Monday, September 16, 2013
Review of Ostland by David Thomas (Quercus, 2013)
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.