In 2012, while researching a book on his specialty — international law — the Anglo-Jewish attorney and writer Philippe Sands was introduced to Niklas Frank, the bearish son of Hans Frank, the Nazi governor-general of Poland who was hanged at Nuremberg for his role in the murder of three million Jews. Niklas was the author of a memoir, published in Germany in 1987, that represented the first public denunciation of a high-ranking Nazi by one of his children.
Niklas Frank, in turn, offered to introduce Sands to Horst von Wächter, whose own father, SS-Gruppenführer Otto Wächter, served as the Nazi governor of Galicia from 1942 and escaped prosecution under the protection of the Vatican.
Frank had a warning for Sands: “Horst takes a rather different attitude to mine.”
The unlikely relationship among these three men — the sons of two high-ranking Nazis and a Jewish human rights lawyer who lost family in the Shoa — is the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary, What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy. Written and narrated by Sands and directed by David Evans (Fever Pitch with Colin Firth, Downton Abbey), the film is a remarkably intimate examination of familial loyalty, national guilt, and the human capacity for both evil and self-delusion.
The familial loyalty belongs almost exclusively to Horst Wächter, who cannot bring himself to condemn his father or even acknowledge Otto Wächter’s well-documented complicity in the murder of Polish Jews. Otto Wächter headed the civilian government in Lemberg, known to the Russians as Lvov and the Poles as Lviv. During his term, the Jewish population disappeared, either “deported” or murdered. “My father was against this,” insists Horst, contrary to every scrap of evidence Sands can produce. “There are many different sides about the whole thing.”
Niklas Frank has indeed a “rather different attitude” toward his father, frequently flashing the photograph he carries of his father moments after his hanging. As Sands explains, “Niklas did not miss an opportunity to denounce his father’s crime.”
If the film were fiction, the psychological contrasts between the two men would seem almost too pat. Niklas recalls an emotionally sterile upbringing by parents who apparently hated each other and would have divorced had Hitler given his permission. According to Niklas, his father suspected that he, Niklas, was actually the son of one of his mother’s many lovers.
Horst grew up in the bosom of a good Nazi family in a storybook Austrian castle, seen in remarkable home movies. He tears up only when he recalls the Allied bombers jettisoning their payloads in the lake where his family vacationed; the memory represents for him the sharp break between an idyllic childhood and a lifetime living under the shadow of his father’s “alleged” crimes.
The film is at its most compelling when the three men debate history while undertaking a macabre road trip into the dark past. In a university lecture hall that once housed the Diet of Galicia, Niklas reads a speech from his father thanking Otto Wächter for his role in emptying Lemberg of its Jews. In the ruins of Zolkiew's once grand synagogue — after Sands reveals that his grandfather’s entire extended family perished in the “Grosse Aktion” carried out under Otto Wächter’s watch — Horst can only speak of his optimism that the city’s Jews will one day return. “Why are you resisting?” Sands demands of Horst. “Seventy-five thousand people killed. That’s a father to love?”
Niklas is convinced that Horst is or could become a Nazi; Sands thinks Horst’s loyalty is a product of psychology, not ideology. His sympathies — and the audience’s — are tested on a visit to western Ukraine, where a local ceremony remembers the Germans and Ukrainians who died fighting the Soviets in 1944. Horst appears to beam as young men in Nazi uniforms — who, like Horst, prefer to remember Otto as a defender of the Ukrainians against Bolshevik aggression — shake the hand of the Nazi’s elderly son.
Such scenes are reminders that it is often impossible to separate family devotion from national ideology, however twisted. Millions have died at the hands of those who, out of love or loyalty, refused to disavow their forebears’ hatreds and prejudices. Seventy years after the end of World War II, and a few days before the anniversary of Kristallnacht, it’s hard to see what’s changed in the hearts of men and women, except perhaps for the scale of the killing.
And somehow Horst remains a sympathetic character. I saw the film, and met Sands, at a screening in Paramus by the NY Film Critics Circle. Sands told the audience that Horst has paid a terrible price for cooperating on the documentary: Family members have shunned him for even discussing their Nazi past, and he and his wife live on the edge of poverty. And even as he clings to the idea of his father’s innocence, Horst donated his family’s damning archives to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Sands said the difference between the men wasn’t only about the past, but the future. “Niklas wanted to draw a line through the family history so that his daughter can have a normal life. And she has.”
“You can’t say the same for Horst’s daughter.”