Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
The Legacies of a World at War
Thursday, May 24, 2018 -- Memorial Day is nearly upon us and you could do worse than to revisit some of the lesser-known strands of the Second World War, a conflict that continues to dominate the globe even more than 70 years after its conclusion.

Here are reviews of two books that focus on some things Americans may forget: the disastrous lives of post-war Germans and the early years of intelligence services during the Second World War. Germany's condition is considered in a novel by one of the nation's most honored authors. The spymasters are explained in a book by one of our most honored historians.

I'd never heard of the German writer Heinrich Böll, a leading literary figure in his home country in the years following World War II, until shortly before I read his first novel, The Silent Angel.

The slim volume has a curious history. It wasn't published until 1992, more than forty years after it was written and seven years after Böll's death in 1985. The English translation wasn't published until 1994.

First submitted to publishers in the late 1940s, The Silent Angel was rejected by reigning decisionmakers not only because it was deemed to have no commercial potential but also because its portrayal of a worn-out and hapless Germany was in sharp contrast to what the post-war German government was promoting.

During his lifetime Böll managed to get around the rejection by cannibalizing key concepts of The Silent Angel and integrating them in his later books. That became an impressive body of work. Novels such as The Clowns, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and Billiards at Half-Past Nine earned him the Noble prize in 1972 and global acclaim as one of Europe's finest writers.

With its spare and not especially well-organized storyline, The Silent Angel centers around Hans Schnitzler, a soldier turned civilian who seeks a new identity and, at least as important, something to eat. He is rewarded when a nun in a hospital gives him a loaf of stale bread. Schnitzler devours the handout as if it were the finest dish on the menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The rampant hunger of the citizenry is a recurring theme throughout the The Silent Angel. The German people are starving and the description of Hans savoring the bread is haunting.

The unnamed city into which Hans has wandered is an actual depiction of post-war Cologne, Böll's beloved, bombed-out hometown. The Silent Angel shows the soul-crushing beating Germany absorbed and what it did to the nation's spirit.

Hans is also in search of Elisabeth, the wife of a soldier named Willy Gompertz, who was executed in a case of mistaken identity. Gompertz gave Hans a coat in which the deceased's will is hidden. Elisabeth will undertake a fierce struggle to retain her inheritance, a battle that reveals alleged corruption in the Catholic Church, which had strong roots in Cologne.

Hans assumes another identity along the way and dons the raincoat of a woman named Regina Unger. Finding her address on a slip of paper in the coat's pocket, Hans decides to find her. Lonely and grieving the recent death of her baby, Regina takes Hans in and they begin a relationship.

Besides the themes of identity, hunger and despair, Böll explores the search for religious meaning. His criticism of the Catholic Church in the years immediately following the end of World War II would seem at odds with the author's own devout Roman Catholicism. Of note, a priest plays a key role in helping Hans and Regina find salvation amidst the ruins. This love story seems to imply hope for their--and their country's--future.

Given the harrowing nature of the subject matter, The Silent Angel is not a book that people loved or even liked, but it serves as a useful introduction to Böll's subsequent--and more popular--novels. And it is certainly one of the most important works of Trummerliteratur, Germany's post-war literary movement that examined the lives of former soldiers and POWs returning to a nation in ruins.

At the other end of the emotional scale is The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, a brilliantly researched and entertaining history of World War II intelligence services. It is another offering from Sir Max Hastings, the prolific author of more than 20 highly praised books on the world wars of the 20th century. (I reviewed one of his World War I works and a trio of his books on World War II.)

The 672 pages of The Secret War are a skillfully crafted probe into the secret services of the Americans, British, Germans, Russians and Japanese. Hastings considers the who, the what, the how--and the successes and failures--of the global operatives and the agencies at play in the early days of organized spying.

Here are a few of the interesting, perhaps surprising, bits that readers will glean from The Secret War.

Information Gathering Is 'Inherently Wasteful' Even the most fruitful intelligence operations were usually meaningless. "Perhaps one-thousandth of 1 percent of material garnered from secret sources ... contributed to changing the battlefield outcomes," Hastings notes. But kernels of information that allowed a country to achieve desired results were considered worth all the resources otherwise wasted.

It's Not What You Know, But What You Do No matter how accurate, intelligence information was meaningful only if the recipients had the wherewithal and resources to impose victory on the ground, the sea and the air.

The Who Often Trumps the What A spy's ultimate success or failure depended on whether his warnings were heeded--or ignored. The output of Russia's huge intelligence organization, for example, was greatly diminished by Stalin's paranoia and his failure to utilize the valuable information. Given history, Hastings observes, it seems a democracy is often better able to capitalize on intelligence than an authoritarian society.

Successful Spying Is More Than Skill and Expertise As Hastings observes, personality and character are also important factors in a spy's playbook. The Secret War is populated with the intriguing backstories of numerous operatives, including the charismatic half-Russian/half-German Richard Sorge, a Soviet military intelligence officer working undercover as a German journalist. Sorge was dubbed the "most formidable spy in history," by Ian Fleming, the British intelligence officer best known as the creator of master spy James Bond.

Ironically, some of what Hastings uncovered remains even more relevant today. "Cyberwarfare," Hastings observes, "is a logical evolution of the process" begun in World War I and greatly expanded during World War II.

The Secret War dispels many of the myths we've come to believe about spycraft thanks to flashy movies, pulse-pounding television shows and juicy novels. Instead, it fleshes out the real strengths and weaknesses of the men and women who clandestinely fought for their country around the globe.

This column is Copyright © 2018 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.