When the Allies tracked down Heinrich Himmler at the end of the war, they offered him a sandwich. This was not a hospitable move to induce their captive to speak freely. They knew that many of the top Nazis had hidden cyanide capsules on themselves to facilitate a last-ditch way out if they fell into Allied hands. As Hitler and Goebbels had already committed suicide, Himmler – leader of the SS, the Gestapo, the Secret Service – was the biggest name who would face justice for the Nazis’ crimes. The Allies could not afford to let him slip through the net.
After a thorough body search, the interviewer brought forth the thick bread sandwich, reasoning that if Himmler could eat it, then he couldn’t be hiding poison in his mouth. Although Himmler managed to eat the sandwich to the satisfaction of the interviewer, a later search revealed a black capsule hidden in a gap in Himmler’s teeth. Having been found out, Himmler bit down hard on the capsule and the Allies lost their chief culprit for the unspeakable deeds that had come to light at the end of the war. This is but one anecdote of many told in A Passing Fury that paints a picture of the imperfect judicial process at the end of the Second World War.
The liberation of the Nazi death camps revealed the worst of what humanity is capable. What the Allies found prompted the question of whether there could be an adequate response at all. In the end, they decided that a series of trials would be a measured, civilised and appropriate course of action. A Passing Fury records the voyage of discovery by legal scholar and Orwell prizewinning author Andrew Williams as he uncovers the procedures adopted by the British to collect evidence and bring Nazi perpetrators to trial. He is appalled by the evidence he encounters of Nazi brutality in the camps; he laments the poor practices adopted by the lawyers who were totally out of their depth gathering evidence in the dismantled camps; he is dismayed by the British enacting victor’s justice, dressing up their vengeance against wartime enemies as moral superiority when they knew about the nature of the Nazi camps during the war; and he is dissatisfied that so few of the perpetrators were made to pay for their crimes. All of these seem reasonable things to think or feel. But for anyone who has studied the post-war, post-Nazi world, these inadequacies are well known.
The Nuremberg trials gave the Allies a way to root out the head honchos of the Third Reich, and then to move forward and focus on the future of the country that they had occupied. Half-hearted attempts at denazification failed to exact justice against the millions of Germans who had participated in Nazi society to varying degrees. In a perfect world, this would not have happened. But the Hitler years had shown that even in a country that produced cultural greats such as Goethe and Beethoven, it was not a perfect world.
To those who know the subject area, A Passing Fury contains much that is familiar, but nonetheless Williams is a first-rate storyteller who has a gift for bringing the past to life in an accessible and compelling way.
Hester Vaizey is college lecturer, Clare College, Cambridge, and author of Surviving Hitler’s War: Family Life in Nazi Germany (2010) and Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall (2014).
A Passing Fury: Searching For Justice at the End of World War II
By A. T. Williams
Jonathan Cape, 496pp, £25.00
Published 26 May 2016