A couple of weekends ago in The Observer, there was an article, 50 documentaries you need to see, introduced by Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s Storyville. The following night the Storyville slot on BBC Four featured an outstanding documentary concerned with history, guilt and justice directed by David Evans in which human rights lawyer Philippe Sands – whose family, all but one, were Jews murdered by Nazis at Lviv – accompanied the sons of two prominent Nazi leaders on a journey across Europe and into the darkness of the past shared by all three men.

Imagine what it must be like to grow up as the child of a mass murderer.

That’s the first sentence spoken in the film by Sands, one of the world’s leading international human rights lawyers and professor of international law at University College London. The mass murderers are two Nazi war criminals, both of whom were, disturbingly, also lawyers.

Hans Frank at Nuremberg
Hans Frank at the Nuremberg Trial

Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer and, from October 1939, governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland where he was directly involved in the mass murder of Jews and Poles; at Nuremberg, he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and was executed.

Otto von Wächter (right) with other German Nazi government officials of occupied Poland
Otto von Wächter (right) with other German Nazi government officials of occupied Poland

Otto von Wächter was, from January 1942 to July 1944, Governor of Galicia and Frank’s deputy and in charge of transportation to the concentration camps. In an article for the Financial Times, Sands said of his service in Lemberg:

He would have worked closely with the SS, policing the Jewish ghetto created a few months earlier. Over a period of 18 months, Wächter’s administration supported the deportation and murder of just about every Jew in the city and surrounding areas.

This meant, in effect, shipping the Jews off to the Belzec death camp where 500,000 people were murdered in a little under a year.

In 1945, protected by the Catholic Church, he managed to escape to the Vatican where he died of a kidney infection in July 1949.

The film follows Sands as he gets to know the sons of these two men, both of whom were born in 1939 and so too young to be implicated in their father’s crimes. Yet each of them has responded in different ways to their inheritance. Frank’s son Niklas has come to terms with what his father did, and condemns absolutely everything about his father. Von Wächter’s son Horst, on the other hand, remains convinced that his father was a decent man who had no real choice.

Philippe Sands
Philippe Sands

Sands became interested in these men while doing research for a book about the origins of the law on crimes against humanity. Much of this law originated in the work of two great Jewish lawyers, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who both had connections with Lviv where Sands’ own maternal grandfather came from, and where Frank was responsible for the murder of virtually the entire Jewish population, including Sands’ family.

Wachter's son Horst (left), Frank's son Niklas (right) and Philippe Sands (centre)
Von Wachter’s son Horst (left), Frank’s son Niklas (right) and Philippe Sands (centre)

A key aspect of the film is the way in which it tracks the relationship between Philippe and the two Germans. For much of the documentary Sands remains composed as he discusses with both men the reality of who their fathers were and what they did. Niklas and Horst, now well into their seventies, are both surprisingly forthcoming, sharing memories and family photographs, with Horst giving Sands access to some extraordinary home movies. In Bavaria, Niklas takes Sands to visit the Frank’s summer home, now a ruin, that he knew in his childhood. In another sequence, Horst shows Sands around von Wächter’s dilapidated family castle, near Vienna.

Remarkably, we see Niklas and Horst calmly responding to questions in a public forum held in London, while Sands’ conversations with Niklas and even Horst remain civil, though a palpable tension grows as Horst, even in the face of incontestable evidence, refuses to accept what his father did. Both Philippe and Niklas repeatedly present Horst with evidence of his father’s responsibility, but each time the evidence is dismissed. Finally, in a revealing episode towards the end of the film, he appears to take pride in his father’s wartime record.

The film follows the three men to Poland where Frank and von Wächter exercised their authority. In Krakow’s Wawel castle, Niklas stands silently before Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, seized by the Nazis in 1939, and which Niklas had last seen at the age of five, in the summer of 1944, when it hung in his father’s quarters in the castle.

Still from Hans Frank's colour film shot in the Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940
Still from Hans Frank’s colour film shot in the Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940

Then we see glimpses of colour film shot for Hans Frank in the Krakow ghetto, probably in 1940. Niklas recalls how, as a child, he would often accompany his mother on trips into the ghetto, ‘shopping for clothes’. When Philippe, incredulous, queries him, Niklas replies, drily, that most likely she would have set the prices.

Another piece of Frank’s colour footage from the Krakow ghetto moves Philippe deeply: it catches in the crowd the smiling face of a young girl in a red dress. Sands wonders: ‘Who was she?’

My Nazi Legacy Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940
My Nazi Legacy: in the Krakow Ghetto, circa 1940

Eventually, the trio journey to Lvov, where Sands’ lost over eighty members of his own family when they were murdered under the at the hands of Nazi policies implemented by von Wächter and Frank.

In January 1942, von Wächter was appointed governor of the district of Galicia. He was based in Lemberg, now Lviv in Ukraine. Seven months later, he implemented orders from the SS to eradicate the Jews from the town’s ghetto. His actions in office were documented by the Jewish writer and activist Simon Wiesenthal, who lived in Lviv during the German invasion.

In his book The Murderers Among Us, Wiesenthal documented how von Wächter personally oversaw the transportation of four thousand Jews to extermination camps (Wiesenthal’s mother was among them). ‘Wächter killed at least 800,000 Jews’, he wrote. In 1943 Otto von Wächter created the first Waffen SS division that included Ukrainians – nationalists who volunteered in large numbers to fight the approaching Red Army.

In a striking scene, Philippe and Horst stand in the remains of a synagogue where Philippe’s ancestors worshipped before it was burnt down and then later murdered on orders signed off by Horst’s father. Horst makes the familiar claim that his father would have been shot if he’d refused to kill or carry out orders. To which Philippe responds: ‘because it was inevitable, does that remove responsibility?’ Horst objects: ‘I have so many documents from people who knew him personally who said he was a decent character.’

My Nazi Legacy: near Lvov
My Nazi Legacy: near Lvov

Here is the heart of the film. When visiting one of the locations where a series of mass murders took place, Horst insists on being shown ‘the exact date and who was responsible and present here.’ In the film’s most visually stunning moment, David Evans has his camera move around the three men as they stand silently, their backs to each other, finally unable to communicate.

The final break between Philippe and Niklas on the one hand, and Horst comes when they happen to encounter a celebration held every year to celebrate von Wächter’s Waffen SS Division. Horst appears to revel in the fact that his father is venerated by neo-Nazis in Ukraine today – as a man who helped to forge a sense of national consciousness and identity in the struggle against the Soviets.

Writing in the Financial Times, Philippe Sands recalled this moment:

By the time we reached the field near Brody and the festivities to honour Wächter’s SS Galizien Division, we had the material to make a film, one constructed around disparate tensions driven by a swathe of different emotions, sincerely held. Horst felt uninhibited enough to allow us to see for ourselves how comfortable he was in surroundings that recalled — and celebrated — another age. His actions offered an insight into the nature of complicity, one that flows through the channels of filial affect and family history. For him, blood will always be thicker than water. But not for Niklas.

As for me, I found myself caught between pillars of love and hate, walking a tightrope that connected extreme and apparently unshakeable sentiments. I could understand the human instincts that drove each son in his own direction, the love of the father, the cruelty of the facts. Yet it was inevitable that the journey would alter the shape of our triangle, each shift recorded by the camera. The deeper we went, the more difficult it was to play the role of moderator. In these bloody places, submerged into the experiences of those whose lives had been destroyed by the actions of Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter, I was no longer able to resist the pull of becoming their representative.

Finally, Philippe and Niklas go to Nuremberg and the courtroom where Niklas’s father was tried. In the prison cell where his father spent his last night, Niklas refuses to feel any sympathy for him.

While Frank’s father was convicted of crimes against humanity by means of the concept of ‘chain of command responsibility’, von Wächter was never captured and tried. Stephen Frosh in his review of the film for Jewish Quarterly addressed the question of why Horst’s refusal to admit his father’s guilt matters:

The film does not turn up any stones on this: the Jews were killed, and the Nazis killed them, under Frank’s command and under the command of von Wächter. So why exactly does it matter if Horst acknowledges this fully; what difference does it make?

Sands’ answer to this is on two levels. One of these is what he calls a “personal instinct”—he likes Horst, and Horst’s equivocation interferes with this liking, making it harder to sustain; he want Horst to be better than he really is, to “recognise the facts.” But, Sands says, there is something else, something “professional” that comes from his life in international courts and tribunals. Horst’s position tends to undermine this system because courts and tribunals can only deal with a small number of cases, creating a large space which can be taken advantage of by those who are not prosecuted. It is in this space that Horst can effectively say of his father, “he was never convicted; he was a good man.”

This means that unless people like Horst can see that prosecution and official conviction is not everything, a division is opened up: there are the proven guilty and “everyone else is fine”—yet they are not fine, as we well know. So Sands identifies his zeal, if one can call it that, to force Horst to see the truth about his father as part of his professional formation. As a lawyer, he knows that the system of law can be abused and that its integrity depends on the realisation that official justice is not the only condition of moral judgement.

See also

4 thoughts on “My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement

  1. Thank you for publishing this. The programme was one of the most disturbing I have watched – not that I was shocked or surprised, but that I found my own emotions and attitudes being inspected, dug over, as I watched, as well as those of the three protagonists in the film. Yes, the Ukrainian sequence was the most worrying, but every minute of the programme raised questions among us, the viewers, as well as of the two children. It was compulsive viewing; perhaps it should have been compulsory.

  2. Thanks Gerry & Steve Clarke too, yes it should be compulsory – “We must not forget”, which is the motto on my Dad’s RAF plate. The photo of the “young girl in a red dress” is remarkably reminiscent of “the girl in the red coat” in Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” – quite spooky really ! The girl in the 1993 film was played by a 3 year old actor Oliwia Dabrowski who “was horrified when she first saw the film at the age of eleven. It attracted well-meaning attention from school-friends, but she is still angry & ashamed at her unwitting involvement in a film that showed so much horror”. Steven Spielberg states that “America, Russia & Britain knew all about the Holocaust as it was happening. We didn’t assign any of our forces to stop the inexorable march toward death. It was a huge bloodstain, a primary color on everybody’s radar, but no-one did anything about it, & that’s why I wanted to bring in the color red”. Synchronicity or what ? And just another reminder that we are all connected & all One … WE MUST NOT FORGET, Paul

  3. I saw the film at the cinema (FACT) a few months ago. It was gripping but as always with documentaries it kept to a fairly tight narrative, and left out all the variations. There was a brilliant study of the children of the Nazis called Legacy of Silence by the late Dan Bar-On which came out in 1989. He conducted, in very difficult circumstances, interviews with dozens of the now grown up children and their families. The variety of responses to their criminal fathers was striking.

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