The Unlikely Spy, by Daniel Silva

Written in 1996, this is Silva’s first novel, which I did not realize when I bought it. But one can see from the early pages set before and during World War II, why he has established himself since with a series of popular espionage novels.

This work is built around the preparations for the invasion of France on D-day. The Allies need to conceal from the Germans that they plan to land on the beaches of Normandy, rather than at Calais, just across the narrowest part of the English Channel. But to move troops and armaments ashore, the Allies need a harbor complex, of which there is none at Normandy. So, to create one, they build huge concrete structures to tow across the channel, but they need to hide this strategy from the Germans, since it will betray that their actual landing site is Normandy.

This novel, presumably fiction, suggests how they tried to deceive the Germans with Operation Mulberry. It required a complex plan, and Silva creates many interesting characters to execute the plan, as well as the German characters whom the Allies are working to deceive. This means that Hitler, Himmler, Canaris, and other Germans appear regularly in this novel, along with Churchill and Eisenhower in smaller parts.

The main adversaries are Alfred Vicary for the Allies and Kurt Vogel for the Germans. Vicary does not create but he does implement the plan to make the Germans think that the huge floating harbors being built are actually anti-aircraft batteries. Meanwhile Vogel is running two sleeper spies in England who are actually half English, and whom the Allies know nothing about. He assigns them to find out the real site of the Allied landings and the purpose of those huge concrete structures. If they learn the truth, of course, the entire invasion and the future of the Allied war effort will be at risk.

To further the suspense, Silva continually switches back and forth between the sleeper spies and what Vicary and his MI5 colleagues are doing to discover them. One of his achievements here is to make the German spies, Horst Neumann and Catherine Burke, not her real name, very human. Indeed, the reader identifies with them as they develop sincere relationships with other Englishmen. One is even drawn toward rooting for them, although they are both, especially the woman, brutal killers. Meanwhile Vicary, their adversary, is also quite human, with his doubts about himself, about his boss, and about what he is being asked to do.

And the intrigue doesn’t stop with Vicary vs. Vogel. Vicary’s boss, Basil Boothby, also acts very suspiciously, frustrating Vicary at times. And the reader wonders at his true motives. For we learn from the Germans that they also have a secret spy within MI5 who is passing information to them. Meanwhile, over in Germany, Himmler is plotting to take over the Abwehr, which under Canaris is running German espionage operations in England. Because he suspects, as is true, that Canaris is foiling the German spying efforts because he despises Hitler and his methods.

The plot begins when the Allies hire an American engineer, Peter Jordan, to see to the construction of the huge floating harbors. Vogel learns about Peter, and assigns Catherine Burke to seduce him and to discover more about those huge constructions. Which she does. Indeed, the two also fall in love, prompting Catherine to wonder if she is the cold-blooded person she assumes she is. Which earns the reader’s additional sympathy. Momentarily.

But it illustrates Richard Bernstein’s comment in The New York Times that Silva “has a knack for allowing the unforeseen, the accidental, the all-too-human to intrude, pushing the plot in an unexpected direction.”

While this is a highly suspenseful novel, the strategic duel between Vicary and Vogel is less suspenseful than it might have been. That is, while each side reacts to the other’s actions, the reader never feels that the Germans are one step ahead of the Allies, and thus likely to succeed. Indeed, one knows from history that they did not. But from a strictly fictional standpoint, if the Germans could have been more clever—anticipating Vacary’s moves, for example—the suspense could have been even more intense than it is.

And the final moments of the novel are truly gripping, as the two German spies are convinced the information they are sending back home, that the Brits are building anti-aircraft batteries, is false; and so they flee across Britain toward a German submarine hovering just off the coast. It will take them back to Germany, where they will expose the Allies’ deception. Which, in turn, will help the Germans realize the true invasion site: Normandy.

At the same time, their desperate flight prompts their own brutality, which the reader realizes but has been reluctant to accept. For they kill many anonymous and innocent people—as they also have, particularly Catherine, earlier in the novel. It is perhaps Silva’s way of stressing the desperation of spying. But one might note that at the end, one of his characters remarks about how many Allied lives were saved in the invasion because of some innocent lives that were lost earlier in defense of the invasion’s security.

What is unclear is how much of this tale is fictional. My suspicion is that Silva has created fictional characters and fictional events at the heart of his story, but has based them on the fact that the Germans did seek to learn where the Allied invasion would land and that the Allies did plot to deceive them regarding the true landing site. And the events he proposes here do work as one logical possibility.

But Silva also raises an intriguing interpretation at the end. That Vicary—and the reader—were not told how elaborate was the fiction being created for the Germans, such as Peter Jordan’s involvement. That his presence as the engineer working on the harbor project was no coincidence. Nor was his seduction by Catherine. And that Vacary was not informed of this because his chiefs wanted his reactions to events “to feel real to the other side.” Which leaves the reader with the realization the deception is at the heart not only of all spycraft. But also of such novels.

This novel certainly makes one interested in more of Silva’s works. However, the knowledge that most of his additional works of espionage feature one of two main characters prompts one to wonder if they may not be more formulaic than this intriguing and promising first novel. (April, 2019)

Advertisements

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

This is not a novel about resurrections, as was its predecessor, Life After Life. But it is about that novel’s characters, the Todd family. It is also about World War II England, post-war England, and about one branch of the Todd family over three generations. And, oh yes, this sequel is a marvelous novel.

This 2015 work is about Teddy, the brother of Ursula, the heroine of Life after Life. There is little here about Ursula. It is also about Teddy’s wife Nancy and their daughter Viola. And about Viola’s children, Bertie and Sonny. It is thus about three generations, and extends into the 21st century.

The purpose appears to be to draw a picture through this family of life in England in the 20th century. Not a historic portrait, but a personal one. A portrait of travail (Teddy in the air force), of a self-centered life (Viola), of an unsettled youth (Sonny), of a harrowing death (Nancy), and of old age (Teddy again). On second thought, it is more a portrait of life itself, through this family’s life.

And yet it is more. It is also a portrait of mankind’s nature, his violent nature, exemplified mainly by the bombing of Germany in World War II. In fact, the author says that the inspiration for this novel was an urge to write of that bombing, just as the London Blitz inspired her writing of Life after Life. But if that was her inspiration, she has written here about much more. Indeed, she also writes that this book is about the Fall (of Man). And it is. Such as being about the treatment that many family members endured.

These family events range from mercy killing to child abuse to emotional indifference, and then to cruel foster parents and cruel nursing homes. And one marvels at how well the author gets inside the separate family members, who are either involved in those events or are victims of those circumstances. In Teddy, in Viola, in Nancy, in Sonny, etc. And these characters remain consistent, even if the events are unconnected, like distracted memories. At certain points, Atkinson even advises us of events decades into the future, rounding out a character’s life when least expected.

She has thus written a portrait of life that includes death, but a life that also encompasses tragedy, suffering, and acceptance, as well as dreams of happiness and fulfillment. This scope is underscored as the author moves back and forth in time, taking the emphasis away from the narrative flow of family history and focusing on the separate events and the significance behind those events. More on the meaning of what happens to this family of man than on what the family members achieve themselves.

Deserving particular mention are the scenes of Teddy piloting his Halifax bomber in various runs over Germany, not knowing each time whether he is going to survive, but believing in what he is doing, even if it means this quiet, reflective boy is raining tons of explosives onto innocent women and children. And all this, with anti-aircraft shells bursting around him, with German fighters buzzing at him like gnats, and with neighboring bombers, carrying flyers whom he knows, suddenly bursting into flame and crashing below. It is a marvelous feat of research and imagination—even if the bombing is not condemned, as in an anti-war novel.

And then comes the ending, when the author turns things upside down. The reality of the novel becomes fiction and the author’s fiction becomes our reality. That is, the reader is asked to accept that Atkinson has made everything up—just as Aunt Izzie early on turned Teddy’s real life into that of a fictional character named Augustus. The author writes: “This sounds like novelist’s trickery, as it indeed perhaps is, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”

Oh, yes, I think there is. It did not with Life After Life, where the trickery, the resurrections, were at the heart of the novel. But it is wrong here, when it comes only at the end—and as a surprise. No. It is too arbitrary. We are asked to accept that what has happened in such detail has not happened. I was going along with the ending, with Teddy dying in his nursing home, and imagining that he has actually died in the war. For it makes death come alive to him. And to us. It even makes psychological sense for a novel that is about death—as well as about life. And, indeed, exemplifies the Fall of Man.

And I also admired the figurative collapse of a building at the end, as buildings did fall, both in the Blitz and in Germany as a result of the Allied bombing. And I accepted this as a metaphor for the ending of a life, Teddy’s life. There is even the paragraph that begins: “Moment’s left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment.” It is a beautiful description.

And then this is taken away from me? In order to mirror Life After Life, when a death is not a death. That now a life is not a life? Atkinson calls it “a great conceit,” says it is “the whole raison d’être of the novel.” I think not. I do not accept that she has collapsed the walls of her novel to reveal it is fiction rather than real. Fiction is real, must be real, internally, for the reader to accept it.

Which is not to say I do not recommend this novel. I do. Highly. For its portrait of a family, of the uncertainty in war, and of postwar England. I just do not accept the author’s twist at the end. An attempt to merge its theme, perhaps its meaning, with the novel that precedes it. The two novels don’t need it. They are a pair anyway, with their portrait of a family, the portrait of separate aspects of a war, and the presence of death.

The title of this novel is taken from Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins.” The god in this case is Teddy. “When men are innocent,” Emerson continues, “life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Teddy’s life was defined by his bombing career. “The truth was there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do.” Also: “Part of him never adjusted to having a future.” Thus, his long life is passive. He fathers a child, oversees grandchildren, writes about nature, but does little else, and then dies quietly. He is truly “in ruins.” Also, an innocent. So…is this an anti-war novel, after all? (December, 2016)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

This 2014 work is a serious and ambitious novel. Its theme is the casualness and cruelty of war. And especially its impact on children, the innocent. It is a story of World War II, and deliberately focuses on one French child and one German child. Both are good children as well as innocent, and the point is that they suffer equally. For war is the villain, not the Germans, much less the French.

In alternating chapters, we witness the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure is sixteen and blind, when the novel reaches its climax in August, 1944, at the ancient walled city of Saint-Malo. Werner is two years older, skilled at radio communication, and stationed in occupied Saint-Malo. Their meeting will occur only at the end of this novel.

These two children are helpless in the tide of history. But the novel begins ten years earlier, when Marie-Laure has just turned blind from cataracts, and Werner, having lost his father in a mine accident, is moved to a primitive orphan’s home with his sister Jutta. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the lockmaster of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. To enable his daughter to move around their neighborhood, he has built a miniature model of its streets, parks, and buildings. He also holds the key to the vault of a precious diamond, called the Sea of Flames, which is a significant plot element in the novel. Werner, meanwhile, is a sensitive child fascinated by radios, and he struggles against the brutality of his teachers and classmates.

Both are caught up by the war. Marie-Laure flees with her father as the Germans advance on Paris, and ends up in Saint-Malo, where her father builds her another model so she can move around that city. He also carries with him one of four versions of the Sea of Flames that the French have created to hide the real one from the Germans. Werner, meanwhile, has been recognized for his expertise with radios and has been drafted first into a technical school and then into the army. In the army, his radio unit serves in Poland, Russia, Austria, and finally, as Allied forces cross the channel, France. There this sensitive boy endures the horrors of war, but finds an understanding colleague in Sergeant Frank Volkheimer.

The reader knows these two children will come together, but both stories are so well and so sensitively told that he is rarely impatient. Doerr does create suspense, however, by opening his novel in August, 1944, with both Marie-Laure and Werner trapped in rubble after an Allied bombing. He then returns periodically to their dire situation, making the reader eager to learn not so much how they will meet as how they will survive. Not to mention how the fate of the diamond will affect them—if it is the real one.

That diamond is another unifying element. Legend has it that its possessor will live forever, but all those around him will die, and this does seem to account for the fate of many characters when one reviews the novel’s events. Indeed, the fate of the diamond itself, which ends up hidden inside one of the model houses, actually requires careful reading. Suspense also enters when Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel has been assigned to find the true diamond on behalf of Adolf Hitler. The sergeant is dying of a tumor; and finding the diamond will, he believes, enable him to survive. Suspense grows as each diamond he tracks down is a false one, and as he gets closer to finding the model house. But his own story is peripheral to the novel’s main story.

Times’ reviewer Vollman objects to the presence of this diamond, but I believe it is also a metaphor for the novel—for both the survival of some characters and the casual death of others. That is, it is a symbol of the permanence of life but the arbitrariness of death. At the very end, in 2014, the elderly Marie-Laure compares the electro-magnetic waves Werner loves to the souls of the dead of this novel. “[Might they not] fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough?…the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.” This is also the world, the light, of the title that we cannot see.

The major achievement of this novel is its portrayal of the blind Marie-Laure. We experience her life as she does, through her remaining four senses, especially that of hearing. But she is also a sensitive, intelligent, and brave girl, and there is a fascinating parallel between her own trapped situation and the trapped characters in her favorite novel, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. At the end, for example, she is reading it over the radio when she thinks she may well die—and it becomes her first contact with Werner, when he hears her voice over his own radio.

Werner himself, with his own sensitivity amid the cruelty around him, with his special skill with radios, and with his love for his sister Jutta, is a full creation, but not at the level of Marie-Laure. After operating almost an automaton in the army, as he traces illegal radio transmissions and sees those operating them killed, he is traumatized by the death of an innocent Austrian girl and her mother. Feeling guilty, he opens his heart when confronted by the innocence of another girl, Marie-Laure. This about-face is a major character transformation, but it works.

Doerr breaks two rules of novel-writing here, and both also work. First, he writes in the present tense. Proof perhaps that it works is that I was unaware of it. Usually, it is used to convey immediacy, but perhaps it is also used here because Marie-Laure is blind and lives in the present tense, in the world of her remaining senses. Second, the novel is written in the form of very short chapters, often two or three pages. But this blends in with the sense of immediacy, for once a scene ends the author is finished with it, and moves on to a new scene, a new development.

This novel certainly prompts me to seek out more of Doerr’s work. But one suspects such work will be quite different. He supposedly put ten years into this work, and certainly it reveals considerable research to recreate the era of World War II, one retreat across France and another across Eastern Europe, and finally the description and the destruction of Saint-Malo. Indeed, the creation of the model neighborhoods within both Paris and Saint-Malo become another metaphor for this entire novel. (September, 2016)

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

This 2010 work is a remarkable book. It is the story of Louis Zamperini, a track star whom I do recall from my youth, although not as a star, much less the first potential four-minute miler. But the perseverance he developed from track does lead to his survival during his wartime experiences, and those experiences do justify both his life and this tremendous book.

Hillenbrand begins by describing Zamperini as a precocious brat in his youth, always stealing, brawling, and deceiving both adults and friends. But this toughness and independence would, as Hillenbrand describes, help him survive a crash landing at sea, a month and a half in a foundering pontoon lifeboat, and two and a half years of horrendous treatment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war.

How Zamperini survived is brilliantly told, the longest section being given to his story as a POW in Japan—and how he and his friends survived the cruelty of their captors, especially a brutal guard they called the Bird, as well as the horrendous physical conditions at the camps. The dominance of this section is no doubt due not only to the length of this experience but to the accompanying stories of the many military men who were with him at the camps and whom the author tracked down. Whereas only two men survived the ditching in the Pacific, and that physical trial lasted 47 days.

Equally heart-rending are the repercussions Zamperini endured after the war, the drinking, the violent temper, and the abusiveness that led his wife to threaten divorce. This was certainly PTSD before it was known as that, but it is known today and makes this book all the more powerful. What is lacking, however, is an effective portrayal of the redemption referred to in the volume’s subtitle. Yes, it may have originated with sermons by Billy Graham, but the author does not describe how our hero converted to being a born-again Christian, nor his subsequent activity as a Christian evangelist.

I think this element is missing because this conversion from hatred to forgiveness and from a closed mind to being open about his experiences, happened inside his mind, even inside his soul, and that perspective is something either the author or Zamperini was not interested in discussing.

Indeed, when we get inside Zamperini in this work, it concerns his thinking about the situation at hand, whether running a four-minute mile, surviving a crash, or enduring the trials of the camp. But there is nothing about the faith he was raised in, or the life philosophy that these horrible events might have inspired. Everything we witness, his trials and his degradation, as well as those of others, are explored in their own terms. That is, on the surface level of our existence. Or was Zamperini perhaps reluctant to discuss leaving his Catholic upbringing for the Christian evangelists?

That is, his final redemption appears to exist much further inside this person that Hillenbrand wishes to portray. Indeed, she leaves him looking deep into a bible, and then a year later returning to Japan to forgive his prison guard tormentors. Both are the actions of a Christian. But what happened inside Zamperini in those intervening 12 months to prompt this change and his return to Japan? This, I believe, is the true final chapter in this story of Louis Zamperini. And we never know it. Was Zamperini incapable of explaining his internal life? Or had Hillenbrand no interest in it? Instead, she condenses the remaining years of his life, as he reaches ninety, as well as the remaining years of a few of his POW companions. Which left me unsatisfied.

For this is the story of a man who was unbroken during his wartime experiences, then was broken by the after effects when he returned home, and finally pulled himself together and became a contributing member of society. But we do not experience that final development. In the acknowledgments, Hillenbrand mentions her poor health, and one wonders if that might have forced her to cut off the Zamperini story earlier than she might otherwise have done. I have also read elsewhere that she suffers from a serious illness.

During the weeks on a fragile craft that he shared with two others, during that frightening time in the middle of the Pacific, with its brilliant description of circling sharks and an angry sea, Zamperini promised God that if he survived he “would serve you forever.” And in his frightening postwar decline, a Billy Graham sermon prompts him to recalls this. But it comes off as a sidelight in Hillenbrand’s telling, whereas I believe it must have been central to Zamperini’s recognition of his human and spiritual failings at that point. And it is where the author has shortchanged the reader.

I am afraid I am harping on one chapter in an otherwise brilliant tale, a tale of courage and perseverance, of suffering and the denial of despair, of stubbornness and clever subterfuge. But the reference to survival and resilience in the subtitle is followed by the word, redemption. And unlike survival and resilience, that word is not explored or dramatized. Thus, for me, there is no true climax to this story. Zamperini descends into the hell of postwar violence and drunkenness, and then is mysteriously resurrected.

This version may be valid in describing the life of Christ, but this is the life of a human being struggling on his own. There is no God in his life, at least in this telling of his life. And, needless to say, I think there should be, at least be a spiritual element. Zamperini’s attendance at Billy Graham rallies is not enough. We need to see his internal reactions to Graham’s message.

What was remarkable about this book is that each time I returned to it, I immediately remembered both the entire Zamperini story to date and where I had left off. This rarely happens to me, and I attribute it to Hillenbrand’s sterling craft. She is a magnificent story-teller. At least, when it comes to surface events. Here, these are the crash, the loneliness in an angry sea, and the horror and inhumanity of the wartime Japanese prison camps. But the word “unbroken” also refers to our hero’s interior life. And here, the interior life is confined to his reactions to the brutality he faced. Whereas, I would claim it also refers to his spiritual resources that extend beyond those brutal experiences and should well include his interpretation of life’s meaning, particularly of his own life’s meaning. (April, 2016)

Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernieres

This 1994 work is a serious, imaginative, and moving novel, but not the great novel it might have been. It does, however, reveals much more depth than its almost frivolous title suggests.

This is the story of a small Greek island town at the time of World War II. It is a story of adventure, romance, heartache, and loss. The town’s story is that it endures the Italian occupation, a German reprisal massacre, and a postwar earthquake. The family story revolves around Dr. Iannis, the father, and his beautiful and spirited daughter Pelagia. But taken into the family are handsome Mandras and his mother Drosoula, and then Antonio Corelli, the captain of the Italian occupying force, who is a virtuoso of the mandolin. Another Italian is Carlo Guercio, a homosexual soldier, while there is also a sensitive German lieutenant, Gunter Weber. Others are citizens of the town, such as strongman Velisarios, and two adversaries, royalist Stamatis and communist Kokolios.

The entrancing first half or more of this novel begins with the pre-war romance between Pelagia and Mandras; each believes they are destined to be together. But war interferes, and then political belief as Mandras goes off to fight. Whereupon he is slowly replaced by Captain Corelli who flirts with Pelagia and wins her kisses but nothing more. He becomes her true love.

But the war eventually interferes, not only with both their romances, but with the novel also. The Italians government surrenders, and the brutal Germans take over the Italian occupation of Greece, including Corelli’s town. And with the novel and its characters taken over by history, our friends no longer control their lives, and we read page after page of fictionalized history.

There are brief dramatic moments, involving an operation, murderous firing squads, and a soldier’s return, but they are momentary before we return to the narration of history. Which continues after the war, as the novel becomes a chronicle of the events experienced by this family and this town into the 1990s—all beautifully described in often lyrical prose, but with all the accounts being told more than dramatized. Finally, there is a dramatic finale, beautifully and emotionally described, and yet more the result of a decision by the author than by the characters involved.

The author obviously intended this novel to be a great work. He writes chapters on both a personal level and an historic level. He writes from the viewpoint of various characters and various political, emotional, and historical perspectives. He writes dramatically and lyrically, brutally and romantically, and with a common touch at times and a tragic touch at others.

The result is that I was enthralled by the first half of the novel, and disappointed by the remainder, despite those occasional dramatic and emotional moments. Since the author is British and wrote earlier novels with a Spanish environment (he lived for a while in Colombia), one senses that this portrayal of events on a Greek island during and after World War II was carefully chosen. And carefully researched. But after the marvelous start, he allowed the research, and an historic message, to take over. This may have been because he wished to create two kinds of potential lovers and then to separate them. But he never created a true romantic triangle, and, for me, he lost the lovers to history. He did try to restore the emotional connection at the end in each case, but while the scenes do work emotionally they are not fully convincing. In one case, his male lover is too brutal, and in the other case he, or the author, is too romantic.

Two themes dominate this novel. The first is the presence of love in the lives of otherwise insignificant people. The other is the impact of war on these same insignificant people. And the author uses history to emphasize the helplessness of these people in any attempt to enjoy one and avoid the other.

One traditional love is Iannis’ love for his daughter, plus that between Pelagia and Mandras, and then, when she believes Mandras is dad, between Pelagia and Corelli. Another is the love of these Greeks for their country and their history. There is also the love of the homosexual Carlo for a fellow soldier, and then his hidden love for Corelli. Not to forget Corelli’s love of music and his mandolin, which, with his wit, turns him into a sympathetic character. And finally there is the love of the townspeople for one another, especially for Dr. Iannis and Pelagia.

The impact of war and violence on otherwise insignificant towns and people is also the theme of other works by de Bernieres. Here, he takes us from the Albanian front as the Greeks defend themselves against the Italians to the violent reprisal of the Germans when the occupying Italian company refuses to abandon these Greeks they have come to appreciate. The reprisal is particularly brutal and treacherous. And, later, the helplessness of the townspeople before history is underlined by an earthquake that completely destroys their lives. (Which is followed by a sardonic revival when tourists arrive and help to rebuild the town and its economy.)

The idea of history is introduced at the very start of the novel, with Dr. Iannis writing a history of his town and its island, and finding it is not easy. He believes that true history is to be seen in the lives of the people, not in movements or the records kept by leaders. Which also reflects the author’s interest in history, for he, too, is writing of the impact of modern history on this island and this small town. What de Bernieres wants us to be aware of is that we cannot avoid being subservient to history, even as we try to be the master of our own destiny.

I have read and enjoyed a later de Bernieres, and remain interested in his other works. I will note, however, that I had a similar criticism of Birds Without Wings. It was, again, a novel about the negative impact of war and violence on a small town and its people, and I again commented on its overemphasis on history during the final quarter of the novel. I would also note that that novel, too, has a sympathetic lieutenant who is part of the Italian occupation of the novel’s small Turkish town. Perhaps the more things change in this author’s work, the more they stay the same. (February, 2016)

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer

This 1960 work is magnificent history. I had expected Shirer to depict the German side of World War II through his own experiences, but this is Shirer portraying the German leadership’s experience as recorded in official records captured after the war, plus the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials, and the diaries and memoirs of German leaders. And what is remarkable is that Shirer was able to absorb these hundreds of sources, fix them in his memory, and then organize them into a fascinating narrative.

The effort required five years. Perhaps colleagues helped him find and organize such voluminous information, but it is a marvelous achievement nevertheless, and was produced in a world without computers, a world that make researching facts and organizing them so much easier today. And yet one also wonders, will such paper records ever be available again. Mainly, because the German culture seemed to make such record-keeping second nature, but also because computerized records are more susceptible to obsolescence.

As I recall, this work made a deep splash when it was published, and certainly deserved it. But it is rarely spoken of today. So much has happened, including three major wars that have supplanted our memories of the major war of the last century. But that war offers a lesson that confirms the old adage by Santayana that Shirer quotes at the start: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Shirer begins by focusing his work on Hitler himself, portraying him as a modest hero in World War I, earning the Iron Cross twice, once first class. It is a wise decision, for it lays the groundwork for what is to come. Shirer thus follows Hitler through his early years without true friends, his abrasive personality, and his years of poverty in Vienna. But throughout these years his resentment of how Germany was treated after World War I fuels his ambition to somehow redress those wrongs.

After the failure of his Munich beer hall putsch, Hitler is imprisoned, and in prison he writes the first half of his Mein Kampf. In it, he reveals the strategy he will follow when he rises to power, and one senses a certain respect from Shirer for a man who so successfully follows his own roadmap. Hitler’s most important strategy is his determination that the German people will vote him into power. He will not overthrow the government. And he succeeds, of course—primarily because German society lost faith in a government that allowed high inflation and was unable to lift them from the poverty that followed the worldwide depression of 1929. The result is that with each election, until 1933, Hitler’s promises and his appeals to the nation’s past earn more and more votes.

What becomes fascinating is the step-by-step process by which Hitler undercut’s the judicial, political, economic, and military forces in contol, until his Nazi party completely control the lives of every German. Underlying this history, however, is that many of the professional army men, including generals, were reluctant to follow Hitler’s aggressive plans, primarily because they did not feel the German army was strong enough to face the French and the English. The plotting of these generals reached its peak just before Munich, but then they backed off when they saw that war was not coming.

When war did come in Septembe, 1939, the Nazi blitzkrieg overran Poland; but then hostilities paused, and the Allies tended to relax. Hitler, however, surprised them by invading Denmark and Norway in 1940. He wanted Norwegian airfields for bombing Britain and Norwegian ports for gaining control of the North Sea and ending the Allied blockade. He had quick success because the English were caught completely off-guard.

France also fell easily, because its army was no match for the new German armor. At this point, Hitler expected the British to admit defeat, and when they did not he began bombing London and other centers. But the British also had their own bombing strategy, which called for raiding the Channel ports where the Germans were amassing thousands of boats.

The invasion never happened, Shirer reports for two reasons. First, these raids destroyed the boats the Germans needed to cross the Channel. Second, the German army and navy could not agree on an invasion strategy. The army wanted to invade England all along the Channel coast, but the navy said there were not enough boats to do so. The navy wanted to assault a narrow area, for which they had enough boats, but the army feared the British could amass a large enough army in that small area to repel the invading Germans. So much time was lost in this debate that Hitler postponed the invasion until the spring.

Because Hitler really understood land warfare rather than sea warfare, he fixed his eyes on Russia in 1941. To protect his southern flank, however, he first invaded the Balkans. And there he made a disastrous error, Shirer says. Because when Yugoslav patriots resisted his assault, he became so enraged that he ordered their country destroyed. Which happened. But this temper tantrum delayed his attack on Russia for a month, which meant that his army had one month less to execute his war strategy before the Russian winter arrived. And this proved fatal to his initial invasion.

Another major mistake occurred when the Germans advanced hundreds of miles into Russia on three fronts, and then were faced with a decision. The generals wanted to focus their attack on Moscow, center of the government, transportation services, and industry, but Hitler had set his sights on the grain and oil in the Ukraine to the south. Hitler had his way, of course, and Shirer quotes his generals as saying that this decision might well have cost Germany total victory.

Because shortly afterward came rain and mud, and then an early winter, with temperatures dropping below zero. The Russians were able to counter-attack because their soldiers had clothing and armaments that worked under these conditions, whereas the Germans did not. Equally significant was that Hitler lost faith in his generals, because their army had been stopped for the first time. As a result, he took over command of the army himself.

As the Russians made their winter advance, four major developments marked the first change in the war’s course. First, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the Germans were confronted with a new adversary that they grossly underestimated. Second, in Africa, Rommel advanced to El Alemein, where he asked for re-enforcements for a final drive to conquer Egypt; but Hitler refused, and Montgomery’s quick counter-attack pushed the Afrika Corps back into Libya. Third, the Allies landed a large force in the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria in November, their first step in conquering Southern Europe. And fourth, to replenish his army in 1942 after a loss of a million men in Russia in 1941, Hitler drafted soldiers from Hungary, Rumania, Italy, and other eastern nations, soldiers who were far inferior to the German, less well armed, and had no will to fight for Germany in Russia.

With these soldiers, the Germans did advance that summer deep into the south, toward Stalingrad and the Caucusus’ oil. But again Hitler made a poor decision. He split his forces rather than concentrating on one objective, resulting in their again being stopped. And when winter returned, the tide again turned. For Hitler refused to let his troops retreat, resulting in the complete destruction of his southern armies near Stalingrad. And this obsession never to retreat would decimate still more of his forces in many battles to come.

As the tide turns, Shirer pauses here to report the atrocities that were taking place in German-held territory. As his armies occupied neighboring countries, Hitler ordered that their citizens be used as slave labor in his military industries. He also began ordering the mass killing of Jews and, in Russia, of Bolsheviks. These were executed by gunfire, after the victims were ordered into large pits. While Shirer acknowledges that casualty figures are difficult to even estimate, he suggests that as many as one million died in this manner.

But the Final Solution called for Jews to be killed in far greater numbers. And so the concentration, or extermination, camps were created, where Jews, mainly, but gypsies and others, were gassed. This was more efficient, as Auschwitz records showed that as many as 6,000 could be executed in one day. Again, numbers are elusive, but Shirer says that of the 10 million Jews that lived in territories captured by the Germans, at least half of them were killed. Thousands of others, of course, and not just Jews, but women and children, were the victims of medical experiments.

As Allied forces captured northern Africa in May, 1943, and turned their eyes toward Sicily and Italy, Mussolini became despondent. So much so that his army rebelled, incarcerated him, and put the king of Italy back in power. But Hitler reacted quickly, and sent his armies to occupy all of Italy down to Salerno, where the Allies had landed. He also rescued Mussolini in a daring raid on a mountaintop hotel. Shirer cites Hitler’s affection for Il Duce, even with the Italian’s bravado and incompetence.

The tide had turned, in fact, by 1943, as the Russians began their first summer offensive, British and American bombers were devastating German cities, and German u-boats were driven from the Atlantic, enabling America to ship its military supplies to England in preparation for D-day.

In 1943, the army generals continue to plot against Hitler. I did not realize this. A time-bomb was put on a plane as Hitler is returning from the Russian front, but it did not explode. A suicide bomber concealed a bomb in his coat and attended a meeting with Hitler present, but the bomb’s timer needed ten minutes, and Hitler limited his visit to only eight minutes, so the bomber cancelled the attempt. Although these attempts failed, the rebels, including many generals, continued plotting. They were hampered, however, when many field marshals at first supported them and then backed out. But their plans came to a head when a severely wounded veteran, Count von Staffenberg, a young colonel who had lost an arm and an eye in the war, joined them.

The story of the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt is a remarkable one. Staffenberg was action-oriented, the type of leader the movement needed, for the older generals who had started it were too cautious, many fearful without the leadership of their superiors, others waiting for the coup to succeed before they joined. The Count finally realized only he could plant the time-bomb that was to be used. Called to a meeting with Hitler, he planted the armed bomb under a heavy oak table, then left. He was at the gate when the bomb exploded, and assumed Hitler had been killed. But an officer at the meeting had moved the bomb out of his way under the table, moving it from one side of a heavy oak table support to the other side, which shielded Hitler from the blast.

This is only a part of the story, however. With a successful assassination, the plotters had intended to take over Berlin, announce Hitler’s death, and seek from the Allies an end to the war. But they frustrated their own plans when they delayed acting until they knew Hitler was dead. And then failed even more when they did not cut phone communications, take over the local radio, arrest Goebbels and others, and convince the strong local troops to support them.

Once Hitler’s forces took back control, they shot Stauffenberg and others immediately, and arrested and tortured still more to learn who was involved. In all, more than 5,000 plotters were executed, many hung by wire from a meat hook. When Rommel, recovering from a bomb explosion, was betrayed as a collaborator, he was given the opportunity to take poison, and then given a promised state funeral. Meanwhile, all Germans, both military and civilian, condemned the plotters as traitors, and rallied behind Hitler. Shirer asks how this could happen when everyone could see the destruction that Hitler had brought upon this nation. He concludes that the German culture made “a blind obedience to temporal rulers the highest virtue of Germanic man, and put a premium on servility.”

Meanwhile, the D-Day invasion forces had landed, completely fooling the Germans by choosing Normandy and using inclement weather. Now their armies were advancing into France. These final days in the history of Nazi Germany and the life of Hitler are both calamitous and sad. The calamity follows continually from Hitler’s refusal to allow his soldiers to retreat. He calls it dishonorable, whereas the generals see it enabling their troops to fight another day. This debate reached its climax in the West with the Battle of the Bulge. It was Hitler’s last gamble to stop the Allies, and it required a great Allied effort to defeat his desperate army. Also, because Hitler withdrew soldiers from the East to execute it, he left the Eastern front vulnerable to the Russian latest winter advance.

The sad element was Hitler’s physical and mental condition. By then, he was a sick man. The toll of continued defeats, life underground in bunkers, poisonous drugs prescribed by his doctor, and continued temper tantrums left him nearly unrecognizable to friends. His left arm hung loosely, his entire body trembled, he limped, he suffered dizziness as a result of the July 20 explosion, and his face revealed complete exhaustion. “All his movements were those of a senile man,” wrote a young captain. The dictator had also lost all touch of reality, ordering attacks from his Berlin bunker by armies that no longer existed, and accusing those who recognized this reality of treason.

Shirer details the final hours of Hitler, as he shot himself, Eva Braun poisoned herself, the Goebbels killed their six children and themselves, and a few escaped from the Bunker, although not Martin Bormann. The war had lasted five years, eight months, and seven days; and the thousand-year Nazi Germany had lasted twelve years, four months, and eight days. And in this work of about 1,250 pages, William Shirer has written what the esteemed Hugh Trevor-Roper once called, “a splendid work of scholarship, objective in method, sound in judgment, inescapable in its conclusions.”

This work justly received rave reviews on its publication, and racked up tremendous sales. But it is not often referred to today, which is a commentary on a current society interested only in today’s headlines. Granted that there is much to concern us today, and it is usually not centered in Europe, but there are still cruel, unjust killings geared, as there were in Germany, to eliminate different peoples. And, indeed, one of those people is the same, the Jews.

To sum up, this work of history should never be forgotten and never be unavailable. It contains lessons for all world leaders. That the earlier you are aware of and act against unscrupulous men or women who would take over their corner of the world, the more effective you will be in defeating their efforts. And that any delay in your response will allow immeasurable harm to you, your enemy, and your neighbors.

This work also offers a lesson to historians. That history is based on facts, on original sources, and that a journalist has different tools to discover and interpret those sources than does a historian who prefers to consult the work of other historians from his ivory tower. Not that bias is not in the journalist’s repertoire. Shirer wrote this book, I would suggest, because he despised what Nazi Germany imposed on the people of Europe, especially the Jews. But his bias also included the thinking of his time when he negatively characterized homosexuals.

One wonders how the world of historians will change in today’s era of technological change and ephemeral social media. How will today’s historical records survive? Will contemporaneous thinking be preserved, rather than refined later in a leader’s memoirs?

For this work carries the reader into the inner sanctums of Nazi Germany. Here is what their leaders were thinking at each step of the war. We witness their daring assumption of power in Germany, their diplomatic challenges to the nations around them, their sense of inevitable success as they expand their empire, their refusal to acknowledge their mistakes as the war advances, the infighting as their armies are halted and turned back, their refusal to acknowledge the tide has turned, their desperation as their fate becomes certain, and the final madness of their leader.

This is remarkable history. Without the inherent evil of Nazi Germany, its rise and fall verges on tragedy. For there is an inevitability to its fate, a fate that is inherent in its culture and in the character of its people. And yet…how different is the Germany of today, a representative democracy and an economic bulwark of the continent.

It is the only error Shirer made. Probably because he got too close to the evil of the 1930s and 1940s. He could not see what Germany was to become. He could not see the possibility of change in these people so renowned for their philosophy and their music. Just as Americans could not see back then the economic powerhouse that Japan would become and the source of stability it would represent in the Pacific. How the world changes. How it stays the same. (October, 2015)

World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane

As I’m reading this 2015 novel, I’m thinking: this is the gangster novel to end all ganster novels. And then I remember: that is how I began my review of his last novel, Live by Night. So which is better? This novel. Because Joe Coughlin has more depth. He is tring to leave the world of violence behind, (Shades of Godfather!), and a ghost of the past haunts him. Moreover, as my interest grows, I realize that Dennis Lehane also loves his hero, and whether or not Joe survives at the end of this work might well depend on whether Lehane wants to write another novel about him. Which he could. But will he?

Joe Coughlin is still a gangster in Florida as the book opens, but he no longer sees himself as such, because he has retired from directing underworld affairs. He is now on the crime family’s, so to speak, board of directors. He has made a lot of money for his criminal friends, and they continue to benefit from his past actions. And so he tries for a life of comfort with his young son Tomas, from whom he tries to coneal his past, even as he persists in an affair and continues advising his underworld friends.

But as the novel opens, he is surprised to hear of a threat to his life. It appears to make no sense, because he has helped so many friends become wealthy. And then comes a very provocative and innovative scene, when Joe sees off in the distance the vague figure of a young boy. Is he real or imaginary? Who is he supposed to be? Himself? And if he is a ghost, does that means there is life after death, and thus exists the God that Joe says he doesn’t believe in? And if God does exist, is he sending a message to Joe?

As these mirages continue to pop into Joe’s vision, one senses that at a minimum they express a guilty conscience. And even Joe wonders, at times, if he will be damned. For peace of mind, however, he has compartmentalized his life, justifying to himself each person he has killed. It was out of loyalty, or self-defense, or simply to benefit the organization that relied on him.

The details of this book, of his search for the person who will kill him, do not really matter. What matters is that they kept me reading this novel in large gaps. In fact, I read it in three takes. Because each step Joe makes to discover his potential murderer leads to a new threat, a new risk, a new confrontation with friends who may not be the friends they seem to be. Or with enemies Joe respects and who respect him.

This historic context adds further interest and a deeper reality to this work. For the events take place during World War II, when the underworld controls many of the docks and the war effort depends on the shipping of men and material abroad. Moreover, Joe is dealing here with real gangsters, with Meyer Lansky. Lucky Luciano, and others. He even suggests an idea for getting Luciano out of jail after the war, and history reveals he actually was released. To which might be added a touch of Batista’s Cuba, and the inroads that Joe has helped to make there for Lansky.

There is also, as I said, a love affair, a surprising one for the reader; and it is milked until the very end. Will they or won’t they, go off together into the sunset? His lover is not sure, because he is a gangster, and she is a respectable woman, even if in thrall to him. But through her we see the sensitivity and the yearning for good that is inside Joe, and which he cannot express in his relationships with gangster friends.

He does express it regarding his son Tomas, protecting him at all cost. He even tries to protect him from the truth about himself, but fails. He worries, however, about his son’s future as well as his own. Will he be around tomorrow to protect him?

The internal morality of the gangsters also raises this work to a serious level, a literary level. The rationale is that an attack on a fellow crime family member is an attack on me. It is an eye-for-an eye philosophy that enables Joe and others to stand against the world. Thus, the violent death of any crime family member calls for an equal payback. This is true whether the killer is a member of an enemy gang or the same crime family. It is also true whether or not the killer was justified in killing the crime family member, such as when an enemy kills in self-defense.

The reason for the title is elusive. Does it mean that in his semi-retirement Joe has tried to leave his old world behind, or that that world has now left him behind? Does it refer to the ghost of the boy and his world? Does it suggest that Joe will leave this world for another world? It is provocative, like the rest of the book.

Which brings us to the ending. Three shocking events take place over the last eight pages, as if Lehane wants to top himself, and sock the reader—pow, pow. But are these events real? The first event is unpleasant but inevitable in the book’s terms, whereas the next is hopelessly romantic and contrary to the book’s terms, and the last is more an intrusion by the author, and might have worked only if it had been set up more carefully.

As a result, the author himself guides the action, and produces little satisfaction. Beause his ending is too arbitrary, and not a little puzzling. This is how it ends, the author says. That, in his mysterious world human actions have many repercussions, and worldly endings do not always make true endings. He ends with Joe hoping “there was more to this than a dark night, an empty beach, and waves that never quite reached the shore.”

I look forward to reading more Lehane. With that name, and a presumably Catholic background, he regards life much as I do, that humans are complex beings, that evil exists in this world, that another world may await beyond this one, and that earthly justice does not always prevail.

I have no idea, however, what his next novel will be about. Just as he plucked an inconsequential Joe out of The Given Day, will he pluck Tomas out of this novel and move a decade or so ahead? And whomever he focuses on, will he go back to Boston? Which I would like but do not really expect. Or might his hero move to Lehane’s new home in California, home of Latino gangs, racial violence, politics, water rights, and the entertainment industry?

It makes no difference. I am committed. (July, 2015)