of the discussion was the upbringing of Horst & Niklaus and how they relate to their fathers misdeeds. Philippe Sands played the role as chairman. Initially each had to provide a description of the childhoods. Then they had to explain how they felt about their fathers. Niklaus’ attitude was unequivocal. His father had been a dramatis personae in the Final Solution, the Nazi euphemism for the slaughter of millions of Jews. As such he was culpable and his sentence at Nuremburg was entirely justifiable.
In contrast Horst prevaricated being extremely reluctant to accord any interference or taint of guilt onto his father. As a prelude to a rambling defence of his father’s actions, he stated the obvious viz that Otto von Wächter had lived in a different milieu, one in which orders were obeyed unconditionally & without question. Operating on the presumption that the killing of Jews was an order, he was not entitled to disobey it. Of far greater importance in Horst’s eyes, was the fact that the Galician’s themselves – excluding the Jews of course – view Otto as a defender of their people. The fact that these people were Slavs & in Hitler’s eyes – in the final analysis – also untermenschen was irrelevant. Horst took solace in the fact that many of these people, even today, revere his father.
During the subsequent Q&A session, Horst was accused of taking extraneous facts such as the praise of the Galicians to negate the fact that he was complicit in the murder of at least 100 000 Jews. In the wake of Horst’s admission that it was his duty as Otto’s son to defend him, there was unanimous incredulity. It was then that even Niklaus ridiculed Horst for his irrational defence of the indefensible.
Hans Frank’s career within the Nazi hierarchy had commenced when he was appointed in his professional capacity as a lawyer. An early speech by Frank to a Nazi audience with Hitler in attendance was sycophantic and cringe-worthy in the extreme. His first role after the commencement of WW2 was his appointment as General Governor [direct translation from German] of the General Government, the German nomenclature for Poland after defeating them in 1939.
Initially Otto von Wächter was the civil administrator of Krakow, the capital of the General Government & later in 1941, the Civil Administrator of the Galicia District, the southernmost portion of the General Government. It was here that the most egregious atrocities were committed by Otto and of which his son Horst is still in complete denial about. This was the so-called grossaktion in August 1942.
The German HQ was based in a town which they renamed from the Polish Lwow to Lemberg. Subsequently to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this town was incorporated into the independent country of Ukraine which has now renamed it Lviv.
Fortunately for Sands, the Germans were meticulous record keepers. Most of their orders and other documents are still extant and available for use by researchers. As an inveterate lawyer, Sands had made use of these documents before meeting with Horst & Niklaus.
In his research, Sands had acquired the recording of the speech that Hans Frank had given during July 1941 in a hall in Lemberg when Otto von Wächter was the governor [civil administrator in English]. Under the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, this hall had been the Parliament of Galicia and later the University of Lviv. Sands takes both men to this hall and lets Niklaus read the speech as if he were his father, Hans Frank.
Party Comrade Wächter, I have to say you did well
Lemberg is once again a true and proud German City
I do not speak about the Jews that we still have here
We will deal with them of course
By the way, I hardly saw any of them today
What has happened?
I was told that this city used to swarm with thousands and thousands
Of these flat-footed Indians [sic] but I could see none
You have not done anything nasty to them, have you?
Horst is nonplussed with Hans Frank’s profuse praise of his father’s work. In a slightly flushed state, he retorts, “The guilty ones have already been judged.” Simply put, his father is blameless having escaped justice by receiving sanctuary in the Vatican after the war until his death.
Again Horst is dismissive of this evidence, implying that the deaths were the result of actions by his father’s subordinates and not his fathers. Stating the obvious, Sands explains the concept of executive responsibility but Horst is unreceptive to this argument’s merit.
To buttress his argument, Sands produces a document dated 1946 in which the Polish request the extradition of von Wächter to Poland on the charge of being complicit in the deaths of 100 000 Jews. Again Horst is defensive claiming that these charges are “generalisations” & were never proved. Finally he claims that his father was a decent person and hence not guilty.
Clearly irked, Sands took umbrage at this non-legalistic approach.
Next Sands takes Horst & Niklaus to visit the nearby erstwhile synagogue at Zolkiew. This centuries old Jewish place of worship had been destroyed by fire in July 1941 on Otto von Wächter’s orders.
In sepulchral solitude they all wander through the ruins of a centuries’ old building once vibrant with life, singing and prayer, the epicentre of an ancient community. It was here that 8o of Philippe’s extended family were murdered on a hot summer’s day in 1942. Never again would this building witness humanity. Not even in a leap of faith could one imagine a future where this community would be resuscitated, to reclaim their past. They all now lay, where they were murdered 70 years ago in a nearby forest.
Once again Horst deflects criticism of his father’s actions as in his words, “I refuse to say that he gave orders to burn down the synagogue.”
Their final stop is at a point in the road from Zolkiew to Lemberg. Here Philippe takes Horst & Niklaus to the site of the grossaktion where 3500 Jewish inhabitants who had been marched from the Zolkiew Synagogue to this location where a newly excavated pit awaited them. As they marched over a plank, probably expecting the worst, they were shot at close range. Their lifeless bodies tumbled into this mass grave sparing the German Auxiliary Troops the necessity of having to bury them.
Horst refuses to accept that his father was responsible for this massacre despite being the District Governor in charge of this annihilation. Instead he rebuffs Philippe once again and demands to be informed of the exact date, the name of the Police Officer in charge of the execution before he would concede the point.
In the final analysis, one can relate to and understand Horst’s dilemma. His view of his father is sanguine. He recalls a caring father in a loving marriage. How can he reconcile that image with the dastardly deeds that he has perpetrated?
Yet for all that, Horst attitude is clearly risible. Based largely on the fact that he perceived it as duty, as Otto’s son, to defend his father murderous action, Horst continually raises extraneous and irrelevant issues.
Such actions can be classed as a fool’s errand. Instead they taint the defender as being irrational. Like the role of spin doctor, that of the apologist is no less risible and is viewed with derision.
At best one is still capable of a bifurcated response: continue loving one’s parent whilst despising their actions. Is it not better to adopt the response of Niklaus Frank and treat the father with disdain?
Certainly it is the morally unambivalent solution.
Otherwise one will pay for the sins of one’s father like Horst has done for his whole life and will continue to do so until the day that he dies.
Documentary: My Nazi Legacy