A MAN WITHOUT BREATH
By Philip Kerr
Putnam, $26.95, 480 pages
The monsters of Nazi Germany are restored to evil life in the hands of Philip Kerr, an author who portrays them with chilling authenticity and reminds readers of the way it was in global war.
Writing a mystery set at the scene of the Russian massacre of Polish officers at Katyn Forest in 1943, Mr. Kerr again demonstrates his skill in historical research, resuscitating German officers and leaders, such as propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and making them part of a grimly realistic plot. Once more the veteran Berlin cop Bernie Gunther plunges into a scene of death that gets him caught in an air raid and nearly ends with his hanging.
There is something almost encouraging about the adversarial relationship between Gunther, the police officer, and the Nazis. Even with the terrifying Gestapo, he wisecracks in a way to which they seem to relate. They are cops. He is a cop. The Gestapo and Gunther despise each other, yet there is a grudging respect between them.
If they have to drag someone out of a bombed-out building, it might as well be him, and they might even exchange a little information on occasion. He is far from being one of them, yet they understand each other, although the Nazis are bewildered by Gunther’s sympathy for the Jews. Gunther walks the thinnest of lines, especially in daring to be helpful to the Jewish community, and what saves him is that he is good at his job. He also knows how useless it is to take on the Nazis without a few tricks.
Reflected in this cynical psychology is his relationship with Goebbels, who finds himself in an ironic situation. Goebbels wants to cry foul against Russian barbarity at the very moment his colleagues are engaged in genocide against the Jews. It is a stunning example of the pot calling the kettle black, and nobody is more aware of it than Gunther. What is involved is one of the many horrors of the war — the discovery of more than 4,000 slain Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.
The Germans want to prove that this was a Russian atrocity, taking the position that such proof will reduce the evidence of Wehrmacht war crimes and seriously damage the alliance between Russia and the Allied forces. The hope is that this would cut the Russians off from Western supply lines at a time when the Germans are staggering from their disastrous defeat at Stalingrad in 1943.
Goebbels’ plan is to offer evidence of Russian guilt at Katyn by organizing an investigation by the Wehrmach War Crimes bureau, ostensibly an incorruptible professional commission of Prussian officers and judges who tended to be anti-Nazi. Assigned to this group is the tough-minded Gunther, who is delegated to help find the bodies as well as evidence from witnesses of the slaughter perpetrated by the Russians — who took years to admit their guilt. Gunther is remarkable for his capacity for survival. He practically qualifies as the immortal cop.
Now he finds himself dealing with a group of Prussian aristocrats who despise the Nazis as much as he does. They are not only survivors — they are prepared to take the huge risk of plotting the assassination of Adolf Hitler. Well aware of potential plots, the fuhrer bribes the Prussian Junkers as a way of protecting himself. And some of them take his money.
Perhaps because of his independent status and his reputation for maverick police work, Gunther was previously assigned to work for Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi butcher of Czechoslovakia, who was killed by partisans. Gunther now finds himself dealing with top-level Nazis like Goebbels who see him as assisting the Third Reich in its public relations efforts. Gunther goes about the job his own way and almost at once his methods and his mouth get him in trouble. In the midst of digging up the corpses in the forest, he finds he is also facing a killer in the group in which he is working, a group that includes Gen. von Kluge. He is a classic Prussian who would as soon hang Gunther as the killer in his ranks and comes close.
In typical Gunther fashion, he is rescued by such upper-echelon Prussians as Col. Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff, who manages to survive his efforts to kill Hitler.
Von Gersdorff, in fact, survives the war and dedicates his life to charity, according to Mr. Kerr. Less lucky is Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, another member of the Gunther rescue squad, who was involved in as many as 15 assassination plots. He was eventually executed in a concentration camp before the war ended in 1945. These are the real-life footnotes that make Mr. Kerr’s plots so intriguing, and this book such a compelling read. Of course, we know that Gunther will return once more with his wartime ghosts.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.