Author: David Thomas
No. of Pages: 400
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Quercus Books
Release Date: 6 January 2015
Bottom Line: Intense and sickening and thought-provoking
“Based on a horrifying true story of one of the Holocaust’s worst Nazi war criminals comes a crime thriller that combines a police procedural, courtroom thriller, and a fast-paced wartime narrative. In Ostland David Thomas confronts the question of how does one man charged with eradicating evil become one of its greatest perpetrator.
In wartime Berlin the brilliant, idealistic young detective Georg Heuser joins the Murder Squad in the midst of the biggest manhunt the city has ever seen. A serial killer is slaughtering women on S-Bahn trains and leaving their battered bodies by the tracks. Heuser must confront evil eye-to-eye as he helps track down the murderer. Soon after, Heuser is promoted by the SS and sent off to oversee the systematic murder of thousands of Jews in the new empire the Nazis call Ostland. Years after the end of the war Heuser thinks his diabolical past has been forgotten. Yet, an enterprising young lawyer, Paula Siebert, searching through Soviet archives, discovers Heuser and his fellow officers’ crimes.
Siebert is haunted by one question: how could a once decent man have become a sadistic monster? Desperate to cover his tracks, Heuser uses his training as a lawyer and years as a police detective to distance himself from his co-conspirators and escape justice. Ostland is a gripping detective thriller, a harrowing account of the Holocaust and a thought-provoking examination of the human capacity for evil.”
Thoughts: Any book that discusses the Holocaust and those who implemented it invariably touches on the question of how good people could end up acting in such a cold-blooded manner. The answers are as varied as the number of books that exist about this topic, but the search for an understandable answer does not cease. Ostland is one more exploration of this topic as it discusses the background of one Georg Heuser and his rise from up-and-coming police detective to mass murderer on the Eastern Front.
Told in the guise of trial preparations, the story flips back and forth between Georg’s first-person narrative and the efforts of lawyer Paula Siebert to amass evidence against Georg for his trial twenty years later. As is often the case, the two stories are unequal. Paula’s discoveries and frustrations are not nearly as absorbing as Georg’s experiences. Readers will find themselves speeding through those short chapters of Paula’s in order to get back to Georg’s more disturbing ones. This does not mean that those scenes involving Paula’s efforts are less important than those told by Georg. In fact, there is an interesting message that arises from the court case itself – one that Paula and the readers are slow to discover. However, it is Georg’s experiences in Minsk that will draw a reader’s attention.
The idea of guilt for Nazi war criminals is always a tricky one. Does following orders automatically excuse one’s behavior or is there a fundamentally human requirement to challenge orders that are so basically wrong? Ostland does not attempt to answer such questions but lays out Georg’s case methodically and unemotionally in an effort for readers to draw their own conclusions. It starts with his rise to detective and his introduction to real-world police procedures and culminates in his Minsk leadership. Throughout his story, readers get the full gamut of Nazi atrocities as seen through the eyes and experienced through the mind of an ambitious young man anxious to make a name for himself and conditioned to follow orders to the letter without question and without fail.
Ostland, in spite of using as much real-life evidence as possible, never sets out to indict Heuser for his crimes nor to critique Siebert on her preparations. Instead, it forces readers to evaluate each piece of evidence on their own, to judge based on Georg’s state of mind, as presented in the novel with fictional license, as well as on the facts. It also requires readers to extrapolate their deductions based on Georg’s story and apply them to the entire German populace. That Heuser epitomizes the quintessential Nazi soldier is neither here nor there as his attitude towards leadership and rules is as much cultural as it is personal, thereby further complicating the issue of guilt.
As horrific as one imagines it will be given its subject matter, Ostland is still a compelling read for the picture it paints of a world gone mad by war and hate. It makes no excuses for what happened but serves to offer up a warning that it is easy to fall into the trap of following orders. It raises questions about individual responsibility versus the collective good and does so in a way that requires readers to stop and reflect. In such a mad world in which the rules plainly flout common sense, there are no easy answers, nor can there be. However, taking the time to think and assess is one step towards avoiding future atrocities because it forces readers to answer the tough questions before they become reality. To that end, Ostland provides a chilling reminder of not only what occurred during the Nazi regime but also that guilt, in such instances, is never as black and white as one likes to think it will be.