My marginal comment, recorded at the end of the chapter on the Belzec trial in Michael Bryant‘s fine new book Eyewitness to Genocide: The Operation Reinhard Death Camp Trials, 1955-1966 (University of Tennessee Press, 2014), is simple: ”!!!!” Text speak, to be sure, but it conveys the surprise I felt.
One can ask many questions about the trials of the German guards and administrators of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Why did it take so long to put them on trial? How did the German public and government respond to the trials? What do the trials say about German memory of the Holocaust?
Bryant answers all of these questions thoughtfully and persuasively. But, the heart of his book is a close study of the prosecution of a few dozen German soldiers, most of whom clearly had dirty hands. He takes us step by step through the process of locating the accused and those who could testify against them, through the complexities of the German legal code, and through the testimony and eventual convictions. And he explains why many of the accused were convicted of lesser crimes, or not convicted at all.
Bryant, trained as both a lawyer and an historian, is uniquely qualified to lead us on this journey. He does so with the verve of someone writing in the true crime genre, integrating life stories of the accused and the courtroom strategies of their trials with a thoughtful analysis of the legal code and culture that shaped their fates.
By the time I finished the book, my initial response had turned into a reluctant understanding. I’m not sure what the right solution is to the problems of transitional justice. But Bryant makes it abundantly clear why these trials turned out in this way, however uncomfortable that might make us.