Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hitler's Peace

Hitler's Peace
© 2006 Phillip Kerr
464 pages

Willard Mayer has the strangest luck. How many people get to dine with FDR, talk about the worries of life with Winston Churchill, annoy Joseph Stalin, and shake hands with Adolf Hitler? And this after they've  been arrested several times for espionage given a string of bodies trailing behind them. Mayer's no murderer or spy, even if once in his impressionable youth he was a member of the Communist party and passed information to the Soviet intelligence service, the NKVD.  The year is 1943, and Mayer is a philosopher-turned-OSS agent who is accompanying FDR to an ultra top-secret conference as a German translator/intelligence strategist. The confidential conference in Tehran -- the one so concealed that everyone and their twitchy uncle knows about - is the first coming together of the Big Three: FDR,Churchill, and Stalin. But more will happen there than will ever be publicly known, for while some Germans are planning the assassinations  of the allied trio, others intend to entice them into an early peace.

Hitler's Peace is exciting from beginning to end, a bit of historical fiction that occupies a grey area between historical and alternate fiction. Although history is fundamentally unchanged, Kerr's plot explores facts considered odd and provides a highly speculative explanation. Truth is stranger than fiction, however; I was astonished to learn that some events within the novel which strained credibility actually occurred, like the string of calamities that beset the Willie D. Porter, one of the ships escorting FDR to the conference. Within hours, the ship backed into and destroyed another ship, saw a man vanish into the sea, blew a boiler, dropped a depth charge, and just for good measure, fired a torpedo directly at FDR's ship. "She's not what you would call a lucky ship", the baffled president noted shortly before ordering the ship to detach itself from the convoy and deliver its crew for total arrest at the nearest port.  The cast of characters is largely German (Mayer is the son of German immigrants),which is a refreshing change.  They're all antagonists who are neither sympathetic nor overtly villainous; the Nazi regime's crimes against humanity are not ignored, but neither are those of the Russians, and the revelation of several Soviet slaughters features as a plot point. The novel plays fast and loose with history, but touches on aspects of the war largely ignored (Soviet war crimes, for instance, or "Operation Long Jump"). I found it entertaining, though Mayer is only marginally more sympathetic than the book's 'baddies'.

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