Feb 12, 2020
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Rounding Up the Spies of World War II in 4 New Books

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AN IMPECCABLE SPY
Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent
By Owen Matthews
435 pp. Bloomsbury. $30.

Richard Sorge was born in 1895 to a well-to-do German family living in the Russian oil boomtown of Baku. After a series of injuries while fighting on the Eastern Front, he accepted an assignment at Comintern headquarters in Moscow. From there, he became one of the most daring and effective spies of the 20th century and an inspiration for the likes of John le Carré and a hundred or so other authors. An idealistic Communist, Sorge “managed to steal the most closely kept military and political secrets of both Germany and Japan while hiding in plain sight.” That intel helped stave off disaster for the Soviet Union in 1941 and ensure victory for Stalin in World War II. It also led to Sorge’s execution in a Tokyo prison in 1944.

Matthews is the first Western historian to examine the files about Sorge in the Soviet military intelligence archives. His scouring of these newly opened records in this impressive biography has uncovered the loneliness and turmoil of Sorge’s inner life and widened our understanding of one of the most important — yet least known — Soviet spies.

THE BELLS OF HELL
By Michael Kurland
242 pp. Severn House. $28.99.

Set in 1938, during the rising tide of World War II, Kurland’s convoluted espionage thriller meanders from the Brooklyn docks to Berlin to Washington, D.C., and back again. In it, a German man traveling to America under a fake name is intercepted and murdered by people pretending to be in the F.B.I. They might or might not actually be in the Gestapo. The only witness is a homeless man who goes to the police, who in turn summon the State Department’s Office of Special Intelligence. Meanwhile, Lady Patricia, wife of the cultural attaché at the British Embassy, is having a lusty affair with an Italian military officer in order to get into the locked safe he’s guarding. The ensemble cast also includes a commie-hating New York police detective and a former British officer who, in a turn of phrase I wish I’d never read, hopes to “scoop up the contracts before the Nazis got around to scooping up the directors” of some Jewish-owned record companies. It’s all a bit ham-handed — and that’s before we even get to the plot to assassinate President Roosevelt.

UNDER OCCUPATION
By Alan Furst
206 pp. Random House. $27.

Furst’s best-selling spy novels excel at pulling his readers back in time, often to World War II and the years leading up to it. His exotic European settings — in this case, German-occupied Paris — traffic in nostalgia for the days when good and evil appeared to be more clearly delineated. Paul Ricard, the crime-writer hero of “Under Occupation,” sees a man shot and killed in the streets of the Latin Quarter and comes into possession of an engineering schematic for a detonator, “maybe for a German torpedo.” Ricard’s task becomes to get help from the resistance, cross enemy lines and deliver the plan to the Allied forces before it’s too late.

Furst’s clever machinations gain real momentum in the second half of the novel, where Ricard and his new companion, Leila, become embroiled in a plot involving Polish laborers, torpedoes and possibly deadlier weapons. Even if the depictions of women as sexpots and ingénues are as stuck in time as the rest of the story, there’s comfort in knowing that better days are ahead for the people of Paris.

AGENTS OF INFLUENCE
A British Campaign, a Canadian Spy, and the Secret Plot to Bring America Into World War II
By Henry Hemming
371 pp. PublicAffairs. $28.

A Gallup survey in June 1940 demonstrated that a mere 8 percent of the United States population supported declaring war on Germany and sending American troops to fight overseas. That same month, a Canadian-born spy named Bill Stephenson set up his MI6 station in a swanky penthouse overlooking Central Park. A year and a half later, even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, more than two-thirds of the American population agreed that it was time to go to war.

That change in public attitudes was no accident. As Hemming explains in this timely book, Stephenson successfully organized “the largest state-sponsored influence campaign ever run on American soil.” His propaganda and disinformation rallied American support for Winston Churchill’s war effort and pitted him against the aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose popular radio broadcasts advocated an “America First” isolationism that now sounds all too familiar. Stephenson succeeded by “spreading rumors, winning over prominent isolationists, using opinion polls and even helping to set up a new American intelligence agency.”

Fake news, as it turns out, has long been a powerful political tool. In reminding us of previous efforts by foreign agents to influence Americans, Hemming gives us a great deal to think about.

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