Always shades of grey in the black and white headline
Published 29/11/2012 | 08:00
I often think back to Paul Reinhards. That big, imposing man who lived in that equally big and imposing house in grey Gravesend and whose terrible secret, hidden for 40 years, I stumbled across all those years ago.
As a journalist, Paul Reinhards remains my greatest ever story. It had little to do with me.
I had to show none of the skills demanded by Grub Street to get it, no dogged determination, subterfuge in the name of the public interest, or even the wearing out of shoe-leather.
The story also found me within a year of my falling into the career of a hack and frankly, news-wise, it was a little too early to peak.
Still, it was a hell of a tale, as even my curmudgeonly news editor (20 fags-a-day and a whisky habit) had to admit.
'I'm no Nazi Slavemaster' was a headline I didn't expect to be reading anywhere near my name in the Gravesend Reporter (or Distorter, as local wags had it), but there it was on billboards across town.
That Friday in 1986, I toured the pubs and cafes just to watch people read my story. A thrill I have never forgotten.
For Paul Reinhards, a highly-skilled engineer, it was a different experience. Within hours, the media had gathered outside his anonymous, three-storey house. He was secretly filmed by World in Action shopping in the Co-op. Questions were asked in the House of Commons.
In truth, Reinhards knew the day would come. I got the story because I was the only one who gave the communist activist who cluttered up our reception at the newspaper peddling conspiracy theories the time of day.
When he thrust the piece of paper into my hand one day, the hare was running. The collapse of the Soviet Union had opened up long-secret archives that had fallen into the hands of the Nazi-hunting Simon Weisenthal Centre in the US.
In a month's time, they would publish a list of alleged war criminals living in the UK. Paul Reinhards, of Gravesend, Kent, was one of them.
There would be no need for an extensive trawl. He was in the phone book. One winter night, I knocked on his door, my heart pounding. It took an age to open.
Mr Reinhards? I'm a journalist, I have some questions to ask you, I said. You better come in, was all he replied. We talked many more times after that.
In the years since, I've had plenty of time to think about his story and I still don't know what to believe.
The charge was that, as the labour minister in the puppet Latvian government under the Nazis, Reinhards signed papers that sent at least 10,000 people to slave labour camps and almost certain death.
Reinhards denied the allegations strenuously; said he took the job to "soften the blow" of Nazi occupation and pointed to Soviet smears against a prominent supporter of Latvian independence as motivation for his name being leaked.
He died two years later, at the age of 87. In the meantime, I had almost become an expert on the history of the Baltic states during the Second World War.
To this day, I find it hard to put myself in the shoes of people who were the victims of two brutal (one Soviet, one Nazi) occupations within three years.
I don't defend what he might have done, of course. It was just a very early lesson for a callow young man that the truth cannot easily be written in a headline.