There is one question about World War II that will never be satisfactorily answered. That is: how did good people turn into the kind of monsters that could perpetrate the Holocaust and all its related inhumane crimes? The kind of evil that it took to murder all those millions after stealing every scrap of dignity and hope from them should have been impossible. David Thomas’ Ostland is one of the best explorations of this question I’ve seen yet. This is a hard book to read. It’s upsetting in a number of different ways. But it is a very good book, based on the very real life of George Heuser (link to German Wikipedia page for Heuser).
Thomas begins Ostland with Georg Heuser’s ignoble arrest from a spa in 1959. Max Kraus and Paula Siebert, the investigator and lawyer who work for the ZSL (German Wikipedia), have been piecing together a case against Heuser. During the war, Heuser was posted with the SS to Minsk as part of Einsatzgruppen A. (The Einsatzgruppen were tasked with murdering Jews, partisans, and whoever else the Reich decided while the Wehrmacht duked it out with the Red Army.) But Thomas conceals this from us for the first half of the book. After a few chapters from Paula’s perspective, delivered in the third person, Thomas lets Heuser tell his story*.
Heuser’s defining characteristic is his ambition. At university, he studied law and entered the police academy where he graduated at the top of his class. He wrangled a coveted post under one of the most highly regarded men in the Berlin police. He got to work on the career-making S-Bahn Murders case. The higher-ups in the SS “rewarded” Heuser’s work by posting him to Minsk. As Heuser tells it, he was unaware of what the Einsatzgruppen were actually doing until he was ordered to take part in mass murders of Jews who had been rounded up from all over the conquered territories.
In the first half of Ostland, Heuser wonders at what kind of monster could murder all those women. Where did Paul Ogorzow (German Wikipedia) come from? What made him? In the second half, Heuser starts to compare himself to Ogorzow. What would the murderer say, now that Heuser has killed more people than the S-Bahn Murderer? Only two things make it possible for Heuser to live with himself. He tells himself, over and over, that all he can do is his duty and follow orders. The morality of what he’s doing rests with the people giving the orders, not him. The second thing that makes it possible for Heuser to carry on is lots and lots of vodka. (Thomas found a statistic that the SS went through a bottle of vodka for every person they killed as a part of a “special action.”) The men that Heuser works with drink and talk about everything they’re doing in painful, dehumanizing euphemisms. The second half of Ostland is absolutely brutal.
Thomas jumps from 1941-1943 to the early 1960s as Heuser’s war criminal trial progresses. Siebert grows gloomy as Heuser’s lawyer manages to have charge after charge dismissed. The case appears to be crumbling even though Siebert and Kraus know he’s guilty of terrible things. The last part of the book is a long meditation on the “following orders” defense and the mind-set of SS and Wehrmacht members during the war. Ostland is a very nuanced book, more balanced than anything I’ve yet read. This is not to say that Thomas is an apologist. He is very clear that Heuser and men like him bear a measure of the guilt and blame for the Holocaust. Men like Heuser will ask, “What else could I have done?” But if only more people had questioned their orders…
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.
* In the Author’s Note at the beginning of Ostland and the acknowledgements at the end, Thomas describes his thorough research into Heuser’s life and trial. Ostland is more fictionalized non-fiction than a straight work of historical fiction.