In a new film, Philippe Sands goes on a journey into the past with two sons of prominent Nazisby Sameer Rahim / January 5, 2016 / Leave a comment
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Like many other descendants of Holocaust victims, Philippe Sands wanted to find out more about the circumstances of their deaths. The lawyer and academic, author of Lawless World and Torture Team, travelled to the Ukrainian city of Lviv in 2010, where his grandfather was born in 1904. “He never wanted to talk about it,” Sands told me, referring to the deaths of 80 members of his family. “I went back wanting to fill the gaps.” While he was there, he heard about Hans Frank, a senior Nazi in Ukraine found guilty of war crimes at Nuremberg and hanged in 1946. Sands met Frank’s son Niklas, a journalist who wrote a “remarkable book” in 1987 excoriating his own father’s actions. Niklas introduced him to Horst von Wächter, whose father was a Nazi who had worked with Hans Frank. Horst, however, had a more forgiving attitude towards his father.
The story of the three men’s friendship and their exploration of memory and guilt is told in a subtle and affecting new film My Nazi Legacy, directed by David Evans. I asked Sands why he thought there was such a marked difference between the two sons’ reactions. “Niklas despises his father,” he told me. “When he was asked by John Humphrys on the Today Programme about whether his father was a monster, he replied: no, that’s too generous and too easy: he was a very refined, civilised man. He did what he did, knowing what he was doing.” On the other hand, Sands continued, “Horst seems to love his father for reasons that are not immediately apparent: he really didn’t know him, yet there is this deep desire to honour his father, which actually really resonated with me.”
Many people who see the film have confused reactions, he told me. “They ought to really like Niklas and really hate Horst but actually it’s more complicated than that. The two polar extremes emerge over the course of the film.” His own role as neutral mediator is also disrupted. “I’m trying to be the dispassionate, academic-type…