Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Book Review - Blind eye to murder by Tom Bower

Blind eye to murder : Britain, America and the purging of Nazi Germany - a pledge betrayed
by Tom Bower

London: Andre Deutsch, 1981                                   ISBN 0233972927

It's not often that reading a book makes you feel sick, and yet at the same time the desire to finish it is not diminished. This is one of those books.

Most people when they think about Nazi war crimes might think of the Nuremberg trials, or perhaps the Eichmann trial, and think that in the years since the war there has been a thorough and undiminishing search for the perpetrators of the worst Nazi excesses. That this was never really the case is made clear in the pages of this book.

Tom Bower came to this story through his own dealings with German officials in the 1970s, who he later found to be former Nazis. Like most, he had assumed that part of the purpose of the War was to deal with and punish such people, and that, to a great extent, this had been achieved.

He begins his investigation with the attitudes of both Britain and America to the problem while the War was still under way. It's clear that the desire to punish Nazi evil-doers was initially driven by politicians, in Britain especially, with the Civil Servants playing catch-up to announcements from Churchill, Eden and company that perpetrators of crimes would be hunted down and brought to justice wherever they were. And the Civil Servants did what Civil Servants do best - nothing. In some ways they had a realistic attitude to the "problem" of Nazi crimes, in that they were aware that it would be a huge effort to find and prosecute all who were guilty, but they were also quite sanguine about how much they wanted to see "chaps like us" (businessmen and soldiers) in front of a judge. There were also real doubts as to whether legally there would be any basis to charging people for something that was legal when they did it, regardless of the moral aspect: as Ewald Bucher (Minister of Justice in West Germany 1963-65) said "Morality has nothing to do with law. If you're concerned about morality, go to church."

The Americans were ostensibly more interested in catching and trying criminals, but control of the process became a power struggle between different entities within the army and government, which led to a similar outcome to the British: an under-staffed, under-informed group of people, with no clear mandate on what they were supposed to be doing, trying to investigate and prosecute during the mayhem that was the immediate post-war period.

Faced with a gigantic problem and limited resources, the Western Allies hit upon the idea of de-nazification, a process where suspected Nazis were arraigned before a tribunal and punished according to a set range of penalties depending on their involvement with the Party or the War. The problem was that many of the members of the de-nazification panels were themselves ex-Nazis, so were not inclined to punish members severely. This had a snowball effect, and the panels quickly became virtually useless as a means to identify and punish. Another big problem was that the victorious Allies, intent on getting Germany functioning again, had to quickly get basic institutions up and running again. The soldiers on the ground, untrained in interrogation and politically naive, turned to those Germans with the most recent experience of Government office - ex-Nazis. This naivete went to the top of the occupying armies, with General Patton remarking that the de-nazification process was "just like a Democratic and Republican election fight."

In the British Zone particularly, the police and judiciary were quickly and heavily populated with ex-Nazi police and judges, which had long-term effects on the success of future investigations. Those ex-Nazis who were once again in positions of influence then started a successful campaign against "victors justice" and "revenge punishments", which gained traction especially in the USA. These campaigns, combined with the worsening Cold War situation, led those in power, some of whom were never enthusiastic about war crimes trials in the first place, to look at setting end dates to trials, amnesties and a return to "normality".

This quite often led, as in the case of the Malmedy massacre protagonists, to the underlings who pulled the trigger being executed, but those higher up the chain of command who gave the orders, being released after a few years in prison. In general, even if found guilty, many of the higher commanders and industrialists got very light sentences - a few years for murder or engaging slave labour. The requirements for a charge were also very strict - eye witnesses had to testify in court to seeing the accused kill someone for example, for a charge to stick.

These requirements came about through the inability of the Western Allies to conceive of how the Nazi killing machine actually worked. In fact it is only in relatively recent times that the entire structure of the Nazi extermination and slave labour operations have been fully understood, and the guilt of many who escaped justice has been fully investigated. The scale of the crimes were too shocking to be believed in 1945, and the allies only ever had part of the picture, especially when it came the the horrors perpetuated in Eastern Europe.

When responsibility for investigating and prosecuting crimes fell to West Germany after it was released from occupation, things proceeded at the same slow pace, with the same over-meticulous application of the law. Of course by now many people in power both in politics and business had a vested interest in keeping the enquiries low-key, as they may have become entangled themselves in any big activity around war crimes and people's past careers.

Bower records this sordid period in history with a suppressed outrage which is entirely appropriate. He records verbatim the comments of some of the actors (whom he interviewed), who don't deny their cynicism and wish for the whole "trial thing" to be finished as quickly and as smoothly (i.e. with the least trouble to them) as possible. The British in particular had no qualms about "passing a sponge" over people's past histories if they could be of use in the new Germany.

In the last pages of the book, Bower discusses the desire for Shlusstrich, or drawing a line, under history, which, in 1980 was what almost everybody wanted to do. I will quote his last two paragraphs, which begin by referring to two people who were being tried, in 1979, for their roles in the Madjanek Concentration Camp -

"But whether 'Bloody Brigitte' or Hermann Hackmann remain imprisoned for one year or the rest of their lives makes little, if any, difference to justice. Few of those who gave the orders have ever been punished. The dead are beyond seeing their murderers punished. Only the handful of victims who survived can gain any solace. At least they are spared the chance of meeting one of their many tormentors shopping in their own neighbourhood, or holidaying in their favourite resort; but no one has asked them for an opinion about the Schlusstrich.

Perhaps the sad farce which will draw to an end in Dusseldorf some time in 1981 [the trial of Hackmann and Lachert] does not matter either. Perhaps the crimes of the Third Reich were too monstrous for human justice. If so, then the hopes and faith of countless mend and women, many of whom paid for their beliefs with their lives, have been betrayed. Perhaps another generation will learn the lesson when they are invited to fight for justice and a better world, and realize that when victory is won they will not be asked what kind of justice was meant, or what kind of world they want. Those in London and Washington who, during the war, persistently argued the futility of giving any commitment to postwar justice have been proved right. Or was it just a self-fulfilling prophecy?"

Well researched and well argued, this book is worth reading to get a better insight into why so few Nazis ever made it into a courtroom, and why those who did rarely got what they deserved.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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