A Conversation with Philip Kerr: A Man Without Breath

2013 ~ Courtesy of Marian Wood Books/G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Q: At the opening of the novel, which is set in 1943, Bernie informs us that he has left KIRPO to join the Wermacht War Crimes Bureau at the suggestion of his old boss, Arthur Nebe. As Bernie describes it, this Bureau, founded in 1939 (by whom, exactly?), is populated largely by Prussian officers and judges “most of whom were staunchly anti-Nazi.” That being the case, wouldn’t it have been in the best interest of the Nazi party to disband the War Crimes Bureau, or at least render it powerless, in order to avoid embarrassing prosecutions of Nazi soldiers? Why would they even tolerate it?

A: The Bureau was founded in the first war by the army. The army was constitutionally forbidden to have any political affiliation. Hitler respected this; and when at the start of WW2, the bureau was re-formed, the same independence applied in the bureau. The bureau served a useful political purpose, too, in that some of the atrocities could be used for propaganda by Goebbels.

Q: There is a scene in the book where Bernie marvels at the street names of Smolensk having been christened with new German names. Since the country is occupied by the German forces at the time, it makes perfect sense, but how did you learn of that practice? One assumes that after the war all of those new street names reverted to the original ones…

A: Yes, the street names went back to the old ones the minute the Nazis left. I knew this had happened in other places and I suspected it had happened in Smolensk, so my big find was getting a copy of a genuine SS map. It’s mounted on my wall.

Q: Bernie’s luck with women, or absence thereof, holds true to form in A MAN WITHOUT BREATH. You must relish tormenting the poor fellow, even while creating some of the most memorable femme fatales in all of crime fiction.

A: I think poor Bernie would hate me if ever we met. Ines is quite a woman. She wrote herself into the story.

Q: One of the most surprising revelations in the story was that it was not uncommon for Hitler to pay bribes to some of the Prussian officers in order to gain their support—or, you suggest, to perhaps fend off continued assassination attempts. It’s really quite amazing to think that Hitler was aware enough of his unpopularity with his senior Prussian Junkers, as you term them, to consider bribery as a way to fend off reprisals. In fact, you suggest that Hitler may have indulged in this self-defense practice as far back as 1933, with Hindenburg.

A: Yes, Hitler used the chequebook a lot to secure the loyalty of his most senior officers. Von Kluge was just one egregious example. And I didn’t make this up.

Q: Another surprise (to this reader, at least) was Bernie’s commentary on the Gleiwitz Incident of August 1939, which led to what Bernie terms “the most egregious lie of the Second World War—how the war had started.” Now, is this commonly known and accepted by historians? It is pretty shocking!

A: This is well documented. The incident was partly dreamed up by Heydrich no less. And one of his junior SD officers—Schellenberg—was closely involved. It is all the more shocking because it’s true.

Q: Many of your fans here in the States (and elsewhere, no doubt) are excited at the prospect of Bernie Gunther’s adventures at long last being adapted by HBO into a mini-series. Are you able to provide any updates on that scenario?

A: Not really. Anything involving Hollywood lawyers seems to take forever.