This book is about those at the very top of Hitler’s Germany who tried to prevent the Second World War, made repeated attempts to kill him, did all they could to ensure his defeat, worked for an early peace with the Western Allies, planned a united Europe after the War and ultimately died terribly for their cause.
Most of my books have been about individual events, or people. The canvas of this one, by contrast, encompasses every sector of German society during the war; international statesmanship – or lack of it – in capitals from Berlin, to London, to Washington, to Moscow; battles fought from the shores of the Volga to the shadow of the Pyrenees; and spy rings plying their trade in Geneva, Zürich, Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul and beyond.
Now that I have written it, I am a little surprised to find that a work I thought would tell the history of the Second World War through different eyes turns out also to be a story on the subject to which I return again and again: how human beings behave when we are faced with the challenges of war – and especially how, when confronted by great evil and personal jeopardy, we decide between submission and resistance: between loyalty and betrayal.
Is it ever possible to be both traitor and patriot? Is it treachery to betray your state if to do otherwise is to betray your humanity? Even if treachery changes nothing, must you still risk being a traitor in the face of great evil, if that is the only way to lighten the guilt that will fall on your children and your future countrymen? How do people make these choices? How do they behave after they have made them?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer – himself a character here and one of those murdered for his role in the anti-Hitler resistance – said: ‘Responsible action takes place in the sphere of relativity, completely shrouded in the twilight that the historical situation casts upon good and evil. It takes place in the midst of the countless perspectives from which every phenomenon is seen. Responsible action must decide not just between right and wrong, but between right and right and wrong and wrong.’
So it is, exactly, here. There are no blacks and whites, just choices between blacker blacks and whiter whites. There are no triumphal personal qualities, and no triumphant outcomes. Just flawed individuals who, at a time of what Bonhoeffer referred to as ‘moral twilight’, felt compelled to do the right thing as they saw it. That is a lesser triumph than we might wish for in dangerous times, but it was then – and is now – probably the only triumph we can reasonably expect.
This story is, at its heart, a tragedy. Like all great tragedies it involves personal flaws, the misjudgements of the mighty, and a malevolent fate.
There is individual pity and suffering, and a deal of personal stupidity, here.
But – and herein lies the history – since these were human beings of consequence, their personal decisions affected lives and events far beyond their circle and their time.
The two central historical questions posed by this book are stark:
Did the Second World War have to happen?
And if it did, did it have to end with a peace which enslaved Eastern Europe?
My purpose is not to provide definitive answers, but rather to present some facts which are not generally known – or at least not taken account of – and place these against the conventional view of the origins, progress and outcomes of World War II.
In reading this book you may be struck, as I was in writing it, by the similarities between what happened in the build-up to World War II and the age in which we now live. Then as now, nationalism and protectionism were on the rise, and democracies were seen to have failed; people hungered for the government of strong men; those who suffered most from the pain of economic collapse felt alienated and turned towards simplistic solutions and strident voices; public institutions, conventional politics and the old establishments were everywhere mistrusted and disbelieved; compromise was out of fashion; the centre collapsed in favour of the extremes; the normal order of things didn’t function; change – even revolution – was more appealing than the status quo, and ‘fake news’ built around the convincing untruth carried more weight in the public discourse than rational arguments and provable facts.
Painting a lie on the side of a bus and driving it around the country would have seemed perfectly normal in those days.
Nevertheless, I have found myself inspired in writing this story. It has proved to me that, even in such terrible times, there were some who were prepared to stand up against the age, even when their cause was hopeless, and even at the cost of their lives.
I hope that you will find that inspiration here, too.