Saturday, June 25, 2011


At the start of the seventh book in the Bernie Gunther thriller series it is 1954, and Bernie trying to escape from Cuba is arrested by the US Navy. He is taken to Guantanamo, and then on to New York and Germany, where ironically he finds himself in Cell number 7 at the Landsberg Prison, once occupied by Hitler after his failed Munich Putsch in 1923.
I should warn readers that the front flap synopsis in my hardback copy bears very little resemblance to the actual plot of the book. Possibly the reason for this is that the plot is incredibly complex. I found it a little difficult to follow at times, but that said it is a brilliant novel full of moral ambiguities, difficult compromises, and thought provoking wisecracks from Bernie.
As Bernie is interrogated by his captors, the reader is taken back in various flashbacks to Berlin 1931, France 1940, Minsk 1941 [a particularly horrific part of the story concerning the Einsatzgruppen], and Russia 1945-1946 [when Bernie was a prisoner of war of the Russians].

'Be reasonable, Bernie.'
'These men-Himmler, Heydrich, Muller-they're fanatics. You can't reason with fanatics.'

Bernie is valuable because he can identify Erich Mielke, a real life character, who became Minister of State Security in the German Democratic Republic from 1957-1958, and who was wanted for the murders of two policeman in Berlin in 1931. I always find the pre-war sections of the Bernie Gunther books where Bernie is staunchly anti-Nazi an easier read than the later scenarios, and this book is no exception.

There is an almost overwhelming amount of historical facts within the pages of this book, and sometimes the information is disconcerting.

'Ordinarily, I should send him to the SS quartermaster for an off-the-peg Hugo Boss uniform, but he'll be travelling on the Fuhrer's personal train, so he'll need to look smart.'

But the title Field Grey might not only refer to the uniform Bernie wears but also the shades of grey, and levels of innocence and guilt of the participants.
Hitler, Stalin, Heydrich, Nazis, Germans, Russians, Byelorussians, SS, Gestapo, NKVD, MVD, Stasi, CIA, SDEC [French counter espionage service], French SS, and Vichy all come out of this story with varying amount of blood on their hands.
Reading about all this evil is very unpleasant, but I wonder if our present day politicians could learn something from reading about the past and perhaps avoid the mistakes that they seem to be repeating today.

From the author's notes: Of these [the twenty-four Einsatzgruppen defendants] thirteen were sentenced to death with four hanged on 7 June 1951. Of the remaining twenty all had been released or paroled by 1958. A fact I continue to find incredible.

There are crime fiction series where the author runs out of ideas, but if there is a fault in this superb account of Europe in turmoil it is that in Bernie Gunther's seventh outing there are just too many ideas, too much double dealing and too many historical facts to be fully absorbed in one reading.
Field Grey may not be an easy read, but it is another fine addition to a series that is both educational and thought provoking.

'I don't like criminals who break the law,' I said.
'What other kind are there?'
'The kind that make the law. It's the Hindenburgs and Schleichers of this world who are doing more to screw the Republic than the commies and the Nazis put together.'

The Bernie Gunther series with links to my reviews.

A German Requiem
The One from the Other


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - An excellent review, for which thank you. I haven't gotten to this one yet, although I like the Bernie Gunther series. And please, oh, please don't get me started on what today's politicians could learn from the past. You really don't want my diatribe. No, really. You don't.

8:59 AM  
Blogger lookintolive said...

Great review! Thank you. I was wondering how you choose the books you are reviewing? I have a book you maybe interested in - CONFESSIONS OF A CATHOLIC COP. Great crime thriller.

5:45 PM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

A good review. Sounds like a great series.

Upon further thinking about the discussion the other day about reading books about WWII and the dangers today that people need to be thinking about, I left out one important issue: immigration.

An article in today's New York Times made me think hard about this issue. The Times points out the increasing anti-immigrant hostility and demands being forced on European governments by far-right parties and spokespeople. It gives several examples.

And I recall Marine Le Pen, now head of her father's ultra-right National Front in France, saying recently that it's not the Jews they blame for economic problems, but immigrants (although I'm sure anti-Semitism is still on their agenda).

The vast majority of immigrants are going to wealthier countries because of terrible poverty and unemployment at home, and some are fleeing political repression, some both.

I can't help but think of my Jewish relatives who fled the czar's anti-Semitic programs in occupied Pale of Russia in the early 1900's.

And my Irish relatives fled poverty, famine and an economy where there was no employment, and came here for jobs and a decent standard of living.

My empathy is with immigrants.

I do think people need to read about WWII and see where discrimination and bigotry can turn into violence on a grand scale, directed against immigrants, Muslims,etc., as well as Jewish and Roma peoples.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Fine piece, Norman -- very helpful to me and I thank you. I read one post-War Bernie, which I much enjoyed, but then took up one of the pre-War and found myself irritated to distraction by the 'Chandler homage' elements. But at some point down the road I shall read this one, for I do believe Kerr does his due diligence where research is concerned.

When I started my reading in Nazi-occupied Europe (and this goes back some time before my recent 'interruption', as I call it), I was concerned only with the role of the churches. That was much as I suspected, though there were days of some cheer for me as I worked on Bulgaria, which really deserves to stand with Denmark in its resistance to transport of the country's Jews. While Father Jozef Tiso, President of Slovakia, was stuffing cattle cars bound for Auschwitz as fast as he could, the metropolitans of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were threatening to lie on the railway tracks rather than let one train leave for the camp.

And obviously that relates to my second initial question, something that I've been nibbling on for many years: what made the people who did evil and those who risked all by helping the victims of the evil and those who just stood by do what they did. I'm now moving on to general analytical works on genocide, but I think I have the answer to that second question, and it is the same answer I would have given if asked before I set out on this current research: it lies in Kant's categorical imperative.

Anyway, I shall read Kerr later to see if any on his own reflections upon these matters, and various others, are to be discerned in the book. That may prove interesting.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Margot, Kathy and Philip for your kind comments.

We had a short visit to friends in London, picking the hottest days of the year! Phew! The traffic was horrendous due to various incidents with police cars rushing all over the place, and two of London's bridges being closed.
I do have a great fear that the "ordinary" population may revolt at some time. [There are strikes coming on 30 June that might end up like the Greek protests]
The difference in wealth between some rural parts of England, and parts of Central London is probably as great as during the time of the Czar's pogroms.
We walked past one restaurant where the specials of the day included veal chop at £39.00 and suckling pig [from the Pyrenees] at £29.00.
Who pays these prices?

10:13 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Philip, I forgot we saw the church in Petersham where George Vancouver is buried.
I did not know that about Bulgaria's stand against the Nazis. Thanks for that information.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Ann Summerville said...

Thanks for the review. I get so confused about this time period.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Phillip raises some good questions.

I wonder about the who did what and why during WWII.

There are a lot of brave, principled people in the world. Many risked all to help all over Europe. There were Resistance organizations, groups and individuals who quietly opposed the Nazis, protected Jews, etc.

I found out about Irene Sandler, a Polish woman who worked in a government department dealing with children during the war. She and others got 2500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and to safe houses and farms.

She was jailed, tortured, about to be executed. I think a bribe was paid to guards and she got out.

She got the Nobel Prize a few years ago before she died at quite an elderly age.

Yet, family members of a cousin of mine, who were Jewish, were killed by fellow Poles during the war, not even by the Nazis. And the church officials egged on this violence.

And also I met a man a few years ago, an artist, whose mother's brother was in the Dutch Resistance, was killed because of that.

And then there was a famous raid by several anti-Nazis on the main government office in Amsterdam. They destroyed thousands of population records of Jewish people, and thus saved countless lives. Most of them were caught and paid the ultimate price.

There was resistance even going on in Germany, as many books and movies have shown. But I don't know that the extent of it has really been publicized, although a New York Times article a few years ago told of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, and resistance going on all over Germany during the war.

There are a lot of decent people in the world, good people in the States who oppose all types of bigotry all of the time, often quietly. But those who want to whip up prejudices are loud and very hostile and call for media attention. And sometimes they resort to violence, as happened before and during the Civil Rights movement over here.

2:04 AM  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Kathy, if we focus strictly upon the question of Jews trying to flee Europe at the end of the 1930s and then during the years of Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust, you'll find that scholars who have made research into the questions of who helped Jews, who collaborated with the Nazis (I'm encompassing Germany in this) and who stood by a large part of their lives' work are unanimous in the conclusion that there were very, very few helpers of Jews indeed, for all that it may be a relative matter numerically.

But perhaps one matter that may give food for thought as one comes to consider the issues is to be found in the policies of other countries far-removed. Canada's policy on admitting Jewish refugees is well-summed up by the title of the standard work on the issue: None Is too Many, a comment scribbled on a document beside the question of how many Jews should be allowed in. In the US, the infamous Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State for immigration, managed to almost completely bar Jews from immigrating to the States.

Perhaps I may just add here that it is very unfortunate that few people today understood the full horror of the Holocaust. It early on became identified with Dachau and Ravensbruck, which were not extermination camps, and then it became focused on Auschwitz and gas chambers and ovens. This is perhaps half of the horror. Few know of the work of the Einsatzgruppen, the death squads systematically exterminating the Jews and sometimes the entire populations of towns and villages in the East. An important point re the Einsatzgruppen: if a soldier assigned to one such found the horror too much for him, he could ask for a transfer without any recriminations or demerits. In that light, the members of the squads must be seen as volunteers.

I'm interested that you mention the pogroms in Poland, pograms waged by gentile Poles upon their Jewish neighbours. In this regard, people perhaps think first of Kielce, for that one took place in July of 1946, an horrific fact in itself. Less well-known until recently was the pogrom in Jedwabne in 1942, a ghastly business wonderfully well-recounted and analyzed by Jan Gross in his Neighbors:The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne.

5:33 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

kathy d. has left a new comment on your post "FIELD GREY: PHILIP KERR":

Jedwabne in 1942 was the Polish town in which relatives of some of my family were killed by fellow Poles.

I don't agree on the Resistance information. From what I have read, seen on the Internet, and read for many years, there were Resistance movements all over Europe, and there are many stories of individuals who helped.

I just read a terrific post at Murder is Everywhere by Cara Black, which describes reunions in France yearly of former Resistance members, of those who are still living.

I know of people who were hidden in Poland, and others whose relatives were in Resistance movements.

And a blogger wrote in about a family that hid Jewish people on their farm's basement, where the grandmother was the sole inhabitant, and she figured out to have groceries wrapped in newspaper, to bring home for those she was hiding, so they could read about the war.

From what I've read of the French Resistance, and even production and reading of underground newspapers, it was quite extensive.

Friends of mine who went to Europe have visited many Resistance monuments in different countries.

And, just to say, there were executions at Dachau. I have read about this, and I've seen photos so horrifying on the Internet that I vowed not to look again.

And I have to end this discussion as I've reached my limit on WWII right now.

Sorry Kathy had a bit of a hiccup trying to publish from my wife's new I Pad 2.

1:21 PM  

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