This is simple fiction based on a first-person account of what if, running to almost 500 pages. In a way it fits in with other books I’ve been reading, with the idea of the self and better self, living the same life, but making different -moral- choices. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty First Century was at it quoting reams of Balzac and the conundrum if you needed to torture a Chinese person on the other side of the world, to get what you wanted… Julian Glover was at it in the biography Man of Iron, Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Thomas Telford’s mum reckoned if you were an honest man you could look the devil in the eye. I’d laughed at that because I couldn’t and wouldn’t. I know my limitations. I’d skulk away.
But what if you were Ernest Beck, it’s April 1944, you’ve graduated from university, newly married to Etta, the honeymoon stage and your living together in a cramped room, short of money, reliant on handouts from your parents, looking for work as a draughtsman and someone offers you a dream job? ‘A contract. Real work.’
You’d take it, right? We all would. But what if your dream job is designing ovens for Buchenwald and the other death camps. Your remit is to make them more efficient. The body fats of the victims can be used as fuel rather than gas or the other less cost-efficient fossil fuels.
But what if you’d already moved into a new house, rent free, much bigger and better than you could afford. What you are doing is not illegal. In fact it is classified as so secret your boss, who runs the department under the auspices of the well know Topf’s industry, takes the file from you every night and locks it away. Topf industry benefits from contracts with the SS, but they do not run the camps. They do not herd inmates into the gas chambers. Topf industry simply fixes the machinery and suggests innovations. They have competitors and if they didn’t do it, their competitors would undercut them and step in and take the work away from them and they would lose the profit. Everything is done by the book, following the rules. German efficiency.
What if you’ve moved into your new house, outside your work, and sometimes you can work from home and your wife Etta tells she has false papers. She is a Jew. She is also a Communist sympathiser and knows other dedicated to the overthrow of existing social order.
What if your boss, Hans Klein, with the best suits, best car and a finger in every pie, tells you he put his own father in the camps because he hired Jewish workers on his farm. Your boss is as psychopathic as Donald J Trump. Would you work for him?
You know the war is coming to an end and your boss knows about you. He asks you to do a little favour for him and it ends badly. The thing your boss values most, the only thing he values, money, his money has been lost and it’s your fault, but you need his help. Do you run or do you stay?
What if you had to make a deal with the devil, what would it be?
Lautner takes us through these various scenarios. There’s echoes of Stanley Miligram’s famous experiment. Most of us fold (65%) when dealing with authority. And the propaganda and hatred whipped up by, for example, George Osborne against the poorest in our unequal society, given the blame for making us in Britain poorer has modern day echoes. I’ve often asked why doctors worked for Atos, when, as skilled workers they could get jobs elsewhere. But, of course, it’s easy to blame others. Or in Osborne and the Nazi’s case the Other. That’s a double act as old as Old Nick. What about the compromises we make ourselves? Accepting packages and shopping with Amazon. Using Google. Eating processed meat and eggs that comes from animals bred, bled and killed in a cruel manner never seeing sunlight or grass. I wouldn’t look old Nick in the eye and I tend to look away from these things. We make sense of the world by telling ourselves lies. Don’t be fooled into thinking your any different is the message Lautner is peddling. I’m buying that one. And I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a happy ending. It’s one of the few wars the Americans wore the white hats, good guys, who could look at themselves in the mirror. Can you? asks Lautner