WHAT makes a man capable of murder? What did it take to make former bank clerks and ex-policemen happy to work in German camps whose business was mass murder? It’s a question that has long fascinated the London-based writer, William Ryan.
And when he had finished his historical crime trilogy, set in the past in Russia, featuring the detective Captain Korolev, Ryan decided to research the matter further.
The resulting novel, The Constant Soldier, features Paul Brandt, a soldier who, physically and mentally ravaged after serving on the Eastern Front, is appointed to a post at an SS Rest Hut — a luxurious retreat for the people who work at a nearby concentration camp.
Brandt’s intentions are good. Ashamed of some of his actions in war, he wants to atone, and hopes that by working at the hut he can be a force for good. There are women prisoners working there, and he recognises one of them.
It’s someone he once loved, and believing that, were it not for him, she would never have been arrested five years earlier, he vows to protect her. However, has he any power to prevent the worst abuses?
“The idea for this novel started with Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning”, says Ryan, when we meet a couple of hours before his Dublin launch.
“It’s about the reserve police battalion in Poland made up of ex-policemen and detectives who ended up in the first wave of the holocaust.
“It didn’t take them long to go from being policemen to murderers, yet it seems that the commandant invited them not to be involved if they didn’t want to be. As I understand, the German army at that time, there was a group ethos. You didn’t stand against the group. You followed orders,” he says.
Ryan was mulling this over for years, and then he saw the photos taken from the personal album of Karl Hocker, adjutant to the commandant at Auschwitz — which were released to the holocaust museum in 2007. Many of the photos were taken at Solahuette, an SS rest and relaxation facility located a few kilometres from the camp.
“There are 116 photos and there’s not one of a prisoner. Some show SS women reclining on deckchairs; in one someone is playing the accordion. I sensed this complete disconnect. On the same day that these Germans were enjoying themselves, a few kilometres away, 1,000 or 2,000 people were being murdered. They must have known that. How strange then, that they were able to completely disassociate themselves from that,” he says.
Did it worry the author, fictionalising a subject that is still so sensitive?
“I was aware that I had to tread carefully. The Holocaust is still a traumatic incident for a lot of people; some survivors are still alive, and others have family connections, and I had to be respectful of that.”
It was the reason that the camp, and the village in the book is never identified, and why the characters never visit the camp.
“The Holocaust is the undercurrent going through the book in the background, and sometimes it comes to the fore. But what fascinated me, once I had seen the photographs was, that these were ordinary people, who started off as book-keepers, photographer’s assistants, chicken farmers or art students — people who did not come from the elite — and who had different careers carved out for themselves, then Hitler comes along, and a mood emerges.
“I think it is safe to say that Germany was swept up in a wave of collective insanity. And that doesn’t excuse anything. These people made a decision that ended them up in this place.”
In one of the most powerful scenes in the book, the residents of the rest hut have a day’s recreational shooting. When the first flush of animals has been shot, the mayor joins some of the SS when they start to shoot the camp prisoners, who have been working as beaters. They are swiftly reprimanded. “The reason, I think, that the scene works, is that this is a social situation so there are rules which the mayor does not understand. It brings to light that the men know what they are doing is wrong, but in the camp there is a parallel reality.”
Early reviews of the book have been excellent — as well they should be. Ryan has produced a literary work, which, through complex yet realistic characters makes sense of the unthinkable. His portrait of the ending of the war, when the retreating camp officers realise they will be judged by their enemies, is skilfully evoked. And the ending — showing a glimpse of hope, is beautifully judged.
“I think this is my best book by a distance,” says Ryan, admitting that it was far from easy to write.
“When I had finished the trilogy, I pitched a few crime fiction ideas, then threw in the idea for The Constant Soldier as an afterthought. When the publishers picked it, I was surprised. I had already made inroads into another book about Koralev.
“My publishers thought I was writing a crime novel set in a Rest Hut, and I thought that as well, but it turned out to be a very different novel and took a lot longer than I had thought. I felt a great weight of responsibility because things can go horribly wrong with this subject.”
After a year, slogging away at the book, Ryan wrote to his editor saying he thought the novel would not work.
“I was frightened of the book for a long time. I said, ‘maybe I should give my advance back, and go on to the next book.’ But they said I should keep going. It took three years. But I remember at The Harrogate Festival last year my editor asked for another rewrite. I didn’t want to do it, but when I had, I was pleased, and glad the earlier version had not been published. I could see, now, the book worked.”
The first time I met Ryan, interviewing him for his first novel, he was awaiting reviews.
“I had not thought through what being a writer was all about. I certainly hadn’t thought that it was putting a book out there for people to like or not like and that was quite shocking.
“The book did well, but there was one brutal review by someone who had not read it. I’m a lot tougher now. With the, so far positive, reception of The Good Soldier, I hope to be able to write the books I want to write in the future.”
Having written about totalitarian states, Ryan jokes that he might write a novel set on a beach featuring sun-tan oil and good times. Meanwhile, he is aware that the subject of The Constant Soldier has relevance for us today.
“Historical novels are always contemporary novels in disguise. These days we look around and Donald Trump is saying that in the first hour of his presidency he would be forcibly deporting 11 million people.
“In the UK we’ve had Brexit and people have been murdered as a result of that. There is this undercurrent of absolute rage. We’re not at the stage of Germany in the 1930s yet, but these things can blow up very quickly. And when you have a presidential candidate suggesting that a religious group should carry identification to mark them out — do you need that? These are very dangerous times.”
Those photographs showed the SS looked like the sort of business people you might see on a train.
“I think a lot of people ended up in the Nazi party and the SS from conviction, but also because they saw it as a career progression. Originally, the SS was not made up of the military. Many of them were never soldiers.
“Those photos look like a corporate day out. They appear to be middle management guys which is what they were. Except that their business was murdering people.”