Atomic by Jim Baggott (2009)

This is a brilliantly panoramic, thrilling and terrifying book.

The subtitle of this book is ‘The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49‘ and it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. At nearly 500 pages Atomic is a very thorough account of its subject – the race to develop a workable atomic bomb between the main warring nations of World War Two, America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia –  with the additional assets of a 22-page timeline, a 20-page list of key characters, 18 pages of notes and sources and a 6-page bibliography.

A cast of thousands

The need for a list of key characters is an indication of one of the main learnings from the book: it took a lot of people to convert theoretical physics into battlefield nuclear weapons. Every aspect of it came from theories and speculations published in numerous journals, and then from experiments devised by scores of teams of scientists working around the industrialised world, publishing results, meeting at conferences or informally, comparing and discussing and debating and trying again.

Having just read The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira, a ‘biography’ of the theory of relativity, I had gotten used to the enormous number of teams and groups and institutes and university faculties involved in science – or this area of science – each containing numerous individual scientists, who collaborated and competed to devise, work through and test new theories relating to Einstein’s famous theory.

Baggott’s tale gives the same sense of a cast of hundreds of scientists – it feels like we are introduced to two or three new characters on every page, which can make it quite difficult to keep up. But whereas progress on the theory of relativity took place at a leisurely pace over the past 100 years, the opposite is true of the development of The Bomb.

This was kick-started when a research paper showing that nuclear fission of uranium might be possible was published in 1939, just as the world was on the brink of war (hence the start date for this book). From that point the story progresses at an increasing pace, dominated by a Great Fear – fear that the Nazis would develop The Bomb first and use it without any scruples to devastate Europe.

The first three parts of the book follow the way the two warring parties – the Allies and the Nazis – assembled their teams from civilian physicists, mathematicians and chemists at various institutions, bringing them together into teams which were assembled and worked with increasing franticness, as the Second World War became deeper and darker.

If the you thought the blizzard of names of theoretical and experimental physicists, mathematicians, chemists and so on in the first part was a bit confusing, this is as nothing compared to the tsunami of names of Army administrators, security chiefs, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians who are roped in to create and administer the facilities which were established to research and build, first a nuclear reactor, then a nuclear bomb.

Baggott unfolds the story with a kind of unflinching factual pace which is extremely gripping. Each chapter is divided into sections, often only a page long, which explain contemporaneous events at research bases in Chicago, out in the desert at Los Alamos, in Britain, in German research centres, and among Stalin’s harassed scientific community. Each one of these narratives is fascinating, but intercutting them like this creates an almost filming effect of cutting from one exciting scene to another. Baggott’s prose is spare and effective, almost like good thriller writing.

The nuclear spies

And indeed the book strays into actual thriller territory because interwoven with the gripping accounts of the British, Russian, German and American scientists, and their respective military and political masters, is the story of the nuclear spies. I read Paul Simpson’s A Brief History of The Spy a few months ago and it gives good accounts of the activities of Soviet spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greengrass, Theodore Hall, as well as the Rosenbergs. But the story of their spying and the huge amounts of top secret information they handed over to the Russians is so much more intense and exciting when it is situated in the broader story of the nail-biting scientific, chemical, logistical and political races to build The Bomb.

German failure

As everyone knows, the Nazis were not able to construct a functioning bomb before they were militarily defeated in May 1945. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and the main impression from the book was the sense of vicarious horror from the thought of what they’d done if they had made a breakthrough in the final desperate months of spring 1945. London wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.

Baggott’s account of the German bomb is fascinating in numerous ways. Basically, once the leadership were told it wouldn’t be ready in the next few years, they didn’t make it a priority. Baggott follows the end of the war with a chapter on hos most of the German nuclear scientists were flown to England and interned in a farm outside Cambridge which was bugged. Their conversations were recorded in which they were at first smugly confident that they were being detained because they were so far in advance of the Allies. Thus they were all shocked when they heard the Allies had dropped an atom bomb on Japan in August 1945. At which point they began to develop a new line, one much promoted by German historians since, which is that they could have developed a bomb if they’d wanted to, but had morals and principles and so did all they could to undermine, stall and sabotage the Nazi attempt to build an A bomb.

They were in fact ‘good Germans’ who always hated the Nazis. Baggott treats this claim with the contempt it deserves.

Summary of the science

The neutron was discovered in 1932, giving a clearer picture of what atoms are made of i.e. a nucleus with at least one proton (with a positive electric charge) balancing at least one electron (with a negative charge) in orbit around it. Heavier elements have more than one neutron and electron (always the same number) as well as an increasing number of neutrons which give weight but have no electric charge. Hence the periodic table lists the elements in order of heaviness, starting with hydrogen with one proton and going all the way to organesson, with its 118 protons. Ernest Lawrence in California invented the cyclotron, a device for smashing sub-atomic particles into nuclei to see what happened. In 1934 Enrico Fermi’s team in Italy set out to bombard the nuclei of every known element with neutrons, starting with hydrogen (1) and going through the entire periodic table.

The assumption was that, by bombarding elements with neutrons they would dislodge one or two protons in each nucleus and ‘shift’ the element down the periodic table by one or two places. When the team came to bombard one of the heaviest elements, uranium, they were amazed to discover that the process seemed to produce barium, about half the weight of uranium. The bombardment process seemed to blast uranium nuclei in half. Physics theory, influenced by Einstein, suggested that a) this breakdown would result in the release of energy b) some of the neutrons within the uranium nucleus would not be required by the barium atoms and would themselves shoot out to hit other uranium nuclei, and so on.

  • The process would create a chain reaction.
  • Although the collapse of each individual atom would release a minuscule amount of energy, the number of atoms in such a dense element suggested a theoretically amazing release of energy. If every nucleus of uranium in a 1 kilogram lump was split in half, it would release the same energy as 22,000 tons of TNT explosive.

Otto Frisch, an Austrian Jewish physicist who had fled to Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen after the Nazis came to power, heard about all this from his long-time collaborator, and aunt, Lise Meitner, who was with the German team replicating Fermi’s results. He told Bohr about the discovery. Frisch named it nuclear fission.

In early 1939 papers were published in a German science journal and Nature, while Bohr himself travelled to a conference in America. In the spring of that year fission research groups sprang up around the scientific world. In America Bohr realised anomalies in the experimental results were caused by the fact that uranium comes in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The numbers derive from the total number of neutrons and protons in an atom: U-238 has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; U-235 has three fewer neutrons. Slowly evidence emerged that it is the U-235 which breaks down. But it is much rarer than the stable U-238 and difficult to extract and purify. In March 1939 a French team summarised the evidence for nuclear chain reactions in a paper in Nature, specifying the number of particles released by disintegrated nuclei.

All the physicists involved realised that the massive release of energy implied by the experiments could theoretically be used to create an explosive device vastly more powerful than anything then existing. And so did the press. Newspaper articles began appearing about a ‘superbomb’. In April the head of physics at the German Reich Research Council assembled a group devoted to fission research, named the Uranverein, calling for the ban of all uranium exports, and for it to be stockpiled. British MP Winston Churchill asked a friend, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a fission bomb. Soviet scientists replicated the results of their western colleagues but didn’t bring the issue to the attention of the authorities – yet. Three Hungarian physicists who were exiles from the Nazis in America grasped the military importance of the discoveries. They approached Einstein and persuaded him to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt, which was written in August 1939 though not delivered to the president until October. Meanwhile the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September and war in Europe began. At this point the Nazis approached the leading theoretical physicist in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, and he agreed to head the Uranverein, leading German research into an atomic bomb until the end of the war.

And so the race to build the first atomic bomb began! The major challenges were to:

  • isolate enough of the unstable isotope U-235 to sustain a chain reaction
  • to kick start the chain reaction somehow, not with the elaborate apparatus available in a lab, but with something which could be packed inside a contain (a bomb) and then triggered somehow
  • a material which could ‘damp’ the process enough so that it could be controlled in experimental conditions

From the start there was debate over the damping material, with the two strongest contenders being graphite – but it turned out to be difficult to get graphite which was pure enough – or ‘heavy water’, water produced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. Only one chemical plant in all of Europe produced heavy water, a fertiliser factory in Norway. The Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and a spin-off was the ability to commandeer regular supplies from this factory. That is why the factory, and its shipments of heavy water, were targeted for the commando raid and then air raids dramatised in the war movie, The Heroes of Telemark. (Baggott gives a thorough and gripping account of the true, more complex, more terrifying story of the raids.)

Learnings

I never realised that:

  • In the end the Americans built the bomb because they were the only ones with enough resources. Although Hitler and Stalin were briefed about the potential, their scientists told them it would be three or four years before a workable bomb could be made and they both had more pressing concerns. The British had the know-how but not the money or resources. There is a kind of historical inevitability to America being the first to build a bomb.
  • But I never realised there were quite so many communist sympathisers in American society and that so many of them slipped across the line into passing information and/or secrets to the Soviets. The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies.
  • And I never knew that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man put in charge of the facilities at Los Alamos and therefore widely known as the ‘father’ of the atom bomb, was himself was such a dubious character, from the security point of view. Well-known for his left-wing sympathies, attending meetings and donating money to crypto-communist causes, he was good friends with communist party members and was approached at least once by Soviet agents to pass on information about the bomb project. No wonder elements in the Army and the FBI wanted him banned from the very project which he was in fact running.

Hiroshima

The first three parts of the book follow in considerable detail the story from the crucial discoveries on the eve of the war, and then interweaves developments in Britain, America and the USSR up until the detonation of the two A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

  • I was shocked all over again to read the idea that, on the eve of the first so-called Trinity test, the scientists weren’t completely confident that the chain reaction might not spread to the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the air on fire.
  • I was dazzled by the casual way military planners came up with a short list of cities to hit with the bombs. The historic and (by all accounts) picturesque city of Kyoto was on the list but it was decided it would be a cultural crime to incinerate it. Also US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had gone there on his honeymoon, so it was removed from the list. Thus, in this new age, were the fates, the lives and agonising deaths, of hundreds of thousands of civilians decided.
  • I never knew they only did one test – the Trinity test – before Hiroshima. So little preparation and knowledge.

The justification for the use of the bomb has caused argument from that day to this. Some have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering, though the evidence presented in Baggott’s account militates against this interpretation. My own view is based on two axioms: 1. the limits of human reason 2. a moral theory of complementarity.

Limits of reason When I was a young man I was very influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Life is absurd and the absurdity is caused by the ludicrous mismatch between human claims and hopes of Reason and Justice and Freedom and all these other high-sounding words – and the chaotic shambles which people have made of the world, starting with the inability of most people to begin to live their own lives according to Reason and Logic.

People smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, marry the wrong person, drive cars too fast, take the wrong jobs, make the wrong decisions, jump off bridges, declare war. We in the UK have just voted for Brexit and Donald Trump is about to become US President. Rational? The bigger picture is that we are destroying the earth through our pollution and wastefulness, and global warming may end up destroying our current civilisation.

Given all these obvious facts about human beings, I don’t see how anyone can accuse us of being rational and logical.

But in part this is because we evolved to live in small packs or groups or tribes, and to deal with fairly simple situations in small groups. Ever since the Neolithic revolution and the birth of agriculture led to stratified and much larger societies and set us on the path to ‘civilisation’, we have increasingly found ourselves in complex situations where there is no one obviously ‘correct’ choice or path; where the notion of a binary choice between Good and Evil breaks down. Most of the decisions I’ve taken personally and professionally aren’t covered by so-called ‘morality’ or ‘moral philosophy’, they present themselves – and I make the decisions – based purely on practical outcomes.

Complementarity Early in his account Baggott explains Niels Bohr’s insight into quantum physics, the way of ‘seeing’ fundamental particles which changed the way educated people think about ‘reality’ and won him a Nobel Prize.

In the 1920s it became clear that electrons, one of the handful of sub-atomic particles, behave like waves and like particles at the same time. In Newton’s world a thing is a thing, self-identical and consistent. In quantum physics this fixed attitude has to be abandoned because ‘reality’ just doesn’t seem to be like that. Eventually, the researchers arrived a notion of complementarity i.e. that we just have to accept that electrons could be particles and waves at the same time depending on how you chose to measure them. (I understand other elements of quantum theory also prove that particles can be in two places at the same time). Conceivably, there are other ways of measuring them which we don’t know about yet. Possibly the incompatible behaviour can be reconciled at some ‘deeper’ level of theory and understanding but, despite nearly a century of trying, nobody has come up with a grand unifying theory which does that.

Meanwhile we have to work with reality in contradictory bits and fragments, according to different theories which fit, or seem to fit, to explain, the particular phenomena under investigation: Newtonian mechanics for most ordinary scale phenomena; Einstein’s relativity at the extremes of scale, black holes and gravity where Newton’s theory breaks down; and quantum theory to explain the perplexing nature of sub-atomic ‘reality’.

In the same way I’d like to suggest that everyday human morality is itself limited in its application. In extreme situations it frays and breaks. Common or garden morality suggests there is one ‘reality’ in which readily identifiable ideas of Good and Bad always and everywhere apply. But delve only a little deeper – consider the decisions you actually have to make, in your real life – and you quickly realise that there are many situations and decisions you have to make about situations which aren’t simple, where none of the alternatives are black and white, where you have to feel your way to a solution often based in gut instinct.

A major part of the problem may be that you are trying to reconcile not two points of view within one system, but two or more incompatible ways of looking at the world – just like the three worldviews of theoretical physics.

The Hiroshima decision

Thus – with one part of my mind I am appalled off the scale by the thought of a hideous, searing, radioactive death appearing in the middle of your city for no reason without any warning, vaporising half the population and burning the other half to shreds, men, women and little children, the old and babies, all indiscriminately evaporated or burned alive. I am at one with John Hersey’s terrifying account, I am with CND, I am against this anti-human abomination.

But with another part of the calculating predatory brain I can assess the arguments which President Truman had to weigh up. Using the A-bomb would:

  1. End a war which had dragged on too long.
  2. Save scores of thousands of American lives, an argument bolstered as evidence mounted that the Japanese were mobilising for a fanatical defence to the death of their home islands. I didn’;t know that the invasion of the southern island of Japan was scheduled for December 1945 and the invasion of the main island and advance on Tokyo was provisionally set to start in march 1946. Given that it took the Allies a year to advance from Normandy to Berlin, this suggests a scenario where the war could have dragged on well into 1947, with the awesome destruction of the entire Japanese infrastructure through firebombing and house to house fighting as well, of course, of vast casualties, Japanese and American.
  3. As the US commander of strategic air operations against Japan, General Curtis LeMay pointed out, America had been waging a devastating campaign of firebombing against Japanese cities for months. According to one calculation some two-and-a-half million Japanese had been killed in these air attacks to date. He couldn’t see why people got so upset about the atom bombs.

Again, I was amazed at the intransigence of the Japanese military. Baggott reports the cabinet meetings attended by the Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the heads of the Army and Navy, where the latter refused to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In fact, when the Emperor finally overruled his generals and issued an order to surrender, the generals promptly launched a military coup and tried to confiscate the Emperor’s recorded message ordering the surrender before it could be broadcast. An indication of the fanaticism American troops would have faced if a traditional invasion had gone ahead.

The Cold War

And the other reason for using the bombs was to prepare for after the war, specifically to tell the Soviet Union who was boss. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to join the war on Japan and this he did in August, making a request to invade the north island (the Russians being notoriously less concerned about their own troop losses than the Allies). the book is fascinating on how Stalin ordered an invasion then three days later backed off, leaving all Japan to America. But this kind of brinkmanship and uneasiness which had appeared at Yalta became more and more the dominant issue of world politics once the war was won, and once the USSR began to put in place mini-me repressive communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

Baggott follows the story through the Berlin Airlift of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950), while he describes the ‘second physics war’ i.e. the Russian push to build an atomic reactor and then a bomb to rival America’s. In this the Russians were hugely helped by the Allied spies who, ironically, now Soviet brutality was a bit more obvious to the world, began to have second thoughts. In fact Klaus Fuchs, the most important conduit of atomic secrets to the Russians, eventually confessed his role.

Baggott’s account in fact goes up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and it is so grippingly, thrillingly written I wished it had gone right up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he’ll write a sequel which covers the Cold War. Then again, most of the scientific innovation had been achieved and the basic principles established; now it was a question of engineering, of improving designs and outcomes. Of building bigger and better bombs and more and more of them.

The last section contains a running thread about the attempts by some of the scientists and politicians to prevent nuclear proliferation, and explains in detail why they came to nothing. The reason was the unavoidable new superpower rivalry between America and Russia, the geopolitical dynamic of mutually assured destruction which dominated the world for the next 45 years (until the fall of the USSR).

A new era in human history was inaugurated in which ‘traditional’ morality was drained of meaning. Or to put it another way (as I’ve suggested above) in which the traditional morality which just about makes sense in large complex societies, reached its limits, frayed and broke.

The nuclear era exposed the limitations of not only human morality but of human reason itself, showing that incompatible systems of values could apply to the same phenomena, in which nuclear truths could be good and evil, vital and obscene, at the same time. An era in which all attempts at rational thought about weapons of mass destruction seemed to lead only to inescapable paradox and absurdity.


Credit

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott was published in 2009 by Icon Books. All quotes and references are to the 2015 Icon Books paperback edition.

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Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (1988)

This is an awesomely atmospheric, wide-ranging and astonishingly knowledgeable novel. The terms ‘spy novel’ or ‘thriller’ don’t get close to conveying the panoramic reach, the range of characters and places, and the magical depth of research which make it less a novel and more a portrait of an entire continent in crisis.

A spot of biography

Furst, born in New York in 1941, wrote four novels in the late 1970s and early 1980s which weren’t particularly successful. Then in 1984 he was commissioned by Esquire magazine to write about a journey down the Danube. Inspired by the scenery and history of Eastern Europe, he conceived the complex spy thriller, Night Soldiers, published four years later in 1988. This was the first of a series of 12 historical espionage novels all set in Eastern and Central Europe during the dark days of the 1930s and on into the Second World War, which have cemented his reputation as one of the most intelligent and distinctive spy writers of our time.

Night Soldiers is long, at 511 pages in the HarperCollins paperback. It is divided into five sections:

1. Levitsky’s Geese

It is 1934 and after his simple-minded brother, Nikko, is beaten to death by the village fascists, Bulgarian peasant Khristo Stoianev is recruited by a peripatetic Bolshevik talent-spotter, Antipin. He travels down the Danube with his minder, across the Black Sea and then up to Moscow where he joins a spy school run by the NKVD (precursor of the KGB) in Arbat Street. In his class are a number of other characters who reappear throughout the book: Colonel A.Y. Vonets aka Sascha (p.61/415), small intelligent Ilya Goldman, lanky Drazen Kulic, Kerenyi, the quiet Pole Josef Voluta.

After a training exercise in a deserted village in which the results were manipulated by the bosses, Kulic jokingly carves the text BF825 into the train carriage taking them back to Moscow – all it means is a made-up name Brotherhood Front and that unit 8 (his and Khristo’s unit) should have come first, unit 2 second and unit five third (p.88). It is a small joke, but it will resonate through the rest of the book, thousands of miles away and years later.

Claustrophobic terror is the atmosphere of the whole novel, from the very opening when Khristo’s brother is killed, throughout the training period when they see some of their instructors themselves (eg Major Ozunov) denounced as traitors and dragged off for interrogation and execution. In one terrifying scene, Khristo is forced to execute his lover, the tough communist zealot Marike, whose loyalty doesn’t save her. With no explanation he is taken from the training school to an interrogation centre, down into the cells, all the time being told a conspiracy has been uncovered and terrified that it is he who is about to be tortured. But they open the door to a cell and point out the traitor kneeling in the corner of the room and put a gun into his hand, and it is only when he is directly behind her that he realises it is his Marike…

The opening scenes are written in an uninflected language whose simplicity captures of the simplicity of rural peasant life. In Moscow the language becomes more interesting as Furst conveys the stifling terror of Stalin’s purges, and the narrative is packed with tiny details – of Bulgarian village life, food, tradition, or of Moscow’s streets, slang, traffic – which are utterly convincing. Food in particular. After shooting Marike he is taken back to the barracks where the fat old matron is making lunch and she gives him an extra portion of pelmeni, ground pork and onions wrapped in dough and boiled then served with sour cream and hot tea (p.66).

2. Blue Lantern

Madrid 1936. The embattled city is surrounded by the army of General Franco which has staged a coup against the elected left-wing government. Varieties of left-wing political groups and volunteers from the rest of Europe and America are defending the city, with some forces scattered in the country outside. It is here that Khristo (under the nom de guerre Captain Markov) and several of his colleagues from Arbat Street are sent, to support the counter-fascist struggle. Here we meet Andres Cardona, another Russian pretending to be a Spaniard (real name Roubenis), his American girlfriend Faye Berns, their friend Renata Braun. Khristo and Kulic are supervised by the suave NKVD officer and poet Sascha. There are lots of Spanish characters, lots of references to Spanish food and customs and use of Spanish phrases, as well as a thorough grasp of the complex and dark politics of the struggle. This section could almost be a novel in its own right, it has such a powerful atmosphere.

It is named after an incident where a blue lantern is lit by a fascist spy on top of an apartment block containing (unknown to its inhabitants) a big arms dump for the Nationalists. Faye spots it as she is taking turns on lookout duty atop a nearby building and a) bravely goes up the dark stairwell to get it b) moves it to her building, which has a big machine gun sited on the roof. Thus, when a German fighter-bomber from the Condor Legion flies low on a mission to bomb the building with the blue lantern, it finds itself being strafed by machine gun bullets and abandoning the task. Petrol tank ruptured, the plane crash lands in the countryside nearby where, it is strongly suggested, the local peasants show the German pilot no mercy (p.138).

But the revolution is eating itself; Stalin’s paranoia extends even here and Khristo finds himself one of many called in for interrogation by a terrifying General from his own side, General Yadomir Ivanovich Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa, the Lizard. Almost everyone thus called in ends up sent back to Moscow to be tortured and shot – in a powerful scene his control, Sascha, reveals that he too has been ordered home and gives a long drunken account of the infighting at the top of the NKVD which is resulting in entire sections being decimated. So Khristo crawls to the Lizard and begs for another chance. He just makes it, and is told to spy on Cardona, to get something incriminating which the Lizard can a) sell his bosses b) use to get Cardona arrested.

The scene cuts to Kulic, now Lieutenant Kulic commanding a group of Spanish fighters in the Guadarrama west of the city. A city car drives up and he is told by NKVD apparatchik Maltsaev that four of the men are traitors – which means they signed up at some stage with a farming union which has affiliated itself with the anarchist POUM movement. Kulic’s orders are simple – to execute them. He marches them off into the woods separately from the rest of the group, ostensibly to gather firewood, then raises his gun… But can’t do it. He explains his orders and why he is disobeying them, and they nod and head off west towards Portugal. Feeling the same frustration and sense of being trapped as on the training exercise, Kulic carves BF825 into a tree, a minuscule gesture of revolt.

Sascha returns to Moscow where he is given a good desk job and is relaxing when one day he is arrested and starts being beaten and interrogated in the car. They beat him continually until he names and implicates everyone he knows. Seems they were after his superior General Grechko, but along the way Sascha had named Khristo.

Back in Madrid Khristo is at the apartment of Andres and Faye and Renata when they get a phone call tipping them off that they are about to be arrested. Khristo recognises Goldman’s voice; they agree that if they ever get back in contact they’ll use the BF825 sign. The foursome pack and leave in five minutes. Fifteen minutes later the door is kicked down by the arresting party, but they are gone.

They drive north to the French border on a hair-raising journey where the car keeps breaking down and through various patrols and frights. At a little sea port they pay everything they have to an old fishing boat captain who chugs them round the coast and dumps them on the beach at St-Jean-de-Luz, where they are immediately arrested by French police (p.204).

The men Kulic let go are caught by Nationalists near the Portuguese border and tortured to tell their full stories. The information is passed up the chain to a German officer advising the fascists. He turns out to be an NKVD double agent and passes the information that Kulic is a traitor back to Moscow. From here it is passed to General Bloch in the field, who passes it on to his fixer Maltsaev. Maltsaev assigns Kulic and his men an assault on a fascist-held police station in an outlying village. It is a trap. His men are wiped out by machine gun fire and Kulic feels a mortar shell rip off half his face, his eye, then all is darkness.

3. The World at Night

Khristo is in Paris. Through illegal means he forged an identity and finally escaped the French internment camp (Renata and Faye had been released immediately; Andres had produced a forged Greek passport and been released, p.217). Now Khristo has become Nikko Petrov, known to everyone as ‘Nick’, the popular waiter at the Brasserie Heininger, run by the massive shaven-headed Turk Omaraeff. In one heart-stopping moment he is addressed as ‘Captain Markov’, his name in Madrid, but it is by Faye Berns, bumped into in the street by coincidence. They have a long lunch and reminisce about Madrid before she catches her train…

This is another very densely researched, written and felt section, with many characters and details. We get to know the wildly cosmopolitan clientele of the restaurant who assemble every night to party till dawn in the hectic, end-of-the-world mood of 1937, including a number of posh Brits and recklessly rich Americans. We see behind the scenes at the brasseries, where Omaraeff is king. Unfortunately, he knows Khristo is an ‘operator’ and asks him – well, blackmails him – into getting hold of a pistol and training a small group of watchers to establish the comings and goings of Soviet couriers who are routinely taking gold consignments to a Swiss bank in the city. But things go badly wrong. The gold robbery Khristo thinks he’s involved in turns into the assassination of a Soviet courier, Myagin, with several related deaths. And then a murder squad comes to the Brasseries and shocks even its jaded clientele by pulling out machine guns and shooting up the chandelier and decorations before pursuing Omaraeff into the ladies’ toilet and blowing his head off.

In among this mayhem Khristo had advertised in the newspaper using the BF825 signal and, to his amazement, receives a reply and makes a rendezvous with Ilya Goldman, the man who saved his life in Spain. Goldman updates Khristo (and us) about the fates of various characters met either in Arbat Street or Madrid – Sascha arrested, Kulic betrayed by his own side in Spain but then escaped, Voluta the quiet one in Arbat Street turns out to have been an agent for a Polish nationalist organisation, NOV (p.267).

Goldman warns Khristo the NKVD are operating in Paris, tracking down defectors. In fact someone they both know was very publicly hacked to death with an ice pick by NKVD assassins who escaped in a fast car before the cops arrived. Violence from the East has spread its tendrils even into Paris.

Throughout this section Khristo has been consoled by a romantic love affair with the beautiful Aleksandra. Their sensual sex, dressing up and role playing, her warmth and affection are the only things which keep him going. After the meeting with Goldman Khristo hurries back to the apartment but Aleksandra has gone. He finds marks of her fingernails on the wooden doorframes which she clutched onto for a second before being dragged away. She has vanished into the maw of the century of death like so many millions of others.

There is some complex plot: An Englishman named Fitzware tries to recruit Khristo who tells him to get lost, but Fitzware knows a lot about Omaraeff and knows Khristo bought the gun which carried out the Myagin assassination. In the scene with Goldman Khristo tells him that Omaraeff was behind the assassination of the courier Myagin. This information is probably fed back up the chain and leads to the commissioning of the machine gun thugs who murder Omaraeff at the Heininger. In a key scene Fitzware meets with Théaud, a young man in the DST, French equivalent of MI5. Irritated with Khristo for not signing up with him, Fitzware tells Théaud about his involvement in the Omaraeff affair. But Théaud is horrified, because the newly elected Popular front government of France is closely allied with the Soviet Union, the last thing it wants is a scandal implicating their Russian friends. So the pair cook up a solution which is for the French authorities to arrest Khristo, hold the trial in camera to avoid publicity, and imprison him for life.

Khristo moves apartment again, keeping one step ahead of the assassins, but after Aleksandra’s abduction has lost the will to live, spending days staring at the wall or weeping. On 23 July 1937 he is arrested as an accessory to the murder of Omaraeff and sentenced to life imprisonment. The narrative describes the cell, six feet by four feet, the cot bed tied to the wall during the day, the daily meal of mashed lentils and sandy bread, the ‘exercise’ twice a week, for one hour, where he briefly meets the other convicts. The window is thick yellow glass, with just one tiny fragment in a corner broken. Through this tiny hole Khristo can just about see the blue sky, and it is this one fragment of the outside world which keeps him alive.

Surprisingly, he gets a letter from Aunt Iliane, obviously his fairy godmother, Ilya Goldman, telling him that their cousin Alexandre is better after a bad experience and has gone abroad for her health. Khristo reads the letter and weeps and turns over on his cot towards the wall.

Because there’s been such a large and fluctuating cast of characters, because so many of them have been arrested, murdered, executed, killed in combat – the reader easily thinks this is the end of Khristo, leaving us with a very heavy heart.

4. Plaque Tournante

The narrative makes a surprising leap to an advertising company on Madison Avenue, New York, introducing us to bored copywriter Robert Eidenbaugh. To his own surprise he is approached by a friend working for the OSS and recruited. After extensive training he is parachuted into occupied France in autumn 1943. His mission is to base himself in a rural French village and organise resistance. To this end we meet and get to know half a dozen inhabitants of Cambras, their families, their lives and loves, in yet another section which could almost be a stand-alone novel.

After this long excursus it is a surprise to return to Khristo in his cell. Gruelling description of his mental state during his long imprisonment and deterioration. In July 1940 there is a scrap  of paper under his bowl of soup with ‘BF825’ scratched on it, and a time 2:30. At that time he is released from prison by a French priest who walks him through a series of open doors and into the open air. Freedom. Along with many other dangerous men he is being released as the German armies advance into France.

There is a thrilling sequence describing how he arms himself, steals a car and escapes from Paris, charitably stopping to pick up a handful of the most pitiful refugees he sees among the crowds fleeing the capital. He is flagged over by two ageing sisters, Sophie and Marguerite who are trying to help their sick boss, Antonin Dreu, who has in fact had a stroke, on the grass verge by a river. Khristo struggles to give him the last rites in Bulgarian and then the two sisters prevail on him to join them. The boss knew a cataclysm was coming and bought a cottage in the country which he stocked with tinned food. It is too good an offer to refuse, and Khristo hands the keys to the stolen car to his little group of refugees, then gets in the big sedan of the two sisters and drives them to the isolated cottage in the hills.

For several years they live very quietly together, ignoring the war. But Khristo feels increasingly guilty at his inaction and in the winter of 1943 makes himself known to the local Resistance. By January 1944 he has been recruited into the extensive network which Eidenbaugh has organised and leads, though himself under instruction from the shadowy, sleek Frenchman, Ulysse.

Winter turns into spring and a fascinating account of French resistance organisational structure, its tactics, and accounts of its sporadic attacks on German targets and persistent low-level sabotage. The section builds up to an attack on German forces in the village of Cabejac, led by Eidenbaugh under his nom de guerre Lucien. But this turns out to be a trap, the Germans are waiting for them, there is a firefight and Eidenbaugh and Khristo only escape because a little boy whistles to them, and guides them through the maze of back gardens, rooftops and then a long gruelling elbows and knees crawl through a disused sewer out beyond the village boundaries, from where they escape.

They are debriefed by Ulysse, over extended conversations, shown photographs, asked to identify the forces that attacked them. Ulysse tells them the entire population of Cabejac was exterminated by the Germans for collaborating. Eidenbaugh’s nerves are shot. He is being exfiltrated to Switzerland. Does Khristo want to go with him? Yes. So, after a nerve-wracking search of the peasant vegetable cart he is driving as cover by a punctilious German at the border, he finally escapes into Switzerland, to a half-hearted ‘internment’ which in fact amounts to him reading newspapers from his homeland and writing intelligence reports. In one of them he comes across a photo of Faye Berns, now a leading light in the American war effort, and thinks of the days in Madrid.

Bessarabia

It is December 1944 and Ilya Goldman has been buried in a crap job as an inspector of the gold mine labour camps of the river Kolyma. Here, in camp 782, to his astonishment he meets Sascha, the one-time dandy and poet, now a wreck of a haggard survivor, prisoner number 503775, who promptly blackmails his old friend, threatening to tell the authorities about his membership of the sinister BF825 brotherhood unless Ilya can get him a transfer to a camp in European Russia, from which he plans to flee to Romania. The other part of his plan is to get Ilya to convey to Voluta of the Polish NOV organisation, the fact that Sascha wants to defect and bears a lot of valuable information for the West. (As an example he says he knows that operative Andres from Madrid was killed by slow acting poison on orders of the NKVD in 1937.) Sascha will make his way to the village of Sfintu Gheorghe, there to be collected on a certain date. There are some highly believable sequences which show the elaborate lengths Ilya must go to in order to forge the transfer documents for Sascha. But he does it.

In a complete switch of scene which we are by now used to, we see Khristo approached by the American intelligence agency, the OSS and asked to perform a mission in Prague, operation FELDSPAR. He is given some training then parachuted in with a new model of lightweight radio. He hides in a bombed-out factory and his mission is to use the cover of being a Yugoslav munitions worker in order to send radio messages to a specially adapted RAF Mosquito, describing the war effort and situation in Czechoslovakia for his US masters. There is a lot of circumstantial detail, not least the taking of a plump Czech lover, Magda. It is she who stuns him one day by bringing a message from a Mr BF825 to meet at a certain bar at a certain time. Khristo is terrified. Someone not only knows he is here, but knows his past that far back. Is he about to be handed over to the Germans? Executed by the NKVD?

In the bar he is astonished to be met by Voluta, the quiet Pole who Goldman told him had turned out to be an agent for Polish intelligence all along. They don’t speak, but eat separately, till Voluta palms him a note which Khristo reads in the toilets, saying let’s meet on the bridge tonight. But when he goes to meet Voluta, way after curfew, on a dark deserted bridge, he watches helplessly as Voluta is shot dead from a passing car. NKVD? Germans? Not Germans because the rendezvous had been staked out by German intelligence, one of whom follows Khristo back to his bombed-out warehouse base and dies a horrible death.

But Khristo had got enough of the message about Sascha to wind up affairs in Prague. To his amazement Magda helps him escape to Bratislava, by tucking him under the rug in a carful of her friends dolled up to the nines, stinking of perfume and booze which they drive there, getting through every checkpoint on the way by saying they’re going to meet their German boyfriends and show them a good time. Let out of the car in Bratislava, Khristo takes in the bodies of German deserters hanging from the lamp posts and the silhouette of the bombed-out derricks.

He watches in surprise a tug pulling barges full of German wounded being strafed by a Russian jet and then, on an impulse, dives into the wide Danube river and just about manages to swim out to the tug and pull himself aboard by a trailing rope.

Now begins a long rather hallucinatory journey down the river Danube on the tug Tiza, skippered by the immense, confident capable Annika. She doesn’t mind having an able-bodied man to help her out and they form a rough wartime alliance as she sets off in company of several other tugs, back east along the river. At Budapest this rough friendship comes to an end as Khristo is arrested and interrogated by the occupying Russians but then released, he is obviously a river rat and they have bigger concerns as their army fights its way into Eastern Europe. Khristo wanders through bombed-out Budapest and then sets off on foot along the road bordering the river south towards Yugoslavia, becoming progressively more hungry and thirsty, dirty and careless as he proceeds.

He is lucky enough to be hailed by a Russian soldier in a rowing boat, a man who had both legs blown off by a landmine, and would welcome some able bodied help. Khristo rows, the man gives him clean water and food. Near the town of Osijek Khristo sees the insignia BF825 carved into the bow of a rotting barge. He abandons the rowboat and says hello to the old geezer fishing from the barge, who stiffly stands up and takes him to his son.

It is the badly disfigured Drazen Kulic, who escaped from Spain and made it back to his native Yugoslavia to become a partisan. Kulic takes Khristo up to their mountain headquarters. He explains the ‘mission’ – to identify Sascha and protect him until handed over to the Americans, if they show up. He warns Khristo he has a bad feeling about it all; it might be a trap. He takes Khristo up to their little partisan graveyard and shows him the headstone of Aleksandra. Goldman managed to get her safe passage this far south and Kulic protected her until she eventually took up arms and fought with them and was killed in a firefight with the Germans.

Kulic arranges Khristo’s passage on a barge named Brovno. This carries him further down the Danube to the village of Sfintu Gheorge, where Khristo a) witnesses a drunken village celebration, as someone has left the villagers a surprise present of food, fruit and vegetables b) climbs up into the dark attic of the local church, whispering Sascha’s name only for – pop – a gun to flare in the dark and to be shot in the chest. Down the ladder he falls and crawls out into the night eerily lit by flames from the village bonfire and celebration, and down after him comes Sascha, now almost mad, run-down, disorientated. Against all the odds he has made it this far but when he heard a Russian voice his first instinct was to shoot.

As he dies Khristo dreams men approaching and lifting him, a boat, a flying boat, water, engines, all supervised by an American with a machine gun.

In a complete break from this gripping narrative, we are suddenly in Palestine in April 1945, where the tired reception clerk Heshel Zavi at an immigration centre is processing yet more refugees. Number 183 in front of him turns out to be more able and biddable than most of the specimens he sees, and volunteers to help, to become a night watchman, maybe more. This one will go far, thinks Zavi. It isn’t made explicit but this would seem to be Goldman, and the reader is happy that he has survived the bloodbath and the cumulated weight of his story adds to your understanding of the founding of the state of Israel.

The very last  scene moves to a third party point of view, a little in the manner of Graham Greene, who liked to switch things away from his protagonist at the last moment. In Greene it is done to emphasise the author’s despairing world-view and to belittle the protagonists. Here it does the opposite, and the novel ends with a very American happy ending, as two enthusiastic women greeters whose job it is at the New York docks to greet veterans of the European war with fresh doughnuts and coffee, watch an unusual Slavic-looking man, walking with a limp and touching his hand to his left side as if in pain (and that’s what identifies him to the reader as Khristo) look around disoriented as he reaches the bottom of the gangway. A young woman waves to him and they meet, shake hands and then, under the approving gaze of the two greeters, link arms and walk away.

Their names aren’t mentioned but it must be Khristo, patched up and returned to the States by American intelligence after performing sterling work for them, being met at the dockside by Faye Berns, with the very strong implication that, with all their shared memories, they will fall in love.

It is an immensely moving finale to an epic novel, and gives the reader a very profound sense of what America meant to so many people in the later 19th century and throughout the 20th century, escape, a real sanctuary from the terrors of a Europe gone mad, in the most literal sense, the land of the free.


Comments

Tough start The first 60 or 70 pages set in a peasant village in Bulgaria are very slow moving and don’t give any sense of the breadth and scale which the novel will eventually cover, nor the epic range, nor the large cast of varied characters whose stories shed light on a dozen countries. First time round I found it hard getting past this opening, but it is well worth persevering.

Permanent menace Furst establishes the atmosphere of menace right for the start, when Khristo sees his simple-minded younger brother get kicked to death in front of him by local fascists, who then attack a meeting of sympathetic villagers organised by the Bolshevik, killing another man and locking the others into a house which they set fire to. The atmosphere of permanent menace and unease increases in the Moscow of 1934, with the trainee spies under observation at every point. In fact from start to finish you are in a world where every single conversation is the intersecting point of multiple motives, from the personal, to the highly political, via a maze of conflicting power struggles.

Vignettes I came to this book having just read a couple of John le Carré novels, which had very defined lead characters and very strong central narratives. I found Night Soldiers a relief because it was much more contingent feeling: it contains hundreds of anecdotes and vignettes, some only peripherally related to the central characters, and with no very strong sense of a central narrative. For long stretches I wasn’t sure who were the central characters – after Khristo is put in a Paris prison I really thought that was the last we’d hear of him and the new section which begins with the American I thought might signal a completely new series of episodes.

This is a good thing because a) it made the novel a lot less predictable, in fact it made it drastically unpredictable throughout the second half, which made it feel much more tense and interesting; b) it made it feel panoramic: scores of episodes give a powerful sense not just of a handful of lead characters, but of an entire culture, of an entire continent, hurtling to destruction.

Lyricism And, surprisingly for a book which contains so much brutal violence and so much cynical betrayal, there are scenes of great lyricism, especially the moments when Khristo is in his lovers’ apartment with Aleksandre, moments when the smoke for his Gitane cigarette spirals delicately towards the ceiling, or Aleksandre’s silhouette is captured against the skylight, moments which feel like a powerfully atmospheric black and white photo from the era. The very harsh world the characters inhabit is leavened by these moments of sensuality and feeling, to give the whole production a very distinctive, smoky, richly varied flavour.

This is a stunningly brilliant book.


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.

HarperCollins paperback edition of Night Soldiers

The artwork for these HarperCollins paperback editions brilliantly conveys the atmosphere and setting of the novels, with the use of moody b&w shots of some European urban scene with shadowy figures under streetlamps at night. They are credited to Willy Ronis/Rapho/Network.

Related links

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
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 France

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