A Crime In The Family by Sacha Batthyany

The Blurb On The Back:

In the spring of 1945, as the Red Army approached the village of Rechnitz in Austria, Countess Margit Batthyany hosted a party in her ancestral home.  Around midnight, the guests – German aristocrats and SS officers – left the castle and shot 180 Jewish labourers waiting in the village below.  The bodies disappeared into a mass grave: the massacre remained a secret for decades, until Countess Margit’s great-nephew began to ask questions.

This is the story of those questions, and of the answers Sacha Batthyany found: of how an atrocity was concealed and how it was uncovered.  It is a story of Nazi Germany, of the gulags of Siberia, of Budapest in the darkest days of the Cold War, of an Auschwitz survivor alive today in Argentina, and of whole generations of Europeans: monsters and heroes, executioners and victims.

A Crime In The Family is a singular and heart-rending true story, told by an extraordinary writer confronting not only his family’s past but humanity’s. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Journalist, Sacha Batthyany lives in Switzerland, which is where his Hungarian grandparents moved following his grandfather’s release from a Russian POW camp (his aristocratic family having lost everything when the Communists took over).  He thought he knew most of the family stories, but then a newspaper publishes a story about his great aunt (Countess Margit Batthyany) who apparently hosted a party for a number of high-ranking Nazi guests at her castle in Rechnitz, Austria in spring 1945 during which Margit and her guests allegedly murdered 180 Jewish labourers.  Horrified, he decides to investigate only to find that looking at one atrocity leads to the discovery of other family secrets that are almost as dark …

Sacha Batthyany’s non-fiction book (translated from German by Antha Bell) mixes memoir with history and self-reflection to mixed effect, in part because having set up the atrocity involving his great aunt, he drops it when his family say that Margit didn’t take part without really looking for any corroborating evidence.  Instead Batthyany digresses into reviewing the rough draft of a memoir compiled by his grandmother but left unfinished when she died, discovering her experiences both during and after the war including a reference to an atrocity she witnesses, which he then ties in with the experiences of Agnes, a Jewish girl who lived in the village near his grandmother and was taken to a concentration camp.  He uses this to explore his own feelings about the guilt and helplessness that came from both his family’s part in the War his grandfather’s experiences in a Russian camp, which involves Batthyany and his father going on a trip to see the actual camp.  The problem is that after a while it begins to seem uncomfortably narcissistic (although it’s understandable given that his family just don’t seem to want to talk about it) while his imagined scenes involving his family members discussing certain events are fake and unconvincing.  The message that seems to come out of the book is that everyone suffered both during and after the war and while it would be naïve to ignore the crimes of Stalin and the Russian Communist regime, I wasn’t comfortable with the clumsy attempt to put it on a level with the Holocaust.  Ultimately I wasn’t sure what Batthyany was trying to achieve with this book and I got the feeling that he didn’t know either.

A CRIME IN THE FAMILY was released in the United Kingdom on 9th March 2017.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

2 thoughts on “A Crime In The Family by Sacha Batthyany

  1. You wrote, “…while it would be naïve to ignore the crimes of Stalin and the Russian Communist regime, I wasn’t comfortable with the clumsy attempt to put it on a level with the Holocaust.” I’m not sure what you mean. Are you acknowledging that the Holocaust was terrible and the Stalin regime was even worse, and that you found the author’s attempt to find equivalence was clumsy?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi George

    Thank you for your comment – it’s a fair question as I wasn’t very specific.

    I think that in the context of this book the attempt to equate the Holocaust with Stalin’s regime was clumsy. That’s not because I have a specific view on whether one event was worse than the other (they’re both crimes against humanity and calculated evil and it cheapens the suffering of the victims of both if you boil it down to numbers or try to “score” the barbarity) but because when you read the book, the event that sparked it was the discovery by Batthyany about the alleged actions of his great aunt. He then apparently abandons that when his relatives said she probably didn’t do it and goes into the experiences of Agnes (which are all as awful as you’d expect) and then he draws in the experiences of his grandfather under Stalin’s regime which is also awful but when you track it from those two earlier sections then for me it didn’t quite sit right.

    I think that if he’d done a full investigation into the allegations of his great aunt and then had those segments then it would have come across as a more balanced read because you could contextualise it. The apparent refusal though to look at the potential war guilt in his own family and instead focus on his family’s suffering made it seem to me almost like he’s saying that potential war guilt should be discounted because of what happened after.

    Does that make sense?

    It’s a really difficult thing to explain because it’s such a strange book.

    Like

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