Friday 27 June 2014

Ostland - David Thomas

If what you are looking for is a historic police procedural that blossoms into an indictment of the horrific actions of the Einsatzgruppen in and around Minsk, then this is simply perfect. The book divides into almost three distinct sections. The first follows the historic war-crimes trial of Dr. Georg Heuser and his cronies in the early 1960's using actual court transcripts at times and following proceedings through the eyes of Dr Paula Siebert, a young lawyer investigating the crimes that took place in Minsk during the early 1940's. The second and third parts of the story are seen as almost a memoir written by Heuser; first charting how he came to be a rising star in the Brelin Kripo, helping to catch an infamous serial killer - The S-Bahn killer - a man who had an almost Ripperesque grip on Berlin during the late 1930's and up until his capture and execution in 1941. The second part of the memoir shows Heuser's descent into criminality as a SS Hauptsturmfuehrer in Ostland. The 'memoir' sections are quite brilliant in their convincing blend of horror at the atrocities going on around the young officer, and repeated insistence that he was 'only obeying orders'. This section manages, without lifting the onus of responsibility, to show how ordinary men are able to be twisted into committing the most atrocious acts of inhumanity; and how their warped sense of morality can lead them to see the most banal acts of kindness as great humane gestures. At times when reading this I couldn't help but think of the wonderful, but terrifying scene in the film Schindler's List when Amon Goeth shows 'mercy' for the failure of his slave to properly clean his bathtub. The moment when Goeth loses interest in this act of 'generosity' is portrayed with such chilling skill by Fiennes, as instead of offering a blessing to his own reflection he becomes caught up in his own need for a manicure. This same consummate skill was shown here in the duality of Heuser as he thinks to seduce a young woman he has just rescued from the death pits; as well as the way in which his lawyer's mind attempts to reconcile the criminality of what he is doing with his own moral code. At one point Heuser describes the hideousness of realising that the men he is now charged with killing are not 'less than fully human' as the propaganda states, but are in fact members of the Reich, men who have loved and served their homeland..

      'It was as though the who grotesque business were a gigantic experiment, conducted by a mad, all-powerful psychiatrist who sought to establish just what terrible sins once-decent men might be capable of if correctly manipulated. 'We have established that you can bring yourself to kill people who look and sound alien. Very well then, what if they look and sound just like you? what if they come from the same cities, even the same neighbourhoods - how will you manage then?''

It is a fact that the majority of the Einsatzgruppen in particular were ordinary men, often policemen used to upholding law and order, and that even the harshest amongst them found themselves reacting physically and mentally when confronted with the horrors or the Latvian and Belorussian campaigns. These men became inured to the horrors, certainly but they also became alcoholics; insomniac drunks haunted by the atrocities they had seen and done. It was due in part to the potential break down of moral and the mental state of the men taking these 'actions' that the idea of gas chambers was posed. Not only did the solution of gassing the victims meet with the approval of Heydrich on grounds of efficiency (quicker, higher volume mass murder possible and no expended bullets) but also it spared the men from having to witness the brutality of mass murder at close range. Even Heydrich recognised that 'good German men' would not be able to stand up to the strain of repeatedly shooting men, women and children in the back of the head for any extended period of time. This is the paradox that this novel explored quite brilliantly; that of the legal framework for mass murder, and of using men born to uphold justice to commit the worst offences. This book handles the issues involved wonderfully. If you are interested in any further reading on the subject, then like the author does in his afterword to Ostland, I have to recommend both Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning, and The Field Men: The SS Officers Who Led the Einsatzgruppen by French Maclean, both are fascinating studies of a truly horrific piece of recent history.

1 comment:

  1. *SIGH* I dunno. I'm more on a YA to NA reader but you wrote the review pretty well. It made my head hurt a bit (It can only read 160 characters) LOL kidding! Seriously tho, that book should be made into a movie. I mean, I'm not a fan of Mystery Crime books but I know when a book is too good to be a movie. :)