Reviews round-up | 14 January

The best of the critics this week on Helen Dunmore's war novel The Lie, philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes and Jack El-Hai's foray into criminal minds in The Nazi and the Psychiatrist.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

"While The Lie may be the first literary reimagining of the First World War in this centenary year, it will undoubtedly prove one of the most subtle and enduring," writes an enchanted Stephanie Merritt in the Observer. Written with a "poet's feeling for language", Helen Dunmore's latest novel is a "quiet tragedy". It depicts the troubled return home of a shell-shocked young soldier, Daniel, to "a village full of absences and the news his mother is dead."  Merritt praises the author for offering "glimpses of hope and redemption, even as the inevitable consequences of Daniel's life begin to close in on him."

"Dunmore's is a very good novel. 2014 is a very good year to read it", writes John Sutherland in the Times as the political row over the memory of the war escalates. The author's "imagination and research" shines through, particularly in its "vivid", first-person flashbacks to the "horrors of the trenches".  She teases out the tensions of class and sexuality, with Daniel and a soon-to-die officer realising "in the mud, blood and filth of the trenches, that they're not just pals." Sutherland's only criticism is that Dunmore was not there - "The best novels about the conflict are by those who spilt blood."

Boyd Tonkin at the Independent disagrees, congratulating Dunmore as one of an "admirable group of modern women writers who have kept faith with the scarred victims". This "hallucinatory novel of survivor-guilt, delayed trauma and the loving cross-class friendships war made and broke" is a must-read for the young, Tonkin writes. The war's horrors may be "familiar", but there is nothing formulaic in Dunmore's powerful renditions of the "hellish texture of the trench mud, 'thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chlorite of lime'". Essential reading for new generations to "learn these truths again".

 

Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene

We are programmed to be moral only towards our own tribes, philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene argues in his new book. For the Guardian's Salley Vickers, "Greene's radical contention is that the world will only be saved if we transcend our intuitive responses in favour of ... utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number." Vickers is persuaded our group biases are at the root of "racism, sexism, class war ... and countless conflicts and atrocities", but finds Greene's solutions "inoperable". Utilitarianism fails as a basis for agreement between groups  because "it leaves unanswered the problem of who decides the general 'good'". 

Sceptics about utilitarianism "will not be persuaded", Natalie Gold agrees in the Times Higher Education Supplement, but Harvard professor Greene still has "something new to bring to the debate". Drawing on thought experiments carried out by the author, the work is "particularly strong on the psychology of moral judgment". Gold takes issue with Greene's treatment of "manual" versus "automatic" responses, however, unconvinced that our "manual" reasoning is always utilitarian and always better than following your gut.

Utilitarian decision-making demands an "absolutely impartial perspective" that even the author lacks in dedicating the book to his wife, Julian Baggini observes in the Financial Times.  But moral philosophy must "put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as "species-typical moral limitations to be overcome", Baggini argues. He nonetheless hails Green's achievements in a valuable "synthesising work that nails what is centrally important, such as the observation that 'We've been looking for universal moral principles that feel right, and there may be no such thing'".

 

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist by Jack El-Hai

"Were the Nazis mad, or bad? That question still hangs over the history of the Second World War, and perhaps explains our enduring cultural fascination with the meaning of Nazism," Ben Macintyre writes in the Times. American army psychiatrist Douglas Kelley had the chance to find out for himself after the war when he was selected to analyse the captive criminals at Nuremberg. El-Hai recounts Kelley's forensic probing into their brains, revealing "narcissism, self-delusion, and indifference" - but not madness. Sadly the "markedly less enthralling" personal life of the psychiatrist dominates the book's second half, but its central thrust is an important one. Finding Nazis "perfectly sane" may be medically frustrating, but it is "morally satisfying to leave the perpetrators of the worst crime in history entirely responsible for their own actions".

Leyla Sanai in the Independent is more disturbed by the book's conclusions. "The finding that relatively normal men could enact such crimes led Kelley to fear that similar barbaric atrocities could arise elsewhere," Sanai writes. She highlights Kelley's prediction that "workaholics with strong convictions might elsewhere show similar disregard for the lives of others". The insights into Hitler's leading henchmen are fascinating, revealing the "ruthless" Goering as a "sociable, loving family man who had adored animals" and Streicher as owner of "the largest pornography collection ever seen." A "detailed, meticulously-researched book" , exploring the minds of these "relatively" normal men.

Peter Lewis in the Daily Mail is more reluctant to accept "current majority opinion that the Nazi mind was a myth", in a review entitled "A joke-cracking, hymn-singing, wife-loving psycho". The reviewer finds Kelley's bizarre behaviour almost as enthralling as Goering's, arguing the psychiatrist  "had in some ways a similar personality" to his subject. Both were  "ambitious, go-getting, workaholics", and both used cyanide to take their own lives. According to Lewis, "psychiatrists have continued to debate the 'Nazi mind'". Kelley's fellow interrogator "published his own book saying all the Nazis had been psychopaths." On the evidence of Goering's extraordinary comments on Auschwitz - "Well, it was good propaganda" - Lewis concludes Kelley's work was "hardly an exact science". 

 

Helen Dunmore paints the horrors of the trenches in The Lie. Photograph: Getty Images
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge