Sunday, August 26, 2012

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Over and over through the years as I've read books about real life spies ("Comrade" Kim Philby and Sidney Reilly among others) I've been struck by how much more amazing these non-fiction stories were than those concocted as would-be pulp fiction thrillers. I've also been struck at how all the best spies were anything but good people, and they shared traits of cruelty and self-love that bordered on sociopathic narcissism. Ben Macintyre's biography of Eddie Chapman gives us a man who continues that dubious tradition. This page-turner is fact-filled and well-written and the life it tells of outdoes anything fiction has cranked out in quite a while. It's a very enjoyable read that presented the history of someone I personally had never heard of before I was introduced to him in this book.

Eddie Chapman was no James Bond or even a Sidney Reilly, but he was one of the boldest, most brazen con men ever to serve a nation or a cause, and in so doing he found some redemption from the wrongs of his earlier life. From his days as a roguish charmer who infiltrated high society and first infatuated and later blackmailed rich women in the most callous and base ways imaginable, this safecracker, thief and extortionist found himself sprung by the Germans early in the war when he was then serving a fifteen-year sentence in an English prison in the Channel Islands.

The charismatic Chapman, as liked by his German liberators as by those who'd known him back home, was then recruited by the Nazis as a spy who agreed to do their bidding and sabotage a British aircraft factory in Hertfordshire. He parachuted back onto his native soil during the busy Christmas season of 1942, only to prove his ultimate loyalty by going to the British and offering to in turn spy on the Germans. Ultimately faking the attack in Hertfordshire and returning to Germany through neutral Portugal, Chapman concocted a plan in which he would assassinate Adolph Hitler at a political rally. Although this plan obviously never came to fruition, Chapman bravely continued his double agency thru to the war's conclusion, an astounding feat of skill, luck and sheer courage all the more amazing considering the short lifespan of most other double agents.

So skilled was he at his falsehoods that Chapman was befriended by a number of well-placed Nazi personnel, and was decorated for his service to the Third Reich. Eventually after a posting in German-held Norway, late in the war Chapman was again smuggled into the United Kingdom where in his most noble deed he saved countless lives by concocting false reports to the Germans on the accuracy of their V1 and V2 rockets. In his communiqu├ęs Chapman claimed these flying bombs were landing beyond their intended targets, causing the Luftwaffe to re-adjust them to locations the British deemed less populated and therefore safer.

Incredibly after this the gifted liar and actor Chapman returned yet again to Nazi-controlled Norway, where he continued to be of service to his government in London, this time by turning over misleading information to the by-then moribund German military.

Chapman's life was one of amazing luck, daring, and amorality, but his story is also one of a man who betrayed nearly every friend who ever trusted him, and who ruined many lives, even as his service record shows he saved many others. He went on to not only survive the Second World War but live to old age, profiting from an MI5 pension and from the proceeds of the book and film royalties to his remarkable story. Macintyre skillfully takes us into the deeds and era of this confidence man turned double agent, and in doing so has given his readers a fine work of non-fiction that is a pleasure to complete.
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