In the spring of 1941, Sorge picked up unmistakable signs that Germany planned to invade the Soviet Union. But the spy chiefs he worked for were being purged, one after another, and they were too frightened to tell Stalin that his bet on Adolf Hitler was about to come back and bite him. Then too, Sorge's radioman had become less interested in espionage than in the business enterprise that financed it, and he sometimes failed to send a message, or sent only a portion of it. So it came about that the most productive spy ring of all time failed to change the course of history. It's a breathtaking yarn, told masterfully by one of those Englishmen who "read" history at Oxford, become war correspondents in scary places, and finally turn to writing history, and all with admirable skill. "The self-selected champions of the proletariat pose stern and unsmiling in group photographs of the period," Mr Matthews writes of Sorge's schooling in Moscow. "Soberly dressed, peering through angry little glasses, they resemble indignant librarians more than tough street fighters. In a world of physically diminutive Jewish intellectuals, the tall, Aryan, war-wounded Sorge literally stood out from the crowd." Indignant librarians! I would love to have written those lines.
Retreat from Moscow: A New History of Germany's Winter Campaign, 1941-1942 -- Another splendid piece of historical writing, this one by a New Zealander who was educated in Melbourne, London, and Berlin, and who now is teaching in Canberra. (The Commonwealth still livs!) Dr Stahel makes an intriguing story out of Germany's withdrawal from gates of the Soviet capital by arguing that it wasn't the catastrophe usually presented to us, but a successful campaign and a victory of sorts. Yes, the Ostheer (Eastern Army) was regularly overwhelmed by masses of Red Army soldiery, and yes, it was unprepared to fight at temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero. (The one temperature at which Celsius and Fahrenheit agree.) These were the same factors that had defeated Napoleon in 1812, but the Heer did not collapse as the Grande Armée had done. The following year, in Italy, the Anglo-American-Indian-Polish armies would discover how costly it was to confront a "defeated" German army, whose principles of Augfragtaktik (leading from the front) and "offensive defense" (continually counterattacking) made it a deadly foe. In the winter of 1941-1942, it was the Red Army that paid the blood price, losing half a million men each month to the German defenders. A book worth reading, preferably in print with an atlas close at hand.
In the 1990s, I was addicted to a public-television show in which Michael Palin promised to travel the world "so YOU won't have to!" (I'm pretty sure it was Full Circle, in which he bumbles his way around the Pacific Ocean.) I loved that line, and I often think of this monthly review as my version of Mr Palin's quest, in which I read three books so YOU don't have to. I had no shortage of candidates, and I did a whole lot of reading, but I utterly failed to come up with a third book that I wouldn't be embarrassed to present to you. They ranged from a history of the Olivetti typewriter company in Italy, which supposedly developed the world's first computer, through a biography of Joseph Grew, US ambassador to Japan in December 1941, but I wasn't able to slog through either one. So I decided to review a thriller I'd received for my birthday, only to change my mind when it transpired that the whole awful mess stemmed from the "fact" that in 1918 the US Army had developed a virus to wage biological warfare against those pesky Bolsheviks in Russia, but -- whoops! -- caused the flu epidemic that infected a third of the world's population and killed more people than the First World War. Yeah, right. So I'm left with the suggestion that you go to YouTube and catch a few episodes of Full Circle. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
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