William Ryan on the extraordinary photo album that inspired his novel, The Constant Soldier.
The Constant Soldier is set at the end of World War 2 in a valley in what was then Nazi Germany, at a time when the war was lost. The novel, about a damaged German soldier seeking redemption, has its origins in a photograph album that was discovered by an American army officer in 1945, in a bombed-out Frankfurt apartment. The album disappeared for sixty years but in 2007 it was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the images it contained were made public. If the photographs capture a series of moments then The Constant Soldier is an attempt to create a story from them.
I should explain that the photographs are disconcerting. At first sight they appear to be of ordinary men and women, doing ordinary things. They sing songs, get caught in the rain and have dinner together – they seem to enjoy each other’s company. But they are not ordinary men and women and this is not an ordinary time. The man who owned the album, Karl-Friedrich Hoecker, was the adjutant to the Commandant of Auschwitz, and the men and women in the photographs were nearly all involved in the running of the camp. What is more, the photographs were taken between June 1944 and January 1945 – at a time when they must have feared that their involvement in the Holocaust would soon have to be accounted for.
None of the photographs feature the camp at which Hoecker and his colleagues worked – or its victims – at least not recognisably so. If Hoecker wanted to preserve some memories of Auschwitz, they were not of the concentration camp. Many of the photographs in the album were instead taken 20 kilometres away, at a rest hut for those who worked at the camp – a much more pleasant backdrop. One series of photographs, of which the above is one, documents a visit to the hut by some female SS auxiliaries. The young women seem cheerful, pleased to have a day off. They worked as radio operators for the concentration camp and its various sub camps and, if it weren’t for the SS runes on their chests, it would be difficult to imagine that they were active participants in genocide. The disconnect between these smiling, attractive girls and other photographs we have of Auschwitz is stark. It was this disconnect, which is repeated in so many of the photographs, which I wanted to explore.
In this particular photograph, the SS women have arrived at the rest hut, which is behind the photographer. They stand on a small bridge that would have been built, like the hut itself, by prisoners in 1942. The officer in the middle is Hoecker, the man who owned the album. We are struck immediately by how young the women are and how ordinary they appear. Some of them may have been conscripted from school – conscription to the SS occurred from 1943 onwards – but it seems more likely that they would have been volunteers. The smiles of the women seem real and unforced – perhaps the photographer has just made a joke. In fact, the woman on the far left of the photograph appears to be flirting with whoever is operating the camera. The atmosphere in the image becomes almost incredible when we discover that this visit took place, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on the same day that two transports arrived at Auschwitz, where almost all of the people on board the trains were immediately murdered.
The Constant Soldier emerged slowly. By the time it was suggested to my publisher, it featured three Wehrmacht soldiers, survivors of a partisan ambush, arriving at the gate of the rest hut and discovering who the officers gathered for dinner there are and what they are responsible for. But when I started writing that version, the story never came together. The photographs seemed to offer insights into the SS men and women they portray which I wanted to explore and so the novel changed direction. It became about how the compromises and choices that the people in the photographs, and those in the valley that surrounded the hut, might have made, and how those choices and compromises had all, some directly and many indirectly, contributed to the crimes that unfolded at Auschwitz. A new character – a wounded soldier called Paul Brandt – forced his way in.
Brandt allowed me to explore the responsibility and guilt of someone who had become embroiled in evil despite himself. Forcibly enlisted 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 nearby. Brandt, mentally exhausted and physically damaged, recognises a woman prisoner working in its grounds from his pre-war student days in Vienna, and an opportunity presents itself for him to make reparation for his involvement in the evil in which he has been an unwilling participant. But the dangers – both to himself and his family, not to mention the women – are clear.
The Constant Soldier then is the story of the last few months before the Red Army arrive – how the mood amongst the SS changes as they must confront their own guilt and responsibility as well as how the civilian population of the valley must face up to the fact that they too will be held accountable. The photographs remain at the novel’s core, inspiring many scenes in the book, as well as the story itself – a story about ordinary people committing great evil and, sometimes, resisting evil at great personal risk.
The Constant Soldier relies 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. All photos © USHMM.