Of modern novelists, the two who have most successfully employed the device of using real characters in their stories are John Lawton and the late Philip Kerr. Lawton, happily still with us, has assembled a cast which has included, to name but a few and in no particular order, Nikita Kruschev, Hugh Gaitskell, Lyndon Johnson, Guy Burgess and Lord Beaverbrook. Lovers of Kerr’s magnificent Bernie Gunther novels will testify that sometimes, Gunther appears to be the only fictional character in the stories. Over the fourteen books we encounter pretty much everyone who was anyone in Nazi Germany, as well as a few post WW2 figures such as William Somerset Maugham and Eva Peron. The 2005 standalone novel Hitler’s Peace is being republished this month, and although there is no Bernie Gunther, the cast list is of epic proportions.
We are in the autumn of 1943. Hitler’s war has, to be vulgar, gone tits-up. In Italy, Mussolini has been overthrown, imprisoned and then rescued by German special forces, but the Allies have a foothold on mainland Italy. On the eastern front, the Wehrmacht divisions and the Red Army have fought each other to a bloody standstill at the Battle of Kursk, but it is clear to anyone but a fool that the Russian advance is inexorable. Against this background, there are voices within the Nazi party – notably SS chief Heinrich Himmler – who are in favour of putting out tentative peace approaches to both the Russians and the Americans.
There are two central characters in Hitler’s Peace. One is very much a historical figure, Walter Schellenberg, the top man in the Nazi intelligence agency, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and a confidante of Heydrich and Himmler. The second man is fictional. Willard Mayer is an American philosopher, academic and linguist, who is recruited by none other than Franklin D Roosevelt to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS – the forerunner of the CIA).
hat is the trajectory which brings Schellenberg and Mayer together? The German is sent to neutral Sweden with secret peace proposals. Roosevelt, with re-election in mind, knows that the tens of thousands of American lives which will be lost should an invasion of France become necessary, earmarks Mayer for a similar task.
Schellenberg, though, has come up with a radical plan of his own. The so-called Big Three – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – are due to meet at a conference in nominally neutral Iran. What if long range Luftwaffe bombers, aided by a ground force of crack troops, could destroy the leadership of Germany’s foes at one stroke? This hit on the Soviet embassy in Teheran could destabilise the Western alliance and make it susceptible to peace proposals from Germany.
err’s use of so many real characters is hypnotic. Of course it’s fiction. Of course the writer has only his research – and imagination – to use when describing Himmler’s mannerisms, or those of Roosevelt and Stalin. Of course, it being Philip Kerr, it works beautifully. Schellenberg (right) is a cleverly drawn character; resourceful, intelligent and attractive to women, in particular Lina Heydrich, widow of the Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. The fictional Mayer, for his part, is equally convincing; urbane, debonair, gifted, hyper intelligent but not lacking in physical courage. His part in the finale of this book is both heroic and crucial.
So what happens in Teheran, when Himmler’s scheming, Schellenberg’s master-plan and Mayer’s secret mission collide? To use a cliché, that would be telling. All I will say is that readers are in for a surprise that, for me at least, was literally breathtaking. Philip Kerr’s grasp of the military and political nuances of the period is masterly; add that to his gift (yes I know we already know he is brilliant) as a storyteller and we have a book that grips from the first page to the last. I tried to ration it, given the current huge increase in available reading time, but it was to no avail – Hitler’s Peace is just too good. Published by Quercus, it is out on 16th April.