Top critical review
17 people found this helpful
A good interesting read - but nothing new.
on 26 September 2013
Really? Really really? Wall to wall 5 star reviews? 'A book that not only deserves to be read but needs to be read'?
Well, only that is, if you haven't been exposed over the past 30 years to the seemingly never-ending parade of books and TV documentaries charting the Nazis murderous and incomprehensible application of their final solution in grisly forensic detail. And given the prurient fascination of many, many people with this most hideous episode in human history, I find it inconceivable that there's anyone over the age of about 10, who can't have already been exposed over and again to the mind-numbing horrors of the Einsatzgruppen and their ghastly work. To which extent, this book didn't shock or enlighten, because I'm sad to say I've seen and read it all before. Once you've been exposed to the vile history of the holocaust and the evil that men did, then you know all the disgusting details there are to know already.
That's not to say this isn't a well written, well-constructed, and interesting novel. It is. The protagonist, Georg Heuser, goes from ambitious, strait-laced, eager murder detective, to ambitious, strait-laced, reluctant mass murderer in a couple of short years. Not through volition, but because of circumstances.
I found some of the parallels between the two strands of the plot somewhat clunky to be honest (Heuser falls in love / Siegert (his prosecutor, 15 years later) falls in love; Heuser goes to see his old mentor for reassurance / Siegert goes to see her old mentor for reassurance. etc etc.) But overall, it's an interesting enough premise and tautly written, charting the moral decline of one individual from hero to a lot less than zero. From bright star of righteousness, to black hole of infamy. Except that... It doesn't really chart Heuser's moral decline, because he is shown as aware throughout his time in the East, that what he is doing is bestial and completely wrong - so he never actually loses his moral compass. He simply sets it aside, soused in vodka, conditioned by his upbringing, his ambition, and nature of the the times, to become an unhappy, unwilling, but obedient and efficient mass murderer.
At the end of the novel, the authorial voice comes through very clearly. And the earth-shattering conclusion? Heuser and his like were simply obeying orders. Apart from a few genuine sadists and psychopaths, most of the men that did the trigger-work were driven by obedience, compliance, the desire to be good at their jobs, peer pressure, and above all, what they saw (in the context of the times) as their duty - however repugnant and immoral they knew it was. It drove some of them mad, some to suicide, almost all to drink. But ultimately they did what soldiers do in war - they obey. And yes, they become brutalised.
This seems to be the novelist's conclusion - which is not to say it is an apology for the killers in any way. Thomas plainly seeks to explain - not to justify the unjustifiable.
But it's scarcely an original or insightful point of view.
So, overall - a good read, especially the first part, where the protagonist is a detective, not a mass murderer. But so many 5 star reviews? I don't get it.