There are times when finishing a book is a sad occasion. This was one of them. I truly did not want it to end but as they say “all good things…” and all that jazz.
It is one very good novel based on the true story of Fritz Kolbe, a civil servant in the German Foreign Ministry. He was posted to South Africa in the early-mid 1930’s when the clouds of war were looming over Europe instigated by Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Kolbe was not a Nazi and remarkably never joined the National Socialist Party at any time even when he was spying in the heart of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin during the war years. He simply detested what they stood for and what they were doing to his beloved Germany.
Thus he is in a quandary. He is not a traitor but simply wishes to hasten the end of the war so Germany can return to normality. However the consequences of his actions in supplying the Americans with vital and top secret information are brought home to him when he hears the news of his old friend’s death in Ireland. His friend had been instrumental in setting up a secret radio station outside of Dublin to assist German U-Boats. British commandos had destroyed the radio station and killed his friend. They knew of it location because of Kolbe’s spying activities. On hearing of her husband’s death, the friend’s wife shoots herself. That is two deaths playing on Kolbe’s conscience but on he ploughs his lonely craft. Concepts come to him such as the “greater good” and his father’s advice constantly comes to salve his conscience when recalling his father’s words “always do what is right.”
What is right and what is wrong and all the shades of grey between are a theme of this book. It is oh so easy in retrospect to criticise many Germans during these bleak times. The easy way was for the majority to join the party, don the swastika armband and offer that straight-armed salute with the words “Heil Hitler!” That is not offered as an excuse but as an observation of the truth of human nature.
The author tells a great spy story but without the professional tradecraft associated with this genre. It is not a le Carre book but just as engrossing for fans of the master. It benefits from the telling of the story by Kolbe to two young journalists following the end of the war because the reader becomes totally acquainted with the psychological burdens placed upon the “honest spy.” He was indeed an honest spy motivated by principle and not greed. He refused offers of money from the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, causing his handlers at first to mistrust him. What is his motive? They thought most spies were motivated by greed. In real life, as in the novel, one of the two main American handlers is named as Allen Dulles. Dulles went on to become the first civilian Director of the CIA.
I must not lose sight of the fact this novel is also a love story and a good one at that. The relationship that eventually blossomed between Kolbe and Marlene (Mar-leen-ah as the translator Steve Anderson reminds us native English speakers not only as to how the name is pronounced but also acts as a reminder of just how beautiful a foreign language can be) is beautifully and sensitively portrayed. Marlene eventually becomes pivotal to the story not only as an accomplice to her new lover but also as a larger-than-life character.
It is a book that chronicles all that is good and bad about the human condition. It is a moving story and one that should be read by younger generations if only to give them a real flavour of the madness of war in Europe between 1939-45, the madness and dangers of totalitarianism, and the barbaric attempt to wipe people of the Jewish faith out of existence. One of the best books I have ever read.
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