Friday, December 11, 2020

Most Interesting 2020: Sands, The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive

The fourth in our series "Most Interesting 2020":
Philippe Sands, The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2020)

Philippe Sands’ The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive is a book by an international lawyer that is not exactly about international law. At least not ostensibly. Instead, it is about what international law is about. The reader follows Sands around the world, often along with Horst von Wächter, the youngest son of Otto von Wächter, the Nazi Brigadeführer who disappears following the War and whose life Sands traces and tries to understand. Sands leads readers on three journeys. First, from Austria where von Wächter was when the War ended, through the Alps where he hid for three years, and then as he continued to Rome and prepared to abscond to Argentina. Next, it is a journey that traces the final days and death of the would-be escapee, the clouded circumstances of which are set amongst an oscillating commitment to post-War accountability and the dawn of Cold War realpolitik. And finally, it is a human journey that tells the tale of a son who is unable to comprehend the totality of his father’s crimes and of the descendant of the victims who works to reconcile the fate of his own family members and so many like them. In each of these journeys we see the enduring influence of international law. Sands provides the context that is so often missing from the texts and cases that document the origins of the institutions that give international law its contemporary shape. If the mechanisms that emerged following the Second World War and now constitute the architecture of international criminal law are, in some significant part, intended to create a historical narrative, to document a horrific truth that causes so many — perpetrator, victim, witness — to avert their eyes, to misremember, or to deny, Sands tells the stories that exist in the gaps where formal accountability falls short and that are often lost to history’s willful ignorance. The Ratline raises profound legal questions about complicity and responsibility. Through the art of storytelling, it pushes beyond international law’s formal boundaries to show our discipline’s broader purpose, its persistent flaws, but also its continued relevancy and potential.

David Hughes
Trebek Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law