The Versailles Treaty ending World War I placed a heavy reparations burden on Germany. The western powers insisted on Germany paying reparations in gold or foreign currency, and turning over more than a quarter of the value of the exports from its industries, which were Germany's key strength and had mostly remained intact at the end of the war.
Many Germans concluded that the Weimar Republic was ineffective and doomed, and decided to support the Nazis, who promised order in the streets, full employment, the end to payment of reparations and a restoration of national pride through the resurrection of its armed forces and reclamation of lands lost through the Versailles Treaty. Fearful of the communists and weary of the political and economic chaos of the postwar years, enough Germans were persuaded to support the Nazis to result in Hitler's becoming Chancellor in January, 1933.
The rise of fascism in Spain, Italy and Japan in the mid-1930s, along with Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, convinced Hitler that Britain and France lacked the will to stop Hitler's territorial ambitions. In quick succession, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia were absorbed into the Reich. Then, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later, the UK and France declared war on Germany. The fury of the storm descended as World War II began.
I've always been interested in World War II history and fiction and that gathering storm period fascinates me too. Now that we've finished our quick background history, here is some espionage and crime fiction set in the period. I've also included a few books of nonfiction.
Latimer is intrigued by what Haki tells him of Dimitrios and thinks there could be a novel in it if he researches Dimitrios's 20-years life in crime. Latimer's research takes him to Bulgaria, Serbia, Paris, Switzerland and Croatia. Latimer comes to the realization that Dimitrios is very much a creature of his time and place. As another character says, the conditions that produced the kinds of criminals typified by Dimitrios are those where "might is right, while chaos and anarchy masquerade as order and enlightenment." Evil exists and takes every advantage of the naive and ineffectual.
For a very different trip through prewar Europe, try Patrick Leigh Fermor's memoirs of his walk throughout Europe beginning in 1933, when he was 18 years old. Imagine being 18 and traveling on foot from one end of Europe to the other in such a momentous time! Fermor's plan was to tell the story of his trip in three volumes of nonfiction. The first two volumes are A Time Of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube and Between the Wind and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates. Unfortunately, Fermor died last year without publication of his third volume. However, his biographer, Artemis Cooper, reports that Fermor had completed a draft of the book and that it will be published.
"Garden of Beasts" is a loose translation of "Tiergarten," Berlin's celebrated urban park. Erik Larson used the same translation for his recent book of nonfiction, In the Garden of Beasts. This stellar, novelistic book tells the story of college professor William Dodd, who acted as America's ambassador to Germany for several years from 1933, and his adult daughter, Martha, who came along to live in Berlin. Dodd found conditions under the Nazi fist far worse than he imagined, but was unable to get the hidebound foreign service to act. Meanwhile, Martha was having the time of her life, enthralled with the pageantry of the Stormtroopers and SS, believing in Hitler as the savior of Germany, and more than a little attracted to various Nazis. But Martha then began an affair with a Soviet NKVD agent and began to see the dark side of Nazism. Martha's infatuation with fascism, and then with communism, helps us see in one person the passionate believers each of these belief systems attracted and the collision course they were on throughout Europe in the 1930s.
Manning Coles was a pseudonym for friends Adelaide Manning and Cyril Coles, the latter of whom was a longtime British intelligence officer who lived in Cologne for much of the between-the-war years. Rue Morgue Press has republished almost half of the Tommy Hambledon series and a couple of Manning Coles's nonseries books.
In the first book in the series, Death of a Nationalist, set in 1939 Madrid, Tejada summarily executes a woman found next to the body of his murdered friend and colleague, but quickly realizes she was not his killer. He is compelled to try to find his friend's real murderer, but must also confront the devastation his killing of the woman has had on those who loved her. At the same time, one of them, her lover, is looking to avenge her death.
The later books in the series, Law of Return, The Watcher in the Pine and The Summer Snow take place in the 1940s. All are recommended.
For a more light-hearted series about the Spanish Civil Guard (though set much later), try Delano Ames's four-volume series featuring Juan Llorca: The Man in the Tricorn Hat, The Man with Three Jaguars, The Man with Three Chins and The Man with Three Passports.
Some of Furst's books set in the gathering storm era are: Night Soldiers is a book in which a Bulgarian boy becomes a Soviet agent after his father is murdered by fascists in 1934, and is sent by his spymasters to Spain during its civil war; Dark Star is set in 1937 and concerns a Soviet spy stationed in Paris; The Foreign Correspondent is set in 1938 Paris and tells the story of Italian anti-fascists living in the city; The Spies of Warsaw is about––guess what––spies in Warsaw in 1937; and the upcoming Mission to Paris will send an American film star to 1938 Paris to film a movie, but also to act as an agent of U.S. intelligence operating from the American embassy.
Timothy Snyder's nonfictional Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin is a stunning history of the nightmares visited on the people living in the lands between Russia and Germany. Supreme victims of geography, they were treated as disposable by both occupying authoritarian regimes, sacrificed in service to the ambitions of two madmen.
The first book, March Violets, in set in 1936, a few years after Bernie has effectively been forced out of Berlin's Kriminalpolizei as a result of the Nazi takeover and the politicization of the police force. The second in the series, The Pale Criminal, is set two years later, when Bernie is forced by the Gestapo's Reinhard Heydrich to return to the Kripo to investigate the murders of teenage girls.
In future posts about the World War II era, I plan to discuss espionage and crime fiction set in Europe, books set in the U.S. or featuring American protagonists, and books involving time travel or alternative history. I don't have plans to tackle books set in Japan or elsewhere in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
I can't hope to write a comprehensive summary of all the good World War II-era espionage and other crime fiction books, but I hope you'll let me know about other titles you'd recommend, starting here with the between-the-wars period. As we go along, with your help alerting me to other recommended titles, I'd like to develop a bibliography of WW2-era crime fiction.
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Note: Portions of this post are taken from book reviews posted on Amazon under my Amazon user name. I received a free review copy of Philip Kerr's Prague Fatale.