- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Viewing the Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremberg, George Orwell wrote: "Somehow the punishment of these monsters ceases to seem attractive when it becomes possible; indeed, once under lock and key, they almost cease to be monsters."

In a sense, William F. Buckley Jr.'s latest novel, "Nuremberg: The Reckoning," has de-monstered the major German war criminals who went on trial at Nuremberg between 1945 and 1946 without de-monstering their criminality. In Nuremberg, the ancient city where Adolf Hitler once held his lynch-mob rallies, there were in 1945 no Holocaust deniers. What had happened to 6 million European Jews was a fact. Looking at the 24 top Nazi leaders, some in military uniform, in the courtroom sitting in two rows, raised an unanswerable question: How could they have done what they did? Soldiers killing soldiers, well, yes, but soldiers killing babies in their mother's arms, how was it possible? And yet, we're seeing similar horrors again with the suicide bombers in beleaguered Israel.

Mr. Buckley's 15th novel deals with the Reinhard family on the eve of World War II. Axel Reinhard, a talented civil engineer, is preparing to take Annabelle, his wife, and their 13-year-old son, Sebastian, on what is planned as a short trip to America but which, it is implied, could well be a permanent stay. Just before the departure, the Gestapo intervenes. Axel is told by a Gestapo officer that his wife and son can sail away on the S.S. Europa but the price of their freedom to travel will be as follows: Just before the gangplank is raised Axel is to sneak off the ocean liner and remain in Germany to help the Third Reich on its building projects, including as it turns out, extermination camps.

The novel is Mr. Buckley at his best and at his most ingenious. Its focus is the trials of the leaders of a criminal conspiracy seen through the eyes of young Sebastian, now 19, and a U.S. Army lieutenant. Naturally fluent in German, he has been assigned as interpreter at the International War Crimes Tribunal. A historical novel is always a problem because the plot can hold no surprises since the outcome is well-known beforehand. Mr. Buckley has solved the problem by introducing us not only to the war criminals and the Allied prosecutors but also to someone, like the young Sebastian, who discovers that his father had become one of them.

Sebastian has been designated as liaison to an invented SS Gen. Kurt Waldemar Amadeus, an extermination-camp commandant in Poland, who proudly admits that during his service he supervised the extermination of 250,000 Jews and Russian POWs. As a reward for his successful labors, Amadeus was placed in charge of Hitler's bunker as the end neared. Amadeus defends Hitler's anti-Semitism with a remark that has a contemporaneous ring, that the fuhrer "had the courage to act on the anti-Semitism of most Europeans."

Soon after his conviction, Amadeus asks to see young Sebastian, to whom he tells a horrifying story. Axel Reinhard, Sebastian's father, recruited by the SS into its officer ranks, had designed and supervised the building of the camp crematorium. But Mr. Buckley never loses sight of the main drama, the trial, the testimony and the irony of having a Soviet general whose country is "guilty of just about everything we are gathered here to condemn" sitting in judgment over the Nazi war criminals.

The novel, another Buckley triumph, has some unusual twists and surprises which I do not intend to reveal. Reading "Nuremberg" meant for me reliving an extraordinary contemporary event, at a time when we are confronted by a new chaos, a new racist ideology with human freedom once more imperiled and the possibility of another "Nuremberg" in our future.


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