A diplomat’s dilemma on the eve of calamity. Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
Vladimir Putin has systematically worked to rehabilitate the image of Stalin, downplaying his record of mass murder while celebrating his role as the architect of victory in World War II. But Stalin almost lost that war before he won it. Disregarding multiple warnings from the West, and even his own spies, he refused to believe that Hitler was about to unleash an attack on the Soviet Union in late June 1941, shattering their de facto alliance.
As a result, the German offensive, known as Operation Barbarossa, initially scored dramatic successes, allowing the Wehrmacht to inflict astronomical casualties and rapidly advance deep into Soviet territory. It would take years—and many more millions of Soviet military and civilian deaths—before the Germans would be driven back across their border.
This is the well-known backdrop that Otto de Kat—a pseudonym for the Dutch writer and publisher Jan Geurt Gaarlandt—uses to maximum effect in this slim, tautly constructed novel. While readers know where the epic events at the heart of the story are headed, de Kat has produced much more than just another tale of wartime intrigue. His real focus is the intensely personal struggle of his main character, a Dutch diplomat posted in neutral Switzerland. The result is a mini-drama within a mega-drama, making this a thoroughly engrossing emotional ride.
Based in Berne, Oscar Verschuur is (as de Kat explains) “a diplomatic freewheeler, dispatched on far-flung assignments that were considered too delicate or challenging for ordinary civil servants,” including working with those who smuggled people out of Germany. Collecting and keeping secrets are his specialty: “He enjoyed it, it was food and drink to him.” In other words, he is more of a spy than a bureaucrat, a risk taker in his professional and private life. While his British wife Kate is back in London working in a hospital, he is drawn to Lara, a beautiful Dutch compatriot he meets in the Swiss Alps.
Three weeks before the German invasion, Verschuur is at the receiving end of the biggest scoop of his diplomat/spy career: the exact date, June 22, for the planned launch of Operation Barbarossa. The source is his daughter Emma. During his earlier posting in Berlin, she had married a German foreign ministry official who works for Adam von Trott. The latter, like the American newsman Howard K. Smith who makes a cameo appearance, is no fictional character; while serving in the foreign ministry, von Trott despised the Nazi regime and was later executed as an accomplice in the 1944 assassination plot against Hitler. Emma’s husband shares his boss’s views, letting her in on the information about the pending bloodbath.
Because of the source, Verschuur faces a huge dilemma, harboring “a secret that was too important to keep to himself, and yet impossible to share with anyone else.” He knows that if he passes this warning on and, as is likely, it is traced back to him, the Gestapo will quickly make the connection with his daughter and her husband. Without warning her spouse ahead of time, Emma had let slip the information on a visit to Berne because she felt her father would know what to do with it—and despite her palpable fear, could not imagine keeping it to herself.
But Emma feels she no longer knows her father well. Neither does Kate in London, as the couple’s lives take increasingly divergent paths. That leaves all members of the immediate family struggling with a growing sense of estrangement, and Verschuur’s romantic intoxication with his Dutch compatriot looks like more a natural result of that process than its catalyst.
Given Stalin’s conviction that the more general warnings he receives constitute Western disinformation aimed at drawing him into conflict with Hitler, Verschuur legitimately wonders if his information can make a difference, especially if he shares it with British officials or the Dutch government-in-exile in London. His countrymen in the British capital are notoriously inept, and the British authorities are not much better. “London was synonymous with bungling, infighting, red tape,” he muses.
But can he afford to do nothing, thus protecting his daughter but possibly missing an opportunity to limit the deadly effectiveness of Operation Barbarossa? The stakes could not
De Kat weaves the strands of these stories together deftly. The one stylistic problem, which may be the fault of translation from Dutch to English, is the occasional reliance on clichés: “Emma’s whispered message weighed like a stone on his heart,” we are told. But this is a relatively minor irritation as de Kat manages to build the suspense about what Verschuur will decide, despite our knowledge that nothing would save Stalin from his own willful blindness.
A novel of wartime suspicion and suspense. by Jon L. Breen Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By JON L. BREEN
How many literary genres and how many specialized backgrounds can one novel encompass? The latest from Gerard Woodward, a British writer frequently shortlisted for prestigious literary awards, has aspects of war, espionage, coming-of-age, comedy, mystery, saga, gay romance, and courtroom drama. It provides a wealth of background detail on subjects as diverse as art, farming, aviation, sex, and the work of camouflage experts in World War II. The title Vanishing refers both to the protagonist’s work and his general approach to life and relationships.
Religious conscience meets scientific mind.
Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By WRAY HERBERT
By the late 19th century, the majority of working scientists, including geologists, had come to accept that the Earth was a very, very old place, as evidenced by an extensive fossil record. This acceptance had not come easily, but the unearthing of strange Triassic mammals and marine creatures and pterosaurs, embedded in stratified quarries and cliffs, had gradually, over the decades, undermined the traditional view of the Earth and creation, including the literal reading of the Book of Genesis.
No staying put when there’s putting to be done.
Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Golfers have a hard time explaining the appeal of their game to those who do not play. And in fact, golfers sometimes have a hard time accounting for their passion even to themselves. The old quip about how a round of golf is a “good walk spoiled” seems to stick with a lot of people. But buried in that line is an acknowledgment of something important about golf: Almost every round is, at the very least, “a good walk.”
Kissinger finds his chronicler.Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By SAM SCHULMAN
This attentive, magnificently written, and profoundly researched biography of Henry Kissinger before he took office is stunningly good, and stuns as much for what it does not say as what it does. Earlier Kissinger biographers have tried to comprehend him, not quite in order to forgive his crimes but to share with others—usually Adolf Hitler—the blame for them. Hitler stung Kissinger at a tender age into his amoral realism, and caused him to lure us into a foreign policy that history has proved was unnecessary.
More than one way to see a Florentine drama.Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By JUDITH MARTIN
Who lured his cousin, confidant, and sovereign by promising him sex with one of their famously virtuous relatives, and then stabbed him repeatedly, remaining in the bloody murder chamber for more than three hours afterwards, to laugh and joke about it with his lackey-accomplices? We know from the subtitle that it was Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici, who thus dispatched Alessandro de’ Medici, duke of Florence, in 1537.
No business like show business, especially on Broadway. Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By STEPHEN EIDE
New York Post columnist Michael Riedel has great timing: Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway arrives just as Times Square has once again become the center of controversy in New York. Sleaze and swindling are on the rise in the form of aggressive panhandling by costumed superheroes and cartoon characters and “desnudas,” women wearing nothing but body paint above their waists.
The invention of the New Yorker, in myth and memory.Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By DANNY HEITMAN
Hearing about someone else’s office politics can often be like eavesdropping on his class reunion, the narrative too narrowly tribal to interest those of us beyond the clan. Even so, for more than half a century, books about the inner workings of the New Yorker have attracted a loyal audience. Dale Kramer created this curious subgenre of American letters in 1957 with Ross and The New Yorker, his chronicle of the magazine’s origins under founding editor Harold Ross.
Reading the arguments that led to rebellion.
Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By EDWARD ACHORN
Long before cannons, muskets, blood, and bitter sacrifices settled the question of American independence, a revolution occurred “in the minds and hearts of the people,” John Adams recalled late in life.
One last-ditch effort to avoid Civil War.
Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By DAVID BAHR
In a city where the sine qua non of life is failure, it is amazing that political miscarriages don’t receive more studious treatment. But in The Peace That Almost Was, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, offers us a splendid treatment in this meticulously researched account of the last, best attempt to prevent the disunion of a nation less than a century old.
What letters to the North Pole tell us about America.
Dec 7, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 13 • By RACHEL DICARLO CURRIE
Whenever I feel a twinge of despair over America’s challenges—a not infrequent occurrence—I ask myself a simple question: “What year or decade would you like to return to?” It’s a useful exercise for anyone harboring undue pessimism about the future or gauzy nostalgia for the past. Americans have a tendency to take much of our long-term economic, technological, medical, and social progress for granted, while assuming that our current problems will only get worse. History shows that such fatalism is unwarranted.
A veteran diplomat reflects on Israel and America.
Nov 30, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 12 • By TEVI TROY
For over half a century, Harry Truman has been put forth as the paragon of presidential support for Israel. Presidents are routinely measured against the Truman standard, and under the right circumstances, they can gain the moniker “the most pro-Israel since Truman.” This informal list of honorees has included, at different times, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, somehow, even Barack Obama—although this came from his own vice president, Joe Biden.
When Stalin called, Professor Aptheker answered.Nov 30, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 12 • By HARVEY KLEHR
J. Edgar Hoover may have called Herbert Aptheker “the most dangerous Communist in the United States” in 1965, but an attentive reader of Gary Murrell’s interesting but very flawed biography will come away with a picture of an ideological fanatic who squandered his talents as a historian, gave slavish devotion to a monstrous regime, and lacked the intellectual courage to say publicly what he wrote privately.
The formula for one rare mathematician’s life.
Nov 30, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 12 • By DAVID GUASPARI
This is an unusual biography of a highly unusual man, the prodigiously gifted mathematician and professional eccentric John Horton Conway—creative scientist, teacher, showman, and cult figure. His third ex-wife told the author, Siobhan Roberts, that he was both “the most interesting person I have ever met” and “the most selfish, childlike person I have ever met,” and that she didn’t think she would marry again because John had “set the bar rather high.”
An enigmatic tale of the prehistoric East.
Nov 23, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 11 • By DOMINIC GREEN
Sleepless and sweaty in the “great heats” of July 1840, Ralph Waldo Emerson reached for something sublime and sensual: “There was nothing for me but to read the Vedas, the bible of the tropics.” The problem was that the “grand ethics” of Vedic mythology, and the “unfathomable power” of Vedic cosmology, were traduced by a fetish for sacrificial rites. A modern seeker had to sift “primeval inspiration” from “endless ceremonial nonsense.”