Cover image of "A Man Without Breath," a novel about mass murder in WWII

In the spring of 1940, Josef Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, systematically murdered some 22,000 Poles. Among the victims were half the members of the Polish officer corps, police officers, government representatives, royalty, and leading members of Poland’s civilian population. More than 4,000 of them were buried in the Katyn Forest, a wooded area near the city of Smolensk, located near the Belarus border west of Moscow. Though far more Poles were murdered elsewhere under the same directive from the Kremlin, the atrocity came to be identified as the Katyn Massacre. Philip Kerr’s novel, A Man Without Breath, is based on the international investigation first carried out there in 1943.

Nazi Germany’s War Crimes Bureau

Though it might seem improbable, the Wehrmacht operated a War Crimes Bureau from 1939 to 1945. Ostensibly, the purpose of this organization was to uncover war crimes committed not just by the Allies but by Nazi Germany as well. Of course, it’s no surprise that records of the bureau’s inquiries into mass murder by the Wehrmacht (or, much more often, the SS) did not survive the war. Those that brought to light atrocities by the Allies did survive — but most were classified and hidden away by the US Government until 1975, when they were belatedly passed along to West German officials.

A Man Without Breath (Bernie Gunther #9) by Philip Kerr (2013) 477 pages ★★★★★

The Katyn Massacre: a high-profile investigation

Unlike most of the bureau’s discoveries, the investigation into the mass murder known as the Katyn Massacre surfaced quickly, because the government of Nazi Germany had seen fit to invite investigators from the International Red Cross and non-German journalists onto the scene as the bodies were unearthed. Clearly, the Nazis saw this operation as a potential propaganda bonanza at a time when their armies were staggering toward defeat on the Eastern front. This is the subject of A Man Without Breath. Former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther is assigned by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, no less, to manage the investigation from behind the scenes.

Murders, murders everywhere

Bernie runs into resistance soon after he arrives on the scene in Smolensk. The local military police, the Gestapo, and even the commanding general, Field Marshall Gunther von Kluge, resent his role. Only Goebbels’ protection allows him to operate at all. Gradually, however, he finds a handful of allies, including an aristocratic colonel who hopes to assassinate Hitler and a beautiful ex-Communist doctor brought to examine the unearthed bodies. Meanwhile, however, Bernie finds himself drawn into investigating a series of ghastly murders that come to light as the inquiry into the massacre moves forward. Are these murders in some way connected to the massacre itself? Perhaps. We’ll see.

A story full of historical figures

As in the other books in Philip Kerr’s masterful Bernie Gunther series, the cast of characters includes many historic figures. Field Marshall von Kluge, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, as well as Goebbels and a host of lesser-known officials in World War II Germany appear on the scene. Even Adolf Hitler lurks behind the curtain, stage right, in a critical episode in the novel.

The plot of A Man Without Breath is less interesting than the history it brings to light. Though the focus is squarely on the Katyn Massacre, the novel illustrates vividly how the NKVD as well as the Gestapo operated during the Spanish Civil War and the broader war that followed. We see how von Kluge and other senior members of the Wehrmacht General Staff were personally bribed by Hitler to ensure their loyalty. And we learn that the celebrated 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler was just one of as many as fifteen different such plots in which Admiral Canaris and other senior officers participated. This is history learned the easy way. Philip Kerr is a first-class writer.

For links to reviews of the whole series, go to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels.

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