The Spying Game Episode 8: Hiding In Plain Sight
JODHI MAY: From the SPYSCAPE Podcast Network. This is The Spying Game. Over this season of The Spying Game, Rory Bremner will be joined by a mix of experts in the field of deception and fellow enthusiasts from the world of entertainment as they attempt to sort the Moscow Rules from the Hollywood fabrication.
RORY BREMNER: Hello and welcome to The Spying Game. I'm Rory Bremner, comedian, mimic, spy enthusiast, and professional liar. Each week on the show, we're tackling topics including double agents disguise, terrorism, and betrayal. This time on The Spying Game, it's...
JODHI MAY: Hiding In Plain Sight.
PHILIPPE SANDS: Otto Wächter was a mountain killer. He was an SS division that operated in Italy and Yugoslavia, and his job was surviving in high altitudes, and killing partisans, communists and Jews. His unit killed many, many such people.
DAVE BUTLER: Within an hour of making the phone call, the area was flooded with secret police looking for us.
PHILIPPE SANDS: Can you imagine what it is like to have a dad who is hanged at Nuremberg for the murder of 4 million human beings? Living with that burden, it's almost impossible to imagine.
DAVE BUTLER: We had been tasked to get this piece of technical equipment called an ‘exposure for active armor box’. So we hatched a plan to climb on board a train as it left a training area in the dark, get the box off, and then jump off the train and join our vehicle some 10 km up the road.
PHILIPPE SANDS: A pretty unholy alliance was created between the British and the Americans, former Nazis, former Italian fascists, and the Vatican. I mean, I was frankly pretty surprised.
RORY BREMNER: Today, I'm joined by two people for whom The Spying Game is intrinsically linked with concealment. First, we have a multi-award-winning author, professor of law at University College London, a practicing barrister at Matrix Chambers, and a documentarian. He's been described as a weapon of mass instruction. Philippe Sands, welcome to The Spying Game.
PHILIPPE SANDS: Lovely to be with you, Rory. Absolutely lovely.
RORY BREMNER: Philippe, I've had to precis your CV there because just listing it in full would take the whole hour. But what do you think it was about that time between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War? It's catnip to spy enthusiasts.
PHILIPPE SANDS: I think there can have been no other time like it. It just opens up the imagination. The war had come to an end. A new Cold War was beginning and into the mix you throw in particular in the cast of characters - I've written about in a book I wrote called The Ratline - The Vatican, Nazis, Soviets, Americans, and Brits, the Poles, the Jews. It's a toxic mixture, and it opens up the imagination.
RORY BREMNER: I mean, Rome, in the sort of the late ‘40s, joins Berlin in the ‘60s, ‘70s,’80s, and Saigon in the ‘20s, as a city that you'd love to be transported back to. Knowing what we know now about the nests of spies all around is just extraordinary. Alongside Philippe, we have a Cold Warrior who is no stranger to operating behind the Iron Curtain, a former Army officer who served with a British military liaison mission. Captain Dave Butler, hello. Thank you for joining us.
DAVE BUTLER: Thank you for inviting me along.
RORY BREMNER: You were an Army officer, but your unit went above and beyond what we expect of the military in Cold War Germany. Perhaps we could start with the mysteriously titled Brixmis. What was it and how did it operate?
DAVE BUTLER: This was a military liaison mission that was formed after the Second World War as part of an allied get-together after Germany fell. The Russians, the Americans, and the French and us [British] decided that we were going to maintain military forces in Germany and, as such, we had to have in place military liaison missions whose overt task was to liaise between the various armed forces and basically monitor their movements. The covert side was that we were intelligence gatherers.
RORY BREMNER: I mentioned diplomacy. I mean, the vehicles you were in were technically sovereign territory, weren't they? And so you were going around Berlin, wasn't it - and this is in the middle ‘80s - in vehicles which were clearly marked military vehicles. They were sovereign territory. You couldn't be dragged out of these vehicles. But inside, what was the mission you were up to?
DAVE BUTLER: Interesting enough, Berlin was out of bounds to us. We were allowed to roam freely in the rest of former East Germany, from north to south, east to west, except for Berlin, which was well, there was nothing to be gained in Berlin militarily, intelligence-wise. But in the rest of tEast Germany, there were 386,000 Soviet troops deployed, some 250,000 East German troops. So about half a million troops and all their associated equipment. Having us out there, roaming around all these areas, gathering intelligence was a far bigger prize than perhaps just roaming around Berlin.
RORY BREMNER: The vehicles that you were in, were they inviolate? They were sovereign territory.?You were safe, as it were because you were carrying out a diplomatic role? What were the rules of engagement?
DAVE BUTLER: What the Soviets did and the East Germans, of course, they would stage an accident, so they would ram you, knock you off the road, and turn the vehicle over. Then they would use the pretense that they were going in to save the crew. And whilst they were saving the crew, they found all this spying equipment, all the cameras and other bits and pieces that we carried on the vehicle. And then they would present this through what we called the ‘Soviet External Relations Branch’. Our brigadier would be called in and shown all this equipment laid out in front of him. And he would very straight-faced say, “Well, no, actually in the mission, we promote ornithology and bird watching and all the rest of it. And therefore, all of these cameras are only for taking pictures of flora and fauna. They're not spying.”
RORY BREMNER: I mean, it was a fascinating place. What perhaps neither of you know is that in the summer of 1980, I arrived at the Jagdschloss Glienicke, which is a hunting lodge next to the Bridge of Spies. It was actually so, literally, you could see it from the hunting lodge, this bridge, which assumed extraordinary significance.
DAVE BUTLER: That was our way in and out of Berlin, the Glienicker Brücke or the Bridge of Spies. We weren't allowed to go through Checkpoint Charlie. We had to enter Berlin over the Glienicke bridge. It was another way of the Stasi in the KGB keeping an eye on our movements. I've made hundreds of trips on the actual bridge.
RORY BREMNER: At the height of the Cold War. And Berlin itself was fascinating. It seemed to me that West Berlin seemed like it was in Technicolor. It was full of the kind of the life and the freedom of a western capital. And East Berlin, just the other side of the wall, was mysterious and very, very sinister and rather intimidating. Philippe, you mentioned The Ratline and it's an utterly gripping story. And in it, you tell the extraordinary story of the Nazi war criminal, Otto von Wächter, an Austrian who join the National Socialist Party in his very early 20s, in 1923 rose through the ranks as Hitler consolidated his power, and was appointed Governor of Galicia, which I think was in occupied Poland, wasn't it? And he was indicted in 1945 for the murder of over 100,000 people. But while his contemporaries and associates were either hanged or committed suicide, he managed to avoid capture by living in the mountains and ultimately in Rome, which, as you said, was a hotbed of spies and intrigue. What brought Otto von Wächter to your attention, and where did you start to piece the story together?
PHILIPPE SANDS: It was an accidental encounter. I was writing another book called East West Street, in which I was dealing with four men, one of whom was Hans Frank, who had been Adolf Hitler's personal lawyer and was then the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, the whole of it, who also found himself on trial in the famous Nuremberg, the famous case with Hermann Göring and others. And I came to know Hans Frank's son, Nicholas Frank, who's a journalist, a remarkable person. We've become actually pretty good friends. And one day, Nicholas said to me, “Philippe, if you're interested in Lemberg, the governor of Lemberg in District Galicia, as you mentioned, Rory was Otto Wächter. Would you like to meet his son?” And one thing led to another. I wrote a piece for the Financial Times magazine, a profile which they gave the title My Father The Good Nazi. And then we made a film for BBC, Storyville, My Nazi Legacy. And then in the middle of filming, von Wächter and Nick Frank [got] into a bit of a disagreement. And we went to Ukraine and we went to a commemoration of the Waffen SS Galicia division, hundreds of people in Waffen SS uniforms cavorting around the hills of western Ukraine.
RORY BREMNER: What an extraordinary event.
PHILIPPE SANDS: Not a happy day. Horst loved it. Max hated it. And on an on-camera interview, I was questioning Nick Frank, and he said, “You know what? I think Horst could be a new kind of Nazi.” Which I don't think he is. Horst got very upset and asked me, “How do I prove that I'm not a Nazi?” Which is an interesting question. I mean, I think anyone who spends any time in court knows that proving a negative is always tough.
RORY BREMNER: Yes.
PHILIPPE SANDS: And I came up with the idea that he had this huge family archive, his parent's letters, diaries, and everything. I said, “Why don't you give them to a museum? Nazis don't give that kind of material to a museum.” He did. And in that material was all the documentary evidence from 1945, the moment he escaped, the moment he got to Rome, hoping to get to Argentina on The Ratline and dies. And in that material, we took four years able to uncover the Cold War network that existed. You're absolutely right to focus on Rome. I hadn't really appreciated this. I know Rome pretty well. I didn't realize in the postwar years, it was the front line of the Cold War. Why? Because there was a big struggle between the Christian Democrats and the Communists for control and the Americans and the British worried that if the Communists were elected that would become a landing spot for the Soviets in Western Europe. And so, they channeled huge amounts of resources. And it was in that context that a pretty unholy alliance was created between the British and the Americans, former Nazis, former Italian fascists, and the Vatican. I mean, this is probably Dave's bread and butter, but I was frankly pretty surprised.
RORY BREMNER: Well, it's extraordinary that the heart of it was, it was Operation Los Angeles, wasn't it? And this extraordinary pivot where the Nazi fugitives. Yes. They were still being pursued by the Nazi hunters and by those seeking justice. But also they are a useful asset to the Allies, the Americans, in particular in the new war against communism.
PHILIPPE SANDS: I was pretty skeptical, I have to say, when I first stumbled across this material and I'm a courtroom lawyer, so I like seeing things in black and white. I want evidence. I want testimony. I want documents. I don't believe in rumors. So I worked with a wonderful academic in Florida, Norman Goda, and he is the country's leading expert on CIA and CIC archives from that period. An amazing bloke. He said, “Leave it with me.” He ended up finding for me a ‘Project Los Angeles’, which you can get on the web now. It's like a 30-page document. It's an unbelievable read. The head of Project Los Angeles is a US Army character. I got to know his son very well, brilliantly, named Thomas Lucid, and he invented it. And Thomas Lucid is charged with creating a network to infiltrate the Soviets in Rome and around Italy. Who does he hire? So his chief source becomes a guy called Karl Hass, a Nazi SS mass murderer. Pause there. You know, like why are the Americans and the Brits hiring this character to be their chief source? He then hires some sub-sources, eight in total. Three of them are Nazis, three Italian fascists. One is the secretary-general of the Italian Fascist Party who is in prison, but at the same time spying for the Americans. And the other two. I mean, you could have really blown me over with a feather, Vatican officials, an Austrian bishop Alois Hudal who helped Mengele Priebke escape to South America. And then, most unbelievably of all, Pope Pius XII’s chief spokesperson for the press, an Italian cardinal, is a spy for the Americans. Dave, this is your kind of world, not mine. I was so bemused by this that I had to go and have a natter with my neighbor about what on earth was going on.
RORY BREMNER: Well, we'll come to that because you are the master of revelation as the story develops. But within that context, wheels within wheels. You mention both Karl Hass and Thomas Lucid. It's of course, Thomas Lucid recruits Karl Hass, this former Nazi, to work for the Americans. And then we discover that Karl Hass' daughter marries the illegitimate son of his handler, Thomas Lucid. This most extraordinary nexus. You mentioned your source, your primary source. You go through this with this remarkable character, Horst Wächter, who is Otto's son. The contrast, you say there between your former acquaintance who had spent a lifetime coming to terms with the fact that his father was a Nazi war criminal. And Horst, who seems to have spent much of his life trying to prove his father's innocence. It's a curious relationship you have with Horst. How would you describe that relationship and how it developed?
PHILIPPE SANDS: Complicated, so I mentioned earlier the various elements of this project know an article, film, a podcast, and it would be the same procedure each time the article would be published. Horst would say, “It's dreadful, it's wrong. You've missed out all the best bits about my dad. Can't have any more to do with you.” And a couple of months later, he'd be back. And then the film, he hated the film. He said that it had the wrong title. The title of the film was My Nazi Legacy What Our Fathers Did. He says, No, the title's all wrong. It should be What Our Fathers Did and Did Not Do. He's got a sense of humor. And then the podcast, he hated that. And now the book, he's on a real roll and he's recently just put out a very long missive about Philippe Sands, his lies, and all the good, really bad that he left out. I was with him and I said, “Show me the bits that I left out because there aren't any, because we went very carefully through all of the material.” Now, I mean, it's probably because I'm a courtroom lawyer that you do learn it's one of the golden rules. You know, in your role to Rory as an interviewer, you treat people with respect and courtesy. You don't shout at them. You don't scream at them. You don't tell them off. You're not rude to them. You listen patiently. People are pretty amazed that I remain patient with Horst, but I do. I sort of like him. He is, in a sense, a victim of that period. He was six years old when his dad died and his family imploded at the end of the war. And we often don't think about that cast of characters, the children of perpetrators. I mean, it's even more so in relation to Hans Frank. Can you imagine what it is like to have a dad who is hanged at Nuremberg for the murder of 4 million human beings, which is what happened to Hans Frank. I mean living with that burden, it's almost impossible to imagine. And I often ask myself, actually, how would I feel about my dad if he murdered 100,000 people nevermind 4 million people. Would I still love my dad? And I hate my dad and I have to put my hand on my heart and say, “I don't know.” So into the whole storyline, we have to put the human element that it's not just about the facts of horror, but it is, he was a kid and he was on the receiving end.
RORY BREMNER: This goes absolutely to the heart. And the fascinating thing about this whole story is that in a sense, he had two fathers, didn't he? The Nazi who was responsible for the murder and the execution of hundreds of thousands of people under his watch. And on the other hand, you've got the loving, tender father writing these letters. And the curious thing about humanity is that this is the same person that we seem to have this extraordinary ability to compartmentalize extreme evil and mundane family life.
PHILIPPE SANDS: I think that's the complexity and that's what's so interesting. I never describe either Hans Frank or Otto Wächter as monsters because they weren't just monsters. They did monstrous things, but they were also capable of decency, generosity, love, humanity, and grace. And they were highly cultured, highly intelligent individuals. And I think this is the heart of the challenge is how do regular, reasonably decent folk get involved in doing such terrible things? How does this happen? It's something I face in my case, work. The whole time.
RORY BREMNER: As a prosecutor in war crimes investigations.
PHILIPPE SANDS: Yeah. As a litigator in international criminal cases, in war crimes cases, you're sitting with someone who is accused of having done terrible things, but actually, they're rather genial and they've got a good sense of humor and they're quite warm and cozy.
RORY BREMNER: I mean, one of the things I love about Brixmis is it has this rather mundane title and talks about it as liaison. I suppose the title was almost to deflect attention from the fact that spies were being deployed inside the Eastern Zone. But despite that bureaucratic-sounding title, there was a real element of danger there. I mean, people got killed doing what you were doing. Did you live in fear of your life?
DAVE BUTLER: Well, the job had its moments. What really takes over is, of course, that the entire crew was completely professional. We did our homework before we left Berlin. We knew exactly the targets we were tasked to go and look at and what was expected of us. And so as a crew, very much like any sort of mini-Special Forces crew, we would all make a decision beforehand as to what we were going to do because, as you rightly said, our lives sometimes depended on it. We did a lot of ‘what if-ing’ you know, “What if this happens? What if that happens?” If you take all the risk down to its minimum level, it sort of takes away the fear. So it's not fear. It's almost excitement at what you might gain. And it was always a risk-versus-gain approach that we took.
RORY BREMNER: What was the closest you actually came to capture?
DAVE BUTLER: The Soviet troops and the East Germans were tasked with… if they saw a military mission vehicle, they would try to detain us. I guess the hairiest one was with me and the tour officer outside the vehicle trying to take some photographs of a target. And the Soviets attacked our car and he drove off to draw them away from us and we had to spend the next 12 hours then behind the lines, as it were, escaping and evading. But even at those times, we already knew the driver knew the emergency RVs that we had to go to. They knew what to do. And even though they shot at the vehicle and he wrecked the tires by crashing the vehicle, all of that was all taken into account. Me and the tour officer hid. And then when we knew he wasn't coming back, we went and made a phone call later on in the night and found a publican who very kindly let us into his pub knowing what the repercussions would be for him and his family, for taking shelter of what were military spies. All of that showed really the best and the worst in humans. I mean, within an hour of making the phone call, the area was flooded with secret police looking for us.
RORY BREMNER: How did that happen? I mean, did you knock on the door of a pub? At that moment, it could have gone either way.
DAVE BUTLER: Yeah. And of course, what you should know about East Germany before the wall came down was at 9 pm everything stopped. No discotheques or whatever. Everybody. The pubs had like, what we would call in the West, lock-ins. Yes. So when we knocked on the door, a little slit opened, and this face looked, and we said that we were military officers, British officers, and we'd like to make a phone call. Did they have a telephone? They then opened the door. And bearing in mind, this was like February 1987. So it was pretty snowy on the ground. It was freezing. So they took us in and it was that age-old thing Rory. People always go for the underdogs, you know? We must have looked fairly bedraggled in that way. So not only did they take us in, they gave us a drink, and the pub was full of the locals all over and locked in. And then we were shown to the phone and say, within 30 minutes of making the call into the Embassy in Berlin, the area was flooded with Stasi looking for us. We stayed with the landlord after we made the call and then we said, “Look, we're going to leave because we don't want to be caught here in your pub.” So we went and hid in a bus shelter on the outskirts of the village until we were picked up by our own people at about 2 am, 3 am, the next morning.
RORY BREMNER: Goodness.
DAVE BUTLER: Thirty-odd years later, I had the opportunity to go back to that pub and meet the landlord's wife, who was there on the night when we went in there. And unfortunately, Otto, her husband, had died two years before, but the officer who was with me had been there two years before. And Otto recognized him as soon as he opened the door.
RORY BREMNER: It's extraordinary I mean, the same thing I think happened to you, Philippe, didn't it? You think so much time has passed, you think, “Well, these characters are dead.” And when you find that there's one that is still alive, it really does bring it to life.
PHILIPPE SANDS: In The Ratline I'm in particular talking about one of the characters, the guy who helped Otto Wächter escape. I was pretty surprised at a certain point about 2015, now 2016. I've finally gone through all of these documents and I've worked out how Wächter escaped in the Austrian mountains. But he was helped by a young Waffen SS soldier called Burkhardt Rathmann. Burkhardt Rathmann was a mountain killer. He was an SS division that operated from Italy and Yugoslavia, and his job was surviving in high altitudes and killing partisan communists and Jews. His unit killed many, many such people. And now I was confronted with the following situation: I wanted to know about him. I said to Horst, “Tell me about Burkhardt Rathmann. What was he like? Why did he help your dad?” So on and so forth. And Horst looked at me - I'll never forget this - he looked at me and said. “Well Philippe, I can answer all your questions or we can telephone him.” But that was a bit of a surprise because it was 2017, 72 years after Rathmann and Wächter were in the mountains, and I did not expect him to be alive, but he was. And so we toddled off to Germany. It was extraordinary. And I met Buka, who, of course, was a genial and lovely old man who liked his tea and chocolate cake and who had never talked about what happened during the war. This is the situation, right today. We've got trials going on in Germany as we speak of guards and camp attendants and various other individuals who were involved in not such nice things - 100 years old, 97 years old. They look cozy and cuddly. But actually, 70 years ago they weren't so cozy and cuddly and they were up to other things. And we have to keep our mind on that.
RORY BREMNER: It's quite extraordinary. During that time, the late ‘40s, as I say, when Otto Wächter is on the run, there are also British intelligence officers working in Austria and in Italy. And one of these went on to be known to millions of people, of course, as the author John le Carré, who you knew very well.
PHILIPPE SANDS: I have had many great fortunes in my life, but one of them is being the neighbor for 20 years of David Cornwell, a.k.a John le Carré. I mean, he lived around the corner. I got to know him very well. We would each read our works and so on, and so forth. I went to his memorial service. I'm sitting there. There are a lot of people - that was a very private event - but sitting there, I think we all had the same feeling of just how blessed and fortunate we were to have crossed his path, to have spent time with him. I had a particular role in his life. He despised lawyers. And you will notice in many of his books there is some awful, ghastly lawyer. And my role for the last 20 years with his novels was to check that they had been accurately portrayed - not to deal with their character or what they did, but how they spoke, how they dressed. So he turned up on the front door. He'd ring the doorbell and you open the door and he’d be standing there holding the manuscript and he’d just pass it over. The usual procedure. And for the three pages on the lawyers, I'd have to read the whole blooming thing, 300 pages, which I loved, and then I'd make my comments. No, the lawyer wouldn't say that or a lawyer would not wear those kinds of clothes, or you've got to change it a bit. And, and we'd talk and he'd take some of my comments and, and others he wouldn't. But in relation to The Ratline, he helped me a lot. He read a lot of the things that I would write in draft on other books, and he helped me in some of my cases. If I wanted to find someone who was from the British intelligence services to have a private conversation with, he would make the introduction. And I had more than one basement conversation in the Atheneum with some character who will remain nameless, telling me what the thinking was in relation to certain things. But anyway, on The Ratline, I called him up and I said, “Look, I'm a bit confused. I thought the British were prosecuting Nazi war criminals after the war, not hiring them.” He said, “Send me a few documents, bring a few cakes and we'll have tea.” I turned up and he was very rigorous. He did a lot of research and he had got into the whole thing. But he stunned me with his opening words. He said, “Well Philippe, this is all very interesting, but it's particularly interesting for me because I was there as a young British soldier involved in interrogating Germans, looking for Nazis.” And I said, “What to prosecute them?” He said, “No, to hire them to recruit them.” I said, “What do you mean to recruit them?” He said, “Well, we wanted their Rolodexes. They knew who the Soviets were, they knew who the spies were, and we wanted them on our side.” I said, “What, even if they were mass, mass, mass murderers?” He said, “Yeah, they didn't care.” So it was very perplexing as a young soldier. I'd been taught as a young man to hate the Nazis, and all of a sudden they're our new best friends. So it was, as he said, very perplexing. He'd been called to turn on a sixpence. Most of our younger listeners won't know what that means. I said, “I'm old enough to know what it means.”
RORY BREMNER: You mentioned his voice, I think, was just here a little bit to remind ourselves.
PHILIPPE SANDS: I could listen to him forever.
JOHN LE CARRÉ: For my national service I was a field security officer stationed in Graz in 1949. I was a 20-year-old officer, a second lieutenant attached to field security in Graz, in Austria. And we were mainly obsessed with the Russian part of Austria, as it then was, but we were also supposedly Nazi hunters. And what was quite clear, even in those days, was when you actually identified somebody who was a wanted figure in some sort with a disagreeable past, with a hateful past, there was a kind of question mark about his usefulness. We were already looking at the communist enemy. To me, it was bewildering. I'd been brought up to hate Naziism and that stuff, and all of a sudden to find that we turned on a sixpence and the great new enemy… it was to be the Soviet Union… was very, very perplexing.
PHILIPPE SANDS: How wonderful to hear his voice again. I think, as you will know, I made a program about my friendship with him. And in the making of that program, I learned what I did not know. While he was alive, right at the end of his life, he acquired Irish citizenship. He became an Irishman through his maternal grandmother. And it was very, very moving, I have to say, to arrive at the place of the memorial to find an Irish flag and only an Irish flag. He had really in the last years, grown very disillusioned with what had happened to Britain and the United Kingdom. And I've often wondered whether that is in some way related even to those early years, to the duplicities. I mean, I've got no evidence that that is what happened. But certainly in the last years of his life, from Iraq onward, which of course, was a massive failing of intelligence, he became very, very disillusioned about what had happened in Britain.
RORY BREMNER: But also, I think on a wider scale, I mean, we're seeing this extraordinary spectacle that suddenly the ‘strong men’ are coming back, whether it's through populist nationalism, whether it's through Trump or the Brexiteers if you like. But [Jair] Bolsonaro and [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary and [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines and on and on. And they're all sort of undermining and dismantling those organizations, institutions like the United Nations, Nato, the European Union, that were put in place to undo the damage done by the last generation of strong men, the people that we're talking about now. I mean, it's an extraordinary time now, just as it was then to see. And so, we're going in the opposite direction that the 1940s and ‘50s were about coming to terms with the past and reconciling and reparations and all that injustice. And now it's a generation on, we forget.
PHILIPPE SANDS: Well, I think what's happened - and I think it's a very important moment we're going through now again. I'm acutely conscious of this, I just made another program about the Nuremberg trial, and its legacy after 75 years. And I managed to find three or four people who'd actually been at the trial. I mean, as you can imagine. One was 97. One was 95. One was 101. Wonderful human beings. But it was amazing to hear them talk about what it was like to be in Courtroom 600. One actually, the president of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, had a daughter who was an intelligence officer at Bletchley, and she was sent by Bletchley to Nuremberg to interview it was either [Alfred] Jodl or [Wilhelm] Keitel, two of the German Army defendants. And she didn't tell them she was the daughter of the presiding judge. They had to actually deal with it, it was a very interesting job that she had. They had sent some wrongful information about the invasions that the British had been planning, and they had come across a note initiated by Adolf Hitler, which apparently proved that they had duped the Führer on what their plans were. So it was mis-intelligence, misinformation. But that generation is dying out. They are just about to leave us. And I think that we are left now in a situation where there is no longer anyone around who really remembers what it was and what the intention was in ‘45 to create a new world. And I do think that is contributing to the rise of the strong men of populism, of nationalism, of xenophobia. And I think we're in for a pretty difficult time. I think this is because history doesn't repeat itself exactly. But we do tend to go around and around in circles. I'm pretty worried about where this is heading.
RORY BREMNER: I think somebody said history doesn't repeat itself and it rhymes. John le Carré, he was there working for the British military in the late’40s. Dave Butler, you were working likewise for the British military in Berlin in the 1980s, a similar hotbed of spies, a similarly extraordinary and fascinating moment in history, the height of the Cold War. Are you hearing lots of echoes of your own existence behind enemy lines, if you like?
DAVE BUTLER: What's come across to me, listening to Philippe, is there are some synergies to be drawn, but not necessarily in the way that you might think. He talks about how it took four years to gather all this information together. Well, again, we were doing a very similar thing in former East Germany and in particular the scavenging of Soviet military rubbish dumps. It was called Operation Tomahawk at the time, and it was an absolute secret operation that was carried out by us, and the Americans, and the French. The Soviets were very poor, their military throwing their rubbish out. And so we would spend hours and hours in the dead of night with minute torch lights and infrared apparatus in these rubbish dumps. The Soviets, for some reason known only to them, were very short of toilet paper. And so therefore nine times out of 10, when they're out in the field on exercise, they needed to go to the toilet. They would wipe their bums on letters from home signals, information, I mean.
RORY BREMNER: Well, I mean, there's the expression where there's muck there's brass, but literally, where there was crap there was high-level intelligence.
DAVE BUTLER: Absolutely. And one intelligence agency told us that if Brixmis did nothing else but scavenge rubbish dumps for their entire lifetime that would be worth its weight in gold.
RORY BREMNER: What would you say was the most valuable piece of information that you uncovered?
DAVE BUTLER: The most valuable piece was not actually on a rubbish dump, it was actually in a training area. We had been tasked in 1987 to get this piece of technical equipment which had been installed on the latest Soviet tank called an ‘explosive reactive armor box’. So we hatched a plan and I was the project manager for it to climb on board a train as it left a training area and undo these boxes that were on the tank. And they were designed so that if a round hit this box, it would explode. So a kinetic energy round fired by the West at a Soviet tank. This box would explode as the round hit it and it would take all of the kinetic energy out of the round. So the round then would not penetrate the tank. And what our intelligence agencies wanted to really know was: What was inside this box? We hatched this plan to climb on board a train in the dark with this spanner, get the box off, and then we would then jump off the train and join our vehicle some 10 kilometers up the road and then bring the box back. In the event I was at a training area, watching this latest tank firing on the ranges, and after they finished firing the day, they all pulled off. We then went on and scavenged and I was walking in one of the tank pits and I just saw this little piece of metal sticking up out of the ground, pulled it up, and it was one of these ERA boxes.
RORY BREMNER: Extraordinary.
DAVE BUTLER: A bit like when they say, if you won the lottery, you'd hear all this music around you because you just knew that something momentous had happened. Well, that was what it was like for me.
RORY BREMNER: Had they left by then? I mean, you're behind enemy lines. How did you get it back?
DAVE BUTLER: They'd left for the day. We went on there afterward and they left their ranges unguarded and they left numerous things behind. If a round they were firing in a tank misfired, they would just throw it over the side. The idea being that the Russian quartermaster would come along the next day and pick it all up. But of course, we were in there straight away and got there first and it went from the low level to the high level. So letters from home, from the soldiers talking about their experiences in the barracks and straining antifreeze through socks to extract the alcohol through to at the other end of the scour, finding the latest Soviet tank boards, which gave all of the information about the inside of the tank, the ammunition, how it loaded, and all the rest of it.
RORY BREMNER: And all the time you were being watched and all, what was it like being tailed?
DAVE BUTLER: The MFS or the German, the Stasi, as we call them. East German Secret Police used to monitor the missions wherever we went. And our house, our mission house in Potsdam, had an East German vaults police post outside the front gate. And we always had to go to the mission house first before we deployed. We could have anything up to 10 Stasi cars at one time following one vehicle. They all tended to use the famous Lada or the Lada Riva as their four-wheel drive, which actually against a Mercedes Geländewagen was no match at all.
RORY BREMNER: So if you have a Lada on your tail, you had a particular technique for shaking them off around bends.
DAVE BUTLER: Yes. Yeah. Our vehicles were very technically developed under armor for going across the country - extended fuel tanks. So we could go hundreds of miles without filling up. And the other fascinating thing was the lighter ray system we could make the vehicle in the dark looked like a Trabant with various headlight configurations. We could isolate the brakes so we could play tricks with the vehicles. And one of the things that we used to do was, if we were being tailed at high speed, particularly on bends, we would isolate the brakes so we would break hard to go around the bend and the car following its course would think that they could take the bend at the same speed we did, and didn't see the bright lights come on. And they would find themselves hurtling off into the undergrowth.
RORY BREMNER: So Philippe, there's Dave talking a little bit about his time behind enemy lines. Likewise, Otto Wächter. It was very important that people didn't know who he was or where he was fleeing to. Did he have any contact with his family? How was he able to maintain some kind of support system of contacts or acquaintances?
PHILIPPE SANDS: Well, on the 9th of May, 1945, of course, the war in Europe comes to an end and he disappears off the face of the earth. He has one last phone conversation with his wife. He asks her to destroy all his work documents, and she throws them into Lake Zell with their eldest child, and he then disappears. She then receives word that he is not so far away, hiding in the Austrian mountains an hour or two from Salzburg. And every two or three weeks for the next three and a half years, they rendezvous at a different place. In fact, I've been there. It's extraordinary that he survived above 2,000 meters altitude because particularly in the winter, that would have been very tough. The people from that area told me he could not have survived without active help, but there's no record in the archives of who in the surrounding towns was helped. But interestingly, since the book came out in German a few months ago, I've had a number of invitations to give book talks and some of those small towns because there are people with family stories. He stays there until the autumn of ‘48 and then decides he's going. He's heard about this thing called the Reich migratory route, which is the path from Italy to South America. [Otto Adolf] Eichmann, [Josef] Mengele - lots of famous names that we know about. In fact, we also now know that the Americans knew all about it and they were using it as a recruitment tool because as people were making their way onto it, they could identify them and decide whether to use them or not. So he makes his way to Rome. In that period we do know everything that has happened because he wrote to his wife every two or three weeks, but they were very worried about the military censors. And I think Salsburg may have been in the British Zone. And so, there are a lot of the correspondents that are British military censors, stamps, and so they write in code. No person mentioned in the letter is mentioned by name. It's ‘HG1’, ‘HG2’ the religious gentleman, the old comrade. And that's why it took so long to decipher. David, you would have been very proud of us for that detective work, trying to work out who on Earth these characters were. But he had an address book. And so what we were able to do was to cross-refer from the address book. And basically, it took four years to work out absolutely who they were and work out the network of people who helped. And that was, for me, very, very fascinating. It was a very well-organized network. But, of course, most remarkably of all, he believes that he was completely incognito. He's taken on a new name. He's no longer Otto Wächter. He's now Alfredo Reinhart, which is actually some mate of his, who was also an SS officer who escaped to Argentina. And he's taken over that fellow's identity card but changed certain characteristics - date of birth, the photographs are different. We've got all of those documents. Interestingly, just last month, the book came out in Argentina. And within a week I got an extremely irate email from the granddaughter of the real Alfredo Reinhart saying, “It's not true. My grandfather was a wonderful man and you can get up to all these things you say he got up to.” He did. I ended up sending the granddaughter the SS file that we'd found in Berlin. So we've worked out the network. And what is striking about it is not only how extensive it was, but that the moment he arrived in Rome on the 29th of April 1949, he was met by a religious gentleman. I'm not going to give away too much. The religious gentleman was Bishop Alois Hudal, who was one of the eight sub-agents in Project Los Angeles. So within an hour of his arrival in Rome, the Americans know exactly where he is and they know his false name. They know where he's living, and they don't do anything. They're keeping tabs on him. They don't arrest him. They're watching who he's establishing contact with. David is, I'm sure, smiling away because he recognizes the techniques that are going on here. And of course, I'm not of that world. So for me, it was wonderful to get these insights into what was going on. What happened was we took the private material, the letters, the diaries, and then we had from Professor Goda in Florida, all of the CIC documents, and we were able to cross-fertilize that they knew exactly what he was doing and this was fascinating to me.
RORY BREMNER: So, Philippe, is there a sequel?
PHILIPPE SANDS: I mean, you've obviously read it. You know it well. You would have picked up that Otto Wächter was a minor character in East West Street, and there is a minor character in The Ratline who is called Walter Rauff. Now, Walter Rauff was another senior SS officer, very senior indeed, and a great mate of Wächter's. He did manage to escape. He goes to Syria. He actually occupies the same monk's cell in the monastery where Wächter lived and makes his way to Syria. He writes Wächter and says, “Syria's a terrible place for Germans. Don't come here. You'd be much better off in South Africa and Argentina. They're organized places none of the mayhem in the Arab world.” He goes then from Syria to Ecuador, where he meets an absolutely fantastic young Chilean military man who's in Ecuador training the Ecuadorian military to do God knows what. That man, who happens to be called Augusto Pinochet, tells him, “We're in the wrong country. Come to Chile. We like your sort.” Now, what you need to know about Walther Rauff is, Rauff was an intelligence officer for the SS and he was also the man who invented the mobile gas chamber. And he ends up in Chile. He becomes a businessman. And then in 1973, he is said to have joined the Chilean intelligence services. Pinochet, his mate, has become the president of Chile. And there's a new, rather sinister intelligence service called the DINA. I wonder, David, whether you ever came across the DINA. They operated for about five years, and they did a lot of very nasty things. And so, the next book is the double story of Rauff in Chile, Pinochet in London, because, of course, Pinochet arrives in London. You'll remember this Rory. [Pinochet is] arrested in London for crimes against humanity and genocide. And there is a fantastic series of legal proceedings in Britain, and Rauff's story is part of that one.
RORY BREMNER: Did you prosecute Pinochet? Was that one of yours?
PHILIPPE SANDS: I mean, four days after he was arrested, I actually went to my grandfather's funeral in France. And on the way there, in the early days of mobile phones, I got a call from my Chambers saying, “Great news Philippe. Pinochet's lawyers have been onto us. They want to hire you to work with the general.” So we have in Britain the ‘cab rank principle’. We're like taxi drivers. We'll act for anyone. And so, I didn't accept actually because it was a special day. I got to the cemetery. My wife was there and I told her with some excitement that I might be acting for Senator Pinochet in the proceedings for the English courts. She just looked at me and said, “If you accept Pinochet, I will divorce you.” And you need to understand that on my wife's side, she is the descendant, the granddaughter of a Spanish military intelligence person who had been on the wrong side, losing the race on the right side, but the losing side in the Spanish Civil War and came to England, where he was taken in by the Elmhirst of Dartington and became a Totnes family. I can't invent this stuff, honestly.
RORY BREMNER: What a generation we are. But are there other Ratlines? Are there other people out there from other regimes? Your work as a prosecutor. You've been involved in trials. Is this story being repeated?
PHILIPPE SANDS: It must be so. I mean Dave probably knows more than I do. But I mean, surely there is a Ratline right now out of Afghanistan. Surely there is in Afghanistan a way out for people in which certain people in the West will know exactly what is going on. And they are spirited people in and out of the country in ways that, of course, I can't even begin to know about or imagine. But I would have thought in any place where there is a conflict of this kind and sharply opposed sides, the Western intelligence services will be involved in facilitating exfiltration, as le Carré called it, and probably Dave calls it also. I'm acutely aware of this. I do a lot of work for many governments around the world. I proceed on the basis with every single one of my communications, including this one Rory, is being listened to, watched, or is accessible to the intelligence services of, inter-alia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, the United States, and no doubt a myriad of others. And you should proceed on exactly the same assumption, Rory because that is what's going on everywhere.
RORY BREMNER: That's a very chilling thought to end on.
DAVE BUTLER: I think Philippe's absolutely correct. And the only reason people like me can come on programs like this and talk about this sort of stuff is because it's outside the 30-year rule. And I think it's sad to say, Philippe, but we're probably going to have to wait another 30 years before we find out about what happened in Afghanistan and exactly the roots. I've always said in intelligence, anything you can imagine is probably happening.
RORY BREMNER: Philippe, do you have time for fiction yourself or do you find that the real-life stories that you are pursuing are…
PHILIPPE SANDS: Avid, avid reader of fiction. I read le Carré, I read Ben Macintyre, I read Roland Philipps. But also, I particularly like fiction which crosses the line between fact and fiction. So one of my favorite writers, I'm going to put a plug for him because none of you may have heard of him, is a remarkable Spanish writer called Javier Cercas. And he writes about these kinds of stories. They're novels, but they're always based on real, true stories. And he's a fantastic writer, so I'm extremely. Yeah. A lot of time for fiction. [I have] a fiction friend who's trying to persuade me to write one, but I'm too scared to do it.
RORY BREMNER: But Ratline reads like a brilliant novel. Did Cornwell - le Carré - help you with the construction of it?
PHILIPPE SANDS: He did. I learned my techniques from him. I learned to put little clues right in the first pages. And the intelligent reader understands that every word is there for a reason, and they try to work out why you've put that line in. And that's what he did. He treated his readers with absolute intelligence. He recognized they were really smart and they were hard working in reading the books and they were trying to be ahead of the curve and working out from the clues he was putting in his text where this was headed.
RORY BREMNER: I loved your placement of the words swimming in the very, very first episode. That will be significant in the story of Otto Wächter.
PHILIPPE SANDS: He loved swimming. He loved swimming, indeed.
RORY BREMNER: So there we are, two extraordinary times in history, really the beginning of the Cold War and its continuation just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Philippe Sands, Dave Butler, thank you so much for joining us this week on The Spying Game.
JODHI MAY: Next time on SPYSCAPE’s The Spying Game, in our season finale, Rory is joined by former CIA officer and creator of The Americans, Joe Weisberg, and former US-based KGB agent Jack Barsky.
RORY BREMNER: There you are an illegal family in Germany, a new family in America working for the KGB. And who moves in next door?
JACK BARSKY: The FBI.
JOE WEISBERG: I joined thinking I would have a lot of trouble lying to people about what I did. And it took about a week for me to get used to it. And then it went from being very uncomfortable and strange to just completely normal.
JACK BARSKY: I asked the question, I said, “Am I under arrest?” And the answer was just one word. “No.” And then about a minute later I said, “So what took you so long?” I have been playing a game. And the game is called life. I took nothing really seriously. I just played. And I knew that somehow I would always come out a winner.
JODHI MAY: The Spying Game is available now wherever you get your podcasts or you can listen to episodes a week early ad-free by subscribing to SPYSCAPE Plus on Apple Podcasts.
Dave Butler, awarded the British Empire Medal for meritorious service, is a former Army officer who served with the British Military Liaison Mission (Brixmis) in Berlin from 1986 until 1989. The mission was set up at the end of the Second World War to liaise between the wartime allies: Britain, France, America, and the Soviet Union. It quickly turned into an elite intelligence unit.
Philippe Sands QC is Professor of Law at University College London and a practising barrister at Matrix Chambers. He appears as counsel before the ICJ and ICC, and sits as an arbitrator at ICSID, the PCA and the CAS. He is author of Lawless World (2005), Torture Team (2008) and several academic books on international law, and has contributed to the New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, the Financial Times and the Guardian.