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It’s a Mystery: History Plays for Keeps

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment

The Arms Maker of Berlin

By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, 2009

A long time ago, I stood in the vast library of an eminent scholar on the third Reich and its aftermath. “I’ve read all those books, from corner to corner, analyzing every facet of the Holocaust,” he said, sweeping his arm against one wall. “And I still can’t fathom it.” Early on, in The Arms Maker of Berlin, Professor Gordon Wolfe, an authority on all aspects of Germany’s wartime resistance movements, says to his protégé Nat Turnbull:

“Money, old son. Let’s face it, the swastika sells. Always has, always will. Nobody did it quite like those bastards, and everyone still wants to know why. Hell, I still want to know why.”

That is the question, in another context, that Professor Nat Turnbull must face when The Arms Maker of Berlin opens. It is 1:04 a.m. on a May morning in 2007, and Nat is fast
asleep, three stories underground, at his desk in the stacks of the Wightman University library. Dreams of another era are goose-stepping across his brain when, with Gestapo efficiency, as he later remembers it, he is escorted to Gordon Wolfe’s jail cell in upstate New York by the FBI. Seems they “found” four boxes of classified government documents from World War II in Gordon’s country house, and he’s under arrest for stealing them:

Frame-up or not, what in the hell was Gordon Wolfe doing at the age of eighty-four with a missing archive…Especially if it was the archive…the one Gordon had forever mooned about in his more-imbibed moments. More than sixty years ago he had been one of the few caretakers of that trove of wartime gleanings from an OSS station in Bern, Switzerland. Right on Hitler’s doorstep, as historians such as Nat liked to say. It was run by Allen Dulles and Gordon worked there…. After the war ended, four boxes full of information had slipped though everyone’s fingers.

Now, at the urgent request of the FBI, Nat’s going through the files:

“We appear to have recovered some old intelligence files that have been missing for quite some time….we’d like you to confirm the provenance and summarize the contents.” So it was true, then. They’d found the mother lode, Gordon’s long-sought treasure. And for the next few days Nat would have it all to himself. For all the awkwardness of the setup, the news was electric.

“What we’re asking shouldn’t take too long,” Agent Holland said. “Quick and dirty.”

“Slow and steady would be better. You could do quick and dirty yourselves.”

While thinking of Gordon, that Falstaffian rogue, as the feds whisper “faster” (it’s a cinch they’ve never heard of the Augean stables) Gordon mysteriously dies–a suspicious death if ever there was one. And Nat has a new helper, Professor Doktor Berta Heinkell from Free University Berlin, according to her business card. She’s very attractive, “she’s got Ingrid Bergman eyes,” and, she just happened to be in the neighborhood. Moreover, she knows more than she’s divulging. She seemed to know things about Gordon that the old man had never told him. Even creepier is hearing a lady with a German accent declaring with unmistakable conviction that the files have been sanitized:

Dan Fesperman

“I only want to help. I already know more than you will ever know on the subject. Or the feds either.”

The way she said “feds” was almost comical, like some Euro sophisticate trying to play the role of Chicago gangster….” There is more material out there waiting to be found. More than those four boxes…. I have been studying this puzzle long enough to learn all its missing pieces.”

“Just because they’re missing doesn’t mean they still exist. There was a war going on. Things got burned, bombed, or looted.”

“Not in Switzerland.”

She’s Eve with a barrel full of apples and he can’t shake her from his side. But, and it’s a big but, while she’s on a bathroom break, the town’s peace officer, (not really “the dumb prick” he’s been labeled), apprises Nat that there was a break-in before they got there:

“A few doodads missing…our friend Mr. Holland asked me last night if I’d noted the presence of any foreign nationals.”

“You mean like her?” Nat nodded toward the ladies’ room.



Middle Eastern origin was all I could get out of ‘em.”

“Middle Eastern? In a hunt for American files from Switzerland about a bunch of old Nazis?”

“That was pretty much my reaction.”

Suffice it to say, Nat begins to smell more than one rat. He’d bet dollars to kuchen that Gordon was murdered. He’d also bet that clearing Gordon’s name and discovering the secrets behind the stolen files, will shed light on how he died. Plus, the feds, ever busy, finally give Nat enough of the goods on Berta so he knows she’s not to be trusted. No kidding. But they’re willing to overlook her past for the information she claims she can dig up in the present.

Within a week, Nat’s traveling with this Mata Hari on a Swissair nonstop from Washington to Bern, with the blessings of the FBI. On the old Dulles stomping grounds, they hit pay dirt when they discover Gordon and a Kurt Bauer were working in tandem. Bauer! The scion of a German munitions empire (think Krupp) and Gordon, an ambitious young snoop. Nat Googles “Kurt Bauer” and in less than ten minutes knows why the FBI interest is so high:

Today most people knew the Bauer name from coffeemakers, televisions, and aircraft components. But it was the company’s interest in a more arcane line of products that had attracted the FBI. Or so Nat concluded from a series of hits on Web sites tracking nuclear proliferation.

It’s not very far from Bern to Berlin. There, the rats are out in force. With Berta one foot ahead of him, Nat steps onto a slippery playing field where all the villains are in denial. They’re ex-Nazis, reformed snitches, former spies, cronies without a country, confessed minor players, the crème de la crème, so to speak, of occupied Germany:

Nat couldn’t help but wonder if he was about to play one of those hidden roles in a momentous affair—the sort of obscure but significant action he always enjoyed unearthing years later. It was quite a temptation for a historian, this idea of a cameo upon the stage of his own discipline.

The über-rat is Kurt Bauer. As a teenager in 1941, he learned the business at his father’s knee. He became Managing Director in his early twenties and quickly catapulted to tainted fame as postwar Germany’s arms merchant extraordinaire. Now an old man and ostensibly retired, it is clear The Arms Maker is still very active in the company’s nuclear activities in the Middle East. Enter those foreign nationals swiping papers from the files:

Bauer’s Rolodex alone would be a valuable weapon in trying to dismantle the black market in nuclear materials, much less the man’s insider knowledge.

Trailing Bauer, in more ways than one, it’s clear to Nat and Berta that he not only knows where the bodies are buried, he’s aided and abetted in the body count. They watch as the old man lays flowers on a woman’s grave, at the site of the infamous Plötzensee prison. As they soon discover, this is Bauer’s monthly pilgrimage. The lady Bauer mourns with the ghosts of his Nazi past, was his first and only love. Even more intriguing, she’s got a connection to Berta.

When Bauer was the young Arms Maker, he thought that love could justify anything. For him betrayal is not a sin, it’s a savior. He’s got a lot of tracks to cover. Alas, it appears, so does Gordon. When everything comes together, the ending is a double whammy. It surprises us and, yes, moves us. No one, certainly not Nat, saw it coming.

The narrative moves effortlessly between the present and the 1940s. Not the least of Dan Fesperman’s considerable talents is that you don’t read him, you live him. The Arms Maker of Berlin is about legends and lies, deceptions and personal truths.

I leave it to the reader to discover the many other facets of Nat’s persona in this rich and satisfying novel. The admiration for Emily Dickinson that he shares with his daughter is an endearing sidebar. I hope they won’t mind my ending with a poem of hers that I think speaks to the heart of the story:

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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