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4.4 out of 5 stars
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 July 2013
To simply label Ostland as a crime thriller would not only do a great disservice to the sheer power and scope of this novel, but would in turn devalue a book that truly encompasses the very best elements of both the crime and historical fiction genres. This is without a doubt one of the most affecting novels that I have read, so much so, that at times I had to take a breath, emotionally undone by the, at times, harrowing depictions of one of the greatest evils perpetrated in the history of mankind, which is so strongly brought to the reader's consciousness. This is not a book that just deserves to be read but a book that also needs to be read...

From its deceptive beginning as a seemingly straightforward and compelling crime read, Thomas not only manipulates our emotions to the central protagonist, Georg Heuser, but then allows us to bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during the latter stages of World War II. Opening with the real-life investigation of a brutal serial killer, stalking the S-Bahn network, Heuser makes his entrance as a young idealistic detective, driven by an innate sense of morality in the hunt for a killer. At the close of the S-Bahn killer case with the apprehension of the murderer Heuser tries to come to terms with his encounter with "a genuinely evil human being" and that to enter the killer's mind was to "enter a world of violence, degradation and filth, a world without pity, morality, or any feeling whatsoever for his fellow human beings- a world with which I had nothing in common at all" and a sentiment of the young Heuser that remained in my mind throughout the book. With the indelible links between the German security departments Heuser quickly comes to the attention of SS-Reinhard Heydrich and his cohorts, and being promoted to SS-First Lieutenant is despatched to Minsk, an area where half the population is Jewish and which quickly becomes a major processing centre for Reich Jews and the beginning point for Heuser's descent into evil, previously such an anathema to him.

What strikes me most about this novel is the adept way in which not only Thomas assails our sensibilities in his description of the harrowing processing of the Jews, using at times the most understated of images to convey the horror, but how the almost banality of murder imprints itself on the consciences of those despatched to accomplish this task. Hence, our empathies and reactions to Heuser are consistently manipulated and changed, as we bear witness to his actions, and through a parallel post-war storyline involving the bringing of war criminals to justice. Suffice to say that our original perceptions of Heuser as a formerly steadfast harbinger of morality are significantly coloured by the extreme brutality that we witness in the latter half of the book- a brutality that Thomas evokes so deeply in our minds through the powerful and affecting nature of his writing, that at times is almost too uncomfortable to bear but so necessary to read. Thomas' evocation of historical fact, and the prevailing atmosphere of evil, gives rise to some of the most powerful writing I have experienced, and a true study of the shifting nature of morality and its indelible role at the heart of our inherent instinct for survival.

In conclusion, I can only say that Ostland is a book that transcends our expectations as crime readers, and is a richly rewarding read. It effortlessly causes us to engage with it, never shying away from the realities of evil and the destruction of morality it brings in its wake. A novel that unerringly stimulates the thoughts and emotions of the reader, compounded by the harsh realities of human history that form its foundation. Quite simply, a must read.
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on 23 July 2013
Prepare to be startled. The last book I read by David Thomas was 1995's "Girl"Girl, the light, smart, thought-provoking story of an accidental sex change! It's fair to say that Ostland is an entirely different proposition. It's a compelling - but categorically not an easy - read. In fact, there are times when you feel like it kicked you in the stomach, ribs and heart, all at once... and you want to be sick, especially if, like me, your Jewish family suffered this unspeakable history first-hand. But it is extraordinarily powerful and technically - with its parallel storylines some 20 years apart - cleverly-constructed. The compelling serial killer tale at the beginning serves as a fairly comfortable prologue and contrast to the astonishingly uncomfortable, factually-based horror story that unfolds, in tandem with the moral unravelling of Georg Heuser, the main protagonist and ultimate anti-hero, thereafter. This is the first book I've read in ages that I can't stop thinking, talking and even crying about, even two books on (am currently reading the very wonderful "Revenger" by Tom Cain and mourning the end of the series). Why would you not spend ten pounds to read Ostland? An astonishing work and all the more gut-wrenching for its documentary real-ness, this deserves to win every available gong and I hope one day to see it on the global schools curriculum for 16-18 year olds.
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on 10 November 2013
This book is a brilliant, heart-rending and utterly credible reconstruction of a reviled role in one of history's most horrendous events. For three days, I was unable to leave it alone; if I wasn't reading it, I was dreaming or imagining it. The fundamental dilemma - would I have done differently - is, perhaps, over-sold. But so carefully is the plot constructed that I found myself unable to answer the dilemma to my own complete satisfaction. A must read!
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This novel takes real events and weaves together the real and the fictional to create a thought provoking and haunting book. Georg Hauser was an officer of the Criminal Police and the SS and we follow his story, told mainly from his perspective, through two major events in his life. The first, as a young detective and the second as he is investigated for war crimes by the fictional investigators Max Kraus and Paula Siebert. Arrested in 1959, Hauser is a police chief and a man both popular and respected by his colleagues. Kraus and Siebert have a difficult task ahead to prosecute a man who, in 1941 Berlin, was involved in the investigation for the notorious S-Bahn murderer; the ambitious and keen right hand man to Wilhelm Ludtke, head of the Berlin murder squad. Most Germans believe that those being prosecuted for war crimes were just following orders; that they have committed no crimes since returning from the front and that they would prefer to forget the terrible events of the past.

Though the words of Hauser, we hear how he "grew up under the shadow of defeat" after the first world war. How, although never a party member, he thought the National Socialists represented a promise of pride and strength. Looking up to men, such as Heydrich, he longed not only to advance his career, but take a violent killer off the streets. However, the war meant that Hauser would not spend his time in Berlin and, although he arrived in the Reich Commissariat of Ostland as a decent young man, he "had left it a monster..." This novel asks what happened in Riga and Minsk during the years Hauser was there and what turned idealistic, normal young men into the killers of women and children - precisely the people he had sworn as a policeman to protect. At times, this is an unsettling read, but brilliantly done and wonderfully written. It would make a fantastic novel for book groups, with so much to discuss, and you will be unable to read it and remain unmoved.
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on 18 July 2013
I was fortunate enough to have read an advance copy of this last year- and it still haunts. Ostland is the (true) story of a detective who hunts a notorious Berlin serial killer during World War Two, and who is then himself twisted into becoming something far, far worse. Read it and decide if, under the circumstances, you would be any different. OSTLAND is brutal and brilliant, with a savage twist ending that hits like a punch to the kidneys.
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on 16 January 2014
This is, quite simply one of the best books I have read over the last year, i could not disagree more with the review that only gave it 3 stars. Don't get me wrong, at times the story telling does have some - minor - faults, but they are outweighed by a gripping stroy that takes you on a journey into the human condition and its dark side. The book tackles this subject well - how do apparently ordinary people become involved in such brutal, inhuman acts? This book kept me thinking about it even when I wasn't reading it. Based on true events it a gripping read, yes its harrowing, yes its brutal, but I think this book handles this subject with dignity and depth. I read a lot of historical books (mostly on the Spanish Civil War) but I still found this book fascinating.
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on 3 January 2014
I'd agree with one of the very few poor reviews of this book just in so far as the descriptions of Nazi atrocities are nothing new to anyone who has ever bothered to read anything about the holocaust, or even just watched Schindler's List. What is really more interesting is the insight into how someone descends to these levels, especially from the position they formally held, how they rationalise it and process/deal with it. Perhaps the greatest feat of this book though is that it leaves you, well me at least, holding two contradictory thoughts in my head at once: that a moral society must surely punish and condemn such actions and that to do so is a self serving act from the luxury of knowing you weren't there and are never likely to be in that situation, because if you were you almost certainly wouldn't take the moral high ground at all. For that disconcerting reason alone this is a book worth reading.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 February 2015
Georg Albert Wilhelm Heuser graduates from Police college with honours and is taken on by Wilhelm Ludtke as his assistant midway through the search for the notorious S-bahn murderer. He makes his name during the hunt for the perpetrator as an Assistant Criminal Commissar and he was to go on to crack the case. He was never a member of the National Socialist Party. Membership was by no means obligatory in either the police force or even the SS. He was clean-cut, young, an excellent detective, who rose seamlessly on terms of merit through the ranks, and brought to justice one of the most depraved and feared murderers of the times. How then was it that this paragon of detective talent was, in 1961 to stand trial for murder himself?

Equally, compelling is the mystery of how Heuser (pronounced Hoyzer) ended the war in shame and disgrace, when other officers of comparable rank did not. This is not a story that has a clear-cut explanation. Rather it is embroiled in the nature of Heuser's experience of war. Heuser has killed so many people that it defies belief - some of the shocks of this story are bound up in the facts of his career, but nothing anyone could comprehend matches the degredation of how his life progressed.

Even the facts of his final actions during the war cannot be seen as the apparent acts of mercy he would claim them to be. They were grades of finite calculation, measures taken to lessen the degree of condemnation with which he knew he would be faced. How did it happen? Was it an effect of (in those oh so banal terms) - merely following the orders of his superiors? And were there some genuine moments of repentance? After all, he saved the half-Jewish son and daughters of the Lang family. Was he sick of killing or was it yet another calculation? Certainly he used them to inform on the partisans.

This is a riveting story, one that rings true, and one that also horrifies. It is based on the facts of Heuser's life, and you may wish you had never read it when it comes to his activities and those of his fellow officers in Minsk.
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on 23 December 2015
A thought provoking factually based book. In 1941 Berlin, a vicious serial killer is on a deadly mission. To kill and mutilate countless innocent women for his own perverted gratification. Georg Heuser is one of the detectives assigned to the case. The relentless manhunt gives him the chance to apprehend the murderer and prove his worth. Fast forward in Germany1959, this same man is about to be put on trial for crimes of unimaginable horror, in Ostland on the Russian Front. The expertly portrayed descent of this idealistic young man into a monster, is the irrefutable evidence of how minds and souls can be corrupted during wartime, when even sadistic torture and murder hold no fear of any consequences. Brilliant, will read more from this author.
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In the early 1960’s, stimulated by events such as the Holocaust and the trial of the infamous Nazi war criminal, Adolph Eichmann, American psychologist, Stanley Milgram, conducted a series of experiments demonstrating the human capacity to inflict pain and even death on fellow humans if instructed to by appropriate authority figures. The so-called ‘Superior Orders Defence’, which was used by Eichmann in common with many of the Nazis brought to trial at Nuremberg for their crimes, suggests that the actual perpetrators of the crimes were bound by an Oath of Loyalty to Hitler and, by extension, any senior Nazi interpreting his ‘will’.

This novel tells the story of one such perpetrator, Georg Heuser, a young idealistic Berlin police detective at the start of WWII, who contributes to the investigation and eventual capture of the S-Bahn serial killer who was found guilty of the murder of six women in 1941. Like all civil police Heuser becomes part of the SS, incorporating the SD, or Nazi security service under Reinhard Heydrich. As such he held officer ranks in both the civil police and the SS.

Though the story begins in 1941 the greater part outlines the role played by Heuser when he becomes part of an Einsatzgruppen, or ‘deployment group’, tasked with rounding up indigenous Jewish populations in the wake of the German occupation of Eastern Europe and Russia (or Ostland) following Operation Barbarossa, the beginning of Hitler’s ‘War of Annihilation’ on the Soviet Union. Once rounded up they would be ‘processed’ in various ‘actions’ throughout the Nazi occupation as part of the ‘final solution’ to the Jewish Problem. Heuser, though not a Nazi party member, is keen to get on and does all he can to win the approval of his superiors. If this means carrying out orders that he would normally find repugnant then he manages to justify it to himself on the grounds that he is acting on orders from a higher authority of the Nazi state in the interests of his country in the midst of a vicious war of annihilation in which both sides compete with one another to demonstrate just how monstrous they can be.

The novel is carefully researched and in Georg Heuser we come to know what it may have been like for, what may have been, in ordinary circumstances, an ordinarily decent man driven to extremes by extraordinary conditions. We all like to think, I’m sure, that we would not have followed those heinous orders but how many, I wonder, with any degree of certitude, can say how they would have behaved given the same set of circumstances? Circumstances that, hopefully, the world will never see again.

This is an astonishing piece of work, cleverly constructed and brilliantly written, to evoke within the reader just that question posed above.
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