Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler, and Arno Breker on Trocadéro in front of the Eiffel Tower. A crouching cameraman films Hitler for the cinema newsreel. Paris, 23 June 1940.

On June 14, 1940, the German army marched into Paris beginning an occupation that would last for four years.  The arrival of the Germans was the culmination of a six week invasion that saw French forces melt away in defeat and the French government agreeing to an armistice on June 22, 1940.  The French government would move to Vichy in the south where they set up a collaborative regime under World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Petain.  The new government would defer to the Nazis who set up their occupation regime in the north, beginning a period of limited freedom for Parisians, greatly reduced food supplies, and an overall sense of fear as to what would come next.

With the occupation serving as a backdrop British author Chris Lloyd who held a lifelong interest in World War II, including resistance and collaboration in occupied France has embarked on a series of novels centering on French Investigator Eddie Giral.  The first in the series is THE UNWANTED DEAD set in Paris which earned the HWA Gold Crown Award. Giral would spend the war trying to navigate the occupation, seeking a road between resistance and collaboration, all the time transforming himself into becoming who he needs to be to survive.

Lloyd begins the novel with the arrival of the German army in Paris on June 14.  Immediately the German High Command orders all French citizens to be disarmed and to remain in their houses for the next few days.  Giral, has other concerns as a sealed railway car is discovered with four dead bodies probably killed with chlorine or some other gas.  Giral decides it is his obligation as a “French cop” to investigate the deaths and determine who was responsible.  The four dead bodies turn out to be Polish refugees, one of which is from the Polish village of Bydgoszcz.  The situation becomes even more complicated when Fryderyk Gorecki, another Polish refugee from the same village jumps from the roof of his home with his young son Jan committing suicide as the Nazis enter Paris.

Jewish men wearing the mandatory yellow badge in the Jewish quarter of Paris.

(Jewish quarter of Paris, 1941)

For Giral the smell of the gas returns him to the trenches of World War I and introduces a character reminiscent of the late Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, oozing with attitude and a conflicted morality that powers a complex, polished plot.  At the same time Lloyd develops the Giral character he successfully frames the French experience under the Nazis.  The Germans who have just conquered most of Europe in a few weeks mostly are haughty, arrogant, and have little respect for the French.  Lloyd accurately conveys the internal politics of the Nazi occupation including the competition between the German army, the Gestapo, and SS for controlling Paris.  The duplicity and infighting among the Germans is on full display in Lloyd’s rendition of the early Nazi occupation and it appears quite accurate.

The Parisian ambiance is clear as Lloyd takes the reader into the underside of Paris and the conflicting feeling of the French many of whom are right wingers like Detective Auban who works with Giral that believe the French government was weak and led them astray fostering a deep respect for German efficiency and in some cases racial beliefs leading to French collaborations to the detriment of the French resistance.

The desperation of the French people is evident through suicides, attempts to escape the city, locking themselves in their homes, and abandoning their previous lives by fleeing the Germans.  As the Germans arrive 2/3 of Parisians flee the city, leaving only the poor, the old, and the police.  As Giral puts it, “Paris was still there, but it was no longer Paris.

Lloyd has created an interesting character in Giral, a man with tremendous personal baggage dating back to WWI.  Giral survived the war but did not survive the metal anguish of life in the trenches.  Unbeknownst to him he develops post-traumatic stress disorder which will destroy his family as he leaves his wife, Sylvie, and their five year old son Jan-Luc to survive on their own.  Giral is also guilt ridden because his parents blame him for his older brother’s death as he joined the French army in 1916 following in his brothers’ footsteps and was killed at Verdun.  Lloyd integrates the year 1925, at times alternating chapters dealing with 1940 to dig into Giral’s personal issues which seem to percolate throughout the novel.  For Giral, once a respected policeman, his methods and own baggage at times reduce him to a weak figure who in 1925 seeks refuge in an American jazz club and cocaine.  Giral manifests his personal issues with a nasty habit of “putting his foot in his mouth” especially when it comes to his son who he is trying to protect from the Germans at the same time he is trying to make amends for deserting his family.

Places where you can still find evidence of World War II in Paris: Hotel Lutetia

(Nazi Command Post at French Hotel, June, 1940)

Lloyd’s grasp of history is strongly exemplified by Giral’s conversations with former Black Harlem Hell fighters who fought for the United States in World War I.  Giral is shocked that these men do not want to live in their home country, but he understands when they describe the racial situation in the United States and how they were better off in France. Another interesting example is Lloyd’s description of the French surrender to the Germans at Compiegne using the same railway car used by the allies in 1918.  This time with Hitler present.

Lloyd’s plot lines are well conceived.  What does the gassing of the refugees and the suicide of a man and his son have to do with each other.  When American reporters become involved Giral’s eyes are opened to a larger issue – how to get across to the world the atrocities the Nazis have committed in Poland and other areas in order to convince the United States to join the war and for the Soviet Union to break its pact with the Hitlerite regime.  More and more Giral becomes obsessed with learning the truth and balancing that truth with the larger goal of defeating the Nazis.  In so doing an interesting series of characters become important.  Major Hochstetter, an Abwehr Nazi officer who is the liaison to the French police who plays a duplicitous role throughout.  Lucja and Janek, members of the Polish resistance whose main goal is to tell the truth to the world.  Katherine Ronson, a freelance American journalist looking for a Pulitzer Prize.  Hauptmann Karl Weber, an officer in the 87th Infantry Division of the Wehrmacht, and a series of others.

How these diverse personalities and storylines come together make the novel an excellent read.  For Giral how many sacrifices must he make as he navigates the Nazi obstacle course in his quest for the truth, while at the same time holding onto his moral compass and seeing the larger issues that may be more important than his own murder investigation.  For Giral it is a constant question as to who he can trust.  Journalists, colleagues, certain Germans, union workers, but in the end he must rely on his own instincts.  The next book in the series is PARIS REQUIEM and I look forward to continuing to follow Eddie Giral’s career and life story.

Galesburg Register-Mail

STASI CHILD by David Young

Tall grey and brown buildings with a lower building in front
Tall grey and brown buildings with a lower building in front

(STASI Headquarters, East Berlin)

To maintain power for over 40 years while their people starved and plotted to escape, the East German Communist Party had to get very good at controlling people and undermining anti-state activists. But outright street violence and assassinations weren’t good for the Party image, so the Ministry for State Security got creative. Better known as the Stasi (the German acronym), these secret police were the “Schild und Schwert der Partei” (Shield and Sword of the Party). Their sole function was to keep the Communist Party in power. They did not care how.  At a certain point they had 91,000 employees, 5,600,000 East German citizens were under suspicion for anti-party activity (about 1 and 3 people), all out of a total population of 17,000,000.  The  level of surveillance and infiltration caused East Germans to live in terror—you really never knew if you could trust anyone—though most had no idea of the scope of these activities until after the Berlin Wall fell.  With this in the background author, David Young, an English novelist created a crime thriller series featuring a fictional Volkspolezi detective, Karin Müller, set in 1970s East Germany. Young’s debut novel STASI CHILD won the “CWA Endeavor Historical Dagger” award for the best historical crime novel of the year.  The novel is the first of six iterations of his Karin Muller series which immediately captivates the reader who will find it difficult to put down.

The novel begins with Oberleutnant Karin Muller and her deputy, Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner, find themselves in bed with each other after a night of drinking.  Both are married, Muller is aghast and Tilsner has an arrogant smirk on his face.  This is just background as they are immediately summoned to a murder scene at the Berlin Wall.  When they arrive they are met by STASI Oberstleutnant Klaus Jager who informs them he is in charge, even though it comes under the jurisdiction of the Kriminalpolizei or KRIPO.  This arrangement will prove interesting throughout the novel.  The crime scene is made up of a murdered young girl whose face could have been destroyed by wild animals and Jager informs Muller she is in charge of the investigation to determine the identity of the body, the cause of death, and the killer.  The problem that arises is that Jager has informed her that his preliminary investigation concludes that the girl was shot fleeing the western side of the Berlin Wall trying to enter East Germany.  Her task is to provide evidence to support Jager’s conclusions.

The situation is further exacerbated after Jonas Schmidt, the KRIPO scientist, and Professor Feuerstein, the KRIPO pathologist examine the murder scene and conduct an autopsy and their findings do not support Jager’s scenario.  Muller is immediately caught up in a situation where she is losing control.  When She and Tilsner were trying to identify the victim, they came across a teenage girl named Silke Eisenberg who had run away successfully to West Berlin.

Young is a superb practitioner of the Cold War thriller.  He does an excellent job creating the ambiance and jargon of the time period as the East German government (DDR) is having difficulty keeping its citizens from trying to escape to West Berlin, despite the building of the Wall in 1961.  Young has created a multi-faceted plot that leaves the reader wondering how it all fits together.  There is the murder investigation that Karin Muller is hoping to solve.  There is the role of STASI and the concept that no one wants the perpetrators to be found.  We must also deal with Karin’s husband Gottfried who is arrested by the STASI. Lastly, the role of the reform school at Profo-Ost and the plight of Irma Behrendt and her friend Beate Ewert who tries to commit suicide.

Young creates a number of interesting characters.  Jonas Schmidt, the fumbling forensic scientist and Krimminaltechniker.  Klaus Jager, a man with an agenda that is difficult to figure out.  Karin’s husband, Gottfried, a teacher, an idealist, whose situation deteriorates from the outset of the novel as he watches western news programs and frequents a church where the pastor is under surveillance.  Matthias Gellman, a confused star crossed teenager who make a number of poor decisions.  Lastly, Franz Neumann, a sinister character who runs Profo-Ost.  There are the usual bleak characters that run the reform school and a host of others.

Karin faces dilemmas throughout the novel.  She admires her country’s efforts to raise up the position of women in society as she is the highest ranking woman in the People’s Police.  But, on the other hand the male dominated leadership in the police community creates doubts in her belief in the system.  Further, her view of East German society is questioned as she and her partner travel to the west where for the first time she sees the luxuries and everyday thriving of a capitalist culture.  Deep down she is shocked by the number of missing girls in East Berlin, a number that dwarfs those missing in the west which is in large part why she is determined to find the murderer of the girl by the Berlin Wall.  Karin also feels guilty over her marriage and she wonders if there is anything she can do to help her husband.

Fans of the late Philip Kerr and his Bernie Guenther character and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko should enjoy Young’s foray into the cold war thriller.  The dialogue is crisp and the juxtaposition of east and west is well conceived.  All in all a success, and I look forward to the next book in the series, STASI WOLF.

A door with a sign reading
A door with a sign reading


Pres. Woodrow Wilson at his desk, Washington, D.C.

(President Woodrow Wilson)

The four years that followed America’s entrance into World War I was a grim period in American history that seems painfully relevant today.  It was a time of racism, white nationalism, anti-foreign, anti-immigrant feelings, and of course plague.. On top of that American society suffered from a misogynistic view of women, and an appalling level of political partisanship.  By 1920 the culmination of World War I and the Versailles Treaty were almost in place.  The treaty itself was punitive and over the next decade it would be used by opponents of the Weimar Republic in Germany as a cudgel to destroy any hope in achieving democracy and greatly facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party and  Adolf Hitler.  Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century, we find Russia beginning to reject the promise of democracy following the collapse of the Cold War leading to the reemergence of Pan Slavism and the rise of Vladimir Putin.  The similarities may be divergent, but it is clear that the economic misery in Germany in the 1920s and Russia in the 1990s is more than a coincidence in bringing authoritarianism to power in both countries.

The second decade in the 20th and 21st centuries tend to mirror each other.  The fighting in the trenches on the western front during World War I matches the trench warfare that has existed in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and seems to be growing worse each day.  The Russian Revolution helped produce the authoritarianism of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, in much the same way that the end of communism brought to power, first Boris Yeltsin, and his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin.  The end of World War I brought about the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and recently Donald Trump tried to unravel NATO and while Putin is trying to destroy NATO by invading Ukraine, the former president’s acolytes have continued to try and undermine the Biden administration’s effort to assist the Kyiv government.


(Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer)

In 1917, Lenin bragged that the Soviet Union would lead an ecumenical revolution in the name of Karl Marx.  Today, Putin wants to recreate the former Soviet Empire and “Russify” its “near abroad” regions.  During the 1920s Russia was an economic pariah, today economic sanctions imposed by the west are seen as one of the main weapons imposed in order to block Putin’s expansionism.

The difference today is that a number of countries which suffered under western colonialism; India, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia find themselves benefitting from Russian cheap energy and trade as they pursue their own reasons for their supposed neutrality in dealing with the war in Ukraine.  There were many errors made in the diplomatic realm in 1919 that we see resurfacing today – one can call it the revenge of former western victims of imperialism.

Wood, Leonard

(General Leonard Wood)

Across the Atlantic we also witness the similarities between the two time periods.  Domestically the United states has found itself in the midst of violent anarchist movements on the right.  Groups like the Proud Boys and their ilk and the MAGA crowd engage in political violence in much the same way as leftist anarchists did in the post-World War One era.  Politically, the lack of bipartisanship today is a daily occurrence where “owning the libs” by the MAGA crowd is more important than passing legislation for the benefit of the American people.  In 1919, the leader of the Republican opposition was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who despised Wilson and resented democratic control of the presidency and congress over the previous eight years.  He led the opposition to the ratification of the League of Nations in the Senate and was successful in part because of Wilson’s own political errors and a belief that he was infallible.  In the same way NATO was threatened by extinction under the presidency of Donald Trump, another president whose belief in their own judgement was beyond reproach, and the likes of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy who seems like he will do anything to satisfy the right wing fringe of the Republican caucus and stop American aid to Ukraine.  A further similarity between the two periods is that of dealing with disease or pandemics.  In 1918-1919 it was influenza which the government downplayed resulting in over 675,000 death which Wilson paid little attention too, and of course COVID-19 the last few years resulting in over 1,000,000 deaths, conspiracy theories, and a president who saw the disease as a plot to hinder his reelection as opposed to properly protecting the American people.  Lastly, immigration issues have dominated both periods.  The 1920s witnessed an increasing war against labor, communism, and immigration in general as it seemed the “Bolsheviki” were mostly Jews from Eastern Europe, not the good “white stock” of Northern and Western Europe.  The period is known as the first Red Scare, but today we have similar issues.  The lack of bipartisanship prevents immigration reform and politicians are quick to point to the southern border as a national security threat.  Trump’s commentary on immigrants is well known as well as those dealing with “shit hole” nations. 

The mindsets of Wilson and Trump are also similar, and that mindset led to numerous errors for the American people.  Wilson proved to be a sanctimonious character who believed his way was always correct and if you didn’t support him you were no longer an accepted part of his administration.  Trump has a similar mindset, but there is a difference.  Wilson held strong beliefs in his Fourteen Points which he hoped would bring an end to all wars.  Trump, believes in nothing apart from his use of the presidency for his and his families self-aggrandizement, and perhaps keeping him out of prison and an orangejump suit.

Emma Goldman seated.jpg

(Emma Goldman)

The lack of bipartisanship in Congress was clear concerning the League of Nations, the increasing belief in eugenics and anti-migrant and racist tropes led to violence against minorities be it the Tulsa  or Omaha massacres or other events throughout the south.  This resulted in the 1924 Johnson Act that created quotas to bar certain groups from the United States.  Though women finally got the vote after the war, impediments for them and blacks remained to keep them from exercising their rights of citizenship.

Fast forward to today we have disagreements over aid to Ukraine and the US role in NATO.  Further, we have election deniers who still have not given up overturning the 2020 election no matter what the courts have ruled.  The crisis at the southern border, the bombing of synagogues, the shootings of young black men and schools, and of course the events of 1/6.  These occurrences can be laid at the doorstep of MAGA conspiracy theorists, FOX news and Donald Trump and reflect how little the US has grown as a united nation over the last 100 years.  Philosopher George Santayana was correct in 1905 when he stated, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  I guess the lesson no longer applies as a large segment of our population has cut history and government courses from educational curriculum on many levels as is highlighted currently by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ attempts to rewrite his states curriculum stressing only the “good parts dealing with whites,” and leaving out anything negative like slavery and genocide of Native-Americans out.

The first two decades of the 20th and 21st centuries are uncanny in their similarities and it makes it important to consult Adam Hochschild’s latest book, AMERICAN MIDNIGHT: THE GREAT WAR, A VIOLENT PEACE AND DEMOCRACIES FORGOTTEN CRISIS to understand the evolution of events surrounding World War I and its culmination, its impact on societal movements throughout the world including the United States, and how many of these issues remain with us today reflecting on the idea that we have not come as far as we think in the last century.

Eugene V. Debs

(Presidential candidate and Socialist Eugene V. Debs)

As the case in many of his books like KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, TO END ALL WARS, SPAIN IN OUR

HEARTS, and BURY THE CHAINS Hochschild exhibits a mastery of the historical material and sources including astute analysis that is important for the reader to digest.  He possesses an easy writing style that makes it easier to absorb material that can be very disconcerting.  In his current work Hochschild has created a narrative that is more of a socio-political history than a recounting of World War I and the treaty that followed.  The book is separated into two distinct parts.  First the reader is presented with an America that is in the grip of a patriotic fervor that had never been seen before.  Anti-German feeling fostered by submarine warfare raised levels of hostility that remained throughout the war.  The result was the loss of civil rights for a large component of American society particularly labor and anyone who questioned the Wilson administration.  President Woodrow Wilson was seen as a progressive, but the policies implemented under his watch caused tremendous repression and violations of constitutional protections of free speech.  The repression resulted in vigilantism, violence, and an unequal implementation of justice.  Legislation and later Supreme Court decisions codified these the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, or the actions of the Postmaster General and other propaganda organs.  Big Business saw this as an opportunity to go after labor unions like the IWW and the Socialist Party.  Racists saw this as an opportunity to repress blacks in the south as well as the north as many southern blacks migrated north to escape adverse treatment and hopes for employment.  In addition, the government deputized private groups to assist in this repression and violence.  A number of personalities dominate this section including President Wilson, radicals like Emma Goldman, Postmaster general Albert Burleson, and many others.

In the second half of the book, Hochschild’s analysis zeroes in on the continuing repression after the war and the rise of the Red Scare.  The constant round up of immigrants for deportation, legislation to block immigration, violence against blacks, even those who fought in World war I, the continued imprisonment of people jailed for opposing the war, a domestic war against the new enemy communism which seemed to be spreading in Europe were dominant themes.   Throughout President Wilson did not oppose these extreme measures as his focus was on gaining passage of his precious League of Nations which ultimately failed.  After suffering a debilitating stroke trying to sell his League, Wilson was effectively a non-executive for the last eight months of his presidency as his wife Edith seemed to have been a co-president.  Two of the dominant personalities of the period were Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer, and General Leonard Wood.  Both sought their respective party nominations for president in 1920 and ran on a platform of anti-immigration and deportation.  In Palmer’s case his actions relate to an anarchist bombing of his home in 1919 which changed a progressive into a right wing fanatic employing the likes of the young J. Edgar Hoover.

Portrait of white woman in dark clothing

(Kate Richard O’Hare)

A number of important movements and personalities are explored, many of which lead to current comparisons.  The first, Woodrow Wilson who oversaw the war on dissent resulting in violence and jailings.  Wilson was a southerner who held strong racist ideas despite his progressive reputation and showed little interest in protecting civil rights after the American entrance into the war.  Wilson’s problem throughout was that he believed that bargaining was beneath him and his autocratic tendencies eventually would dominate his approach to politics.  Apart from Wilson, the author focuses on personalities who normally do not receive the coverage of a President, Secretary of State or other high officials.  The reader is exposed to William J. “Big Bill” Flynn, the former Chief of the Secret Service and New York City Police Detectives who would head up the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor of the FBI, a man who would hire the young J. Edgar Hoover who would copy the Library of Congresses card catalogue system to track what he deemed to be enemies of the people.  Women who spoke out against the war and were jailed receive a great deal of coverage.  Emma Goldman, Dr. Marie Equi, and Kate Richard O’Hare are front and center.  The role of Postmaster General and his weeding out all opposition to the war effort through the mails; the jailing of Eugene Debs; Grace Hammer, a Sherman Detective Agency employee imbedded within the IWW as “an underground cheerleader” for the war to root out dissidents; Leo Wendell, a Justice Department spy, Lt. Colonel Ralph Van Deman, the domestic military intelligence chief, Louis F. Post, the only member of the Labor Department who fought against deportations, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis who had no difficulty with objectivity dealing with dissidents, Congressman Albert Johnson who led the fight for immigration quotas that blocked immigrants from anywhere apart from northern and western Europeans (sounds like Trump!) are just a few whose impact on American history and their actions should serve as a lesson for all to study.

The infamous Palmer Raids, mass arrests by the Justice department on the Union of Russian Workers and other organizations receive extensive coverage.  In particular was the radical Division within the Justice Department fostered by J. Edgar Hoover who was put in charge of these raids and implemented the surveillance, arrests, police raids, internment camps, legal chicanery, all strategies employed for decades to come.  Hoover saw the resulting deportations as a “feather in his cap.”  Wilson is just as culpable as he remarked in 1919, “any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this republic.”

Hochschild also stresses how the Wilson administration drew upon America’s experience in the Philippines, employing torture techniques like water boarding and counter insurgency in the United States to ferret out dissidents.  General Leonard Wood was the master of implementing these techniques.

 Albert Sidney Burleson

(US Postmaster Albert Burleson)

In summary I turn to Thomas Meany’s review in the October 9, 2022, that appeared in the New York Times; “Hochschild’s sharp portraits and vignettes make for poignant reading, but at times skirt fuller historical understanding. We hear about newspapers and magazines being shut down, but little about what was being argued in them. Powerful thinkers about the political moment, such as Randolph Bourne, are absent from “American Midnight,” while John Dos Passos features more as a backup bard than a literary chronicler with historical insight. Hochschild attributes much of the failure of American socialists to expand their ranks to the racism and xenophobia that bedeviled the white working class. But there were also significant problems of organization in the American labor movement, which struggled to unite unskilled immigrant workers with workers in established unions. Trotsky had expected America to make as great a contribution to world socialism as it had to capitalism; he was appalled by the lack of party discipline, later damning Debs with faint praise, as a “romantic and a preacher, and not at all a politician or a leader.” The Catholic Church inoculated large segments of immigrant workers from radicalization, while canny capitalists like Henry Ford devised ways to divide workers into a caste system with different gradations of privilege. For all of the success of the strike waves of 1919, almost none of them left any permanent new union organization in place, nor did socialists make much headway in electoral politics.

In the closing portions of this tale, Hochschild shows that, by contrast, a generation of American liberals learned what not to do from Wilson. As his international crusade sputtered into catastrophe, with Wilson signing off on the Versailles Treaty, which laid the kindling for World War II, younger members of his staff were already preparing to become different kinds of liberals. Felix Frankfurter, who, as a young judge advocate general, gallantly tried to counteract some of Wilson’s domestic terror, and Frankfurter’s friend Walter Lippmann, who worked on Wilson’s foreign policy team, were determined to cast off the administration’s excesses. Both envisioned a state that would protect civil rights instead of violating them, and oversee a more efficient and fair economy. In the early 1930s, even as they drifted apart, Lippmann and Frankfurter would help impart a crucial lesson to the Roosevelt administration: If it wanted to snuff out American socialism, it was better to absorb some of its ideals than to banish them.”


(President Woodrow Wilson)

MY FATHER’S HOUSE by Joseph O’Connor

(St. Peter’s Square, circa 1944)

The role of the Papacy and the Catholic church in general has been placed under an unrelenting  historical microscope since the 1930s.  Historians such as John Cornwell, David I. Kertzer, Michael Phayer, Susan Zuccotti, and others have analyzed the role of Pope Pius II and Vatican officials to be in many cases wanting when it came to their actions, or lack of thereof when it came to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, in addition to the absence of a strong  response to the Holocaust.*  Pius who has been labeled “Hitler’s Pope” by many historians when discussing his refusal to speak out against the Nazi genocide whether fairly or unfairly, but his “moral silence” throughout the war stands out.  This is not to say that most or even a majority of church officials felt comfortable with Vatican policy as there were numerous acts of bravery by Catholic officials, priests,  and their followers to hide allied POWs and Jews and smuggle them out of Europe to safety.

One of these individuals was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest who together with likeminded compatriots risked their lives to save as many Jews and POWs as possible right under the noses of the Nazi executioners.  In MY FATHER’S HOUSE, author, Joseph O’Connor has written a marvelous work of historical fiction detailing events from the Fall of 1943 when Germany took control of Rome and Gestapo boss, Obersturmbannfuhrer Paul Hauptmann ruled the city with maniacal efficiency.  O’Conner’s work is the first volume in a trilogy delineating “the Rome Escape Line.”

(Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty)

O’Flaherty was an Irish Catholic priest and senior official of the Roman Curia and was responsible for saving 6500 allied soldiers and Jews.  He had the ability to evade traps set by the Gestapo and Nazi SD earning the nickname, “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”  O’Connor’s portrayal is one of suspense and intrigue creating a gripping World War II drama featuring the unlikeliest of heroes.** 

What separates O’Connor’s approach to historical fiction is his ability to turn facts into believable fiction.  As Sara Moss points out in her review published in The Guardian; “O’Connor is clear that his characters are “not to be relied upon by biographers or researchers” and that sequences “presenting themselves as authentic documents are works of fiction”. The writer’s challenge is to balance the messy improbability of what actually happened with the structural requirements of the novel.  O’Connor achieves this balance partly through characterization and voices strong enough that we eagerly follow them through uncertainty, mundane and disappointment as well as high-stakes jeopardy. The novel is built out of the present-tense close third-person narrative of the priest, Hugh O’Flaherty, the technique historical fiction owes to Hilary Mantel, interspersed with fictional interviews conducted for a radio program in 1963 with the seven people running the escape line under Hugh’s direction. All have distinctive and often very funny voices: they are Irish, English, Italian, aristocrats and shopkeepers.”***

The novel begins on the night of December 19, 1943, when Delia Kiernan, the wife of an Irish diplomat is driving a black Daimler embassy car through the streets of Rome with a groaning passenger in the back seat.  She will soon be joined by a black clad man in the front seat.  Once they reach a hospital for the injured man, Father O’Flaherty brow beats a Nazi guard in gaining treatment for Major Sam Derry, an escaped British prisoner of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

O’Conner does a wonderful job employing dialogue and character monologues to convey to the reader the Irish mindset in Rome during the latter stages of the war.  His descriptions of O’Flaherty are priceless.  The Monsignor sets up a choir as a front for his clandestine operations.  It helps that Kiernan was a professional singer before the war. The choir itself takes on many characters each with their own quirks.  There is Kiernan, Sir Darcy Osborne, the flamboyant British Ambassador to the Vatican, John May an indispensable fixer, Contessa Giovanni Landini, Marianna DeVries, a freelance journalist based in Rome, and others.  All contribute to O’Flaherty’s goals but are used by the author as a tool of providing background for each character and past and future events through interviews of each in chapter form taken in 1963.


(Herbert Kappler, Chief of Security Police and Security Services for the SS and all police units deployed in Rome during the occupation)

In this vein O’Connor employs clever strategies to lay the background foundation for his story line, particularly his use of O’Flaherty’s “Last Will and Testament” should he ever be seized by the Gestapo as a means of conveying the history of Irish subjugation by the British, and in turn Irish hatred and distrust of England and her armies.  The document provides insights into who the Monsignor really was, a thoughtful and courageous individual whose voice is used to describe the nature of Nazi rule and the horrors they engaged in.   

Another approach that is quite effective is integrating interviews of important characters years later alluded to earlier.  A few stand out.  Those include interviews with Enzo Angelucci, an important member of the choir.  Contessa Giovanna Landini, a widower having emotional difficulties meets O’Flaherty by chance and describes how this new friendship provided purpose to her life and the ability to move on.  The British Ambassador hiding in the Vatican, Sir D’Arcy Osborne’s Christmas eve 1943 report to The War Office, Whitehall, London and his assistant and fixer, John May from London’s East End who provides the flavor of the underground that exists in Rome.  The importance of the later interviews is that they provide varying views of the Monsignor; his character, foibles, belief system, and other aspects of his personality that made him so special.

O’Connor uses Paul Hauptmann, the Nazi Commander of Rome as a foil against O’Flaherty.  Entering the Monsignor’s confessional, he accuses him of “false virtue,” arguing his actions have made the situation worse for prisoners.  As the novel progresses it seems clear that O’Flaherty is on thin ice with Hauptmann who blames him for running an escape line for POWs out of Rome and that at any moment the priest will be caught and executed.  Hauptmann is modeled on his historical counterpart, Herbert Kappler,  Chief of the Security Police and Security Service for all SS and Order Police units deployed in Rome.

Eugenio Pacelli’s coronation as Pope Pius XII on March 12, 1939.

(Pope Pius II)

O’Conner’s dialogue reflects O’Flaherty’s tenacious nature whether in debate, securing funds, new locations for prisoners and what he perceives as his life’s mission once he visits a POW camp.  O’Flaherty is not afraid to stand up to the lowliest Nazi, to Hauptmann, or even arguments with Pius XII who opposes his actions.  Perhaps the best description of the Monsignor was “Hughdini,” coined by John May alluding to the amazing things that the padre has accomplished in saving so many and standing up to the Nazi beasts.  The key event that everyone in the choir is building up to is the Rendimento (in English performance), in this case the movement of POWs from one hiding place to a safer one Christmas eve, 1943 as Hauptmann and his thugs are closing in.

O’Connor’s priest steals many scenes by exhibiting the courage of his convictions and under fire.  The result is a gripping novel with the unlikeliest of heroes.  O’Flaherty’s “choir” is a ragtag group dedicated to spiriting those threatened by the Nazis to safety.  Their code revolves around “the Library,” of which they are known.  Individual escapees are books, and their hiding places, shelves.  The cat and mouse game O’Connor creates with Hauptmann is well developed, and his frantic mission through the streets of Rome is vividly managed.  It is hard not to be drawn into the story, but more so the courage and commitment of the Monsignor whose life work is to save others.

*For a further discussion of this topic see Tim Parks, “The Pope and the Holocaust,”  New York Review of Books, October 20, 2022; and a rejoinder by Michael Hesemann, “The Silence of Pius XII: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, November 24, 2022.

**See the film, “The Scarlet and the Black” starring Gregory Peck and Christian Plummer for an interesting portrayal of Monsignor O’Flaherty’s work during this period.  In addition you might consult Stephen Walker’s Hide & Seek: The Irish Priest In The Vatican Who Defied The Nazi Command.

 *** Sarah Moss, “My Father’s House” by Joseph O’Connor review – the priest who defied Nazis,” The Guardian, February 2, 2023.