THE CONSTANT SOLDIER: WILLIAM RYAN
The Second World War was not just another war. It was global, it was ferocious and it killed more than any other war in history. Yet what marks it out also is that during its course, and inextricably mixed with it, a determined attempt was made to wipe out the Jewish race. Roughly half the Jews in the world were murdered over a relatively short period. Some of the consequences remain with us today. This extermination attempt, refined and honed to increase its effectiveness, went hand in hand with a with a military and political campaign of invasion, murder, ethnic cleansing and exploitation directed at the peoples and countries of Central Europe on a virtually unprecedented scale.
The only possible rival in recorded history, in terms of scale and effectiveness, was probably the Mongol holocaust in Central Asia and the subsequent aborted but undefeated attack on Central Europe in the Thirteenth Century. Yet the Mongols were essentially a temporary phenomenon, a transient federation of nomadic tribes out of Central Asia, brutally welded together, brilliantly led by the mediaeval equivalent of Napoleon and supported by an officer corps chosen by meritocracy and as a fighting force far superior militarily to the moribund feudal armies which faced them. Twentieth Century Germany by contrast was one of the most advanced European societies with a long and enviable cultural history, embracing, inter alia, music, literature and philosophy, an advanced welfare state – for its time – and, Prussia apart, no particularly strong tradition of militarism. Then the country was hijacked by a madman and his supporters.
Nazi Germany continues to fascinate in all its manifestations. One subset of questions relates less to the how and more to the why so many Germans continued to lend support and legitimacy to the regime even though its nature and actions were demonstrably abhorrent and , certainly after Stalingrad, though it was clear that the regime was driving the whole of Germany into disaster. Debate continues to rage about how much the “ordinary German” knew about the Death Camps, and the mass murders of the Jews and others. H.H. Kirst, author of the Gunner Asch novels and other satirical works about Nazi Germany and its aftermath, commented wryly on his Nazi party membership that he did not really know he “was in a club of murderers”.
An equally pertinent question is, even if they knew or suspected, what could they do about it? Nazi Germany was a brutal and efficient dictatorship, opponents had been liquidated in sequence (remember Niemoller’s poem “First They Came…..”) and the consequences of defiance were likely to prove drastic, not just for the individual but for relatives as well. Those who moralise or pontificate about following your conscience have very rarely had to come to grips with a modern totalitarian dictatorship. Those with loaded guns call the shots. Passive defiance was possible, but unlikely to derail the murder machine. (The same considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to living in the Soviet Union under Stalin.) And even the 20 July Plot demonstrated how well dug in the regime was.
There was also the aspect of what Joachim Fest, in his memorable study of Hitler, referred to as “widening the circle of criminality.” The more people could be involved in the crimes, the more likely they were to acquiesce and eschew protest. Thus, in the aftermath of the invasion of Russia, as the special teams of murderers followed or accompanied the troops in, the Wermacht was pressurised and compromised to witness, sanction, support logistically and participate in the crimes of what Fest termed the “Third World War.”
These “Einsatzgruppen” were not necessarily just hardened Nazis and SS but included numbers of ordinary and retired police, drawn into the squads as police forces were reorganised and rationalised and as the scale of the mass murders demanded more staff at the killing end. In the stunning novel, “Ostland” (2013) David Thomas tells the true story of how Berlin’s top criminal detective – not a committed Nazi – Georg Heuzer, became the head of the Einsatzgrup operating in Minsk, where he personally supervised the murder of thirty thousand chiefly Austrian Jews, reverting to a police officer after the War and rising to become police chief in the Rhineland Palatinate before eventually being sentenced for war crimes in 1963. There were more like him, individuals led step-by-step into compromise and crime.
All this is by way of introduction to William Ryan’s new novel, “The Constant Soldier”. The novel was launched in Dublin on 1 September and has been garnering very favourable reviews in recent weeks, many containing “spoilers” about the plot, which, however, in no way diminishes enjoyment of the book. The author is already well established for his three crime novels with a difference. They are set in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and feature Alexei Korolev, a Moscow CID Militia captain who is tasked to investigate some high profile murder cases with political connections. Against the background of the Great Terror, when one wrong move can result in a “holiday in Siberia” – Stalin’s jocular remark – or worse, Korolev must walk a moral and political tightrope to make progress. The Korolev books paint vividly and sympathetically the dilemma of the honourable man trying to cope in a totalitarian and mendacious society where values are reversed or non – existent. “The Constant Soldier” is a new departure in theme – a stand-alone novel set during the last year of the Second World War, yet the similarities with Korolev’s moral dilemmas are clear.
The novel’s first twenty pages are particularly memorable, recounting the gradual emergence of consciousness and awareness of a badly wounded soldier being transported by train back to his home. That home is a village in Silesia, in a mixed Polish –German rural community conquered and occupied by the Germans. Here it is not just the matter of a murder. The whole setting is a crime scene. Most of the Poles have been driven out or murdered, their farms expropriated. Some are Partisans, watching, waiting in the woods as the Red Army advances. A “work camp” and a mine are nearby – euphemisms for murder camps and a source of forced labour when required. Could the camp be Auschwitz ? Or another? There were enough of them. We are never told. The camp remains in the wings throughout the novel, the horrors hinted at but never explicitly described.
Central to the story, rather, is the Hut, a rest and recreation lodge in the village for SS officers and personnel taking refuge or recuperation from their “toils” in the camp or stresses from the war. (Keeping up the morale of those tasked with mass murder was, apparently a priority for the Nazi leadership. I’ve come across several anecdotes of Himmler and others, and one of Ryan’s characters actually quotes Himmler, comforting those at the coal face of extermination and mass murder – though at the right end of the gun- acknowledging the “strain” but promising a better future once the task was complete! Thomas records that at Heuzer’s trial it was revealed that the Minsk murderers were partially anaesthetised with a bottle of vodka per head per day.) The Hut was staffed by SS foot soldiers until, as casualties at the front mounted, they were drafted into active service. Cleaning and cooking in the Hut was carried out by female slave prisoners.
The book’s central character, Paul Brandt, a Wermacht soldier, has returned home a hero, disfigured and mutilated from the Eastern Front. Not a Nazi, he had enlisted under threat. He returns wounded internally as well as externally, haunted by the murders he saw and was ordered to take part in. He knows the war is lost and longs for an opportunity to atone for his crimes. The opportunity comes when he is offered work as the supervisory steward at the SS Hut. Among the female prisoners working there is a girl from his past, Judith, who does not recognise his scarred and burned face and for whom he feels responsibility for her arrest and enslavement. He now has a mission – to protect and look out for Judith and her colleagues as well as doing what he can to protect his father and sister, neither of them Nazis and both well aware of what is happening in the camps.
To survive, let alone carry out his mission, involves living a lie in a fraught environment , where casual murder and brutality are commonplace and where, despite the slight leeway he is accorded as a decorated hero who has made visible sacrifices for “the Reich,” he must constantly be on guard. Ryan conveys very well the fin de siècle atmosphere which abounds, the doublethink and speak about ultimate victory when clearly nemesis is only a matter of time. The characters surrounding him include a committed Nazi, an amoral and foolish local mayor and several SS officers, as well as the Hut Commandant, Obersturmfuhrer Neumann, after Brandt the most interesting character in the story.
Intelligent and perceptive, Neumann from the start is clearly aware of some or most of Brandt’s feelings and demonstrates at several points that, though a Nazi and SS Officer, he has not bought in to the whole package. Indeed the subplot of the story is essentially the personal development and disintegration of Neumann, never quite total, and never fully revealed or even directly hinted at to Brandt. When another SS officer commits suicide Neumann confiscates his records of Mendelssohn, a Jewish, and therefore banned, composer, to play them himself. (And shockingly, Brandt discovers, among the dead man’s possessions, a box containing gold fillings ripped from Jewish victims at the camp.)
Neumann is not alone. There are other Nazis also less enamoured of what they have done, but for Neumann, his own crimes have put him beyond redemption and he remains haunted by images of his victims. A World War One veteran, he broods as to how these things could have happened. A March Violet (the derisory name given by “old” Nazis to those who joined the Party after Hitler became Chancellor) he hadn’t planned on becoming a murderer. “It had just turned out that way.” And of the Jews: ”mostly no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.”
Brandt plots and schemes, finding allies among the Ukrainian SS guards, who know only too well what fate awaits them when the Soviets arrive. But ostensibly he must maintain the façade of normalcy, even as the Nazi world collapses. There are Christmas festivities, an incongruous New Year’s hunt, photographs to be taken, drunken SS to be humoured, while the news gets worse on an almost daily basis. Paris has fallen. Warsaw has fallen; and Krakow. The sound of Russian artillery can be heard. The exodus of German refugees begins. The final drama is about to be played out.
There is a counterpoint to all of this – Polya, a feisty young Russian, driver of a T34 tank for two years, a battle hardened veteran who has nevertheless retained her joie de vivre and femininity. She longs to get the job done and is enamoured of her tank commander Lapshin. At interludes in the main story her exploits intrude as her tank, and the Red Army, gets ever closer to Brandt’s village. There are some vivid and savage action scenes featuring Polya’s tank. There’s no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. Polya, and the advance of the Red Army, crushing and obliterating their opponents, are very much a terrible swift sword, wreaking vengeance for what was done after 1941. The tension is built excellently as the reader wonders what will happen when Polya and her tanks encounter Brandt and a rag tag collection of boys, drafted as the last line of defence.
“The Constant Soldier” is a compelling read. I finished it in two days. Nor is it easily forgotten. In an Afterword the author points to an album of photographs taken in 1944/5 by a senior SS officer at Auschwitz as providing inspiration for his book. The photos show members of the SS relaxing and chilling out in an R and R hut located several kilometres from the camp just weeks before the Red Army liberated it. If ever Arendt’s “banality of evil” categorisation of Eichmann seems appropriate it is here. Anyone interested in morality tales and looking also for a damn good story should read the novel, surely one of the year’s best. Highly recommended.
Reviewed for Writing.ie.