Based on a horrifying true story of one of the Holocaust's worst Nazi war criminals, this novel combines a police procedural, a courtroom thriller, and a fast-paced war-time narrative. In Ostland David Thomas confronts the enigma of how the man who eliminated one of Germany's most notorious serial killers could go on to become a perpetrator of the most heinous crimes against humanity.
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 killer is slaughtering women on S-Bahn trains and leaving their battered bodies by the tracks. Heuser must confront evil eye-to-eye to track down the murderer. Soon after the case is solved, with the winds of world war stirring, Heuser is promoted by the SS and ultimately sent off to oversee the systematic murder of tens of thousands of Jews in the conquered region to the east the Nazis call Ostland.
Nearly twenty years after the end of the war Heuser thinks his diabolical past has been forgotten, but an enterprising young lawyer, Paula Siebert, searching through Soviet archives, discovers evidence of Heuser's wartime crimes. Siebert is haunted by one question: how could a once decent man have become a sadistic monster? Tried in the early 1960s along with other ex-Nazi officers as a war criminal, the wily Heuser deploys his training as a lawyer and years as a police detective to try and distance himself from his co-conspirators and thereby 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.
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David Thomas is a journalist and writer, who already has an ongoing thriller franchise under the name of Tom Cain, published in the UK by Transworld. Blood Relative is the first book published under his real name.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The story that follows is inspired by actual events that occurred in Germany and Russia between February 1941 and July 1944 and by their resolution in the late 1950s and 60s.
Its subject, Georg Heuser, really existed. He was an officer of the Kriminalpolizei, or Criminal Police, and also of the SS. Although I have allowed myself creative licence in describing the minutiae of his day-to-day life and personal relationships, the basic facts of Heuser’s personal history, his detective work and his activities in the occupied Russian city of Minsk are all presented as accurately as possible. Similarly, all descriptions of acts of violence, their perpetrators and their victims are based on factual evidence, including contemporary reports, police photographs and sketches, court records, witness testimonies and subsequent historical research. Court proceedings and verdicts are also quoted verbatim. For reasons of drama and coherence, however, I have marginally altered the timing and/or sequence of some minor events.
Many characters in this book – including all named criminal offenders and their victims, police witnesses, senior police and Nazi officials, and SS officers in Minsk – are either historical figures or, in a very few cases, fictionalized versions of real people. Others, such as those investigating Heuser’s past, including Max Kraus and Paula Siebert, are fictional, but their actions – including the trip to gather evidence in Moscow – are based on real events. Likewise, the women with whom Heuser is romantically involved are all imaginary, but again inspired by specific individuals. Heuser really did have an old girlfriend who travelled from Hamburg to meet him in Berlin in February 1942, and three Jewish siblings lived in the basement of the Lenin House in Minsk and left the city in the manner described in the book. The words and opinions attributed to Heuser himself are also based wherever possible on what he is known to have written and said, or what others said about him. My depiction of Heuser’s innermost thoughts and feelings is, of course, entirely imaginary.
In order to make police and SS ranks easier to read and understand I have anglicized almost all of them, to one degree or another. But for those who are interested in these things, Heuser’s wartime police ranks rose from Hilfskommissar to Kriminalkommissar and eventually Kriminalrat (of all Nazi titles the one that surely sounds the most appropriate to a British ear). His corresponding SS ranks were Untersturmführer, Ober sturmführer andHauptsturmführer.
In German, the name Heuser is pronounced ‘Hoyzer’, so that the first syllable rhymes with ‘noise’. Meanwhile Georg is pronounced with two hard ‘g’s and separate sounds for the ‘e’ and ‘o’, thus: ‘Gay-org’, to rhyme with ‘morgue’.
David Thomas, West Sussex, 2013
Ludwigsburg, West Germany: 23 July 1959
The police chief was naked when they came to arrest him.
‘Well, we got him,’ said Max Kraus, appearing at the office door, his massive figure filling the entire frame. The three investigators waiting for the news responded with a mixture of genuine enthusiasm and semi-sarcastic applause. It was a hot summer’s day, so all the windows were open, but Kraus had no trouble making himself heard over the sounds coming in from the street outside: the chatter of the passers-by, the clacking of heels on the pavement and the rumbling of all the new Mercedes, Opels and Volkswagens produced by a miraculously reborn economy. Somewhere in the distance a radio was playing Elvis Presley singing ‘A Fool Such As I’. Presley himself was just a couple of hundred kilometres away in Friedberg, serving as an armoured recon scout in the US army. Fifteen years earlier Uncle Sam had sent his finest young men to invade Germany. Now he sent them to defend it.
‘Took their time,’ muttered one of the investigators, a paunchy, middle-aged man called Andreas Becker. He stubbed his cigarette out with a lazy stab that suggested, accurately, that he was hardly a man to rush things himself. Eight days had gone by since the arrest warrant was issued, but it had taken a full week for the authorities in Rhineland-Pfalz to accept that they had to seize their own chief of detectives. Most of the people making the decision knew him personally, and there had never been anything in his behaviour, whether personal or professional, to suggest the slightest impropriety. But the weight of evidence was undeniable and so with heavy hearts they’d given their approval.
‘Better late than never,’ Kraus said, as if it were all the same to him, though all his staff knew that he had been the driving force in the investigation, forcing it through the barriers of official indifference, scepticism and outright opposition with a mental rigour that could be as overpowering as his physical impact.
‘So where did they find the Beagle, anyway?’ Becker asked. The police chief had been given his canine nickname by his own detectives as a tribute to his uncanny nose for crime. Kraus and his team had picked it up as a way of referring to their target without alerting anyone that he was under suspicion. Even when the need for a codename had passed, they often still called him Beagle out of sheer force of habit.
‘On holiday in Bad Orb,’ Kraus replied.
‘Very gemütlich!’ said another of the investigators, Florian Wessel. He was even older than Becker and this backwater posting was his last before retirement.
‘Oh really, is it nice?’ asked Paula Siebert. The only woman on the team, and much its youngest member, she’d passed the same law exams as Becker and Wessel; her business cards clearly gave her status as Dr Siebert; and she was just as competent, just as ambitious and much harder-working than either of her colleagues. But no matter how many of those cards she handed out, the concept of a female lawyer was still so hard for most people to grasp that she regularly found herself being called ‘my dear’ or even ‘darling’ as she was asked to fetch the coffee and biscuits. And when she put questions to witnesses she was often greeted with absolute incredulity, as if the only possible reason for her presence at an interview was to take shorthand notes.
‘Did you know that German women have been allowed to practise law since 1922? That’s almost forty years ago!’ she’d said to Kraus after one particularly infuriating encounter.
‘Yes, but men have been lawyers since Roman times. You can’t expect people to change overnight.’
‘It’s just so frustrating sometimes. Even my mother keeps telling me I should give up and find a nice husband. “Your looks won’t last for ever, Paula. And no man wants a woman who cares more about her stupid little job than making him happy.” Ach!’
Kraus laughed. ‘Well, I can’t help you find a husband. Or deal with your mother . . . But I do know how good you are at your job, and I’m your boss. So forget what anyone else says, that’s what matters.’
Paula hoped he was right, but now she was cursing herself. Here they were discussing the arrest of a major suspect and the first thing she asked about was his choice of holiday resort. Little things like that only confirmed people’s worst prejudices about empty-headed females.
‘Bad Orb?’ said Wessel, who seemed only too happy that Paula had for once reacted as he would expect a woman to do. ‘Yes, very nice. It’s in Hesse, right in the middle of the Spessart Nature Park. Lots of scenic views and endless cobbled streets, lined with old, half-timbered houses. You know the sort of thing: steep roofs, wooden beams all painted in different colours, very jolly. So what was our boy up to when they got him?’
‘Taking a bath,’ said Kraus. ‘The local police burst in and there he was, bobbing about in the water, surrounded by other respectable folk, as hot and pink as a freshly boiled ham.’
Even Becker could not help but join in the laughter at the image of the Beagle being caught in such embarrassing circumstances. Paula thought of the smooth, confident, astonishingly youthful face that looked out in three-quarter profile from his police identity card. Some women might well find it attractive, though she couldn’t begin to think of him in those terms herself. Paula was well aware that there was no link between a man’s behaviour and his external appearance. Even so it outraged her that the Beagle’s skin should have remained so unlined, as though he’d been entirely impervious to everything that he’d seen and done. His eyes were very slightly narrowed, his mouth set with the sort of self-conscious firmness with which an actor or a politician might convey manly strength and determination. He had a fine head of neatly combed and pomaded hair without a trace of grey. Only a slight thickness at the neck and jaw betrayed the softening of middle age.
‘I’ll say one thing for the sick bastard,’ continued Kraus, ‘he has a certain style about him. Apparently he got out of the bath, stark naked and dripping wet, and asked the arresting officer whether he might be allowed to dry himself and put on some clothes before they led him away. So they all had to accompany him back to his hotel room. He got into a smart suit, kissed his wife goodbye and marched off to the police car with his head held high.’
‘Do you think he expects to get away with it?’ Paula asked.
‘Why not?’ Kraus replied. ‘He’s always got away with it before.’
That was certainly true enough. Once the investigators had been put on to the Beagle’s trail they soon realized that there had been plenty of opportunities to catch him in the past. Strauch, for example, had mentioned him in his evidence. But the court stenographer had misspelt the Beagle’s name, and so no one had made the connection. Now Strauch was dead and his information had died with him. Rübe had named him too, with the correct spelling, but the lead had never been followed up. Two court psychiatrists had examined Rübe at his trial. One said he had a schizoid personality. The other claimed he was a pathological sexual sadist. Either way, Rübe was crazy.
Whatever evidence he gave, no one was likely to accord it the slightest significance.
None of the other guilty men had said a word. A conspiracy of powerful, strong-willed individuals is
almost impossible to break as long as they remain united and, above all, silent. But as Kraus liked to say, ‘If the water keeps rising, eventually the dam will burst.’ So his tactics were always to keep collecting evidence, increasing pressure, going back again and again until – the first crack in the great concrete wall – one of the group lost their nerve and started to talk. That was what had happened. A few months earlier they’d arrested Ehrlinger and presented him with evidence he couldn’t deny. He’d blabbed and that had led them to the Beagle.
Kraus looked round at the pitifully small, inexperienced, under-resourced forces at his command. There were only a very few idealists like him who were prepared to sacrifice their careers to work in an organization that was held in as much disregard as this one. The staff had therefore been recruited from those who had nowhere else to go. Paula was twice as good as both her male colleagues put together and yet they still regarded her as their inferior. Kraus wondered how long it would take her to realize that she had no real chance of establishing the kind of career her talent and energy deserved: not before this case had finally been dealt with, he hoped.
He let his people bask in their moment of glory for a few seconds, then his voice took on a tougher, more forceful urgency: ‘Listen up, ladies and gentlemen, this isn’t the end of the case. This is the beginning. We still need evidence that will stand up in court, and that means witnesses, documents, unequivocal facts that no smart-arsed defendant can deny. And as you’re all only too well aware, absolutely no one will be keen to help you. The Beagle is a brilliant detective. He’s admired and respected by every cop, every public prosecutor, every judge, every politician you’re ever likely to speak to. Even the journalists like him. So the moment you leave this office, you enter enemy territory.’
The door slammed behind him, leaving behind a much more subdued group of investigators.
‘He’s right, you know,’ Wessel said. ‘Some of my old chums at the prosecutor’s office look at me with pity, as if I’ve caught some tragic, disfiguring disease. The others don’t even bother to hide their contempt.’
‘The cops are worse,’ said Becker. ‘The moment I tell them I’m working for the ZSL, I can see actual hatred in their eyes. They think we’re traitors. They’d happily shoot the lot of us and dump our bodies in the Neckar if they thought that would get the Beagle off the hook.’
Suddenly the office swung open and crashed against the office wall. The three lawyers turned round to see Kraus standing there again.
‘One more thing,’ he said. ‘I’ve had enough of this Beagle nonsense. The man is the suspect in the biggest criminal case since the creation of the Federal Republic. So let’s not pretend he’s a jolly little puppy dog. From now on we call him by his real name: Georg Albert Wilhelm Heuser.’
Berlin, Germany: 11.35 p.m. 6 February – 8.15 a.m. 7 February 1941
Not all the propaganda lied. In those early months of 1941, we truly were the master race. We ruled a European empire that stretched from the Atlantic coast of Brittany in the west, to the Russian border in the east: from the northernmost tip of Norway to the sands of the Sahara Desert. And at the heart of it all was my home town, the capital of the Reich: Berlin.
Marlene Dietrich used to sing that Berlin was the centre of the world, the pearl on the River Spree. But that was when she was still a true Berliner, not a Hollywood movie star who called herself an American. That was when the whole town lit up when the sun went down and you could go to the Haus Vaterland on the Potsdamer Platz, eat dishes from Turkey, Japan, Italy or Spain and dance to eight different bands in a single evening. In those early months of ’41, however, Berlin had become a black pearl at the centre of a world war and the most familiar night music was the wail of the air raid sirens. The lights had all gone out. And in the absolute, impenetrable darkness of the blackout the beasts and demons that lurked in the city’s underbelly emerged to stalk their prey.
At twenty-five minutes to midnight on the night of Tuesday, 6 February, the worst of them all was strolling down the centre aisle of an S-Bahn train – one of the old Type 477s that can still be seen on the network to this day. The smattering of late-night passengers sat on wooden benches topped by metal handrails. There was wood panelling on the walls, with a luggage rack just beneath the ceiling. Each carriage possessed eight sets of sliding doors, four on either side. To us Berliners, a carriage such as this was as familiar as our own front rooms, an environment we hardly even noticed, any more than anyone looked twice at the man now making his way between the seats.
He was not an impressive specimen. He had oyster eye...
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Book Description Quercus Publishing Plc, 2013. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX1780877374
Book Description Quercus Publishing. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M1780877374