Monday, April 16, 2012

History with a face

We've all read the stereotypical history book: dull, dry, and lots of meaningless dates. I won't name names, but I've read books full of fascinating information which still put me to sleep. Those are the books that only have a market because they are assigned in classrooms. I almost said they are only read because they are assigned, but I don't want to overstate my case.

And then there's good history. Those stories that draw you in, that show that history is not about dates and events, but about people doing stuff. Important stuff, unimportant stuff, smart stuff, or stupid stuff - it's all about what people do or don't do.

There are lots of authors able to tell these stories, but my favorites are those authors that focus on the little-known events behind or parallel to the significant events. And my favorite author to tell these stories is Ben Macintyre.

Macintyre introduced me to Major William Martin of the Royal Marines, the officer who perished in a airplane accident during World War II and whose body washed ashore with copies of the Allies' invasion plans for Europe. Plans which fell into the hands of Germans and revealed the entire Allied strategy.

Except that there was no William Martin and the plans were faked, planted to hide the real invasion. Using new recently discovered and recently declassified information, Macintyre tells this story in Operation Mincemeat.

He also tells the story of Eddie Chapman, the Frank Abagnale of WWII, who was recruited by the Nazis to serve as a spy in England. Upon completing his training and landing in England, he promptly turned himself in (to the nearest farmer, no less) and became a double agent. He was so successful that he was awarded the Iron Cross from Germany for his service.

In a third book, Macintyre tells the story of Adam Worth, the true-life inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty. Worth successfully changed his identity several times, ran an international criminal syndicate, and was ultimately tracked down by the Pinkerktons.

Other books that I haven't read (yet) tell about the sister of Friedrich Nietzsche who went to Paraguay start her own racially pure German colony, the story of the first American in Afghanistan and his attempt to establish himself as king, and the story of a group of British soldiers hidden behind enemy in France in WWI for over a year.

But those may just have to wait. For I just found out that Macintyre has another book being published this summer. And Double Cross promises to be just as good as the others:
On June 6, 1944, 150,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy and suffered an astonishingly low rate of casualties. D-Day was a stunning military accomplishment, but it was also a masterpiece of trickery. Operation Fortitude, which protected and enabled the invasion, and the Double Cross system, which specialized in turning German spies into double agents, deceived the Nazis into believing that the Allies would attack at Calais and Norway rather than Normandy. It was the most sophisticated and successful deception operation ever carried out, ensuring that Hitler kept an entire army awaiting a fake invasion, saving thousands of lives, and securing an Allied victory at the most critical juncture in the war. 
The story of D-Day has been told from the point of view of the soldiers who fought in it, the tacticians who planned it, and the generals who led it. But this epic event in world history has never before been told from the perspectives of the key individuals in the Double Cross System. These include its director (a brilliant, urbane intelligence officer), a colorful assortment of MI5 handlers (as well as their counterparts in Nazi intelligence), and the five spies who formed Double Cross’s nucleus: a dashing Serbian playboy, a Polish fighter-pilot, a bisexual Peruvian party girl, a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming and a volatile Frenchwoman, whose obsessive love for her pet dog very nearly wrecked the entire plan. The D-Day spies were, without question, one of the oddest military units ever assembled, and their success depended on the delicate, dubious relationship between spy and spymaster, both German and British. Their enterprise was saved from catastrophe by a shadowy sixth spy whose heroic sacrifice is revealed here for the first time. 
With the same depth of research, eye for the absurd and masterful storytelling that have made Ben Macintyre an international bestseller, Double Cross is a captivating narrative of the spies who wove a web so intricate it ensnared Hitler’s army and carried thousands of D-Day troops across the Channel in safety.
I can't wait.

Post by Nicholas Bolzman.
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