Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus

Review published on April 5, 2017.

Well written, intelligent, thought provoking, and emotionally charged. It would be easy to get carried away with praise for this first rate thriller. It has depth and integrity and bears comparison with Alan Furst’s historical novels set in the same period. This is a real find and I would urge anyone interested in the politics of 1930s Europe to take a look at this gem of a literary thriller. Midnight in Berlin is partly based on the true story of Colonel Noel Mason-MacFarlane and his plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

The setting is Berlin and the events of 1938/39 leading to war. British military attaché Colonel Noel Macrae and his wife Primrose are uprooted, at short notice, from their cosy Vienna posting and sent to the Embassy in Berlin. From the very first cocktail party to introduce them to the other staff, Macrae senses the confused nature of Britain’s policy toward the Nazi regime. Only Halliday, probably SIS, stands out from the crowd as a possible ally. Macrae has to hit the ground running, there are rumours of a cull of the German Army High Command (Hitler is still manoeuvring to establish total control of every arm of the state apparatus). He consults an old friend, Koenig, now a German General Staff Colonel to get to grips with the Maelstrom of local politics. There is a powerful body of discontent in the army about the path Hitler is taking. Yet the British Ambassador, Sir Nevile Henderson, is still stressing to the staff that diplomacy not confrontation is the way get results when dealing with the Nazis. Macrae cannot understand either the rationale or the patience he is being asked to show. It becomes difficult for him to toe the line.

Surveillance of foreign nationals is the remit of Reinhard Heydrich’s deputy, Joachim Bonner, and Macrae is on his radar. His department have strong armed ‘madam’ Kitty Schmidt into running a brothel for the Nazis. Now she is manager of the ‘Salon Kitty’, in the exclusive Charlottenburg district of the city. Bonner prides himself on hand picking the girls but one of Heydrich weaknesses is women and the salon is key to Heydrich’s plans. In a dangerous, even treasonous, move he coerces a 23-year-old Jewish woman, Ruth Sternschein, into his blackmail plans. Ruth agreed to become his ‘Sara’ (a name all Jewish women must carry) because her brother is being kept alive in Buchenwald as a long as she co-operates. The brothel is wired for sound and film as Heydrich is blackmailing the influential men of the Reich: industrialists, prominent Nazi party leaders, and foreigners. Now, on Heydrich’s orders, Bonner wants Sara to target Colonel Macrae.

Midnight in Berlin has a panoramic scope and a huge cast of characters, a blend of real people (Heydrich, Shirer, Chamberlain) and imagined characters driving the story and the two blend seamlessly. In one scene, Macrae meets the CBS reporter William L. Shirer for the first time. Both men want information and as they talk Macrae has to avoid giving away British policy or his own personal disapproval of the line taken by HMG while learning something to his advantage from the American, and vice versa. It is a convincing interplay. Ruth (Sara) is brave, an intelligent woman trapped in a nightmare but always proud and resourceful. In general, the characters are well drawn and credible and there is no gap between real and imagined people.

MacManus has beautifully reimagined Berlin; streets that you could walk down, clubs alive with bonhomie and life but loaded with fear, political life that smacks of intrigue, duplicity, of danger and yet again fear. In one cleverly observed scene, Macrae enters the Berliner Dom (church) and among the pamphlets, Psalm books and guides sit a prominent copy of Mein Kampf indicative of the pragmatism of the people and symbolic of the total control the Nazis expect to exert over German life.

One of the fundamental themes of the novel is the British misinterpretation of German policy at the time. The attribution of virtue and values to German actions that are not credible. Ultimately, they are afraid of the possibility of war. A combination of collectively burying their heads in the sand, admiration for the German spirit and a fear of the consequences of acting. Even when the Germans annex Austria, the two Germanic peoples coming together is seen as natural. Ignoring the reality of the purge, the blood cost, the opposition and the naked power grabbing ambition of Hitler that the British Government still seems unable to fathom. The novel is very good on the attitudes of the time. The British underestimation of the Nazis, sneering at the Tutonic obsession and assuming an intellectual as well as moral superiority.

The back story to the political situation, the rise of Nazism and on going events (Annexation of Austria, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kristallnacht) effortlessly underpin the fictional elements of the story. Even the back stories of the characters are brilliantly realised.

Midnight in Berlin is also a love story, passion and inner heroism in extreme circumstances that reaffirm the human spirit.

Recently, I have read a few books dealing with the Nazis and WWII (espionage and world events). Corpus by Rory Clements, Hunting the Hangman by Howard Linskey, Butchers of Berlin by Chris Petit, and The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr. Midnight in Berlin is a match for any of them. I first was attracted to this novel by a review from Edward Wilson, author of a brilliant series of spy novels set in England after the war (beginning with The Envoy in 2009). He describes Midnight in Berlin as: “A master-class in how to write a period novel…vividly presented, flawlessly accurate [and] utterly riveting”. One of the best things about Wilson’s own writing is his mastery of just those qualities and after reading MacManus I can only agree with his assessment.

James MacManus is a journalist and editor with a distinguished career in British publications. He has previously written non-fiction and two other novels, one set during the blitz in London. Midnight in Berlin is a fine period thriller that poses questions about what might have been and what actually was.

Paul Burke 5/5

Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus
Duckworth Overlook 9780715651643 pbk Feb 2017

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