Robert Harris is without question a doyen of the high-class thriller. Few authors can plot, build dramatic tension, create convincing characterisations with such deft economic key strokes; and channel their novel into so concise and satisfying a denouement as he can.
What finally marks him out from his peers, however, is the breadth and depth of his historical research. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of, for instance, the late Roman republic or the disaster that entombed Pompeii in 79 AD, I can only say that I greatly enjoyed his take on both topics.
I was hoping to lavish the same unreserved praise on V2.
It’s certainly a page-turner that I consumed in double-quick time.
But then I stumbled upon that pleasure-killer, the historical anachronism. Not once, but multiply. And it was all so avoidable – had the author done a little more research.
Let’s be honest. Writing about historical events, it is exceedingly difficult to avoid the odd, venial, anachronism. Someone, somewhere will find you out.
For example, on page p 152 of V2 (paperback edition), Harris refers to rocket scientist Wernher von Braun’s visit to Hitler’s Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, as related to fellow scientist (and story protagonist) Rudi Graf. Graf is fictional, but von Braun – a Hitler idol – was very real, and so was his visit to the Wolfsschanze: it took place in July 1943. Hitler was casting around for a decisive weapon to reverse the military catastrophe at Stalingrad. Von Braun appeared to have it, in the form of the V2 rocket, and he had brought some 35mm cine film along to prove his point. But, he’d had to wait hours, and hours, for an audience…
“Then someone shouted, “The Führer!” and in he came with Keitel, Jodl, Speer and all their aides. I must say he looked pretty awful, [says Braun in the novel] hunched forward and pale as a sheet, and his left arm seemed to have developed a life of its own – when he sat down, he had to hold onto his wrist with his other hand to stop it shaking…”
Hitler had good reason to be depressed by the outcome of Stalingrad, but there is no evidence that his left arm had developed the uncontrollable shakes at this stage. That came later, in the autumn of 1944, and was remarked upon by a variety of eye-witnesses at the time, including the head of his commando force, Otto Skorzeny, and the head of SS foreign intelligence, Walter Schellenberg. In all probability, the shakes had something to do with Hitler’s narrow escape from being blown up on July 20th 1944, although Schellenberg, possibly with the benefit of hindsight, claimed to have observed symptoms of Parkinson’s as early as the winter of 1943.
The state of Hitler’s physical degeneration is an incidental detail in Harris’s account and, if it is a case of Homer nodding, then so be it.
Less excusable is his sloppy description of various SS uniforms as “black”. We are told, for example, that Obersturmbannführer Karlheinz Drexler, the V2 units’s head of security, is wearing the “midnight-black” uniform of the SS (p 53). Later, when Drexler’s men are carrying out a brutal security raid, we learn “the tops of the men’s shoulders were clad in SS black” (p 275). And, a few pages later, with reference to the missile development site at Peenemünde in May 1943, Graf recalls “the number of black uniforms that started to spread like spoors across the island in the weeks that followed – manning checkpoints, patrolling perimeters, guarding the building sites …” as the SS began to ship in the thousands of slaves who would build and maintain the site (p 279).
All very evocative, the colour black epitomising the sinister motives that without doubt inspired the SS leadership and its murderous minions. But sadly, substantially untrue after mid-1940, when Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler – head of the SS – effectively discarded the black uniform with which the organisation had been closely associated since at least 1934.
Henceforth, black uniforms were almost without exception confined to ethnic paramilitary police units in conquered Reich territory – the kind of people routinely involved in slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews, under SS jurisdiction, behind the then-expanding Eastern Front.
Why did Himmler decide it was time for a radical shake-up at Hugo Boss, the SS fashion designer? Mainly because the SS had moved on, to become a more complex and socially penetrative organisation with the outbreak of war. Black represented the Allgemeine-SS, or General-SS – a, for the most part, bureaucratic and police-oriented organisation – which was being eclipsed by the new Waffen-SS (or Armed SS). Before the war, overtly military SS activities had been severely restricted, thanks to a Faustian pact between Hitler and the German armed forces. The Wehrmacht high command was quite prepared to go along with Hitler’s plans for world domination, so long as they didn’t involve itself being supplanted by a fanatical rival.
War subtly changed the equation. The Waffen-SS was allowed to massively expand and underwent a qualitative upgrade in its armament. Himmler, as Reichsführer, was its titular head and hierophant. But, operationally, the Wehrmacht remained firmly in control (for as long, at any rate, as it continued to win the war). One outward sign of this was that Waffen-SS units, unlike their civilian SS counterparts, were clad in standard military feldgrau (field grey) uniforms – even though their insignia (gorgets, shoulder-boards, cap badges etc) were of a very different type to those of conventional military units.
The “black” Allgemeine-SS, meanwhile, was sucked dry by the sudden recruitment crisis in the Waffen-SS, which simultaneously tended to degrade its civilian rival’s perceived status (inasmuch as middle-seniority recruits to the armed branch often had to trade a reduction in rank for the grim pleasure of perishing on the Fatherland’s Eastern Front).
Added to this, significant sections of the “civilian” SS – notably the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo, or the security police, of which the Gestapo was a part) and its intelligence counterpart, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD – SS foreign and home intelligence services) – had undergone their own evolution in uniforms. By the late Thirties the accent on black had mutated into so-called erdgrau (earth-, or service-grey). Grey, not black, remained the underlying SS colourway throughout the war.
So, who are all these “men in black” populating the Dutch landscape of V2, in late November 1944?
By this time, the SS had at last seized control of all spheres of life in the Third Reich, military as well as civilian. A combination of the Wehrmacht’s catastrophic defeats and the bungled July 20th (1944) Plot (which could never have been hatched without the connivance of high-ranking Wehrmacht officers) had put Himmler and his associates in the driving seat, militarily speaking. And what an uncomfortable seat that had become: it was apparent, even to Hitler and Himmler, that only a miracle, in the form of Revenge Weapons, could save the day. These (primarily the V1 and V2) were far too important to be left in the hands of the discredited Army establishment, headed by General Walter Dornberger. A massive RAF night raid on Peenemünde (Operation Hydra, August 1943) had provided the excuse for not only a shift in manufacturing locale (to a bomb-proof underground site near Nordhausen, Thuringia), but an explicit change of leadership. Dornberger was sidelined, to be replaced by Himmler’s protegé, SS-Gruppenführer Hans Kammler – a man who combined in his person extreme technical competence with equally extreme Nazism. Kammler makes an appearance in the novel; we are left in no doubt about his fanaticism, ruthlessness or casual brutality.
Kammler, ever the megalomaniac micro-manager, wanted to remodel the whole V2 project in his own image. We see something of this in his creation of a specifically SS technical unit, the SS-Werfer Batterie 500, which launched rockets from Hellendoorn, Holland. But the course of the war, and the diminishing resources at his disposal, obliged even him to recognise limitations. In practice, he remained operationally dependent on “unreliable” civilian scientists (like Graf, in the novel) and the Army technical teams that had worked on the V2 project under Dornberger.
Security was quite another matter. As a Waffen-SS general (he joined the Waffen-SS in June 1941) Kammler would have had ready access to the likes of Obersturmbannführer Drexler. Far from wearing a “midnight-black uniform”, Drexler was surely dressed in field-grey when issuing his blood-chilling order to “cleanse” all the female inmates of the officers’ brothel at Wassenaar. And so were his men, incorrectly described in the novel as “clad in SS black”.
To whom, exactly, Drexler reports in the Nazi hierarchy is never made clear. We discover, on p 194, that he is entertaining two Gestapo officers (who would have been based at The Hague); but that does not indicate, necessarily, that he is a member of the Gestapo himself. In all probability he is not. The security king-pin in Nazi-occupied Holland at the time was one Hanns Albin Rauter, who held the rank of Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPF). As such, he reported directly to Himmler. He was also an Obergruppenführer (technically outranking Kammler, at the time the story takes place) and, as of September 1944, an acting Waffen-SS general. Logically, he would have had the last word on any major security operation in the area, such as the massacre at the brothel described on pages 291-292.
Harris seems to have made a further SS-related slip in his portrayal of Biwack. At the beginning of the novel (p3), Biwack is introduced to Graf by Colonel Huber in the following manner:
“This is Sturmscharführer Biwack of the National Socialist Leadership Office… Biwack gave a Hitler salute to which Graf made a wary return. He had heard about these ‘NSFOs’ but had never actually met one – Nazi commissars, recently embedded in the military on the Führer’s orders to kindle a fighting spirit. Real die-in-a-ditch fanatics.”
Mercifully, Harris never comments on the colour of Biwack’s uniform. There are, however, several troubling aspects to his description of the man and his role.
NSFOs, or Nationalsozialistische Führungsoffiziere, were indeed the brainchild of Adolf Hitler and their role was certainly to rekindle Nazi ardour in the flagging Wehrmacht. But, far from being “recently embedded in the military“ (by implication, though Harris doesn’t say this, as a reaction to the July Plot), the NSFOs and Hitler’s decree creating them actually date some way back from the story timeline – to December 22nd 1943. The thinking behind them was Stalingrad, not the attempt on Hitler’s life.
SS-Sturmscharführer is a rank that roughly equates to regimental sergeant-major, the highest an experienced enlisted man could rise in the ranks without becoming a commissioned officer. Which is doubly strange, because in the first place NSFOs were recruited from among junior commissioned officers (typically lieutenants – on the not unjustifiable basis that young officers were more likely to be fanatical Nazis than older ones). And in the second, they were invariably Wehrmacht, not SS, officers. True Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and one of Hitler’s most powerful henchmen, had a role in vetting their appointment (by late 1944 there were nearly 50,000 of them), but it was the Wehrmacht, under General Hermann Reinecke, that was responsible for them carrying out their duties.
A Waffen-SS non-commissioned NSFO grafted onto Colonel Huber’s Army unit therefore seems, shall we say, a trifle unusual, given the habitual mutual loathing between Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht soldiers.
Oddly, the one person who would correctly fit into a “midnight-black” SS uniform is Wernher von Braun himself. Brilliant rocket scientist, talented cellist and piano-player, handsome philanderer, charismatic, wealthy and well-connected – Braun was also an utterly amoral technocrat who cared for very little beyond getting a rocket to the moon (which he eventually succeeded in doing, with the Saturn V/Apollo missions). To quote Tom Lehrer: “Once rockets are up, Who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”
From the start Braun was what Lehrer called a Nazi-Schmazi. He joined the SS out of pure political opportunism, well knowing that without the unstinting support of Hitler’s regime he would never command the colossal resources required to develop a space-rocket. But while von Braun aimed for outer space, Hitler’s targets were very much confined to this world.
First stop for von Braun was a brief spell at the SS riding school, in 1933. And then in 1940, at Himmler’s personal request, he joined the Allgemeine-SS as an Untersturmführer (Lieutenant). Just in time, it appears, to qualify for the last batch of “midnight black” uniforms.
How do we know this? Because, although von Braun took care to appear in civilian clothes on most public occasions, a compromising photo of him in SS uniform somehow escaped the auto-censor’s post-war vigilance. And it turns out this uniform was black. Reserved, presumably, for ceremonial occasions – such as an official visit to Peenemünde by Himmler in June 1943.
‘Does any of this really matter?’ I hear you say. After all, V2 is just a piece of historical fiction aimed at the bestseller lists, and should be enjoyed as such.
Well, yes and no. V2 is a piece of entertainment read, for the most part, by people who may have little knowledge of, and still less interest in, the historical authenticity of Nazi uniforms. That, however, is not the point. Harris is an author who takes pride in authentic historical reconstruction and has built his reputation upon it. For instance, his descriptions of the workings, and non-workings, of the V2 rocket seem to me (no expert, admittedly) very convincing. But, having stumbled on one anachronism, what else might I uncover on closer inspection? The willing suspension of disbelief is suspended no longer.
Not that historical authenticity will in any way trouble Hollywood, when the inevitable happens and V2 the book becomes V2 the film. Take it from me: there won’t be a nuanced SS uniform in sight.