A Passing Fury by A.T. Williams

Review published on June 4, 2017.

My father was a British soldier at Spandau in Berlin when Rudolf Hess was the only Nuremberg ‘War Crimes’ prisoner still interned there. By then the prison guards were local, the allied soldiers performing a more symbolic role. He saw incidents of Hess begging illicit favours from the guards and then reporting their kindness as a dereliction of duty. Hess was mentally ill, although the same was not true for the majority of the defendants at Nuremberg. Even at this distance in time the scar left by WWII and the Holocaust haunts us. A fresh look at the trials that followed the Allied victory is always timely and this is a highly competent and personal study of the War Crimes Trials that adds to the body of work on the subject.

A Passing Fury has a brief account of the Nuremberg Trials that runs through each chapter; the story is familiar. This is not the focus of the book, Williams is interested in the broader history of the many separate trials across Germany, particularly those presided over by the British. It is a fuller picture of what happened across Germany after the war. Nuremberg was limited to the Nazi leaders who promoted the agenda of war and war crimes; it established the general principles of the right to refuse an illegal order and the duty of personal responsibility, also what constitutes a war crime. However, Williams uses each chapter to examine the regional tribunals, the investigative teams and detective work that they carried out all over Europe and the trials of the many people complicit in the KZ camps. The mammoth task of ensuring justice for the victims and fairness for the defendants. Williams throws light on the successes and failures of the trials, what was achieved and the barriers to the good delivery of justice.

Staggeringly, there were over 1000 concentration camps in ‘greater Germany’ and there were also many incidents involving allied soldiers and prisoners to be dealt with. Williams investigates several of the locations of atrocities reviewing witness testimony, records and physical evidence. This is not a history, it is the work of a lawyer, perhaps more importantly, a human being confronting the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man. It is a very personal journey undertaken decades after the events occurred but Williams’ musings and descriptions of the camps and trials really give the reader a feel for both the tragedy and the hope.

Williams went into this project asking questions about what we have learned in the intervening decades. His previous book on the death of Baha Mousa at British hands in Iraq focuses on abuse of power and is clearly a spur for this book. Williams loosely draws upon the current experience to explore some uncomfortable parallels. There are certain moral absolutes when it comes to the treatment of prisoners, it is not about scale or depth of depravity. This does not overshadow the heart of the book and Williams sceptical eye means that he does not make the assumption of justice that some earlier histories did and that people at the time did, it is refreshing.

For the reader coming to this subject anew, A Passing Fury is a well written and fairly comprehensive way to access a difficult topic. If you are familiar with the Nuremberg Trials, and even the wider history, this interpretation is interesting, plenty of food for thought – agree or disagree you will engage. Williams has an eye for detail that is enlightening. He is interested in the concept of justice versus revenge (the victor over the vanquished).

Nuremberg was chosen because of the pre-war rallies, the ‘Reichsparteitage’,(National Party Days from 1933 onwards). The stuff of Riefenstahl’s film. The first count of the indictment looked for a ‘common plan’ for crimes as set out in the Nuremberg Charter. Other counts were: crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity (particularly the extermination of the Jews). Crimes against humanity were defined as: “Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population”.

At the time the major trial was being prepared, the regional tribunals were already under way.

The starting point for Williams was a tour of the Neuengamme camp, a scene of Nazi atrocities. Tragically, the camp guards moved 9000 survivors to ships in Hamburg harbour and most died in RAF bombing raids or were shot by the Nazis as they made land. In Hamburg in March of 1946 the British established a tribunal to examine the Neuengamme camp. They dealt with atrocities against Jews, Gypsies, disabled people, Slavs, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political opponents, and forced labourers. Williams’ has two contentions, first that: “Nuremberg…..important as this was and continues to be, could not and did not capture anything but a fragment of the story of the justice exacted by the British and the Allies after the war’s end”. Second that the trials represented the ‘fury let loose’. That retribution had been decided upon as early as 1943. Those responsible for war and atrocity would be pursued: “to the ends of the earth….justice may be done”. This required massive resources, time and the will to see it through in the right way, ‘a contained fury’.

Williams’ chapters relate to specific camps and advances the history by tackling a different aspect of the story at a time. For example, the chapter on Buchenwald (and Ohrdorf) covers the development of Nazi KZ camps and the depth of knowledge and response from the allies. Williams describes his own approach to Buchenwald on the 5km ‘Bludstraße’ or blood road. It dawn’s on him that nothing prepares you for the revelation: “….People were expected to die here, I realised….”

In 1945 when the public began to see photographs and newsreels of the camps there was outrage and demands for retribution. Dachau was established in 1933 to deal with political opponents – Communists. The plight of the Jews in camps was discussed in the Houses of Parliament well before the war began. Williams cites Martin Gilbert’s thesis that the allies response to the atrocities during the war was totally inadequate. The KZ camp, ghetto and transit camp system was established in conquered territory and by 1941 it is principally for human eradication.

The British soldiers liberating Bergen-Belsen were wholly unprepared for what they found (piles of bodies, emaciated survivors, the stench of death and medical emergency; lack of food, disease, misery). There were 400 to 500 SS guards to be investigated, leading to 700 cases and calls for 500 arrests before end of 1945. The first British trials resulted in a few convictions of the leaders, (Commandant Kramer, Irma Grese, Dr. Klein), but also several acquittals.

The Nuremberg trial began at the Palace of Justice on 20th November, 1945 with 24 defendants including; Keitel, Goering, Kaltenbrunner and von Ribbentrop. Nuremberg was not just to punish, “but to memorialize the terrible crimes committed so that they wouldn’t be repeated…”.

Williams looks for answers in the defendants’ testimony; was it indoctrination, culture, politics, ideology, or institutional norms that led to war crimes? Sadly, there is no easy answer. Williams concludes that there is ‘just the bad side of us’, a capacity for cruelty.

Williams points out that the trials were under resourced and lacking in experts – often under pressure from the War Office over costs. Interpreters became investigator after 12 weeks training in interview techniques, the law and police procedures for investigations.

The ‘great’ trial at Nuremberg was detached from the reality of the satellite trials. The regional trials were individual and not strategic in message or outcomes. Williams argues that the fury faded and that the drive behind the trials weakened. By the end of 1946 they were winding down. Eventually Parliament called for an end and the last proceedings were finished by the end of 1948.

The German courts took over responsibility for war crimes trials and those not executed by the Allies were mostly released by the mid 1950s. Williams notes that retribution as a romantic gesture was always tempered by pragmatism and that fury cannot be maintained. Faced with horror people will eventually look away.

Williams is selective but he examines the moral issues without undue reverence. He is clear and entertaining (given the material) and by putting himself in the picture A Passing Fury becomes an intelligent and thought provoking personal journey. There are more comprehensive books on Nuremberg and/or the holocaust, but this is a fine humanitarian attempt at understanding man’s inhumanity to man.

A.T. Williams’ previous book, A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa, won the George Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013. Other books of interest on these topics include The Nuremberg Trial by Ann and John Tusa, Holocaust by Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust by Lawrence Rees, and East West Street by Philippe Sands.

Paul Burke 4/5

A Passing Fury by A.T. Williams
Vintage 9780099593263 pbk May 2017


Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks


Resolution by David Rutland & Emma Ellis

You may also like