Hitler's First Victims: And One Man's Race for Justice by Timothy W Ryback

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Hitler's First Victims: And One Man's Race for Justice by Timothy W Ryback

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Yet one more book about the Nazi hatred of their Jewish victims, that provides a compelling lesson, if not perfectly so.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9781784700164

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Four people, taken to a sheltered corner of the place they're trapped, and shot in the back of the head by fresh-faced guards and soldiers with far too little experience of anything, let alone treating other men on the wrong end of a gun. Three people unceremoniously dumped, like slain game, on the floor of a nearby ammunition shed – the fourth had two hellish days with at least one bullet wound to the brain before he passed away. All four over-worked from being in a Nazi establishment, all four probably killed merely for being Jewish. Not a remarkable story, it's horrid to think, due to there being about six million cases of this happening. What is remarkable about this instance is that it was the first, at the incredible time of April 1933. And if it seems the first in a long chain of such murders, you would think people might have noticed that at the time, and tried to do something about it. Well, they did.

The hero of this book is Josef Hartinger, the deputy prosecutor in the greater Munich area in the early 1930s. The book has a lot of work on its hands to define the process he would have had to go through, but he did try and create files, with the help of his brilliant pathologist, to prove that SS guards were illegally murdering their charges in the first real concentration camp of the Nazi regime, at Dachau, which was intended to not so much be a death factory as others were, but was certainly designed to be a holding ground for unwanted political enemies of the NSDAP – even if they were there with no charge ever made, and often complained they had no idea why they were imprisoned.

I think some of the details that scientist found would startle you. Would you expect the knowledge at the time to be able to state that people were shot, not from yards in their escape attempt, but from mere inches, in a planned assassination? Obviously the culprits didn't expect that. The ridiculous story here is that the four victims of the first such crime didn't have their case taken anywhere, and it was only when suspicious cases built up that anything was ever done. If people had been more alert to the problem initially, the book's ethos states, the SS might well have been wrapped over the knuckles and things might have been a whole lot different where the Final Solution is concerned. But then idiots abounded – one journalist, from the New York Times, was given a jolly walk round the camp in the week after those deaths, saw nothing untoward and didn't try and investigate them fully – and the Jewish connection of all victims was never reported.

Details such as that forensic science, that failed journalism and more all add up to a fully-researched picture, but I felt the book went too far in its piecing the world of 1933 together. There are pages about Hitler's lackeys propping up the impression of Germany abroad, merely because it coincides with the time when the legal cases' news could have been breaking. Fascinating, but quite academic stuff – and the dryness of the writing did not help at times. Yes, the footnotes are well done, and the academic notes fully suitable in their own section at the back, but there was not quite enough in the way of gearing this to the layman, for me. I don't know what to make of the blurb insisting there was a race against time involved – there wasn't much of one, and there clearly wasn't from the way the book's ending is written, but I don't know if the history deserves being defined in that way, or if it might not have helped readability.

What I would recommend this book for, however, is that it does manage to give a picture of the whole Nazi regime just from a reduced time slice. This is the initial hook – the prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials wanted the court there to commit the whole SS idea as criminal, because these first instances of evil prove it was inherently so – and these pages tread the same path, proving you don't need all the minutiae to see how internal politics, bureaucracy and sheer maliciousness propped up the Nazi idea everywhere you look. And don't forget that galling opening – April 1933 was not a misprint. In commemorating these first four victims we probably double the number of years of anti-Jewish tyranny and industrialised killing in our minds, from six to twelve. And for that this is an important, if not perfectly written, book.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For a look at a second, non-conforming judicial character trying to go against the Nazis, we suggest The True German: The Diary of a World War II Military Judge by Werner Otto Muller-Hill and Benjamin Carter Hett.

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Buy Hitler's First Victims: And One Man's Race for Justice by Timothy W Ryback at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hitler's First Victims: And One Man's Race for Justice by Timothy W Ryback at Amazon.com.


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