The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen
I find cultures endlessly fascinating, each one the fruit of cumulative experiences unique to the physical area and the people who inhabit it. Take Britain, for example. I grew up surrounded by the damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe which did its best to level all the shipyards and their factory supply chain based a few miles from my home. That experience is somewhat different to the French who, to some extent, escaped the physical destruction but had to endure occupation. I suppose that’s why France retains its ban on the public use or display of the swastika and other Nazi insignia. But if you were to go to Taiwan or Singapore, the Red Swastika Society or 世界紅卍字會 is a major charity which proudly displays the symbol above its schools and other public buildings. Yet if you were to show these island people Japanese symbols from the War, you would get a very different reaction. Cultures, wartime experiences and current responses are highly localised.
The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen (Permanent Press, 2013) produces a prequel to the excellent All Cry Chaos explaining why the youngish Henri Poincaré joined Interpol. We’re back in time to 1978 with Henri and Chin, his partner in engineering, off the Dutch coast to search for a 1799 shipwreck. The day before the first dive is to be made, our hero goes for a guided waterlogged hike across the low-tide flats of the Wadden Sea. The guide is Liesel Kraus, heiress to the major German steel conglomerate and, to his surprise, he finds himself invited to a family gathering on their local estate. Initially, this is a ploy so that Liesel has an excuse not to be even vaguely civil to the latest man Anselm, her older brother, would like her to consider marrying. But there’s a mutual spark and despite the differences in wealth and status, they begin an exploration of the emotional ground between them. Their mutual problem is the cultural baggage.
Although both were born after the War, the Kraus family was inevitably a part of the German Reich. The steel it produced was used to make weapons for the Wehrmacht. The owners of this business not only voted for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, they met Hitler and other key people in the government. Worse the family did engage in the activities judged to be war crimes. Fortunately, Liesel’s father Otto produced evidence to show he had been another Oskar Schindler, helping some Jews escape persecution. This distinguished him from Alfried Krupp and other leaders of German heavy industry. Nevertheless, there’s always going to be a taint in the eyes of a French engineer.
So this is a love story. Henri loves his work as an engineer and shares his joy of “making things” with the Kraus family. Because of his immediate commission to attempt the recovery of gold from the suspected wreck, he also shares his love of this particular piece of history with Anselm. He may also be falling in love with Liesel. But how practical is that if there are skeletons in her family’s closet? Can individuals accommodate the sins of their fathers and forge new ties? Well how different is the new generation? Nazi Germany ran some of its manufacturing capacity using slave labour. Suppose a Western company identifies an underdeveloped country with chronic unemployment. It offers the unemployed the dirty and dangerous work its own people will not do. It pays them a pittance. They are dependent. They do the work even though it makes them ill and some die. Morally, how is this distinguishable from actual slavery? We call it outsourcing. On a different tack, you can accept the reality that many Nazi Germans had a deep-seated prejudice against Jews. Suppose a modern man has a comparably visceral prejudice against gypsies? Neither is rational — prejudice is by its nature irrational — or morally defensible.
Henri and Victor Schmidt go to the ship-breaking yard in Hong Kong where the Kraus company processes the old tankers it buys for two million with the scrap worth double. It’s not a pretty sight. Anselm is also interested in stripping the precious metals from electronics. Henri begins to work out the process but, when he injures himself, that leaves him time to begin investigating the Kraus family and Otto’s claim of Schindler qualities to escape prosecution for war crimes. It seems there were ten witnesses as to his essential good character. Ah so now you see the point of the title and understand the race if these witnesses start to die.
Last year, we had Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman and Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard look at the Holocaust with the question of revenge uppermost. It’s therefore interesting to take this slightly different path to the same question. Courtesy of the Allies, many Nazis like Wernher von Braun were allowed to wipe the slate clean if their skills could prove useful to the winning side. Yet no matter how thorough the sanitisation may initially appear to be, people remember and some records escape for later generations to find. After time has passed, this book invites us to consider whether there’s a social good in the truth emerging. Because cultures are dynamic, the answer will change over the years. Immediately after the war, the victors play out the roles most appropriate to their national interests. It will be a balance between the understandable desire for revenge and the need to provide a basis on which the defeated can find some measure of forgiveness and move into the future.
After the peace has been converted into greater international harmony, some might argue these men have been rehabilitated by their years of good and loyal service after the war. They might have earned the right to maintain the fiction of their pasts. Others might say there should be no statute of limitation on war crimes, that states should not conspire with criminals to cover up past crimes. Whatever your view, this book poses the question to the children, asking them where their loyalty lies. Is filial duty more important than accountability for crimes against humanity? Should a man accept complicity if he falls in love with the daughter of a possible war criminal? The answers come in this very elegantly written book with a plot that reminded me of Anthony Price, balancing history against a modern investigation with possible gold at the bottom of it all (even if only recovered from discarded electronic equipment). The Tenth Witness confirms the promise of the first book. Leonard Rosen is a writer to watch because this book not only offers a fascinating investigation and thrillerish elements only one of which is gratuitous and fails to ring true, but also stimulates thought by probing some emotionally and culturally sensitive issues.
For a review of the first book by Leonard Rosen, see All Cry Chaos.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.