William Ryan: The Picture That Inspired The Constant Soldier

William Ryan: The Picture That Inspired The Constant Soldier

I should explain that the album is disconcerting. Although at first sight the photographs it contains appear to be of ordinary men and women, doing ordinary things – they play with pet dogs, have dinner together, get caught in the rain and even seem to tell jokes. But they are not ordinary men and women. The man who owned the album, Karl-Friedrich Hoecker was adjutant to the Commandant of Auschwitz and the people in the photographs, many of them in SS uniform, were involved in the camp’s operations. What is more, the photographs were taken between June 44 and January 1945 – at a time when their subjects must have been concerned that the war was lost and that their involvement in the murder of millions of innocents must soon have consequences.

Strangely, given this context, the men and women in the photographs seem relaxed. Of course, none of the photographs feature the camp at which they work or its victims. Instead most of them seem to have been taken 20 kilometres away from the camp at a rest hut for those who worked at Auschwitz. One series of photographs documents a visit to the hut by some female SS auxiliaries. The disconnect between the images of these cheerful, attractive girls and the photographs we have of the selections that took place at Auschwitz is stark. It becomes almost incredible when we discover that, according to the United States Holocaust Museum, this visit took place on the same day as two transports arrived at Auschwitz, where almost all of the people on board the trains were immediately murdered.

In the above photograph from July 1944, four SS officers – Josef Kramer, Anton Thumann, Karl-Friedrich Hoecker and Franz Hoessler – are pictured. They were interesting men. Kramer was brought up by his parents to be a strict Roman Catholic and worked as a bookkeeper before joining the SS while Hoessler trained to be a photographer. Thumann, a younger man, joined the SS at the age of 20. All three of them worked in the first concentration camp at Dachau, before going on to work at Auschwitz. All three of them were executed by the British after the war. The exception was Hoecker, the man who owned the photograph album. Somehow or other, after a short time as a prisoner of war, Hoecker was able to return to his old job – as a bank clerk in a small regional bank in Lubbecke. It wasn’t until 1962 that he was arrested for his involvement in the Holocaust and, when he was convicted in 1965, he was imprisoned for only seven years.

Hoecker holds his hands together loosely in front of him and stares into the distance. He has the attention of the other SS men, almost as though they are waiting for him to say something. What was it? Perhaps, to judge from their grave expressions, he was talking about what might happen to them if the war was lost. Where they could hide? What their excuse could possibly be if they were brought to account for their actions? Or perhaps it was something as innocuous as whether it was about to rain and whether that might spoil the party they were having for Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz. We can never know but my, completely imagined, musing on this photograph, and others, formed the foundation on which The Constant Soldier was built.

The rest hut where many of the photographs were taken and which stands behind Hoecker and the others in the photograph, has always been the setting for the novel – although the story which the novel tells has changed considerably since I started writing it. Originally I submitted an outline to my editor that started with three Wehrmacht soldiers, survivors of a partisan ambush, arriving at its gate – and discovering who the officers gathered for dinner there were and what they’d done. But when I started writing it, that story never came together.

Instead, a new character – a wounded soldier called Paul Brandt – forced his way in. By this stage, I’d decided that the only way to write about the photographs was to fictionalise them and, indeed, everything else. The valley, the village, the hut and the camp remain unnamed in the novel – and the novel never goes to Auschwitz, although the Holocaust is a constant undercurrent. Describing the horrors of the Holocaust and Auschwitz was not something I felt I could do in a novel – they speak for themselves and need no reinterpretation. But the photographs seemed to shed some light on the mentality of the SS – and slowly the novel changed direction. It became about how the compromises and choices that the people in the photographs, and the valley that surrounded the hut, might have made – and how those choices and compromises had all, some directly and many indirectly, ended up contributing to the crimes that unfolded at Auschwitz.

Brandt was a character who could allow me to explore these thoughts. Forcibly enrolled in the German Army because of his resistance, in a small way, to the annexation of Austria he returns to the valley he grew up in to find an SS rest hut has been built beside his father’s farm. By then it would have been a very different place to the one he’d left behind. The area had contained an ethnic German population for hundreds of years – it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire up until 1919. After the German invasion in 1939, however, the Polish and Jewish populations which had been there as long, if not longer, were expelled and the region became part of an expanded Germany. Brandt, mentally and physically damaged, recognises a woman prisoner from the hut who he knows from his pre-war student day in Vienna, and an opportunity presents itself for him to make reparation for his involvement in all of the wrongs that he has been an unwilling part of. But the dangers – both to himself and his family, not to mention the women – are clear, and that failure will be fatal.

The Constant Soldier then is the story of the last few months before the Red Army arrive – how the mood amongst the SS changes and how the German population of the valley face up to the fact that they too will bear responsibility for the Nazi’s crimes. And the photographs? They inspired scene after scene in the book and, if it didn’t come out exactly how I thought it would, that’s okay – it’s the better for it and for all the decisions I made along the way.

The Constant Soldier relied heavily on the Hoecker album which is held by The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the research which the USHMM has published on the photographs it contains. The views or opinions expressed in this article, and the context in which the images are used, do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of, nor imply approval or endorsement by, the USHMM.