Masaryk Station (A John Russell WWII Spy Thriller)
Soho Crime, 2013
330 pp., $26.95
David Downing's Masaryk Station is the sixth and concluding installment in a series of novels centering on a journalist, John Russell, who is based in Germany. The first book in the series, Zoo Station, begins on December 31, 1938, two hours before the New Year is ushered in; the action of Masaryk Station takes place in 1948.
Before I say any more, I would suggest that you get hold of a copy of Zoo Station and read the first couple of pages. If your reaction is anything like mine, you'll want to continue through the entire series.
Russell is a fascinating character. A communist in his youth, he has long since broken with the Party, but he retains a strong sense that current political, social, and economic arrangements are unsatisfactory. As the series begins, he is not quite forty years old, and wherever he looks the prospects for peace and good will are not favorable—especially in Germany, where he has lived for many years. The son of an English father and an American mother, he served in the trenches with the British Army in World War I, but he doesn't identify with any nation: rather, he thinks of himself as European. He loathes Hitler's regime, but he is not eager to put himself at risk. He must also consider his son, Paul (eleven years old when Zoo Station begins), who lives in Germany with Russell's ex-wife, Ilse, and her second husband; and then there is Russell's girlfriend (ultimately his wife), Effi Koenen, a successful German actress: he doesn't want to be parted from Paul or Effi, and he doesn't want to bring trouble on them.
Like one of Hitchcock's classic protagonists, Russell finds himself—with no planning, and very little choice—drawn into the maneuverings of rival powers: he is drafted by Soviet, Nazi, and American intelligence services. He plays this triple game to stay alive, to protect his loved ones, and yet also—when he can—to act for the greater good: for example, helping a Jewish family get out of Germany.
For a time, Russell himself must leave Germany, and leave Effi and Paul behind, but he returns just before the war's end and is there for the aftermath (the setting for Masaryk Station). Here as elsewhere in the series, Downing brings his experience as a historian to bear on his work as a novelist, highlighting realities such as the fate of the millions of ethnic Germans living in other countries who were forcibly repatriated to Germany after the war's end. Russell's profession as a journalist allows Downing to work such material into the texture of the narrative rather than imposing lecture-bits on the reader. And along with moral passion, Downing brings to his subject a keen sense of the absurd, which—far from diminishing the moral impact of the story—grounds it in everyday experience even as it leavens the grim truth of war and genocide and betrayal.
In fact, it's clear that one of Downing's chief aims in the series is to depict World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War with greater moral complexity than the story often receives. American readers in particular could hardly miss Downing's intention. He plays down America's contribution to the outcome of the war while grudgingly acknowledging that, yes, America's help in defeating Germany was needed. He equates American bombing of German cities with Germany's own war crimes (there should have been a Nuremberg-style trial for the American and British brass responsible for this policy). And so on. This is a useful counter to smug American-centric accounts, whether or not one agrees with the indictment on every point.
At the same time, Downing portrays Americans as grotesquely inept. It's a terrible combination: self-righteous, arrogant, incompetent. This is especially true of Americans engaged in intelligence work. On top of that, the Americans who appear in the course of the series are simply jerks, one way or another. So predictable is this that after a while it becomes comical. As soon as an American comes onstage, you wonder how he is going to screw up. It would have been more persuasive—to advance Downing's agenda here—if he had mixed in a couple of Americans who were reasonably admirable figures, just as he introduces plenty of admirable Germans (many of them communists) along with loathsome types. But to plenty of readers, no doubt, this parade of American oafs, psychopaths, and wannabe masters of Realpolitik will provide great satisfaction and amusement. And, alas, there have been and still are today all too many who fit the part.
I'll leave you with a passage from the fourth volume in the series, Potsdam Station. Russell has been musing about his disillusionment with communism: "And yet. There were still thousands of communists out there—millions even—who thought they were fighting for a better world. They had taken the fight to the Nazis and fascists before anyone else …. They had saved Russell's life in the process, and probably paid with their own."