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“Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (and some comments on Philip Kerr and Douglas Downing as well)

September 21, 2020


These kind of books create something of an illusion about WW2, of which Spies of Warsaw is a classic example. What’s missing? The broader picture. Of course there is historic value to place individuals in historically trying circumstances to explore how it is they deal with such situations but at a certain point, this strength can become a weakness. For as moving – and emotionally satisifying – is the ethical framework of a Mercier, or a Norwegian transport ship captain, or a Polish nobleman, no matter how clever, brave or, ultimately, generous of spirit each is (or isn’t), World War II was prepared and fought on an entirely different, broader level, the level of governments, of military, of diplomacy and of battles. The courage, the sacrifice involved is social in nature. It is that social element that is missing. Plus given their portrayal of Soviets as ruthless thugs, they contribute in their own way to the criminalization of detente today.



Among writers who write spy novels, “spy masters” they are often called, Alan Furst is “up there.” In my book at least, he’s one of the better ones. I haven’t read them all but besides Furst, I’ve read a fair amount of Philip Kerr – who recently died – and David Downing too. Furst’s characters are, frankly, more credible – although credible or not Kerr’s Bernie Gunther and Downing’s John Russell are both sympathetic characters. The characters themselves are engaging vehicles that tell stories which, while fiction, reveal whole worlds. In a way they all deal with a similar theme: how to remain a decent human being in a nasty world in which it is impossible not to deal directly with “evil” – the evil of fascism. either as it is coming into being full blown after 1933, or in some cases, during World War 2 itself.

But then the credibility of the protagonists matters than the settings, the detailed description of place, the different historical moments leading to (or actually in WW2). It’s the background which matters more. For those who find history, especially the history of World War 2 “boring” reading any of these three is an interesting way to learn about the causes and main incidents that led to war. And all three of them know their history and know it with – at least it’s my impression – considerable accuracy.  By placing their characters smack in the middle of the war (in one place or another), readers can relate to the kind of emotional tension involved in so many moments of that war. The moments come alive and in a way that is often otherwise missing in “straight” history. Reading any of them, fiction becomes an effective way of learning history.

In the “real world,” whatever that is, neither Bernie Gunter, David Downing or the parade of upper middle class dignified protagonists that pepper Furst’s novels would have made it out of the first novel – and in most cases – out of the first chapter of the first novel. But they all do, manage to somehow wiggle out of the tightest situations again and again. If not, how could the authors write a series about them!

None of the three, frankly, has the literary skills, the psychological depth as the master masters, John Le Carre or Henning Mankel but then that’s a pretty high bar to achieve. Still all three write well, tell a good story and know their history. All three probe different aspects of the war that generally speaking – certainly here in the USA – are either unknown or seriously under-appreciated.

Furst’s world – no matter where in Europe he’s writing about is the world of spies of pre-World War II espionage. (More on that below). He explores the complex diplomatic and political build up before the actual outbreak of WW2. He does this quite well in all his books, although I must admit, that while everything he’s written is worth reading his opening volume, Night Soldiers, is heads and shoulders above the rest and should be read first to understand what follows.

Kerr’s genius lies in his profound understanding of the Nazi bureaucracy and administration and what life is general is like for Germans living in Nazi Germany. Bernie Gunther, Kerr’s down-to-earth working class former police inspector is a great character for which to view the inner workings of Nazi life in all its aspects. Of the Gunther series that stands out is Prague Fatal. It mixes a good deal of solid history with the fictional plot focusing on the assassination of high ranking SS Nazi offical Reinhard Heydrich by Czech partisans. In his different plots World War II is central although sometimes he mixes pre-war mysteries with the war itself, sometimes post-war.

I don’t know how it is that Kerr has been able to paint such a vivid picture of Nazi life, but he does. His attention to both social processes, class dynamics and architectural detail is nothing short of amazing as if he has somehow be able to get the vast web of Nazi society in his head and share it with readers. Occasionally he mentions a source like Michael Burliegh’s masterpiece Death and Deliverance, the history of the Nazi eugenics movement.

David Downing has created his own interesting vehicle in the character of John Russell, American journalist living in Berlin, married to a German woman with a son who is getting pullled into Nazi youth activities and organizations. Poor Russell finds himself caught between the different political magnets of the day – the Nazis, the Soviets, the Americans. Caught in the web of history, he is forced to makes promises, deals to the different opposing intelligence agencies.

His best to my tastes, Potsdam Station, set at the end of WW2. Most of the book, again, as Russell jumps all over the place is hardly credible, enjoyable as it was to read, but for the section detailing the final Soviet assault on Berlin from the Seelow Heights to the outskirts of Berlin stands alone in its realism and for an accurate portrayal of the flow events that marked the complete and welcomed collapse of Nazism. It’s a gem.


Let me say from the outset how much I enjoyed reading Spies of Warsaw as well as watching the BBC tv series version, which, with a few unimportant changes, follows the plot of the book quite closely for the first two episodes. What follows is special for the tv series. Wanting to compare the book to the movie, I reread it while watching the series. Both are enjoyable, gripping. The plot traces the life of a French military attache, Mercier, working out of his embassy in Warsaw.

His task is to find out as much has possible about German warplans, and this he does rather well, spying on military maneuvers in Germany itself, setting up and protecting “contacts” and ultimately putting the dots together to conclude a war plan that contradicted the mainstream narrative of the French military hierarchy: that Nazi Germany would conduct a traditional frontal attack against the 280 mile (450 km) Maginot line.

The Maginot line was that series of defensive fortifications that dominated France’s borders with Germany. Over the course of the book, which ends in early 1938, Mercier comes to conclude that the Nazis plan to bypass the line, going around it to the north through the forests of Belgium to attack France from the North, irendering the Maginot line was one of the more irrelevant projects in modern military history.

But at this point the facts which Mercier had unearthed conflicted with the higher French military’s mainstream narrative – their hypothesis as to the path of the German invasion. Petain’s tactical blinders trump De Gaulle’s far more creative tactical vision, with Mercier symbolizing De Gaulle’s take, his immediate superior, Colonel Bruner, Petain’s. Mercier wins a promotion to full colonel for his efforts but it’s a bittersweet acccomplishment as the Bruner and the French general staff, blinded by their own ideology – in this case, clinging to a military paradigm that was to prove devastatingly tragic. Mercier is “right”, Bruner is “wrong” but the facts don’t seem to matter when they fly in the face of deeply held views, however off the mark. It is this tension, this dichotomy between facts and ideology that makes the book into a genuine tragedy, not just on an individual but on a much broader scale. The paradigm shift just wasn’t there.

As with Furst’s other works, Spies of Warsaw takes the reader through the broader theme of French defensive military strategy through the life of Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a member of what might be called the lower French nobility. An intelligent and frankly, principled military intelligence officer over the course of the book we learn that he is not only a smart and creative operative, one who is willing to take personal risk, but also quite ethical, on a human plane. When one of his agents, a German engineer, Edvard Uhl is “outed” by the Nazi SD (Sicherheitsdienst – Military Intelligence), he arranges, much to the annoyance of his superiors in Paris to provide Uhl with a new identity, and to secret him to safety in Canada.

Likewise, he risks his career, and to an extent, his life, to help a Russian Jewish couple, the Rozens, called back to Moscow, threatened with elimination by Stalin for being a part of the Old Bolshevik network. In both cases Mercier is certainly going beyond the call of duty; Furst makes it clear that despite is class background, or maybe because of it, that Mercier is a deeply ethical man who whatever the circumstance, tries to do what’s rightand other than in his personal passions, in which lust seems to have the upper hand over ethics, he does.

Very humane actually.

As with Furst’s other leading characters, Mercier is a kind of secular hero, almost saint like. He is also, like Furst’s other leading characters, either from the ruling class (what is left of the old, passing aristocracy) or from the upper middle class of his country. There were such people who deserve recognition and their place in history although a closer examination of that particular class, and the old aristocracy would conclude that many were more likely to collaborate with the Nazis than spy upon them. Furst reworks their history to mold them – or many of them – into more honorable elements they most were in fact.

So, a fine story, well told and crafted, with wonderful detail of Warsaw, with a protagonist forced to make difficult professional and ethical decisions on a regular basis in a time of crisis where so many are oblivious to history’s wave that is about to come crashing down on on their heads. Plus, the historical context is quite real. The personal story might be made up but the setting is not. This is the world of Poland in the years prior to the September 1, 1939 consequence of the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

What makes the Furst-Kerr-Downing approach so much richer, within the parameters that all three operate, is that they expand our understanding of where and who fought in the war. They take us to Czechoslovakia, Poland and the rest of Central Europe, to the Netherlands, Belgium, and (predominantly) France, to Yugoslavia, even a bit into North Africa, to remind readers of how the horrors of war affected the peoples there. Kerr and Downing (somewhat more than Furst – although he does it too and well) take the reader into Nazi Germany itself and probes the minds of the people living within the Nazi world, and do so brilliantly, Kerr in particular.

Besides the fact that they are all good writers, this is their major contribution, from where I am sitting: they broaden our understanding of World War II, of its origins as well as the trajectory of the war itself. It’s not just about D-Day and the sacrifices that American soldiers made storming the Normandy beaches or breaking out of the Nazi stranglehold in the Ardennes Region of Belgium. They tell us more, break through a certain invisible glass curtain that has limited (mostly here in the USA) a certain narrow understanding of the war, the war that defines the global community in which we live until today. In so doing, their works broaden our perspective, making it less narrow, less “American exceptionalism”… and more universal.

Maybe that explains why, all tolled, combined in the past five years or so I’ve read more than thirty of their novels and keep coming back for more. No doubt I’m hooked and when I read that Philip Kerr had died of throat cancer a few years ago and that Bernie Gunther would die with him, I was genuinely saddened. What a wonderful character!

What could be wrong with this picture? With Spies of Warsaw itself? and frankly with the overall focus of Furst’s – and I might add, Kerr’s and Downing’s work – because  in a certain way, all three follow the same pattern in their writings, even if their main characters differ some. No doubt the world of intelligence officers is pretty much as it is portrayed by these authors: deceptive, dirty, and if there is a “Mercier” here or there, a spy with a conscience, he (or she) is the exception rather than the rule. Very little ethical gounding in such work. While intelligence work was important – there are many examples – there are limits to its usefulness. The Poles were a classic example: intelligence without the power to implement what they know. Knowledge is not always power.

These kind of books create something of an illusion about WW2, of which Spies of Warsaw is a classic example. What’s missing? The broader picture. Of course there is historic value to place individuals in historically trying circumstances to explore how it is they deal with such situations but at a certain point, this strength can become a weakness. For as moving – and emotionally satisfying – is the ethical framework of a Mercier, or a Norwegian transport ship captain, or a Polish nobleman, no matter how clever, brave or, ultimately, generous of spirit each is (or isn’t), World War II was prepared and fought on an entirely different, broader level, the level of governments, of military, of diplomacy and of battles. The courage, the sacrifice involved is social in nature. It is that social element that is missing. Plus given their portrayal of Soviets as ruthless thugs, they contribute in their own way to the criminalization of detente today.

All three of them do take World War II – at least in Europe – beyond the mainstream narrative here in the United States. What is pounded into the consciousness of Americans about World War II in Europe? There is D-Day of course, that history landing on the northern coast of France, no doubt a major event, turning point in the war. That is followed by the Battle of the Bulge where the Nazis nearly turn the screws on the Allied drive to Germany until General Patton, driving his troops north from Eastern France saves the day. There is the Sicily landing and the tough times scaling the heights of Mount Cassino in Italy until Rome is finally liberated. And then of course there are the revelations of the concentration camps and the horror there in. All this is true enough.

Little details that might undermine the American exceptionalist narrative of ourselves and the war in general are conveniently dropped from all three narratives, or hardly mentioned. “Little details”… like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the genocidal bombing polices of Curtis LeMay – the firebombing of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo none of which had military value. The Soviet military liberating Berlin might have raped tens of thousands of German women (they did), but our American GIs wouldn’t do anything like that, would they?

To this day, despite the fact that history has documented repeatedly, that there was no need for the Truman Administration to drop two atomic bombs on Japan to win the war, defense of this war crime continues unabated with the same lame excuse: it saved a million American lives. It probably did save some, but a number of post war analyses put the number somewhere around 30,000 with the “one million” figure discredited as not credible or likely.

But Hiroshima undermines the American self-image of the war, that we fought a clean war, that it was “the good war.” And thus we have, as portrayed in Social Studies classes, histories of WW2, TV specials the making of the American narrative on World War II, a classic example of American exceptionalism: the American GI’s were the “good guys” who made it happen and defeated the Nazis (and Japanese militarist fascists). “We” fought a clean war, the other side fights “dirty,” – after all they’re Nazis! They burden of the war was on our shoulders (true enough, a large part of it was) and that the others who were part of the Allied coalition, well, they helped … a little maybe, but we bore the burden.

But that narrative essentially suggests something that is only a half truth, or frankly at best, a quarter truth – that it is primarily the United States that fought and won the war. What is missing? Places like Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kursk, the storming of the Seelow Heights, the millions who died in camps or forced labor from Poland, Yugoslavia and elsewhere in Central Europe, the viciousness of Croatian fascists, the Ustasi and of their Lithuanian Nazi brothers-in-arms who murdered more Lithuanian Jews than their Nazi overseers did, the Nazi savagery in Belarus, etc. etc. and more than anything else that has been lost: the decisive role that the Soviet Union played, the beyond belief sacrifices that nation made in defeating Nazism, today, at best an afterthought, a footnote to a third rate Audie Murphy war movie.


Besides there is something fatalistic about all three.

In the end, Mercier, or Mercier like characters, are essentially helpless. They do not and cannot influence the situations in which they find themselves, other than doing some good deeds for others do, as Mercier did or in saving their sanity through affairs and/or relationships with women, the kind of Bogart-Bergmen “At least we’ll always have Paris” kind of stuff. Of course, nice to now that people can find love in the midst of a holocaust, – I’m not against – but if you think about, that’s a kind of Pyrrhic victory. Society is going to hell with the general population crazed and infected with Nazi (or other extreme xenophobic mind sets) but at least “thoughtful individuals” can fall in love, have a fling of it before “the end”. Fatalism here knows no bounds. “Salvation” (before the end comes) is simply in living an ethical life. Individualism taken to its extreme.

As a part and parcel of these narratives, if you read enough of them – or in my case – too much of them, something else stands out… the vilification of the Soviets in virtually all their works. In contrast to Mercier’s “Sir Gallahad”-like demeanor, Soviet agents are cruel, cunning types only to willing to use others and then dispose of them, as well as disposing of their own people like the Rozens when the time comes. Indeed, they are no different demeanor-wise wise than members of the Gestapo with whom they are often personality-wise compared. Besides most of the time they are not referred to as “Soviet” but “Russian.” Furst’s Soviet agents are nothing less than evil personified. Kerr’s and Downing’s not much better. The complexity, the subtlety, the honesty of Le Carre’s characters, or those of Grossman’s “Life and Fate” are missing, non-existent.

Kerr and Downing more or less follow the same anti-Soviet script although Kerr does have, in one of his novels, an unsavory scumbag of a C.I.A. agent.

Soviets, Nazis… they’re about the same. But then despite some surface similarities, deeper down they are quite different something Hanna Arendt or Michael Burleigh couldn’t seem to get straight despite their brilliance. Their thought too, filled with interesting insights of course, is not without its ideological blinders.

In the end, Furst et. al. tell a part of the story.

Unfortunately what they leave out distorts History. They cannot deal with “the rest of the war”, that portion that would give a more comprehensive and honest portrayal of the war is ideologically unacceptable: the decisive role of the Soviet Union, the sacrifices beyond anything any other country suffered, the key turning points, monumental episodes of military courage, shrewd military planning and collective will. Being ideological unacceptable it is ignored.

Is it self-censorship, pressure from publishers? – This I don’t know.

And this narrative is used to day, to continue to vilify WW2 allies, provides in its own way as a pretext, shallow as it is, to fuel the arms race, nuclear or non, and in so doing, does injustice to World War II, to History to itself, reducing wonderfully crafted books to yet another ideological tool in the emerging Cold War.

Tis a pity.






2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarge Cheever permalink
    September 21, 2020 4:06 pm

    Robbie—I thought Kerr’s Prague book with Bernie G. dealing with Reinhold Heytdrich was superb, and what I liked about Potsdam Station was the vivid account of John Russell’s son as aGerman soldier trying to stem the Russian advance on the Oder.  I don’t know Furst as well as the other two authors–will have to investigate them. But real life trumps fiction–Leon Blum’s self-defense overturning the Riom trial, pierre Mendes-France’s escape from a Vichy prison; the face of Georges Mandel, all French Jews, interestingly enough.  And don’t forget “Everything Flows”, Vassily Grossman’s expose of the Soviet Union–possibly the best fictional book about the USSr ever written. And try the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, on the horrors WW I. Kept it up–you write well.   Sarge

  2. Phil Jones permalink
    September 22, 2020 10:33 am

    In May of 1988 I went to hear Furst speak at a local (Washington, D.C.) bookstore. The reason, according my notes, is that Furst had edited “an anthology of spy writers,” (which I can’t now find listed on Amazon). I thought he might have some interesting tips, since I was starting to write novels. However, according to my notes, I got no good tips about the audience for spy novels. But, to continue quoting from my notes: “Furst has a very good patter for an audience. He constantly compliments them both directly and indirectly while also distinguishing himself from those who just write thrillers. ‘I’m no good at plots, but this period of history is filled with interesting stories that aren’t known.” He also prides himself on the “depth” of his writing but adds that he doesn’t bother to describe “things that don’t need elaboration.” His example of the latter is a meadow that someone is crossing. Readers know what a meadow is, he maintained. Finally, I noted a difference between Furst and my own writing. “He had ordinary people who rise to the occasion. In my writing ordinary people are lucky if they just survive. Not much rising. Not much fantasy.” I added that I may have been making a mistake. Furst had a big audience in that bookstore.

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