The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939–1945

Max Hastings

2015


Another masterly rendering of military history, this time looking at the secret war.

Hastings is disparaging – with reason – of many of the claims of secret services: the information obtained by diplomats often seems radically superior and more reliable than that obtained by spies, perhaps not least because it's being interpreted in a cooler and less personally dangerous atmosphere. It's hard to disagree as far as the Second World War is concerned, given that barely a single spy changed the course of the war to any measurable degree.

There are two exceptions to Hastings' conclusion, however. One of code-breaking, where he provides a carefully balanced and even-handed treatment of all sides' cryptographic skills. He places the British efforts in a context that's all the stronger because he dispenses with myth while still being left with a story of epic successes: the codebreakers were able at times to exert a major influence on tactics and strategy, even while being stymied at others.

The second is the handling of double agents, and here it is the Russian efforts that really stand out. While the British XX committee scored major successes, the Russian deceptions were incredible in both their depth and extent, often completely masking the armies' intentions even after they had started manoeuvring. In many ways the Russians achieved by stealth what Operation Fortitude achieved by physical deception, and on an enormously larger scale. It was particularly interesting that Hastings pulled out the contribution of "Rudolf Abel", which I'd just read about in Abel: The True Story of the Spy They Traded for Gary Powers, and whose contributions really deserve to be better known.

Finished on Tue, 31 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin

1974


A science fiction utopian classic: how would one go about setting up an anarchist society, and what might then happen? Le Guin answers the first question by requiring a new language, new forms of relationships, new ways of naming children, and an organising principle based around the collective opinion of one's fellow-citizens in the absence of any form of compulsion. As to the second, she sees the potential for human pride and ambition even in the face of a social order explicitly predicated against them. Any desire of which someone disapproves can always be characterised as self-interest ("egoising"), which will be met with disapproval.

There are plenty of echoes in this story of the Soviet Union, especially prior to the Second World War, in which noble ambitions to re-make society showed that they could be used and weaponised by someone who was prepared to act ruthlessly in their own interest. It's the way in which someone acts that often conditions how people interpret their actions, giving power to anyone able to connive with a pious expression.

Finished on Fri, 27 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Timothy Snyder

2010


A timely and excellent exploration of a forgotten battlefield.

It's easy to reduce the Second World War to the extermination camps, resistance, and large-scale battles. This book tells the story of the civilian terror visited on the people of Eastern Europe before, during, and after the period we usually regard as "fighting". From Stalin's Great Terror, through the Nazi occupation, and then the reprisals that Stalin re-visited on the "Bloodlands", it's an almost inconceivable story of loss and random death that Snyder manages to tell without falling into any of the traps or tropes that he might have done. He keeps his perspective while telling of the death of (literally) millions, with a good eye for the individual story and copious support from documents and eye witnesses. It's a uniquely valuable contribution to the literature on the war, and doubly valuable today when nationalism is once again on the march. Without thinking history will repeat itself, it still does no harm to be reminded of what can happen.

Finished on Thu, 29 Dec 2016 03:49:53 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

Inside the Fourth Reich

Erich Erdstein

1977


It's hard to take this book seriously: I only came to read it after finding in a second-hand bookshop for 20p. There may be a grain of truth to some of it, but it's most eye-catching assertions have been contradicted by reality.

Erdstein positions himself as being central to one of the war's most critical early incidents: the Battle of the River Plate, where he records his suggestion to the British embassy that they fake news of the an impending arrival of a British battle fleet to spook the captain of the Graf Spee into scuttling his ship – which he obligingly does. Not content with this, Erdstein manages to uncover a cache of weapons buried by the crew in place of their fallen comrades. These early successes set him up for an extended career in espionage and (later) law enforcement, first in Uruguay and Argentina, and later in Brazil. It is here that he encounters both Martin Bormann and Joseph Mengele, managing to shoot the latter dead.

So far so good except... We now know that Bormann died in Berlin at the end of the war, an eye-witness story confirmed by DNA evidence, which calls Erdstein's assertion of a fingerprint match somewhat into question. We also know that Mengele was identified (again) by his DNA, and that he died while swimming, not from a gunshot.

This could just be a case of adding some eye candy to round-out a narrative, but it does call into question the rest of the book, which would actually (if true) stand as an interesting, if not particularly gripping, account of police work against real Nazis in South America in the war's aftermath.

Finished on Tue, 27 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 1/5.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

Sarah Bakewell

2016


To the extent that one can have an introduction to existentialism, this is it.

Part extended biography and part philosophical exploration, this book weaves the tale of existentialism into a readable and comprehensible form. It manages to do justice to the philosophy <>and the philosophers, both the big names and the more minor players whose contributions have perhaps been unfairly forgotten.

The towering figure in the narrative is inescapably Sartre, with all his inconsistencies and personal weaknesses set again his intellectual and written power. Bakewell doesn't try to make him appear better than he is: his willingness to tie himself in knots to support a cause he felt he should justify doesn't detract from the clarity of some of his other contributions. But for me the most interesting figure is Simone de Beauvoir, who – while by no means forgotten – often seems to be almost a bit-player rather than a powerful (and in some ways more consistent) exponent in her own right. There's certainly enough of a temptation here to read her work in its own right.

Finished on Mon, 26 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 5/5.

The Outrun

Amy Liptrot

2015


A story of city addiction and island recovery.

This the second study of addictive personalities I've read recently This is a much more satisfying read than So Sad Today, partly because of its outcome and partly because of its setting. The author leaves the Orkney of her youth for London, where she falls into an alcoholism that's only really relieved when she returns to the island to detox. It's impossible to avoid the suspicion that city life itself was the cause, both its anonymity (which can be positive after time in a small place) and its restricted spaces. She returns to Orkney and experiences a range of environments, culminating most powerfully in an extended period on Papa Westray, one of the smallest islands. It's here she re-discovers herself, really: find the sense of self and self-sufficiency that was missing during her time in the city.

It's an interesting question whether a dedicated city-dweller could replicate Liptrot's journey: could someone used to the 24/7 lifestyle thrive in such quiet with just themselves for company? (Of course you're never actually forced to have only yourself for company: there's always the infinite distant company of the internet, even on the outer isles.) I suspect the answer is "no", at least for born or adopted city-zens; for people (like me) with a closer relationship with solitude and a need for just their own company, then it's tantalising.

Finished on Wed, 21 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 2/5.

Abel: The True Story of the Spy They Traded for Gary Powers

Vin Arthey

2010


This is a spy story in the finest tradition, with the added advantage of being true.

There are plenty of surprises, not least the fact that the protagonist "Rudolf Abel" – whose name I knew from other histories – actually adopted this, the name of a colleague (dead, unknown to him) to muddy the waters of his interrogation. In fact, Willie Fisher was raised in Newcastle upon Tyne, left for Russia with his Leninist parents and only accidentally avoided being purged by Stalin as part of the Great Terror. His time as the main "illegal" on the US east coast was largely uneventful, and (it's possible to argue) a waste of his other talents that might have been more profitably exploited in research and training. It captures the romance and the dedication of spycraft – but also the tedium, the danger, and the fact that much of it is often pointless in even the medium term.

There remain some questions. Were the Rosenbergs really spies? – this story suggest so, whereas a lot of modern research denies it. It a story that will be revisited again as more archives are opened.

Finished on Fri, 28 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

Eugene Rogan

2015


An excellent history of a rather forgotten and mis-understood piece of First World War history. This is a subtle and balanced review of the precursors and consequences of the war for the Ottoman lands, and puts a lot of history that we think we know well into perspective. Given how much of recent history has been shaped by these events – the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour Declaration, and even in some ways the recent attempted military coup in Turkey – it deserves to be far better known and appreciated.

Finished on Wed, 12 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Nathaniel Philbrick

2000


What was it like to be a sailor in the mid-nineteenth century? This book provides an evocative and compelling story. From the way in which Nantucket Island was once the centre of the world's most valuable commercial trade, to the privations and hardships associated with whaling, the detail and contextualisation is impressive – and that's before we even get to the main events, a whale turning and sinking the ship hunting it, the crew's subsequent wandering the eastern Pacific in small open boats, their resort to cannibalism to stay alive, and the aftermath of their rescue. On the way we also encounter some wonderfully out-of-the-way islands, as well as a time when people – even sailors familiar with the waters – could reasonably (if inaccurately) fear murder and savagery on the various Pacific islands.

Finished on Sun, 04 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.