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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review: Days of Killing: A Novel of Berlin by Peter Sasgen

After 18 months in an NKVD jail for “treason,” i.e. showing more intelligence than his commanding officer, Yuri Nosenko, is suddenly released, fed and treated medically, and given his old rank of captain back. He’s become far more cynical during the course of the war.

“His arrest by the NKVD after Smolovici exposed the treachery, the lies, the twisted logic of Party doctrine, its fear and paranoia. Stalin’s death mills came into sharp focus during his encounter with Soviet justice. Never more than after witnessing Colonel Antonov’s vengeful, fabricated testimony against him—dereliction of duty, disobeying a direct order. And how members of the tribunal hearing his case had, without a moment’s deliberation, returned a unanimous verdict. Guilty of all charges.”

Nosenko learns the reason behind his release is his knowledge of German and Berlin where he had been stationed before the war. The Russians desperately want him to find General Heinrich Müller (known as Gestapo Müller) who has escaped both the NKVD and American intelligence after faking his death during the fall of Berlin. He has documents showing the Russians had committed atrocities against the Poles at Katyn Forest (Nosenko doesn’t know this, only that the Russians are fearful the documents will fall into Allied hands. Müller is ostensibly negotiating with the Allies, but no one knows his location except it’s in Berlin somewhere.) It’s a seemingly impossible task.

To make matters worse, Nosenko’s old nemesis, General Antonov, is now his boss and wants him to fail. Nosenko’s search becomes a descent into never-never land, trudging through the ruins of Berlin, trying to stay ahead of Antonov, but forced to make daily reports. But just what can he report? If he didn’t report the hidden room at Seelingstrasse 509, it might prove useful later, though how he didn’t know. Failure to report it might prove dangerous if Antonov already knew about the room and was waiting to see if Nosenko had found it—a test. If Antonov knew about the room, what else did he know? Had the NKVD planted the wedding dress? The map fragment? If they had, it likely meant that Antonov and Fitin knew that Katarine still lived in the apartment. Another test?

There’s a scene to warm the hearts of all librarians in which Nosenko needs to find some files in the Gestapo archives. The Germans were meticulous record keepers and he believes the files will help him locate Müller. Unfortunately, Gestapo headquarters is a shambles and many of the boxes have been rained on. But he, with the help of another “reprieved Soviet” scour the files and after hours manage to locate what they are looking for. Were I to say much more, I would be attacked by the Spoiler Police.

The story and writing are above average except for short occasional passages of maudlin sentimentality that don’t fit. Great story.

Historical note: Müller is the only high command German who was never captured and whose death has never been confirmed. He had worked his way up through the police to become head of the SS counter-intelligence units and investigated the assassination of Heydrich in Czechoslovakia. He was last seen in Hitler’s bunker the day after Hitler’s suicide.
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