Tag Archives: World War Two

Furst’s “Spies like us”

Alan Furst, Midnight in Europe, 2014.

Alan Furst’s latest period spy novel, Midnight in Europe, caught my eye quite by accident while I was at my local library in early October.  I had not remembered that Furst had published a new book in his long-lived World War Two era “series” last June, so when I saw the cover I thought “well, that looks like a Furst,” and sure enough, it was.

As I’ve mentioned before, a colleague introduced me to Furst and I immediately was taken in by the characters, environs, and the era.  As a student and instructor of history, I’ve long been fascinated by compelling and successful novels that help illustrate a period in time.  Alan Furst creates, not unlike John le Carre, vivid worlds of espionage, secrets, failed trust, and lovers.

Midnight in Europe is no exception as we meet Catalan refugee Cristian Ferrar, international attorney and Parisian resident, along with former arms dealer Max de Lyon, and a host of other characters, some new, some familiar.  Furst populates his novels with people and locations who “overlap” one another, so in Midnight we re-visit Brasserie Heininger and spend time with Count Polanyi, a Hungarian diplomat.  It’s rather like re-visiting a comfortable neighborhood, even in cases when Furst is laying the base for some very tense story-telling.

While Midnight did not impress me the same way in which earlier novels like Night Soldiers or The World at Night did it still allows one to envision pre-World War Two Europe in all its romanticism and tension.  Ferrar’s trips into Nazi Germany, his planning for the future as his homeland (Spain) falls to the fascist Francisco Franco (who is these days, is still dead), and the introduction of the United States more fully into the story line are all intriguing.

Part of what Furst has done successfully over the years is give readers insight into the lives of those at the fringes of the “typical” World War Two narrative. So in Midnight we meet a Catalan, Spanish citizens fighting off fascism, a Russian Jew who has lived all over the continent, Greeks, Hungarians, and more.  These individuals are all facing the coming changes in mid 1930s Europe and, in some instances saying their farewells – it can be touching how Furst portrays these tough men (laborers, criminals, dockyard workers, etc.) acknowledging that their homes are about to explode and many may never see one another again.  One could do worse when trying to unravel interwar politics than to pick up books such as Midnight.

postscript – I’ve also been reminded that the BBC produced a version of Furst’s Spies of Warsaw starring David Tennant as the lead.  Seems as though I need to check out Hulu+ and give the series a whirl.

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Teleuth kai Olethros

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Snyder’s Bloodlands was brought to my attention in the context of discussing Fred Anderson and Drew Cayton’s The Dominion of War in late June 2014.  Pr. Cayton mentioned Snyder’s approach at describing the violence beset on a region in eastern Europe termed “bloodlands.”  For Snyder, this region extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. 

Bloodlands-2010

In the text, Snyder seeks to lift the veil on the sort of mass violence visited upon the region by both National Socialism (German Nazis) and Stalinism (Soviet Union).  Snyder emphasizes, with strong prose and devastating  precision, the methods by which the Nazis and Soviets murdered at least 14 million people between 1933 and 1945.  Bloodlands is solely focused on the fate of civilians or soldiers whose treatment resulted in their deaths.  This is an account about deaths OFF the battlefields, despite the fact that half of the soldiers who died in the Second World War were killed in the same region!

From the preface onward, Bloodlands is both unrelenting and fascinating.  As someone who has long taught that the horrors visited upon European populations by the Nazis were also experienced by the Soviets, I was “glad” to see confirmation of my past lessons.  Yet the text is as frightening as it is fascinating.  Snyder explains that the killing in the region took on five separate forms – forced starvation through state policy, executions of “enemies of the state,” executions of the educated elite (as Germans and Soviets killed approximately 200,000 Polish citizens between 1939 and 1941), executions of a variety of civilians, and depopulation that took millions of lives as the Nazis cleared their eastern frontier of people and industrial centers.

Each one of these five policies reveals a horrific side of humanity.  That five million Soviets starved, largely because of Stalin’s requisitions policies, is bad enough.  That many individuals, particularly in Ukraine, were denied food and then called unpatriotic for daring to starve in front of witnesses reveals a horror that is hard to fathom.  The simplistic quota-meeting efficiency of NKVD execution squads is mind boggling – two officers to hold a victim while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull.  Four such teams alone killed 20,761 people on the outskirts of Moscow in 1937 and 1938 (83).  These executions came after troika judges might hear as many as sixty cases per hour, confirming the orders to kill at the behest of the state.  The fate of thousands of murdered Polish officers in the Katyn Forest after the outbreak of World War Two was hidden by the Soviets as well as their allies.  Ironically, the Nazis, who engaged in similar activities, attempted to reveal this mass execution to the world (a story seen in films like Engima, historical works, and historical fiction such as the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr).  Forced starvation of civilians in cities like Leningrad, the executions of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Belarus or Warsaw, the elimination of the Polish state and Jews in both Nazi and Soviet held territories – the list continues.

Somehow, despite all of these appalling details, Snyder’s text is eminently readable and “easy” to follow with the notable exception of the eleventh chapter.  In a text that makes links between all aspects of these policies that result in mass death, the post-World War Two coda on Stalin’s anti-semitism and eventual death doesn’t quite fit.  I suspect that Snyder includes the section as a method of demonstrating how the “bloodlands” policies encountered resistance in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  I would characterize this piece as working better as a separate article perhaps?  Despite this very small misstep, Snyder’s Bloodlands is essential reading for students and professors of the twentieth-century.

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Gunther and noir

Philip Kerr, A Man Without Breath. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 2013.

Yesterday I pointed out that I might take today off but I started a new Gunther novel today so today I’m doing a half job posting.  I have yet to finish this particular novel, but I thought I’d offer a few comments on one of my favorite fictional characters and the nature of ‘series’ writing in general.

Years ago in my first year of teaching, a colleague introduced me to author Patrick O’Brian and his series of Napoleonic era fiction.  I became fascinated with naval tactics and terminology from the early nineteenth century, educated on the nature of the complications of being Irish, Catalan, and English, and intrigued by the moral ambiguities of Captain Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and others.  As the years passed and I devoured the Aubrey/Maturin canon, I enjoyed the stories (not all equally, but overall) and looked forward to the next installment.  Then O’Brian died.  I fussed.  I fidgeted.  I still have yet to finish the series.  I can’t bring myself to do it for some reason because, of course, should I read Blue at the Mizzen, it’s over.  I have the same problem with the last bits of season three of Arrested Development.

Anyway, other series have come into my life that I hold in equal esteem, and thankfully, two of the three authors are still alive and producing works,  Philip Kerr is one of those writers.  I came to Kerr via one of the other two surviving authors, Alan Furst.  Furst had been recommended to me by a colleague and I ate up his spy novels that transport the reader to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.  Furst’s works are, not strictly speaking, serial, but there are so many overlapping locales, characters, and more, that one can’t help but be pulled into the idea that it is all interwoven as a single tale.

I forget whether a Kerr book was next to a Furst I picked up or whether the interwebs made the connection for me or what have you, but regardless, once I met Bernie Gunther, the Berlin cop and soldier with a conscience, I was hooked.  The narrative tools of any Kerr novel are strong, not the least of which being because of his powers of description.  A reader is transported to Weimar Germany, Berlin after the Nazis, the Eastern Front, South America in the years after the war, etc.    I won’t go so far as to share the opinion of the Chicago Tribune – “history is wasted on historians.  It ought to be the exclusive property of novelists – but only if they are as clever and knowledgeable as Philip Kerr” – but Kerr’s work is first rate history and story telling combined.  He clearly has deeply researched life in Germany in the interwar period and under the Nazis, and he is vastly skilled at creating characters in an unpleasant place that you care about.

A Man Without Breath, the latest Gunther novel, takes place between early March and early May 1943 and revolves around Germany’s defeat at the hands of the Soviets at Stalingrad and revelations about the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest earlier in the war. Gunther, the Great War veteran, is recovering from the effects of a British bombing and from his having been forced into work for Reinhard Heydrich and other folks whom Gunther finds distasteful.  Now, Gunther is employed by the war crimes division, investigating cases of crimes committed by German soldiers.  Kerr notes, with great irony, that his protagonist never gets to investigate the work of the einsatzgruppen who are committing actual war crimes.

Janelle is expressing shock that I wrote anything today – I concur, so I’ll wrap it up for now.  Oh, and by the way, the other series author who passed away most unfortunately is Jean Claude-Izzo, whose Marseilles Trilogy is tremendous.  I wish he were still with us.

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