In The Bedford Boys, The Liberator, The Longest Winter, and other titles, Kershaw’s capacity for synthesizing immense amounts of research has been matched—and often surpassed—by his strengths as a storyteller. World War II, after all, might well be the most thoroughly documented conflict in human history. For an author to find new stories to tell from such a thoroughly picked-over era—and to make those stories feel at once dramatic and, somehow, new—is no mean feat.
Kershaw’s latest, Avenue of Spies, is as strong as any of his other books, with the added benefit that it follows a cast of characters so complex and so varied—from the almost impossibly brave and selfless to the most bestial, sadistic, and psychotic—that any self-respecting novelist would sell his or her soul for the chance to tell their tale.
That said, the book’s subtitle, “A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris,” reminds us that the protagonists and antagonists here were not creatures of a fevered artistic imagination, but men, women, and even children caught in the jaws of history. How they behaved—the side they chose, the fight they embraced, the actions they took—forever defined them. In an elemental way, a central theme of Kershaw’s book is how acts of courage and acts of depravity echo through time, and it’s impossible to read Avenue of Spies and not have a nagging, unsettling question always at the back of one’s mind.
What would I have done?
At the heart of Avenue of Spies is an American doctor in Paris, Sumner Jackson; his wife, Toquette; and their young son, Phillip. In the ’30s, the Jacksons lived on Paris’s upscale, tree-lined Avenue Foch—named, of course, for the French World War I hero Marshal Foch, who famously and prophetically excoriated the postwar Treaty of Versailles (which he felt was too lenient on Germany) as not a peace “but an armistice for 20 years.” Sumner Jackson had served in that same “war to end all wars,” operating on traumatized, mutilated young men not far from the Somme battlefield for the last two years of the conflict.
After the war, Jackson stayed on in France, eventually rising to chief surgeon at the American Hospital of Paris. Born in Maine, and possessed of a bone-deep New England modesty and stoicism, Jackson was nevertheless comfortable in the cosmopolitan City of Light, and remained there largely because his Swiss-born wife could not imagine living anywhere else. They witnessed the increasingly violent rise of Fascism in Europe throughout the ’30s; they lived through the shock and despair attending the swift fall of Paris in the spring of 1940; and they, along with countless other Parisians who had not fled at the Nazi advance, saw the conquering Germans occupy their beloved city.
Incredibly, many members of the German brass, including some of the Gestapo’s most notorious and deranged thugs, eventually set up house literally a few doors down from the Jacksons, on Avenue Foch. Over the course of the war, Jackson, Toquette, and even Phillip assumed more and more active—and increasingly perilous—roles in combating the Germans. At first, Jackson played an astonishingly gutsy shell game at the hospital, finding ways to treat and transport wounded Allied troops and French Resistance fighters right under the Germans’ noses. Later, after Toquette was recruited by the Resistance, the Jacksons’ home—a stone’s throw from where Gestapo thugs interrogated and tortured men and women of the Resistance—was employed as a drop-off spot for photographs, documents, and other critical espionage collateral, much of which made its way to Allied leaders and strategists in England and beyond.
While Kershaw deftly interweaves the stories of Resistance heroes and heroines, SS and Gestapo degenerates, Vichy weasels, and the movements and machinations of major players like Churchill, Hitler, and Roosevelt, it’s hardly a spoiler to mention here that the tale does not end especially happy for Sumner, Toquette, or Phillip. Arrest, imprisonment, starvation, disease—the Jacksons and countless Resistance compatriots endured the degradations and much of the violence visited upon millions at the hands of often well-spoken, well-dressed, “civilized” Nazi goons. Many died from torture, from typhus, by firing squad, or by a bullet to the back of the head. As Kershaw reminds us, with a quote from Jacques Delarue’s history of the Gestapo that leads off the book: “The Nazi world was an empire of total force, with no restraints.”
Another theme that runs throughout the book is that Hitler’s Germany was also a twisted, bureaucracy-mad empire in which laws were duly enacted not to protect the weak and the innocent but to brutalize and enslave them. The casual, codified violence directed against the lives and livelihoods of millions of citizens of various countries under Nazi rule in the ’30s and ’40s is, in its own way, as chillingly characteristic of the Reich’s methodology as the Blitzkrieg.
On October 18 , Jews were banned from owning or directing any business, much to the delight of many envious French. So began the process of Aryanization, in other words state-sanctioned theft, by which Jewish concerns were taken over by gentiles … Jewish businessman Pierre Wertheimer, had long since fled, moving to the United States, but he had arranged for an associate to take over his stake in Chanel Perfumes to keep it out of Nazi hands. The designer Coco Chanel wrote to the German authorities demanding that she, not the associate, receive Wertheimer’s share. “Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews,” she complained. “Your mission is to make these Jews cede their property to Aryans.”
With hard reporting, deep compassion, and an attention to plot, personality, and (critically) pacing that any writer of fictional thrillers might envy, Kershaw again deftly illuminates an epoch that we thought we already knew. And at the end, to the author’s credit, that stark, nagging question not only remains, but somehow feels more pressing than ever. What would I have done?