I spent the summer working in the British National Archive at Kew. I wonder what the new budget cuts are going to do to this amazing enterprise. Anyone can go in and check out British government records. As long as a document isn’t classified–and it’s free. Many of the documents were classified up until whatever date they stopped being so. There are people looking into their family histories all the way back to the Domesday Boke, which is on display in a specially-lit chamber. There are people looking into underground radio stations in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. Colonial records of Jamaica. And so on. I was there writing my novel and helping my husband, David, search through thousands and thousands of not-very-well-indexed files about war crimes after WWII. The data is raw–it was like an archaeological dig, in that many of the files seem untouched since they were put into folders in the 1940s. Others have been pilfered from, in particular many of the records from Bergen Belsen concentration camp were stolen during the 1980s.
David was looking for a particular person’s activities — who was a lawyer, prosecutor and researcher — and since there’s a limit on how many files you can check out at a time–3. With my reader’s card he was able to sort through twice as many files. Armed with the basic information I would intuitively or randomly request files and check through them for the guy David is working on.
I ended up getting absorbed in stories that wandered through the various sections from investigation to trial. There were so many hideous, pathetic and ugly brutal acts, murders woven through the texture of life in Europe during the decade of the war. Somehow I kept running into a case of a slave laborer shot near piles of potatoes in the rain because he asked to rest inside a barn. Human beings intoxicated by a criminal culture of killing as power. The lies told were chilling. One man said he treated his workers like his own children, where witnesses said he had beaten a woman in the fact with a shoe she had been making–with the needle sticking out of it.
It’s clear that human beings can create a culture of fear and insanity. Should it happen again, it seems that there is a certain number of people who will become the insane brutes, those who enjoy using their pistols. The heroes will be few and the majority will bend down in fear, afraid for their lives and feeling helpless, telling themselves they can do nothing because the problem is too big and they have too much to lose.
What was also fascinating to me was the process of redress. After the war was over and the personal danger had abated, many people began traveling to places where the investigations were being conducted. They wanted to say what they had seen. Yes, they knew it was wrong. Sometimes they might say they saw a summary execution and knew where the body was buried. Perhaps the name of the murdered person was unknown. Investigators would dig up the dead body and try to identify it. Sometimes the criminals had to be tried in absentia because they had disappeared, changed their names, released after some other trial declared them innocent or impossible to convict. The trials thus became simply a way of calling a spade a spade, evil evil.
The sentences, contrary to what I had earlier believed, tended to be rather lenient. There were far fewer hangings than I had thought among the thousands of trials. For example there was this one horrible nun (the Ruehen Baby Case was one of the ones I became obsessed with)–she was placed in charge of all the infants born to female slave laborers in a Volkswagen factory. Babies were taken away from their mothers as soon as they were born, the mothers went back to work and the nun tended the babies. In fact she stole most of the money she was given to buy food for them and put it in a personal bank account. The babies were left unwashed and full of sores in a classic concentration camp type building. One of them was described as having a hole in its throat through which the watered-down formula dribbled out. The mortality was 100%. After they died they were stuffed into shoeboxes and given to a man who would put them under his arm, go off on his bicycle and throw the boxes into a ditch. The witness described him whistling a tune as he pedaled away. This nun was sentenced to life, but was released from prison within eight years.
Should we be glad that civilization ”normalized” so many of these war criminals, and treated them as ordinary criminals?