Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: GH Bennett
Price (RRP): £20
In 2005 a curious collection of old films was discovered in the cupboard of a church at Cullompton in Devon. Donated to a local film archive, one of the films would garner headlines worldwide and pique the interest of historian GH Bennett.
The film in question was of SS men supervising their civilian and military prisoners in the building of a road in the occupied Soviet Union, and Bennett turned sleuth to discover the circumstances behind it. The story he uncovered is an unusual one.
The film showed Jewish and Ukrainian labourers building a road (named DGIV by the Nazis) which was intended to connect the 700 or so miles between Lviv and Donetsk across the breadth of Ukraine.
Interestingly, the road was to serve a dual purpose. Firstly it was to have a logistical function, assisting occupation troops and, literally, paving the way for the planned German colonisation of Russia’s traditional ‘bread basket’.
The second function was rather more sinister. As foreseen at the Wannsee Conference, the road-building programme was to serve as an ingenious method of killing the local Jewish population: poor conditions and heavy labour would weaken even the strongest among them, and when they could no longer work they would simply be shot by the side of the road. It was known in Nazi parlance as “extermination through labour”, and tens of thousands would die in this way on the ‘SS Road’.
Bennett has performed a salient service in uncovering this tale. He succeeds in naming the senior SS man in the film, Walter Gieseke, who was in charge of the nefarious project, and benefits hugely from the discovery of a Romanian survivor – the ‘painter’ Arnold Daghani – who left a memoir of his experiences in the camps of DGIV. The result is an illuminating and intriguing account.
If there is a criticism to be aired, it is that the book feels as though it has been padded. Bennett writes very well and the book is interesting, but there is the nagging suspicion that he has worked hard to bolster a story that was perhaps a little too thin in its original form.
His decision to incorporate the process of research into his account, for example, will doubtless be of interest to some, but it is really not dramatic or enlightening enough to earn a place in the narrative as of right.
Also, he is rather heavy-handed in his attempts to breathe life into Gieseke, posing too many unanswered and unanswerable questions about what his villain might have thought about what he did. For all Bennett’s efforts, Gieseke remains stubbornly one-dimensional.
Despite such quibbles, this is an engaging book, which should be welcomed for shedding light on a little-known chapter of the wider Holocaust.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (Vintage, 2011)