Fragmentary portraits of quotidian life—at least life of a kind, as lived by less-than-ordinary people.
Lampert, an American writer resident in Berlin, works the margins of history, probing the fates of eight Nazi-era Germans who ended up on both sides of the barbed wire. The young woman called Mirjam P., for instance, tries in Lampert’s account to make a home in Palestine, does some modest swindling in Zurich, and ends up in a German mental hospital, where she meets her end through newly promulgated Nazi provisions for what was called “mercy killing of incurably ill patients.” More fully developed is a case study devoted to an endlessly complex author and political operative named Wilhelm K., who, even as a high official in the Nazi-occupied Russian province of White Ruthenia, can never quite figure out what he really believes in; he orders some Jews killed but many others saved to work in his palatial headquarters, and he professes to be bothered when his fellow Nazis kill them in an apparent effort to irritate him. Grandly, Wilhelm K. proposes that the bombed-flat city of Minsk be renamed Asgard: “It is of Gothic origin and has yet to be used as a city name.” Alas for Wilhelm, he is blown apart by a partisan grenade, and perhaps fortuitously: “Himmler is reported to have said that K.’s death was a blessing for Germany, since otherwise he would have had to put him in a concentration camp.” Fascinating, too, are Lampert’s other tales: of an elderly man in just such a camp, put there for having written anti-Hitler graffiti in a toilet stall; of a Jewish veteran of WWI made to organize a police unit at Theresienstadt, for which “war crimes” he is arrested after the Allied victory but then released, “shortly after several former members of the Ghetto Guard have been interrogated by authorities and described L. as a strict but just superior”; and of a vicious murderer who is only following orders.
A small but potent piece of work, up there with recent, influential banality-of-evil scholarship, such as Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996).