European Spies of World War II

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Night Soldiers
By Alan Furst


Night Soldiers is the first of fifteen spy novels that Alan Furst has written, all of which take place between 1933 and 1945 in Europe. The book, published in 1988, is the first in the series and arguably his best; but each book is a superb tale of life in Europe before and during World War II.

Furst lived in Paris for many years and did meticulous research on the history and culture of many European countries. Furst masterfully brings the reader into the life and surroundings of the protagonists. In addition to crafting stories with intrigue, excitement, and romance with true-to-life characters, he shows a remarkable talent for describing the inner workings of the various European intelligence organizations around which the stories are composed.

Two attributes distinguish the Furst novels. The first is that there is probably no living author who has been able to evoke so vividly the life and culture of Paris – the marvelous City of Light — during the dark period leading up to the World War II and then during the German Occupation. (The Occupation lasted over four years — from the invasion of France in May 1940 until its liberation by the Allies in August 1944.)

The second is that many of his books are set in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Greece, about which most American readers know relatively little. His novels show how citizens in these countries fared during the convulsions that shook Europe before and during World War II.

Night Soldiers is the story of Khristo Stoianev, a Bulgarian lad who comes from a working-class family living in Vidin, a town on the Danube River. In 1934 Khristo sees his younger brother kicked to death by a fascist militia. After that, he is recruited by a Russian agent to come to Moscow for training to join the Comintern.

The Communist International (Comintern for short), founded in Moscow in March 1919, was a Soviet-controlled organization that guided the national communist parties of various countries, including the United States, in order to further the cause of revolution. Moscow provided support and issued orders to these local parties through the Comintern.

The first part of Night Soldiers is a fascinating account of how the NKVD – the forerunner of the KGB and Russia’s current intelligence services – trains Khristo and his young colleagues recruited from other Eastern European countries. It reveals the inner workings of the Soviet intelligence apparatus as few other books have ever done, elucidating how Soviet intelligence leaders think, plan, and act.

(It appears little has changed over the past decades, as we watch Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent assigned to East Germany and current president of Russia, wage brutal wars in Georgia, the Crimea, and Ukraine over the past 14 years.)

Khristo’s first assignment is in Spain during the country’s civil war, which breaks out in 1936. It is well-known that the Spanish Civil War became a proxy conflict between fascist forces and socialist/communist forces. Nazi Germany unofficially joined the war on the side of the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, and the Soviet Union unofficially joined the war on the side of the so-called Republicans, which were a stew of idealists, socialists, anarchists, and communists.

What is less well known is that the leadership of the Republican forces ultimately ended up in the hands of Soviet communists, who toed the line laid down by Stalin. Night Soldiers vividly depicts how the Communist leadership, led by NKVD and Comintern operatives in Spain, turn on its Republican allies, executing them in a power struggle.

This internecine struggle within the Republican forces is a key reason that Franco’s forces win the Spanish Civil War. Night Soldiers tells the dirty details, which are also alluded to in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Khristo’s Republican sidekicks include an American Jewish woman who has recently graduated from Pembroke (a women’s college of the time closely associated with Brown). Khristo and his comrades are deeply involved in the Republican struggles in the Spanish Civil War, but ultimately the NKVD bosses turn on Khristo, in one of Stalin’s purges of the Soviet intelligence apparatus, and seek to kill him. One of his former mates from the Comintern school in Moscow warns him, and he manages to escape through fascist and nationalist lines to France.

After his release from a French internment camp for refugees in 1937, Khristo finds his way to Paris, where he is hired as a waiter at one of the great pre-war brasseries frequented by the leading social, political, and military figures of the day. This 100-page section of the novel shows that Furst knows the Paris that most Americans never see. He sketches the rhythm of the city in the various seasons, the cafes, bars, and restaurants, the politics, and the French women and their fashion styles. He also evokes the growing sense of doom as war approaches, and shows how the French political left and right are much more interested in battling each other than preparing for the growing menace from Nazi Germany.

Khristo is caught up in a Bulgarian émigré plot against the Russians and is arrested for purchasing a weapon used to murder a Russian courier. He is then sentenced to life in a French prison.

By mid-1940, Khristo is deeply depressed, but a former Polish Comintern colleague, who has also escaped from the clutches of the Comintern and the NKVD, manages to spring Khristo from prison, as the Germans begin to occupy Paris. Fleeing Paris with the hundreds of thousands of refugees leaving Paris and northern France, Khristo comes to the rescue of two pious French sisters of middle age, and the three manage to retreat to their farm in the mountainous woods of southern France. In 1943, Khristo joins the maquis – the French resistance.

One of the best parts of the book is Furst’s description of the recruiting efforts of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, led by “Wild Bill” Donovan, a lawyer recruited by President Franklin Roosevelt to set up the United States’s first foreign intelligence agency. (The OSS was the World War II forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.)  Furst follows a young OSS recruit – a graduate of Columbia University in the advertising business who is fluent in French. A good portion of the novel traces this man’s recruitment and ultimate insertion into southern France to join the Resistance. There he meets up with Khristo, and together they strike numerous blows against the Nazi occupation forces.

Another outstanding part of the novel traces Khristo’s former NKVD boss in Spain, who is recalled to Moscow in one of Stalin’s periodic purges. The man is spared execution but is exiled to a labor camp in Siberia to be worked to death. The description of the conditions of the prisoners and their forced labor, which usually leads to death within a year or two, is gripping.

Meanwhile Khristo, who has been exfiltrated from France to Switzerland by the OSS, ends up working for the OSS first in Switzerland and later in Prague. As the European theater of the war is ending in April 1945, Khristo learns that his former Comintern boss has managed to escape from the Siberian labor camp. Khristo journeys halfway across Europe, following the Danube to Bulgaria, to try to rescue him from Soviet clutches.

Alan Furst is arguably the best writer of historically accurate spy novels – superior to Graham Greene and Charles McCarry, for instance. His books have a pace and rhythm of life as it was lived in Europe before and during World War II. The reader is engulfed by the life and culture of Paris in the madness of pre-war Europe, the tragedies of the émigré lives that are ruined by the war, the love affairs, the tradecraft of the Gestapo, SS, and SD and their opposing intelligence services, and always the suspense of the protagonists seeking to outfox the Nazis and the NKVD and stay alive.

Night Soldiers may be Furst’s best novel, but each one brings fresh delight.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $5.7 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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