Monday, September 16, 2013

Review of Ostland by David Thomas (Quercus, 2013)

Georg Heuser is an ambitious police officer who has come top of his graduating class.  His reward is to be placed as an apprentice to Wilhelm Ludtke, head of the Berlin murder squad.  He joins the squad in February 1941 in the middle of one of the highest profile criminal cases of the war – the S-Bahn murders, where a man is raping and murdering young women on and near to the Berlin train system.  The squad are under enormous pressure from their boss, General Heydrich, to bring the killer to justice, yet he’s proving highly elusive.  Heuser is determined to prove his worth, both in terms of work and politically, with the aim of being noticed and securing rapid promotion.  This he achieves and once the case is closed he is transferred east to Minsk to help oversee the policing in the newly conquered territory and the administering of the final solution to local Jews and those being transferred to the area.  Despite his revulsion at his orders, he proceeds to carry out them out, eventually becoming head of the Minsk Gestapo.  As the Russians approach he heads west and survives the war, rejoining the police and rising to become chief of police in Rhineland-Pfalz.  In 1959 he’s arrested, accused of war crimes and eventually put on trial.  Ostland tells his story and that of the case against him.

Ostland is a fictionalised account of parts of the career of ‘Dr’ Georg Heuser – his part in solving the famous S-Bahn murders and his role in the murders of thousands of Jews and others in occupied Russia a few months later, and his arrest fourteen years after the end of the war and subsequent trial.  The first elements are told in the first person from Heuser’s perspective, the latter in the third person from the perspective of two prosecuting, investigative lawyers, Paula Siebert and Max Kraus.  Whilst Heuser and his colleagues are real people, Siebert and Kraus are fictional.  Both parts of the story are based on documentary evidence presented in Heuser’s trial, along with other research by Thomas.  I’m always a little wary of fictionalised version of real events as the danger is the creation of revisionist history that distorts what really occurred – my sense is why not just write a factual history book, especially since we have no idea of the inner thoughts of particular characters.  In Ostland, however, the fictional form works remarkably well, in the main because Thomas uses the form to explore wider questions of moral philosophy: what compels men to commit truly evil acts and how should such men be judged? 

Heuser’s case is interesting basis on which to explore such questions as he went from investigating what was considered one of the most evil killers in the Reich, to be a state-sanctioned murderer.  Thomas unsettles the reader by portraying Heuser through an everyday lens and as being cultured, reflexive, obedient and ambitious, and not as a psychopathic monster, as well by detailing the logic of how the law works and a general desire at the time of the trial to forget the past and move-on.  It is a story that becomes more compelling and disturbing as it progresses, especially as cracks and doubts are added to Heuser’s professional demeanour and the account unsettles what would seem like commonsensical judgements about Heuser’s actions.  There’s no doubt that the story is distressing in its telling of both the S-Bahn murders and the genocide in Minsk, and it’s not a tale for the faint-hearted.  But for those prepared to make their way to the end it’s a thought-provoking read, especially when one starts to consider what they would have done in the same situations and context, and how one would subsequently try to rationalise actions and live with oneself.  In this sense, whilst the story is quite simply told, it packs a very powerful punch that is likely to stay with the reader for quite some time. 


Mrs Peabody said...

Thanks for this excellent review, Rob. I MUST get hold of this one asap. It sounds fascinating and I'm particularly keen to see how the post-war legal angles have been presented.

TracyK said...

My husband was also very interested in this based on your review. I thought it might be a little hard to take, but we will see. Great review.

Anonymous said...

An excellent read,well worth the effort.