Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Frederick Forsyth has shown himself more knowledgeable than most of his peers when it comes to writing espionage thrillers, as is evidenced by the success of his works, both on paper and on the silver screen. In The ODESSA File, one of his more lauded novels, he tells the story of a German crime reporter who lands on the trail of a Nazi war criminal in Hamburg, leading him on a winding investigation with far-reaching consequences.
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Frederick Forsyth Picks up the Butcher’s Trail
The Nuremberg Trials were certainly a momentous moment for international justice, but it’s no secret countless criminals escaped the hammer of the law, assuming new identities and carrying on with their lives as if nothing happened. Their numbers might have dwindled now, but in the first few decades following the war they were many, and in his novel The ODESSA File, Frederick Forsyth chronicles a German crime reporter’s hunt for just such a man.
The novel takes us to November 1963, right after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Peter Miller works as a freelance crime reporter in Hamburg, and follows an ambulance to the apartment of Salomon Tauber, a Holocaust survivor who just committed suicide. After gaining access to his diary, Peter learns that Salomon spent time in the Riga Ghetto, and recognized its commander, Eduard Roschmann, only a few days earlier, alive and well right in there in Hamburg.
Roschmann was also known as “The Butcher of Riga”, and among those who escaped punishment, he was certainly one of the more deserving ones. After reading a certain passage in Salomon’s diary where he recounts having witnessed Roschmann executing a German Army captain wearing a specific decoration, Peter decides to take up the trail the old man left for anyone to follow.
Although Peter finds that virtually nobody in Hamburg is interested in rooting out and prosecuting former Nazis, he does manage to make contact with Simon Wiesenthal, a famous war crime investigator. He is the first to tell him about the existence of the ODESSA organization, essentially a cabal of former Nazi SS officers, and the threat it poses to the world at large.
Shortly after, Peter is approached by a group of Jewish vigilantes with certain unclear ties with the Mossad. Their sole objective is to hunt down and kill war criminals from the Nazi Germany era. They request Miller’s help to infiltrate ODESSA, and so begins the journalist’s perilous undercover work, which will afford him not only the chance to bring The Butcher of Riga to justice, but to also thwart a covert plot with terrifying implications.
The specific murderers of the SS therefore hide even today behind the collective guilt theory.― Frederick Forsyth, The ODESSA File
The Real Suffering Behind the Fiction in The ODESSA File
Historical fiction of any kind can generally be classified on a spectrum when it comes to accuracy. Whereas some authors simply use a backdrop to create their own fantasy, others tightly weave true facts and knowledge with whatever events they are trying to portray. Frederick Forsyth definitely belongs to the second category, at least as far as The ODESSA File is concerned.
Indeed, he takes virtually every opportunity to impart on us various facts and tidbits of information, largely revolving around the Holocaust, what its victims endured, and just how many culprits managed to escape punishment. This novel was first published in 1972, and I believe the author’s take on those topics has only been reinforced by the discoveries which have been made in the fifty years since then.
With this being said, Forsyth doesn’t try and sell us a plain old history book here. He never loses sight of the fact he’s writing a novel with the primary purpose to entertain the reader, and weaves in most of the various historical details he shares with us right into the story. It actually comes to the point where it becomes impossible to tell the truth from the author’s imagination.
This blending of the fiction and real-life has the effect of making the entire novel feel a lot more believable, and that includes the nature of the plot, his portrayal of all the characters, their motivations, and their actions. Once you lose yourself in the story, it almost starts to feel as if you’re reading a novelized account of a true operation to infiltrate a sect of Nazis.
If there’s one thing I’d like to commend Forsyth for, it’s his determination to never allow the reader to forget the horrors endured by the victims of the Holocaust, despite the fact it adds a tangible amount of weight to the novel. He seldom outright devolves into describing scenes of an overtly horrific nature, but rather, gives you the bits of information you need to let your imagination do the rest of the heavy lifting.
It is always tempting to wonder what would have happened if … or if not. Usually it is a futile exercise, for what might have been is the greatest of all the mysteries.― Frederick Forsyth, The ODESSA File
The Pitfall of Collective Guilt
In addition to exploring the horrors of the past and exposing them before the light, Frederick Forsyth also does what he can to explore the repercussions of the Second World War on the German people themselves. This is largely done through the main character, as we observe his increasingly traumatizing dive into his own country’s past.
Through him, we get to see how most German people (of his generation, at least) perceive what their own countrymen, and in many cases direct relatives, did during the Holocaust. As he sheds the yoke of ignorance and learns the details behind the relatively vague story he had been taught since childhood, we touch upon the subject of collective guilt.
In my opinion, Forsyth did an excellent job in showing how different types of people interpreted this guilt, from those who outright rejected its existence, to others who allowed their lives to be guided by it. He makes a good case for it being a very real and powerful tool which can be used to teach a valuable lesson. However, he doesn’t forget the other side of the coin, and shows the pitfalls of such an approach, namely to make culpable those who had nothing to do with it, and allowing those who did do something, to get away with it.
Inevitably, as we learn about how modern German society (at least at the time this novel was written) saw its life restructured after the war, we cross paths with the titular ODESSA organization. We learn a whole host of true facts about it, but in my opinion, what really stood out was the way in which its members benefited from the country’s collective guilt.
Indeed, the mystery as to why so many Nazi and SS criminals escaped the hand of justice after the war was over looms large for the main character. In much greater and more revealing detail than I’ve seen it before, the author explains how this collective guilt created a general reluctance to dig up the past, for each dead victim served as a reminder of wrongdoing, even if one had nothing to do with it.
It is often a little too easy to sweep the German people under the rug when looking at the impact of the Second World War (it was the nation to blame for it, after all), which has created a lack of windows allowing us to study and understand how the aftermath impacted them. Thus, I think the one Forsyth provides is incredibly valuable, especially for the penetrating and unique insights it offers.
The Amateur’s Hunt
On top of being a historically-charged novel, The ODESSA File also finds the time to deliver a complete package in terms of excitement and entertainment with a plot which seldom takes a moment to give you a breather. From the very first moments Peter Miller finds his fate brushing shoulders with Salomon’s, he embarks on a ride which only becomes more and more dangerous with every meter travelled.
Though he is working under the direction and with the help of true professionals, Peter is the one doing the bulk of the work; observing his infiltration of ODESSA and subsequent unravelling of the organization is a nail-biting experience. I think I’m going to echo the thoughts of virtually all who read this book when I say that I can certainly see why it made for one of best movies based on Forsyth‘s novels. The actions scenes certainly have a cinematic quality to them.
Despite all of his personal abilities, intelligence, and external resources, Peter Miller does remain an amateur when it comes to espionage and undercover work, which makes the whole thing that much more thrilling. He isn’t some invulnerable super-spy bound to always come out on top, but rather, a relatively capable man who gets in over his head.
While I do think some of his mistakes could have been relatively easily avoided (if I can spot them a mile away, then so should he), in the end they do lead to developments which only make the plot more turbulent and exciting, so they’re fairly easy to overlook. The other characters, both his allies and enemies, also prove themselves quite capable in their own rights with many cards up their sleeves.
Personally, I was most-fascinated by the part of the story which dealt with Miller’s hunt for The Butcher of Riga, even if, ultimately, he turns out to be small fry in comparison with the real enemy. Watching Peter unravelling the man’s past, tracing his steps, finding him, getting closer to him, and finally landing his catch makes for perhaps one of the most believable and engaging man-hunting experiences I’ve had the pleasure of reading recently.
|368||G.P. Putnam’s Sons||Oct. 2 2012||978-0451239396|
The Final Verdict
The ODESSA File by Frederick Forsyth certainly deserved to be one of the more memorable bestsellers of the 70s, a historical thriller of the highest quality mixing historical facts and Nazi-hunting fiction in expert fashion.
If you’re in search of a novel with cinematic qualities centred on the hunt for a Nazi war criminal and the infiltration of a secret organization, then this you’ve found definitely the right novel.
Frederick Forsyth is an author and political commentator hailing from England who concentrates his writing around crime and political thrillers, bringing a number of suspenseful stories to us, including The Day of the Jackal, The Dogs of War and Fourth Protocol.