Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Friends and Enemies

CAUTION: The book that I am going to recommend is an historical spy novel The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst. But my comments may be considered “spoilers” so unless you have already read this book or intend never to read it or have a short memory, you may want to return later.

The book is set in Warsaw in 1937, narrated by the French military attach̩ stationed there. The spies of the title are everywhere Рand of many nationalities: French, Russian Jews, Poles, even Germans, all working against Hitler, trying to avoid another war. They had all lived through the previous war 20 years earlier. I guess I never really focused before on just how close in time WWII followed WWI. If the fictional characters are true, there were many people who recognized the evil of Hitler and who in their own ways took great risks and made sacrifices to try to stop his ascent. Some worked for ideological reasons, some for more pragmatic reasons (read: monetary greed) Рbut the cause was the same.

Didn’t we just recently hear in the context of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and of the financial crisis generally that so many people were deceived because they wanted to be deceived? That is not a new idea. There it is on page 225: the Latin proverb Mundus vult decipi, ergo decepiatur. Translation: "The world desires to be deceived; therefore it is." (Attributed to Petronius) Once again we were not paying adequate attention to history - and there is a lot to be learned from reading fiction!

I am not widely read in spy novels but my sense is that much of the detail that is couched as fiction is actually fact. I can only hope that the historical details in this book are fiction because it would be far too depressing to think that the French had sufficient intelligence to have avoided their invasion and initial defeat by the Nazis. This strikes me as very similar to the intelligence situation (what we can know of it from the outside) leading up to our war in Iraq for which the intelligence may have been shaped to fit the desired outcome of those with responsibility.

If you want more, here is a list of spy novels that appears in the Jan. 30, 2009 issue of The Week:
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre
The Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Ghost by Robert Harris
The Magus by John Fowles
The Prisoner of Guantanamo by Dan Fesperman
A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

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