The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth (1972)

‘You youngsters today don’t realise what it is to be proud of being a German. It lights a fire inside you. When the drums beat and the bands played, when the flags were waving and the whole nation was united behind one man, we could have marched to the ends of the world. That is greatness, young Miller, greatness your generation has never known and never will know. And we of the SS were the élite, still are the élite.’ (p.292)

Forsyth’s follow-up to the sensationally successful Day of The Jackal (1971) and published just one year later, The Odessa File is also a historical novel – in fact set in the same year, 1963, as Jackal. It is also a ‘documentary thriller’ ie it is deeply based on real events, organisations and figures which require a good deal of factual explanation in order to situate the foreground narrative into the full historical, geopolitical and diplomatic context. So much so that, at numerous points, the book reads like an encyclopedia or a Dictionary of Nazi Biography.

In Jackal the reader has to be informed about the war of independence in Algeria and its impact on French politics in order to understand the plot – here, there is a great deal of background information about the SS, their crimes against humanity during the war, how many of their officers managed to escape at the end of the war, and about the secret organisation – the Odessa – which helped those escapees and which then continued to provide a support network to former SS men in post-war Germany.

The hero

Peter Miller is a successful German freelance journalist. He made a packet tracking down and selling early photos of the Beatles from their Hamburg nightclub days, so he can now afford to pick and choose his stories, which he then sells to glossy magazines. He lives in a penthouse apartment in Hamburg with his girlfriend, Sigi, a bosomy stripper at a local club. Although a man of the world with many contacts in post-war Germany, he is surprisingly ignorant about both Nazi crimes during the war and the extent to which contemporary German society is still riddled with former Nazis. On one level the novel is a pilgrimage, a journey to understanding, in which we follow the investigative journalist as he – to his horror – discovers the power and extent of the Odessa.

The Forsyth approach – ruthlessly honed

Nothing can match the hurtling pace of Jackal as the stories of the various characters all accelerate towards the fateful day of the assassination attempt. In The Odessa File the narrative is, to start with, more discursive and contingent, slower to coalesce – although right from the start Forsyth is keen to convey the high stakes of his narrative with a bit of classic thriller prolepsis.

It is always tempting to wonder what would have happened if… or if not. Usually it is a futile exercise, for what might have been is the greatest of all mysteries. But it is probably accurate to say that if Miller had not had his radio on that night he would not have pulled in to the side of the road for half an hour. He would not have seen the ambulance, nor heard of Salomon Tauber or Eduard Roschmann, and forty months later the republic of Israel would probably have ceased to exist. (p.14)

This paragraph reveals what is at stake in the book – former Nazis are supplying technology to help the Egyptian government build long-range missiles which they intend to pack with radioactive material and bubonic plague bacilli and rain down on Israel, destroying both people and country.

(On a psychological or style level, the first two sentences of this paragraph are interesting in that they are so obviously waffle – you skip through them in order to cut to the chase, to the facts. Pace Forsyth, there is in fact a thriving section of historiography dedicated to ‘counterfactual’ history, an entire intellectual discipline which has shed light on all kinds of historical events. Granted, it barely existed in 1972, but nonetheless those first two sentences are the sound of Forsyth dispensing with abstract thought, with intellectual matters, with the Imagination – in order to focus on his core offering – ruthlessly-honed, thoroughly-researched, relentlessly-focused factual thriller narrative.)

The plot

Freelance journalist Peter Miller is driving along the Autobahn when he hears the news of President Kennedy’s assassination (November 22 1963). He pulls over in shock. Because he is pulled over he sees an ambulance hurtling past. The journalist in him follows out of habit. The ambulance stops at a shabby apartment block. An old man has gassed himself. The police are on the scene and Miller recognises a detective he knows. He meets him a few days later for a drink and the detective hands over the diary of the old man, Saloman Tauber who, it turns out, was a Jewish concentration camp survivor. The journal is, understandably, harrowing stuff, describing what he witnessed in the Riga ghetto in Latvia, and singling out the SS commandant Eduard Roschmann for his cruelty and sadism.

Just as in Jackal, the narrative now divides into several streams which run parallel, but are joined by the same timeline, so you can see various protagonists, and the various strands of this complex international plot, as they interweave and slowly pick up speed. The plotlines are conceived with mathematical precision, fitting together, interlocking with the accuracy of an engineering blueprint.

  • We follow Miller as he explores the world of Nazi hunting in 1960s Germany. He uncovers widespread reluctance to talk about the past in German society at large – even in official organisations like the police or the state Attorney General’s office. Miller meets numerous people before encountering Leon and his Jewish Nazi-hunters – and making an ill-fated attempt to pose as a former SS man to infiltrate the Odessa…
  • We meet the German community in Cairo who are working with the Egyptian authorities to recruit German scientists to come help the Egyptians develop long-range rockets to attack Israel: their aim is to a) carry on Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews b) establish their reputation and begin to build up power again…
  • We meet the heads of the Israeli secret services, particularly Mossad, and are privy to their top secret meetings about how to deal with the Egyptian missiles, how to deter German scientists from joining the project, up to and including assassinating them…
  • We don’t quite meet the Americans but they are important in the larger diplomatic context: for JFK was leaning heavily on the German chancellor to supply Israel with tanks and munitions, which the Israelis desperately need, knowing they face attack from the Arab nations at any point. The Nazis hope that, with JFK dead, his successor Lyndon Johnson will put less pressure on the Germans to supply arms. For their part, the Israeli government must avoid embarrassing the German government for that will give the anti-Israel lobby the argument they need to cut off arms supplies to Israel. And this explains the official line that comes down from the Israeli Prime Minister, to all the security services, and down to the level of Leon and his group in Munich – do not hunt and pursue ex-Nazis, and do not carry out reprisals, as these will damage the high-level negotiations between the two governments and jeopardise the arms sales…
  • And we meet the head of ODESSA, the secret organisation of ex-Nazis in Germany, codename Werwolf, who alone knows that the MD of a popular radio factory is none other than the Eduard Roschmann Miller is looking for (his codename Vulkan) and that his factory is clandestinely developing the radio targeting devices which are all the Egyptians are waiting for to complete their anti-Israel missiles…

So, without knowing it, and simply out a sense that he ought to do something for old man Tauber, Miller sets out to find this commandant Roschmann and finds himself stumbling into a complex web of intrigue, involving a large number of institutions and organisations with competing agendas, and with agents from all sides following him and trying to stop him.

Forsyth is not shy about taking us into the innermost thoughts of the highest figures in the land – the head of Mossad, the Israeli Prime Minister, the head of Odessa. Maybe it is his journalistic background (Reuters, BBC) which makes him so confident at handling and describing in a straightforward, virile style the conversations, thoughts and actions of such a wide array of real, historical characters.

Also, it is impossible to tell from the text where real events and characters end and the fiction begins. Wikipedia tells me that Roschmann was a real-life figure and that his life on the run – assuming new identities, fleeing then returning to Germany – which Miller slowly pieces together from various sources, is completely true. Similarly, I knew that Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, was a real character. Presumably the heads of Mossad and so on are real, named characters, certainly the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, is.

The completeness with which historical events and characters are woven into the narrative gives the entire text an exciting sense of factual accuracy completely unlike any of the other thriller writers I’ve been reading. For long stretches it barely feels like a fiction, more like something you’d see in one of the double-page Sunday Times Insight investigative pieces – a dramatised version of completely authentic events.

Peter Miller’s story

Miller meets a succession of people in order to track down Roschmann – the Hamburg policeman, the Hamburg DA, the Z-Commission of Nazi hunters, the Jewish Archive, the Press officer in the British Embassy in Bonn, the long-standing British official Cadbury who kept personal files of the war crimes trials. This pilgrimage then takes him to London to meet Lord Russell, former legal advisor to the British Military Government, who remembers dealing with the Roschmann case after the latter was caught by Allied soldiers in December 1947. Russell advises him to seek Simon Wiesenthal, the noted Nazi-hunter. (How on earth did Wiesenthal feel about being cast into a novel, about having dialogue invented for him?)

The Wiesenthal sections consist of pure information, big slabs of backstory, as Wiesenthal fills the naive young reporter in on how tens of thousands of SS men prepared their escape from Germany well before the end of the war, were spirited south to Italy, helped by the German cardinal in Rome and often housed in Catholic monasteries, before being shipped on to South America using blank passports issued by the friendly authorities in Argentina. (Hence the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, in Buenos Aires in 1960.)

Wiesenthal advises Miller to try the Jewish Centre in Munich and here his request to the receptionist for information about returnees from the Riga ghetto is overheard by a survivor who introduces Miller to his organisation, a secret group of camp survivors dedicated to tracking down and killing former SS officers. Miller is blindfolded and taken to a safe house where the leader of the group, Leon, asks him if he is prepared to adopt a false identity and pass himself off as a former SS man in order to penetrate and expose the Odessa. When Miller agrees he is transported to the house of a repentant and reformed SS officer in Bayreuth where he undergoes intensive training. The false passport, the new identity, the haircut and new appearance, the training and preparation – are all reminiscent of the Jackal’s meticulous preparations before the assassination.

In this case, however, things go almost immediately wrong. Leon and his group forge letters of recommendation for Miller – now renamed Kolb after a recently deceased SS member whose identity they steal – to the local SS bigwig. What none of them know is that this man is also the Werwolf, the leader of the Odessa in Germany, who has been given the priority task by the Nazi leadership in South America with keeping Roschmann, in his guise as head of the radio factory, completely secure so he can finish the radio guidance system for the Egyptians.

Werwolf interrogates Miller – who has been well-briefed and passes scrutiny – then gives him a letter of recommendation to one Bayer who can provide safe accommodation in Stuttgart while they get the Odessa’s forger to provide Miller/Kolb with a new identity. But – in one of those accidental details which are so crucial in detective/thriller fiction – Miller can’t be bothered waiting for the delayed train to Stuttgart and so drives to Stuttgart in his distinctive black jaguar with a yellow stripe. Big mistake. He parks the car some distance from Bayer’s house but is seen by his wife out attending a charity do. Later Werwolf phones Bayer to check Kolb/Miller got there alright, and the wife answers the phone and says, ‘Yes, I saw him getting out of his car, a lovely English one, a jaguar.’ Yikes.

Parallel storylines

At a stroke Werwolf realises Kolb is a fake and is overcome with chagrin. For, in a parallel strand of the book, he has been receiving reports from around Germany that a nosy reporter is asking questions about Roschmann, and so he has activated the Odessa’s assassin, Mackensen, to find this troublesome reporter and liquidate him. And to think he had the man Miller in his front room for three hours masquerading as one of the Kameraden!

Werwolf rings Mackensen and tells him Miller is in Stuttgart, downtown with Bayer, a jolly fellow who has taken Miller into town to dinner and is getting drunk with him. Mackensen tracks the pair to Miller’s room in a seedy hotel but is not expecting what transpires – which is that Miller suddenly pushes the drunk Bayer into a chair, ties him down and begins to threaten him, demanding he tell where the forger lives. Miller is really very violent, beating Bayer and eventually snapping his little finger, at which point Bayer tells him the forger is named Winzer and lives in Osnabrück. Miller stuffs a gag in Bayer’s mouth, secures his bonds and disappears out the fire escape, walking to his car and setting off for Osnabrück.

It takes Bayer several hours to shuffle over to a bedside lamp, knock it to the floor and use a shard of broken glass from the broken bulb to cut his bonds. Finally he stands up, goes to the window and throws it open – only to be killed with one shot by the Odessa assassin who has been waiting all night at a window opposite for Miller to show himself. But even as he packs up his rifle, Mackensen knows he’s made a bad mistake. He reluctantly phones Werwolf who is enraged at his incompetence and orders him to follow Miller. Werwolf immediately phones Winzer in Osnabrück and tells him a nosy journalist with violent tendencies is on his way to interview him, and orders him to disappear into the Alps for a week’s ‘holiday’.

It is typical of Forsyth’s approach that, when the Odessa forger Winzer is introduced, we are given about ten pages detailing his entire biography from birth, paying special attention to the series of events which led him to become such a proficient forger, and a detailed account of  his work for the SS during and after the war. The forward momentum of the novel completely stalls while we read this, but it is presented so crisply and with such complete authority that it doesn’t damage the novel, on the contrary, like all the similar sections about how the SS escaped or how Israeli intelligence is structured, or how the Nazi cell in Cairo functions, it adds tremendously to the sense of documentary accuracy which characterises Forsyth’s books.

In another, parallel strand of the plot, when Leon, head of the Jewish group in Munich, contacted his controllers in Israeli intelligence and told them about the whole Kolb/Miller plot, the Israelis demanded a) that Miller not only find Roschmann, but go beyond that to get the names and contacts of all the senior figures in Odessa b) that they put their own man, identified simply as Josef, a trained agent, onto trailing Miller. Again, we get a potted biography of Josef, Mossad’s agent, as he packs and flies to Germany, land of the people he hates.

So as Miller drives to Osnabrück to find the Odessa’s secret forger, his steps are being dogged not only by an SS assassin, but also by an Israeli agent.

Miller goes to Winzer’s house and his flirtatious housemaid makes it plain that Winzer has been tipped off about his arrival and left, only 20 minutes earlier. Where? The Alps, which is too vague a location for Miller to pursue or track him down.

The gathering speed of Miller’s manhunt comes, temporarily, to a halt until, after some food and a rest, he returns and re-questions the housemaid who mentions Winzer’s aunt, lying dying of cancer in a sanatorium. Miller bluffs his way past the doctors, pretending to be the aunt’s nephew and questions her, eliciting the unexpected news that Winzer keeps a ‘file’ as insurance against being caught. Miller phones a burglar he knows, one of his many contacts in the Hamburg underworld, and persuades him to catch the train to Osnabrück to do a little job for him.

Together they break into Winzer’s house and crack the safe: the burglar keeps all the money, Miller takes Winzer’s file, the Odessa File, a list of all the SS men Winzer has forged passports for. Leafing through it Miller recognises Roschmann’s file, complete with all details about his new name and identity. Miller phones his girlfriend in Hamburg and asks her to drive to meet him and to bring with her the gun he keeps in his flat. When she arrives some hours later they have sex, almost as an aside he proposes marriage to her – then he drives off to confront Roschmann at the hilltop mansion of the now-rich industrialist.

At which point the narrative gets very tense and very complicated, and you’ll need to read it yourself to find out what happens in the final Grand Confrontation scene, and why Miller’s quest turns out to be not at all what it seemed…


Cars, planes, guns, ships, tanks. The detail and precision of naming and branding of boy’s toys is like an edition of Top Gear or a special Nazi supplement of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

On those winter manoeuvres in the woods around Bad Tolz, Top Sergeant Ulrich Frank commanded his first tank, an American-built M-48 Patton. It was his last manouevre with the Patton. Waiting for the troop back at camp was a row of shining brand-new French AMX-13s with which the unit was being re-equipped. Faster, more heavily armed than the Patton, the AMX would become his in another week. (p.149)

These tanks have a dual significance: they happen to be on manoeuvres and so hold up Miller in one of his various car journeys; but, although Top Sergeant Frank doesn’t know it, they are almost certainly among the soon-to-be-decommissioned weapons which are the subject of the diplomatic wrangles between Bonn and Tel Aviv. And, as it turns out, this tank is to be the subject of the final paragraph in the book, at the end of the epilogue which lists what became of all the characters in the book: this tank is traded to Israel and plays its part in the 1967 War, ending the novel with the image of it ‘caked with dust and oil, scored by bullets, its tracks worn to wafers by the rocks of Sinai’, rolling to a halt on the east bank of the Suez Canal.

Thus, even small details and episodes in the novel are drawn into the complex web of 20th century geopolitics which underpins the narrative at almost every step.

For a different kind of focus on technique, pages 251 to 253 give an unadorned, factual account of what you need to buy from which kind of store to make a home-made car bomb. Mackensen buys the ingredients and lovingly prepares one to blow up Miller’s car, with maybe predictably unintended consequences…

It is characteristic of Miller, and of this very male text, that the journalist is in love with his Jaguar which, initially, is deployed to give us a sense of his success and his young man’s enjoyment of shiny toys. Later it is used ironically by Forsyth, for it is Miller’s decision to use his car rather than the slow train which gives Miller away to Bayer’s wife and thus blows his cover before he’s even begun to infiltrate the Odessa. And it is in Miller’s car that Mackensen plants his home-made bomb, with explosive consequences… The car is a Jaguar SK 150S.

At a touch of the button the 3.8 litre engine beneath the long sloping bonnet of the Jaguar SK 150 S thundered once and settled down to its habitual and comforting rumble like an angry animal trying to get out of a cage. (p.14)

The movie

After the success of the Jackal novel (1971) and movie (1973), it’s no surprise that Odessa was snapped up and made into a movie, released in 1974, directed by Ronald Neame and starring Jon Voight.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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1 Comment

  1. A wonderful write up on one of my favourites by Freddie.


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