Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review: "Don't Look Now" by Daphne Du Maurier

Don’t Look Now (2008; selected stories from 1952-1980)  

Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989)

346 pages

I must first admit that this was a book that I judged by its cover.

A stack of them lay on a table near the bookstore’s collection of publisher NYRB Classics books, and the cover caught my eye as soon as I walked up. When I found out that the cover photo is a still shot from the movie Repulsion, my curiosity grew. (For those not familiar with the film, Repulsion was released in 1965 by Roman Polanski, and starred Catherine Deneuve; it is a psychological thriller, a kind of nightmare-on-film that has one of the qualities I look for in a movie: it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, even once it’s over.)

When I opened the book and discovered that one of the stories was The Birds, which served as the source material for the Hitchcock movie of the same name, I was hooked. Back home, as I sat down to begin reading the book, I was ready for a set of stories that would grab me, ‘Repulsion-like’, and not let go.

And the title story didn’t disappoint. As it opens a couple is having lunch in Venice, where they are vacationing in an attempt to find a return to normalcy after the death of their daughter. They notice two old women staring at them from across the dining room; later the wife returns from the restroom saying that she ran into one of the two, that they are sisters, and that one of them claims to have seen the couples dead daughter sitting between her parents at the table. The husband tries to laugh it off, but his wife is convinced that the women have had a true vision. Soon after this unsettling news the wife learns she must return home suddenly to London, and leaves the hotel to catch the next flight out, with her husband planning to follow her later that day with the car. Hours after his wife’s flight was scheduled to depart the husband thinks he sees her on a passing ferry standing with the two old women, and finds himself drawn into a deepening nightmare of uncertainty that soon has him questioning his sanity.

The Birds, according to Patrick McGrath in the book’s Introduction, “is the masterpiece” of short stories, and it certainly stands out in this collection. The tension builds from the first lines, quickly reaching a fever pitch sustained through to the end of the story. McGrath notes that Du Maurier did not like Hitchcock’s movie adaptation of her story, which had significant changes to the setting and characters. In Du Maurier’s telling, a hired hand on an isolated farm along the English coast must fight to protect his family when winter winds bring a sudden end to fall --- and a deadly change in the behavior of the birds. He and his family hear radio reports of similar occurrences all over England, the newscasters implying that some man-made impact on the climate lies behind the fanatical behavior of the birds, though the exact cause remains unknown. As the days pass the man and his family realize that their neighbors have perished, the government will not be able to help them, and that they must fight on alone against a relentless enemy.

The remaining stories are engaging, but do not achieve the same undertone of unease growing into fear and finally terror as the initial two. Some come closer than others to creating that tension, but for the most part they are either more straightforward mystery stories (say, like “Ripley’s believe it or not” stories), or they build some suspense but then conclude with a kind of final trick --- unlike a story such as The Birds, which has no surprise ending, leaving you with the dread of the unknown future.

In the story Escort, a freighter crosses the North Sea on a trip from Scandinavia to its home port in England during the early months of World War II. In the middle of the trip, far from safety, the crew spot a German U-boat periscope rise up out of the water in the distance, and they begin maneuvers intended to keep the U-boat at a difficult firing angle. As their hopes for survival fade, a fog bank suddenly closes in around them, and brings with it an old-style British raiding ship whose captain offers his assistance. The captain of the freighter accepts the offer, though unable to understand where the old wooden barque has come from and how it will fend off the German torpedoes.

In Split Second, a woman in early 1930’s England tidies up her home and then goes out for a walk through a nearby heath. Returning home she is shocked to discover that her things have been removed and a handful of people claim that they are renting rooms in what has become a lodging house. She calls the police to arrest the burglars, but ends up in custody herself instead. Why can she not convince anyone that she is the rightful owner, and why can the police not track down any of her friends, or her daughter studying at a nearby private school?

A mechanic decides to catch a movie after work in Kiss Me Again, Stranger and ends up falling in love with the usherette who collects his ticket. When he follows her onto the bus after the show and chats her up, his sudden crush for her can’t quite blind him to her odd behavior, starting with the fact that she asks him, as she falls asleep on his shoulder, not to let her miss her stop, at the bottom of a hill, near a cemetery.

A woman lies in a hospital bed, having waited for weeks to have the bandages removed from her eyes in The Blue Lenses. The doctors who performed her eye surgery and the nurses who tend to her are all most friendly and helpful, and her husband dutifully stops to visit each day. When the doctor can finally remove the bandages, he explains that she still has on her eyes protective blue lenses that she will have to wear for a week, and that could make things look odd. The last bandage removed, she looks around the room, and the furnishings do indeed have a blue tinge, though this hardly detracts from her joy at being able to see well again. Looking at the doctor and nurse next to her bed, however, she is shocked to see them with animal heads, the animals corresponding to their individual personalities; she desperately awaits the arrival of her husband later that evening to help her deal with what has befallen her.

In a small village along the coast of Brittany, a young fisherman’s wife frets about her husband’s upcoming fishing trip in La Sainte-Vierge, her brother having died only a year earlier while out fishing on the Atlantic Ocean. Looking for divine intervention, she goes to the local chapel and kneels before the statue of the blessed virgin to pray for her husband’s safe return, and ends by pleading for an acknowledgement that her wish has been granted. When the moon moves out from behind the clouds in the night sky, she sees the longed for blessing through the chapel window, in the nearby grass.

A wrong word at the wrong moment wreaks havoc on three lives in the story Indiscretion. A man is invited out by his boss to lunch to celebrate the boss’s marriage, planned for the following day. When the subordinate explains that his reticence to congratulate his boss is the result of unpleasant relationships he has experienced, his boss goads him into telling more. The man finally gives in, and describes a girl he had run into just the year before, and who turned out to be not who she had said she was. Fate intervenes the next day when the man goes to the train station to see his boss off on the honeymoon.

The closing story, Monte Verità, has an almost mystical tone to it. Two friends grow up climbing mountains together; when one of the pair marries, and goes off on a mountain climbing trip with his wife, she disappears into mysterious monastery-like building near the twin peaks of the mountain. It his left to the man’s friend to discover what has become of her.

If you are looking for tense, disturbing, psychological dramas, you will find a few such stories here, but many of the others end up on the lighter, mystery end of the spectrum. That said, with one’s expectations adjusted just a bit from the dramatic cover picture that serves as introduction to the book, there is much to enjoy and be captivated by in Du Maurier’s writing and construction of these tales.

Other reviews / information:

This is yet another wonderful selection from the NYRB Classics collection.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Book Review: "Hitler's Spy Chief" by Richard Bassett

Hitler’s Spy Chief
The Wilhelm Canaris Betrayal
The Intelligence Campaign Against Adolf Hitler

Richard Bassett

319 pages

Were fate and destiny … not to be cheated by the sincere attempts of men of good will to save Germany and Europe from [the war that] was coming? Was some dynamic … forcing events to run out of control of even the statesmen and spy masters? (p. 162)
In early January 1935, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris took over as the Chief of the Abwehr, the German office of Military Intelligence under Adolf Hitler. Though initially sympathetic to the Nazi cause by virtue of strong anti-Bolshevik feelings he had developed in early 1918 during the brief communist uprising in Germany, by 1937 he had begun to have doubts about Nazi rule. These doubts quickly grew into a conviction that Hitler and the Nazi’s were planning a war that would destroy Germany, and Canaris began actively using his position within the government to work against them, until his actions were finally found out in late 1944, leading to his dismissal, and eventual execution just weeks before the end of World War II. In Hitler’s Spy Chief, Richard Bassett describes Canaris’ background, and his efforts to both undermine Hitler and the Nazi regime, as well as broker a peace agreement with the Allies, in order to save the Germany he loved from what he realized was eventual and complete destruction.

Even the most cursory knowledge of the history of WW II makes clear that Canaris failed in his attempts to bring about a coup against Hitler, a peace accord between Germany and the Allies, or even avoid Germany’s destruction by the Allies. Why then is his story worth more than just a passing interest?

One answer to this question, according to Bassett, lies in what Canaris was able accomplish in his resistance to Nazi policies and efforts --- the “Betrayal” in the book’s subtitle --- and the moral dilemma these actions created for him. Bassett lays out evidence that Canaris’ actions undermined or prevented German military success on a number of key fronts during the war and thereby led directly or indirectly to increased deaths in the German military. How do we assess the morality, he asks, of Canaris sacrificing the lives of his fellow soldiers in an attempt to achieve a perceived greater good for his country?

The other aspect of Canaris’ story which Bassett finds compelling relates to questions raised by the British government’s repeated rejections of Canaris’ attempts to arrange a peace between Germany and the England. Detailing Canaris’ many attempts to contact and come to an understanding with British officials before and during the war, and the reticence of the British government to follow through on these opportunities to have Hitler over-thrown and make peace with anti-Nazi groups, Bassett asks if “the very tangible chances of ending the conflict … earlier with the consequent saving of life, certainly many millions, … be weighed successfully against the durable balance of power hammered out by the victors in 1945, which kept the peace of the world for half a century --- more or less --- though at a high price for the countries of central and eastern Europe” (p. 9)? Although Bassett warns that one who has not lived the difficult life of a statesmen should not “pass judgment on those statesmen … whose decisions vitally affected the duration of the Second World War” (p. 9), the consideration of these questions, and Canaris’ role in creating the subsequent history in which we are now left to evaluate them, form the backbone of this engaging and though-provoking book.

Bassett opens with a dramatic chase scene: early in WW I, on the oceans around South America, the British Navy searches for the Dresden, a German light cruiser that survived a large naval battle at the Falkland Islands won by the British. Having months earlier lost a significant naval engagement to the upstart German navy, the British were desperate to find the Dresden and sink her to make their recent victory compete. For three long months the Dresden and her crew evaded British ships through a well-orchestrated campaign of miss-information, false signals and bribes of local officials; the leader of this game of hide-and-seek: Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, the intelligence office on the Dresden. Though the British eventually tracked the Dresden down, Canaris’ ability to keep a host of British ships occupied for so long made him known to the highest levels of the German admiralty, and, according to Bassett, served as Canaris’ initial introduction to the British political and military establishment, including the then First Lord of the Admiralty, and future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

In the wake of the events on the Dresden, Canaris escaped interment in Chile and made his way back to Germany, where he found that his reputation had preceded him and so opened doors for him into the German intelligence services. From late in WW I until he became Chief of the Abwehr in 1935, Canaris held positions in both military intelligence and active naval duty, always demonstrating exceptional capability. (This period included his playing a key role in the Spanish Civil War, arranging Germany’s military support for General Franco and the Nationalist insurgents against the Republican Loyalists; for more on this see the post-script below.) His success in these assignments served as preparation for the delicate task that Bassett argues occupied the last years of Canaris’ life: pretend to be an effective and supportive member of the Nazi regime while using his position as Chief of the Abwehr to undermine it wherever possible.

The complex history that Bassett describes of Canaris’ official and unofficial activities in the lead-up to WW II and throughout the war years shatters the simplistic narrative that reduces the war in Europe to only a deadly sequence of battles to the end between the Allies and the Axis. Marshalling evidence from British and German archives, from earlier researchers and from his personal interviews of participants, Bassett reveals the complex political maneuverings and dealings between the two sides that happened in the shadow of the famous military engagements. These activities were not solely of Canaris’ making, of course, however great his role may have been; as Bassett points out, reaching “an ‘understanding’ with Britain … was also high in his master, Hitler’s, agenda,” which allowed Canaris the space in which “to weave his complicated course” (p. 292).

The machinations began already in the year before the shooting started, according to Bassett, as Canaris attempted to prevent Hitler from taking Germany into war. His overtures to the British government met with a mixed audience, however: though some in the government advocated allying with Germany against what they saw as a rising communist threat from the Soviet Union, others found more to fear in a Germany ruled by the Prussian monarchists and military. The appeasement approach of the English Prime Minister Neville was in fact, according to Bassett, not simply an attempt to avoid war, but focused too on actively undermining the anti-Hitler opposition; Chamberlain believed that the traditional German military staff represented a greater threat to peace in Europe than Hitler. Chamberlain’s aggressive pursuit of appeasement thwarted Canaris’ attempts to overthrow Hitler and stave off the war, and leaves us to consider, as Bassett asks, how we should now view (admittedly with the immense benefit of hindsight) Chamberlain’s choice: in the end he did not prevent war, and, by leaving Hitler in place, ultimately, if certainly unwittingly, enabled the eventual genocide of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps.

Attempts to prevent war frustrated, and the battle finally joined, Bassett describes how Canaris’ contacts with the British continued into the war years, though maintaining them grew ever more challenging. As the war continued, Canaris not only sought to reach an agreement with the British on a peaceful settlement, he at the same time undermined German war plans on a number of fronts by giving biased military intelligence (for example, of the ability of the British to resist invasion) and passing critical intelligence information to foreign governments (such as the British and Spanish) which supported their efforts against the Nazi’s.

Looking first at the peace efforts, Bassett points out that these are sensitive topics even today, in Britain in particular; despite the growing evidence of these contacts, he argues that few historians want to admit that any peaceful solution may have been sought by the British government during the war, especially in light of the ultimate Allied victory and the revelations of Nazi genocide of the Jews. Bassett states, however, that in the early years of the war, when the German army had pushed deep into the Soviet Union and the British learned that the Soviets and Germans were pursuing a peace treaty, British officials became worried that such an agreement would focus Hitler back toward the West. This concern made the British eager to consider a settlement with Germany first, especially those who were more strongly anti-Bolshevik than anti-German. Canaris’ work once more came to nothing, however, as the Soviet army turned the tide against the Germans and Britain’s position became reinforced by America’s entrance into the war; the British government’s interest in coming to an early peace evaporated. Again hindsight is 20-20, but we are left to consider how would Europe look different today, and how many lives could have been saved, if the British and Germans had come to an agreement in the early 1940’s, when Germany controlled the situation in the east?

The second aspect of Canaris’ activities during the war was his undermining of the Nazi regime and the German military effort. Bassett argues that Canaris had two motivations for his actions: one was to try and end the war sooner to avoid Germany’s destruction, while the second was to show the British that he was acting in good faith in his search for a peaceful solution. Some of what Bassett describes of Canaris’ “betrayals” he is able to document through papers in government archives and interviews with key participants; for other events he points out that it is only possible to speculate based on the limited available evidence. In cases where the documented evidence is lacking, Bassett lays out for us how he reached his conclusions and leaves it to us to decide if we find them reasonable. He builds a convincing case, however, for Canaris having pursued a fairly wide range of activities to undermine the Nazi regime, and performing a bit of a tightrope act to keep his actions hidden. Beyond actions affecting the military, Canaris reportedly also used the power of his position as head of the Abwehr to save some Jews from the concentration camps. Bassett points out that Canaris “was, like … so many of the other German officers, always to suffer from the internal contradiction of his military oath … and his opposition to the regime” (p. 291). Here again, Bassett leaves it to the reader to determine how we assess Canaris’ actions and his handling of the conflict between his responsibilities to his country and his fellow soldiers.

Bassett carefully documents the points he makes in the book, and from comments in the Acknowledgements, Preface, Author’s Notes, Source Notes and Bibliography it seems clear that he did extensive work over many years researching Canaris’ life and actions, and the reactions on the British side. During his research he dug into archives and existing histories in English and German, and interviewed people connected with the events in the book as far back as the early 1980’s. All of which though leads to my one complaint with his otherwise engaging story: he writes it as if to an insider of those times, a case being made to a historian and not a lay reader. To give but one example: “It is important to remember that Chamberlain’s actions had the unreserved support of the entire cabinet, including Duff Cooper.” Who is Duff Cooper, and why is he mentioned here? He doesn’t appear any where else in the book, including in the index or sources, just this one mention in passing; certainly I can go and look him up, but what is the significance of his “support”? There are many such references throughout the book, of people and locations mentioned without explaining who they were or where they were located, some of which I had to do a fair amount of searching on-line to actually track down.

Having said this, a more “typical” lay reader, who may not have my obsession with tracking down some mostly minor details, can read past these references with little being lost. And at any rate, this minor shortcoming does not take away from the fundamental thrust of the engaging history that Bassett has researched and written. The story of Canaris’ actions as head of the Abwehr under Hitler complicates history, in a way, offering a view of the machinations present in a Nazi regime that can often seem from the history books to have been tightly unified. More broadly, the book exposes the complex relationships that existed between Germany and Britain in the years leading up to the war, and the contacts that continued into the war years as success on the battlefield ebbed and flowed. Perhaps most importantly it gives us a view into the mind of a man caught in the middle of the maelstrom, who chose to stay and fight for what he believed in --- his country and his conscience --- at what was extreme personal risk, as events ultimately proved.


Due to my interest in Spain and Spanish history I found the details of Canaris’ involvement in Spain particularly intriguing. He first traveled there during the second half of World War I, assigned to organize an undercover infrastructure in Spain for supplying German U-boats. In between the world wars Canaris returned to Spain with orders to set-up connections to support the rebuilding of German military capability out of sight of the Allied monitoring commissions established at the end of WW I. Finally, Canaris played an important role during the Spanish Civil War in having Germany supply the Nationalist forces led by General Franco. Bassett notes that during these repeated periods in Spain Canaris developed a strong attachment to the country:
As the storm in Europe began to gather momentum, Canaris found increasing solace in his tours of Spain. He found Spain a welcome distraction from the events of growing crisis in central Europe. For Canaris there was a ‘constant exhilaration’ associated with Spain. He loved Spain, not because of its sights or landscape, but because he sensed an empathy with its soul and character. His staff noted how his spirits rose when he was in the Iberian peninsula. The ruinous Spanish roads, the undeveloped, in some areas almost feudal, conditions seemed so remote from his homeland of modern Germany and yet thanks to his superb command of the Spanish language, his unteutonic appearance and his intelligence, he could pass as a Spaniard whose home these worn sierras, windowless churches and mud-build villages were. (p. 137)
Canaris’ love for Spain led to one of the critical ways in which he undermined the German war effort, according to Bassett. In late 1940 Hitler met with Franco at Hendaye, France, on the Spanish border, intent on getting Spanish agreement for a joint attack on Gibraltar, control of which would secure the Mediterranean for the German navy. Bassett claims that Canaris, in the hopes of derailing Hitler’s plans, provided Franco information on the German military and commercial situation, as well as Allied naval capabilities, with which Hitler’s arguments could be countered and deflected. In a meeting that Hitler later described as “like having teeth pulled” (p. 200), Franco and his subordinates avoided coming to an agreement without giving an outright rejection, and were subsequently able to hold to this position long enough for Hitler to finally become distracted by his planned invasion of Russia the following summer.

Thus, by helping Franco avoid becoming involved with Germany during WW II, Canaris may have spared Spain from becoming the second western front against Hitler, and so having a second major war ravage the country in less than a decade. With this move, Canaris was able to accomplish two goals at once: undermine the German military success and help the Spain he loved avoid further destruction.

But taking a broader view of Canaris’ life makes his impact on Spain becomes more complex to evaluate. Canaris’ role in having Germany arm the Spanish insurgent Nationalists, enabled Franco’s forces to ultimately defeat the Republican loyalist government forces in the Spanish Civil War. Canaris’ interest in supporting the Spanish Nationalists grew out of his long-held anti-communist beliefs, and his awareness that the Republicans in Spain, abandoned by Western democracies such as England, France and the U.S., were being increasingly supported by the Soviet Union. Soviet support was turning the Spanish communist parties, which before the war had small (less than 10%) support in the population, into a major political force; Canaris raised the threat of Germany being surrounded by communist countries to successfully lobby Hitler to support Franco. Thus, based on Bassett’s research, Canaris played a key role in Franco’s forces winning the civil war, and so the birth of the Franco dictatorship which ruled Spain into the early 1970’s. (Bassett points out that Franco later acknowledged this ‘debt’ by offering Canaris’ widow and daughter a safe-haven in Spain after WW II.)

How would, or should, a Spaniard, or someone who ‘loves Spain’ react to Canaris’ actions. The what-if’s become overwhelming at this point. What if Canaris had not kept Spain from becoming involved with Germany during the war, and the Allies had eventually invaded Spain? Would it have meant a much earlier end to Franco’s dictatorship, and involvement of Spain in the Marshall plan, thus avoiding decades of isolation and poverty? What if, earlier, Canaris had not led Germany to get involved in the Spanish Civil war, and the Soviet-backed Republican government forces had been victorious, creating a communist Spain, what would have occurred in the opening years of WW II? Would Germany have continued through France to invade and most likely easily defeat a weakened Spain, drained by years of Civil War and still divided politically due to the significant conservative fraction of the Spanish population, and so gain control of the Straits of Gibraltar and a much stronger position in the war? What would have been Spain’s future in that case?

These are questions that will never be answered, of course, and in a Spain that continues to deal with the aftereffects of its Civil War and the long dictatorship that followed there would likely even today people who would view Canaris’ role and its affects with widely differing responses. Bassett clearly feels that Canaris chose courses of action in Spain out of a love for the country and its ways. One can wonder how Canaris himself would evaluate the subsequent decades of the Franco dictatorship. Perhaps the cautionary tale here goes back to Bassett’s statement near the opening of the book, as quoted earlier, that one who has not lived the difficult life of a statesmen should not “pass judgment on those statesmen,” and that unintended consequences are simply a part of the risks of choices we must make.

Other reviews / information:
For more on the Spanish Civil War, follow this link my review of Hugh Thomas’ book The Spanish Civil War.  Thomas mentions Canaris’ involvement with the Spanish Nationalists, though in a footnote states that there have been varying opinions among historians to the extent of his role. Bassett could, I suppose, counter that he has had access to much more newly available documentation than earlier researchers…

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf