Book Review: News From Berlin

Knowledge Can Kill

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 be higher.

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.

Don’t expect a spoiler sentence here. Suffice it to say that Verschuur’s ultimate decision estranges him even more—from both his wife and his Dutch lover, while leaving his daughter confused and jumping to the wrong conclusions. The spy who loves going it alone ends up more alone than ever.

Andrew Nagorski’s latest book, The Nazi Hunters, will be published next year.