Book Review

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Last Flight to Stalingrad, by Graham Hurley

This is not the first of the author’s Spoils of War series I have read: in fact, it is at least the third, and possibly the fourth, but it is the first I have chosen to review, for a variety of reasons [none of which was that the other ones were less enjoyable]. It is actually the penultimate book in the series, as of 2021, so I am not doing my readers any favours by jumping in here, for which I apologise. The backstories of the main characters don’t need conveying in any great detail which might compromise enjoyment of earlier stories, so they are standalone to that extent, but I would recommend, in advance of, and notwithstanding the following review, locating the earlier stories, if possible, which comprise, in sequence: Finisterre, Aurore, Estocada, Raid 42, the current book, and Kyiv [sadly, again relevant]. As you might be able to infer from the title under review here, the subject of the series is World War II and slightly before, but the stories are set in a variety of locations, partly to demonstrate the many countries adversely affected by the tragic events therein described.

This is a story which culminates in an act of revenge; not an act or a process which is subject to an easy or simplistic moral judgement; but the story also concentrates on one of the most devious, whilst also demonstrably successful, of the vile characters in the heinous hierarchy which comprised the National Socialist government of Germany from 1933 to 1945. It is Joseph Goebbels, who was Reichsminister for propaganda, and it is the relationship of a fictional character called Werner Nehmann with him which forms the backbone of this narrative. Nehmann is not German: he is from Georgia, but he assumed a German name for purely practical & expedient reasons, and Goebbels has come to rely on Nehmann’s journalistic prowess, which can sometimes involve surprising Goebbels with copy which doesn’t always strictly toe the party line, but which Goebbels has hitherto tolerated and even, in general, capriciously or mischievously encouraged. However, Nehmann is under no illusions as to Goebbels’s credulity, and as events progress, Nehmann comes to realise that Goebbels is a lot cleverer than he thought, and has always been a few steps ahead in the chess game which is their lives.

The timespan of the narrative begins in early July 1940, when Nehmann is effectively living in a confiscated apartment, ‘belonging’ to a rich fellow Georgian, Guramishvili, on the Wilhelmstraße in Berlin, and runs to mid-January 1943, when the tide of the war is turning against Germany, which is painfully obvious to all except the Führer, and his circle of slavish devotees. Goebbels makes the mistake of entrusting Nehmann with a billet doux to be delivered in Rome to Goebbels’s former Czech mistress, an actress by the name of Lida Baarova, who fled to her native Prague, after suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of the vilification she had received, orchestrated by Goebbels himself after being instructed in no uncertain terms by Hitler, who adored Goebbels’s three children, and also had a soft spot for his wife, Magda, to end the very public extramarital relationship. Nehmann tries a very risky manoeuvre in the course of this operation, thinking that it will give him leverage against Goebbels, but he is only too well aware that it could also prove to be his undoing.

The narrative includes at least one other real character, in addition to Goebbels: Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, who was a cousin of the Red Baron, and was one of Hitler’s favourites, as a result of his swashbuckling prowess, and Nehmann has some interaction with him, during the German military’s ill-fated incursion into Russia. Aside from the fictional characters, whose dealings with real characters such as Goebbels are not consequential when set against real events, the narrative broadly follows the real course of the war during this time period, so scholars of real history who also enjoy historical fiction should not be disappointed with this story, although I was irritated by a few mistakes & inconsistencies, but I won’t detail these, because overall, they shouldn’t detract from enjoyment of a decent wartime yarn; and, as stated, the previous stories are worth seeking out. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Head of Zeus Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7885-4756-7.

Book Review

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Stasi Winter, by David Young

It is always slightly difficult to review a book which is the latest in a series without revealing too many details of previous stories, which might compromise readers’ enjoyment of them, if they are able to find them; but necessarily, some backstory facts must be given, so I will try to keep these to a minimum, as a reading of the whole series—ideally in sequence, although that is not always possible—is definitely recommended here. I might have mentioned previously that I have some tangential experience of the former East Germany, having worked there for six months, albeit three years after die Wende, the local name for the change in government which occurred after 1989 when the border between the democratic West and the “democratic” East was breached, and the former communist state was dismantled: I will refrain from commenting on the repercussions of what occurred, because opinions are quite polarised, according to one’s political affiliations, but it was an exciting time, and I was privileged, in a way, to have experienced it, even if at some remove.

The Stasi in the title was the colloquial name for the successor to the Gestapo, the wartime secret State police, and it is a shortened form of Staatssicherheitsdienst [State Security Service], which itself is part of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit [Ministry for State Security]. This was a terrifying organisation, not least because it was all-pervasive in East German society, willingly & wittingly fuelling the crippling paranoia with which ordinary East Germans had to contend on a daily basis, even the informers & salaried staff at all levels. The winter is 1978-9, and it was referred to as a “catastrophe winter”, even if not as severe as that of 1962-3, which I remember as being exceptional in Britain. The setting is the far northern island of Rügen, on the edge of the Baltic, which was the location of Hitler’s massive holiday resort building of Prora, built but never used by the Kraft durch Freude organisation [strength through joy] for its intended purpose*. The main authorial device, which has been borrowed from the earlier winter, is that the sea froze to such an extent that escapes to ‘the West’ over the frozen water, by Republikflüchtlinge [escapees] camouflaged by white bedsheets, were possible and did, indeed, take place.

In addition to the police characters, another returning character here is a 20-year old woman, Irma Behrendt, who four years previously had regretfully informed on her own mother, in an attempt to prevent her being sent to prison for inadvisable associations, but which only achieved the exact opposite; this outcome was compounded for Irma by being trapped in the rôle of regular informer. She had had a difficult childhood in the nearby Jugendwerkhof Prora Ost [translated in the book as “severe reform school, dedicated to socialist re-education”], where she had been treated as little more than a slave. Now she has a boyfriend, Laurenz, but he is boring, and she is attracted to the cavalier & piratical Dieter, who is one of the construction brigade working on roads, bridges, and the harbour at the larger town of Sassnitz, at the northern end of the east-facing bay where Prora is sited, Prorer Wiek. Working in a construction brigade is a standard punishment for men who refuse to do national service, which is a step up from imprisonment, the punishment which might have been expected from this repressive régime. Irma is immediately drawn to the potentially dangerous Dieter, and it transpires that he and two of his associates are planning a Republikflucht [escape from the republic], but Irma sees the advantage of joining them, despite the obvious risk, rather than informing on them, as should be her albeit unwelcome duty.

What the conspirators don’t know is that they are being watched by the local Stasi, and they are joined by two VoPos [Volkspolizei, People’s Police officers], Major Karin Müller and Hauptmann [Captain] Werner Tilsner [a Stasi informant], alongside Kriminaltechniker [forensic officer] Jonas Schmidt, from Berlin. Müller had wanted to leave her position as head of the Serious Crimes department of the VoPo, to take up a teaching position at the police college, after some stressful & dangerous previous cases, but it was made very clear to her that this wasn’t an option, so most reluctantly she agreed to head this latest investigation. The head of the Jugendwerkhof Prora Ost has been found dead in suspicious circumstances: ostensibly suicide, but why would an otherwise intelligent woman go out shopping, dressed only in light clothing, in the severest winter weather in living memory? Of course, Karin is only too aware that this investigation could be a poisoned chalice, so she realises that she will have to proceed very carefully, not least because both refusal to comply, and awkward revelations in the case could jeopardise the tenancy of her Berlin apartment, which she shares with her infant twin children and her maternal grandmother, Helga, but also because Tilsner would be reporting back on her every move.

It is not absolutely necessary to have a detailed knowledge of the former East Germany or the German language to be able to enjoy this book, although they undoubtedly enrich the experience. The sense of nervousness & paranoia comes across very well, which elevates this above an average police procedural, and the dénouement, involving a Soviet icebreaking ship, is nicely tense, with a happy resolution for at least some of the protagonists. I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books in this series. The paperback I read was published in 2020, by Zaffre, London, ISBN 978-1-78576-546-9.

*This is a town in itself [although not shown on all maps, for obvious reasons] near the Ostseebad [Baltic resort] of Binz, and there is an English translation of a very helpful website about Prora here.

Book Review

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Blackout, by Simon Scarrow

This is a book which, in my humble opinion, does live up to its hype, with reviews from Anthony Horowitz & Damien Lewis, no less. It could be seen as an analogue of SS-GB, by Len Deighton; although the main difference, apart from the location, is that the former is set in the real world, albeit a fictional protagonist, whereas the latter is set in the imagined ‘alternate reality’ of a Britain conquered by Germany in 1940. This book is one of a numerous series of books on the subject of conflict and/or warfare in different timeframes by this author: he has also co-authored with Lee Francis & T J Andrews. The protagonist in Blackout, published in 2021 by Headline Publishing Group, ISBN 978-1-4722-5856-4 [paperback], is Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kripo [Kriminalpolizei]; Scarrow uses British terminology wherever possible, even down to the inexorably ubiquitous Nazi Party salutation “Hail Hitler”, but since there are few direct equivalents of military ranks, Scarrow does use the German terms.

It is December 1939 in Berlin, which is a sensible timeframe for a murder thriller story set there, because the country is now at war, with all the consequent exigencies & paranoia, but it is before the shock & physical effects of an Allied fightback started to appear; whether Scarrow has one or more sequels in mind as the war progresses is not indicated. Schenke has avoided military service, to his shame, because he has a permanently injured knee, courtesy of an accident during his former career as a driver for the prestigious Silver Arrows Mercedes-Benz racing team: he was lucky to survive the crash, but it left him with a game leg. He is, however, a diligent & moderately successful police officer, and he is “requested” by Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo [Geheime Staatspolizei, State secret police] to investigate the death of Gerda Korzeny, aka Gerda Schnee, a once-famous actress whose career ended somewhat abruptly when she married a rich Berlin lawyer. Schenke is confused as to why he has been conscripted in this way, because the death did not occur in his area; however, he has so far resisted pressure to join the Party, which has been assuming ever more influence over all aspects of German life, including the police, and he quickly realises that, as well as having no obvious allegiance to any of the fractious factions which Hitler’s system has produced, he could be a very convenient fall guy if he discovers anything the Party deems inconvenient.

Schenke is initially unamused to be assigned an “assistant”, who just happens to be an SS Scharführer [sergeant] by Müller, and he sees it as an obvious device to keep tabs on him & his investigation [the officer’s name is Liebwitz, which I think is a nice little in-joke for German speakers, as the young officer has no sense of humour]; however, on reflection, Schenk realises that this could actually be an advantage, given the clout that even a sergeant in the Gestapo with SS accreditation can wield; he also shows assiduous diligence in his work. Also, Müller gives Schenk a letter of authority, which proves to be useful a few times. When another woman is murdered in almost identical circumstances, Schenk begins to wonder if, perhaps, this isn’t an investigation of one murder which could prove to be uncomfortably sensitive but, instead, one of a series by a psychopathic killer willing to take advantage of the wartime blackouts; further investigation by one of Schenk’s team suggests that this could, indeed, be the case… This is as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but the tension as the investigation nears its conclusion is very well built, and the dénouement is very plausible, so if you enjoy a thriller with a wartime historical context, I can heartily recommend this book, and I would not be sorry to see a sequel.