Thursday, 18 July 2013

Ostland, the Nazis … and Me

Today on my blog I’m delighted to welcome one of my favourite authors. His name is David Thomas although he has used the pseudonym Tom Cain for his series of books about the assassin Samuel Carver. 

Before anyone thinks of getting into the whole JK Rowling nonsense about the use of pseudonyms, I should point out that when David released his first novel – the utterly excellent Accident Man – he was working as a journalist. Hence the pseudonym. 

The day this post goes live is the same day his latest Tom Cain book goes into paperback and his novel Ostland is released (under David Thomas)  have read both books and cannot recommend them highly enough. 

Anyway, here’s David talking about Ostland and the factors which drove him to write the story. 

Every novel I have ever written has begun in a single, distinct moment. Sometimes it’s a visual image, or a line of dialogue that arrives, as fleeting as a ghost in the early hours of the morning. Once it was an unplanned, hungover visit to an exhibition of Japanese art. In the case of Ostland, it was a line in a Sunday newspaper book review.

The book was ‘Berlin at War’ by the historian Roger Moorhouse. The reviewer described a story told in the book about a serial killer who preyed on solitary female travellers on the city’s ‘S-Bahn’ railway network. That was interesting enough, but then, at the end of the paragraph was a throw-away line saying that one of the detectives who had investigated the crime had subsequently become a major war-criminal.

I was immediately gripped by the idea of a man who was somehow transformed from the heroic figure of a detective tracking down an evil killer-rapist into the ultimate villain, a genocidal Nazi mass-murderer. I bought and greatly enjoyed Berlin at War and discovered the detective’s name: Georg Heuser. Then began months of research as I tried to piece together the story of a young man – we first meet him a few days before his 28th birthday – whose war was spent in an extraordinary and in many ways tragic journey from dazzling, golden promise to the absolute heart of darkness.

Heuser was a brilliant detective. He graduated top of his class at the police ‘Leaders School’ for men on the fast-track to the top. His reward was a posting as personal assistant to Wilhelm Lüdtke, the chief of the Berlin murder squad, who was engaged in the hunt for the S-Bahn murderer. Heuser distinguished himself in the investigation and was the arresting officer when the killer was finally tracked down. He was then invited to co-write the official report on the investigation in the German Journal of Criminology.

What’s more, unlike most ambitious German policemen in the Third Reich, Heuser was never a member of the Nazi Party. He was not anti-Semitic. He had no psychotic or violent tendencies. Yet, in late 1941 he was sent to the Russian city of Minsk, then part of the new German colony of Ostland. And there Georg Heuser participated in a series of horrifying mass-murders. He helped plan the transportation and execution of tens of thousands of Jews. He stood in line with his SS comrades and shot men, women and children cold-bloodedly in the back of the head. And he personally executed Russian women accused of being spies, dumping their corpses in the dead of night, just as the S-Bahn murderer had done.

The obvious question is: why? What could make an otherwise decent man behave in such an appalling, unforgivable way? What went on in his head as he descended into the depths?

That is the question Ostland attempts to answer. It contains two detective stories in which Georg Heuser is the hero of one case and the villain of the other. There are three love stories, each of which I hope casts some light on the emotional and psychological impulses of Heuser, his victims and the post-war German investigators shining a light on past evils that many of their fellow-countrymen would rather have kept well hidden. And, of course, it is one more book about the Nazis.

But do we really need another one of those?

I certainly asked myself that. I’m wary of the concentration we place on the evils of Nazism as if they were in some way unique. The constant harping on the terrible crimes of fascism means that far too little attention is paid to the equal wrongs perpetrated by communist dictators: Stalin, Mao and all their imitators. Anyone with even a suspicion of neo-Nazi loyalties is rightly condemned, yet academics and politicians who never abandoned, still less repented their communist allegiances can go to their graves without a stain on their reputations. My unease at that double-standard was one the reasons why my previous book, Blood Relative had former agents of the East German secret police, the Stasi as its villains.

But the Nazis are far more familiar to us than the Stalinists and Maoists. They’re closer to us geographically, culturally and in our imaginations. And that means that there is another question asked by Ostland: would any of us, facing the same circumstances as Georg Heuser be any better than him?

No one country or ideology has the monopoly on genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass-murder, oppression or brutality. Nor can many nations claim to be completely innocent. Ostland describes in extreme detail a twisted world in which normal, everyday men could carry out atrocities so vile as to be unimaginable by any sane human being: a world in which the women who lived and worked alongside those men could happily wear coats and dresses stolen from the bodies of the dead.

Hitler and his henchmen created a psychotic system that condemned millions to extermination, and condemned those who killed them to damnation. Some say the Germans were ‘willing executioners’. I say, look at the quartermaster’s records. They reveal that the number of vodka bottles drunk by the SS men in Minsk was almost exactly the same as the number of Jews they killed. These pre-war policemen, car mechanics, teachers and farmers could only implement the Final Solution by obliterating their consciences with alcohol: one bottle per victim. They knew they were doing something unfathomably wrong. And yet they kept drinking and kept killing too.

I was talking about all this to a friend of mine who happens to be Jewish. Seeing that the experience of researching and writing Ostland had affected me very deeply he tried to give me words of reassurance: ‘Don’t worry, I know that if you’d been in Heuser’s place, you’d never have shot anyone.’

I replied, ‘That’s just the problem. I fear that I would.’

And that fear, in the end, is what this book is about.
Here's some links if you want to follow up and buy David's books
Tom Cain books UK  US
David Thomas books UK US

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