Reckoning with a Nazi Father – The New Yorker

Posted By on February 16, 2021

A son of the senior Nazi member Otto Wchter maintains that his father, indicted for mass murder but never tried or convicted, died an innocent man.Photograph from Alamy

In early January, a man born in the small Austrian village of Thal appeared in an eight-minute video, delivering a powerful statement on the storming of the U.S. Capitol. One thing leads to the next, he warned, emphasizing that he spoke from experience: I grew up in Austria. Arnold Schwarzeneggers defense of democracy and its institutions, assisted by his sword from Conan the Barbarian and a cinematic score, drew a parallel with the events of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, in November, 1938, when mobs attacked Jews across the Reich, from Berlin to Vienna. The video was viewed by tens of millions around the world, but several Austrian acquaintances of mine noted that it got less play in their country than in others.

Schwarzenegger spoke personally, evoking a youth spent in the company of broken men drinking away their guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history. They were ordinary folk, he suggested, not necessarily rabidly anti-Semitic or Nazi, who just went along. Ive never shared this so publicly, because it is a painful memory, he continued, introducing us to his own drunken, violent fathera man like so many in the neighborhood. How did Schwarzenegger explain such behavior? The pain of war wounds, or maybe what they saw or did. What they didthe words hinted at dark elements. Schwarzenegger might have said that he knew about these things because his father had been a member of the Nazi Party. It is no criticism that he didnt reveal this fact, even if the subtlety of his words meant that many viewers missed out on an individual reckoning. Such silences, often a handmaiden to the lies and lies and lies of which Schwarzenegger did speak, have, in recent years, intruded into my life with some frequency. The past in Austria, it seems, is never really embraced, even if aspects of it tend to be addressed with circumspection.

On Christmas Day, 2020, I received an e-mail from Vienna. The correspondent introduced herself as Marie-Theres Arnbom, a historian and the great-granddaughter of Robert Winterstein, in whose house she lived, in the parish of Ptzleinsdorf, on the outskirts of the city. A renowned lawyer, Winterstein served as Procurator General (chief public prosecutor) of Austria until March, 1938, when, following the Nazi takeover and the countrys incorporation into the Third Reich, he was fired, stripped of his pension, arrested (on Kristallnacht), and deported to Buchenwald, from where he never returned. His family retained a memento of his removal, a typewritten letter, dated September 14, 1938, closed with a confident but indecipherable signature. For decades, the family wondered about the identity of the writer.

Eighty years later, the mystery was solved, Arnbom wrote, thanks to my book, The Ratline. Recently published in German, and gifted to her at Christmas, the book mentioned her great-grandfather, one of the at least 16,200 Austrian civil servants removed from their posts for the wrong of being Jewish. The Suberungsaktion, or cleansing action, was implemented by the books central character, Otto Wchter, an Austrian lawyer, Nazi, and S.S. member. He fled Vienna for Berlin after leading the failed July Putsch of 1934 against Chancellor Engelbert Dollfusss government, only to return four years later, in triumph, to be appointed state secretary. It was his signature, I confirmed in my book, that graced the unhappy family heirloom.

The deciphering of the intricate signature was not, however, Arnboms reason for writing. Remarkably, she explained, Otto Wchter happened to be the grandfather of her neighbor and friend of many years. A year earlier, she and the Wchter granddaughter had attended an appearance that Id made in a Viennese theatre, unaware of the letters hidden family connections. What a strange situation, Arnbom musedWchters son, who was also named Otto, had, as a deacon at the parish church in Ptzleinsdorf, officiated at her wedding. You have known a family for so long, are on friendly terms, and suddenly there is another connection that radically changes the relationship.

The path to this reckoning in Vienna was circuitous, a consequence of an invitation I had received a decade ago. My day job is as a professor of international law and a barrister, litigating cases before international tribunals. Might you come and deliver a lecture in the Ukraine, I was asked, on cases that you have argued on crimes against humanity and genocide? I accepted and went to Lviv. This was not so much to give the talk but to find the house where my own Austrian grandfather, Leon Buchholz, was born, in 1904. Back then, the city was Lemberg, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Ihaving a grandfather who never spoke to me of the years in Lemberg or Vienna, or wartime Paris, to where he escaped in 1939wanted to fill the gaps in the family story. These were matters of silence.

I found my grandfathers house on Szeptycki Street, and more. I learned about the events in the city and surrounding areas, under Nazi occupation, and the senior Nazis who played a key role in the exterminations. Otto Wchter was among them. His enthusiastic and efficient Viennese acts of cleansing brought rapid promotion: first as governor of Krakow, where he built the notorious ghetto; then as governor in Lemberg of the District of Galicia, where he oversaw the implementation of the Final Solution, under the guidance of Heinrich Himmler. His efforts later brought an indictment for mass murder of a hundred thousand or more Jews and Poles, including my grandfathers family in Lemberg. Hunted by the Americans, Poles, and Soviets, and the Vienna-based Simon Wiesenthal, Wchter escaped, hoping to make his way to South America along the ratline, which was later used by Adolf Eichmann, his colleague and fellow-Austrian. Wchter died in 1949, under mysterious circumstances, in a fifteenth-century hospital ward in Rome, in the shadow of St. Peters, in the arms of a Nazi-loving bishop.

The visit to Lviv prompted more research and, eventually, an introduction to Horst, the fourth of Otto and Charlotte Wchters six children. Otto was never tried or convicted, Horst liked to tell me, which meant that on his death Otto was to be considered an innocent man. That fact created a space, which came to be occupied by the silence of the family, one that allowed painful facts to be avoided, the truth to be bypassed, and reckonings put off. In due course, Horst and I made a BBC documentary, and I wrote a book, East West Street, in which Horst and his father were minor characters. At my suggestion, he deposited copies of the letters, diaries, and papers of his parents with the Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., and offered me a full set, just short of nine thousand pages of love and horror on a single USB drive. To prove I am not a Nazi, he explained with a grin. The rich, dark material became the basis for a podcast series (with Stephen Fry as the voice of Otto, and Laura Linney that of Charlotte) and a second book, The Ratline, which lifted the lid on top of the Nazi couples life, and brought the introduction to Arnbom and many others like her.

These works have catalyzed an outpouring of communications that I had not expected, with many from the children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Such readers, it turns out, are especially attentive to points of detail, and are often prompted to reach out to the author of a book by the mention of a family member or a notorious location or character. In this way, since 2016, I have received about thirty communications a month, more than a thousand in all. Over the years, I have acquired newly discovered family members (in Los Angeles), and received a myriad assortment of astonishing personal tales. There is the son of the U.S. Army man named Lucid who hunted Wchter and arrested Himmlers wife and daughter, helping himself to the Fhrers Christmas cards to the Himmlers; the cards, with Hitlers impenetrably telling signature, now reside in a quiet bungalow in Albuquerque. Or the Catholic priest from Kansas City, who sent a reminiscence about the summer of 1969, when he lodged with the Baroness, as Wchters widow styled herself, at Haus Wartenberg, her guesthouse in Salzburg, unaware that she had illicitly buried her husband in the garden. Or the ninety-two-year-old former S.S. man who went on the run with Wchter, describing how the pair followed the famous Nuremberg trial from a hiding place high in the Austrian mountainswhere the British and Americans were mostly too lazy to go up into the mountains, he added, with a grin.

Charlotte spent her final years scrubbing her husbands name out of the public domain, challenging broadcasters and others who aired calumnies about him. I do not want my children to believe that he is a war criminal who murdered hundreds of Jews, she told a journalist, in 1977. The truth about Otto Wchter disappeared into the shadows, until Horst shared the family archive. His motivation is uncertain, although it seems to be driven by instincts of openness and denial, a strange combination that nevertheless allows him to sleep in proximity of a portrait of his godfather, Arthur Seyss Inquart, the first (and brief) Chancellor of Nazi Austria, who went on to rule the Netherlands for five years and was hanged at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Horst, whom Ive found to be gentle and prone to be economical with uncomfortable facts and is no anti-Semite or Holocaust denier, professes a filial duty to find the good in his father. His efforts have not endeared him to the family, an extensive and diverse clan that encompasses lawyers and hoteliers, several with a deep Catholic faith, and one convert to Islam. Charlotte and Ottos children have produced twenty-three living grandchildren, and most, it seems, prefer to keep the grandfather out of the limelight. This imposes a significant burden.

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Reckoning with a Nazi Father - The New Yorker

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