Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2019

The Nuremberg Trials, by Alexander Zvyagintsev, translated by Christopher Culver

The Nuremberg Trials is a fascinating book: it’s the story of a ground-breaking event from the Russian point-of-view.

I’ve written before about East West Street, on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, by Philippe Sands. It’s not a book about what happened in Nazi Germany but about the legal development of these crimes, which had not existed before Nuremberg.  It’s an important book, but it’s long—and truth be told, you probably need to be interested in the legal and philosophical underpinnings of these laws before you take an interest in the human story behind the scenes.

Zvagintsev’s novel is much more readable.  It’s a bit hard to sum up succinctly, but it fictionalises the competing interests of the Allies at a critical moment with the Iron Curtain coming down; it indulges in some intriguing conspiracies amongst the players; and there’s a love story between a Soviet fix-it man and a beautiful Russian émigrée who’s returned from Paris.  (Their love seems doomed, because Stalin takes a dim view of those who fled the Revolution, but hey, the author has a Russian soul, and Irina and Rebrov are very keen on each other).

Along the way, the future is foreshadowed.  One of the key issues that the Allies had to deal with was whether Germany could be rehabilitated or not, and this played out in competing agendas about how the prosecution was to be run.  Was Nazism an aberration, for which the Nazi decision-makers could be held accountable?  Or was the evil inherent in the German nation, in which case the defence could argue that they were not as individuals responsible for it?  A feisty American journalist called Peggy Butcher tells Rebrov that one of the German defence lawyers is predicting that declaring the German nation inherently aggressive would weigh them down with a guilt complex for many years to come. 

It was no mere academic argument.  It was vitally important that the prosecution did not fail.  There were plenty of significant figures (Churchill among them) who thought the Nazi leadership should just be taken out and shot.  The Americans wanted to see penitence rather than vengeance, (and one of the characters mentions dryly that perhaps they would feel differently if their country had been trashed and occupied).  The Soviets are very keen to get an admission that the Nazis had planned to attack the USSR all along, but all the defendants claim they were all against it.  Everyone is very fed up with the constant refrain that nobody in the general population saw any of the atrocities, they knew nothing about the death camps and the slave labour, and none of them belonged to the Nazi party.

Each of the very short chapters is accompanied by ‘Notes’ in a different font.  They’re not presented as footnotes, but rather as anecdotes or brief summations, attributed to some source or another.  Some of these were consistent with what I knew to be historically true, and some of them sent me scurrying to Wikipedia because the factual basis or authority for the source isn’t made clear either in the text or in any Afterword.  But, of those I investigated, the Notes seem authentic.  For example in Chapter XV, Part 1 of ‘And It Will Be Given to You’, the Notes refer to the very first trial of WW2 German crimes against humanity, in Kharkiv (Kharkov) in the USSR.  It took place in 1943, long before victory and 702 days before the Nuremberg trials began.  I’d never heard of it, but this Soviet Tribunal did take place (see Wikipedia) and those convicted were executed the next day.

The verbal fencing between the German defendants and their interrogators is rendered in compelling dialogue, the narration showing what the interrogators are thinking and the political pressures on them, while defendants like Goering are depicted in different ways: cunning, craven, unrepentant, ashamed.  At times the different Allies express their astonishment, confusion and dismay that these now shabby little men had held the world to ransom. Zvyagintsev achieves this in part by describing their clothes, their body language and their pale, unhealthy prison-pallor skin: it’s a strong contrast with we are all so used to seeing i.e. these Nazi leaders strutting around in smart military dress, arrogantly smirking or posing in cruel indifference.  Some of them are now contemptuous of the suicides (Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann and Bouhler) while others admire them for not submitting to the humiliation of defeat.  The novel attributes Goering’s suicide after the verdict to the acquisition of cyanide in a fountain pen given to him by a witless US soldier.  This is consistent with an admission by US Army Private Herbert Lee Stivers in 2005, but the novel attributes Stivers’ action to having been bribed with an expensive violin by covert Nazis. That might be true too, I can’t tell.

The Nuremberg Trails is a well-paced thriller with plots and counter-plots, with Stalin and the looming Cold War as a menacing presence in the background, not to mention stubborn German remnants of resistance.  The ruins of Nuremberg are a solemn backdrop, but the author doesn’t shy away from noting that the houses of the well-to-do are unscathed.  The high moral purpose of Nuremberg is clouded by competing ambitions: for fame, international status, revenge and even money as all sides scramble to find the Nazi hoards of gold and looted artworks.  Irina and Rebrov are the little people whose love is a reminder of all the displaced people separated from their loved ones..

Be warned, however, there are far too many typos, grammatical errors such as inconsistent tenses (is/was, p381), and false translations in this edition.  Could the installment of the Nazi regime have been prevented? Who bears the responsibility for the installment?   It’s the wrong word, and it’s not even spelled correctly (p.419-420).  It should be installation, if anything, but the regime was neither installed nor achieved in instalments.  It seized power. There are American expressions (used by Russian generals), which are rendered temporarily unintelligible, such as ‘Well, you see, then‘ which in context must mean that the exasperated general is departing, saying, ‘see you then‘, and not that he’s suggesting his colleague should look at or understand something (p.377).  A prominent banker belongs to a ‘caste’ not a ‘cast‘ (p.322) and a tired man does not ‘dose’ off, he ‘dozes’ off. (p.324).  Women do not drape ‘warm handkerchiefs‘ over their shoulders, they wear shawls or scarves (p.274).  I could go on, but I won’t.  I know the art of translation is a difficult one, and it is ultimately the publisher’s responsibility to include careful proof-reading as part of its processes.

As you can see in the final paragraph of my review, these lapses were a problem in another Glagoslav publication: Moscow in the 1930s, a novel from the archives, by Natalia Gromova, also translated by Christopher Culver.  And it’s a shame because The Nuremberg Trials is thoroughly engaging novel that shines a light on the complexities of Nuremberg, and its contemporary successors in places like the former republic of Yugoslavia.  The author deserves better.

Author: Alexander Zvyagintsev
Title: The Nuremberg Trials
Translated from the Russian by Christopher Culver
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2019, 425 pages
ISBN: 9781784379865
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications


Responses

  1. Great review and that’s a pity, all these typos.

    This is something I should read but that I don’t feel like reading. Does that make sense? (ps I never found the English equivalent of “avoir envie de”, so any suggestion is welcome.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You mean ‘to want to’ or ‘to wish to’ or ‘have an inclination to do something’ ‘to feel like doing s.t?’
    As in ‘I should read it but I don’t feel like it’? Meaning in this case, I should read it (because it would make me better-informed or whatever) but I’m not in the mood for serious reading’?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great plot and background – shame about the solecisms in the translation. I’m reminded of a similarly poorly translated English edition of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz that I borrowed from my local library (I posted about it, but haven’t checked to remind me who was the translator). True, it’s impossible to render slangy registers like the Berlin underworld, but for regular conversation, like the examples you quote, there are surely accessible equivalents? This looks like bad proofreading, as you suggest. Btw, I’d have spelt ‘doze off’ with a z; ‘dose’ is what you take as medicine, in my lexicon…Is that a US/Australian thing?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yikes, it didn’t occur to me that ‘dose’ instead of ‘doze’ could be American spelling. We certainly don’t spell it that way here. Dose is a noun meaning how much medication you take, and doze means to drift off to sleep.
      In general, our spelling follows the British not the American.
      re proofreading: this conversation makes me realise that I don’t actually know what the process is. It seems to me that what’s needed after the translation is done, is that it should be read by someone whose mother tongue is that language, because there will always be idiom and tricky prepositions and stuff like that, which even the best of translators can get wrong. But is that what publishers do, before it goes off for final copy-editing?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d have thought that getting a mother-tongue proofreader would be essential before publication – but who knows?! As for that spelling matter: it’s probably just another typo

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  4. This sounds great. I have been interested in this and related subjects for a long time. With that, I think that I would read the Sands book first.

    It is a pity about the quality of the translation. Maybe someone will come out with a better effort for this book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian, I think you’d really appreciate this. I can imagine that elements of it would appeal to your interest in politics and current affairs.

      The annoying thing is that a lot of the translation is really good. It flows well, it keeps the psychological thriller tempo going (which is no mean feat, considering that we already know the verdicts even before we start reading), and the rhythms feel natural. It’s just that every now and again, you get jolted out of being completely absorbed in the plot by something that’s not right.

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  5. Sounds absolutely fascinating, and what a nuisance about the errors. The trials have a horrible appeal, and I want to read Rebecca West’s book on them. But a novel is perhaps a good way to approach them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds interesting (even though I’m sometimes wary of fictionalised history – it can go either way and constantly hitting Google to check facts can be irritating).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree though one I’d checked a couple and found they were legit, I relaxed after that. But it did make me think about how good Australian publishing usually is about including an afterword that explains the research and gives you confidence that you’re reading something authentic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Think I was burnt earlier this year by a certain book about the Holocaust (and found the ‘rebuttal’ fascinating reading).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, this is entirely different. And you know me, I would call it out if it weren’t.

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  7. I am glad we (the West, the victors) took the Nuremberg Trials route. They took us away from simple revenge and gave us a template for war crimes trials in the future. And I think we had to try something different after the damage caused by punitive reparations at the end of WWI. And I think it has turned out well, the Germans are better world citizens than either the British or the Americans right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think there’s a lot to be said for the Truth and Reconciliation process (as in South Africa) as well. It has its flaws but at least people were made to take responsibility for what they’d done (which is the most important thing); they were prevented from being perceived as ‘martyrs’, and people were able to find out at last what had happened to relatives who had been victims of the regime.

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      • Agreed. Not least in Australia.

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        • Absolutely. Should have been done years ago. A Royal Commission is not the same.

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