The Magazine

War Crimes

William F. Buckley's historical fiction.

Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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The Reckoning
by William F. Buckley Jr.
Harcourt, 366 pp., $25

William F. Buckley Jr.
A Bibliography
edited by William F. Meehan III
ISI, 250 pp., $29.95

EVEN THE NAME of Nuremberg has a frightening ring. The medieval city was home to princes, painters, and the Meistersingers. But in the 1930s it was also home to the notorious Nuremberg rallies, where Adolf Hitler gathered his minions and extolled the greatness of his thousand-year Reich. And it was there in 1935 that the infamous Nuremberg Laws were drafted--laws that officially deprived Jews of their basic rights not only as German citizens but as human beings.

These were the reasons the Allies in 1945 chose Nuremberg as the symbolically powerful site for the most important trial of the twentieth century--that of twenty-four of the highest-ranking leaders of Nazi Germany (a number reduced to twenty-two by the ill health of one prisoner and the suicide of another). The creation of the International Military Tribunal, with judges from the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, was unprecedented. No government had ever been tried in a court of law for crimes against the whole of civilization. But the Allies were intent on treating the Nazi party not as a legitimate political entity but as a criminal conspiracy, one that waged wars of aggression on peaceful neighbors and violated international treaties by maltreating prisoners of war and civilians.

Those trials are the subject of "Nuremberg: The Reckoning," William F. Buckley Jr.'s fifteenth novel. (For a sense of just how much Buckley has written, readers can consult William F. Meehan's new "William F. Buckley Jr: A Bibliography"--an extremely daunting list of everything the founder of National Review has published since his 1951 classic "God and Man at Yale.")

"Nuremberg: The Reckoning" is a good read, historically accurate, and seamless in its weaving of two stories into one giant web that connects characters past and present, while dealing with larger issues of moral responsibility and the nature of humanity. The story opens in Hamburg 1939, a few days before the German invasion of Poland. Annabelle and Axel Reinhard and their thirteen-year-old son Sebastian are preparing for a trip to America, where young "Sebby" will attend school.

But if Axel, a gifted civil engineer, thought he could evade the Gestapo, he was mistaken. An agent confronts him and offers a deal: Work for the Fatherland and you and your family will not be prosecuted. Leave your wife and son aboard the ship as it prepares to set sail.

The family is torn apart and Sebastian and his mother must live in the hope that Axel will eventually escape. Four years later, they receive a letter stating that "Herr Axel Reinhard is a casualty of the war for the defense of the Fatherland. His name will be honored after our victory."

By the time Sebby is old enough to serve in the U.S. Army, the war is winding down. Still, there is a demand for soldiers who speak fluent German, and he finds himself assigned to help conduct the Nuremberg trials. The defendant for whom Lieutenant Reinhard has specific responsibility is General Kurt Amadeus--the Nazi who was commandant of "Camp Joni," an abominable Vernichtungslager where approximately two hundred fifty thousand prisoners, mostly Russian POWs and Jews, perished.

SEBASTIAN AND AMADEUS develop an eerie relation. Sebby's demeanor of fairness relaxes the SS general, allowing him to be more candid (and chillingly so) about his thoughts on the Reich. When the young lieutenant asks, "Did you consider it a part of your duty to inquire why being Jewish meant being an enemy of the Third Reich?"

Amadeus responds casually: "You speak, Lieutenant Reinhard, as if the case against the Jews was only a--what shall I say?--a peculiarity of the Fuhrer. Of course that is not the case. It was simply that the F hrer had the courage to act on the anti-Semitism of most Europeans." And on it goes. But the more time Sebastian spends with Amadeus, the closer he gets to finding out the truth about his own father. It turns out General Amadeus has knowledge of Axel Reinhard, and what he reveals to Sebastian will forever haunt him.

Although Kurt Amadeus and Camp Joni are fictional, Nazi commandants were in fact brought to Nuremberg to testify on the workings of extermination sites.

Rudolf Hoss of Auschwitz, for example, admitted that "at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing, and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3,000,000."