The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350 by Robert Bartlett (1993)

The sub-title is ‘Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350’ and that is very much the central idea I take from this book – that before Europe embarked on its well-known colonial adventures from 1492 onwards, it had already experienced centuries of internal colonisation.

Another book I’ve recently read, Robert Fletcher’s The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD, has prepared my mind for this idea, with its account of the millennium-long process whereby Christianity was spread across the ‘nations’ (such as they were) of Europe, to the pagan peoples and rulers of the fringes. The final part of that book makes it clear that, after the First Crusade (1095-99), as Christianity was spread along the Baltic and into the last bastions of paganism in Eastern Europe, the evangelising became much more violent. It no longer amounted to a much-venerated saint converting a bunch of open-mouthed peasants by healing a sick girl; it was now about armed bands of knights united in an ‘Order’ – the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the Teutonic Order – who waged fierce wars of conquest into the East, forcibly converting the populations they conquered and building imperial castles to hold the territory they’d seized.

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Europe had to colonise itself, before its rulers went on to violently colonise the rest of the world.

Bartlett’s book aims to make you see that a number of scattered events usually treated as separate entities in siloed national histories, were actually all part of One Really Big Pattern: the spread, by conquest, of a centrally organised, Latin, Catholic Christianised state ideology right across Europe, and that this diffusion came from the heart of the old Frankish empire, from the most technologically and ideologically advanced heart of Europe consisting of north-France, north-west Germany and south-east England (after it had been conquered by the Normans in the 1060s).

Thus:

  • The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s was partly a crude seizure of land and resources, but also involved the imposition on Gaelic Christianity of the much more centrally organised Latin Roman version.
  • A hundred years later, Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the 1280s had a similar aim of imposing a strong, centralised, Latinate organisation onto a culture traditionally made of scores of petty princes.
  • The Scots had already undergone a European-style centralising ‘revolution’ under King David I (1124-1153) and so could muster more resources to resist Edward I’s imperial ambitions – but only at the expense of handing over large parts of southern Scotland to settlement by Normans (and Flemings).
  • This period also saw the Reconquista of Spain, the long effort to push the occupying Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, over the centuries from the reconquest of Toledo in 1085 to the recapture of Seville in 1248.
  • It was also the era of the Crusades (1095 to 1291), which imposed Latin, Catholic Christianity on formerly Orthodox territories in the Middle East.
  • Just before the First Crusade began, Norman troops under Roger I conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from the Muslims (complete by 1091).
  • En route to the Holy Land, King Richard I seized Cyprus from its Greek ruler in 1191, transferring it to Latin rule.
  • And the sack of Constantinople in 1204 led directly to the imposition of Latin, Catholic dioceses and bishops over much of the Byzantine Empire.

The same period saw the campaigns to Christianise the remote regions of northern and north-eastern Europe, now collectively referred to as the ‘Northern Crusades’. These included:

  • The Wendish Crusade (1147) against the Wends of north-east Germany and Poland.
  • The Crusade against the Livonians in the north-east Baltic in the 1190s.
  • The Teutonic Knights prolonged campaign to crush and convert the Prussians in the 1250s.
  • And a series of drawn-out campaigns against the pagan Duchy of Lithuania, the last stronghold of paganism in all Europe.

Moreover, this period also saw internal crusades to impose order and uniformity within Latin Christendom – most notoriously against the Cathars, a heretical sect which had followers across the South of France and which was brutally suppressed in the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ from 1209 to 1229 (named for the town of Albi, which was one of the heretical strongholds).

The Frankish expansion

The animation below shows the first 500 years of the spread of Christianity, the loss of the Middle east and Africa to the Muslims in the 700s and 800s, the Christian fightback – permanent in Spain, transient in the Levant – and then the abrupt worldwide explosion of Christianity commencing in 1500. It’s the first 1400 years or so we’re interested in, the fluctuations in and around the Mediterranean, and the period 950 to 1350 that Bartlett is particularly concerned with.

In a host of ways Bartlett identifies this expansion with the Franks, the Gothic tribe which seized Gaul from the Romans in the 500s and quickly established a centralised state which reached its geographical maximum under the legendary Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. I hadn’t realised that at its peak, Charlemagne’s empire was coterminous with Western Christendom (with the exception of the Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as this map shows. It really was an awesome achievement.

Map of Europe around 800 AD

Map of Europe around 800 AD

William of Normandy who conquered Britain in 1066 was a descendant of the Frankish kings. Frankish aristocrats played key roles in all the conquests of the day, against the Moors in Spain and the Saracens in the Levant, in Sicily and Crete and Cyprus, and in the north pressing into Denmark, into Poland and along the Baltic towards Finland and Russia. Bartlett has a nifty diagram showing that by the late Middle Ages, 80% of Europe’s monarchs were descended from the Frankish royal family or Frankish nobles.

No surprise, then, that the word ‘Frank’ began to be used widely as a generic name for the conquerors and settlers all over Europe – the Byzantine Greeks called the incoming Latins ‘the Franks’; a settlement in Hungary was called ‘the village of the Franks’; the newly conquered peoples of Silesia and Moravia had to submit to ‘Frankish law’; Welsh chroniclers refer to incursions by ‘the Franci’; and Irish monks referred to the Anglo-Norman invaders as ‘the Franks’. Similarly, in the Middle East of the Crusader era, Muslim commentators, kings and peoples came to call all Westerners ‘the Franks’. So widespread and famous was this association, that Muslim traders took the name Faranga on their journeys through the Red Sea eastwards, spreading the term as far East as China, where, when westerners arrived hundreds of years later, they were identified as the long-rumoured Fo-lang-ki. (pp.104-105).

Questions and theories

All this prompts three questions:

  1. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to convert the entire continent?
  2. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to be so centralised; why did it feel so obliged to impose uniformity of ritual and language all across the Christian world?
  3. What gave Latin Christian culture its dynamism – the aggressive confidence which would spill out to the Canary Islands (conquered in the early 1400s), to the Caribbean (1490s), to Central America (1520s), along the coast of Africa (first settlements in Mozambique in 1500), to India and beyond?

1. The first of these questions is answered at length in Richard Fletcher’s book, which shows how the Great Commission in St Matthew’s Gospel (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you‘) was interpreted by successive Church authorities to mean, first of all, gaining some converts among the rich in cities around the Roman Empire; then to convert all inhabitants of the cities; then, only slowly, to undertake the task of converting the rural peasants; and only then, in the 700s and 800s, the brave idea of venturing beyond the pale of Romanitas to try and convert pagans.

The second two questions are the ones Bartlett specifically addresses and he approaches them from different angles, examining various theories and sifting a wide range of evidence. I found two arguments particularly convincing:

2. The centralisation of the Catholic Church. This stems from the Gregorian Reforms, a series of measures instituted by Pope Gregory VII from around 1050 to 1080. They banned the purchase of clerical positions, enforced clerical celibacy, significantly extended Canon law to impose uniformity on all aspects of Catholic practice. As Wikipedia puts it, these reforms were based on Gregory’s

conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in his capacity as a divine institution, he is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the Petrine Commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity.

This gathering of power by the papacy is generally thought to have reached its height under the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216). Innocent further extended Canon Law, upheld papal power over all secular rulers, using the Interdict to punish rulers he disagreed with (e.g. King John of England) and he was personally responsible for some of the violent campaigns we’ve listed: Innocent called for Christian crusades to be mounted against the Muslims in the Holy Land and the south of Spain, and against the Cathars in the South of France.

Making Christian belief and practice uniform was part and parcel of the extension of its power by a vigorously confident papacy, a vision of uniformity which echoed and reinforced the tendency of secular rulers to create larger ‘states’ in which they asserted increasingly centralised power and uniform laws.

3. As to the literal force behind the aggressive military confidence, Bartlett has a fascinating chapter about the technology of medieval war. Basically, the Franks had heavy war-horses, heavy body armour, the crossbow and a new design of impenetrable defensive castles and all of these were absent in the conquered territories, the Holy Land, southern Spain, Wales and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These advanced military technologies gave the better-armed Franks victory – at least until their opponents managed to figure out and copy them for themselves. (The Crusades are a different case – fundamentally the Crusaders lost for lack of men and resources.)

But I was drawn to a subtler cause for this great expansion: in the 9th and 10th centuries the laws of inheritance were hazy and patrimonies and estates could be divided among a number of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles and so on. (One aspect of this is the way that Anglo-Saxon kings were chosen by acclamation, not rigid law; and this uncertainty explains the long English civil war following Henry I’s death between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois, which lasted from 1135 to 1153.)

Thus, along with the imposition of clearer laws and rules within the Church went secular attempts in Frankish lands to regularise secular law, and one element of this was to enforce the previously haphazard law of primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. But this new rigour had unexpected consequences – it forced all the other male heirs to go off looking for land.

In a fascinating chapter Bartlett sketches the histories of several aristocratic Frankish families where one son inherited the father’s entire estate and left the other 3 or 4 or 5 well-armed, well-educated, ambitious sons literally homeless and landless. There was only one thing for it – to associate themselves with the nearest campaign of Christianisation and conquest. Thus the de Joinville family from the Champagne region of France spawned sons who fought and won lands in Ireland, in Africa and Syria. The descendants of Robert de Grandmenils from Normandy (d.1050) won lands in southern Italy and Sicily, served the Byzantine Emperor, joined the First Crusade, and ended up building castles in northern Wales.

So a newly rigorous application of the law of primogeniture provided the motive for forcing dispossessed aristocrats to go a-fighting – the newly authoritarian Catholic Church provided a justifying ideology for conquest in the name of uniformity and iron armour, heavy warhorses, the crossbow and castles provided the technology. Taken together these elements at least begin to explain the phenomenal success of the ‘Frankish expansion’.

Other aspects of medieval colonisation

These ideas are pretty clearly expressed in the first three chapters; the remaining nine chapters flesh them out with a host of details examining the impact of the Frankish expansion on every aspect of medieval life: the image of the conquerors as embodied in coins, statutes and charters; the division of time into primitive pagan ‘before’ and civilised Christian ‘after’; the propagandistic literature of conquest (in various romances and epics); the giving of new Latin place names which over-wrote the native names of the conquered – the Arabs, the Irish, the Slavs; the imposition of new Frankish laws and tax codes; the proliferation of New Towns with Western-based charters, and the creation of hundreds of new villages, laid out on logical grid patterns, especially in eastern Europe. (This reminded me of the passage in Marc Morris’s history of Edward I which describes Edward’s creation of New Model Towns on grid plans in Wales (Flint) but also England (Winchelsea)).

Bartlett presents the evidence for the widespread importation from Christian Germany of heavy, iron-tipped ploughs which were much more efficient at turning the soil than the lighter, wooden Slavic ploughs, and thus increased productivity in the new settlements (pp.148-152). This went hand-in-hand with a ‘cerealisation’ of agriculture, as woods were cleared and marshes drained to provide more ploughing land to grow wheat and barley, which in turn led to significant increases in population in the newly settled lands. (Although as with all things human this had unintended consequences, little understood at the time; which is that the pagan predecessors, though fewer in number, had a more balanced diet which included fruit and berries and honey from woodlands – the switch to a cereal-based monoculture increased production but probably led to unhealthier people. Analysis of corpses suggests there was a net loss of stature in humans over the period, with the average height decreasing by about 2 inches between the early and the High Middle Ages.)

Names became homogenised. The Normans imported ‘William’ and ‘Henry’ into the England of ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Aelfric’, and then into the Wales of ‘Llywelyn’ ‘Owain’ and the Ireland of ‘Connor’, ‘Cormac’ and ‘Fergus’. Bartlett shows how these essentially Frankish names also spread east replacing ‘Zbigniew’ and ‘Jarosław’, south into Sicily and even (to a lesser extent) into Spain.

In a move typical of Bartlett’s ability to shed fascinating light on the taken-for-granted, he shows how the centralisation and harmonisation of the Latin church led to the diffusion of a small number of generic saints names. Before about 1100 the churches of the various nations were dedicated to a very wide spectrum of saints named after local holy men in Irish, Welsh, Scots, Castilian, Navarrese, Italian, Greek, Germanic or Polish and so on. But the 1200s saw the rise of a continent-wide popularity for the core gospel names – Mary at the top of the table, followed by Christ (as in Christ Church or Corpus Christi) and then the names of the most popular disciples, John, Peter, Andrew.

The names of individual people as well as the names of their churches, along with many other cultural changes which he describes – all followed this process of homogenisation and Latinisation which Bartlett calls ‘the Europeanisation of Europe’ (chapter 11).

New worlds and the New World

Bartlett doesn’t have to emphasise it but the parallels are clear to see between the colonisation by violence and crusading Christianity of the peripheral areas of Europe in the 1000s to 1300s, and the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s a mind-opening comparison, which works at multiple levels.

For example, many of the charters and decrees about the new European lands proclaimed them ’empty’ virgin land ready to be settled, despite the evidence of native populations living in well-developed (though non-Latin) settlements – just as publicists for the Americas and, later, Australia, would declare them ’empty’ of natives.

Even when there are obviously natives (Welsh, Scots, Muslims, Slavs) the official colonial medieval literature disparages the aboriginal inhabitants’ lack of literacy, of iron tools or weapons, of orthodox Christianity, of organised towns with advanced codes of law and so on.

‘They’ are in every way uncivilised; ‘we’ in every way deserve to take their land because only ‘we’ know how to make it productive and fertile.

Many of the other histories I’ve read describe the numerous medieval conquests in terms of battles, alliances, troops and armour and so on; Bartlett’s is the only one I know which goes on to explain in great detail that, once you’ve conquered your new territory – you need people to come and live in it. You have to persuade people from the old lands to risk making a long journey, so you have to advertise and give would-be settlers tax breaks and even cash incentives. Settlers in Ireland, the south of Spain, the Holy Land or Livonia were all told how much empty land they could have, were offered tax breaks for the first few years and then reduced taxes for decades after, and the lords and conquerors fell over themselves to give the new towns attractive charters and independent powers to determine their own laws and taxes.

All of these techniques would be copied by the conquistadors in Central America or the merchant adventurers who launched the first settlements in North America, or the colonial authorities desperate to fill the wide ’empty’ spaces of Australia or New Zealand. It is a mind-opening revelation to learn how all these techniques were pioneered within Europe itself and against fellow ‘Europeans’, centuries before the New World was discovered.

Conclusion

This a very persuasive book which mounts an impressive armoury of evidence – archaeological and ecological, in place names, people’s names, saints names, in cultural traditions, church records and epic poems, in the spread of monasteries and universities and charters and coinage – to force home its eye-opening central argument: that the more advanced, centrally organised parts of Europe (north-west France, north-west Germany and south-east England) (all ultimately owing their authority, technology and ideology to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne) succeeded in conquering and settling the rest of less advanced, less developed and non-Christian Europe with the aid of a panoply of technologies and ideologies, legal and cultural and physical weapons – a panoply which Europeans would then use to sail out and conquer huge tracts of the rest of the world.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail. (The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War, having been writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students, and publishers, suggested he write a less scholarly, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result. The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed period, full of intrigue and human stories.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

In fact the book actually feels like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very high level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons – signalling, in the first instance, to China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only, and in the second making significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of those two men.

It is by following the ramifications of this new theory of war, that Gaddis makes sense of the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists, from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of telling dates –

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating, in China accompanied by inconceivable brutality and murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years go.
  2. The revolution which Marx predicted could only happen in advanced industrial countries in fact only took place in very backward, feudal peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of third world basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship and was thrown off the second that tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, mostly peasants. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war. Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because after the Second World War Truman, Eisenhower and their advisers grasped some important and massive ideas: the central one was that America could no longer be isolationist. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from the help formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland – in Europe – and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force. The tradition kicked off with Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader that America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerged – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse. Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea. Because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, it meant the dictators could, in effect, get away with murder – and they did.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe. Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his opinion through his achievement of power in China in 1949 through to Stalin’s death in 1953. This effect lingered on through the 1950s but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites who periodically rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war. This of course presented the West with a great opportunity and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s visits to China and meetings with Mao. The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and traditional enemy Japan to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years in the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers has become considerably more complicated, with increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or third world, and the growth of a would be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations, seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promise
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate. He fascinatingly compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, this act of obvious repression planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a concession, and was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by. When a Czech rock band was arrested, leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights over and above any actual government, of West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, thus solidifying Russia’s grasp in the East. With this defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. The great visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. In Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) he thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail: so instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) similarly, he rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House. Hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons; and when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States.

At the time, as we lived through this in the 1980s, a lot of this seemed reckless and dangerous and the entrenched détente establishment on both sides agreed, so that newspapers and magazines were full of criticism. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling about our ends. A lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise – The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes of the subject. In fact each chapter could well form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi (1982)

The Lord our God, the King of the World, had divided the waters of the Red Sea, and the chariots had been engulfed. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them on quails and manna? No manna descended from the black sky, but only pitiless snow. (p.65)

Primo Levi

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919. He was taking his final exams in chemistry as Italy joined Hitler’s war (June 1940), and then pursued a number of job options designed to conceal his Jewish identity. In 1943, when the situation in the civilian world became impossible for Jews, he joined a partisan group in the mountains outside Turin, but was quickly captured by Fascist forces. He was held in an Italian internment camp before being shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Here his chemistry expertise secured him a ‘good’ job and helped him survive a grim and horrifying year, before the camp was liberated in 1945 and he made his way, via a long detour into Russia, back across a ruined Europe and home to Turin.

Levi took up various jobs in post-war Italy while writing short stories and an account of his year in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo. This wasn’t much noticed when first published in 1947, in a country still prostrate with poverty and wanting to forget the war – but had more impact when republished in 1958. It was translated into English as If This Is a Man in 1959. It was followed by a sequel, The Truce (1963/65) describing his long odyssey home after release from Auschwitz, and then by a trickle of short stories, further memoirs, poems and novels. All depict with unsparing accuracy the horrors which he and tens of millions of others, Jewish and Gentile, had to endure as Europe descended into barbarism and anarchy.

The combination of unflinching truthfulness about the horrors he’d witnesses, and the quiet dignity of his civilised worldview and restrained style, led Levi, by the 1980s, to be considered one of Italy’s leading writers and, in some quarters, as a secular saint.

Narrative levels

The novel operates on least three narrative levels:

  1. The present The ‘present’ of the main narrative which moves forward in simple chronological order, the events of one day or night following the others consecutively. The chapters are long and broken up into shorter sub-sections, a flexible technique which allows some scenes to be described in detail while others move swiftly over months of relative inaction.
  2. The remembered past Most of the many characters in the novel has a back story which we learn about at some point or other. In addition, many of them tell anecdotes about the adventures and travels which brought them to join the partisans. Thus, from the level of the Continual Present, the text repeatedly opens doors into events from the past, recalled around a campfire, over a drink, in the safety of the forest or a ruined building – memories which slowly form a mosaic, the remembered fragments of a lost, an exterminated, civilisation.
  3. History The text is divided into 12 chapters and each of them has a formal date stamp, as the present narrative moves slowly from ‘July 1943’ to ‘July-August 1945’. In the early chapters the events seem to take place in a nameless wilderness and the characters have the archetypal power of types – the silent one, the strong one, the lost one, the angry one – like modern equivalents of The Pilgrim’s Progress or extras from Waiting For Godot. But as the novel progresses, the context of the wider world impinges more and more – especially after the partisans hear over a crackly radio that Mussolini’s government has fallen and the Allies have invaded Italy (September 1943) – and the story is pulled out of its timeless allegory and into the orbit of actual history, becoming less mythical, less archetypal, more the story of individuals in recognisable times and places.

If not now, when?

Levi published If Not Now, When? in 1982 under the Italian title Se non ora, quando? It was translated by William Weaver and published in the US in 1985. Some 40 years after the events it purports to describe.

I was expecting it to be about his time in the mountains outside Turin with the Italian partisans, but it isn’t at all. It is set a thousand kilometres away, in the vast empty spaces of south-west Russia and describes the adventures – or bare survival – of several groups of ‘partisans’ – in fact little more than ragtag groups of men, women and children – who’ve somehow escaped the Germans as they swept into Russia in 1942, and have survived to endure an incredibly harsh hand-to-mouth existence in the wild.

The narrative describes their extended trek across the marshland, forests and fields of Russia and Belarus, across the border into Poland, and then on to Germany. It features a host of harrowing and upsetting incidents along the way, as the group joins and splits from other partisan groups, Jewish and Gentile, and struggles to survive, to kill or sabotage German forces where they can, sustained by hatred, revenge, fear, and the dream of one day journeying to Palestine to start a new life.


Plot summary

Mendel and Leonid

The novel opens with two Jewish men meeting in the woods. Mendel ben Nachman, a watchmaker, is 28. He saw the Jews of his village, Strelka, rounded up by the SS, forced to dig a pit, then shot and buried in it, including his wife, Rivke, his ballebusteh, the queen of his house. Throughout the novel her death and his visions of her body, lying cold and lifeless in a pit of lime and mud, haunt his days and especially his nights. Mendel was dragooned into the Red Army artillery and fought numerous battles before being defeated by the Germans and escaping into the forest.

Mendel is talking to Leonid, trained in paratroop school, caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp or Lager (as Levi always calls them) near Smolensk, who has escaped and lived wild. Mendel has made a base of sorts in the forest, near Valuets, a village near Bryansk, and Leonid has just stumbled across it as the novel opens. They eat, smoke, chat. Two Jews with terrible stories to share and a minimal approach to bare survival in the wild. After a few days a little girl, all unwary, stumbles across the base. She’ll tell the local peasants. They must move on. And so begins their epic trek.

The Uzbek and the Heinkel

Mendel and Leonid meet Peiami Nazenovich (p.14), who’s made a base in a crashed German plane, a Heinkel. They warily chat, then they barter salt for some mouthfuls of a rabbit he’s caught and cooking. Food. Hunger. Barter.

They move on, towards Nivnoye marshes, and come across a larger camp with some scores of ‘partisans’ ie men and women who are surviving in the woods, led by Venjamin Ivanovich (p.33) As they approach the camp, the band are celebrating the end of the war, a bit prematurely since in fact it’s only the overthrow of Mussolini (July 1943). Surely the war can’t last much longer, they sing happily. Little do they know. Venjamin is suspicious of them because they are Jews and, after they’ve been with them a few days, advises them to leave, to press on West towards Novoselki, in the midst of the Polessia marshes, where rumour has it there’s an entire village of hiding Jews, the so-called ‘republic of the marshes’.

The republic of the marshes

The first hundred pages or more of the novel refer to place names but I couldn’t find many of them on a map. They appear to be so generic that there are scores of them scattered across the vast empty spaces of western Russia and Belarus. The landscape – frozen marshes, snow-capped forest, secret hideouts – is as stark and primeval as the elementary human relationships it is describing. Men and women are reduced to their basest needs: food, shelter, a smoke, companionship. It is the minimal landscape, the psychological ground zero of Waiting For Godot (1953).

After walking for more than ten days Mendel and Leonid come to the ‘republic of the marshes’, based on an abandoned monastery hidden in the forest and inhabited by a group of armed Jewish survivors. It is ruled by Dov, in his fifties, who comes from faraway Siberia where the comet exploded and destroyed hundreds of miles of trees. The Germans have not got anywhere near Siberia so he’s one of the few characters who can be confident that his native village still exists and the people he knew will still be alive. Almost all the others know their villages have been burned and everyone they knew murdered by the Germans. Mendel and Leonid are welcomed to the ‘republic’ and given tasks  in the routines of chores, foraging, guarding, cooking, as autumn comes on, August and September.

At which point the group get a tip-off that a German force is in the area, trying to track down surviving partisan bands. There is just time to prepare some defences, to build camouflaged trenches, when the Germans attack. There’s a big firefight with machine guns – the heaviest weapons the partisans possess. The fleetest of foot escape out the back while some see the slower members being caught, lined up against a wall and shot by laughing SS officers. Old Adam was wounded in the thigh and bleeds to death a little distance away. His daughter, Sissla, keeps on, weeping. Ten partisans survived the attack.

Ulybin’s partisans

Dov leads the survivors north where, after weeks of travel, they stumble into guards for a larger band led by a tough man named Ulybin. This is based in three wooden barracks hidden in forest near Turov (p.74). These are Russian and Polish partisans, not Jews. They accept the Jews as allies but, in a series of personal encounters, explain that they finds them strange and uncanny. They tell them they had included a group of Jews, led by the eccentric Gedaleh Skidler, but he didn’t get along with Ulybin and, after one almighty argument, Gedaleh had led them off.

Some Red Army officers appear with information and supplies. Dov, injured at the monastery and visibly aged since, reluctantly goes off with them, to what they all refer to as ‘the Great Land’, meaning Russia, free Russia unoccupied by the Germans, but making it sound like a country from an allegory.

In another sequence the partisans discover a handful of Germans have built a triangle of fires a few days march away, which they are lighting to get German planes to drop supplies. Ulybin selects a group of the fittest men to carry out a small mission, to walk across country to the strip, to shoot the handful of Germans who man it, and create an alternative drop zone a mile away, then returning to the barracks with their booty (p.103). All goes according to plan, and the partisans feast their eyes sorting through the food and munitions. But next night the German planes drop bombs fly low over the fake landing zone and drop bombs instead of supplies. Somehow they’ve learned about the partisans’ trick. Several men are killed by the bombs.

The Gedalists go their own way

To everyone’s surprise, twenty or so pages after he went off to ‘the Great Land’, Dov returns with Russians bearing supplies, and accompanied by the troupe of Jewish partisans led by Gedaleh. They had been in Lyubin when the Germans took it and killed all the Jews they could find. They escaped into the woods and here they are. Gedaleh holds a summit meeting with Ulybin. Ulybin’s men have been ordered East to join up with Red Army forces. Gedaleh considers he has different aims, to head West, harass the Germans, and break through the line.

The survivors split into two groups, Gentiles going with Ulybin, all the Jews deciding to follow Gedaleh, plus one token Russian, Piotr, who can’t explain it but feels he’s come to like and respect the Jews. There is a moving scene where he tries to put into words why he likes them, egged on and ridiculed in equal parts by his Jewish audience. It is one of the many scenes where the nature of Jewishness – what is it to be a ‘Jew’ – is discussed, probably the most prominent theme in the book.

The rest of the novel follows the epic trek of Gedaleh and his thirty or so partisans who come, over a period of time, to refer to themselves as the ‘Gedalists’. Gedalah is much more emotional and unpredictable than Ulybin. He used to be a shoe salesman and keeps an old violin with him in homage to the time it stopped a bullet going for his heart, at Luninetz, and which he later ironically decorated with a medal taken from a dead Hungarian. He partners off with one of the five or so women in the group, plain, lazy, bubble-bursting Bella. Gedaleh’s mercurial character, his flashes of humour, his impulsive decisions, his quickness to take up the violin and start playing a Jewish folk tune, are a major flavour in the rest of the book.

In the windmill

After weeks of trekking, the Gedalists hide out in an abandoned windmill miles from anywhere. One of the youngest in the group, Isidor, can’t stop himself paring away the mould from the walls and eating it. He is 17, and hid from the Germans in a hole under a stable with the rest of his Jewish family for four years, until the peasants hiding them had milked them of all their money at which point they betrayed them to the Germans. Isidor, who happened to be taking one of the rare permitted walks into the woods at the time, returned to watch, from hiding, a squad of teenage Nazis beat his mother, sister and father to death. He ran away, survived for weeks in the wild, then stumbled upon the group, but has been mentally disturbed ever since, given to compulsive behaviour and obsessed with fantasies of revenge.

On one of the peaceful evenings, Gedaleh plays folk tunes on his violin and then an arrangement of a long poem by a Jew, Martin Fontasch. Gedaleh tells his story. Martin was a writer who escaped to join a partisan band. When the Germans captured him they gave him thirty minutes to write a last poem, before they shot him.

Do you recognise us? We’re the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight.

If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when? (p.127)

Here, as in scores of other memories and vignettes on almost every page, the novel stuns and appals with the understated way the characters share stories of horror and unendurable suffering. Each of them is a survivor and a witness to barbaric atrocity.

Along the trek, Leonid who we first met in the opening pages, had paired off with Line, a skinny, blonde woman named after the English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. But one night Mendel, overcome by memories of his dead wife and exterminated village and, very characteristically, recalling the women and love affairs of the Patriarchs and Elders from the Old Testament, finds himself seducing Line. They silently climb the stairs to the windmill’s rickety upper floors and make dry, sad (and, one imagines, very dirty) love. But Line was the only thing keeping Leonid together and next morning he is gone, along with a machine gun, to Geladeh’s fury.

The relief of Chmielnik

Having crossed the border from Belarus into Poland, the Gedalists hear from locals about a small concentration camp or Lager at the nearby town of Chmielnik, and go on a mission to liberate it (p.170). There is a great deal of tension on the long walk through the snow to get there and they arrive only to discover they are too late to save most of the inmates, who have been shot and incinerated. The air of the surrounding area is heavy with the ashes of incinerated human beings. Behind the barbed wire fence remain only ten walking skeletons.

The partisans approach carefully, realising the watchtowers are abandoned, their machine guns gone, but there are one or two guards patrolling the perimeter. The terrifying character known as Mottel the throat-cutter silently kills the ones out patrolling, and then the partisans attack the guardhouse with grenades. At least one guard survives and prompts a prolonged firefight, before they storm the building, finish off the wounded and drag the officer outside. The partisans bicker and quarrel about what to do until the German stands to attention and says, ‘Get on with it’, and they shoot him.

In the brief firefight Leonid, who had rejoined them, is shot dead. He had given up the will to live anyway. But not as much as the Lager inmates. Only one will even walk out the gates, and he hasn’t gone far into the woods with the partisans before he asks to go back.

The Free Polish Army

The Gedalists hear that there’s a long goods train in a siding at a town nearby, Tunel, and go to loot it then sabotage it. Here they are unexpectedly surrounded by armed men led by Edek, 23, leader of a squad of the Free Polish Army, the Armia Krajowa, and Marian, his experienced sergeant. The Gedalists are disarmed while Edek seeks guidance from his superiors (p.184). The Gedalists settle into a modus vivendi with the Poles.

In November the Polish Army group picks up a distress call from a group of fellow Poles surrounded by Wehrmacht forces in the nearby Holy Cross mountains (p.196). The Gedalists volunteer to help, and set off accompanying Edek’s Poles to travel across country for several days. When they arrive, the mountain is shrouded in fog. They make their way slowly to the summit, intending to surprise the surrounding Germans, and so help the besieged forces escape. But the firefight which kicks off is very confused, it’s never clear where the enemy actually is, and after chaotic firing and explosions, they appear to disappear altogether into the fog.

As our guys climb the mountain they discover nothing but dead bodies and a fortress at the top completely filled with emaciated corpses. The Germans had starved them to death then left. Once again they are too late. Once again the forces of Death triumph. The Jews lament and Mendel, who has emerged as a moral focus of the text, wonders why, why does evil prevail?

The Russians arrive

Back at the barracks the partisans are celebrating a wedding. A while earlier Gedaleh had suggested that a way to ‘cure’ young Isidor might be to make a man of him, to take his virginity and the woman they call White Rokhele, ten years older, had obliged. Now they are very definitely an item and Rokhele comes to Mendel, who has established a sort of authority, as a man who knows prayers and sprinkles his conversation with Biblical blessings and references, asking him to marry them.

In the middle of the celebrations, a terrifying bombardment kicks off, deafening everything, a monstrous barrage of shells and munitions screaming overhead, some landing terrifyingly close. Initially the Gedalists think it’s a German attack on them, but then realise it’s actually a full scale attack by the nearby Russians on the German lines. The front line of the war in the East has crept up to them and now is passing right over them (p.210).

In the midst of the chaos one of the partisans on guard duty outside crashes through the door, clutching a man they think might be a spy, named Schmulek, who he found prowling round just before the bombardment began. But Schmulek claims to be a partisan like themselves and begs to be allowed to take them to his hideout. Amid the deafening din of the shells, some of the Gedalists follow Schmulek through the woods to a well. In its walls are embedded steps down which they clamber to find the entrance to a cave. In fact to a warren of caves. At one stage, Schmulek tells them, 200 Jews took refuge here. Now all of them are dead except him – in the middle of this chaos more memories of atrocity and murder. Our partisans cower in the dark, listening to the inhuman rage of the guns over their heads.

The schoolhouse at Wolbrom

Next morning, when they emerge from the well-cave into the unnaturally quiet landscape, it is to find the well surrounded by laughing Russian soldiers. A political commissar turns up and the mood changes. He rounds up the other survivors from the Gedalists’ ‘barracks’, and they are disarmed and driven off to the nearby town of Wolbrom. Here the Red Army authorities accommodate them in an abandoned school and feed them, they are treated alright, even though the commissar is sceptical about their story of being real genuine fighting partisans. He thinks Jews can only be helpless victims. But while they await some kind of orders from above about what to do with the Gedalists, and the weeks go by, right-wing Poles start to hassle them. First they daub anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, then chuck a Molotov cocktail through the window. It is time to leave (p.221).

The Lager at Glogau

The Gedalists steal a lorry from a vast vehicle dump near the railway station and head West towards Glogau, just inside Germany (though, after the war, it became part of Poland). The high anxiety of stealing the lorry at night, and then the bickering and arguing about who should drive the truck (since none of them know how to drive) are described with deadpan humour. But some days down the road they run into a platoon of Red Army soldiers under the command of an angry corporal who impounds their vehicle and they are again detained – but this time behind the barbed wire of the former Lager or concentration camp at Glogau (p.230).

But it is not under concentration camp conditions. Once again they are fed and watered by the Red Army. And the officer in charge is a puzzle: he claims to be named Smirnov, Captain Smirnov, but Mendel and the others suspect he is a Jew pretending to be ethnic Russian.

One by one Smirnov calls the partisans in for interviews. To Mendel he explains that he wants them to write their story. He wants a record made of this vast panorama of chaos and destruction and suffering. The Gedalists mingle with other camp inhabitants and hear their – generally horrifying – stories. A French woman in particular recounts her long harrowing journey from Paris high society to the lowest pit of hell in a concentration camp. It is just the latest of the many harrowing accounts which stud the text, which make it not just the story of a handful, but emblematic of an entire generation, of an entire race hunted to near extinction.

Eventually it is May 1945. The Gedalists wake up one day and all the Russians are gone. The camp gates are open. Smirnov leaves a note telling them where to find a stash of machine guns and ammunition. The Gedalists move out, heading west further into Germany.

Vengeance in Neuhaus

The end of May finds them at the German village of Neuhaus, near Dachau. The German army has surrendered. The Americans are in charge. The towns and roads are packed with displaced persons trying to find their way home. In Neuhaus they find themselves among a crowd of Germans, who mutter anti-Semitic insults. Suddenly there’s a shot from somewhere, and the woman they call Black Rokhele slumps to the ground and quickly dies (p.241). The crowd vanishes, it is impossible to tell who did it.

That night the male Gedalists go on a revenge attack, breaking into the local Rathaus or town hall, killing the bodyguards, throwing grenades, executing all the men they find. Ten Germans for one Jew. Exactly as the Germans did in so many of their occupied territories. And, being Jews, they debate it fiercely afterwards: is revenge justified? Bible heroes carry out vengeance, so does God condone or forbid it? If it’s wrong why, as Jozak says, does it feel so right?

Mendel, who has emerged as the reader’s representative in the text, simultaneously the most Jewish (the most learned in Bible teaching and Talmudic law) and the most sceptical of the group, can’t decide. To be a Jew seems to involve being endlessly plagued with questions and anxieties.

But mostly, the Gedalists just want to get out of Europe, out of this place where there is no safety and no escape from endless persecution and contempt.

They hand themselves into the American authorities, who note their names, then let them go on their way, in their easygoing  Yankee manner – so unlike the murderous Germans or suspicious Poles or unreliable Russians. They walk on to Plauen, to the big railway station here, on the main Berlin to Italy line (p.246).

Train to Italy

The Geladists find a derelict house in the town to make a base and set about bartering for food. Over the next few days Geladeh chats up one of the men who works on the German railroad, who plays the flute. They are to be seen playing flute and violin duets. Abruptly, one night, Geladeh announces he’s got his railway friend to arrange for an entire carriage on the next train heading south to be made available to them. It’s a hush hush operation and in the middle of the night the surviving 31 Geladists pack their few belongings into the carriage, which the railroad man attaches to the long locomotive. The whistle blows and it sets off chuntering slowly south towards Italy.

The British Army Jews

At the border of the Brenner Pass, the train is stopped and the carriage opened by British Palestine Jews, operating with the British Army but licensed to help and rescue surviving Jews (p.256). There follows a long discussion about whether to accept their help or not during which their spokesman, Chaim, lays out the merits of going to Palestine but on condition they hand over their weapons at the border to the Allied border guards and declare themselves stateless persons. After much debate among the group, they agree.

Milan

The train rumbles into the bombed-out central station at Milan. The British Army Jews had given them the address of the Assistance Centre for Jews in the city. Processed through here, they are sent out of the city to a farm in the countryside, where the Geladists are housed in peace and comfort, where there is regular food, all they have to do is help with the farm work, sometimes loading rather heavy crates, which they suspect are full of weapons, onto trucks (p.266). All of them now want to leave Europe and make their way to Palestine to found a new state, a state where Jews won’t live in fear.

They are surprised to be invited to a party in the city, given by a very swanky fashionable couple. Four or five go and find themselves completely ill at ease among city dwellers, a type none of them have ever known, and who poke and prod them like zoo animals. ‘If they knew everything we’d done, they’d be scared of us,’ says Mendel (p.269). And the reader has become so inured to the hardships and horrors of their journey, that we too feel uncomfortable – we resent the tourist superficiality of the well-heeled Milanese who seem to have come through the war unscathed and enjoy the frisson of talking to real genuine partisans!

In the middle of their embarrassment, there’s a phone call from the farm. Their comrade, the one they call White Rokhele who Mendel married to Isidor on the night of the great bombardment, and who the text has recorded becoming more and more heavily pregnant over the past few months, has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital.

With relief the Gedalists exit the party and catch a taxi to the maternity hospital, there to meet with their comrades, Izu, Bella, and the baby’s father, Isidor, the one who saw his own family beaten to death by the SS, the one who Rokhele ‘healed’ with love and sex, now pacing the room like any expectant father.

It is a painful labour, there are complications, doctors and nurses rush in and out and tell our guys to be patient, while all along I had a bad feeling that God (and the author) might pull one more brutal hurt from his bag.

But no – Rokhele is safely delivered of a baby boy. And as the small group huddle round laughing and celebrating, another group, of nurses and doctors, is huddled round a newspaper that’s just been brought in, with an enormous headline. A new kind of weapon, an atomic bomb, has been detonated at a place in Japan named Hiroshima. And on this ominous, on this world-threatening note, the novel ends.

New life has come into the world. The mother’s friends celebrate. But a new technology which could end the entire world and place all previous barbarity in the shade, has entered at the same moment. God and the author have left a bitter blow to the end, not the one I expected, one much bigger and which shadows our lives to this day.


Jewish

‘A dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent’ (p.5)

The book is saturated in Jewish traditions, Jewish proverbs, Jewish stories, Jewish music and humour, rabbinical teachings, with numerous characters referring to (what we Gentiles call) ‘Old Testament’ characters, as if they lived only recently, as if their lives provide useful examples of how to behave now, people to compare ourselves against, here in the midst of the worst calamity humankind has ever known.

He, Mendel, if they were to ask him his age, and he decided to answer sibcerely, what would he say? Twenty-eight, according to his papers, a bit older when it came to his joints, his lungs and heart; ans on his back a mountain of years, more than Noah and Methuselah. Yes, more than they, since Methuselah begot Lamech at the ripe old age of one hundred eighty-seven, and Noah was five hundred when he brought Shem, Ham and Japheth into the world, six hundred when he built the ark, and a little older when he got drunk for the first time… No, he, Mendel the watchmender, roaming about the woods, was older than they. (p.23)

Many of the characters speak only Yiddish, and the book is alive with the language itself, and its traditions, stories, jokes and riddles, with its peculiar kind of argumentative wisdom, with its vivid words and phrases.

‘You’re a nebbish, a loser, a meshuggener.’ (p.30)

And also rings with the prayers and blessings and the age-old laments of persecuted Jews, updated to reference all the innovations of modern evil:

The Holy One, blessed be He, why was he hiding behind the grey clouds of Polessia instead of succouring his people? ‘You have chosen us among the nations’: why us exactly? Why do the wicked prosper, why are the helpless slaughtered, why bare their hunger, mass graves, typhus, and SS flamethrowers into holes crammed with terrified children? (p.61)

Why indeed? And why – everywhere they go – the unremitting hostility, anger and hatred of almost all the Gentiles, the contempt, suspicion, spitting, threats and violence, the Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred, why the virulent genocidal anti-Semitism which the characters experience or recall on almost every page?

The novel offers no answers, no redemption, except for the vitality of the text itself and the words and memories and lives and consciousnesses of the characters it creates. Implicitly, its message is that People are our salvation. There is no God. There is no Heaven. Life. Being alive. Living, breathing, thinking, are the greatest, the deepest, the fathomlessly profoundest gift. Everyone who spits on Life, holds Life cheap, who kills, alienates himself from the God who made us.

The story is its own justification. It bears witness to atrocities and suffering beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine. Yet it pulls and gathers this unspeakable horror into the great European art form, the novel, which proves able to takes all the abuse which can be hurled at it, only to emerge stronger and more powerful.

Not many writers can really be called ‘wise’. Many, especially many British and American writers, are merely provocative – creators of brands and personas which are good for a quote or a facile phrase, poolside entertainers, producers of fictions which morph seamlessly into TV dramas or Hollywood movies.

Levi is different. Even translated into another language, his books have a depth and dignity in their phrasing and rhythm, a restraint which accepts the full depths of horror but doesn’t give in to hysteria or despair, effortless insight into extremes of human psychology, which lift him onto another plane.

This is an astonishing novel, resonating on countless levels, which deserves to be read and reread and reread, to appal, to terrify, to teach and to inspire.


Credit

Se non ora, quando? by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi Editore, Turin in 1982; in English translation by Simon and Schuster in 1985; by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1985. All references are to the Abacus paperback edition of 1987.

Related links

Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is on Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomo – If This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La tregua – The Truce (trans: 1965)
1966 Storie naturali – Short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of Jewish ‘partisans’, from Russia, through Poland and Germany into Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance amidst the collapse of European ‘civilisation’.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

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

Hope by Len Deighton (1995)

‘There are more important things in life than money, Bernard,’ she said.
‘Prove it,’ I told her. (p.301)

This is a cracking book: by turns complex, puzzling, full of pungent local colour, humorous and touching.

Spying as soap opera / Espionage as sitcom

From the previous seven novels about the 40-something MI6 agent, Bernard Samson, his wife and kids and father-in-law and sister- and brother-in-law, and old friends in Berlin and the gang of eccentrics who (apparently) populate the European Department of MI6, we have become as familiar with the cast of these novels as with the characters in a favourite soap opera or sitcom.

In the first trilogy Samson realised his wife was a Soviet double agent, and the set climaxed with her bolting to East Germany. In shock he takes comfort in a new relationship with glamorous young Gloria, who also works at the Department. In the second trilogy Samson slowly realised that his wife was, after all, a triple agent, only pretending to work for the KGB while all along the plan was for her to ‘defect’, infiltrate the East German set-up at a high-level, report back solid gold intelligence and foment insurrection among East Germany’s churches and civil society.

This second trilogy climaxed with Fiona’s escape from the East once her mission was up – but the escape was badly bungled. In a rainswept layby on an Autobahn between East and West there is a very messy shootout in which several KGB agents were shot dead as well as Fiona’s own sister, Tessa, there, apparently by chance having clambered into Bernard’s pickup van drunk from a party. Samson does some of the shooting and they both witness Tessa being mown down before he sweeps Fiona into the pickup van, drives into the West, loads her into a waiting plane and they both fly out to California to recuperate and be debriefed at the luxury home of American MI6 agent, Bret Rensselaer.

The second trilogy added the twist that the third novel in the series was the first not to be told in the warm first-person persona of Samson, but narrated by a detached third-person narrator. This objective version of events takes us all the way back to 1977 to show the genesis and slow incubation of the Fiona Plan, codenamed Operation Sinker (hence the titles of the second trilogy, Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker) seeing things mainly from Fiona’s point of view and showing how the plan was conceived by Bret and signed off by the doddery old Director-General and the wily éminence grise of the Department, old Silas Gaunt.

The impact of this sixth book, Spy Sinker, is devastating to the reader of the series, upsetting loads of our preconceptions. It shows Samson as a rather pitiful patsy, wholly unaware of the conspiracies going on around him, unaware that his wife is a double agent, let alone a triple agent, something almost everyone else knows about, even his best friend, Werner Volkmann. Most upsetting is the way the death of Fiona’s sister, Tessa, at the ill-fated shootout, is revealed to have been not a ghastly accident, but part of a horrible plan to try and convince the KGB that Tessa’s badly-burned body is really Fiona’s, so the Stasi/KGB will think that Fiona didn’t succeed in defecting and will carry on using the old codes and security protocols for a bit longer. The story is given out that Fiona was killed and that Bernard has run off with her sister Tessa.

This seemed, when I read it, grotesquely improbable and needlessly violent. It also seemed fundamentally stupid because sooner or later Fiona would resurface, the other side would know they’d been fooled – and Bernard would, presumably, eventually return to London, and everyone who’s been told the cover story of his elopement with Tessa would realise they’d been lied to and want to know by who and why. It seemed cack-handed, solved nothing and created untold problems for the callous nitwits who conceived it.

Deighton’s Secret Intelligence Service

In fact Deighton’s entire depiction of the SIS is very odd. It reads more like the staff room at Hogwarts or the Addams Family. At the top is the Director-General of the SIS, Sir Henry Clevemore, who is portrayed as a senile headmaster, cloistered in an incredibly cluttered, dingy office, littered with ancient books and forgotten paperwork, refusing to use a computer or allow his staff to, and accompanied by a filthy ancient Labrador who slobbers and growls under his desk (and which at one point bites Dicky, drawing blood).

The power behind the throne is Silas Gaunt, a canny old posh man who lives in a decaying mansion in the Cotswolds where the other characters regularly go for bracing country weekends, gossip and off-the-record briefings. He comes on as an uncle figure for Samson but in Spy Sinker we learn that he lied his head off to Samson for years about the Fiona Plan of which he was a prime mover.

Dicky Cruyer is the preposterously dim, flashy desk jockey who has manoeuvred his way to becoming Head of Operations, then Controller of Europe. Samson does nothing but take the mickey out of him, laughing at his ludicrous outfits (faded jeans and cowboy boots!), his taste in music (Elvis Presley played on a tinny cassette player) and his steady stream of tawdry affairs with younger women which are driving his sweet if pretentious wife, Daphne, to drink.

Off to one side is the ageing American, Bret Rensselaer, who was head of an Economics Unit in the early books but found his empire being sidelined, before being suspected of himself being a double agent, and then badly wounded in a shootout in Berlin. He disappeared off to the States, at first thought dead, then we are told he is recuperating. First of all, what the devil is a Yank doing in the SIS? Don’t they have their own intelligence services? Can’t we staff our own secret service? Number two, what is going on when, at the end of Faith, it is revealed that Bret – old, white-haired, wounded and you’d have thought, well past it – turns up and we learn he is moving back into the London office as temporary Deputy Director-General. This is funny insofar as it scuppers Dicky’s scheming for promotion. But surely the antics of all of these grotesques is some kind of comedy or satire?

For is the SIS really like this? Was it really like this in 1987, at the end of the Cold War? I can’t believe it. I’ve worked in UK government IT for some years, and the whole point about a bureaucracy is that it has hundreds, if not thousands of people, all drafting memos, reports and proposals and then having hundreds of meetings to discuss them. a) Deighton’s portrayal of the Department makes it sound as if there are only four or five notable people in it, and b) they spend all their time discussing each other and Samson’s private life and c) it makes these senior personnel sound like characters from a freak show. It chimes with neither le Carré’s sober depiction of cunningly scheming public schoolmen nor Frederick Forsyth’s depiction of super-slick modern professionals.

Thus the scenes featuring any of these characters, even when they’re discussing grown-up spy stuff, feel essentially comic in conception, with a cartoonish unreality. This, along with Samson’s steady stream of sarcastic but essentially affectionate commentary on them and his family and job, explain the friendly, sitcom feel of the books. They’re so quick and enjoyable to read that the occasional interruptions of some kind of violence – stabbings or shootouts – come as unexpected shocks, as if someone got shot dead in an episode of Friends.

Faith

In the first of this third and final trilogy, Bernard and Fiona return to London and resume their working and domestic lives almost as if nothing had happened. Tessa’s husband, George, has left the country for tax exile in Switzerland, letting them move into his luxury flat in Mayfair. They both go back to work in the MI6 building and are soon gossiping about the ups and downs in the bureaucracy which really boils down to how their boss, Dicky Cruyer, is faring in his schemes to become Deputy Director General. Both of them have to deal with the presence of Gloria, the gorgeous young woman half Samson’s age, who he took up with after Fiona’s ‘defection’ and now is struggling to drop and forget; a struggle made impossible by the fact that she, too, works for the Department, in the same building, even on the same floor.

The novel is ostensibly concerned with arranging the defection of a KGB colonel, code-named VERDI, who’s been instrumental in migrating all the KGB’s data to a new computer system and so would be able to provide a gold mine of information. After several hundred pages of false trails and dead ends, VERDI is successfully transported across the Wall and to freedom in the West. Samson and his long-time German buddy Werner Volkmann are given the job of protecting him and beginning his debriefing when, not unexpectedly, VERDI is assassinated by a sniper.

He is bumped off immediately after he’s told Bernard and Werner a completely different version of the Fiona shootout than the one we read in Spy Sinker, namely that Tessa was never killed, it was a woman KGB officer that was following Fiona who was shot, Tessa was in fact captured by the East German secret service and is currently being held in prison.

Really? But before anyone can interrogate VERDI further, bang! he’s shot dead by an assassin. Was he a plant? Was his sole function to sow the seed of an alternative narrative of Fiona’s escape and Tessa’s death? Who would benefit from such a thing? Well, Silas and Bret and the higher-ups in the Department who conceived the wicked plan to kill Tessa to facilitate her sister’s escape would be off the hook if this version is believed; and anything bad which subsequently happens to Tessa could be conveniently blamed on the KGB or Stasi.

Having been shown in Spy Sinker how completely ignorant Samson is of every important thing that was going on around him, it’s impossible to read his analysis of events with any confidence. No doubt that’s the aim, to create the dramatic irony that we the readers now know more about things than the narrator: in fact at one point there is an immense moment of dramatic irony, when Samson moans about why he always knows far more about what’s going on than anyone else:

What was wrong with me? I never made sufficient allowance for the slowness of people like Rupert, Dicky and Bret and the rest of them. They never understood what was really happening. (p.279)

As we now sadly know, nothing could be further from the truth, Bernard is completely deluded. And yet for all that we know this, the warmth of Samson’s narrating voice and the humour of the oddball cast of characters tend to outweigh the intended ironic situation. I find the comic scenes and dialogue more immediately engaging than the multiple levels of intrigue which may, or may not, be playing out. Even when I don’t fully understand what’s going on, I enjoy the voice.

Hope

Once again, according to Deighton the main focus of MI6 in the year 1987, as Gorbachev promoted perestroika and glasnost, as the Baltic republics became restive, as the Poles demonstrated in favour of Solidarity – was investigating the family affairs of Bernard Samson, namely trying to get to the bottom of the puzzle, Who Killed Tessa?

This novel, part two of the final trilogy, circles around the attempts by Tessa’s husband, George Kosinski, to get to the bottom of her death.

Chapters

1 Mayfair, October 1987 Opens dramatically with a man ringing the doorbell of the flat Bernard and Fiona have inherited from her dead sister, Tessa. Bernard answers and the man stumbles inside, badly stabbed and bleeding. Moments later Bernard’s brother-in-law George Kosinski arrives to take charge: the man is one of his more dodgy employees. George apologises, and takes him off to his car. The real purpose of this event is to establish George as the focal point of the novel. –At the office Bernard meets with his reliably flashy and superficial boss, Dicky Cruyer, and finds himself invited to fly with him to visit George at his lakefront house near Zurich. Why? George is reported to have been visited by some known Stasi goons. –Fiona and Bernard wake up on the night of the Great Storm, 15 October, finding themselves estranged and full of unspoken thoughts: maybe the storm is a symbol of their marriage. –In Zurich, at the house, Dicky is cavalier with the housekeeper and authorities but canny Bernard manages to wangle out of the housekeeper and some contacts that George appears to have smuggled himself back to his homeland, Poland. But not before George went to a jewellers with a ring. It is Tessa’s engagement ring. Dicky jumps to the conclusion: so the Stasi men came here with Tessa’s ring? What are they up to, Bernard?

2 Warsaw To find out Bernard and Dicky fly to Warsaw. Berlin dominated the first set of books. Here Deighton does an equally thorough job of describing Warsaw in the early snows of winter, the geography, the history, the sights and sounds and smells. An old contact of Samson’s, Sarah, comes to his hotel room to deliver some goods promised by her husband, Boris. There’s talk she prostitutes herself and that he beats her; she certainly has bad bruises. The package was meant to contain a gun but instead has two heavy tyre levels and some garrotting wire. Warsaw can be a tough town. –This is proved when they go to the notorious Rozyckiego market, looking to find a sniff of George. Instead they are picked up by two thugs pretending to be secret police who escort them not to a station, but to a squalid hovel above a pawn shop and into a room which is obviously an execution room. Here, in the split second as they lock the door, Bernard hits first one then the other with the silly umbrella Dicky’s been taking the mickey out of. He breaks the first one’s arm and just managed to smash the other one’s jaw as he’s raising his pistol. Bernard hits them some more, then kicks them for good measure. Inside the umbrella he had packed the tyre levers. Taking the goons’ guns, they scarper.

3 Masuria, Poland The market trip had paid off. Just before they were set on, one of Bernard’s contacts told him that George had been seen and is known to have set off for his family mansion in the country. Dicky and Samson hire a crappy East European car and drive along terrible roads into the snow-bound desolate countryside. They pass vast Russian barracks and get through two scary roadblocks before arriving at one peopled by a militia. I wondered if there was going to be a firefight, but they eventually agree to escort our boys up a windy track into the middle of nowhere where they reach the Kosinski mansion, situated by a lake. Here they are welcomed by a real Addams Family crew, skinny Uncle Nico who has been writing a book about Poland’s national saint for thirty years, his deaf wife Aunt Mary, the gaunt ancient (male) secretary, Karol, and the master of the house, the flamboyant actor and writer and self-proclaimed legend, Stefan Kosinski, brother of our George.

4 The Kosinski Mansion, Masuria, Poland We really get to marinade in the weird atmosphere of this shabby, rundown mansion in the middle of nowhere in the middle of high snowdrifts, with its silent children and invisible servants. At one point locals come to say they’ve found a body. Stefan takes Dicky and Samson to the place, a grave where just a leg has been found, mutilated, its big toe and other bits chewed off and what is undoubtedly one of George’s smart London shoes nearby. They are turfed out of the mansion while the local priest holds an exorcism. Bernard insists they sneak back in and they see it is another charade, his servants are in fact sounding for hidden secret police microphones, the whole thing put on by Stefan who melodramatises himself and the house in order to maintain kudos with the locals and with his devoted followers among the intelligentsia. Unsurprisingly, Bernard has come to the conclusion he is a prancing fraud. He also thinks the leg has got nothing to do with George. He and Dicky leave before the real snow hits and they get marooned in this madhouse.

5 Kent, England A short detour while Bernard goes to visit retired SIS man Harry Strang at his Kent home. Harry was a veteran of Spanish-speaking countries going back as far as Franco, with the scars to prove it. Just before retirement he was assistant to the Deputy Director-General. Bernard pushes him about the events of the fateful night: who ordered the ambulance; who made all the arrangements; who booked the RAF plane on standby? All that took lots of co-ordination. Harry is taciturn and tries to blow Bernard off with his poor memory, his dim recollection, not sure, can’t remember.

6 Mayfair, London Long conversation in their flat between Fiona and Bernard. He rubbishes the idea that it was George’s leg. He says George was whisked off to Poland by professionals; he’s in league with someone. Conversation moves on to the method Fiona was paid by during her double and triple agent period, by a fund set up by Bret and administered by one Jim Prettyman. And then onto office gossip and promotion possibilities: Bernard is on a five-year fixed-term contract which can be terminated at any time, with no pension or other perks. Fiona says Dicky wants to appoint Bernard as deputy in the Berlin Field Unit, the job he should always have had because of his Berlin childhood and flawless German. Is this a trick to get rid of him from London? Why is Fiona taking Dicky’s side, is it because she also wants him to change focus and out of the way, or does she think it is a genuine opportunity? Bernard, for his part, immediately grasps that, if he owes the job to Dicky, he will become Dicky’s creature and forced to spy on the present Head of the Berlin Office, Frank Harrington, his dad’s old friend. The books are full of long discussions of who’s up, who’s down, what various promotions mean or don’t mean, the office politics entangled with operational plans, with the lies and betrayal going on ‘out there’.

7 Fletcher House (SIS Annexe) London Gloria comes to visit Bernard in his shabby little room in an annexe building off Tottenham Court Road. She is explaining how devastated she is by the end of their relationship when Dicky arrives and gloatingly takes the mickey out of the ‘two love-birds’. The conversation is interrupted by the unexpected delivery of a package for Bernard which, when opened, turns out to be a medical jar containing preserving fluid and a human hand, one finger bearing a signet ring like George Kosinski’s. Dicky insists this is proof George is dead, Bernard is sceptical. While they’re arguing a bearded man who had been prowling the corridor outside the room unexpectedly runs into the room, grabs the jar and nips off down the corridor. While Bernard hesitates, Dicky pulls out a massive revolver and goes haring off after him, letting off pot shots. As Bernard catches up with them he sees Dicky let off a shot which sends the man sprawling and the jar flying to shatter against the wall, but the man must be wearing a bullet-proof jacket for he gets up, bursts through the emergency doors and into a waiting car which speeds off.

8 SIS Offices, Berlin Cut to Bernard in Berlin, in the house of the Head of the SIS Field Unit Frank Harrington, where he has, apparently, accepted the post as Frank’s number two. They review the man running off with the hand incident. Bernard insists they wanted us to see the hand long enough to confirm Dicky’s theory that George is dead, but not long enough to send it to a lab and get it analysed and discover it isn’t George’s hand. Was he Stasi? Yes, same as one of the four guys who visited George in Zurich. Frank tells him the latest news, that one of their networks in the East, DELIUS, has gone silent: it’s the same one Bernard used in the previous novel after he shot at the car following him after discovering VERDI’s dead body, the same pastor who protected him and young Robin in that episode fro the previous novel, Faith. As soon as Frank has departed to fly back to London on a family visit, Bernard requisitions a motorbike and crosses the border on a forged passport, swaps the bike for a car and drives to Allenstein bei Magdeburg. Here he first visits the wretched home of Theo Forster, a sick man who works in the local bicycle factory and who Bernard was at school with back in Berlin (as he was at school with so many of the novels’ characters). Theo explains that the pastor has been causing trouble but they’ll be able to deal with him. Bernard drives off to confront the pastor who initially recalls Fiona’s good work for them, encouraging the churches. But under bullying and provocation from Bernard, goes on to reveal himself to be a Stasi agent. But Bernard pushes him further, into an ambiguous psychological space where he proposes the pastor become a double agent working for us. As Bernard leaves, the pastor gets into his car as if to follow him but the car explodes dramatically. It was booby-trapped. Why? By Theo and the network? That was suicidal of them. Bernard drives like a maniac to the safe house, swaps the car for his motorbike and has crossed the border an hour later. — Next day Frank’s efficient secretary, Lida, begins bringing in radio intercepts of the DELIUS network being ‘rolled up’ ie arrested one by one. — Depressed Bernard goes to an all-night bar near the Witzleben S-Bahn. Here Theo’s devout communist son, Bruno, finds and confronts him. He is allowed out of the East because he is a Marxist zealot and so allowed to work on the overland railway which crosses the border. He rails at Bernard for bullying his father into joining the opposition and his stupid ‘network’ and now he’ll die in a labour camp. He throws at Bernard the parting gift Theo asked his son to give him, a Nazi medal, which Bernard collected as a boy and Theo knows he loves.

9 Hennig Hotel, West Berlin Bernard recovers from the Bruno encounter by chatting with ancient Aunt Lisl in her hotel. This is where Bernard’s dad based himself immediately after the war and where he has his earliest memories. (Liesl’s childhood and young adulthood, marriage and mature life are one among many lives described in the one-off epic background to the series, Winter). Bernard goes into the ballroom where Werner is decorating the Christmas tree. Werner steels himself and tells Bernard that he, Werner, was Fiona’s case officer during her period in the East. Not only that: Werner tells Bernard that Fiona had an affair before and during her mission, with a Canadian doctor who was himself a communist spy set to monitor her. Bernard is left reeling from ‘the knife-thrust of my wife’s betrayal’. His whole world is turned upside down. Again.

Throughout the book thus far we have seen him repressing his feelings for Gloria, being standoffish, insisting on being professional, avoiding even a polite peck on the cheek – all in the name of trying to stay faithful to Fiona, to re-orient his feelings towards her and a happy family life, despite the lies she told him and the hell she put him through, and despite the continual bickering or misunderstandings in their conversations. But now – now maybe he should follow his heart and express his feelings for Gloria…

10 Hennig Hotel, West Berlin Fiona wakes Bernard with a phone call from London, asking if it’s alright if Daddy takes the kids on a jamboree holiday to the Caribbean? ‘And if I go, too’? Bernard grits his teeth and agrees. Christmas alone in Berlin brooding on the news that his wife betrayed him. In every sense. Wonderful. The next morning he has a very thick head and feels dizzy. When he tries to get up he gets as far as dressing but, on the narrow attic landing, has a dizzy spell and ends up falling down the stairs. He regains consciousness to find Werner has called an Army doctor who now gives him a powerful sedative.

11 West Berlin After a day or so recovering Bernard manages to get up, shower and shave and make his way to the glamorous hotel where he knows Bret Rensselaer has come to stay along with Gloria. (It feels like a tiny, tiny, tiny world of the same half-dozen characters endlessly circulating and bumping into each other). After the usual expressions of how difficult she finds it to be working alongside him and Fiona (and while Bernard resists his longing to reach out and kiss her), Gloria tells him the latest speculation about when the D-G will retire and who will replace him (will it be Dicky or Fiona? probably not Dicky because Bret will try to block it) and so on. More usefully, she goes on to tell him signals section have intercepted lots of traffic between the Stasi and Warsaw about delivery of a package: could it be Tessa’s body? At which point Gloria walks through into the bedroom where the maids have been working and shrieks in horror: there in the bed is a bloodless corpse! Bernard realises it’s young Robin. Before Bernard took to his bed, he remembers now Lida saying something about Robin checking out the Unit’s motorbike and probably following Bernard’s trail to Alleinstein and the assassinated parson-cum-spy. The fool! The Stasi were, as he feared, waiting for him. Bernard has Lida call in an explosives and disposal team from the British Army (it turns out to include the same fix-it doctor who injected him in the previous chapter). Gloria and Bernard fly back to London on the next Army plane, and Bernard is met at the airfield and driven to a midnight meeting at Dicky Cruyer’s house. Here he finds Bret and a new character, Rupert Copper, our man in the Warsaw embassy. Our Warsaw people have spotted George. Turns out the Kosinski family have some kind of guest accommodation not far from the main mansion: George must have been hiding out there. The meeting ponders the possible meanings and discuss the Big Question: Is Tessa alive or not, while Bernard realises he’s the schmuck who’s going to be sent back to Poland to find his damn brother-in-law. Bret, the smart one, asks Bernard why the Stasi and Poland’s secret police, the Bezpieca, are helping George? Are they, replies Bernard. Maybe George has bought influence at every level; he is loaded, after all. And he is obsessed with being reunited with Tessa. Or maybe, says Bret, they are trying to turn him so they can use him against us? — Rupert gives him a lift back to the Mayfair flat and fills Bernard in a bit: Does he realise the story of his wife’s defection, her violent rescue and the Tessa affair, are the talk of the entire organisation? Does he realise he is in over his head? Does he realise that if he dropped dead tomorrow nobody would be very sorry? Bernard asks Rupert why he thinks George has gone to such trouble to whisk himself away from Zurich and then fake his own death? Doesn’t Rupert realise it’s because he’s scared that we – MI6, the SIS, the good guys – are out to kill him? In a concession, Rupert shows Bernard the photos his men took of George in the Warsaw market. Bernard is staggered but manages to hide it; for in the photos he sees, next to the blurry shape of what might or might not be George, the image of Fiona’s dad, his poncy old father-in-law!

12 Warsaw Rupert and Bret are picked up from the windswept freezing Vilnius Station by two tough guys in an old ambulance. Someone has been in contact to say they have information about George Kosinski. During the drive they’re not sure if they’re going to be gassed or shot at any moment, but after 25 nerve-racking moments they arrive at a large maternity hospital and are shown into the office of the podgy, auburn-haired blue-eyed Director, Dr Urban. He says the entire mystery is simple: Tessa is pregnant; she is being moved from Berlin to Warsaw to be reunited with her loving husband. George has taken Polish citizenship and Tessa will too. So their baby will be entirely Polish. Rupert in his naivete becomes quite cross, pointing out that by making the child Polish it will never be able to escape or travel and thus will keep its parents safely trapped here forever. Dr Urban doesn’t deny it, stands to signify the interview is over, and puts on his brown military jacket. Like everyone in a position of power in Poland, he is an Army placeman. — For a second time Rupert gives Bernard a lift, this time back to the seedy friend’s apartment he’s staying in, initially speculating about whether Tessa is alive, what George’s real motives are, and so on, before Bernard persuades him to delay making his report until Bernard can ‘confirm or deny it’; upsetting a good pen-pushing Embassy man like Rupert. Parked outside the flat, Rupert says he was instructed to give Bernard the following: and opens a bag containing rolls of local currency, dollars, pounds, a pistol and a sub-machinegun. Aha. That kind of ‘confirming or denying’. Bernard’s last words are, ‘Alert the Swede’. The Swede?

13 Masuria, Poland The final chapter is quick and violent. Bernard is talking to George. Doesn’t say where so we assume it’s the holiday home near the Mansion, which had been mentioned earlier, the ground around buried in metres of snow. Bernard is relentlessly interrogating George. He says he loved Tessa. He says he’s always been a Polish patriot. He says he’s a devout Catholic. He tells a long story of remembering where he was when he heard a Polish cardinal had been made Pope. And so when the Bezpieca first approached him he thought he’d be helping his country. All they wanted was gossip from the parties he attended and people he met. It wasn’t really spying. Now Bernard is telling him that Tessa is not pregnant and on her way to be with him, she’s not alive – she is dead. He’s saying the the Bezpieca lied to him, have used him. — Bernard controls his anger and explains that they will leave by plane that night: is he coming or not? — That night they drive in Bernard’s rented Fiat to the area of the Wolfschanze, the vast compound of bunkers, roads, checkpoints, railway line and airstrip built as Hitler’s forward command post during the invasion of Russia. They are followed by four figures in a battered old Volvo. Bernard tells George the plan: when he stops the car, George is to scrabble free and run off into the snow shouting as if for help. This is what happens. As the four followers get out of their car and pause wondering what’s going on, Bernard sets fire to the Fiat and, as it explodes, runs towards the Bezpieca men firing the machine gun. At least one falls and the others scatter as George runs back towards him and they both jump into the Volvo and drive on along the old runway by the lake, just as they hear the sound of airplane engines overhead. It is The Swede, a freelance pilot, one of the Department’s most reliable contractors. Bernard parks the Volvo at the other end of the runway and sets it, too alight. The Swede brings the plane down on the runway mapped out between the two burning cars, taxis to walking pace and Bernard stuffs George into the plane, which turns and begins its take-off as they hear the bullets of the surviving Bezpieca men bounce off the fuselage. — In the plane George complains about the violence, ‘Did you have to shoot those men?’ etc, until Bernard explodes in rage: ‘Yes I did, because those are the men who beat up protestors, run the prisons and the labour camps and have repressed this nation for 45 years. Those are the men you’ve been helping, you scumbag.’ Bernard has to restrain himself from throwing George out of the plane into the Baltic. — When they arrive at the little Swedish airfield, an Embassy official and doctor are waiting to take custody of George. He is under arrest. He will be interrogated and probably tried for treason. And Gloria is there. She claims under orders from her boss, Bret. The Embassy car sweeps off leaving them alone on the chilly airfield apart from the Embassy’s official Lear jet. It’s there in case George or Bernard had been injured and needed to be flown back to an English hospital. Now it is sitting there vacant. Bernard lets off steam to Gloria: Tessa is dead. The nonsense with the leg and the hand were to persuade London that George, also, was dead. He was just worried the truth about his spying would get out, and he genuinely believed the lies the Bezpieca told him. God knows how long he’s been betraying his country, feeding back to his communist paymasters the titbits he picked up from Bernard and Fiona and all the other SIS people he hobnobbed with.

You need a drink, says Gloria, and it’s freezing, let’s get aboard the plane. Oh isn’t it warm. And look at the galley, good food. And the bar. And through here, the beds! The big soft beds.

‘Goodness,’ said Gloria, looking at me and smiling demurely. (p.305)

Like so many comedies, from Shakespeare to James Bond, this one ends with a heterosexual bang, as the male lead and the female lead bring closure to the story with an act of union and completion.


Spy fiction and the fall of the wall

It’s worth pointing out that these had become historical fictions even as they were published. The third of the second trilogy, Spy Sinker, published in 1990, must have been completed over the period when the Berlin Wall came down – November 1989, and I’ve remarked that Deighton showed admirable ingenuity in making the true-life participation of the East German churches in the fall of the regime into one of the central planks of his story.

But he was then faced with the same problem all other spy novelists faced (le Carré, Forsyth, Cruz Smith to name just the ones I’ve been reading): whether to move with the times and set their adventures in the post-Soviet world, or whether to cling to the (fictional) certainties of the Cold War.

We’ve seen that after a farewell to the Cold War and to his legendary spy, George Smiley (in The Secret Pilgrim, 1990) le Carré moved with impressive alacrity into the New World Order, where he found a sufficiency of baddies in international drug smuggling and gun-running.

Forsyth similarly packaged up all his Cold War yarns into a retrospective collection (The Deceiver, 1991) before moving on to new subject matter, to novels about the Gulf War (The Fist of God) and the corruption of post-Soviet Russia (Icon).

Deighton, however, was working in a different situation. He knew he had to complete the story – and the umpteen plotlines – left hanging at the end of the previous trilogy. Maybe he had mapped out the complete storyline before 1990. And certainly, the way he’d set most of the action in the late 1980s, but with room to spare before the collapse of communism, gave him to the room to complete the entire story well before the actual collapse began in 1989.

Hence the importance of emphasising the datelines: summer 1987 is when Fiona and Bernard return from R&R in California to start Faith; October 1987 is where Hope begins and carries on to Christmas Eve 1987. Plenty of time to wind up the whole affair and be home in time for tea.

Credit

Hope by Len Deighton was published by Harper Collins in 1995. All quotes and page references are from the 1996 Harper Collins paperback edition.


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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.

Zbigniew Herbert: Selected Poems (1968)

Poetry is best encountered like a complete stranger who starts talking to you on the Tube, in the sauna, at the school gates, who in fifteen minutes adds something completely unexpected to your day, a new thought, a new insight, a new sensation – and then vanishes.

I picked up this old volume for £1 at the Salvation Army bookstand and read it on the train home.

Herbert (1924-98) was the outstanding Polish poet of the 20th century. After fighting in the Polish resistance he became a subtle dissident against the communist regime.  The short introduction is by Al Alvarez and neatly pulls out the political nature of Herbert’s work. ‘Most of Herbert’s work is concerned with reasons for not being convinced.’ After such a holocaust of an upbringing, what was there to believe in? His poetry ‘is political by virtue of being permanently and warily in opposition’. An admirable stance.

Herbert’s verse is classic, precise, ironic, characterised by a scientific detachment. Romantic styles and forms, rhyme and lushness and rhetoric, have all been burned away by the Nazi atrocities and decades of communist oppression, along with punctuation, capital letters, all the rest.

There are just phrases, lines, each trying to be as honest as possible.

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

– Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

You can see how Ted Hughes was influenced by the unsentimental objectivity of these East European poets, who he helped to publish and publicise. He has a poem about a pebble turning red in the heat of the sun which I must track down…

But it’s not all about natural objects. This volume has a series of prose poems which combine the feel of European folk story retold for the era of the fridge and the party functionary.

From Mythology

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leapt, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

The crisp translations are a collaboration by the just-as-famous Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott. ‘Permanently and warily in opposition.’

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Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008)

A short (138 pages) packed account by Adam Zamoyski of Lenin’s attempt to conquer Poland and send the Red Army on to Germany, to Berlin, to support the fledgling German communists there and, ultimately, to spread the Russian Revolution across Europe.

The Poles were initially pushed back by sheer weight of Russian numbers until they rallied at the gates of Warsaw whereupon, to everyone’s surprise, there occurred the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ and the Russians were held, repelled, and then routed all the way back to East Prussia. Here thousands surrendered or continued their rout back to Russia itself. Poland was saved and the entire area had 20 years breathing space to experience some kind of autonomous government before the Nazi-Soviet Pact and a new Dark Age descended.

One of the key Red Armies in the campaign was the First Cavalry Army operating in the South. It’s their part in this campaign which Isaac Babel describes in his chilling, brutal, haunting classic Red Cavalry.

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