From rowing champion to the Holocaust: unpublished photos reveal Wächter’s trail

Family albums, recently made public, show the intimate life of the SS commander

Roberto Almeida | Hagenberg (Austria)

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Updated Sep 20th, 9:02 p.m.

"Bei meiner division SS [Next to my SS division]," says the photo caption, stored in the attic of the Hagenberg Castle, Austria. It shows, side by side, Karl Otto Gustav Freiherr von Wächter, then governor of Galicia (today northwestern Ukraine), Heinrich Himmler, commanding general of the SS, and Hans Frank, general governor of the invaded Poland.

My father thought he could convince Hitler against the extermination of jews, says Wächter’s son

This portrait, which gathered three of the main people responsible for the Holocaust, symbolizes the highpoint of Wächter’s political career within the Nazi party, as an SS commander and governor. The Viennese boy, born on July 8, 1901, fulfilled functions there that later made him become part of the group formed by the biggest criminals of the 20th century, with a crucial role in the Second World War.

As a boy, during the First World War, Wächter followed his father, the Austrian General Josef Freiherr von Wächter, member of the defunct Austrian nationalist party Großdeutsche Volkspartei, or Greater German People’s Party, as he moved from country to country. His childhood was built on the ideal of a strong German identity.

Archive/Horst Wächter

In the same dusty photo album, still unpublished, more images recreate his youth in Trieste, Italy, where he attended primary school and learned Italian, and in Budweis, then part of the German stronghold in the Czech Republic. He was the youngest of the minister’s three children. He had two sisters.

After arriving to Vienna, soaked in a rampant nationalism, he joined the "German Armed Forces" (Deutsche Wehr). Between 1919 and 1922, he won Austrian rowing championships twice, but also practiced swimming, climbing and snow skiing. He entered law school at the University of Vienna, and, in eight semesters, became a lawyer.

On 1 April 1923, at age 21, Otto Gustav von Wächter, or just Otto Wächter, took a crucial step in his career. On that date, he signed his membership to the then-banned Nazi party in Austria, the Nationalsozialistische Partei Deutscheösterreiches, or National Socialist German Worker’s Party in German-Austria.

Registered under number 301 093, the young Viennese man had become a part of the SA or Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary group that supported the rise of Adolf Hitler from 1920 through his election as chancellor in 1933. His fate, from that point, was already sealed and would culminate with the invasion of Poland and the start of World War II.

Personality and ascension

Official documents of the Nazi party, analyzed by Opera Mundi in the files of activist Simon Wiesenthal, in Vienna, describe Wächter’s personality with compliments. He had an "expansive character", and the "willpower" to "implement decisions." He was rated as "very clever", "fair" and "vigorous". He drank moderately and was a nonsmoker.

In the photo album, the newly admitted Nazi appears to be athletic, attending sports clubs. On one of his snow skiing trips, in 1929, when he broke a leg, he met Charlotte Bleckmann, the daughter of an industrialist, who he would later marry, in 1932, and with whom he would have six children - two boys and four girls.

Personal archive/Horst Wächter

Otto Wachter last photo, on spring 1949

Only two years later, in 1934, Wächter would take part directly in the coup d’état attempt (Putsch), which failed, but killed the Austrian Chancellor at the time, Engelbert Dollfuss. He was allied with Benito Mussolini, who, with his fascist’s claims, made the Communist Party illegal and dissolved the Austrian Parliament. The plot, while not giving immediate results, paved the way for the process of annexation of Austria, the so-called Anschluss, in 1938.

Distancing himself from family life was inevitable. In the midst of the political upheaval, Wächter took refuge in Berlin, where he would fulfill duties as a lawyer for the Nazi party. His following portraits would be largely related to his rise in the military hierarchy until he joined the SS, or Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s Protection Squadron, headed by Heinrich Himmler.

Archive/Horst Wächter

Otto Wächter (left) during meeting with Schutzstaffel leader, Heinrich Himmler (center)

During the period in which he earned his major promotions in the SS (and he earned several of them from 1935 until the end of the war) Wächter saved time for pictorials. Proud of his new career achievements, he posed in various positions. In the photo captions, he would make notes about his ascension in the military hierarchy, as in 1938, when he became SS-Standartenführer, the top rank of a field officer, equivalent to colonel.

War and Ghetto

That year, the same in which Hitler entered Austria, Wächter already had two children – he would go on to have four more, following the Nazi ideology of having the most offspring possible. A typical disciplined bureaucrat, he would win Himmler’s confidence and leave to assume the most decisive function of his career in 1939, when he became governor of Krakow, Poland, recently invaded, and ordered the persecution of the Jews.

"All Jews over 12 years in the district of Krakow should, beginning on the 1st of December 1939, put a visible mark on their homes... The Jews who don´t do it will suffer a severe punishment..." he ordered, as well as other measures to compel the Polish to do forced labor. In 1941, he would also dictate the creation of the Krakow Ghetto.

Wächter was questioned by his own father, in a letter about the Nazi policies towards the Jews. The document is saved in the archives of his son, Horst, in the Hagenberg Castle. In response, on April 22nd. 194, he regretted the letter and said that "the measures interested the nation as a whole". Months later, at a government meeting on October 20, 1941, Wächter would say that the "radical solution to the Jewish issue is inevitable”.

Archive Horst Wächter

Otto Wächter with their children

Galicia and Wiesenthal

In January 1942, Wächter was appointed governor of the district of Galicia, in Lemberg, now Lviv, Ukraine. Seven months later, he would take orders from the SS to eradicate the Jews from the town’s ghetto. His actions in office would make him "the most hated Nazi" by the Jewish writer and activist Simon Wiesenthal, who lived in Lviv during the German invasion.

In August 15, 1942, Wiesenthal related in his book The Murderess Among Us, that Wächter personally oversaw the transportation of four thousand Jews to extermination camps – Wiesenthal’s mother was among them, and was never seen again. Wiesenthal himself would also be sent to labor camps, but survived and dedicated his life to hunting Nazis after the war. "Wächter killed at least 800,000 Jews", he wrote. Wächter's son, Horst, disputes the information (read the interview here).

Government of Poland
At the end of the period in which he headed Galicia’s administration, Wächter invested in making bonds with Andreyvitch Andrey Vlasov, a notorious opponent of Josef Stalin, and, in 1945, at the end of the war, was transferred to the Reichssicherheithauptamt, the intelligence department of the Reich in Berlin, where he lead the creation of volunteer armies to fight alongside the Nazis. The guerrilla project did not bear fruit. The war was already near its the end.

[Otto Wächter during speech in Poland]

Defeat and flight

April 8, 1945, started the most turbulent, and until now, poorly documented phase of Wächter’s life. The letters between him and his wife, Charlotte Bleckmann, gathered in Horst Wächter’s archive, in the Hagenberg Castle, are the only sources of information about what was to come.

When the war was about to end, the former governor of Galicia called Charlotte, who lived in Zell am See, near Salzburg, Austria. Shortly thereafter, she buried the family’s jewels and burned files referring to his government - possibly the Wächter Archive, considered very important, by Wiesenthal, to clarify the Nazi role in Krakow and Galicia.

"My mother was desperate and did not know what to do," Horst said to Opera Mundi. At the time, he was just six years old, but clearly remembers family’s first steps after the war. The father was a fugitive who made sporadic visits and was treated like "an uncle from South America."

Beginning in 1946, Wächter adopted a false identity - circulating under the name of Alfredo Reinhardt - and then escaped to Rome, under the zeal of Alois Hudal, bishop of Santa Maria Dell'anima, near Piazza Navona.

Government of Poland

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

The temple, with German ties, was the springboard for Nazis who, armed with false passports provided by the Red Cross, fled to anonymity in different countries and continents. Wächter tried, but he didn’t receive the document before he died. In letters exchanged with a friend who already lived in Argentina, he cited Brazil as the easier and safer destination to enter, even without a passport.

Sudden death

Shortly after getting information about escape routes, in May 1949, Wächter was pronounced dead. The date of his death, which appears in the documents of the family, is July 15th of that year. Alois Hudal, the bishop who became notorious for helping the Nazis, was in charge of giving the last rites. The cause was a severe jaundice, which he had contracted while swimming in the canals of the Italian capital.

Government of Poland
"I regret that National Socialism did not reach an agreement with the church. Many things would be different in Germany and in Europe today. The power of Bolshevism would have been destroyed", Wächter would have told Hudal before dying. The body would be buried in the Verano cemetery, in Rome.

The death of the "most hated Nazi" would only make it into to newspapers two months later, in September 1949, when he was classified as "Dolfuss’ murderer" for his participation in the Putsch of 1934. Wiesenthal never believed in Hudal’s version and sought, until 1987, without success, information about the Wächter Archive, which was probably burned by Charlotte.

Only 22 years later, in 1971, his remains would return to Austria secretly and illegally, in a maneuver carried out by his wife. Armed with documents to transport the bones to Palermo, Sicily, she managed to take him to the Pfarrkirche Fieberbrunn cemetery in Tyrol. In 1985, Charlotte died and was buried beside him.

Since then, the family has failed to seek or disclose information about the history of the patriarch, Otto Wächter. The last picture, with everyone gathered, dates back to spring 1949, months before he was pronounced dead. The subject had become taboo until Horst decided to review the documents he had at home. They tell his story in detail, providing information still missing from the bibliography of the Second World War.