This is quite an exceptional read. One might think that is due to the nature and content, which is only part of the reason way. Books about the Holocaust tend to be full of emotional triggers and are heavily laden with distressing images and graphic details.
What makes this one slightly different is the fact David Thomas has chosen to approach the subject from the flip side of the coin. The life of one of the perpetrators, and the view of the Nazi era and his crimes.
Thomas has constructed his story around facts, historical evidence, eyewitness statements and then added small elements of fiction to it. The end product leaves the reader pondering quite a few things.
Let me be clear on one thing though, the author in no way attempts to diminish the deeds or question the guilt of those involved in the Holocaust.
The main character is Heuser, and this actually is his story. We follow his progression and rise in the ranks to an officer of the murder squad in the German police. As most Germans during that era he was also affiliated with and had risen in the ranks of the SS. He actually helped to apprehend a serial killer, who raped and killed many women during the Nazi era.
The obvious comparison is then how Heuser becomes exactly the type of murdering monster he helped to catch as a policeman.
How does the normal law-abiding ambitious civil servant turn into a man who shoots children in the back of head, a man who rapes women and then turns them over to the highest bidder, and a man who is responsible for the deaths of over 30000 innocent people.
That is of course one of the most compelling discussions in the aftermath of the Holocaust. How did a nation of normal citizens become notorious for the planning, execution and extermination of millions of people?
The reader steps forward in time to 1958 when Heuser was arrested for his part in the atrocities during the war. By that time he had risen to a high-ranking police officer in the newly divided West Germany. Thomas goes on to make two very important points.
Proving the crimes committed during the Holocaust was difficult. The Germans and their many collaborators had destroyed most of the evidence, which includes eradicating the many living witnesses during the last months of war. In Heuser’s case they actually had special troops come in to dig up the mass graves, so they could burn all the bodies, ergo getting rid of forensic evidence against them. Throughout the last months of war the focus was on destroying documents, gas chambers and survivors.
The trials of Nuremberg and all other subsequent Nazi war trials were often found to be lacking when it came to justice. They lacked physical evidence and eyewitness statements to convict. So despite knowing that those on trial were guilty, it was hard or impossible to convict them legally. It is important to say at this point that the legality of the procedure didn’t sway into the same vigilantism or illegal criminology seen and experienced in the Nazi regime.
Unfortunately this also means that the majority of the war criminals were never brought to justice or convicted of their crimes. Heuser received 15 years for his part in the Holocaust, however he only served an unsatisfactory number of years.
In the years after the war the opinion of the German population was ‘that they had no desire to take over the ashes of the past or face the truth of what lies beneath the ashes’, which explains the complacent attitude towards the Nazi criminals living amongst them.
I highly recommend this fascinating read, which offers an insight into the mind of a criminal of circumstance, as they are often called. It is also a harsh and necessary reminder that we should never let this history repeat itself, especially when you consider the rise of the far-right political parties, fascism, Nazi’s and anti-Semitism in the 21st century.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley.
Above: Memorial of the Jews of Minsk