Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Man Without Breath

Please don't take this the wrong way but sometimes I just really love a good story about Nazis.  Philip Kerr always delivers with point-blank perfect period detail, carefully researched and presented without a lot of hand-wringing.  A Man Without Breath (2013; Penguin paperback 2014) is a great addition to his convoluted Everyman's history of the Third Reich and its aftermath.  Kerr, and his reluctant hero Berlin cop Bernie Gunther lost their way a bit in some of these - A Quiet Flame, for example, and If The Dead Rise Not - but are back on their breathtakingly ghastly track now.

I use the word breathtaking not because it fits with the title, which is really only sort of explained on the last page, and not particularly satisfactorily, but because it is hard sometimes to feel shocked by stories from the European theater of the Second World War at this point.  We've seen it all, the agonizing photographic record of the Holocaust, the physical destruction of France and Germany and England and pretty much anywhere anywhere in Europe where the war was actually fought, and of course the increasing realism of fictional and film treatments of the War.  But two points.

First, we Americans don't really know much about the Eastern Front, other than that German soldiers really didn't want to go there.  What did they fear?  Read this book.  Even without any battle scenes, in fact, this is all set well behind German lines, the desolation and deprivation of the German-Russian conflict is sobering.  This too was a race war for the Germans at least, and the Russians responded with similar brutality.

Second and related, war is hell, yes, I know, but do we really know?  While reading this book, I heard this story about ISIS' use of sexual violence.  The piece didn't really work that well as a panel discussion because because the host kept trying to get the guests to talk about the apparent disconnect between a state for God and sexual violence - like it was somehow distinct from other violence, and maybe shouldn't be happening because ISIS is waging some kind of holy war, however perverted?  The panelists weren't biting, essentially saying God or no, there is no excuse.  During the Second World War, the Russians in particular were known for sexual violence, and references to that are casually strewn throughout this story.  We don't really consider that in America, when we think of the Second World War, do we?  That our allies for the last several years of the war were feared more by German women than anyone else, committing what some historians estimate to be up to 2 million rapes during the mid-1940s.  This figure is disputed by the Russians, and there may be some merit to the Russian argument that Germans are trying to become the victim here.  And the truth is that all of the occupying forces - British, French, and yes, Americans - perpetrated brutal crimes against German women in this period.  Look, the point here is that our Good War was not so good for everyone else.

But I digress, sort of.  Some of Kerr's Gunther stories are hard to follow because they jump back and forth in time, but this one stays in chronological order, ripped from the history books, of the Russian massacre of Polish army officers at Katyn Wood in 1940.  Our Hero is sent to Smolensk, near Katyn, in 1943, to investigate some human remains found in the area.  Why, you might be forgiven for asking, do the Germans care about a few bones in wood at this point in the death factory of their Eastern war? They are eager to show the world that they are not the only ones committing horrific crimes - see, the Russians kill thousands in cold blood, too!  We only kill the sub-humans, not fine upstanding men like other army officers!  Gunther is working for a unit of the Wehrmacht called the War Crimes Bureau; their job is to investigate war crimes perpetrated both by Germans and against Germans.  It is presented as an oasis of sensibility in this crazy Nazi world - few of the judges are Party members, for example, although of course there are no Jews.  "By state law the Wehrmacht was not supposed to be interested in politics" notes Kerr (35) and so it is a kind of haven for people like Bernie, who love Germany but hate what the Nazis have done to it, and who are trying to find a way to survive.

Bernie gets out to Poland, realizes pretty quickly that something seriously bad happened in Katyn (although references to Babi Yar and other atrocities make one wonder why anyone thinks this is any worse than everything else that is going on), and while he hopes to avoid going back, ends up leading spinmeister Josef Goebbels' plan to use the Katyn massacre for propaganda purposes.

Of course, there are a few random murders along the way, and while they are actually the crimes that Gunther must solve (and risk his neck doing so) they are completely overshadowed by the unfolding details of the massacre.  As is the noir-ishness of Kerr's style.  This is the least hard-boiled of all his books, perhaps because when the reality is so cold and dark, why would you pile on the atmospherics?*  The ending of the fictional story is a even little incredible, with that old trope of the dramatic last-minute courtroom appearance of an unexpected witness who reveals the truth.  Would that the nonfiction events surrounding these killings had been resolved as nicely but by 1943, even the Germans, though some won't admit it, the really bad parts of this war for them are just getting started.

I keep talking about the carefully researched detail, but you have to read this to believe it, and then challenge yourself by looking it up.  Think that the reference to the Grischino Massacre has just a little too much blood to be real (114)?  Look it up, it was, and is as bad as described.  In fact, go ahead, search for World War Two Massacres and even if you know a lot you will be left without breath for a minute as you take it in.  That's the thing about the Eastern Front; no novelist can concoct anything more gruesome in his or her imagination, than the Germans and the Russians did to each other in reality.

Kerr has used as his source Alfred de Zayas' The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, 1939-1945 (1979, University of Nebraska Press).  It doesn't take a lot of digging to understand that while Kerr may have lifted much of his source material from this monumental work (readily credited in his Author's Note), de Zayas is indeed The Source for this topic.  The point is, all of the framework of this novel is real, and many of the higher-ups are, too.  The Author's Note briefly describes the fate of several critical characters and places and events.  Kerr is artful at cloaking his crime fiction in an all-too-criminal reality - you can't tell where the one ends and the other begins.

Another piece of Kerr's oeuvre that I really like is his ability to tease apart the strands of German-ness.  I know that I've said BEFORE that it is sometimes a little too easy to have Our Hero be so precisely anti-Nazi-but-pro-Germany, but in A Man Without Breath Kerr makes the good point that by 1943, post-Stalingrad, many Germans, even those in the High Command, are privately doubting the future of the Third Reich.  Nicely complementing this is Kerr's portrayal of Junkers, the landed Prussian elite with their vons and their zus, their antipathy toward Hitler and general ambivalence about Nazis, as well as their insular society and disdain for everyone outside of it.  Their involvement in the 20 July plot to kill Hitler at Wolfsschanze is well-known.  Less famous are the many other attempts on The Leader's life, mostly by vons, in the year and a half leading up to that debacle.  But you know, Kerr gets them all straight, right down the correct insignia, and you can look all this stuff up if you want to.  You won't be disappointed.

The everyday nature of the business of war, where everyone knows what each side is doing to the other, is the most chilling aspect of all of this.  The Germans are tense, because this is post-Stalingrad and everyone knows what happened to Napoleon when he tried to conquer Russia.  The tide has turned against Germany, and all everyone in this place can hope for is to get out before the Russian counter-offensive comes in the summer.  Civilians, too, especially those who may have aided the Germans (which is pretty much everyone in one way or another) can't really decide who is worse - the conquering Germans with their race-hatred of anyone not German or the Russians with their paranoid shoot-first-and-don't-ask-questions approach to national loyalty.  Worked at the hospital for wounded German soldiers?  Ran a brothel?  You are S.O.L. when the Russians and their dreaded NKVD come back to town.

I'll offer an extended quote that I think demonstrates both Kerr's and his subjects command of the details of mass killing.  Bernie has been assigned to show a particularly odious character around the massacre site, one Paul Blobel.  Read the book or look him up, you'll find the same story:  Blobel was not only in charge of the massacre at Babi Yar, but became something of an expert on killing, and then destroying the evidence of these massacres afterwards.  He's brought to Katyn to advise on the public health aspects of mass exhumations.  Yeah, the Nazis thought of everything.  Anyway, Bernie describes the mass graves here to him.
  "'It's as you can see,' I said.  'All of the victims so far have been shot in exactly the same way.  And I do mean exctly - to within a few centimeters, from very close range, and at the same protrusion at the base of the skull.  Nearly all of the exit wounds are between the nose and the hairline.  Undoubtedly, the NKVD men who carried out this particular special action had done this many times before.  Indeed, they'd done it so many times that they had even perfected where and how the bodies would fall into the grave.  In fact, you can say with absolute certitude that on one was allowed to just fall in like a dead dog.  There are maybe twelve layers of bodies in this grave.  The heads of those in each row seem to be resing on the feet of the men below, and there was nothing about this that was not subject to thought and planning.  When all of the men were dead, or at least shot, tons of sand were bulldozed on top, which helped to compress the bodies into one large mummified cake.  Even the decomposition process appears to have been perfected by the NKVD.  The fluids leaking from the bodies seem to have formed a kind of airtight seal around the cake.  Finally, birch trees were replanted on top of the grave.  It's really very methodical . . . .'"
  Blobel is impressed.  "'I used to be an architect and I've seen foundation works that weren't made as well as this grave.'"  (284)

So, yes.  Nazi, NKVD, who was worse?  As an unlucky holder of evidence against the Russians (who is himself Russian) says, "Hitler is just a minor demon in hell, but Stalin is the devil himself."  (190) Guess it all depends on your perspective.

*But he doesn't lose it all, and this little jewel raised a smile:  "Tanya was the kind of blonde who could have stopped a whole division of cavalry with one flash of her underwear."  (298)

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