A Passing Fury: Searching for Justice at the End of World War II by A T Williams

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A Passing Fury: Searching for Justice at the End of World War II by A T Williams

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Bethany Creamer
Reviewed by Bethany Creamer
Summary: A fascinating, carefully considered historical account, part-travelogue that will grip history enthusiasts and legal professionals in equal measure. It is very interesting to see these events from the perspective of a lawyer, which makes this a particularly enlightening read and unique in its genre.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: May 2017
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099593263

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In A Passing Fury, we follow an Orwell Prize-winning law academic's journey through Germany as he pursues the legal history of the trials waged by the British, and to some extent other Allied forces, against the newly-fallen Nazi regime. This is a deeply personal account, that reads very much like a travelogue in places. Williams is affected at every turn by harrowingly familiar accounts of life in the concentration camp system, such as those of the esteemed Italian writer and academic Primo Levi, who features throughout the book. More striking to the reader, however, are the often-forgotten atrocities Williams describes that failed to make a mark on our collective memory, such as the Cap Arcona tragedy, in which some 7,000 concentration camp internees were killed in a British air raid. Horrors such as these, which largely go unremembered, raise many questions, chief among them, was justice served? Williams pursues answers to this question throughout his investigation, which is just shy of 500 pages long.

Each of the nine sections of the book bears the name of a German town or concentration camp as its heading. These are the places Williams has visited, though he reminds us that they are but few of potentially thousands in the killing machine that was the Konzentrationslager network in Nazi Germany and its occupied territories. Millions of people, uncountable and unquantifiable, suffered at the hands of those employed in this network. Williams reminds us on almost every page of the impossibility of punishing every single barbaric act that occurred and of ascertaining the true perpetrators of abuse on such a humongous scale. Who was to blame? The political spearheads of a propaganda-riddled campaign to incite hatred and rid Germany of the so-called Untermenschen (sub-humans)? The commandants and other workers that formed the cogs of this machine, making such abuse possible, willingly or otherwise? Or even the Kapos, concentration camp prisoners themselves who were forced to police and punish their fellow detainees? Williams wants to know.

Many of us have heard of the Nuremberg trials, jointly led by the Allied countries against Nazi Germany, or rather the prominent figures within it accused of committing war crimes or crimes against humanity. The latter, a term first used in 1890, attempts to encapsulate a scope of abuses that violated our perceived collective moral decency. Williams reminds us that really there are no words for such occurrences. However, few of us have heard of the numerous smaller-scale trials conducted by the British, such as the one at Bergen-Belsen, which alongside other trails conducted by the other Allied countries, formed the largest network of investigations into war crimes in history.

Williams sketches a public appetite for retribution in the wake of shocking revelations concerning the concentration camp system after the Allied victory, such as film footage and photographs of the camps, so numerous that photographic film was withdrawn from the ration list for this purpose. But were these revelations indeed all that shocking? Williams implies that we knew more that we let on about what was going on in Germany, from as early on as the start of the 1930s. If we knew what was happening, then arguably so too did the millions of German residents who pleaded ignorance in the wake of the Allied victory. Williams explores the impact of wilful ignorance or turning a blind eye on the Nazi regime to some degree, which serves as a warning to us all of what could happen if we were to do the same. He is incredulous as to why British lawyers seemed so woefully unprepared in the face of prosecuting those responsible, focussing on the preparation behind war crimes trials in great detail. Furthermore, readers may be surprised to learn that despite the unprecedented scale of abuse, this appetite for retribution waned in the years following the war. Williams wants to know why.

Aside from its value as a compelling historical account, A Passing Fury draws many parallels with our contemporary world that make for uncomfortable reading. This is perhaps explained by the fact that Williams' first work A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa focused on the murder of the eponymous Iraqi hotel receptionist at the hands of British Army soldiers. Williams' second book goes on to remind us that atrocity, indeed atrocity on a huge scale, did not start and end with the Shoah. It makes for vital, albeit distressing reading in our current political landscape. Sadly, I suspect its relevance will endure for years to come.

If you'd like to read more about the aftermath of the Second World War then check out The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard. It is a comprehensive, well-researched account of the compelling, human story of the millions of Displaced Persons affected by the war and is brimming with astute socio-political insight.

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Buy A Passing Fury: Searching for Justice at the End of World War II by A T Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Passing Fury: Searching for Justice at the End of World War II by A T Williams at Amazon.com.


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