About Me

My photo
Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Berlin Police and the Holocaust in the Benie Gunther Series (Part I)

Berlin Police in 1945
I have just completed and reviewed the trio of books featuring Bernie Gunther that make up Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr. In the books the role of Berlin police in Nazi Germany is not limited to their enforcement of the law and the solving of crime. Kerr explores the roles police officers took in implementing Nazi ideology against German citizens prior to the war and their participation in World War II.

It is little surprise that police officers were brought into the Army during the war to deal with issues of crime especially in occupied areas. Soldiers are not trained to be police officers. However, police officers participated in the Holocaust especially during the invasion of Russia in 1941.

Arthur Nebe, a senior police officer in the books, was a real life high ranking Berlin police officer before the war. During the war he volunteered to lead Einsatzgruppe B. Wikipedia describes some of its actions while he commanded:

Around 5 July 1941, Nebe consolidated Einsatzgruppe B near Minsk, establishing a headquarters and remaining there for some two months. The killing activities progressed apace. In a 13 July Operational Situation Report, Nebe reported 1,050 Jews had been liquidated in Minsk, and that in Vilna, the liquidation of the Jews was underway, and that five hundred Jews were shot daily. In the same report Nebe remarked that: "only 96 Jews were executed in Grodno and Lida during the first days. I gave orders to intensify these activities". He also reported that the liquidations were being brought into smooth running order and that the shootings were carried out "at an increasing rate". The report also announced that in Minsk Einsatzgruppe was now killing non-Jews.

Nebe’s unit, as with the other units, kept careful track of their killing. Nebe’s troops killed 45,467 people during the 4 months he was in command.

Bernie had considerable regard for Nebe prior to the war. He thought of Nebe as less political and more concerned with proper policing than most of the police leadership anxious to gain favour with the Nazi leadership.

Why would police officers sworn to uphold the law and find criminals take part in mass murder? A Berlin exhibition in 2011 delved into the issue:

     What was it that turned respectable family men into henchmen
     involved in mass murder? Hölzl (historian and curator Martin
     Hölzl) said there many reasons, including the stable income,
     social acceptance and respect which the role of policeman
     guaranteed. Police were also spared frontline duty which had a
     greater chance of survival than Wehmacht soldiers.

     The exhibition also points to obedience, peer pressure, esprit de
     corps, as well as ideological convictions, brutalization and
     reutilization as important factors. Some policemen got rich at
     the expense of victims and others pursued perverse career
     ambitions, Hölzl explained.

In Wikipedia it states that historian Ronald Headland “concluded that Nebe was an ambitious man who may have volunteered to lead an Einsatzgruppe unit for careerist reasons, to get a ‘military decoration’, and to curry favor with Heydrich.”

Another example involving police is Austrian police officer Franz Stangl who commanded concentration extermination camps. In her powerful book The Healing Wound, German writer Gitta Sereny interviewed Stangl after his conviction for war crimes long after the war.

Sereny explored how he became a mass murderer. To keep a promotion in Austria he had to give up his Catholic faith. Subsequently, he was called to Berlin to be put in charge of a special unit for euthanasia of “people who were hopelessly insane or monstrously deformed”. Reluctant to take the command he was assured he would not have to kill anyone but “merely to be responsible for law and order”. Later he had a choice of returning to Austria or going East on some vague anti-partisan action. He opted for the East to fight against partisans. Stangl claimed that he did not know that he was building a death camp at Sobibór and that he would likely have been killed if he had refused. He subsequently commanded the Sobibór and Treblinka death camps. He came to think of the prisoners as “cargo” not human beings.

Step by step Stangl had let himself be turned from an ordinary police killer to an efficient mass murderer.

Stangl died of heart failure 19 hours after the interview was completed.

In German Requiem Bernie is called upon to find the evidence that would clear Emil Becker, a police colleague before the war, who had helped Bernie solve the murders in A Pale Criminal. Becker has been wrongfully charged with murder.

During the investigation Bernie learns that during the war Becker was a member of an execution squad in the Ukraine and personally engaged in murdering Jews. Becker is a Nazi killer. Should Bernie work to clear Becker of this charge when he was actually a mass murderer?

Bernie chooses to work on Becker’s case for much the same reason lawyers represent all clients. It was not Bernie’s job to decide guilt for Becker’s actions during and after the war.

While Becker did not achieve a high ranking position like Stangl he was comparable to a real life example of a police officer referred to in the Exhibition:

Julius Wohlauf was one of them. Born in Dresden in 1913, he completed a commercial apprenticeship after taking his school leaving examinations and then became a member of the Nazi Party. He progressed from constable to commander of a reserve police battalion in Poland, which was responsible for deporting Jews and killing them in mass shootings.

Bernie did not follow the above paths to the killing fields and camps of Eastern Europe. My next post will discuss his decisions and comparable real life individuals. 
Kerr, Philip – (2004) - Dark Matter; (2016) - March Violets; (2016) - The Pale Criminal; (2016) - A German Requiem; Paperback


  1. It is fascinating and truly disturbing to see how the police - at least the examples you provided - slowly turned into people who furthered the Third Reich's aims, Bill. As you point out, it was an insidious step-by-step process. I think Kerr depicts effectively how the Nazis were able to persuade so many people to go along with them. And in that sense, I think the books provide a subtle but very real warning.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. What is striking to me is the participants in the Holocaust who were not committed believers in twisted Nazi ideologies. It was always a choice.

  2. Very very interesting, Bill. Thanks for sharing this research with us.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. What happened makes me think about what I would have done.

  3. Police are part of the state and they have to carry out the program of the government's officials. They're not independent, although people always have to make choices. But if they want to keep their jobs, they have to go along.

    I wondered about a few series about police in Italy during the fascist rule of Mussolini. How could they be neutral? And then I saw TV episodes about a police officer before and after the war. He is an OK guy, but then is sent to Rome and as the war is starting, he's seen looking at photos of fleeing resisters. He protects who who is a friend and then the scene fades.

    Next disc, it's at the end of the war.

    And the issue about lawyers is interesting. People do deserve lawyers, but would all lawyers defend those who committed genocide? War crimes? Is it always fair?

    People are imprisoned without trial and legal rights at Guantanamo. Why did Nazi war criminals have rights to counsel and trial at Nuremberg? And yet these rights aren't extended to everyone?

    I do know civil liberties and human rights lawyers who have taken questionable cases for many reasons, for one, to earn a living to pursue other cases. And because they probably thought that everyone charged should have legal defense.

    Yet, WWII genocide. I know many lawyers couldn't take on defending anyone who carried this out. I wonder if any Jewish or Roma lawyers have done this.

  4. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. If we are going to have prosecutors present evidence and argument in favour of guilt those accused need lawyers to defend them. Not every lawyer will defend those charged with war crimes but if you are going to be a defence lawyer you should defend such accused. Our legal system needs strong prosecutors and defenders.

  5. I believe everyone has a right to a legal defense. And some notables in the U.S. who are international human rights lawyers or civil liberties attorneys (or were) have taken questionable clients for the reasons you outline.

    However, there is a double standard. While Nazi war criminals were given legal counsel, those imprisoned at Guantanamo who have not committed genocide, are denied basic civil liberties, held in solitary confinement, considered a form of torture, denied trials, etc.

    And some people, including youth, are kept in jail here without trials, sometimes for years. Basic civil liberties are denied.

    I don't know how Canada's legal system works and if it's in better shape than the one here.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I have struggled with how America has handled its prisoners in the war on terror. I believe your nation will regret its lack of legal process with regard to these prisoners.

  6. It makes people around the world more suspicious of U.S. motives and practices.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I am coming to fear for the Rule of Law in America.

  7. Well, yes. Now some folks are announcing they'll obstruct nomination of a Supreme Court justice based on their political views, violating the legal obligation of the president to nominate people for the position.

    And what's going on with the election process is wild. So much is dangerous about what is being said, uncriticized. People are threatened if they protest in some settings.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. Our Supreme Court appointment process is becoming more politicized. I pray it never reaches the ideological intensity of the United States.

  8. Talking about the Holocaust, I wouldn't have had a choice. That would have been a privilege. Half of my family is Jewish. Some were union organizers and advocates for civil liberties and civil rights. None of it tolerated by the Nazis.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. You raise an important point. There was no choice for European Jews in WW II. Bernie had options because he was not a Jew.