Thursday, January 24, 2019

Hitler's First Victims: Review

In Hitler's First Victims: The Quest for Justice, Timothy Ryback recounts the background and events of one of the many "What If" situations leading up to World War II. At its most basic, the book argues that there may have been a great difference made in history if the rule of law and Germany's judicial system had worked as well as it had previously been capable of in the years leading up to the war. In the first instance, if Hitler and his, then, smaller band of followers had received a stiffer penalty for their actions in what became known as the "Beer Hall Putsch," much might have been avoided. At the most extreme, it was possible "since Hitler's stated goal was to topple the Weimer Republic, he could have been dispatched to the Reich Court in Leipzig, where a conviction for treason could have resulted in a death sentence." As it was, the procedures were botched and the group faced a sympathetic local judge and received a ridiculously light sentence. Hitler and company were unrepentant and left the court (albeit to short prison sentences) in a celebratory mood more fitting to the victors of a conquest.

Once Hitler rose to the Chancellorship and the Nazi forces began to take over, there was still the remnants of judicial power left to those who wished to see the country returned to a free republic. As the first concentration camp (then called a detention camp and work camp for political prisoners) was formed at Dachau, it still fell under the jurisdiction of state police authority and due process. When political prisoners--nearly all Jews--began to die in suspicious circumstances, Josef Hartinger, a German prosecutor, began collecting evidence and meticulously examined every coroner's report looking to build a case that would bring justice to the camp and seriously hamper the power of the SS men who were gaining control of the camp. His efforts managed to halt the killings temporarily, but the steamroller that was the Nazi movement soon ran him--and the few good men helping him, such as state medical examiner Dr. Moritz Flamm--over. Ryback poses the question: What if there had been hundreds of Hartingers and Flamms throughout Germany, standing up to Nazi rule? Would the weight of judicial evidence and power been enough to strangle the Nazi movement before it hurtled Germany into World War II? Of course, we'll never know--but he makes a strong case.

The book is meticulously researched and gives an excellent portrayal of a country on the brink--unsettled and with its citizens often caught unawares by the movement of power and unsure how to fight back. Even those with some power--like the judiciary and state police--found it very difficult to work within the laws to try and combat the creeping evil. The records of Josef Hartinger and Dr. Flamm make it all too clear how quickly the political landscape could change--taking with it the rules, conventions, and laws that hold a society together. 

An absorbing historical account of men who, as they watched their way of life going off the rails, tried their best to stave off the coming Nazi deluge. It is disturbing to read of these early Nazi atrocities (which actually pale in comparison to what was to come), but it was also heartening to read about men who were trying to do what they could to maintain a system of justice in perilous times. ★★★★

No comments: