Black Camp 21

Written by Bill Jones
Review by Jasmina Svenne

In the wake of the D-Day landings, thousands of Germans are taken prisoner, including SS officer Max Hartmann. But while Hartmann broods on the whereabouts of the wife he barely knows and the child she was pregnant with when they parted, other more dangerous SS prisoners are plotting to continue the war, even from the wrong side of the Channel—men who are a threat to anyone even suspected of not thinking the same way. This tightly-plotted thriller is based on little-known real-life events that culminated in December 1944. We know from the first page that five men were executed, but not the nature of their crime or their identities.

Hartmann is a likeable hero, who has retained his humanity despite his training and his wartime experiences: a member of the SS not from conviction, but because, a natural loner, he hoped it might integrate him with others of his generation. What is striking is the extreme youth of the more fanatical POWs—almost too young to remember a time before Hitler seized power and products of years of indoctrination. Even when all the evidence points to the contrary, they simply cannot allow themselves to believe they’ve lost. Some, like ringleader Goltz, are clearly too damaged to be redeemable, but Hartmann cannot help hoping that there is a chance of saving his childhood friend Koenig. And in the midst of this there is the ambiguous figure of Rosterg—older than the other “Category Black” prisoners, intellectual, multilingual and apparently able to bridge the gulf between POWs and guards.

I was hesitant about accepting this review book, but it is a compulsive read, even—perhaps especially—when you know things are unlikely to turn out well. A must for historical thriller fans, but be warned: the climax is very, very dark.