Bernie Gunther, former Berlin homicide cop, is now an investigator for the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau. Bernie, with all the cynicism of a Berliner, is keenly aware of the absurdity of the agency's practice of turning a blind eye to the systematic torture and murder of Jews, Gypsies, communists, Slavs, homosexuals and other designated enemies, while preserving German honor by investigating and punishing one-off criminal acts.
Bernie is sent to Smolensk, then precariously held by the Germans, when corpses are discovered buried in the nearby Katyn Forest. Those bodies turn out to be Polish army officers, executed by a shot in the back of the head, and the more the local soldiers dig, the more bodies they find.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (whom Bernie likes to call "Mahatma Propagandhi") spots a potential propaganda coup: show the world that this massacre was perpetrated by the Soviets and drive a wedge between the democratic allies and the USSR. Goebbels orders Bernie to coordinate an international commission's visit to Smolensk to help the publicity along.
Bernie's homicide detective skills are put to work more directly when two German soldiers are brutally murdered after a visit to a local brothel in Smolensk, and other murders follow. Bernie is a highly skilled investigator, but, as usual, he's almost his own worst enemy. He refuses to show any deference to the aristocratic officer class stationed in Smolensk, and his nonstop insubordination makes the local command less than cooperative with his investigation.
As one member of the visiting committee says, "Trouble is what defines you, Gunther. Without trouble you have no meaning." True, but I like Gunther's own view of himself: "[F]or the last ten years[,] [t]here's hardly been a day when I haven't asked myself if I could live under a regime I neither understood nor desired. . . . For now, being a policeman seems like the only right thing I can do."
This is what the Bernie Gunther series is all about. Philip Kerr is a master at portraying the flawed hero doing the best he can in a corrupt and perverted time and place. And you sure can't get much more corrupt and perverted than Nazi Germany and World War II.
During this now nine-volume series, Kerr puts Bernie at ground zero at some of the notorious landmarks of the time. In this book, there are several, including the discovery of the Katyn Forest Massacre, a real event in which the USSR killed over 14,000 Polish military officers as part of its "decapitation" policy, which obliterated those who might lead resistance against them, including aristocrats, intellectuals and military elites. Kerr also includes references to the Gleiwitz Incident, the faked Polish attack on a German radio station that the Nazis devised to justify their 1939 invasion of Poland; the Rosenstrasse demonstration, which I describe in a historical note below; some of the officer class's attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler; and the horrific medical experiments on communists carried out by fascist doctors in Civil War-era Spain.
I read a lot of World War II fiction, and a common mistake is for the author to put every bit of his or her research on the page, which often kills the pace and flavor of the story. Having read all of the Bernie Gunther series, I can say that Philip Kerr never makes that mistake. His knowledge of World War II history is prodigious, and he works it seamlessly into his compelling fictional stories. Just read the Author's Note at the end of this book and marvel at all the real events and characters he's blended into this story without the least scent of a musty textbook creeping in.
I recommend A Man Without Breath
to anyone who enjoys World War II fiction or books about characters trapped in morally compromising circumstances.Historical Note:
An intriguing event Kerr describes is the Rosenstrasse demonstration. In March, 1943, the Nazis rounded up the last 10,000 Jews left in Berlin, with the intent to transport them to death camps. About 1700 of these, the ones who were married to Aryans, were separated and placed in temporary holding in the Jewish community center building on Rosenstrasse. For a week, the wives and families of the Rosenstrasse prisoners (nearly all of the prisoners were men) demonstrated outside, demanding the release of their loved ones, despite SS soldiers' threats to arrest and even shoot the demonstrators. Amazingly, at the end of the week the prisoners were released, by order of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and nearly all of them survived the war.
This event shows the sensitivity of the regime to bad publicity and forces us to ask what horrors might have been avoided if only the German people had risen up against Nazi actions earlier and consistently. For a thorough and fascinating history of the Rosenstrasse demonstration, I recommend Nathan Stoltzfus's Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany