Archive for October, 2015

AmblerCrime fiction not only can cover today’s important topics, such as immigration [The Defenceless by Kati FurstHiekkapelto], but also take the reader into the past to discover what went wrong, and why. 

Two very different books  published seventy four years apart both deal with the subject of the methods by which Nazi Germany degraded France’s will to defend itself. Spies, payments for influence, threats of violence, and ruthless exploitation of weakness were the methods used. 

In Eric Ambler’s 1938 classic thriller Josef Vadassy, a Hungarian refugee and language teacher in Paris, is holidaying in a small hotel on the French Riviera. When he takes his holiday photographs to the chemist to be developed he is arrested as a spy, the photographs show Toulon’s naval defences. Vadassy has picked up the wrong camera in his hotel lounge. Beghin, a sweaty individual from the Surete Generale attached to the Department of Naval Intelligence sums up the situation.

“The Commissaire and I agreed”, he said at last, “that you were one of three things-a clever spy, a very stupid one or an innocent man.

I may say that the Commissaire thought you must be the second. I was inclined from the first to think you are innocent. You behaved far too stupidly. No guilty man would be such an imbecile.”

One of the other guests at the hotel, or the owner or his wife, must be the spy. Vadassy is sent back to discover who among the twelve suspects is guilty in an Agatha Christie type, who did it investigation. He is not a master detective or even a passable one and his blunders make for an interesting story as he surreptitiously gathers information about his interestingly varied fellow guests. Each of them has a secret and we learn something about the Europe of the 1930s. One of the guests tells him about post -war German social-democracy…

Its great illusion was its belief in the limitless possibilities of compromise. It thought that it could build Utopia within the Constitution of Weimar……

Worst of all, it thought you could meet force with good will, that the way to deal with a mad dog was to stroke it. In nineteen-thirty-three German social-democracy was bitten and died in agony.

Mission to Paris by Alan Furst, is much more of a modern style political thriller but also set in the corrupt France of 1938.

…but a small bureau in the Reich Foreign Ministry undertook operations to weaken French morale, and degrade France’s will to defend herself…..

Or rather German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs-tens of millions of dollars-had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933.

Frederic Stahl, an emigre from Europe, now an American movie star is sent to Paris to make a film. Frederic had spent the Great War in the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona after having run away to sea at seventeen. The Nazis want to use his Austrian ethnicity as a propaganda weapon, and make various efforts to recruit him. The narrative moves rapidly and Stahl’s love affairs, clashes with German agents ,and meetings with American diplomats lead him to get more involved in very dangerous situations.

‘Excuse me , sir’ she said to Stahl in French, ‘but there is finally good news. Very good news.’

‘Hello, Inga,’ Renate said. ‘Hello, Klaus.’

‘They’ve made a deal with Hitler,’ Inga said, now back in German. ‘He takes the Sudetenland, but promises that’s the end of it, and he signed a paper saying so.’

In another quote from the book, but something that many people thought at the time, 

You appease a thug like Hitler, it just makes him greedy for more, because he smells fear.

Have we learned anything from the past?

I don’t think so our politicians still allow vast amounts of foreign money to enter the country. They “kowtow” to foreign leaders, who run various forms of dictatorships, and appease loud minority groups, while ignoring the silent majority. Recently the Labour Party members and their associates voted in a leader, who advocates a “kinder gentler politics”. His “friends” and those who he has gone the extra mile to support over the years have a somewhat different agenda, and are not kinder gentle people.

My worries about this man becoming Prime Minister are lessened by the fact that he and his crew appear from recent events not to be able to run a bath, yet alone a Gestapo or a Stasi. 

But our present Conservative government can not be trusted to look after my budgie, or even the British steel industry, and I fear for the future. 

Eric Ambler and Alan Furst are always worth reading, and these two books are excellent examples of their work.  

leaving berlinJoseph Kanon’s best known book is The Good German, which was made into a movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. Leaving Berlin would probably make an even better movie. I would agree with distinguished author Alexander McCall Smith’s back cover blurb that this is a very exciting book. But it is also a thriller for grown ups, which discusses political topics that are still extremely relevant today.

From the back cover:

Berlin 1949….a city caught between political idealism and the harsh reality of Soviet occupation………Alex Meier is a young Jewish writer who fled the nazis before the war….in the cross hairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of family, Alex makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin.

Of course things are never that straightforward, Alex has a son in America and a back history in Berlin which he left in 1935. The Russian military government, and their German fellow travellers, have invited “socialist” writers, playwrights, architects to work in the New Germany. Many of them in a similar situation to Alex.

“You still have family in Germany?” Martin was asking.

“No. No one,” Alex said. “They waited too long.” He turned to Martin, as if it needed to be explained.

“My father had the Iron Cross. He thought it would protect him.”

I read a lot of historical political thrillers simply because I enjoy learning about the past and perhaps being able to judge current trends. This novel is full of lessons for us and future generations. I loved the way Alex is given his Kulturband membership documents and told the food is excellent there, but for members only. In 1949 Germany had not yet formally split into two states but much of the structure of the oxymoronic German Democratic Republic, GDR, was in the process of being created. 

Alex’s aunt Lotte married into the von Bermuth family, who lived a life of comparative luxury before the war, and he had indulged in a secret affair as a young man with the beautiful Irene von Bermuth. Irene is now the mistress of Russian officer Sasha Markovsky, deputy to Maltsev an important cog in the Soviet Military Administration. Alex’s American minders want him to revive his relationship with Irene, and question her about Markovsky’s pillow talk. 

This novel is well written in an easy to read style, but the plot is very complex because such a lot happening. German POWs working in terrible conditions in a secret uranium mine. Decent men and women facing trial for treason for expressing deviation from the Party approved line, or simply it seems being Jewish.

Espionage. Shady deals. Murder. Betrayal upon betrayal. The use of old Nazi camps to house prisoners.

When Erich, Irene’s brother escapes from the uranium mining camp, and seeks her help in Berlin, and Sasha, Irene’s protector, is suddenly recalled to Moscow. The danger begins to escalate.

For all the excitement of the car chases, espionage and murders, it is the educational value of the story that makes this such a good book. Were the dedicated socialists who returned to work in their hoped for utopia very naive?

Herb Kleinbard, an architect makes fun of the plans for rebuilding the new Berlin. He calls the structures “Stalin wedding cakes”, and Alex discusses his situation with his wife.

“He could go to the West. A German. They take in any German.”

“The West? And work for the old Nazis? Another Speer? No, thank you. This is the Germany he wants. You’re here too. You understand how he feels. You don’t go.”

“I’m not in Sachsenhausen.”

This novel is a reminder that there is not a cigarette paper between Fascism and Communism, and in the long term very little between hard left Socialism and National Socialism. I am old enough to remember how the German Democratic Republic was admired by some as the new socialist Germany, the artistic achievements a revival of German culture, the sporting success one of the results of a true socialist state.  These people ignored the existence of the Ministry of State Security [Stasi] with its hundreds of thousands of secret informers, which must have seemed so familiar to those who had lived through the National Socialist years.

In the long history of walls from The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Israeli separation wall, the fence round the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, to the Hungarian razor wire, walls were designed to keep people out. 

Only the German Democratic socialist utopia had a wall to keep people in!  

Leaving Berlin is a great book well worth reading as both a fine thriller, and a warning from history.