Dan Gretton’s I You We Them: the mass murderers who killed from behind a desk

This complex and exceptional book explores the legacy of the “desk killer”.

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As the rather elaborate title might indicate, I You We Them is a complex and exceptional book. It also strikes me as telling that on page 430 of its very long, very well written and extraordinarily powerful story, the author quotes from another vast source, Rebecca West’s account of interwar Balkan travel, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, published in 1941.

Gretton repeats West’s observation that, “If during the next million generations there is but one human being born who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.” Gretton is surely a good candidate as unflagging inquisitor of his own age. He has taken more than 20 years and over 2,000 pages – for this is only the first of two roughly equal volumes – to relate all that he has assembled about his challenging theme.

The author defines the subject as the “desk killer”, a label translated from the German equivalent Schreibtischtäter. It is essentially someone, invariably a man and usually a government administrator or business executive, whose work practice may be remote from the orders carried out in his name, but whose decisions inflict immense suffering on his fellow humans.

The archetype is Albert Speer, “Hitler’s architect”, whose achievements as minister of munitions in the late stages of the war are widely blamed for prolonging Nazi resistance. Speer’s psychopathology was forensically analysed by the Austrian-born biographer Gitta Sereny, whose works are a model for Gretton’s own investigation into a range of lesser functionaries integral to the Nazi terror.

Yet a further unusual aspect of I You We Them is that the book mingles the conventions of objective history as written by Sereny, with the more adventurous fictive devices of another Germanic writer, the novelist WG Sebald. And, like the author of Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn, Gretton has framed his book as a sort of odyssey, often narrated in the first person and richly illustrated with his own photographs, maps, diagrams or facsimile documents. They all feed into an autobiographical travelogue but also a formal examination of Western moral history.

A good deal of the book is taken up with the author’s on-location research in Germany and Poland to find the physical remains and psychological landscapes that help us to grasp the making of desk killers. Some of the places – Treblinka, Auschwitz and so on – are deeply familiar, and so too are their harrowing histories. Yet Gretton’s determination to bear witness so long after the events themselves does not diminish the power of his story. On the contrary his decision to make it personal intensifies the impact.

Be warned, the book requires a strong stomach. Just a single moment from the office-bound career of Franz Stangl, commandant at Treblinka, typifies the overwhelming catalogue of barbarities that are recounted in the desk killer’s full record. This incident, which apparently shocked Speer when he heard it at his Nuremburg trial, formed part of the testimony of a Jewish Treblinka survivor, Samuel Rajzman, and described the unfathomable sadism visited upon three generations of one family. Asked in which order she wished her relatives to be shot, an old woman had begged to be killed first. The guards thus slaughtered her grandchild. Then they murdered the baby’s mother, who had just given birth. Having made the grandmother watch all of it, they assassinated her last.

The author’s own daytime work has been for an arts group called Platform, which specialises in exploring the themes of social and environmental justice in relation to the contemporary oil industry. Part of the achievement of his book is to abolish any sense of moral exceptionalism about Nazi atrocities and to demonstrate how Treblinka takes its place in a web of cause and effect that links to both Germany’s past but also to a much wider European contemporary commercial landscape.

Gretton recounts, for instance, the genocidal intentions of the colonial regime in German South-West Africa (now Namibia), where the appalling extermination of the Herero and Nama peoples at the beginning of the 20th century offers insights into all European imperialism, including Britain’s. It also explicitly served Hitler as a blueprint for the Holocaust.

Gretton then tracks forward to show how desk killers existed, not only among those collaborating directly with Nazis, such as the chemical giant IG Farben, which profited hugely from concentration-camp slave labour, but more remotely in the offices of British companies. Sir Henri Deterding, for instance, the first director of the Royal Dutch Shell oil company, was an early supporter of Hitler and, along with Anglo-Persian Oil (later BP), a key supplier of energy to the German war machine.

What Gretton emphasises is that there is no clear moral boundary between atrocities committed in some faraway country and capitalist practice in London. His model for this part of the story is, once again, Royal Dutch Shell, which has derived an estimated $350bn in income from oil extracted in the delta region of Nigeria. For much of his working life Gretton has been fighting to highlight the story of Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni activist who had exposed the oil company’s role in the ecological devastation of his home area. In 1995, however, Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian government on trumped up charges.

The challenge in all these cases of secret conspiracy between business and corrupt government is not merely to prise the facts from some lost archive. This book highlights how society in general is susceptible to a form of collective amnesia, a wish not to confront the troubling details in its past. John Berger observed that “the role of capitalism is to destroy history… to orientate all effort and imagination to that which is about to occur”. Dan Gretton’s profound moral effort in this book is a massive bulwark against that possibility and a guarantee that the truth will be heard. 

Mark Cocker’s most recent book is “A Claxton Diary: Further Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Jonathan Cape)

I You We Them. Journeys Beyond Evil: the Desk Killers in History and Today
Dan Gretton
William Heinemann, 1,104 pp, £25

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This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want