Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter (8 July 1901, Vienna, Austria-Hungary – 14 July 1949, Rome, Italy) was an Austrian lawyer, Nazi politician and member of the SS, a paramilitary organisation of the Nazi Party with the rank, in 1944, of SS-Gruppenführer (Major General).
During the occupation of Poland in World War II, he was the Governor of the district of Kraków in the General Government and then of the District of Galicia (now for the most part in Ukraine). Later, in 1944, he was appointed as head of the German Military Administration in the puppet state of the Republic of Salò in Italy. During the last two months of the war he was responsible for the non-German forces at the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) in Berlin.
In 1940 68,000 Jews were expelled from Kraków and in 1941 the Kraków Ghetto was created for the remaining 15,000 Jews by his decrees. On 28 September 1946 the Polish government requested the Military Governor of the United States Zone that Wächter be delivered to Poland for trial for "mass murder, shooting and executions. Under his command of District Galicia more than one hundred thousand Polish citizens lost their lives,...”
He managed to evade the Allied authorities for 4 years. In 1949, Wächter was given refuge by pro-Nazi Austrian bishop Alois Hudal in the Vatican where he died the same year, aged 48, allegedly from kidney disease although some sources claim he died of poisoning.
1901–1934 Early life and Nazi activist
Otto Gustav von Wächter was the third child and only son of Martha (née Pfob), daughter of the owner of the Graben Hotel in Vienna Centre. His father, Joseph Freiherr von Wächter, was born in northern Bohemia and served in the Austro-Hungarian Army. In the last year of the First World War, Joseph Freiherr von Wächter was decorated with the Knight's Cross of the Order of Maria Theresia, which earned him the title of Freiherr (Baron).
In 1922, after the First Austrian Republic was established, he was twice nominated as Minister of Defence in the Cabinet of Monsignor Dr Ignaz Seipel. Wächter spent his first years in Vienna before the family moved to Trieste then, Austria, in 1908. For the duration of World War I he lived in southern Bohemia, studying and taking his A-levels in 1919 at the České Budějovice, where everyday life was dominated by the national differences between Germans and Czechs.
The family moved to Vienna, where Wächter studied law and joined a number of diverse national and sporting organizations. In 1923 he joined the SA and became Austrian Champion in M8+ (eight-man rowing team). He received his doctorate in 1925 and in 1929 began practicing as a lawyer. His clients included indicted members of the Nazi Party, which he joined on 24 October 1930 (party No: 301093). On 11 September 1932, Wächter married Charlotte Bleckmann (born 20 October 1908), daughter of a Styrian steel magnate.
Wächter continued to work for the Nazi Party in Vienna as organizer and defender of accused Nazis in court and subsequently played a leading role in the organization of the failed July Putsch of 25 July 1934, which eventually led to the assassination of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. After the failed coup, Wächter fled to Nazi Germany. He entered the SS on 1 January 1932, (SS No: 235368) and completed his German military service in Freising, Bavaria. In 1935 his Austrian citizenship was denied and German citizenship conferred upon him while he completed his academic training and education as a lawyer in Germany. In 1937 he started working in the relief organization of Austrian NS-refugees in Berlin.
1938–1939 State Secretary in the Nazi government in Vienna
Following the “Anschluss”, (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany) on 12 March 1938, Wächter held the post of state commissar in the "Liquidation Ministry" under the Nazi governor of Austria, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, from 24 May 1938 to 30 April 1939. The government body he headed known as the "Wächter-Kommission", and responsible for the dismissal and/or compulsory retirement of all Austrian officials who did not conform with the Nazi regime. Because of the fact that the former Austrian bureaucracy was strictly Anti-Semitic, only a small fraction of the officials were actually dismissed.
1939–1941: Governor of Kraków, Poland
Following the defeat of Poland in September 1939, the Germans established a puppet state known as the General Government which was ruled over by Hans Frank. Until 1940 his deputy was Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who took Wächter with him to the General Government, where he was appointed as Governor of the administrative district of Kraków.
From the outset Wächter proved to be an effective administrator. He also understood that the policies of racial discrimination, brute force and coercion deprived Germany of substantial material assistance and alienated large sections of the local population. He preferred instead to draw upon the experiences of the Austrian Government up to the First World War. In this sense he chose the two crowns of Galicia in the coat-of-arms issued for the nobility of his father. As Governor of Kraków he was under the direct and local supervision of Frank and had to face the fanatical actions of the local SS and police forces.
The arrest on 6 November 1939 of the entire staff of professors and academics of the Jagiellonian University and other academic institutions and their subsequent deportation to Sachsenhausen concentration camp called Sonderaktion Krakau resulted in widespread condemnation worldwide. Wächter publicly criticised the action which took place without his knowledge and reportedly tried to free the academics. Nevertheless, due to the "Special action Krakow", he was indicted by exiled Poles in New York on 16 October 1942.
In his capacity as Governor an execution warrant for 52 Poles in Bochnia was issued 18 December 1939 under Wächter's signature, as reprisal for killing two Viennese police officers.
Likewise in December 1940, a decree organizing the expulsion of the city's 68,000 Jews also appeared under his name as did a further decree ordering the remaining 15,000 Jews to move into the newly created Kraków Ghetto ("Jewish Residence Zone") issued on 3 March 1941.
Wächter, unlike his wife who was often in the company of the Franks, tried to keep his distance from them. The family lived in a pseudo-Romanesque villa in Przegorzaly on a steep slope above the Vistula outside Kraków, which belonged to Professor Szyszko-Bohusz, head of the restoration measures of the Royal Wawel. The atmosphere of the confiscated building did not meet with the approval of Wächter's wife, so she built which she called “Wartenberg Castle”. Frustrated with the severe limitations of his role, Wächter was about to resign from his office in Kraków, when he received a new posting in Galicia.
1942–1944: Governor of Galicia, Ukraine
Following Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the Soviet-occupied eastern part of the former Austrian province of Galicia was attached to the General Government as the District of Galicia. Its capital city, variously known as L'viv (Ukrainian), Lwów (Polish) and Lemberg (German), had been - after Vienna, Budapest and Prague - the largest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Poles, Ukrainians and Jews had lived together for centuries. The first German governor was Karl Lasch, an intimate friend of Frank, who was later arrested and shot for extensive black market activities on orders of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Wächter was chosen by Hitler "as the best man on the spot", and inserted as Governor on 22 January 1943.
His first official visit was to the influential and respected Greek Catholic Metropolit Andrij Aleksander Szeptycki (Sheptytsky). With his assistance Wächter endeavored to promote a greater degree of co-operation among the occupying Germans and the various ethnic elements in the district of Galicia. Consequently, he immediately found himself in conflict with SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, the Reichsführer’s representative in the General Government and executor of his planned large scale resettlement programs. At the government meeting in Kraków on 17 February, Wächter publicly opposed plans to "germanize" the city of Lemberg, which would have resulted in the expulsion of its entire population stating: “A German colonization of the East during the war would bring about the collapse of production.”
Wächter's continued opposition to Krüger's policies led to a number of open confrontations. To avoid further altercations, Himmler offered Wächter the chance to relocate to Vienna, which he declined. As Governor of Galicia, while he remained a firm believer in the principle 'Germany first', his administration often went further to accommodate the wishes of the population than it was required to. He was frequently obliged to use his influence and connections by first circumventing General Governor Hans Frank and by exploiting the strained relations between Frank and Himmler to pursue his own policies. Wächter consciously selected men with liberal views for the key posts in his administration, notably his department heads Otto Bauer and Dr Ludwig Losacker, with whom he consulted before deciding all important issues.
In late 1942 Wächter visited the “Reichskommissariat Ukraine” (eastern Ukraine) to witness first hand the effect of the implementation of the Nazi Untermensch (subhuman) philosophy by Gauleiter Erich Koch and his policies of repression and subjugation. On his return in December 1942 he sent a secret ten page letter to Martin Bormann in the Führer Headquarters in Berlin, criticizing the serious mistakes made in the handling of the Ukrainians and their far reaching ramifications with regard the overall conduct of the German policy in the east during the war against the Soviet Union.
Whilst Governor of Galicia, he established a Waffen-SS Division recruited from the Ukrainian population of Galicia, under German supervision, to fight against the hated Bolsheviks. The formation of the unit was approved by Himmler after the disastrous German defeat at Stalingrad. Wächter submitted the proposal to Himmler on 1 March 1943, and, on 28 April, the SS Division Galicia was publicly inaugurated.
1944–1945: end of the war
With the loss of the entire District of Galicia on 26 July 1944 to the advancing Red Army, Wächter sought to be released from his administrative obligations in the General Government so that he could take up a position in the Waffen-SS. In response Himmler agreed to order his release on the basis that he assume a new commission as "Chief of the Military Administration to the Plenipotentiary General of the German Wehrmacht in Italy headed by SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff.
Himmler felt Wächter would be "of immense use in this equally interesting and difficult field." On assuming his new post Wächter relocated to Gardone on the Lake Garda.
As the German situation at the front worsened day by day, in a vain attempt to regain the military initiative the Nazi authorities became increasingly desperate and sought to exploit the Eastern European Anti-Bolshevik movements. In so doing, on 30 January 1945 Himmler appointed Wächter as subsidiary head of the Group D of the RSHA in Berlin, which sought to utilize and combine the Russian Liberation Army of General Andrey Vlasov and the newly formed Ukrainian National Army which included the 1st Ukrainian Division (formerly the SS 14th Galician Division), the creation of which he had instigated.
Vlasov's 'federalist' concept which required the subordination of all the other former Soviet nationalities to his overall command, proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for Wächter who was unable to bring about the unification of Vlasov and the separatist Ukrainians led by General Pavlo Shandruk. Nevertheless, Wächter redoubled his efforts with the Ukrainians whom he rejoined on 7 April 1945 in Carinthia. On 8 May 1945, Wächter informed General Shandruk of the unconditional surrender of the German Reich with the following words: "Now, General, you are the central figure in the action of saving the Division, and possibly of all of us who are with you." In Zell am See, amidst the German collapse, his wife burned a crate full of documents he had methodically collected to justify his deeds, which should demonstrate "that he had done everything to help so many people".
1945–1949 Post-war and death in Rome
Following German capitulation, Wächter remained with the staff of the 1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army until 10 May. He left them near Tamsweg in the Salzburg mountain district to avoid being taken prisoner and inevitable extradition to the Soviet Union. Together with a young member of the 24th Waffen-Gebirgs-(Karstjäger-) Division of the Waffen-SS, he successfully hid for 4 years, sustained by his wife who supplied both men with food and equipment from secret pick-up points. In the spring of 1949 Wächter crossed the border to South Tyrol in Italy where he met his wife and his elder children for the last time.
On 24 April 1949 he arrived in Rome, where, through pro-Nazi Bishop Hudal, rector of the Teutonic College of Santa Maria dell'Anima, he found rudimentary accommodation in the clerical institute “Vigna Pia” on the southern outskirts of Rome under the name of Alfredo Reinhardt. In June he took part in an Italian film, playing the part of an actor and was in the process of collecting information about a flight to South America. As a result of his daily morning swim in the polluted Tiber he contracted jaundice on 3 July. On 9 July, he was taken to Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican where Wächter revealed his true identity. He received last rites from Hudal in the evening of 13 July and died the next morning.
Wächter and the Holocaust
Wächter has been portrayed as one of the more prominent perpetrators of the Holocaust and a leader of the Jewish extermination campaign in the General Government. Simon Wiesenthal claimed personally to have seen Wächter on 15 August 1942 inside the ghetto of Lemberg, rounding up four thousand elderly Jews, including Wiesenthal's mother, who were subsequently driven to the railway station to be sent to death camps. However, from 14–16 August 1942, Wächter was in Kraków, attending the NSDAP Party Congress. He held the honorary rank of SS-Gruppenführer, conferred on him by the Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to ensure his subservience. The dual German administration in the General Government meant that he did not control the SS and Police matters which in Lemberg were within the remit of Fritz Katzmann.
As police and security responsibilities were subsequently enlarged, the possibility of Wächter influencing matters outside his responsibilities became successively smaller and finally non-existent. His most radical remark is documented during the government session on 20 October 1941 in Kraków, where he camouflaged his attempt to alleviate the conditions for the Jews. The protocol states: "With regard to the solution found in the Kraków Jewish residential districts, the governor mentioned that according to the view that would have been followed here in Kraków, the Jew is to be forced to help himself."
Yet the protocol ends as follows: "The governor points out, however, that ultimately a radical solution of the Jewish question is inevitable and that no consideration of any kind then - as certain artisan's interests - could be taken“. This has been interpreted as proof that Wächter decided on the extermination of Jews, however it has been noted that he did not have control of influencing the fate of the Jews, which was a “Geheime Reichssache” – secret state matter under the direct orders of Himmler.
Wächter and the Ukrainian Division
As Governor of Lemberg, Wächter was finally able to realize his political ambitions. Even though he belonged to the Civil Government, he succeeded in establishing a native military force which he wanted to call the “Ukrainian Division” from the beginning. This was forbidden by Himmler who preferred to employ the term "Galician", and was only eventually realized on 12 November 1944, due to Wächter’s efforts in his capacity as subsidiary head of the Group D of the RSHA in Berlin. Wächter worked on behalf of the Ukrainians and successfully secured the appointment of General Pavlo Shandruk, a former officer in the Polish Army, as commander of the Ukrainian National Army. From this point on he did his utmost to save the unit from extradition to the Soviet Union, which was expressly demanded by Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
Wächter and his legacy
Whilst he was in office, Wächter remained a feared individual by the Soviet government because the success of his policies threatened Communist rule in Eastern Europe.
With his contacts he might have been of value for the Western Allies in 1949, when the Cold War between the world powers was in its infancy. His son Horst appeared in an episode of the PBS television series, Independent Lens, entitled My Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did, which aired in May 2016.