China’s War with Japan 1937 – 1945 by Rana Mitter (2013)

The aim of the book

Mitter is an eminent historian of twentieth century China and of the period leading up to World War II in particular. In his introduction he points out that the Sino-Japanese War – which lasted from 1937 and then became subsumed in the wider World War – is often neglected in Western historiography which, perhaps understandably, focuses on the war in Europe/Russia and on the American War in the Pacific: both perspectives tend to overlook the fact that the Chinese were fighting the Japanese for four long years before the Americans joined the struggle. By providing one continuous narrative of the entire Sino-Japanese War, as seen from the Chinese point of view, Mitter aims to redress this imbalance and tell this generally ‘untold story’.

The second main point, which emerges increasingly as the wider World War progresses, is that China – as the four-year adversary of the Japanese, and as the country responsible right to the end of the war for tying down some 500,000 Japanese troops as well as supplying men to fight alongside the British in Burma – deserved much greater representation in the meetings of the Big Three – Russia, America, Britain – which decided the fate of the post-war world. China was only invited to one, minor, Allied conference – held in Cairo – and was not invited to Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. To this day, Mitter claims, the lack of recognition of China’s part in the wider anti-fascist struggle, and then her deliberate omission from the meetings of the Big Three – which they think should have been a Big Four – rankle in the memory of educated Chinese.

It contributes to the smouldering Chinese sense that for a long, long time, for some 150 years, first the British and then the Americans assumed control and sway over the Pacific and all its peoples, and that Chinese interests and contributions were consistently ignored or trampled on.

Now, at last, in the 21st century, China is confident enough and powerful enough to begin to flex her muscles and assert her rights in the region. Which is why, Mitter argues, educated people in the West need to be aware of the often harrowing events of this brutal eight-year war, and of the emotional significance it still has for many Chinese, and how it still informs modern China’s attitudes and worldview.

The Sino-Japanese War

1. 1937 to Pearl Harbour (1941)

Having annexed neighbouring Korea (1910) and the huge northern province of China known as Manchuria (1931), the aggressively militarist Japanese Empire took the opportunity of a trivial border incident (at the so-called Marco Polo Bridge) to launch a full-scale armed invasion of China in July 1937.

When Japan attacked there were broadly three forces in China: the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-Shek (also known as the Kuomintang) which claimed to be the official government of the whole country; the smaller Chinese Communist Party – whose leaders included the up-and-coming demagogue Mao Zedong – and a number of regional warlords.

China was divided like this:

a) Because the latter part of the 19th century was marked in China by decades of civil war and administrative weakness. The biggest of these disruptions was the Taiping Rebellion, a vast civil war which dominated the 1860s and in which anything up to 100 million Chinese might have killed each other, and which people in the West have little awareness of. The rebellion had only been put down at the cost of giving autonomy to regional military leaders and it was this which established the pattern of ‘warlord’ control of some regions. A growing body of politicians, modernisers and revolutionaries all realised that the old imperial structures just couldn’t rule this huge country, and the turmoil eventually led to the overthrow of the Qing imperial dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of a republican government.

b) However, the nationalist revolutionaries proved incapable of preventing the country falling apart into a patchwork of regions controlled by local military leaders or ‘warlords’. Hence the complex geography and politics of the ‘Warlord Era’, 1916 – 1928.

Japan’s advance was swift not only because of China’s political, administrative and economic divisions but for the more basic reason that, under successive 19th century rulers, China had failed to modernise and keep up with the industrialised world. Convinced of their cultural superiority, of their lofty position as ‘the Heavenly Kingdom’, China’s rulers looked down on the big-nosed Europeans with their crude manners and obvious greed. Which turned out to be a mistake because the foreign devils (one of many discriminatory terms the Chinese use for non-Chinese) came armed with the benefits of the Industrial Revolution – steamships, guns, cannon, trains.

In the 1840s Chinese rulers found themselves forced at gun point to agree to treaties with Western imperialist powers – Britain, France, America – who secured for themselves coastal entrepôts (Hong Kong, Shanghai), exemption for Western citizens from Chinese law, but who (wisely) never made any attempt to colonise the vast peasant interior.

China’s economic and social backwardness contrasted with Imperial Japan, whose government realised in the 1860s that they had to keep up with the farangs by importing the best of Western know-how. The Japanese gave Westerners limited rights at certain specific trading ports but, more importantly, embarked on a wholesale reform and modernising of their technology and industry. By the turn of the twentieth century Japan combined an ongoing level of rural Asian poverty with surprising levels of urbanisation and industrialisation. This was brought forcefully home to everyone when Japan defeated Russia – itself arguably a vast, backward nation but still, in theory, European – in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Bolstered by this victory, Japan’s well-organised, well-equipped and well-managed army and navy went on to seize control of all Korea in 1910.

The disparity in cultural attitudes (Japan’s Big Yes to Western know-how compared to China’s lofty rejection), in their respective levels of industrialisation, and in central economic, political and military control, help explain why – when they decided to extend their occupation in 1937, Japan, with a population of just 72 million, managed to subdue China, with a population of about 520 million.

The war was marked early on by the Japanese massacre of the civilian inhabitants of the capital Nanking

and continued to be marked by extreme Japanese brutality and bloodshed, including the indiscriminate bombing of cities crowded with refugees – for example, the bombing campaign against the Nationalists’ temporary capital of Chongqing – which resulted in horrifying casualties.

The Nationalists themselves contributed to the mayhem with a ‘scorched earth’ policy, including burning some of their own cities to the ground before the Japanese could take them and – most notoriously – in 1938 breaking the dikes which held in the massive Yellow River. This created a truly epic flood over a huge area of central China which certainly delayed the Japanese advance but led to a mind-boggling 800,000 deaths from drowning, not to mention further deaths from disease and starvation.

The Communist forces, such as they were, had retreated deep into remote northern China in the long flight which their propaganda machine turned into the legendary ‘Long March’. About 70,000 communist cadres set out on it and maybe as few as 7,000 completed it, the rest dying or giving up along the way. Thus the bulk of the resistance to the Japanese invaders, of the actual fighting, fell to Chiang, his German-trained Nationalist forces, and whatever warlord allies he could press to help him (and who all too often let him down).

The whole story is a panorama of extraordinary chaos, suffering and death on a continental scale.

2. After Pearl Harbour

The story becomes a lot more comprehensible – and therefore interesting and memorable – once the Japanese have their bright idea to attack Pearl Harbour and declare war on the most powerful nation on earth. And Hitler decides – quite unnecessarily – to rally to their support and also declare war on America.

There had been an earlier turning point when the war in Europe broke out in September 1939 and Chiang’s Nationalists suddenly hoped for arms and support from the European democracies (who just happened to be the very same imperialist devils which Chinese nationalist propaganda had been reviling for decades). But, in the event, the supposedly all-powerful British Empire turned out to be weak – in fact, it was shown to be an essentially peacetime operation, able to carry out local police actions and just about manage a huge array of established colonial assets, but in no way ready for a war of aggression – unlike Germany or Japan. Britain herself struggled for survival in 1940 and ’41 and so the last thing on her mind was sending troops to the other side of the planet to fight in someone else’s war.

Pearl Harbour marked the beginning of the war for America, but was only a way station for the Chinese who had, by this stage, been resisting the Japanese for four long years. It would take three more bitter years to defeat them, with mixed results for Chiang’s Nationalists: on the one hand they now found themselves de facto allies of Britain and America in the war against Japan; on the down side, they now found themselves caught up in the very complicated diplomatic and military manoeuvering which took place even between the nominal allies Britain and America, with the added challenge of Stalin’s Russia, as well as coping with Mao’s communists and the Chinese collaborationist regime.

For one of the many untold stories which Mitter brings back into the light is the role of Wang Jingwei, at one time a colleague of Chiang’s, who was persuaded that the patriotic thing to do in order to prevent more loss of Chinese lives and destruction of Chinese land, was to co-operate with the Japanese. After agonising soul-searching – recorded in detail by one of his aides-de-camp, Zhou Fohai, in a diary from which Mitter liberally quotes – Wang agreed to fly back to the occupied former capital of Nanjing and allow himself to be set up as the Japanese-backed puppet leader of Occupied China – an equivalent of the Vichy Regime in France or Quisling in Norway.

The three years of the War in the Pacific are detailed in Max Hasting’s grim history Nemesis. Mitter usefully complements such Anglocentric accounts with his narrative of the ongoing battles – and the complex diplomatic manouevres – taking place in war-torn China.

One of the most interesting themes which emerge in the final part of Mitter’s book is that the various Chinese administrations – as they struggled to keep control of their areas and populations, to properly organise the collection of taxes, the feeding of soldiers, the distribution of the growing amounts of Allied aid – became progressively more centralised and relied increasingly on Terror as a political tool. Each of the three regimes set up secret police forces who used arbitrary arrest, torture and executions to intimidate dissident voices, each one headed by specific individuals – the equivalents of the Nazis’ Heinrich Himmler – who became notorious for their brutality and sadism. For Chiang’s nationalists it was Dai Li, for Wang’s collaborationists it was Li Shiqun, for Mao it was Kang Sheng.

And all three parties despised Westerners as culturally inferior, hated and bitterly resented the shame and humiliation they’d been subject to during the era of Unequal Treaties, and were – accordingly – contemptuous of the hypocrisy of Western ‘liberal, ‘democratic’ societies. None of them really understood the Western notion of democracy from below – the models of all three (as indeed of the conquering Japanese) was of top-down rule by a strong Leader – Generalissimo Chiang or Chairman Mao.

Given the huge political differences between all three factions and given the direct links between the Chinese Communists and Stalin’s Russia – Stalin told the CCP, basically, what to do – on the one hand, and the widespread corruption, brutality and inefficiency of Chiang’s Nationalists (to the many Americans who had experience of Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, he acquired the nickname ‘Cash My Check’) on the other – it’s no surprise that relations between the Western Allies and the various Chinese factions were fraught with misunderstandings, miscalculations, misgivings and mistakes, which Mitter records in great detail.

3. Conclusion

By the end of World War II, the sustained struggle against the Japanese had exhausted Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. By contrast the war had seen the growth in strength and confidence of the Communists who had been able to send out political cohorts to infiltrate broad areas of unoccupied China to spread their message of a revolution for the peasants, for the poorest of the poor.

It was also during the latter part of the war that Mao began to establish his grip on the Chinese Communist party through a programme of biting criticism and calls for ideological purity – the so-called ‘Rectification Process’ – which was the start of 30 years of intimidating, arresting and executing his opponents. As Mitter points out, the techniques which underlay the catastrophic Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s were first laid down in the early 1940s.

When the War in the Pacific came to an abrupt end in August 1945, the war for control of China still had four more bloody years to go, a ragged civil war in a shattered country which ultimately led to the complete seizure of power by the Communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. The remnants of Chiang’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where they rule to this day. As Mitter sums up – Chiang’s Nationalists won the war but lost China.


Related links

Reviews of books about other Asian wars

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

Related links

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

At Powayen near Königsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’, but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds to their tiny bodies.’ (p.75)

No summary can really do justice to the cumulatively devastating effect of reading the hundreds and hundreds of vignettes like this which Keith Lowe has assembled in his excoriating book about the moral, economic social and psychological collapse of an entire continent into bottomless savagery and barbarism.

Savage continent

There are countless books about the origins of the Second World War – histories of the alliances and invasions, biographies of Hitler and Mussolini, cultural studies of the 1930s – but comparatively few about how the war ended or its long-drawn-out aftermath. This book sets out to fill that gap and is a fascinating, well written and traumatising account which aims to cover every element of the catastrophe.

And it really was a catastrophe beyond comprehension. The book starts with hard-to-grasp facts about the numbers of people killed, soldiers and civilians, before going on to describe the physical destruction which touched every corner of the continent.

Death

Up to 40 million people died in the Second World War, an estimated 27 million of them Russians. About a third of all women born in the 1930s never married because there were no men – just a huge gap where all those dead men should have been.

Every schoolchild is taught that around 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, but the scale of other losses were comparable: Germany lost an estimated 4.5 million soldiers and 1.5 million civilians, roughly the same number. Poland also lost about 6 million dead; Ukraine between 7 and 8 million killed, a fifth of the country’s population. A quarter of Belarusians died. By 1945 huge areas of the East were nothing but smoking rubble and ruined fields and landscapes emptied of human beings.

Destruction

Hitler lost patience with the Poles after the Warsaw Rising and ordered the city to be razed to the ground. In the event some 93% of buildings were destroyed, along with the National Archive, Financial Archive the Municipal Archive, all libraries, art galleries and museums. Factor in Hitler and Stalin’s joint efforts to wipe out the entire professional class of Poland and the mass murder of all its army officers at Katyn, and it’s a surprise Poland still exists. Coventry was devastated as were London, and most German cities were destroyed though few as thoroughly as Dresden or Hamburg, where the notorious fire storm bombing killed some 40,000 in one night. About a fifth of all German living space was destroyed. Some 20 million Germans were rendered homeless. Maybe 70,000 villages across Russia were destroyed along with their entire rural infrastructure. Some 32,000 Russian factories were destroyed. In Hungary, the Germans flooded or destroyed every single mine. In Holland, the Germans deliberately opened the dykes that kept out the sea and flooded half a million acres of land. From one end of the continent to the other, the scale of the conscious and deliberate destruction of all signs of civilisation is breath-taking.

The more you read of villages, towns and landscapes obliterated, and historic towns razed to the ground, the more you realise that we latecomers live amidst the ruins of a once great civilisation. How did we ever survive?

Four parts

The book is divided into four big parts, each of which contains 6 or 7 sections. The quickest way to convey the breadth of subject matter is simply to list them.

  1. The Legacy of War – Physical destruction. Absence. Displacement. Famine. Moral destruction. Hope. Landscape of Chaos.
  2. Vengeance – The thirst for blood. The camps liberated. Vengeance restrained: slave labourers. German prisoners of war. Vengeance unrestrained: Eastern Europe. The enemy within. Revenge on women and children. The purpose of vengeance.
  3. Ethnic cleansing – Wartime choices. The Jewish flight. The ethnic cleansing of Ukraine and Poland. The expulsion of the Germans. Europe in microcosm: Yugoslavia. Western tolerance, Eastern intolerance.
  4. Civil war – Wars within wars. Political violence in France and Italy. The Greek civil war. Cuckoo in the nest: communism in Romania. The subjugation of Eastern Europe. The resistance of the ‘forest brothers’. The Cold War mirror.

Some themes

The subject matter, the scale of the disaster, is too big to grapple with or try to summarise. Lowe’s book itself is only a summary, a flying overview of a vast and terrifying continent of savagery, peppered with just a tiny sample of the endless torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, persecution, murder and violence which was unleashed across Europe. Some of the thoughts or ideas which stuck out more than most:

The myth of national unity After the war every country wanted to think well of itself. France is the most glaring example. In all his broadcasts General de Gaulle emphasised that La France was united in its fight against Fascism, the spirit of gloire and liberté etc etc was shared by all good Frenchmen. This ignored the fact that France, of course, enjoyed a right-wing government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards, dutifully rounded up French Jews and shipped them off to death camps, helped by collaborators at every level of French society.

De Gaulle’s success was that during the war and, especially, after the Liberation, he helped the French gloss over this shameful fact, and to promote the myth of the heroic Resistance. There were a lot of French resistance fighters (around 100,000), but the figure went up fourfold once the Allies landed and victory became certain (p.168). In later years almost every Frenchman turned out to have helped the Resistance in one way or another. In Yugoslavia Marshal Tito appealed to the spirit of unity and brotherhood in an attempt to unite the fractious factions of his made-up country. Stalin’s speeches invoked a united Russian people, and so on.

Reading about the foreign comparisons shed light on the strongly patriotic writings and especially movies of my own country, England, during and after the war, and made me realise that the national pride evinced in all those classic war movies was just the local expression of a feeling which nations all across Europe wanted to feel, and allowed themselves to feel, with a greater or lesser distorting of the truth.

Victimhood As a reader of the Guardian newspaper it’s often easy to think that modern society is made up entirely of victims – black victims of racism, Muslim victims of Islamophobia, women victims of sexism, LBGT victims of prejudice and so on and so on. Even bankers felt persecuted after the 2008 crash. Everyone in the modern world seems quick to have a grievance, a permanent readiness to feel hard-done-by or treated unfairly.

It is very interesting to discover that this is not a new phenomenon – to read Lowe’s examples of the way entire countries, and groups within countries, competed in the aftermath of the war to appear the bigger victims.

It is an eye-opener to learn that – after the hammering their cities took from Allied bombers, and then especially after the forced relocation of millions of ethnic Germans from the surrounding countries into the borders of a reduced Germany, combined with the industrial raping of German women by the invading Red Army – that a lot of Germans managed to present themselves as the victims of the Second World War. ‘They were only civilians. They never shot anyone etc. They never really supported that crazy Hitler and his stupid Nazi party.’

Similarly, many of the collaborators, the police and militias who co-operated with the occupying Germans in countries all across Europe, later, after the Liberation, were themselves subject to attacks or arrest and trial. This led many to work up a sense of grievance that they were the ones who were the true victims. They had only been obeying orders. If they hadn’t done it someone else would. They managed to restrain the wilder savagery of the Nazis. And so on and so on. It wasn’t us, really, why is everyone being so nasty?

Thus right-wing French historians and politicians have exaggerated the massacres carried out by the Resistance immediately following the Liberation, claiming they indiscriminately murdered 100,000 loyal, noble, patriotic French men and women. Similarly, modern right wing forces in Italy where partisans and collaborators openly fought after the Liberation, claim that the (generally communist) partisans killed up to 300,000. In both cases history is twisted to exonerate those who collaborated with the Germans, and to create a permanent sense of grievance which right-wing politicians can still appeal to, in our time.

Rape on a mass, on an industrial, scale. All sides committed rape but it was the Russian army, invading west into Germany, which wins first prize. As many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, but it’s the number of times they were violated which is really sickening, with some women being raped 60 or 70 times, sometimes scores of times on the same day, during the same horrific night. Every female from eight to 80 was at risk. As many as 100,000 women were raped and raped again in Berlin alone.

We can take it as read that rape is an instrument of war and/or terror, and occurs in almost all war zones. Soldiers can justify it because a) they despise the enemy and their women b) they may die at any moment and regard sex as their due c) it is a form of psychological warfare, humiliating a nation’s menfolk for being unable to defend their women.

Lowe points out that rape seems to occur where there is a significant ethnic difference between groups – thus the Russian forces which fought across Bulgaria committed relatively few rapes because of the close cultural similarities between the countries. Whereas, in the West, several Arab battalions became well known as mass rapists, for example the Moroccan Goumier battalions. At least part of the atrocity, Lowe claims, due to cultural difference.

Shearing women collaborators A surprising number of women in occupied countries fell in love with the German invaders. Lowe shocks me a little by claiming that various surveys at the time and later revealed this was because they found the Germans more ‘manly’ than their own, defeated and humiliated, menfolk (p.166).

One of the features of the Liberation from German rule everywhere was the punishment not only of collaborator administrators and police, but of the women who had slept with the enemy. Lowe describes in grisly detail, and includes photos, of the tens of thousands of women who found themselves attacked by lynch mobs who often stripped them naked and often shaved all the hair off their head as a mark of ‘shame’.

Where he adds an insight which is typical of the book, typical of its way of shedding new light in a sober, empirical way, is when he points out the psychological role these humiliations took. Many bystanders, including horrified British officers, realised that there was something medieval or even pagan about the ceremonies. The women were shaved with mock ceremony by the community barber, sometimes daubed with swastikas etc, but rarely really hurt, never beaten or killed.

And this is because, witnesses report, the shavings had something of a festival spirit, often accompanied by heavy drinking and folk or patriotic songs. By nominating one scapegoat to bear all the sins of the community, the taunting crowds could forget their differences, bury the hatchet, and renew themselves. Witnesses report a marked reduction in tension in places where the ceremony had taken place, and where shaved women could be seen in the streets. The angry, the potentially violent, could see that at least some justice had been done, goes the argument – and so more overt violence was avoided.

Weird, persecutory, grotesquely unfair? Yes – but that’s human nature. This book shows you who we are, the fierce, frightened animals which lie just beneath the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’.

Jewish restraint No need to reprise the horrors of the Holocaust here. Dealing with the aftermath, Lowe devotes some pages to the revenge taken by camp inmates on their guards and tormentors. Generally the Allies, taken by surprise by the scale and atrocity of the camps, allowed the inmates – or the few who were well and healthy enough to do it – to take what revenge they wanted. This happened in numerous places, and there’s a fascinating page about Abba Kovner’s ‘Avengers’, an organisation of Jews which explicitly set out to murder one German for every Jew. They massacred garrisons of German soldiers where they could and were only just foiled in a grand plan to put poison into the drinking water of five German cities.

But by and large Lowe emphasises the restraint which Jews exercised. There’s a telling quote from the US General Lucius Clay, that the restraint of the liberated Jews and their respect for law and order were one of the most remarkable things he saw in his two years in Europe (p.89). All the more striking, given that virtually every other social group seems to have been hell-bent on some kind of revenge, revenge against collaborators which sometimes escalated into overt civil war, as in Greece (1946 to 1949), or was only just contained, either by Allied forces (as in Italy) or by the brutal crackdown of communist authorities (as in Tito’s Yugoslavia).

All the more striking given Lowe’s pages devoted to highlighting the way vicious anti-Semitism continued and even increased after the war in various countries, where civilians were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, told them to their face it was their own fault, or explicitly blamed them for the start of the whole war (p.191).

Ethnic cleansing Part three is devoted to this subject in all its disgusting variations. 11 million Germans were forced to move, kicked out of western Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, often at short notice, often forced to march carrying all their possessions. Lowe gives harrowing details of the old and sick dying early on, then Polish or Soviet soldiers picking off the walkers, sometimes just for kicks, firing at random at anyone who was too tall or too slow, or just firing into the columns of shuffling refugees and, of course, routinely pulling any pretty woman out of the crowd and raping her, often in sight of everyone, and shooting anyone who tried to interfere. In Europe as a whole an estimated 40 million people were displaced – on the roads – at one point or another.

Many people were surprised by the ferocity of the small wars which broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but this book makes clear that they were just the continuation of feuds and enmities stretching way back into the 1930s, and which flared up with particular horror all through the war and well into the post-war period.

Even worse was the mass expulsion of Poles from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland, as Stalin and the Polish leaders each sought to ‘purify’ their lands. Defence organisations, bandits and partisans sprang up, one atrocity sparked reprisals and all sides adopted a general policy of terror ie not just the killing but the torture, rape, looting and destruction of completely ‘innocent’ communities. Again and again, all across the continent, as soon as you had successfully ‘dehumanised’ your opponents, you could do what you liked with them.

In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of women and castrate the men. In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims. In Chelmon concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees. In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half. (p.50)

The book pullulates with examples of the most grotesque atrocities. No sadistic cruelty the human mind could devise went unexampled, uncarried-out, in this grotesque era.

Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism One theme Lowe repeats again and again is that whatever barbarity you can think of, it was ten times, or a hundred times, worse in the East. Everything here reinforces the horror depicted in Tim Snyder’s terrifying book, Bloodlands, which gives figures for the mind-boggling scale of murders, executions, holocausts, pogroms, persecutions, and deliberate starvation which devastated the region from the Baltic states down through Poland and the Ukraine from the later 1920s until well after the war.

It is fashionable to ridicule the kind of old-fashioned English patriotism exemplified in Cecil Rhodes’ quote: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ That’s certainly silly if it’s interpreted to mean an Englishman has some innate superiority over other races. But in a context like this, bombarded with details of the atrocities almost every group on the continent carried out against everyone within reach, you realise it’s a simple statement of fact.

Britain was the only region not occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets, the only area which didn’t experience systematic terror, the creation of bandit and partisan groups outside the law, which didn’t suffer from collaborators and then experience the breakdown of civil society which led to civil war and mass atrocities.

To be born an Englishman in the first half of the 20th century really was a lucky fate compared to being born Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, German or Jewish.

The Iron Curtain Partly this is because the East was closer to the monstrous Russian bear, in its even-more-brutal-than-usual Soviet incarnation. Lowe’s book gives heart-breaking accounts of how communist parties in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia conspired to intimidate or murder opponents, make false promises to peasants and workers, fake election results, bribe and threaten their way to key ministries and then engineer communist takeovers of power which led in a few short years to the attainment of a completely communist Eastern Europe under Stalin’s iron control.

What I didn’t know was that partisans who had learned their trade resisting Germans during the war, continued in some of these countries a heroic anti-communist resistance, pathetically hoping for intervention and liberation from the West, well past the end of the war, sometimes into the 1950s. Apparently, the last anti-communist partisans in Lithuania weren’t completely stamped out (ie killed) until 1956 (p.356). Lowe describes how the memory of their stand against communism, led them to become folk heroes, subjects of songs and poems and books, and then, when the Baltic states gained independence in the 1990s, heroes of the new nations.

Nationalism Lowe doesn’t draw out this point, but I would: Nationalism is probably the most vicious belief ever to grip the human mind. It emerged from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and spawned a century in which ‘nations’ across Europe decided they needed to be ‘free’. It was Serbian ‘nationalists’ who kicked off the Great War which led to the final collapse of Europe’s multicultural empires, and the world we find ourselves in today is still dictated by the fragmentation of these empires into so-called ‘nations’, each one of which wants to represent one ‘national’ spirit, one language, one religion, one army, strong and proud etc etc.

The murdering, raping, torturing, crucifying, throwing from buildings and beheadings which we see in Iraq and Syria are the long-term consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the failure of the Allied attempts to draw lines and define new ‘nations’ in a world plagued by ‘nationalism’. The French and British imperial authorities are routinely ridiculed for drawing neat lines on the map of the Middle East during the Great War, creating ‘nations’ which arbitrarily separated some ethnic or religious groups and just as arbitrarily pushed others together, storing up ‘trouble’ for the future.

But what lines would be better? What lines would prevent Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Sufi, Druze and Maronite, Jew and Arab, spending so much time and effort trying to murder each other in order to ‘purify’ their territory, once the poison of nationalism took hold – once the delusion that you should live in ‘nations’ made up of ‘your own’ people takes hold among political leaders?

Closer to the terrain described in Lowe’s book, we celebrated when the East European countries threw off the shackles of communism 25 years ago. But they have experienced a steady drift to the right over the past decade, under governments which have responded to economic difficulties and geopolitical uncertainty (Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis) with stock appeals to national unity and pride etc, swiftly followed by its ever-present zombie twin – threats against ‘the enemy within’, against ‘subversives’, against anyone who undermines the ‘glorious values of the heroic fatherland’ etc etc, gypsies, Jews, gays, religious and ethnic minorities of any description, anyone who can be safely bullied and persecuted.

Conclusion

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany is such a well-worn story – both my children had to study it at school and could recite it like a fairy tale, ‘the Reichstag fire, blah blah blah’ – that it seems to me to have been almost emptied of content and relevance. All those textbooks and documentaries didn’t stop the Bosnian Serb Army from rounding up and exterminating more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica or bombarding Sarajevo.

By contrast, Lowe’s careful, scrupulous and judicious overview of the chaotic forces unleashed by the Second World War, and which lingered on in violence, hatred, blame and revenge for years afterwards, has much more to teach us about contemporary Europe and the worrying threats it still faces today.

This is a really important book which deserves to be widely read.


Credit

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe was published by Viking in 2012. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst (2006)

Furst

Furst’s novels are all historical spy adventures, set in Continental Europe, often in Eastern Europe or the Balkans, in the dark days before the Second World War and on into the early years of the conflict. They feature fairly ordinary, everyday guys who become reluctantly embroiled in ‘spying’, in its unglamorous, everyday forms – receiving and passing on information, meeting people from foreign powers who slowly take control of your life, who persuade you to take risks you’d prefer not to. So:

  • In Blood of Victory (set in late 1940 and 1941) the Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, finds himself slowly drawn into a plot to sink barges in the Danube river to choke off Nazi Germany’s supply of oil from Romania.
  • In Dark Voyage (set over two months in 1941) grizzled Dutch merchant captain, Eric DeHaan, finds himself reluctantly recruited into the Dutch Royal Navy and carrying out a number of clandestine voyages, ferrying Allied soldiers, arms and equipment on a number of hazardous missions around the Mediterranean.

The Foreign Correspondent

Although they go off on missions to the East, many of Furst’s protagonists are based in Paris, safe haven for many exiles as the grim 1930s progressed. This novel, though it features trips to Berlin and Prague, is more rooted than most i the boulevards and cafés of the city of light, and includes a map of Paris at the start, with key locations in the story marked on it.

It follows the ‘adventures’ of Italian émigré journalist Carlo Weisz. He’s landed a good job as Paris correspondent for Reuters, where he’s looked after by an understanding manager, Delahanty, who doesn’t mind that in the evenings Weisz helps write and organise an anti-Fascist, anti-Mussolini freesheet, Liberazione, cobbled together by half a dozen Italian refugees who meet at the Café Europa, the galleys then smuggled to Italy, where it’s printed and distributed via an informal network.

The text is divided into four long parts, within which the numerous sub-sections are simply divided by line breaks. As with all Furst’s novels, these short sections come with date stamps  and sometimes precise times of day, to convey the pace of events, and give a sense of urgency and thrill.

The narrative covers events between 4 December 1938 and 11 July 1939, ie the dark slide towards war, and features the following true historical events:

  • The Nazi occupation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia, beginning 15 March 1939
  • Victory of the Nationalist (fascist) forces in the Spanish Civil War on 1 April 1939
  • 7 April the Italian navy bombarded the coast of Albania, then invaded
  • Signing of the Pact of Steel, 22 May 1939

Dark times, darkly captured and broodingly conveyed.

1. In the Resistenza

We meet Weisz in Civil War Spain, as that conflict grinds to an end, accompanied by the veteran female journalist, Mary McGrath, and driven around by a driver provided by the Republican side. They visit the front lines, are shot at by Nationalist soldiers across the river, then briefly interview the legendary ‘Colonel Ferrara’, an Italian commanding an International Brigade on the Republican side, then drive off to the nearest town to file their reports.

Back in Paris, the high profile Italian exile, vociferous opponent of Mussolini, and editor of Liberazione, Bottini, is assassinated by agents of OVRA, while in bed with his mistress Madame LaCroix. It is a warning to other exiles, and we are introduced to the head of the little squad which carries out the execution, an Italian nobleman and committed Fascist, Count Amandola. But as Mme LaCroix happens to have been the wife of a French politician, this prompts the French police to open a murder investigation which will wind on for the rest of the narrative.

Thus it is that on returning to Paris, Weisz discovers Bottini to be dead and is offered the editorship of Liberazione by the small band of exiles, led by Arturo Salamone, and which he reluctantly accepts. He feels it is his duty, and he is a good journalist, he should be able to manage. The meeting is followed by a short text which is the ‘report’ of ‘Agent 207’, summarising the decisions of the meeting. Aha. One of them is a spy, or at least an informer, passing on his reports to OVRA.

Soon afterwards, in a Paris bar, Weisz bumps into an acquaintance from his two years of study at Oxford, Geoffrey Sparrow, who is accompanied by his petite girlfriend, Olivia. She enjoys flirting with Weisz, who finds himself entranced by her ‘smart little breasts’ (p.43). They go on to another bar where Sparrow accidentally-on-purpose introduces Weisz to a ‘Mr Brown’, an obvious British agent (which we know for sure since we’ve met him in previous novels). So – the old friend act and the flirting were designed to ‘ensnare’ him. At this stage it’s just an introduction and an agreement that they’re on the same side, but we all know something more will come of it…

Weisz is invited to room 10 of the Sûreté National offices, to meet the French detectives investigating the Bottini murder. They let it be known that he’s being watched, and mention that an Italian official was recently expelled from France. Was that a threat or a tip-off? As so often in Furst, the main character is puzzled about what’s going on, about the deeper or ‘hidden’ meaning of sometimes the simplest conversations. As exiles, most of his protagonists are at the mercy of ‘the authorities’ and live with a permanent sense of insecurity.

Finding himself the attention of the British and French security services, and probably of OVRA into the bargain, Weisz not unnaturally becomes convinced he’s being followed, narrowing it down to a man in a check jacket who keeps popping up behind him in the street, then on the Métro. It’s mildly ironic then, when a completely different man leans over him in the Métro carriage and slips him an envelope before quickly exiting the carriage.

Weisz brings the envelope to the next meeting of the Liberazione group at the Café Europa, where it turns out to contain detailed technical specifications for what looks like a torpedo, the writing in Italian. A new design for an Italian torpedo? Who was the man who gave it to him working for? Is it a trap? Is the door about to burst open and French police find them with the evidence that they’re spies, so they’ll all be shot? Or is it a genuine bit of clandestine information but – who should it be passed on to? The French authorities? The British? Mr Brown?

This is typical of the fog of uncertainty in which Furst’s characters (and the reader) move. Also typical is the low level of suspense: it doesn’t feel like it matters all that much, and the group decide to burn the document quickly, which they do. And nothing happens. No police burst in. The man who gave it to Weisz never reappears. There are no repercussions at all. The novels are full of mysterious threats and loomings.

Weisz regularly fantasises about sex. He imagines making love with Sparrow’s girlfriend. He thinks about calling up his old girlfriend Véronique for sex. He fantasises about his lazy landlady Madam Rigaud, who has accidentally on purpose bumped his ample hips against him many a time. He remembers the myriad highly erotic encounters with his former German lover, Christa von Schurr. He remembers having sex with the well-known British spy and recruiter, Lady Angela Hope, who – apparently – made a great deal of noise, ‘as if he were Casanova’, twice, before attempting to wangle Italian state secrets out of him (futilely, it turns out). He goes to sleep.

2. Citizen of the Night

The Reuters man in Berlin, Wolf, is getting married and going on honeymoon, so Weisz’s boss, Delahanty, sends him to Berlin to cover. We have been privy to Weisz’s sensuous memories of making love with Christa – now he sees the assignment to meet her again. Sure enough, as soon as he contacts her she comes to his hotel room, and for the rest of his stay they meet every afternoon to enjoy a sequence of pornographic encounters, livened up by varieties of underwear and positions, and the ability to perform time after time. Underwear, panties, bra, camisoles are described in loving detail.

In between sex sessions, Christa invites Weisz out to a remote fairground where he is introduced to an unnamed man (p.88). He hands over a list of Nazi agents who have penetrated to high position in Italy, lots of them, over 150. Weisz is left wondering: Has Christa only revived the affair to ‘recruit’ him for her people, to make him a conduit to a free press outside Germany? What is he expected to with the list? Weisz experiences a familiar feeling of perplexity.

Furst’s men (they’re all men) move rather dreamily around Paris and other European capitals, cocooned in an atmosphere of good food, fine wines, bars and cafés high and low, seeming to end up in bed with a steady stream of uninhibited, easy and sexually inventive women, but plagued by obscure meetings and ambiguous conversations which leave them permanently puzzled about what they’re meant to be doing, and for who…

Germany threatens to occupy the remainder of Czechoslovakia which Hitler hadn’t already seized as a result of the Allied betrayal during the Munich Crisis (August 1938). And so Weisz’s boss tells him to pack and go by train from Germany to Prague to record the event.

He travels down with two other journalists, Hamilton of The Times and Simard from Havas, but the train is stopped by the Germans at Kralupy, before it reaches Prague. The three journalists pay the very reluctant town taxi to drive them through snow to the capital, the driver grumbling all the way. They’re still driving slowly around town when two students bundle into the car carrying a Nazi flag which they’ve torn down. Seems like a student prank for a few moments until a Gestapo car swings after them and starts shooting, bullets through the windows, little Simard gets injured and there’s frantic argument about how to tie a tourniquet. The taxi driver skedaddles through Prague’s snowy back streets to an old stables which the students know about, and where they help them hide out till the cops are gone.

In a separate plotline S. Kolb, a seedy little man who works for the British SIS (and who we have met in previous books) is despatched by his masters to track down Colonel Ferrara who we met in the opening pages. Ferrara had managed to escape from Spain after Madrid fell and the Spanish Civil War ended in March 1939. Kolb tracks him to a French internment camp near Tarbes, in the south, then bribes the camp’s commandant with a lot of francs to let Ferrara free.

At first sceptical that he’s going to be shipped back to Italy, Ferrara lets himself be persuaded into a taxi to a station, and then onto a train to Paris. Here Kolb fixes him up with a room at the Hotel Tournon and it is here that Weisz is introduced to him, via Mr Brown.

Mr Brown explains to Weisz that ‘they’ would like him to write Ferrara’s biography, the biography of an Italian patriot and hero who resisted Mussolini. Ferrara agrees; later, when Weisz puts it to the Liberazione group, they also agree. So Weisz gets into the habit of going every evening, after his main day’s work, to the Hotel Toulon, there to smoke lots of cigarettes and type up Ferrara’s life story.

In short order, Weisz dumps his Paris girlfriend, Véronique and buys a typewriter in a flea market. He uses it to type out copies of the list of Nazi agents in Italy which Christa gave him back in Germany and which he carried round Prague and back to Paris. He’ll post copies to the British and French authorities – the flea market typewriter was so they couldn’t match it against his own typewriter, if they manage to trace it to him,

This section closes with Furst giving us a brief sketch of the Liberazione‘s distribution network in Italy: the conductor on the Paris-to-Genoa train; Matteo, who works at the printing works of Italy’s second newspaper, Il Secolo and slips printing the free sheet in between bigger jobs; Antionio who drives a coal delivery truck from Genoa to Rapallo and takes copies with him; Gabriella and Lucia, 16-year-olds in a convent school in Genoa who help distribute free copies; ending with readers like Lieutenant DeFranco, a detective in the rough waterfront area of Genoa, who enjoys reading the copy posted in the police station’s lavatory.

3. The Pact of Steel

Back in Paris. Véronique phones to tell Weisz that a threatening man came to cross-question her about Weisz and Liberazione, pretending to be – but obviously not – a member of the Sûreté. The Liberazione group meet and discover that Salamone has been dismissed from his job. The threat from OVRA seems to be looming from different directions. Agent 207 reports the meeting.

Weisz is despatched by his Reuters boss to cover the crowd assembled outside the hotel where King Zog of Albania is discovered to be staying. King Zog shows himself at the balcony, some cheer, some throw bottles, the crowd turns ugly and Weisz is suddenly hit very hard on the head, by some kind of sharp but heavy implement, regaining consciousness on the floor and helped to a nearby café by a cop. Staggering home, he fears he’s being followed. Was it an OVRA attack? A random bit of thuggery?

Next evening he meets up with Ferrara to move the book forward, and finds Kolb and Brown there. They go to a ‘mad’ nightclub up in Pigalle, where the girls dance naked except for shoes. Here Ferrara picks up a fetching naked girl called Irina. The reader suspects this will end badly: possibly she, too, is an OVRA agent or will lure him to a sticky end…

News comes in to Reuters that Mussolini’s Foreign Minister, Count Ciano, is flying to Berlin to sign a so-called ‘Pact of Steel’ between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Delahanty orders Weisz back to Berlin to cover it for the Italian point of view.

While Weisz is packing a new guest at the hotel looms menacingly at his door and we strongly suspect something bad is going to happen to Weisz, when the old hotel retainer Bertrand arrives puffing and panting up the stairs with Weisz’s plane tickets, thus saving him in the nick of time. The novels are full of close shaves, what-might-have-beens, or even perfectly innocent events which we – sharing the protagonist’s paranoia – think of as unnecessarily sinister. Thus in a hundred little ways, we enter the atmosphere of fear and suspicion which the characters move in…

Back in Berlin, Weisz gets a cryptic message from Christa inviting him to a party at a friend’s house. When he arrives at the apartment given on the invitation, there is no party and the door is open. He tiptoes through eerily empty rooms suspecting something bad has happened and, again, the reader is thinking the worst. But Christa is simply lying in bed, naked. She had fallen asleep. They have sex several times, as she explains that she thinks she’s being watched and so arranged this rendezvous at the apartment of a friend.

Weisz is an eye witness of the signing of the Pact of Steel at a formal hall in Berlin. Up till this moment the Italian exiles Weisz moves among have been hoping Italy will somehow keep out of Hitler’s mad plans, especially as Mussolini is on record as saying Italy wouldn’t be ready for war until 1943.

Weisz notices the changed atmosphere in Berlin, the number of uniforms on the street – SS, Gestapo, Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Hitler Youth and so on, the expectation of violence. Then he’s back in bed with Christa.

Idly, he trailed a finger from the back of her neck down to where her legs parted, and she parted them a little more. (p.186)

When his trip ends he is upset, kisses Christa goodbye in the street, she walks away and out of sight, and he wonders if it’s forever. Oddly, as in all these Furst novels, I had absolutely no sense of emotional involvement or upset whatsoever. I see the logic of these characters’ emotions – but I don’t feel them. For me, these novels are like diagrams of emotion and feeling. Blueprints.

Back in Paris Weisz discovers the café where the Liberazione group meet has been burned down. Salamone has had a heart attack. Things are not looking good for our little group. The same man who pretended to be a Sûreté officer to interview Véronique, turns up at Elena’s workplace, the Galeries Lafayette, asking about her. Infuriated, Elena tails him through the Métro back to 62 Boulevard de Strasbourg. There’s a card claiming it’s the office of a photo agency. Next day Weisz rings the number on the card and establishes it’s an obvious front, they know nothing about press photos. Then Weisz goes along himself and finds letters in the postbox with Croatian names and addresses. Possibly agents of the Croatian Ustasha, sub-contracting to OVRA.

4. Soldiers for Freedom

Weisz and Ferrara continue working on the biography. Weisz reads in a newspaper a small article about a spy circle in Berlin being rounded up and imprisoned. His heart stops, as he thinks it must be Christa and her circle – and from this point onwards, for the last 60 or so pages of the novel, its protagonist’s overwhelming motivation is to find out what’s happening to Christa and try to ensure her safety.

Mr Brown takes Weisz to meet a ‘Mr Lane’, obviously a more senior SIS figure, who talks him into considering expanding the Liberazione operation, increasing the print runs, expanding the distribution network. Now that Mussolini is an official ally of Hitler, Britain will put more effort into trying to undermine his regime. But Weisz can only think about Christa.

Taking the initiative regarding the threat from OVRA, Weisz makes an appointment to see the inspectors investigating the Bottini murder. He takes along a case full of evidence about the phony Sûreté guys, and the evidence suggesting they are Ustashe agents operating illegally in France. They are interested. ‘Leave it with us; we’ll be in touch.’ At their next meeting they show Weisz photos, some of which he identifies as the men he’s seen. This confirms something the detectives knew (though they’re very vague about it to Weisz). As a sort of reward, they tell him there’s an OVRA agent within Liberazione, Zerba the art historian. Weisz is shocked, and so is Salamone when he tells him later. The latter’s first reaction is to kill him, but the police and Weisz had said No, let him continue  his activities.

Weisz has made a decision about the British suggestion to increase Liberazione activity: he asks Kolb if he can organise a meeting with his boss, Mr Brown. Here he asks if the SIS can find out Christa’s situation. Brown grudgingly agrees, but insists that, in return, Weisz a) hurry up and finish the Ferrara book b) agrees to go back to Italy to organise the printing and distribution of Liberazione on a much larger scale and in the process c) is seen, spreading the rumour of defiance, raising morale among the anti-Mussolini opposition.

Tense climax

And so the last forty pages of the novel follow Weisz’s tense journey across the border, to Genoa and then to clandestine meetings with the distribution network, as he pays Matteo to find extra capacity at the print works, meets an underworld fixer, Grassone, who can supply newsprint by the ton, and then is taken to meet an old Genoese criminal who is prepared to rent him a huge underground vault to operate in.

They’ve just been shown round the vault and emerged into the daylight into a busy marketplace, when rough hands are placed on Weisz’s collar and he realises a policeman is arresting him. He tries to get away, but is slapped and kicked to the ground and finds himself wriggling under a market stall. The cop is tugging at his legs when suddenly the market traders start throwing things at Pazzo, who turns out to be the well-known and much-hated local cop, such a barrage, that Pazzo is forced to turn and flee.

Leader of the vegetable throwers had been a huge old lady, Angelina. She picks Weisz up and dusts him off and then takes him off through a maze of alleys to a church, where she hands him over to Father Marco for safekeeping. Weisz realises he can’t go back to the hotel, so he’s abandoning his things and in fact the entire project.

Was he betrayed? Was it a misunderstanding (surely the OVRA would have sent a whole squad of heavies not a fat local policeman)? Who cares. Now he’s going home. But when he goes down to the docks to try and board the Hydraios, sailing back to Marseilles, part of the carefully worked out plan – he finds that the slack dock passport controller, Nunzio, has been joined by two serious looking detectives. There is no way through without being cross-questioned and arrested. Forlorn, he watches the ship slip its moorings and sail away.

Promptly Weisz abandons Genoa. He has money and so he buys a completely new outfit and travels to the resort of Portofino where he puts himself about among the rich tourists, hoping to get himself invited aboard one of the many rich tourists yachts. He fails with the Brits and the Americans, but then scores a success with the party of Sven, a self-made Dane, who shrewdly realises he’s in trouble but invites Weisz to join their yacht party anyway.

As if by magic, a few days later Weisz is back in Paris. And the last pages cut to Berlin where Kolb has been sent to extract Christa. Although she is being followed everywhere by the Gestapo, Kolb has a taxi driver follow her when she takes a group of Hitler Youth girls out to a lake (where many of them strip naked and frolic in the waves, to Kolb’s delight). He hisses at Christa from the treeline, and persuades her to come there and then, clamber into the boot of the car, be driven to a safe flat, where they’ll change her appearance, give her new papers and smuggle her into Luxembourg.

On the very last page Weisz arrives tired and demoralised back at the Hotel Dauphine, his Paris base, and the landlady. Madam Rigaud, tells him a new guest has checked in, a German countess, who seemed keen to see Herr Weisz. She’s put her in room 47.

Never has a man run up flights of stairs with such enthusiasm! To a joyous happy ending.


A web of characters

Blurbs on the books tend to praise the tremendous ‘atmosphere’ of Furst’s historical novels. I personally don’t find them ‘atmospheric’ so much as stuffed with an amazing grasp of historical detail and an astonishingly large cast of characters.

The novels feature not just the main protagonist (always a fairly average, if foreign, bloke: Serebin, DeHaan, Weisz) but a realistic web of secondary, tertiary and minor characters, many of whom only appear in fleeting scenes, but are given vivid thumbnail descriptions, quick lines, enough to make an impact and create the sense of a fully-populated imaginative world.

This way that the novels just teem with people and takes us to a wealth of urban settings and locations, helps the novels read like life, like confused, hectic, twentieth-century modern life in big cities, in huge industrialised nations lumbering towards war.

Characters

I set out to make a list of all the characters which appear in the book and was amazed at just how many of them there are.

  • Carlo Weisz, Italian émigré journalist, Paris-based correspondent for Reuters news agency, who works part time producing Liberazione, an anti-Mussolini free sheet.
  • Hotel Dauphine, Weisz’s home in Paris.
  • Madame Rigaud, landlady of the Hotel Dauphine, broad-hipped and complaisant, about whom he has vivid sexual fantasies.
  • Ettore, il Conte Amandola, agent of OVRA, the pro-fascist agency.
  • OVRA, the Organizzazione di Vigilanza e Repressione dell’Antifascismo (p.98)
  • Bottini, émigré lawyer from Turin and outspoken critic of Mussolini, he is assassinated by OVRA agents in the opening pages.
  • Madame LaCroix, Bottini’s plump noisy mistress. The OVRA agents murder her in bed with Bottini and make it look like he killed her then committed suicide, in order to achieve maximum humiliation of the anti-fascist figurehead. However, Mme LaCroix happened to be married to a French politician minister, and this draws the French Security forces into an investigation of her death, which will eventually draw Weisz into collaborating with them.
  • Staff of the Liberazione freesheet, who meet in the Café Europa:
    • Arturo Salamone, former insurance salesman in Italy, now main organiser of the paper
    • Sergio
    • Elena, fiery little exile
    • Michele Zerba, art historian from Siena (p.239)
  • giellisti (p.8) collective name of the opponents and resisters of Mussolini’s fascism, a conflation of Giustizia e Libertà (p.220).
  • Agent 207 – spy inside Liberazione group, we read his reports of the secret meetings immediately after they’ve happened – obviously he or she is one of the core members. Towards the end of the novel we learn the agent is Zerba, the art historian. (pp.29, 152)
  • confidente – Mussolini’s secret police / secret agents.
  • Mary McGrath, a veteran correspondent in her 40s (p.13) a journalist who we meet accompanying Weisz in Civil War Spain.
  • Sandoval, Spanish driver, assigned by the Republicans to drive Weisz and McGrath around the battlefield and to nearest towns to file his copy.
  • ‘Colonel Ferrara’ – nom de guerre of an Italian hero of the Great War who became an anti-Mussolini  figurehead and volunteered to fight in Spain, where has become a legendary figure (p.18). Kolb buys his freedom from a French internment camp and accompanies him to Paris where Weisz is engaged to write his heroic biography, Soldier for Freedom.
  • The military censor in Castelldans (p.24)
  • S. Kolb (p.50), a meagre little man, his career at a Swiss bank was ruined after he was (unfairly) caught embezzling money, then recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service, after which he has been thrown into all kinds of perilous situations. In this novel he is given the money to purchase Colonel Ferrara’s freedom, brings him to Paris, settles him in a safe apartment and supervises Weisz writing his biography.
  • Commandant of the French internment camp near Tarbes where Ferrara is being held.
  • Hotel Tournon – the Paris hotel Kolb books Ferrara into.
  • Monsieur Devoisin, a permanent undersecretary at the French Foreign Ministry, who Weisz visits for official briefings (p.61).
  • Irina – one night Ferrara, Weisz and Kolb go to a nightclub to blow away the blues, to the Club Chez les Nudistes, up in Pigalle, where the girls wear only high-heeled shoes and are illuminated by blue lights. She seduces Ferrara on the dance floor and quickly becomes his beloved – ‘she is my life. We make love all night.’ (p.235)
  • Véronique, one of Weisz’s lovers, works in an up-market art gallery (p.132). He has some dainty sex before formally dumping her as his affair with Christa re-ignites.
  • Delahanty, Weisz’s boss at Reuters Paris bureau (p.27)
  • Geoffrey Sparrow, Oxford friend of Weisz’s (p.41)
  • Olivia, Sparrow’s flirtatious girlfriend (p.43)
  • Edwin Brown, ‘Mr Brown’, an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS (p.44).
  • Mr Lane, Brown’s superior in SIS (p.219)
  • Sir Roderick (p.233). We don’t get his last name. Lane refers to him as the head of SIS, also mentioned in previous books.
  • Count Polanyi, well known Hungarian spy (pp.48, 125)
  • Nicholas Morath, his nephew and central character in Kingdom of Shadows (p.125)
  • Lady Angela Hope, the dashing British spy and recruiter who the text goes out of its way to make clear Weisz made love to, very noisily, twice (p.49).
  • Inspector Pompon of the Sûreté National who interviews Weisz in room 10 of the imposing Interior Ministry on the rue des Saussaies (p.63).
  • Inspector Guerin, Pompon’s partner (p.223).
  • Eric Wolf, Reuters man in Berlin, getting married, going on honeymoon in Cornwall for a fortnight, Weisz is sent to Berlin to cover for him (p.70).
  • Christa Zameny, Weisz’s passionate lover, who married German count von Schirren some years before (p.75). When Weisz appears in Berlin they immediately, with barely a word spoken, resume their careers as championship sexual performers, Christa’s panties and bra repeatedly falling to the floor, ‘her breasts shining wet in the light’ (p.85).
  • Gerda, German secretary at Reuters Berlin office.
  • Dr Martz, cheerful Nazi official at the Berlin Press Club.
  • Ian Hamilton, journalist from The Times (p.98) on the short trip to Prague.
  • Prague taxi driver.
  • The two students in Prague.
  • Brasserie Heininger (p.124) the glitzy night-life bar and dance floor which appears in every one of Furst’s novels.
  • Moma Tsipler and his Wienerwald Companions – a Viennese Jazz band who’ve appeared in previous novels and are in residence at the Brasserie Heininger during this one.
  • Louis Fischfang (p.125) film scriptwriter and a lead character in The World At Night and Red Gold.
  • Voyschinkowsky, known as ‘the Lion of the Bourse.’ (p.125)
  • André Szara, protagonist of Furst’s second novel, Dark Star (p.125).
  • Cara Dionello, rich Argentinian, part of the Polanyi party (p.125).
  • King Zog of Albania, in exile in Paris after the Italians seize Albania (p.156)
  • Matteo, printer in Genoa who uses his job as cover to print copies of Liberazione before getting it clandestinely shipped off round Italy.
  • Antonio, truck driver who delivers Liberazione from Genoa to Rapallo
  • Gabriella and Lucia 16-year-old schoolgirls who help distribute Liberazione.
  • Lieutenant DeFranco, detective in the rough waterfront district of Genoa who enjoys reading Liberazione (p.139)
  • Gennaro, transport policeman on the Paris to Genoa train (p.171)
  • Perini, owner of Perini’s barbershop in the rue Mabillon (p.143).
  • Bertrand, loyal old porter at Weisz’s hotel, the Dauphine (p.176).
  • Adolf Hitler, bounding up and down with happiness after signing the Pact of Steel (p.184).
  • Count Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister (p.184).
  • The assistant manager of the Galeries Lafayette, nicknamed ‘the Dragon’ (p.194).
  • Old Madame Gros, secretary at the Galeries Lafayette (p.195).
  • Grassone, ‘fatboy’, huge underworld figure in Genoa (p.253).
  • Emil, slick underworld fixer in Genoa (p.255).
  • ‘The landlord’, owner of the old wine cellar which Weisz can use as a base for the expanded printing of Liberazione (p.263).
  • Pazzo, the local bully boy policeman who tries to arrest Weisz in Genoa (p.265).
  • Angelina, immense woman wearing a hairnet who retaliates against Pazzo and secures Weisz’s freedom (p.266).
  • Father Marco, who gives Weisz sanctuary after Angelina has got him away from the local police (p.267).
  • Nunzio, easy-gong customs officer at Genoa docks.
  • Klemens, former German street fighter now agent for SIS, driver of the car in which Kolb collects Christa and spirits her away from her watchers (p.274).

Nets and webs

The novel is, in other words, populated by an amazingly intricate web of characters who are shown interacting in a multitude of expected or unpredictable ways. For me, Furst’s novels have complexity instead of ‘atmosphere’. It’s the sheer proliferation of characters, with numberless walk-on parts for taxi drivers, bartenders, customs officials and so on, which gives the novels their extraordinary sense of range and their imaginative suasion.

As explained in reviews of his previous novels, I don’t find Furst’s novels particularly thrilling for most of their length – not until the deliberately exciting final chapter or so. For most of their length they consist of accounts of meetings, interviews, rendezvous, the handing over of documents, discussion of secrets, making of arrangements and so on, in offices, street corners and cafés. And the making love.

Fine food They routinely feature rather sumptuous descriptions of meals at fancy restaurants (at the Ritz hotel in Paris, the Adlon in Berlin, the famous Brasserie Heininger) accompanied by fancy cocktails or champagne.

Sex And of course, the novels are laced with descriptions of knowing, sensual sex with one of the hero’s various lovers or mistresses (Marie-Galante in Blood of Victory, Demetria and Maria Sombel in Dark Voyage, and the very sensuous and imaginative Christa von Schirren in this novel). We read descriptions – muted tasteful descriptions – of Weisz having sex with Véronique, with Lady Angela Hope, with Christa, or fantasising about having sex with little Olivia or his Paris landlady.

He knew what she liked, she knew what he liked, so they had a good time. Afterwards, he smoked a Gitane and watched her as she sat at her dressing table, her small breasts rising and falling as she brushed her hair. (p.32)

In Furst’s fiction, you’re never far away from silk bras or panties suavely slipping off smooth flesh.

After a time, she moved her legs apart, and guided his hand, ‘God,’ she said, ‘how I love this.’ He could tell that she did. Sliding down the bed, so that her head was level with his waist, she said, ‘Just stay where you are, there is something I have wanted to do for a long time.’ (p.181)

Good living The fine food, the champagne cocktails, the beautiful women stripping down to their cami-knickers in each novel tend to counter-balance – or even outweigh – the rarer action scenes: the strange men following the hero down a darkened street, the shots from the police as they crash a roadblock, the dive bombers attacking the naval convoy. Much more often you get paragraphs like this:

She stood and took off her jacket and skirt, then her shirt, stockings and suspenders, and folded them over the top of the chaise longue. Usually she wore expensive cotton underwear, white or ivory, and soft to the touch, but tonight she was in a plum-coloured silk, the bra with a lace trim, the panties low at the waist, high at the hip, and tight, a style called, Véronique had once told him, French cut. (p.94)

Sensual and soft More broadly, if something actually violent isn’t happening (which it generally isn’t) Furst’s general purpose setting is noticeably sensual and gentle. It’s not just the sex and fine wine which contributes to the sense of softness about the novels, it’s the default attitude which is – oddly given the subject matter – consistently sweet and gentle.

All his life he’d gazed at rivers, from London’s Thames to Budapest’s Danube, with the Arno, the Tiber and the Grand Canal of Venice in between, but the Seine was queen of the poetic rivers, to Weisz it was. Restless and melancholy, or soft and slow, depending on the mood of the river, or his. That night it was dappled, black with rain and running high in its banks… (p.123)

Very often poetic and wistful:

For a time, Weisz just stood there, alone on the wharf, as the crew disappeared up the flight of stone steps. When they’d gone, it was very quiet, only a buzzing dock light, a cloud of moths fluttering in its metal hood and the lapping of the sea against the quay. The night air was warm, a familiar warmth, soft on the skin, and fragrant with the scents of decay; damp stone and drains, mud flats at low tide.
Weisz had never been here before, but he was home. (p.246)

It is these kind of cadences which give the novels, overall, a dreamy feel which I think explains why the reader is rarely really gripped by the storyline, but is more often absorbed by the endless variety of new characters, interested in the depictions of real historical moments and geopolitical developments – and lulled by the rhythms of much of the prose.

At times this rises to overtly physical descriptions of food or sex but, even in the absence of those obvious highlights, is everywhere characterised by a kind of sweet and gentle sensuality, which helps make the novels such easy, interesting, sexy and rewarding reads.


Credit

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst was published in 2006 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst (2000)

Furst’s sixth novel follows the adventures of Nicholas Morath, an aristocratic Hungarian who has secured a French passport and lives in Furst’s favourite city, Paris, where he has a half share in an advertising company, the Agence Courtmain. His uncle, Count Janos Polanyi de Nemeszvar, also lives a very comfortable life in Paris.

In the first few pages we see Nicholas arriving, after a trip abroad, at the apartment of his South American lover, Cara, who has been wondering whether to masturbate in his absence and then asks him which role he’d like to play with her – wicked old uncle, slavemaster, ‘perhaps something from de Sade’.

Not to be outdone, on page seven the Count receives in his office the famous chanteuse Mimi Moux, at her usual hour, who strips to her underwear then kneels before him, undoes his fly and performs oral sex. Later, there is dinner – chicken soup with dumplings and cream, and a bottle of 1924 Echézeaux. Mmmm yummy.

Furst is touted as an author of spy novels, but I find his descriptions of sophisticated sex, often with role-playing and numerous positions, along with the descriptions of delicious-sounding European meals and fine wines, and the many sequences of sauntering around beautiful Paris in the sun or the rain or the snow, all go to make up a unified, sensual and imaginative whole, a sex fantasy Paris which no amount of cloak and dagger incidents in Eastern Europe can really dent.

Tourist Furst outweighs spy Furst. Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that there are several magazine articles devoted to helping tourists find the real-life settings of Furst’s Paris locations.

The Munich Crisis

The novel opens on 10 March 1938 and focuses on the gathering international crisis over the Sudetenland ie the strip of Czechoslovakia bordering Germany and Austria which had a large ethnic German population and was given to Czechoslovakia after the Great War. Once Hitler was in power (1933) he began making speeches calling, among other things, for the Sudetenland to be handed back to Germany. After he annexed Austria in March 1938, Hitler’s calls became more strident and threatening. Since both France and Britain had guaranteed Czechoslovakia’s borders, all Europe held its breath expecting war to break out at any minute.

Half way through the novel come British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s humiliating trips to Germany to meet Chancellor Hitler and try and find a way out of the impasse. On the third trip, to Munich, on 30 September 1938, Chamberlain caves in to all Hitler’s demands, namely the handing over of the entire Sudetenland to Germany, and persuades the French to acquiesce also.

It is against this backdrop that Nicholas carries out various undercover missions to Eastern Europe, which are both tense in themselves and also give the characters opportunities to comment on the international situation, what it means for them and their countries – always a fascinating aspect of Furst’s fiction. In fact, Furst’s ability to imagine himself back into the minds of educated people at the time of these events who have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next and who speculate about the changing scenarios as the situation evolves – will Hitler end up ruling all of Europe? will Britain make a separate peace with him? – is, for me, the most rewarding, the most thought-provoking aspect. of Furst’s novels.

Morath’s missions

  • A trip to Antwerp, ostensibly to see a client for the agency, where he also touches base with a dressmaker who has information about German industrial output.
  • A long elaborate trip to Ruthenia, an area on the borders of Hungary and Romania, to collect a thuggish villain named Pavlo and smuggle him under a false passport over the border into Hungary. After he has shot an innocent taxi driver, had a small shootout with border guards and swum the river to freedom, Morath gets him on the train to Paris where he promptly vanishes leaving the reader no idea why Morath has gone to all this effort.
  • Another long journey to Czechoslovakia and into the Sudetenland, where he is shown the extensive defences the Czechs have built into the mountains to hold up the Germans attack long enough for France and Britain to come to their aid. During this trip he and his guide, Novotny, and a small village of Czechs come under prolonged attack from ethnic German (Volksdeutsch) militia, who burn down the police station and kill various Czechs. Nicholas is only able to escape when the attack withdraws the next day. He is carrying detailed sketches of the mountain defences with a view to publicising them back in the West.
  • On a journey to Hungary to ask his mother to flee the country with him (she refuses) he is also tasked with collecting money from rich donors (what for is never clearly explained) but after picking up a briefcase of cash from Prince Hrubal in a castle, Nicholas is ambushed by the Siguranza, the Romanian secret police, who beat him up and throw him in a cell. After interrogation, he is being moved to another station when there is an armed attack on the railway station where he’s standing with his captors, most of whom are shot dead, as Nicholas is spirited away in a fast car, has his handcuffs cut off and is transported safely back across the border.

During these adventures, we learn a lot of background information about all sorts of aspects of East Europe, from the food, the landscape to, of course, the political issues: about the Croatian fascists – the Ustache – about the chequered attempts of the Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy to bend to the Nazi wind without completely capitulating to them, about the all-pervasive anti-semitism of Eastern Europe.

But no matter how fraught these trips, the reader can have confidence that Nicholas will always return to the warm willing body of Cara or – after her father, Señor Dionello, appears and insists she leave Paris and return to South America with him – of the next pretty girl Nicholas effortlessly seduces.

He kissed her, reached over and undid her bra, she shrugged her shoulders, he tossed it on a chair. Some time later, he hooked a finger in the waistband of her panties and slid them down her legs, slow and easy, until she pointed her feet so he could get them off. (p.44)

In the latter parts of the novel various strands come together in quite puzzling ways. The French authorities start calling Morath in for questioning about the incident in Romania. The Count suspects this is the work of his colleague in the Hungarian Legation, Sombol, and one fine day goes to his office, asks him to stop interfering and then shoots him in the head. Unbelievably, he persuades the French police that this was suicide, but nonetheless disappears shortly afterwards, missing, presumed dead.

Certainly dead enough for Nicholas to inherit his estate and wealth, to the accompaniment of various celebratory parties – a posh one among the Hungarian émigré community in Paris, and a small one for Nicholas and his new squeeze, Mary Day, a senior figure at his advertising agency, who he finds himself seducing/falling in love with, who buys him a special cream cake to celebrate his inheritance and then allows him to lick the cream off her nipples.

Not that Morath doesn’t still have various missions to undertake: one to Antwerp to a family firm of diamond traders, to convert the money he collected in the Hungary sequence form various donors: this will be converted to diamonds and smuggled to America as funds to be saved against the very rainy days which are coming.

Early in the novel Nicholas had been tasked with finding a safe apartment for a senior German officer supposedly to have romantic rendezvous in; about half way through the book the Count told him the officer is somehow linked to the Wehrmacht’s attempts to get rid of Hitler.

As we all know, these didn’t work, which might explain why Morath is called from his warm bed one night to help the landlord dispose of the body of a senior German officer – not the man it was rented for – who has apparently shot himself in the apartment.

In a later vignette, Morath reads that the man he helped smuggle out of Ruthenia in the opening scenes of the book was in fact an assassin and terrorist, involved in numerous outrages – including the assassination of an anti-German journalist in the Luxembourg Gardens – but was later arrested in Romania and found hanged in his cell.

In the final sequence, a well-known Hungarian Jewish émigré, a musician who’s made it big in Hollywood, Kolovitzky, is at one of the parties Morath attends. Next thing Morath hears, Kolovitzky has travelled to Vienna under the impression that he’s inherited several properties there. Big mistake. It’s a scam. He is arrested by the SS who demand a ransom from his family.

Kolovitsky’s family approach Morath to beg his help and so he undertakes a mission with various helpers who we have been introduced through the novel: the Russian barman Boris Balki, the Jewish fixer Rashkow, and the middlemen, Wolfi Szubl, who found the German officer his apartment.

This motley crew are involved in a Mission Impossible-style rescue of Kolovitzky from the hotel in Vienna where he’s being kept under guard (along with other Jewish hostages), which Morath manages by starting a massive fire and panicking the SS guards.

After more episodes involving fake identities and rendezvous with diplomatic cars, Kolovitzky is finally smuggled across the border into Hungary, from where he and Morath catch a train back to Paris and then – at last – Morath can get back into bed and snuggle up next to Mary Day’s lovely bottom.

Paris

Paris is a major character in the novel, in fact in most of Furst’s novels – arguably far more real and present than most of the second-string human characters.

The rain slackened, that afternoon, Paris a little triste in its afternoon drizzle but accustomed to weather in the spring season and looking forward to the adventures of the evening. (p.7)

They walked in the Palais Royal gardens after lunch. A dark afternoon, perpetual dusk, Polanyi and Morath like two ghosts in overcoats, moving slowly past the grey branches of the winter parterre. (p.14)

Morath had been eighteen years in Paris and the émigré life, with its appetising privacy, and immersion in the city, all passion, pleasure and bad philosophy, had changed the way he looked. It meant that women liked him more… (p.19)

Paris that September was tense and brooding, on the edge of war, darker than Morath had ever known it. The retour, the return to daily life after the August vacation, was usually a sweet moment in Parisian life, but not that autumn. (p.139)

Morath had always liked the Novembers of Paris. It rained, but the bistros were warm, the Seine dark, the lamps gold, the season’s love affairs still new. (p.176)

‘Monsieur Morath – Nicholas, if you don’t mind – this is Paris. If you want to fuck a camel, all it takes is a small bribe to the zookeeper. Whatever you want to do, any hole you can think of and some you can’t, it’s up in Pigalle, out in Clichy. For money, anything.’ (p.75)

This fetishising of a city, this making it into the theatre of all your darker fantasies, into a bottomless pit of depravity and corruption, reminds me of the way Len Deighton writes about Berlin in his nine Bernard Samson novels.

It would be interesting to compare and contrast the way the two writers make use of a major city – as a location and backdrop, as a place to be physically criss-crossed in the course of the hero’s adventures, and so as a kind of grid or matrix for the narrative to be woven onto, as well as a psychological fantasy world where all our – the readers’ – naughtiest thoughts can be acted out and vicariously satisfied.

For me, living in boring, workaday London, Furst’s Paris and Deighton’s Berlin sound amazing – the settings of non-stop parties, orgies, cabarets and endless intrigue and adventure. It would be interesting to know what people who actually live in those cities make of their fictional portraits. I wonder if any German critics ever reviewed Deighton’s Berlin novels, or what French critics make of Furst’s Paris.


Credit

Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst was published in 2000 by Victor Gollancz. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (2010)

In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people.

In 400 pages of densely packed text, illustrated by numerous maps, backed up by 40 pages of bibliography and 40 pages of notes, American historian Timothy Snyder places the Holocaust within the broader context of the planned and institutionalised mass murder of civilians undertaken by the Soviet and Nazi regimes between 1933 and 1945.

The Ukraine famine He points out that Stalin and the Soviet apparat began killing people in bulk before Hitler even became Chancellor. In fact Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 coincided with, and helped to conceal from public interest, the vast famine Stalin caused in the Ukraine which led to the deaths of over three million people. Hunger was the most consistent tool used by both dictatorships to kill millions, as many as seven million victims.

The Nazi Hunger Plan I don’t think I knew about the Nazis’ Hunger Plan, a deliberate scheme to starve to death all the Russians in the area they invaded in the first winter of the attack on Russia (1941). Hitler intended to destroy Poland and Russia as states, exterminate their ruling classes and intelligentsia and then, in that first winter of conquest, deliberately starve some 30 million Slavs to death. Tens of millions more would have been killed or enslaved in what would have become permanent slave colonies supplying the Fatherland.

Nazi mass murder of Soviet POWs Snyder calls Operation Barbarossa – the Nazi invasion of Russia – a ‘fiasco’ for the complete dysjunction between plan and achievement: Russia didn’t collapse, the Red Army fought on with growing confidence, and the Nazis didn’t seize vast stocks of food to feed their army and people. But they could starve to death the Russians under their control and so they did. Russian POWs were corralled into prisoner of war camps which were mostly just barbed wire around empty fields, with no toilets or shelter and no food. Here Russian POWs were crammed, sometimes packed so tight they couldn’t move let alone sit, and then left to die, the living skeletons trampling over the growing mound of corpses. Snyder describes these (as all the other killing methods) in unsparing detail. Over three million Russian POWs are estimated to have died of starvation and exposure, as deliberate German policy.

The scale of the killing, the number of individual tragedies encompassed by these numbers, dwarfs anything else in human history until the great disasters of Mao’s China.

A hecatomb of examples

  • The flower of Belorusia’s literary culture deliberately exterminated: 218 of the country’s leading writers were all executed.
  • Ten thousand Poles of the officer class executed in the Katyn Forest, followed by mass killing of schoolteachers. The Nazi plan was for Polish children to be brought up to understand enough German to obey orders and to count to 20. Nothing more. A slave nation.
  • Over three million Ukrainian peasants were deliberately left to starve once it became clear Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation of farms had backfired and catastrophically reduced, not increased, harvests. Cannibalism became widespread, parents ate their children, children ate their parents, brothers ate sisters. Visitors to the region became used to seeing bloated corpses littering the streets. NKVD and communist officers were given quotas of peasant ‘saboteurs’ and ‘spies’ ie anyone who complained about starving to death – to be captured, interrogated and shot.
  • More broadly, during the great leap forward of the Soviet collectivisation of agriculture over five million starved across the USSR in 1932 and 1933. Starved to death.
  • When the NKVD ran low on bullets thy made prisoners sit side by side so one bullet could be fired through two or more skulls simultaneously, then tipped them into the mass graves.
  • Order 00447 ‘On the operations to repress former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements’ (dated 30 July 1937) led to the execution of nearly 400,000 Soviet citizens in 18 months in 1937 and 1938.
  • It ran concurrently with order 00485, mandating the ‘total liquidation of the networks of spies of the Polish Military Organisation’, issued 11 August 1937. Quotas were issued to all NKVD offices throughout the USSR to capture, interrogate, despatch to the gulag or just execute a fixed number per week; if you didn’t fulfil your quota you yourself would be arrested. Since there was in fact no Polish Military Organisation, the NKVD had to manufacture networks of spies by arresting anyone with a Polish name, who had Polish relatives, had been to Poland or worked for Poles, then extracting confessions under torture.
  • Evgenia Babushkina wasn’t Polish, she was a promising organic chemist, but her mother had once been washerwoman for Polish diplomats and so she was arrested and shot. One of millions.
  • Sometimes more than a thousand death warrants were signed by NKVD authorities per day, and then rubberstamped en masse by their superiors. It was hard to find secure places to execute so many people, and vast areas of mass graves had to be organised outside major settlements throughout the USSR. Work work work.

I gave up listing even random examples. There are too many, too many statistics on every page. 33,761 people, the entire Jewish population of Kiev, was forced to march to the Jewish graveyard, stripped of their valuable and clothes, forced to lie face down on the still warm corpses beneath them, and machine gunned through the head. Then another line. Then another. Then another. For years. In Europe’s killing fields.

He has a way with days:

  • On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed in all the pogroms in the whole history of the Russian empire. (p.227)
  • On any given day in autumn 1941, as many Soviet prisoners of war died as the total British and American POW deaths in the entire war. (p.182)

Comment

This book sheds new light on well-known events because:

  • it brings together into one gruesome continuum Soviet and Nazi killing, usually kept separate
  • it uses newly accessible and translated archives all across Eastern Europe and Russia to give a detailed account of Soviet mass murder, and to put precise numbers to the Nazi killings
  • its focus on the Bloodlands – a broad loop of territory from the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) down through roughly Poland and east through the Ukraine to the Black Sea – unify the story and show how the competing dictatorships learned from each other, shared murder techniques and bureaucratic procedures

It is a transformative book, completely reshaping how you think about these events, placing them in completely new contexts and prompting new thoughts and insights, about the dictators’ aims and strategies and how these changed in the stressed, pressure-cooker atmosphere of the 1930s.

In its thoroughness and its presentation of unstoppable facts and statistics of mass murder, on every page, it drives the reader down and and further down into the deepest pits of hell, till you almost feel like one of the countless thousands, tens of thousands, of children thrown alive into the death pits and buried alive by the bulldozers.

Utopias of blood

But mostly it reinforces the terrible truth that all powerful leaders with utopian visions for transforming societies, always seem to start by having to murder some, then many, and then millions and millions, of their own citizens in order to get to the Promised Land of their dreams – but never do. All they leave behind is mountains of skulls – in Poland, Ukraine, Belarusia, China, Cambodia, Rwanda.

Building a paradise on earth is difficult, given that even building a house is demanding, raising healthy, happy children is well nigh impossible. But burning down houses, villages, entire towns – shooting, gassing and starving unarmed civilians. Easy peasy. The lazy way out.

Snyder’s long concluding chapter engages with various commentators on modernity or the industrial state or theorists of totalitarianism like Hannah Arendt. But maybe it’s just laziness and stupidity: neither Stalin nor Hitler were great thinkers, they were great manipulators of people’s stupid fears and stupid utopian hopes: ‘if only we can get rid of the Jews-kulaks-saboteurs-right deviationists etc, we’ll all be rich, everything will be better, we can sleep safe in our beds.’

Thus they tried to get rid of the bourgeoisie in Mao’s China and the the urban intellectuals in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Tutsis in Rwanda and the Croats and Bosnians in Greater Serbia, and now they are trying to get rid of the ‘infidel’ in the ‘caliphate’.

Primitive tribal fear of ‘the other’, shaped by dictators into genocidal violence. And when you’ve killed this lot of suspects and things don’t get better, well, it must be because of deeper conspiracies, of darker forces undermining the Volk or the People or whatever gibberish you’ve manipulated your people into worshiping – so that calls for another round of purges, killing and purification.

The hardest thing for humans seems to be accepting the otherness of other people, other beliefs and other traditions, of living and letting live – but the societies which manage to be truly tolerant and multicultural (the Ottoman empire in its heyday, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the British empire, the vast, diverse federation of American States) seem to be precisely the ones which last longest and give its inhabitants the best lives.

Related links

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)

Poland, September 1939, a nation being carved in two by the German Wehrmacht invading from the West and Stalin’s Red Army invading from the East. This, Alan Furst’s third novel, follows the adventures of Alexander de Milja (pronounced Mil-ya, p.24), a captain in Polish Military Intelligence, who is among the many Poles who vow to fight back against both invaders.

The novel is divided into five long sections.

1. The Pilava Local

The Germans have reached Warsaw. They are fighting their way through the streets. De Milja is summoned from his defence of the Warsaw telephone exchange to meet Colonel Anton Vyborg. (We met Vyborg towards the end of the previous novel, Dark Star, when he and the journalist hero Szara fled before the invading forces at the start of the invasion ie the scenes involving him here take place only a few days after is scenes in Dark Star. Characters are interlinked. History is interlinked.)

De Milja is tasked with finding a train to carry Poland’s entire national gold reserve south to Romania. This he does, his men concealing it under the floor of ordinary carriages, and then filling up with refugees at Warsaw station before a long journey south, punctuated by an attack by a German fighter plane, which leaves numerous dead and injured, and later, a holdup by violent Ukrainian bandits, which leaves more dead. Eventually they make it to the Romanian border and both refugees and the gold are allowed in.

2. Room 9

October 1939, Poland has fallen. From the safety of Romania de Milja returns into Poland, first to make sure his mentally ill wife is alright, at her asylum, then to set up a network in occupied Poland. The underground is to be called ZWZ, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej – the Union for Armed struggle, answerable to the Polish government in exile in London. De Milja is recruited into the intelligence directorate run by Colonel Josef Broza, one-time military attaché to Brussels. The recruitment takes place in room 9 in the basement of the Saint Stanislaus Hospital.

The leaflets They pay a printer to print thousands of leaflets, then steal a plane from a small flying club, and circle high over Warsaw, dropping them. They tell the civilian population they are dropped by RAF planes and soon bombers will return to drive the Germans out. Not true. A little while later the printer is rounded up by the Gestapo. De Milja and colleagues realise someone has snitched. It is the tough detective they’d involved in the plot, who says the printer was only a snivelling Jew anyway. They execute him in a dirty alley under a railway bridge.

Madame Kuester De Milja moves around, never staying in the same safe apartment too long. In one apartment he has an affair with the stodgy Madame Kuester, a stocky, disapproving middle-aged woman who turns out to have a need to be passionately taken doggy fashion every afternoon at 2.35 precisely.

Network information An old lady buying rags outside a Wehrmacht barracks, sells them on to a rag dealer who passes them to a chemist who analyses the type of oil. A commodity analyst in Warsaw writes a report about wool. De Milja manages this information which indicates a) the Germans aren’t deploying the kind of low-temperature oil they would need in Russia, nor are they buying up wool. Conclusion: they will not invade Russia this year (1940). So it will be France.

Rumbled On 28 March the Gestapo come to the apartment block where he’s hiding. The other inhabitants, who knew about him, make it downstairs and escape. De Milja climbs to the roof, evades the armed guard there, but slips and falls badly against the fire escape of the neighbouring building, concussing himself. He is helped to safety, hidden, then shipped out of the city to a safe farmhouse where he is patched up and slowly recovers.

Coal steamer to Stockholm Here he is told the Saint Stanislaus Hospital cell has been betrayed and captured, though some managed to take cyanide. He is now ordered to evacuate to Paris. There is fascinating detail on the Polish underground and its ability to match the German obsession for paperwork. De Milja is smuggled north to the port of Gdinya, then into the hold of a steamer carrying coal to Stockholm. It takes 70 hours and de Milja becomes poisoned by the carbon monoxide and dioxide fumes, hallucinates, loses consciousness and, by the time the hold is opened in Stockholm, the strong implication is he’s dead.

3. Lezhev’s Last Day

Cut to a completely new character, Boris Lezhev, a depressed Russian poet who has fled before various persecuting authorities right across Europe. We are just getting to know his depressive personality when he actually does die (by suicide? it’s not clear) bequeathing his works to his muse, Genya Beilis, who is, of course, an agent.

Like Dark Star many of the short sections are dated with a timestamp. On 9 June 1940 de Milja (so he didn’t die in the coal hold of the steamer) is meeting a French army officer, Major Kercheval, at a headquarters at Les Invalides. They are very clearly pulling out, burning their files etc. He meets with Vyborg who tells him the French government has fled to Orléans, and de Milja is to remain behind in Paris till the last moment. There is some mockery of the stupidity of the French in building a defensive line against Germany which stopped at the Belgian border. And wonder at the way an entire nation just gave up.

In the middle of the night French security come calling at his safe house, but he is able to bribe the officers, then pack and slip away. He finds somewhere to hide in the shabby area around the Gare Saint-Lazare.

De Milja adopts the cover of the dead poet Boris Lezhev and commences a steamy sexual affair with Genya. In his cover as a bohemian poet he is often found at the notorious drinking hole of artists, the Bar Heiningen (well known to Furst readers for its appearance in his first two novels). He spends a lot of effort cultivating a German officer, Freddi Schoen, who thinks he is an artist.

Along with a colleague, Fedin, de Milja is ordered to scout the forthcoming invasion of Britain, buys a black market delivery van and delivers produce all along the north coast, Dunkirk and so on, logging the numbers of barges on the canals, the names of Wehrmacht units etc, all despatched to a 17-year-old girl who radios it in code to London. She is tracked down by a German radio expert, arrested, crunches a cyanide pill in the Gestapo car. When the obese German radio expert begins to unscrew the captured English radio it explodes killing him. Genya Beilis had been making the drops and notices they’re not being collected, suspects the agent has been rounded up, is given instructions for a new contact procedure.

De Milja passes on information given to him by a French patriot who works in the northern docks about a practice invasion exercise. This results in the British bombing the port of Nieuwpoort, which the narrative describes at first hand. And then Calais. The narrative stops to introduce us to a public school Englishman who flies a Swordfish biplane with a torpedo into Calais harbour just as De Milja achieves a piece of James Bond heroism by making his way right across the armed and secure harbour to find a ship he knows, from the dockyard papers their agent gave them, is loaded with burning naphtha. As the British planes approach de Milja lights up its night lights so they can attack it creating a wonderful explosion by which the rest can bomb the moored German troop ships and barges at will.

De Milja has romantic lover sex with Genya in an isolated hotel by the coast. Then she leaves forever to Switzerland and he burns the Lezher identity.

4. Paris Nights

De Milja is exfiltrated to Spain, debriefed by agents. Vyborg tells him his wife has died of TB. He is returned to Paris with a new identity, as Anton Stein. For the first time in these three Furst novels, I felt a section or plot development was de trop. I found it hard to believe that a man who had led quite a high-profile life as a Russian poet, would be returned to the same city a month later, looking the same but with a quite different identity, for the first thing Stein does is buy a big coal business, and use it as a cover a) for being a rich businessman in Paris b) for finding information about German troop and resources movements.

I bet myself that having lost his wife and his championship sex lover wouldn’t prevent him tumbling into bed with the next woman he meets, and had to wait precisely 10 pages before a dreamboat redhead – Madame Roubier – arrives to decorate the nice villa he’s bought in the Paris suburbs before he is exploring her ‘soft, creamy body’ and listening to her cry ‘oh, oh’.

He hobnobs with rich Parisians and Germans. It is spring 1941 and the British are bombing. He is called suddenly to a church in the east end where he finds Fedin, his fellow agent, has been mortally injured in an air raid.

A contact of Fedin’s at a place called Vannes gets in touch with the network and gives them priceless information that the pilots of the German Pathfinder planes which guide German bombers to their targets all arrive at the airfield in one coach. If they could ambush that coach and massacre the pilots… When this intelligence is passed to London, they reply by parachuting in a cache of arms, explosives and French agents, all co-ordinated on the ground by de Milja.

But at this moment de Milja is recalled to London. He says goodbye to sexy Madame Roubier, his other colleagues, travels to the Spanish border, is collected by a rubber dinghy from a submarine, arrives in cold wartime London, eats the horrible food, and is set to do depressing bureaucratic tasks. Then the opportunity arises to volunteer for service in the East, in expectation of Hitler’s attack on Russia…

The Forest

October 1941, four months into Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s campaign to invade and conquer Russia. De Milja is parachuted into occupied Poland, near the river Bug, with arms, ammunition, explosive, money, to join a partisan group led by Razakavia, backed by Kotior and Frantek. Bronstein the ex-science teacher uses the explosive to blow up rail lines, derailing troop trains which they then decimate with grenades and machine gun fire. He learns of the Banderovsty, Ukrainian nationalists under Bandera, working for the SS. ‘They do what the SS won’t.’ They encounter communist partisans in a struggle over requisitioning grain from peasants. In other words, the bloodlands are full of roving bands of killers.

When he meets with his control, Major Olenik, he is ordered to organise a squad to break into Rovno prison and liberate a certain sergeant Krewinski, who escaped the Katyn massacre, and was sent to Moscow for indoctrination. ZWZ wants to know the procedures, what he learned.

In a very tense sequence de Milja leads his men on a successful break-in to the prison, they liberate Krewinski and others, and drive in a lorry to a safe farmhouse out in the country. Which is attacked by a mass of partisans, following a tip-off, in the early hours. Everyone de Milja knows is killed in the fighting and he just manages to escape with the badly wounded Krewinski, and with a Jewish woman. She asks him to shoot her and stands undefended – they both know what the partisans to do Jewish women – and he raises his pistol to her forehead but can’t do it.

Under a hail of bullets they make it to the lorry and then there are four or five pages of struggling to drive it through the dense Polish forest in the depths of winter, until they come to a river and find it easier to drive on the thick ice, until the river narrows and the ice becomes so slippery it will no longer advance. De Milja and the woman huddle under all the blankets they can find, expecting to falls asleep and never wake up, killed by the bitter sub-zero temperatures.

But he awakens some hours later to realise it is fractionally less freezing, realising it is snowing. the lorry will have traction. they get it started again and drive past burning villages and bridges clogged with Germans too busy to worry about a peasant lorry, until they can scramble it back onto a proper road and climb a hill to look down on the town of Biala as dawn is breaking. They will head down into the town once the curfew is lifted, contact the local ZWZ, be given somewhere to hide and food. They will fight on. They will endure.


Comments

This is shorter and less epic ie with a smaller range of characters, than the previous two novels. It is more ‘domestic’, focusing much more on the one character of de Milja, filling in his family background, his cold northern professor father, his hot-blooded southern mother with the outrageous drunken uncles, the backstory of how his sensitive wife became mentally ill and was sent to an asylum.

This is reflected in the prose style which his more relaxed and informal than previously, with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘whatevers’ — ‘.. or whatever it meant’, ‘… or whatever description they had’… ‘and God only knew what else..’.

The prose of this third novel is deliberately more casual than the crisper, more documentary factual style of the first two. We are more inside de Milja’s head, skipping verbs, cramming short perceptions together, thrust into just this one character’s feelings – very different from the panoramic overview of the first two.

The escape-route safe house in Torun was run by a girl of no more than seventeen, snub-nosed with cornsilk hair. De Milja felt tenderness and desire all mixed up together. Tough as a stick, this one. Made sure he had a place to sleep, a threadbare blanket, and a glass of beer. Christ, his heart ached for her, for them all because they wouldn’t last the year. (p.107)

The previous novels saw things from a variety of viewpoints, and the characters were interesting and varied and – crucially – the situations were highly political. This novel is much more about the one personality, the Polish officer, and there is still a lot politics, a lot of background information, but somehow the book feels less political.

Whereas the protagonists of the first two were Russian and therefore lived in permanent anxiety about being arrested or betrayed by their own side, in this book the situation is more straightforward – he is an undercover agent in occupied Paris and scared of being caught by the Nazis; it’s much more like lots of other ‘hiding from the Nazis’ novels.

Sensuality

I am getting used to the episodes of frolicsome sex in Furst’s novels. In section two he visits his mentally disturbed wife and they make love on a coat in the asylum grounds. Later there is a very erotic encounter with his stodgy, middle-aged landlady, Madame Kuester, all starched blouses and decorum, who turns out to be reading pornographic novels in the afternoon, and waits for de Milja in her bedroom, skirt hitched up, loins on a pillow so her bum is raised and accessible. The paragraph which describes de Milja’s astonishment at this turn of events, possibly also sums up the effect Furst is aiming for by deploying scenes of very sensual love-making in among the deaths, destruction and corrosive cynicism which the novels describe.

It was the sheer contrast of the moment that struck his heart. The dying, ice-bound city, heavy with fear and misery and the exhaustion of daily life, set against these brittle pages of print, where gold passementerie was untied and heavy drapes flowed together, where pale skin flushed rose with excitement, where silk rustled to the floors of moonlit chambers. (p.84)

It feels like de Milja has a different woman in each of the five sections, each with lovely bottoms, and given to role-playing, saying rude words, lots of sex play and frolic. Maybe undercover agents in occupied Poland and Paris did have lots of sex with smooth-skinned beauties, but there’s more than a dollop of James Bond-style fantasy about much of this.

Recurring characters

  • Not only Vyborg recurs at the start of the novel, but the conductor on the gold train south is the same conductor, with his droopy big moustache, who’d been on the passenger train dive-bombed by a Stuka towards the end of Dark Star.
  • The Bar Heininger recurs for the third time, having become notorious for the assassination of the head waiter Omaraeff in Night Soldiers and then the place where, according to a newspaper scoop last year, Lady Angela Hope recruited the Soviet agent known as CURATE (who, we know from Dark Star, was that novel’s hero, André Szara).
  • In a tiny detail, the Parthenon Press, a little publisher of poetry in the area of Paris where de Milja hides out, includes on its list of poetry by Russians, a volume by Vainshtok. Would this be the same Vainshtok, the sarcastic and unpleasant journalist colleague of Szara who, in Dark Star, in an inexplicable gesture, as he is being arrested and taken back to Moscow for probable execution, palms Szara his pistol, the pistol Szara uses a few minutes later to shoot dead the NKVD officer arresting him, Maltsaev.

The exotic

Too many times to count, the reader finds themself in the company of exotic and strange characters, as if in a movie. Maybe all novels are escapist in that they tell a complete rounded story, unlike our own messy lives. And that people’s motives are comprehensible, unlike the impenetrable inexplicability of so many of the people we meet in real life. And that fictional characters’ lives really matter, their experiences are made up of important decisions and dramatic confrontations etc, unlike most people who spend their lives going to work and worrying about money.

And maybe espionage novels turn up the volume on all of these aspects because the undercover agent can be arrested at any moment, which gives every sight of the blue sky, every smell of fresh coffee, every caress of a lover’s body, an extra force and significance.

But one especial pleasure of this kind of novel is the sheer exoticism of the situations which amount to a mental holiday – abroad, with strange collocations of foreigners, thrown into intense and unusual plights. Hence, de Milja has barely checked into a provincial hotel before the British fighter bombers come swooping in to attack the docks.

On the top floor of the dockside Hotel Vlaanderen, de Milja and a whore wearing a slip and a Turkish seaman wearing underpants watched the fight together through a cracked window. (p.193)

There is something touchingly naive in the ubiquitousness of whores and prostitutes in these novels, as in many other adventure novels. Whereas in ordinary life none of us ever sees a prostitute, in the Paris de Milja walks around every doorway shelters a hooker who whistles, whispers and propositions him, hotels are full of them, you can barely move for them. On the night Fedin dies, de Milja has just arranged for two courtesans to give Count Riau the experience of his life in a private room at a classy restaurant, and when he returns to his drinking buddies they drink a toast to The Pleasures of Excess.

Written by a male novelist for (I’m guessing) a predominantly male audience, these stories fulfil the most primitive male readerly fantasies, which are a) that the hero beds a new, utterly willing, sexually adventurous woman in every chapter and b) that the streets are overflowing with sexually available women.

History

These are historical novels, set in a specific historical period, overflowing with period detail and dense with historical fact. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived from rereading once again the horrible chronology of the 1930s, the Stalin purges, the Hitler invasions and then the war itself.

The characters, as spies acting for governments with vested interests in political events, play a part in them, shed light on them, discuss them and analyse them. What is maybe most illuminating about these novels focusing on characters from Russia and Eastern Europe, is the way they shed light on what is, in the West, mostly an unfamiliar and untold history. In doing so they bring out a wealth of new and fascinating perspectives on what we thought was a well known period of history.

Thus the early two sections vividly convey not just the shock and horror of the German assault on Poland, but the wild opinions the Poles held at the time – the British are coming, the Americans will intervene, we will be saved. For 9 months from September 1939 until June 1940, many Poles clung on to the hope that the French and British will intervene to save them somehow. But then, in June 1940, France fell to Hitler, almost without a fight. And it is at that point that there was a wave of suicides across Poland as people lost hope, and couldn’t face a life of tyranny. Not something I knew or had thought about.

Again, in the final sections de Milja meets his control in the occupied city of Rosnov and they discuss the possible scenarios: the Germans defeat the Russians and permanently occupy Poland – then, permanent sabotage and resistance; the Russians defeat the Germans and push them back to the Rhine – then permanent resistance to the Russians; the Russians defeat the Germans but, at the moment they are poised to enter Poland, declaration of independence and a Great Uprising.

We know what happened. It’s witnessing intelligent people working out the options, discussing and speculating, that gives the novels a terrible pathos, but also makes them intellectually interesting.

These novels bristle with history as seen by non-Brits and non-Americans; as seen by the long-suffering nations of the East. We knew their twentieth century was horrible, but Furst’s novels brilliantly dramatise the day-to-day opinions and hopes and arguments of people living through these horrors, and that’s what brings them so powerfully alive in the reader’s imagination.


Credit

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was published in 1995 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Ottakars/HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

That was the nature of the intelligence landscape as he understood it: in a world of perpetual night, a thousand signals flickered in the darkness, some would change the world, others were meaningless, or even dangerous. (p.67)

Alan Furst’s second novel covers similar territory as the first, territory he has subsequently made his own in a series of 14 novels about espionage in 1930s Europe. This one felt even more complicated than its epic predecessor, Night Soldiers, because although it features one protagonist, André Szara, foreign correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, both he and the reader are kept permanently confused by the bewildering hall of mirrors, the complex overlay of conflicting intelligence agencies and missions, in which he finds himself.

1. Silence in Prague

Part one finds Szara sent on journeys to Ostend, Prague and Berlin to write propaganda pieces for Pravda. But his experience is a confusion of secret meetings and instructions; in one set he is despatched to Berlin to meet an industrialist, Baumann and during a formal dinner with Herr and Frau Baumann (and a young Fräulein invited along to make up the numbers) Herr B very subtly makes it clear that, as Jew, he is against the regime. When Szara goes to visit him at his factory the next day, he realises it doesn’t just make steel, it makes high-tensile steel used as control rods in airplanes. Herr B shares with him production figures, which Sazara’s NKVD masters will use to calculate the German war effort.

The shy young woman is Marta Haecht. Szara is attracted to her, offers to walk her home, instead she comes to his hotel room and to his surprise they have championship sex. He is in love, a poet masquerading as a hack.

But parallel to this, Szara had been approached by a Russian on the Ostend ferry who asked him to keep an eye on another Soviet operative, one van Doorn, real name Grigory Khelidze. A day later he sends a message to his approacher, telling him which hotel Khelidze is staying in. The next morning he gets, along with his morning coffee and roll, a shred of paper naming a cafe. He goes there and is approached by a woman calling herself Renata Braun, who takes him to Khelidze’s hotel room, where they find the man horribly murdered and sprayed with acid. While Szara is sick, Braun searches the dead man’s belongings and finds tucked away a folded-up piece of paper which turns out to be the chit to a left luggage deposit box in a Czech railway station. Is it a trap?

Feeling like he is in way over his head, Szara sets off to Prague and, paranoid that his every step is being watched, finds the station, the box and the ancient suitcase inside. Back at his hotel room he rips open the concealed bottom to find a cache of documents going back to Tsarist times which seem to be records of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, in their dealings with a Bolshevik activist – known only as DUBOK – who was in fact a double agent, one of their informants. Sweat breaks out all over Szara’s body as he realises the dates and other references can only be to Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, also known as Stalin!

2. Rue Delesseux

It is spring 1938. Back in Moscow his ‘debriefer’, another Jew, Abramov, listens in horror to Szara’s experiences, then fills him in on the background to these puzzling events. There are different factions in the NKVD, arranged in khvosts or ‘gangs’ – a southern or Georgian one, an intellectual Jewish one, probably others, all of which operate abroad and conspire against each other; and there’s the Comintern, which has its own agenda abroad, and which Khelidze worked for – and the status of all of them is permanently unclear as the entire apparat is subject to wave after wave of purges. The Red Army has been decimated by Stalin’s purges; he, Abramov, suspects there is an anti-Jewish pogrom going on which might affect them both. The only protection he can offer Szara is to go officially on the payroll of the NKVD.

And so Szara undergoes spy training and then is sent to Paris to run the OPAL network, as well as manage ‘product’ from Herr Baumann and his German military secrets.

And so this 70-page section is about the nuts and bolts and personnel of the network of agents Szara runs in Paris, with a side responsibility for messages from Baumann in Berlin. One of the most interesting elements is that his control, based in Belgium, is the same Ilia Goldman who played such a large part in the first novel, Night Soldiers, here shown as an epitome of efficiency and professionalism.

The focal point of the section is a big stake-out he and operatives carry out after a tip-off from an agent who has taken a lover who works in a German liaison office. They arrange a meeting place for a VIP German visiting Paris, then stake it out and take photos. To Sazara’s amazement the man meeting the Nazi turns out to be a senior NKVD officer, Derzhani. What? Why?

After the VIPs have their meeting, our guys wrap up the surveillance and think they are getting away safely, when a slick car draws alongside driven by the security men who’d accompanied the Nazi. There is a car chase through the streets of Paris – for a moment they think they’ve lost the Germans and Szara alights at a remote Métro station, but moments later the car he was in is rammed by the pursuing Nazis and his agent, Sénéschal, killed. Back at the office he develops the 11 precious prints of the meeting, which Sénéschal died for. What the devil does it mean? Who is the Nazi, obviously a big wig? And what is a senior NKVD director doing in Paris without him or Goldman being told, and why is he meeting a Nazi? Szara hides the prints and tells no-one.

In the previous section, after he hid the Okhrana files, Szara was unnerved to hear an acquaintance at a cocktail party in Paris jokingly refer to the story – that Stalin was a Tsarist agent – in front of an American magazine editor, Herbert Hull. A continent away, months and many other incidents, later, Hull is invited from New York out for a country party with the kind of liberal intellectuals he knows, the Mays. After a day’s healthy activities, they have a lovely diner, then chat about politics and literature in front of a nice log fire, and Hull casually mentions the story about Stalin being a spy – ‘oh, that old one’, his host replies – but Hull goes on that he met someone in Europe who had some kind of evidence to back it up, and so he’s drafted an article on the subject. Days later his magazine offices are burned down, all proofs, all the furniture, files and records burned to ashes, and the gallon drum which fuelled it placed in the middle of the floor. Hull gets the message, his little magazine folds, and he soon gets a job with one of the New York glossies and forgets about the Okhrana story.

This anecdote is hugely thought-provoking, making the reader realise that the viper’s nest of espionage which the competing powers created in Europe extended far beyond its shores. Will this incident contribute somehow to the overall narrative or will it, like so many in Night Soldiers, simply add to the atmosphere of tension and paranoia, and to the sense of panorama – the fearful sense that similar incidents, spying, betrayals and deceits are happening all across the world…

3. The Iron Exchange

Szara meets Sergei Abramov on a deserted beach in Denmark, shows him the photos of the stakeout. Abramov says they can be interpreted in a score of ways; more importantly, he fills him in on latest developments in Moscow, namely Yezhov has been overthrown as head of the NKVD, replaced by Beria, one of the Georgian khvost. Along with Yezhov went his wife and any intellectuals or writers close to him, for example Isaac Babel. They speculate on how much of an anti-semitic pogrom it is – but then non-Jews disappear too, all the time.

Abramov tells Szara his stock is not high, to recover respect he must go in person to Berlin and tell Baumann to give more information, compromising information, about all the other board members and managers of his steel mill (because the apparat clearly expects Baumann to be done away with like all the other German Jews and wants to identify his successor).

So Szara goes to Berlin. He stays at the Hotel Adlon but is very keen to meet up again with Marta Haecht the young woman he slept with on his last visit. When he gets in touch, amazingly – in this world of dead and disappearing people – she is still alive and they meet up and they resume their relationship exactly as before, with her posing in silk underwear, whispering naughty words in his ear and play acting sex frolics. Ie they create a super-sensual world of their own in the disused apartment of an artist in the old Iron Exchange, a half derelict building in Berlin.

On a first meeting Baumann, in his home, refuses to tell more information about his firm, so Szara gets permission for a second go, which is a more elaborate rendezvous at a synagogue after hours in a Berlin suburb. They’ve barely begun negotiating when they hear a mob chanting and singing, which turns out to be Nazis who attack, ransack and set the synagogue on fire. Terrified, Baumann and Szara only just manage to escape undetected onto the roof of a nearby shed, wait till the crowd marches drunkenly off, then make their way back to the NKVD driver who’d waited for them.

What we have just witnessed is part of Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, the infamous night when the Nazis organised gangs to ransack and attack synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany, supposedly in ‘revenge’ for the assassination of a Nazi diplomat in Paris by a young Jew. Szara drops Baumann back at his house and returns to his lovers’ apartment at the Iron Exchange deeply shaken.

There are numerous other plot strands and events, in this and each of the sections, but this is by far the most dramatic of  this part. This novel, more so than Night Soldiers, feels deeply involved with history, in fact several of the sections are divided into sub-sections marked with specific dates and explanations of key incidents in the countdown to war, so that we – like the characters – are hurtled along by the terrifying pace of events.

During this trip he briefly meets Nadia Tscherova, heavy drinking actress in Berlin, code name RAVEN head of a sub-network for OPAL, who turns out to be the sister of Colonel Alexander Vonets aka Sascha, who played such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers (though obviously Szara doesn’t know that).

Having failed to get more information out of Baumann, in fact having to doubt whether the information he is giving is actually correct, having reunited with Marta but realised she is not as innocent as he first thought, having worked with a sarcastic fellow journalist Vainshtok to file some innocuous cover stories, and having witnessed terrible scenes of Jews being humiliated all across Germany, Szara finally concludes his mission and takes the train back to Paris.

Here he is debriefed by his control, Goldman, a presence throughout the text, receives messages from other agents and resumes the running of the OPAL network, in among which he receives an invitation to a very up-market Parisian club, the Renaissance Club. The opulence of serious wealth, unobtrusive waiters, leather chairs. In a private room he is greeted by Joseph de Montfried, from one of the wealthiest families in France.

Their conversation brings the bubbling issue of the Jews to the fore in the novel. We’ve known from the start that Szara is a Jew from Poland, who has had a continuous trickle of memories from his brutal youth (the pogroms, beatings and murders of Jews there – in the synagogue he remembers details of ceremonies including the ceremony for cleansing a raped woman – a common occurrence). Goldman his control, is a Jew. General Bloch who interviews him on a train in the first section, is a Jew. And the man who debriefed him in the old days when he was just a journalist, who suggested he enrol as a full-time agent, and who still meets him from time to time, Abramov, is a Jew. The whole novel is set against the unfolding nightmare of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, while back in Moscow Stalin’s purges continue to gobble up huge numbers of people, many of whom are Jews so that Abramov and Szara speculate whether one element of the purges is a covert pogrom.

It is in this atmosphere that de Montfried launches on a long passage of historical exposition, an encyclopedia-style explanation of the background to the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the ongoing issue of Jewish emigration to Palestine. Briefly, the British have limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to a tiny quota based on official emigration certificates; de Montfried wonders, in a polite and lofty way, whether Szara can obtain any. Szara’s NKVD straitjacket is chafing. He is sickened by events around him. He promises to do what he can.

Out of the blue Abramov orders Szara to meet him in Switzerland and bring an unusual amount of money. At the office appears Maltsaev, a slick unpleasant operative from Moscow, who is to accompany him and the money. We know that Maltsaev is the angel of death – in Night Soldiers he brought word to Kulic in the mountains that he had to execute some of his own partisan group. And so it is here – after a hair-raising drive to the village where Abramov is holding out, the latter bolts at the sight of Maltsaev, making it half way across a snowy meadow before he is gunned down.

Szara conceals all emotion, even as they bury the body, but his mind is racing. He speculates that Abramov must have shown people the photos taken in the garden in Paris of the secret meeting, maybe in some kind of power play that failed and rebounded on him. Hence the flight and execution. Maltsaev cordially tells Szara that he thinks he, too, should have met Abramov’s fate, but orders from high up were to preserve him. Shaken, Szara returns to Paris.

4. The Renaissance Club

Szara has become an habitué of the Bar Heininger. This is just one in a whole series of jolts of recognition to the reader who has read Night Soldiers, because a surprising number of characters, incidents and locations from the first book crop up throughout this one. The first time it happened was childishly exciting, the second time exciting – this is the 6th or 7th strong overlap, following hot on the heels of Maltsaev and complementing the persistent presence of Goldman as Szara’s immediate boss, the same Goldman who played such a pivotal role in Night Soldiers.

These aren’t coincidences, the two texts interpenetrate at multiple levels in numerous places via quite a few characters and this slowly changes your perception. These are the same sort of people, in the same profession, living through the same historical period; it comes to seem inevitable that there will be a lot of overlap.

So the reader of Night Soldiers remembers that the Bar Heininger was where Khristo hid out after fleeing from Civil War Spain, and where three hoodlums arrived one night with machine guns to shoot the place up and assassinate the head waiter, Omaraeff, because of his involvement in a hit on a Soviet diplomat. As a cynic predicted at the time, this bit of underworld violence has made the place more fashionable than ever and now – two years later in 1939 – Szara routinely hangs out there to play up his ‘cover’ role of high-visibility Pravda journalist.

Among the innumerable exiles and counts and princesses and poets and playwrights to be found in the Bar every night is the posh, promiscuous Lady Angela Hope. She invites Szara to a private dinner at Fouquet’s, for which he makes a big effort to press his suit and buy a new shirt. After some brief flirting, there is a knock at the door and they are joined by Roger Fitzware (who is an agent of British Intelligence; he appeared in Night Soldiers where he tried to recruit Khristo and, angry at being rebuffed, suggested to French intelligence that they lock him up).

Now Fitzware tries to recruit Szara and Szara lets him, but at a price. He offers information about German steel wire production (the ‘product’ from Baumann in Berlin), but to be paid for with emigration certificates to Palestine. They haggle and settle on 500 certificates per batch of Baumann information. Szara is sickened, but cold; this is the world he lives in.

Much else happens. One of the OPAL operatives, a prostitute, passes on the briefcase of a German officer which is full of Polish phrasebooks for fellow Wehrmacht officers. Goldman appals Szara by giving him advance warning that Stalin is about to make a pact with Hitler. In May 1939 Molotov replaces Litvinov as Soviet Foreign Minister, a signal to the alert that Soviet foreign policy will be conciliatory to Germany (and Litvinov was a Jew, difficult for the Nazis to respect).

Szara is sent on an official assignment for Pravda to Poland just days after the Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced 23 August 1939. Thus he is on a sleepy provincial train trundling towards Lvov when it is dive-bombed by a Stuka, the first he or any of the passengers know that Germany has invaded. Recovering from blast injuries in hospital he is called to the office of a Polish officer, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Vyborg (p.278) who from that point keeps Szara at his side as they set off on the journey to Lvov and find themselves caught up in the German advance, witnessing the Germans fording the river River Dunajec under Polish artillery fire from close up, and on into a gruelling eye-witness account of the Polish Army’s defeat and retreat over the next 30 pages, so packed with incident, vignettes, walk-on characters and vivid scenes, they could almost be the basis of a novel by themselves.

5. Poste Restante

The final eighty pages are among the most exciting and dazzling I’ve ever read. Szara is recovering in a spa hotel near Lvov which has been taken over by diplomatic personnel from all countries fleeing the fighting when NKVD arrive and start processing everyone. This includes the angel of death, Maltsaev who, in a gripping moment, after interviewing Szara in one of the pools in the basement casually asks him to go ahead of him up the spiral staircase. There is a cinematic moment as Szara refuses and says, No, after you to Maltsaev who also refuses. there is a standoff for a few long seconds then Szara pulls his gun and shoots Maltsaev once, then again, drags his body to a cubicle and hides it. He has burned his bridges. He is now a fugitive.

He clutches the briefcase which contains  his false documents and walks calmly down the steps and into one of the parked cars of the NKVD officers, starts the engine and drives off before anyone can stop him. There follow three paranoid, intense days north through Poland to Lithuania, avoiding the invading German army to the West and Russian army to the East. He in fact makes it safely to Kovno where he finds tens of thousands of refugees ahead of him and no places available on any of the boats leaving the port for months.

After days selling the car then other valuables to feed himself, and after scary encounters with possible NKVD agents or plain thugs, he takes another approach when he hears the Germans are evacuating ethnic Germans back to the Fatherland. He pays a lot of money to a Lithuanian criminal to get the passport of a German man dying in a local hospital and have his photo pasted into it, and then undertakes the terrifying experience of being processed onto one of the Volkdeutsch repatriation boats at Riga. The journey gives him the chance to see the Germans up close, their inferiority complex coming out as anger. They are poisoned with themselves, he thinks, these monsters at the heart of Europe.

But his plan to slip away once the boat arrives in Hamburg underestimate German efficiency, as all the Volkdeutsch are corralled off the boat and onto a train taking them to Berlin for a triumphant rally. At the station Szara does, finally, manage to give officials the slip and rings the only person he trusts in Berlin, the agent Nadia Tscherova. Something clicked the first time they met and now there is an extraordinary interlude, for he finds her the mistress of a German general (away in Poland) set up in an astonishingly opulent mansion. Here she gives him a good bath, a good shave, a good meal and then there is some characteristically Furstian championship sex, deep and sensuous, with role playing and hard words before they collapse exhausted in bed. In the middle of a continent gone mad, there is time for pleasure, for the life of the senses, for poetry, for delight.

After several days he must move on, clean shaven and well dressed but in fact is picked up by the Gestapo an hour after leaving Nadia’s house, as he tries to board a train and finds an alert is out for his stolen passport. There are tense scenes in Columbia House, Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, and a lot of very intelligent insight into the psychology of interrogation, in light of which Szara comes clean about his full identity to the officer interrogating him, who is now worried to have such a high profile Russian prisoner on his hands at such a fraught political moment.

Thus it is that footsteps come clanking down the cold corridor to his cell and he is yanked out of his room and dragged to another room where we are fully expecting him to be beaten to death, but instead is presented with a wobbly character wearing a uniform over his pyjama trousers, released into his custody, ushered into his car and driven for hours into the remote hills where they pull up at an inn. Inside is Herbert van Polanyi who now gets a long speech of exposition.

Turns out von Polanyi is a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, still largely run by the kind of landed aristocrats Hitler and his gang despise. He was ‘running’ Baumann all along, deliberately getting him to feed Szara the steel production figures. the reason why leads to a long explanation of the political relationship between Russia and Germany, of their co-operation throughout the 1920s, the setback of Hitler’s election, but then the way both dictators came to understand each other. It is a long and fascinating and intelligent analysis. I haven’t brought out how intelligent the continual presence of Furst’s analyses of situations, of geopolitics for the micro to the macro scale, are, throughout these books.

Von Polanyi recognises Szara as a professional who has now become rootless, he is a man without a country. He is going to set him free on the understanding that he may be able to do them all a service and prevent Europe falling to a Hitler-Stalin tyranny. They shake on it and his man drives Szara to the Swiss border.

There then follows an intensely described section where Szara goes seriously underground, into the criminal underworld of Budapest, Athens, Smyrna. He begs, he is beaten up, he thieves, he loses weight, grows a moustache, gains a permanent scar, changes the man he is, ending up washing pots for a woman restaurant owner in Turkey, finding peace or oblivion on a straw mattress on an old door in a filthy cellar, where, in his little spare time, he writes out a full account of everything that happened to him and tries to piece together how the conspiracies he was involved in played their part in the collapse of civilisation.

When, in May 1940, he reads that the Germans have invaded France, he shakes the Turkish woman by the hand, shaves and presents himself at the docks as a patriotic Frenchman ready to do his duty, and as such is welcomed aboard a steamer setting off for Marseilles, and welcomed there as a hero. He makes his way across southern France and back to Switzerland for where he contacts his super-rich contact in Paris, de Montfried. He is cabled money which allows him to rent an apartment and begin planning. He makes wide contacts and does background research until he thinks he has identified an NKVD network. Then he contacts von Polyani, saying he is ready to go to work.

The funny little man who liberated him from Columbia House meets him in Zurich and hands him an envelope. Within are half a dozen nuggets of information suggesting Germany is planning to invade the Soviet Union, up to an including the operation codename, Barbarossa. The new thin, moustachioed, scarred Szara will feed this information to the NKVD network. He will use the skills he has acquired for good; he will alert the Russians to the coming invasion, he will prevent the triumph of evil.

The final act in the book is the fruition of his love affair with Nadia Tscherova. The little man took back to Berlin a message for her and a few weeks later, Szara is waiting at the Swiss border as a plush Mercedes crosses it with no questions asked. Half a kilometer down the road it stops as agreed. He rushes to open the door and into his arms comes his love, Nadia’s drive to freedom paralleling her brother Sascha’s escape to freedom at the end of Night Soldiers and the image of lovers embracing after long separation also ending both books.


Overlapping characters

  • Ilya Goldman trains at the NKVD academy in Arbat Street along with Khristo in Night Soldiers, and plays a key role in the narrative, saving Khristo’s life and freeing his kidnapped lover.
  • We learn (to our shock) that it was Goldman who organised the abduction of Khristo’s lover, Aleksandra, in Night Soldiers.
  • General Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa or the Lizard, subjects Szara to an intimidating interview on a train in the first section. He is the same General that Khristo found himself begging for his life to in NS.
  • Nadia Tscherova in a big coincidence is sister to Colonel Vonets aka Sascha, who plays such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers.
  • Maltsaev is a bringer of orders to execute in Night Soldiers and here. We are glad to see him shot dead.
  • Roger Fitzware, MI6 man, plays a small but key role in both books, suggesting Khristo’s arrest and imprisonment in Night Soldiers and recruiting Szara for MI6 in Dark Star, so that Baumann’s information is shared with British Intelligence.

1. Overlapping characters like this give a sense, not exactly of verisimilitude – surely the world isn’t this small – but of a graspable fictional universe. There is something gleefully childish about recognising this character from that scene and discovering, ‘Oh, so that’s what happened to them.’

2. It occurs to me that another aspect of having so many recurrent figures is a dramatic irony, that we readers often know the past or future of a character which everyone in the fiction doesn’t. a) That’s standard dramatic irony, but b) it also reinforces the atmosphere of endless smoke and mirrors in the bewildering world of espionage, the sense of multiple levels, in fact a never-ending maze of levels, of secrecy, of characters never knowing what becomes of each other.

Sensuality

In among the densely described and densely analysed historical background and the complex mesh of conspiracies, are islands of tremendous sensuality. In Ostend Szara visits a nightclub where the showgirls came prancing out wearing zebra masks and nothing else, whinnying and shaking their bums at the male customers. Szara takes one of them back to his hotel room. Later he has a one-night-stand with the shy young Fräulein he meets at the dinner at Herr Baumann’s, and then is haunted by the memroy until he can see her again months later. These encounters are described with great lyricism and sensuality.

When I read The Polish Officer years ago, I thought Furst’s sensuality was a little over-ripe. Now I see it as a congruent part of the fantasy of these novels. All the historical accuracy in the world, all the paragraphs explaining the NKVD and Comintern and Red Army purges, can’t conceal the poetic power of the prose, which is permanently striving for lyrical description. The sensuous sex scenes are just a fragment of the larger lyrical sensibility, a poet’s sensibility seared by the brutalities of the 20th century.

It snowed on the night of the sixth, and by the time Szara and Maltsaev left the Gare de Lyon on the seventh of February the fields and villages of France were still and white. The nineteenth century, Szara thought with longing: a pair of frost-coated dray horses pulling a cart along a road, a girl in a stocking cap skating on a pond near Melun. The sky was dense and swollen; sometimes a flight of crows circled over the snow-covered fields. (p.223)

Note that it is not a poetic use of language – Martin Cruz Smith is my prose poet of the moment, a man who can bring off unexpected and miraculous turns of phrase. Furst’s language is plainer, Furst’s is a poetry of perception: the poetry is in the selection of detail which gives his prose the power of a certain kind of realist painting. On almost every page there is finely perceived detailing which brings to life the scores of minor characters which bristle throughout the narrative.

The owner was a Hungarian, a no-nonsense craftsman in a smock, his hands hard and knotted from years of cutting and stitching leather. (p.255)

He leaned out the window and peered down to find the old woman looking up at him from the yard. She stood, with the aid of a stick, like a small, sturdy pyramid, wearing sweaters and jackets on top, broad skirts below. Her dogs, a big brown one and a little black and white one, stood by her side and stared up at him as well. (p.269)

Vyborg’s driver was a big sergeant with close-cropped hair, a lion-tamer’s moustache, and a veinous, lumpy nose that was almost purple. He swore under his breath without pause, swinging the big car around obstacles, bouncing through the fields when necessary, hewing a path through the wheatfields. (p.281)

No special words or magical phrasing. It is the density of fully imagined detail, and the wealth of fully imagined people, places, scenes and events which fill the narrative to overflowing, which give this book its breath-taking and epic quality.


Credit

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst was published in 1988 by The Bodley Head. All quotes and references are to the 1998 HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in Franceen

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

‘What do you do,’ he said, ‘if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for? What do you do when everyone tells you not to worry, you can’t do anything about it, it was a long time ago?’ (p.213)

Robert Harris

Harris went to Cambridge where he read English, was president of the Union and editor of the student newspaper Varsity. He joined the BBC, where he worked on its flagship current affairs programmes, Panorama and Newsnight. In 1987 he became political editor of the Observer newspaper. In the 1980s he wrote five factual journalistic books – about chemical and biological warfare, the Falklands War, Neil Kinnock, the Hitler Diaries scandal and a study of Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. It is an exemplary career of its type.

Fatherland

In 1992 Harris took the publishing world by storm when he published his first novel, Fatherland, set in an alternative world where Germany has won the Second World War. The two big turning points in this version of history were that:

  1. German armies cut off the Russians from their oil sources in the Caucasus and so were able to force them back to the line of the Urals, conquering Russian territory far beyond Moscow. In the novel this has given rise to a whole settler movement to encourage good Aryans to go and live in the vast new Eastern Empire, although fighting continues out on the remote border. Everyone knows the Americans are supplying money and weapons to the rump of the Russian army to allow them to fight on, and there are also dark rumours of ‘terrorist’ attacks on German settlers.
  2. The Nazis realised in 1942 that the British had cracked their Enigma code and so issued an entirely new code machine to all their U-boats, which were then able to sink Allied convoys at will. Britain was eventually starved into submission, ‘Churchill and his gang’ forced to flee to Canada, and peace made with the Nazi-friendly King Edward VIII. With no ally left in Europe, America has no alternative but to make a grudging peace with Germany and turn its efforts to defeating Japan in the Pacific (which it does).

Now:

Luxembourg had become Moselland, Alsace-Lorraine was Westmark; Austria was Ostmark. As for Czechoslovakia – that bastard child of Versailles had dwindled to the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – vanished from the map. In the East, the German Empire was carved four ways into the Reichskommisariats Ostland, Ukraine, Caucasus, Muscovy. (p.201)

and Portugal, Spain, France, Ireland, Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have all been corralled by Germany into a European trading bloc under German control.

Xavier March

But all of this is old history to Xavier ‘Zavi’ March, ‘solitary, watchful’ (p.26), the world-weary Berlin cop – to be precise, a Sturmbannführer in the Kripo or Kriminalpolizei – who is the protagonist of this brilliantly gripping and disturbing thriller.

Like all fictional cops, March’s private life is a mess (his wife, Klara, has divorced him, taking his ten-year-old son, Pili, who has been taught to hate him as ‘insufficiently patriotic’) so now March inhabits a pokey flat in a squalid apartment block and lives only for his job. He doesn’t have a drink problem, which is a relief – but he does chain-smoke and he does worry about things.

The novel is set in 1964, over the five days between 14 April and the Führertag – 20 April – the day Germans (in this parallel universe) celebrate the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Not only that, but the newspapers are full of the impending visit of the US President Kennedy (in one of the many jokes that alternative histories allow, Harris makes this President Kennedy, the father of the one we know and love – the alleged crook and political fixer, Joseph Kennedy). Thus, like so many thrillers, Fatherland uses the build-up to big background events to crank up the tension in the main plot.

Like all good detective novels, it starts with a body, a man’s body is found in a lake in Berlin. After a lot of procedural work – visits to the gruesome autopsy, trips to the archives, calls to colleagues in other departments – March establishes that the dead man was a certain Buhler, a party official high up in the administration of occupied Poland early in the war. March discovers that Buhler had recently been in touch with two colleagues, Stuckart and Luther – but when March tries to track down these men he finds one is dead and the other missing.

Moreover, the investigation is only really getting going when March discovers it has been handed over to the Gestapo, who outrank his Kripo organisation and March is told to stand down. However, like every fictional investigator in every thriller ever, March is a conscientious maverick and so disregards orders to abandon the investigation. He goes poking around Buhler’s lakeside house, finding odd clues – for example Buhler had lost a foot in the war, blown off in a mine, and he discovers the plastic prosthetic foot in mud by the lake shore… Why would a man strip off for a swim in a freezing lake on a rainy Berlin day?

He then tracks down the feisty American woman journalist who reported Stuckart’s death to the authorities, one Charlie Maguire. She tells him Stuckart phoned to make an appointment to see her, but when she arrived at his apartment it was to find his blood-soaked corpse next to a gun and a suicide note.

Against his better judgement March finds himself confiding in Charlie, to the extent of persuading her to go back to the apartment with him and his trusty partner, Jaeger, to see if there are any clues. Here March’s superior police skills are demonstrated when he finds a hidden safe the ordinary cops had missed; they are just examining the contents when several cars screech up outside; it is the fearful Gestapo. Bundling Charlie out a back way, March and Jaeger remain to take the heat and they are arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the cells. Anything could happen, including the torture they all know exists, but which is rarely discussed.

Instead, after stewing the whole night, the following morning they are driven back out to Buhler’s mansion by the lake where the two cops realise there is a power struggle going on over the investigation. On the one hand is Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, universally known as Globus – the bull-necked sadist General in the Gestapo. March knows from a witness that Globus was seen at the lake where Buhler’s body was later found. He suspects he also had some part in Stuckart’s murder. Is Globus killing these men and making it look like suicide? But why? Facing him is wiry little Artur Nebe, the thin, shrewd head of the Kripo (or the Oberstgruppenführer, Reich Kriminalpolizei). Nebe listens to Globus rant about March disobeying orders to desist investigating, but out-ranks him and decides to give March the benefit of the doubt.

Globus marches March, Jaeger and Nebe down into Buhler’s cellar, where his men have broken through a panel to reveal a secret room absolutely stuffed with priceless European works of art. Triumphant, Globus asserts that Buhler, Stuckart and Luther were in cahoots to smuggle art works from the East, where Buhler worked, then out of the country to make themselves rich. When they realised their scam was discovered they killed themselves in shame. That’s it.

Outside Nebe takes March aside and puts him in the picture, telling him that Globus has reported him – March – to the terrifying Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, and requested that March be immediately reposted from Berlin to some crappy provincial police force. What? Why? Because this affair is about much more than stolen art: March is blundering into something much bigger than he realises. Globus knows that March knows that Globus is somehow implicated, and therefore tried to persuade Heydrich to dispose of him. But Nebe convinced Heydrich to give March four days’ grace. Solve the case, Nebe tells March: report back to me everything you discover, and I may just be able to save your career.

Thus Harris deftly turns up the pressure on our man, who now has the threat of his career being ended and a swift exile to somewhere ghastly out in the occupied East, all set against the tension throughout Berlin rising with the approach of the Führertagand the impending visit of the US President, fraught with its own geopolitical ramifications. (It is testimony to Harris’s complete grasp of this parallel reality, that the implications of Kennedy’s visit are worked out so thoroughly; as a colleague tells him, it must indicate the war in the East is going really badly if Germany is prepared to cosy up to its long-term antagonist in the so-called ‘Cold War’, the United States, in what contemporaries are referring to as a new spirit of ‘détente’ – all this being, of course, a wry rethinking of the actual Cold War we know in our reality, the one between the US and the victorious USSR, and the well-known détente of the 1970s between them.)

Harris’s style

This book is written with great panache and style. It feels as if Harris has learned from all previous thriller writers, plus his own journalistic success, to deploy a prose style which is really taut and compressed. No matter how many times I had to put it down to go to work or cook dinner or other distractions, I was able to pick it up and within a few pages be back in its world, thoroughly gripped.

The comedy of alternative history

Alternative history is a recognised academic field now. I first heard of it via Niall Ferguson’s 1997 book, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. ‘Normal history’ is already full of irony, unintended consequences, comedy and farce. But alternative histories give the author the opportunity for commentary on the ‘real world’ at any number of levels, from the profoundly challenging, scholarly and intellectual, to the witty and waspish. Thus, in Harris’s universe, where Germany won the Second World War:

  • Cecil Beaton did some charming photo portraits of the Führer
  • four young lads from Liverpool are doing concerts in Hamburg which the authorities disapprove of (p.198)
  • The American president is a Kennedy, but not the stylish young dude we knew, rather his piratical anti-semitic father, Joseph
  • there is an SS Academy in Oxford (p.183)
  • there was a Treaty of Rome (as in the real world) but this one tied unoccupied Europe into a trading zone dominated by Germany

These comments are often very witty, but their overall effect is quite a profound one – for they raise the question of how much the deep currents of history can be altered or derailed? Would Germany have dominated the continent of Europe, have created a European Union, would German industry, German cars and TVs still have dominated our shops, would German tourists have hogged the best loungers and German football teams kept on winning the Euro and World cups, regardless of who won the war? Would the Beatles and 1960s protest have happened regardless of the outcome?

Are there patterns of social and economic and technological change which have their own ineluctable logic, which are unavoidable no matter what the outcome of wars, the decisions of politicians, the coming and going of revolutions and restorations? Is there a kind of fatality about the overall direction of human history, unaffected by even the largest social or political events?

The Holocaust

As the novel progresses March and Charlie become an item, falling in love and sleeping together, as they try to figure out what’s going on, each with their own perspective – March the conscientious cop, Charlie the American journalist looking for a scoop, both realising there’s something fishy about Globus’s art smuggling story.

As part of their deal, Nebe allows March out of the country for 24 hours, to fly to Zurich because he has established that Luther, the only one of the trio unaccounted for, flew to Zurich a few weeks earlier. And in Stuckart’s apartment, in the hidden safe, he discovered the number and key of a Swiss safety deposit box. Putting 2 and 2 together, he speculates that Luther flew out on behalf of all three to get something – what?

But when he and Charlie open the box in the Swiss bank they find nothing in it but an admittedly invaluable painting by Leonardo da Vinci. So is it all about art? Nothing but a big art smuggling scam? But in passport control back at Berlin, it dawns on March that Luther might have deliberately left something to be found as ‘lost luggage’, planning to reclaim it later, not knowing he would have to go on the run. Acting on this hunch he pulls in a favour from an old buddy in the airport staff and wangles hold of a stylish briefcase left behind after the flight which he and Charlie know Luther took back from Zurich, and with Luther’s initials. Must be his.

What they find inside comes a bombshell to them and the reader. Iit is a big collection of documents which the novel reprints verbatim over the next thirty pages or so. Most of them (as the afterword explains) are actual Nazi documents from the war detailing the construction of the Holocaust death camps, documents recording the high-level policy decisions to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ once and for all, a decision which led to mountains of bureaucratic paperwork organising the supply of bricks and mortar, new railway schedules of trains bringing Jews from the West to occupied Poland, to build the gas chambers and to supply the Zyklon B nerve gas, in an organised, psychopathic, industrialised attempt to murder all 11 million of Europe’s Jews.

For the next forty or fifty pages Charlie and March read through the documents and try to come to terms with what they’ve discovered. In their version of history, none of this is known. Germans sort of suspect it and sort of make jokes about it, but it is nowhere written down or recorded, the Jewish inhabitants of March’s flat before him – the Weiss family – have been obliterated from the record and so have all the other Jews of Europe.

This is a truly terrifying vision in a number of ways.

1. In this version of history the Germans succeed in wiping out the Jews. Completely. Not leaving 2 or 3 or 4 million to survive and go on to build their own independent state. None. None survive. Complete annihilation. While Charlie and March are getting used to the scale of this monstrous deceit and historical genocide, the reader is grappling with the notion that an entire race or nation can be wiped out and – it have no results. Europe carries on. People moan about the weather and their work and their wives and no-good children. The Jews are gone as if they had never been.

2. On another level, the reader is also rereading some of the actual key documents from the creation of the Holocaust, an experience which makes you feel traumatised, disgusted and shattered with despair all over again.

One of the documents is a five-page description of the visit Luther himself made to Auschwitz in his official position as a senior Nazi in Poland. He records the detraining of 60 wagons full of Jewish men, women and children who have been packed into the cattle trucks for four days and nights, during which many have died. He records the separation off of the fit men who will be worked to death, and the immediate hussling of the remaining sick, women, children and elderly direct to the gas chamber where they are told to strip off for delousing, and then coralled into the chamber and the door locked. Then the scientists arrive with the canisters which they empty into the chutes which go down into the floor of the chamber. Here the mauve crystals of Zyklon B are oxidised to become the fatal nerve gas which then pours unstoppably up through the grilles in the floor, creating an indescribable frenzy as the people inside scrabble over each other in futile attempts to escape.

These five pages alone overwhelm much of the rest of the book. It is difficult to continue reading and impossible to read the rest of the book in the previous frame of mind.

The documents indicate that there was a ring of some 14 Nazi officials who all worked in the same part of the Death camp division. March makes enquiries and discovers that one by one they’ve been dying off, killed in road accidents, mysterious explosions, ‘suicides’. Someone is killing off these final witnesses to the atrocity. It must have been this which prompted Stuckart, Buhler and Luther to panic and go for the documents in Zurich which they hoped to use as some kind of passport to escape.

While March had been away investigating Charlie received a phone call from the missing Luther. He wants to meet next day at the central station. He wants Charlie’s help to be smuggled out of Germany and to America, along with the documents. Next day March parks nervously across from the station steps and watches Charlie and her friend from the US Embassy wait tensely. Finally a furtive figure emerges from the crowds and moves towards them, is only meters away when… His head explodes, vaporises, demolished by the high velocity bullet of a professional assassin. Spattered with blood, in shock, Charlie is hussled into March’s car which takes off with a squeal of breaks.

Now they realise their phone calls and apartments are bugged. March takes Charlie to a hotel whose owner owes him a favour and they hide out in a small attic room. Here March supervises Charlie’s bid to flee Germany. They dye her hair to look like a young woman who was killed in an unrelated car accident earlier in the week and whose passport March has swiped from his offices for just this purpose. He packs her off in a hired car, telling her to drive south and cross the border into Switzerland. He promises to meet her there, but they both know he won’t. By now the atmosphere of doom lies too heavy over the story.

Instead March drives out to the crappy suburb where his ex-wife lives to see his son for one last time, to try and make amends for being such a bad dad. But, in a bitter twist of the knife, it turns out that Globus and his thugs have suborned his son to act nice and keep his Daddy busy until they can surround the house. They burst in, arrest March and take him to Gestapo headquarters, where Globus plays very bad cop, alternating with a more ‘civilised’ Gestapo interviewer, Krebs, who gives the bloodied March cigarettes, and tries to wheedle the truth out of him. Both want to know a) what was in the case and b) where’s the girl?

The torture scenes go on over many pages describing days and nights of pain and delirium, climaxing in the scene where several thugs man-handle March’s right forearm onto the table and Globus, with all his strength, swings a baseball bat down on to March’s hand, reducing it to a mangled pulp of bloody flesh.

Finally, the authorities try a con trick: Krebs, the more sympathetic of the interrogators, arrives with a sympathetic doctor, gives him painkillers and clean clothes, then takes him by car, ostensibly to another dungeon. But then he stops the car on a pretext and takes March down into some old war ruins. Here the sly Nebe steps out of the shadows, in a scene straight out of a hundred movies. Nebe says that he and Krebs have both been scandalised and disgusted by what March has told them about the Holocaust. They have always hated the Gestapo and their brutal methods, and so they want March to successfully smuggle the documents out of Germany, to be published in American, so the rest of the world can see what criminals are running the regime. They push him towards a car in which is waiting his fat partner, Jaeger. ‘Where shall I take you?’ Jaeger asks.

But even through the blood and pain and drugs of his torture wounds, March realises it is a trap. They are hoping he will take them to the girl and to the remaining documents. So he draws a gun on Jaeger and with his last energy orders him, not to drive south to where he hopes Charlie is crossing the Swiss border, but East, across the border into what was once Poland, driving for hours and hundreds of kilometers until he forces Jaeger to drive off the Autobahn onto the local road and then onto local farm tracks which lead out to the empty acres of derelict industrial land where once stood the appalling death camp Auschwitz, which he has read so much about.

During his torture by Globus, the fat sadist had gloated that, yes, he, Globus, took part in the extermination of the Jews and yes, he is proud of it, but that the world will never know. All the evidence has been destroyed. All the Jews are gone, all the buildings were destroyed long ago, and all the paperwork was burned like the bodies. Almost the only evidence left in the world is the documents Buhler and Stuckart and Luther had squirreled away in their Swiss bank as insurance in case their art smuggling was discovered. And now, Globus gloats in March’s blood-sodden face, all three are dead, and soon they will have the girl and the briefcase and all March’s clever investigation will have been for nothing.

So March has come to the bare barren land which was Auschwitz for two reasons: to decoy the Gestapo he knows must be following him, as far away as possible from his lover and her desperate mission to inform the world; and to see for himself whether it’s true: whether there really is no record, no sign, no testimony at all to the greatest horror in human history.

Thus he is still stumbling across the grass and mud looking for evidence, for bricks or doors or metal frames, for anything – when he hears the cars arrive, and the helicopter which had been following them from Berlin coming up overhead, carrying the Gestapo with their machine guns. ‘Drop your weapon,’ they shout through loudspeakers, so March turns and cocks his Luger, determined not to be taken alive.

And that’s the end. March is obviously going to die, but what about Charlie? Will she escape to Switzerland? Will she get anyone to publish the documents? Will anyone believe her? And will the US government – which has invested so much in President Kennedy’s visit to the old enemy, Nazi Germany, and its new policy of détente – allow this major geopolitical initiative to be derailed by a hysterical woman with her grotesque and improbable claims?

The novel leaves you reeling not only with the horror of the secret at its heart, but also at the seeming hopelessness of exposing the truth in a world where everyone has a vested interest in keeping it hidden.


Credit

Fatherland by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 1992. All quotes and references are to the 1993 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s novels

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2003 Pompeii (set in the ancient world)
2006 Imperium (set in the ancient world)
2007 The Ghost
2009 Lustrum (set in the ancient world)
2011 The Fear Index
2013 An Officer and a Spy
2015 Dictator (set in the ancient world)

Winter by Len Deighton (1987)

‘And how would Himmler benefit?’
‘If Fritsch went, the Reihsführer-SS would also take the opportunity to extend his powers.’
‘Himmler, extend his powers? My God, the fellow has taken over all the police forces in Germany. And now he’s expanded this SS army of his to two regiments, plus a combat-engineer company and a communications unit.’ (Winter p.339)

‘I like diagrams.’ (Len Deighton, interview January 2014)

The Deighton Dossier seems to be the main site on the internet dedicated to Len and his work and contains lots of fascinating material, including a bunch of interviews from recent years. Reading through these one thing comes over loud and clear, which is Len’s fascination with technology. Whether it’s the early computers and word processors he wrote his novels on (an interest crystallised in Billion Dollar Brainwhich is about a vast super-computer), or the technical histories of tanks and warplanes which are at the heart of his two classic history books (Blitzkrieg and Fighter), Len is warmly sympathetic to the designers and engineers who overcame practical obstacles with inventiveness and creativity (and often critical of the politicians and senior civil servants who frequently made a complete shambles of deploying these wonderful machines).

This knowledge of Len’s profound interest in engineering, design, diagrams, maps, charts and technical details coloured my reading of Winter. This is by far Len’s longest book, an ‘epic’ novel describing the lives, loves and destinies of several German families – the wealthy parents, the sons and daughters, the husbands and wives, the friends and relations – from 1899 to 1945 ie through the Great War, the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and World War Two.

Winter is very readable, being written in Len’s characteristic no-nonsense, factual style. It is packed to the gills with eye-witness accounts of world important historical moments and never misses an opportunity to reference the key technical, military, political and cultural events at each stage of the story. And this is part of the problem. It feels too schematic. Information trumps character.

Plot

Prosperous German industrialist Harry Winter has an American wife, Victoria Rensselaer, a mistress in Vienna and two blonde sons, Peter (b.1896) and Paul, born on the first day of the new century. The text jumps briskly between snapshots of key events in their lives, the chapters simply named after the relevant years (1899, 1900, 1906, 1908 etc).

We read about their privileged childhood in the Edwardian years and move swiftly to the outbreak of the Great War and their differing careers as soldiers. While slim elegant Peter remains an aloof officer, stocky clumsy Pauli serves in the trenches and, on one fateful occasion, breaks the rules to visit his brother behind the lines. This breach of discipline could be punished by death but instead he is consigned to a punishment battalion, then to a stormtrooper unit, which turns him a hardened fighter.

In the chaos of post-war Germany Paul finds himself drawn into the Freikorps, the anarchic militias of generally right-wing soldiers, formed to combat the communists in the street battles which shook many German cities. We meet Pauli’s friend Alex Horner; their tough bastard NCO, Brand, who helps get Pauli punished and then becomes a rising star in the Nazi movement; another tough soldier, Graf, who goes on to become a power in the Sturmabteilung.

We also meet Victoria’s American family, her father Cyrus and her adventurous brother, Glenn. One summer, back when the boys were still small the dinghy they were learning to sail in was blown out to sea, they both pitched over board and were likely to drown until saved by the rough, crude, son of a local pig farmer, Fritz Esser. Their paths are to cross and cross again as Esser also becomes a power in the Nazi Party, rising to become a senior adviser to Heinrich Himmler.

We meet the three pretty daughters of Frau Wisliceny: Inge worships Peter but Peter loves Lisl but Lisl marries Erich Hennig, the smarmy boy who rivals Peter at their shared skill of piano playing. Peter then breaks Inge’s heart by marrying an American woman (like his mother), Lottie Danziger, daughter of an American Jewish businessman. Inge, after years of mourning this decision, to everyone’s surprise abruptly marries the other brother, Pauli, in a whirlwind romance. Her support helps Pauli through his training as a lawyer and then as his early contacts with the Nazis evolve into full-time employment as a senior Nazi lawyer. Much later, disillusioned and cynical, she has a prolonged adulterous affair with Fritz Esser.

Problems

There is no denying the range of characters and the cleverness of the network of relationships Deighton builds up between them. It is a phenomenal feat of planning to map out the lives not only of the main players but of the thirty or so minor characters whose paths cross and recross the central narrative, and to dovetail all of them with the complex political events of these fraught years.

There is no denying Deighton’s extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the period, his grasp of the political, military and technological developments year by year, the sheer depth of  his research. If Len says the weather was terrible on Sunday April 10 1932, the day of the second presidential election, with pelting rain in Berlin (p.271), then you can bet the house this was the case and that Len has checked and double checked it. But:

a) Overfamiliarity I did the rise of Hitler for O-Level 40 years ago. My son did it for GCSE 3 years ago. My daughter is doing it this year. We are in the middle of the 100 year commemorations of the Great War, with the BBC and umpteen other outlets following the events day by day. A month ago was the 70th anniversary of VE Day, with ceremonies involving the Queen, and all autumn there are shows around the country involving flypasts of the remaining World War Two planes. All these events are marked by TV, radio, newspaper and magazine coverage. In other words – the political and military events surrounding the build up to, and the prosecution of, the First and Second World Wars, must be the most intensively written-about and repeatedly dramatised, described, raked over and discussed historical period in our culture. It is a very very familiar story.

b) Overschematic This tends to give the entire narrative an inevitable, predictable character. It is 1908, so the characters are at the Baltic Sea watching the Kaiser’s fleet of Dreadnoughts and wondering about German’s naval rivalry with Britain. July 1914? The characters are feeling tense about Russia’s mobilisation; surely this Balkan nonsense will blow over. Spring 1918? Could the two boys in different parts of the German Army be about to be swept up in the German Spring Offensive? Yep. Christmas 1918? Is it all over, and our boys are eye witnesses to German society collapsing into chaos with the Army fighting communist insurgents on the street. 1924? Are we going to learn how the Winter family has survived the appalling hyperinflation (very well) and their views on Hitler’s 1923 Munich Putsch? Yes. 1929, could one of the characters be directly involved in the Wall Street Crash (yes, old man Danziger (Peter’s father-in-law) who commits suicide when he loses everything).

The new trends and fashions sweeping Europe? Let’s give Pauli a glitzy birthday party featuring young women sporting the new ‘flapper’ look and a band playing the new ‘jazz’ music. Does the novel need insight into the extraordinary cultural turmoil and creativity of the era? Let’s have Peter the piano-playing Army officer very unexpectedly get a job playing piano for Bertolt Brecht’s theatre company, so he can tell stories about Brecht’s genius at directing and play the latest numbers written by Kurt Weill. Hey, here’s a new one called Mack the Knife!

And so it goes on in a rather inevitable way, perilously close to a dramatisation of the BBC Bitesize guide to German history. 1930 election giving the Nazis 100 seats in the Reichstag? The characters express their various levels of disbelief. 1933 election of Hitler as Chancellor? In various conversations the characters react. Pauli is an eye-witness to the Night of the Long Knives in July 1934: he personally accompanies Hitler, Goebbels and others to the hotel where Röhm and the other SA leaders are hiding out; he gives legal advice about how the sentencing and execution can be speeded up and then he watches his old colleague from the War, Graf, be shot by firing squad.

Indeed the two brothers, Peter and Paul, have an uncanny knack for being in exactly the right place at the right time. When the Army is ordered to storm the Kaiser’s Palace in Berlin to evict the drunken sailors who have taken it over (1919), Pauli is at hand to persuade big, bear-like Fritz Esser to leave the sailors who he’s spent most of the war promoting communist propaganda among, and to join Pauli and his fellow officer Alex Horner, in the new right-wing Freikorps.

This latter incident is typical of the way you feel the characters are manipulated to fit the events. I found it frankly unbelievable that Esser, the angry, illiterate son of the village pig man who’s spent most of the war as a communist agent provocateur, could be persuaded to abandon his comrades at the moment of their greatest peril to go on a Berlin pub crawl with Pauli and then, what the hell, join the proto-Fascist Freikorps. Once the deed is done he swiftly rises to become the Adjutant and admin to the Berlin Freikorps commander and, further down the line, right hand man to Heinrich Himmler.

This is phenomenally convenient to the narrative because it means Fritz can drop into Pauli’s apartment at will for the rest of the novel and tell him the latest about senior Nazi machinations, for example Himmler’s consolidation of power via the SS. Much later it allows him to spell out the tentative peace feelers Himmler puts out towards the end of the war, and the various unsuccessful conspiracies to assassinate the Führer.

Fitz’s repeated visits are given the fictional pretext of him having a long-running affair with Pauli’s wife, Inge. Maybe so. The affair is fairly well portrayed or repeatedly described – but I didn’t believe in it half as much as I believed Fritz’s insights into political and historical events, which seemed immediate and convincing. Information trumps character.

No doubt people’s beliefs were fluid in this chaotic period and real people did make astonishing and unexpected changes of belief and loyalty. But you expect a novel to explore the psychology of these characters, of their allegiances and beliefs. You could argue that a novel is useful insofar as it sheds light on the minds of others. This novel doesn’t do that so much. The characters are dexterously moved and manipulated to allow us to be eye witnesses to key events, and to witness the changing political currents of the period. Their motivation, their psychology, comes second.

Early in the novel we see how the brothers’ father, Harald Winter the banker, gains a parcel of land in Bavaria after the suicide of a Jew who owed the bank money. Anybody who knows about the subject will smile when they read it is near the pretty village of Berchesgarten, because we know this is where Hitler was to build his rural Bavarian hideaway. And sure enough, 300 pages later, Pauli and Peter are invited, along with his other neighbours, for an audience at Hitler’s house, after the Nazi Party has gained its first big election victory. Paul and Inge go so we can get a first-hand account of Hitler’s rambling speeches and compulsive mannerisms. But – true to the schematic, diagrammatic nature of the narrative – Peter refuses to go on the insistence of his Jewish wife, Lottie.

One brother has married Jew, one has married Aryan, with predictable divergence of destinies: German Inge insists Hitler’s speeches are all hot air designed to appeal to the sentimental German soul; Lottie the Jewess says, ‘But can’t you hear the genuine hatred of the Jews in his speeches?’ It is a problem that the different views don’t have the same imaginative weight: we overwhelmingly know which one was right, there is no imaginative freedom to choose between characters, the weight of history presses us down on one side.

Schematic conversations

Thus too many conversations relate schematically to the timeline and bear little relation to either the characters or to how people actually talk. ‘Have you heard about the Munich Beerhall Putsch?’ ‘You mean the attempt by the crazy man Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party to take over the regional government by force? Thank goodness it failed and he and all his colleagues were arrested!’ ‘Yes, but did you hear he wasn’t sentenced to hard labour, the judge gave him a six month sentence in good conditions and I hear he is dictating his masterwork, Mein Kampf which will set out his core beliefs and ideas for a Nazi-run Germany!’ That’s a caricature but lots of the conversations veer in that direction:

‘Pauli couldn’t come. Pauli’s packing to go off to Vienna…’
‘Vienna? So the Anschluss is happening?’
‘At dawn tomorrow, our troops cross the border. Please God the Austrians don’t start shooting.’ (p.342)

Or sound like Wikipedia articles rewritten into dialogue.

‘They’re not tanks at all,’ complained von Kleindorf, thumping the thin steel of the PzKw IA with his fist. ‘Five metres long, and armed with nothing better than a couple of machine guns. The damned thing only weighs six tons!’ (p.346)

Moral development

Literature courses teach that the classic novel deals with ‘morality’ and this long novel shows in detail how people lived under the Nazis and came to accommodations with them or thrived. One aspect of the novel is to suggest to the reader how any of us would continue to live, seek promotion or take opportunities under a regime which leads us step by step into horror.

The main vehicle for this ‘moral’ thread is Paul, initially the hesitant, clumsy, younger son, who ends up becoming a proficient lawyer and, when his lay clients dry up a bit, takes on work for the local Nazi office in Berlin and finds himself becoming more and more indispensable.

It is Paul who suggests how Hitler can concentrate power in his hands after the death of President Hindenburg by leaving the office of President permanently vacant and superseding it with office of Führer. It is Pauli who devises a short form of sentencing for the SS executioners to quickly mutter before they murder the top brass of the SA in the Night of The Long Knives. And then, very casually, it is mentioned that it is the quiet, patient lawyer Pauli who writes a paper suggesting that the newly formed concentration camps could and should become economically self-sufficient – which helps spur the organisational structure and purpose of the camps right across Europe.

And, in the only really chilling moment of the novel (I have read too many books and seen too many movies about the Holocaust or the fighting in Russia to be shocked by many of this book’s revolting details) Pauli admits that he was only able to prevent Peter’s Jewish wife Lottie being sent to a concentration camp by swapping her identity papers with his father – Harald’s – Jewish mistress in Vienna, Martha. In an electrifying scene Pauli is forced to admit what he has done to his own father who, with hatred in his voice, bans him for the family house or from ever visiting him again.

In such a vast and compendious novel other readers may well find scenes which horrify and move them, but that one did it for me.

Narrative voice

Deighton’s Bernard Samson spy novels are so enjoyable because they are told in the first person in a voice which is persuasively warm and human (lots of stuff about his wife and kids and sister-in-law etc), ironic and questioning (about his espionage work) and, from time to time, dryly funny (especially about his dim Oxbridge bosses). The convoluted plots are – for me – secondary to this very readable voice and to the reassuringly familiar, sitcom-ish quality of the small group of bickering characters who crop up in each book. If the novels are sometimes rather dry and lacking in emotion and depth, well, that can be put down to the narrator’s costive character.

It is in novels told in the third person that Deighton’s lack of interest in the subtlety of human psychology becomes a bit more obvious. In Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, whereas the technical descriptions of the American fighter pilots, procedures and planes are totally convincing, the main emotional relationships – between Jamie Farebrother and his father, and Jamie and his lover – are contrived and unconvincing, and Deighton’s attempts to bring them out, to describe them and extract from them generalisations about human nature, a little trite and superficial.

This novel, Winter, falls into the second camp, the factually super-researched, emotionally underpowered third-person narratives: fascinating in their skilled retelling of technical and historical detail, reassuringly familiar in ticking off all those GCSE Important Dates – often weak in terms of human psychology and characterisation.

Characters from the Bernard Samson books

Winter has the added attraction for Deighton fans of being the fourth in the series of novels about jaded spy Bernard Samson. As the story unfolds we read, with a thrill of recognition, names of characters we have come to know very well in the first trilogy of Samson novels, because we are reading about their parents.

Thus Harald Winter has married into the Rensselaer family, which makes Veronica’s brother, Glenn, Peter and Paul’s uncle. But it is another branch of the family we’re interested in, for when Glenn and Veronica’s mother dies, their father marries again, and it is one of the step-mother’s three children who has a child who will become the Bret Rensselaer who features so prominently in the Samson novels.

It is a thunderbolt when Samson’s father, Brian, makes his first appearance as an enthusiastic young intelligence officer on page 275. He goes on to play a more and more prominent role in the story as he is put in charge of Peter Winter. Peter had been visiting America at the outbreak of the war, is marooned there for years but, at the prompting of his uncle Glenn Rensselaer, agrees to work for the Allies and so is parachuted back into Germany just before the end of the war as an agent for British Intelligence, supervised by Bernard’s dad!

Similarly, as soon as the character Erich Hennig is introduced and becomes an item with Lisl Wisliceny, I realised she is the old lady, Tante Lisl, who Samson stays with whenever he’s visiting Berlin (in the spy trilogy), because it is in her house that his father set up shop immediately at war’s end, was married and raised young Bernard. The scenes of elegant salons, parties and piano recitals which we witness in this novel are her backstory which is referred to in the trilogy.

Another major character in the Samson stories is the German Jew, Werner Volkmann, Samson’s oldest friend. In Winter we follow the tribulations of his father, a fashionable dentist, who sees his practice destroyed by the Nazi boycott and who only survives by the slenderest of margins, becoming a gravedigger in Berlin’s Jewish cemetery, a job no Gentile will do, which ensures his survival.

In fact, it is through old man Volkmann’s eyes that we see the final Russian push into the heart of Berlin, and the terrifying arbitrariness of total war, as his colleagues decide to walk towards the advancing Russian infantry waving a home-made red flag – and are promptly machine gunned and run over by the advancing communists – whereas Volkmann simply sets off home to his wife and young children and himself only escapes an encounter with one of the last-minute SS execution squads because their officer happened to have his teeth fixed by Volkmann 20 years earlier, in the peaceful Weimar days. In increasingly horrifying examples, the novel powerfully demonstrates that it is by such slender threads that our fragile destinies dangle.

Unlike the rather heavy inevitability of the Political Chronology, these touches and flashing insights into the back stories of characters from the Samson novels are unexpected and delightful, giving a distinct layer of pleasure and enjoyment to what is a very enjoyable but very long and too-often wooden narrative.

Conclusion

It’s a challenging book – long, complex, historical – and not really quite a novel if novels are meant to be concerned with character, psychology and motivation. But as a fictionalised account of the disaster years of German history, as a gripping, comprehensive, awe-inspiring and very readable history lesson, and as a storming backgrounder to the Samson spy novels, Winter is a huge and hugely enjoyable read.

Related links

Paperback cover of Winter

Paperback cover of Winter

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

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