In The Secret War, Max Hastings the prolific military historian and journalist, normally at home describing the physical battles and hardware of war, takes on the task of profiling the intelligence community during World War II:
Max Hastings’s 25th book is a lively, entertaining, but uneven yomp through espionage and code-breaking in the 1940s, which aims to cut through the clouds of mythology and establish just what contribution the cloak-and-dagger boys made to the outcome of the war.
He brings to this exploration a thesis of skepticism of the real impact is of espionage during times of war:
The breathless claims about secret missions that changed the course of World War II have engendered a scholarly backlash of late: Mr. Hastings at the outset makes the provocative suggestion that Allied intelligence may have had no effect at all on the outcome of the war. He quickly adds that “this seems too extreme a verdict.” But he goes on to make an insightful argument that, at least when it came to spies on the ground, the treachery and deceit that formed the core of their being usually neutralized any effectiveness they had.
When thinking of intelligence efforts during World War II images of Alan Turing, Bletchley Park and the Enigma machine jump to mind, but The Secret War is a more holistic look at the topic:
he puts the codebreakers’ achievements in context by measuring them against competing sources of secret intelligence – not just in Britain but in the other main belligerent countries, including Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan and the United States. The result is authoritative, exciting and notably well written.
Paul Gannon, himself an author of a respected book on Bletchley Park, comments on Hastings’ bi-focal approach to the topic, looking at it from both a global and individuals perspective:
There have been scores of books written about the British codebreakers of Bletchley Park, but the spies, codebreakers and guerrillas of the wider global secret war have been covered in less copious detail. Hastings succeeds in bringing some form of order to this unwieldy topic and he details the exploits of the variously brave, craven, frightened, shameless, devious, dedicated, comic and, above all, clever people who helped, or failed to help, provide the warring nations on all sides with ‘intelligence’.
This sprawling approach however is called out in a few reviews as being too wide and with no true line connecting them:
“The Secret War” covers much familiar ground, but the decision to combine what are in fact only tangentially related subjects in one narrative may have been a mistake. There is little that connects codebreaking, spies, sabotage, resistance movements and deception operations in World War II other than the fact that they were all secret. As a result the book reads more like a ramble than a purposeful journey. But there are certainly interesting byways, especially on those excursions where the author is a reliable guide.
It is also mentioned in at least two reviews that Hastings brings a revisionist view and lack of understanding to certain factors also:
Despite its revisionist air this is an old-fashioned book, rooted in the insular British 1950s, oblivious to the complexities that modern scholars have introduced to our understanding of the war, especially the dark miasma of nationalisms in eastern Europe, and with nothing about the offstage manoeuvrings that accompanied the Holocaust. But maybe Hastings’s readers prefer it that way.
There is no disagreement however that Hastings is a talented writer who has “the novelist’s eye for the telling details” (The Sunday Times) bringing the air of a spy novel to the facts, keeping the reader engaged until the end:
This is a book that pulses along, yet is filled with acute insight into human ingenuity, frailty, and the ironies of evil
Mr. Hastings is a fascinating character in his own right, churning out thousands of words a day, and there is a great write-up of his life and career in the Daily Telegraph, the paper of which he was once the editor. There is also a video introduction to the book on YouTube by the author himself.
THE SECRET WAR
Spies, Cyphers and Guerrillas 1939-1945
By Max Hastings
610 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers
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