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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions - In conversation with Philippe Sands QC

Posted on 23 October 2020

Partner Louis Flannery QC was recently joined by Philippe Sands QC, one of the UK’s most prominent human rights barristers, celebrated for his work in international human rights, to discuss his latest book "The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive."

Already a BBC Sounds podcast narrated by Stephen Fry and Laura Linney, The Ratline is part history, part memoir, and part detective story. The Ratline is a true story of spies, cold war, love, bishops, sex and lies. With all the intrigue, emotion and power of his previous novel, East West Street, Philippe Sands returns to the 1940s Nazi empire to uncover the truth behind what happened to leading SS Brigadesführer, Otto von Wächter.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

This live session was held on 7 October 2020.

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Hello everybody and welcome, I am sure that you’re as keen as I am to hear the voice of Philippe Sands QC, who I have with me here today to talk about an amazing book.  Philippe, thank you very much for joining us. 

Philippe Sands QC

Thank you, Louis and thank you to everyone at Mishcon. 

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Philippe, you don’t this but I spied you through the window at Hay a few years ago.  East West Street was hot off the press.  I want to just give you two minutes to talk about the link between East West Street and Ratline. 

Philippe Sands QC

The link is an extraordinary character called Niklas Frank, the son of a man called Hans Frank, Adolf Hitler’s personal lawyer, went on to be a Minister of Justice in Bavaria and then Governor General of Nazi occupied Poland from ’39 to ’45.  When I met Nik, he said, “Well, you’re interested in Lemberg, it’s where your grandfather was from, would you like to meet the son of my father’s Deputy, Otto Wachter?”

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

How did they meet?  How did Frank’s son and Wachter’s son meet?

Philippe Sands QC

It turns out that the children of high-ranking Nazis, they’re all in touch with each other, or almost all of them are in touch with each other so there’s this sort of network of descendants which is itself quite interesting. 

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

A network in a sinister way or in a…?

Philippe Sands QC

No, a network in that bonded sort of way, we’ve all been through this together, and they deal with it very differently.  The first time I met Nik, he did two things, he took out a photograph of the recently hanged body of his father, recently executed in Nuremberg, he told me he looks at the photograph every day to remind himself that his father is truly dead but, as he said to me, “Horst is different, he looks for the good in his father, he thinks his father was a decent man,” and he said, “You will like him” and I do, sort of. 

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

I watched My Nazi Legacy, the BBC Storyville.  You meet, obviously you meet both of them in the film but you go first of all to the synagogue in Lemberg which was destroyed I think in 1941 and then you take, I think, Niklas for the first time to the Killing Field, a mile or so from the synagogue.  You turn Philippe Sands author to Philippe Sands cross-examiner.  Were you really trying to get the son of Otto von Wachter to admit his father’s guilt?

Philippe Sands QC

I suppose the entire relationship with Horst has been an effort to try to persuade him that his dad wasn’t actually only such a wonderful bloke, that he did other things too.  But really Horst never budged.  Indeed I got an email from him just yesterday expressing further disdain for the book that I have written which ignores all the salient evidence proving ultimate decency of his father.  I persuaded Horst to make all of the material available.  I mean, the heart of The Ratline is this extraordinary family archive.  Basically, eight and a half thousand pages of letters and diaries that passed between his parents, twenty years of family material, and one day he gave it to me so I respond to Horst’s emails by saying look Horst, the material is available, you’ve done the decent thing and people can read it and form their own view as to who they are with and…

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Frank’s reaction was so symbolic of Germany’s reaction… Germany’s psyche towards what happened in the Second World War versus the Austrian Wachter’s reaction and Austria’s almost weird denial of responsibility for anything. 

Philippe Sands QC

It is true, I think, that Germany has engaged in a better, well let’s just say, more far reaching and complex way with that terrible past than Austria has and that I think is not an original thought by me, I think a lot of people have recognised that.  But is it any more difficult, for example, I throw this out, than Britain’s engagement with its colonial past and with slavery and racism?  I mean, just the things we are going through now in Britain with Black Lives Matter.  Here is a country that has simply totally failed to come to terms with a barbaric past, really not for a Brit to be lecturing others on how you deal with your past, I think we have a lot to learn. 

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Reading The Ratline and my interest in what happened has taken me to Ikea, the connection being that one of the victims of the Holocaust was a family but they managed to smuggle their son, effectively get their son to convert to Christianity, go to Sweden, but I know that The Ratline has taken you in a slightly different direction because of what happened to Wachter after the War. 

Philippe Sands QC

I met Horst in 2011/2012.  We knew each other for four years and in that entire period I was focussed on what his father did in ‘39/’39, basically contributing to oversight of the murder of half a million people.  He’s indicted for mass murder very early on and he escapes on the 8 May 1945, he disappears off the face of the earth and reappears four years later in a hospital run by the Vatican in Rome and one of the things that I discovered was that he had spent three years in flight, living about two thousand metres in the Austrian mountains but he was with a young Waffen-SS soldier and at a certain point in December 2016, I said to Horst, tell me what Buko Hartmann, the young man, was like.  Why did he do what did?  What was his motivation?  And Horst smiled and looked at me and said, “Well Philippe, you can ask me all these questions and more and I will answer them, I have the answers or we could telephone Buko?” and so we called Buko then there, aged…

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Now aged?

Philippe Sands QC

94½.  Went to meet Buko and it was an astonishing, an astonishing get together.  There we are, on the left is dear Horst, in the middle is Buko Hartmann, former SS Officer who made it a condition I asked no question about what happened before 1945 because he still woke up every day worried that he was going to be indicted for his own acts, killing Italians and Yugoslavs.  It’s quite interesting, you see there, this is his bookshelf.  Do you see here a tiny little image and it is a little photograph of the Fuhrer, there he is, the beauty of a conversation with Buko was that I got the full account of what it was like to be on the run.  He leaves the mountains in September ’48, he crosses the Dolomites and he arrives in Rome on the 29 April 1949 where he is met by a person he refers to in his diary as ‘Excellency’, who welcomed him with open arms once he realise who he was and began the process of getting him over to Argentina, except that on the way, died in extremely mysterious circumstances on the 13 July 1949 in a hospital room and you can see here the room that he died in, 15th century, so Wachter, and I won’t give too much away here but Wachter arrives in Rome, he is hunted by the Brits, the Americans, the Pols, the Jews, the Soviets, everyone is looking for him, he is wanted for mass murder and all of his mates have either committed suicide or they have been caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death, without exception, and that he knows will be his fate if he’s caught.  But, as I discovered, accidentally without looking for it, things are not quite what they seem and the dear old Americans and Brits were no longer it seems hunting Nazis and with the help of a fantastic historian in Florida, Professor Norman Goda, we uncovered the CIA and CIC files which proved conclusively, in black and white, that the religious gentleman that Otto Wachter had met on the 29 April was an employee of the Americans so, they were in cahoots, Nazis, the Italian Fascists, the Americans, the British and The Vatican, all united against the new enemy. 

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

I’m curious the title, Ratline obviously, the Reich migratory route.

Philippe Sands QC

Yeah.

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Love, lies and justice.  Laugh being the love between Wachter and Charlotte.

Philippe Sands QC

A big love.  And between Horst and his mother. 

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

What was the justice?

Philippe Sands QC

Wachter was indicted.  He was never caught so the justice aspect of the book is the hunt for Wachter, his final days and whether some form of rough justice was in effect meted out in the end.  I am an international lawyer, I am a lawyer and I am interested in how the law works and how it functions and the gaps left behind when an individual does not face formal criminal justice and it creates a space and that space allows the children and the grandchildren to dig deep into the idea of decency and human decency, and I think the book, in part, raises the fundamental question of what happens to those who were never tried and what happens to the descendants of those who were never tried because they have to live, in a sense, with this burden and it’s a tough burden.  I’d never really thought about what it was like to grow up as a child as Horst and Niklas did with a parent who was indicted, or in the case of Nik Frank, his father hanged for the murder of 4 million people.  You love your parent, you hate your parent, you find a way to deal with it and then having to come to know the grandchildren, I have seen how it is a burden for them also, I don’t want to give anything away now but the most traumatic moment in the book comes right at the very end and the last words in the book have caused Otto to disinherit his daughter.  The legacy of issues of justice and injustice and family responsibilities is a long one, it’s a very long and painful one.

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

In your book, I had to stop the book at one point and go straight onto YouTube because you describe something I had not known, another character called Prika who is accosted by this fantastic American journalist on the street and…

Philippe Sands QC

Yeah, fifty years after his act of mass murder, his justice finally catches up with him and an interview causes him to be extradited and sentenced to life imprisonment in Italy.  East West Street and The Ratline are books written by an international lawyer in the sense that things that I have picked up in the Court room, the international Court, International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the attention to details, the vital place that individual stories play in narratives about international disputes is immensely central.

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

And somebody with respect for international law, Philippe?

Philippe Sands QC

I am afraid, you know we must avoid getting into party politics or anything, but what a sad day, the one member of the permanent members of the Security Council that could plausibly claim to have a real commitment to the idea of the Rule of Law, in short order ignores a decision of the International Court of Justice in one of my cases without descent ruled that the Chagos Archipelago belongs to Mauritius not the United Kingdom and made it very clear as the General Assembly has now decided that all the Chagossians who were forcibly removed back between ’68 and ’73, are entitled to return to their homes.  The failure incidentally to allow them to return, I think, arguably falls within Article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court continuing deportation and unlawful forceable removal, crime against humanity.  And then of course in relation to the Internal Market Bill, a Government that proposes legislation which on its face violates a treaty signed, ratified by the United Kingdom just a few months ago, sends the most terrible signal, the most terrible signal.  The United States and the United Kingdom are the countries that led the world in giving us the idea of human rights, giving us the idea of a rules based international order and they both stand on the brink, the combination of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, I think has led to an extraordinary about turn.  Who would have imagined on the 20 November 1945, if you had been in Court room 600 looking at who the prosecutors were, Robert Jackson, Hartley Shawcross, David Maxwell Fyfe, looking at that Court room and who was in the dock, that it would be Germany seventy-five years later that is the bastion of liberal democracy and the idea of Rule of Law in international relations?  How the great are fallen.  It’s a very distressing time.  All from Mishcons, I know my beloved son.

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

It’s a pleasure.  Thank you. 

Philippe Sands QC

The person at Mishcons who may be on, warm greetings to you and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Take care.

Philippe Sands QC

Thanks a lot.

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Good luck in your trial.

Philippe Sands QC

Thank you.  Bye.

Louis Flannery QC, Partner

Mishcon de Reya

Bye.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.

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