At the beginning of 1943, Heinrich Himmler’s personal masseur, a podgy Finn named Felix Kersten, learned of a diabolical Nazi plan to starve to death the people of occupied France, Belgium and Holland by looting all the food.
Kersten was appalled. As the only person able to alleviate the SS leader’s stress-induced stomach pains he had a hold over Himmler, so he intervened, appealing to the Reichsführer-SS’s hubris by telling him that if he stymied the plan, his mercy would be “celebrated for a thousand years”.
Tears welled in the eyes of the repulsive Nazi mass murderer. “My dear Kersten, my magic Buddha, you are quite right. I will talk to the Führer immediately and do everything to persuade him.” Thus were the French, Belgians and Dutch saved from mass starvation.
If that story sounds unlikely, that is because it is wholly and demonstrably false. Yet after the war many people believed it for it was part of the mythology assiduously cultivated by and around Kersten, a slippery collaborator who made a fortune massaging the aches and egos of the Nazi elite, then passed himself off as a hero.
Felix Kersten made a fortune massaging the aches and egos of the Nazi elite, including Heinrich Himmler.
The Finnish masseur is one of three wartime quislings explored by Ian Buruma in this utterly absorbing investigation of loyalty and betrayal. Each was drawn into collaboration by a combination of vanity, self-advancement, survival, opportunism and the thrill of fraudulence. All came from tangled, rootless, international backgrounds. Each was a fantastic liar. And yet none was entirely without admirable qualities. Only one was executed after the war.
Like most wartime subjects, issues of resistance and collaboration have tended to be painted in black and white, good and evil, angels and devils, a morality tale through which to make sense of the horror. But the true reality of war, and history in general, can only be painted in shades of gray. There are few absolute villains and fewer total heroes.
As Buruma writes: “Bad things can be done with good intentions, and bad people can sometimes do good. Moral judgment has to deal with degrees.”
Each was a fantastic liar. And yet none was entirely without admirable qualities. Only one was executed after W.W. II.
Friedrich Weinreb was a Hasidic Jew in Holland with thick glasses, a Moses-like beard and a bizarrely warped sense of his importance. While Dutch and immigrant Jews were being rounded up and sent to the gas chambers, he set up a fraudulent scheme to bilk money from these terrified people by promising them an escape route that did not exist. He drew up lists of those he was prepared to help in exchange for cash. He insisted on conducting gynecological examinations of the younger women. Of the 4,000 Jews on his lists, just a few survived the war.
Weinreb undoubtedly betrayed some of his fellow Jews to the secret police. But equally he may have saved some, perhaps many. His supporters insisted he was a savior, unfairly pilloried after the war through anti-Semitic prejudice, a “Dutch Dreyfus”. He claimed he had been selling his victims time, and hope. “All promises were soap bubbles,” he later admitted. “The question was how long it would take before the soap bubble burst.”
Weinreb certainly believed he had done his best to save lives in an impossible situation: the problem with mythomaniacs is their ability to lie to themselves successfully.
Friedrich Weinreb’s supporters insisted he was a savior, unfairly pilloried after the war through anti-Semitic prejudice, a “Dutch Dreyfus.”
The third and most curious of Buruma’s trio of traitors is Kawashima Yoshiko, a Chinese spy for the Japanese secret police and a prominent defender of Japan’s invasion of China.
A Manchu princess, one of 38 children born to a feckless courtier in the Qing imperial dynasty ousted in 1912, she was adopted as a “toy” by a diminutive Japanese Fascist, who probably raped her. She was gender-fluid and sexually adventurous, a cross-dresser who adopted male attire. Yoshiko told so many fictions about herself, and encouraged so many others that she had no idea who she really was.
After Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria to set up the puppet state of Manchukuo, she became a willing propaganda tool for the Japanese. She posed as a symbol of the lost Qing dynasty, a defender against the wicked Chinese warlords who had replaced the old order, but in reality she supported Japan’s colonial expansion. “The dreamlike heroic feeling of restoring the Qing made me give up being a woman to become a man,” she declared. “If I had three thousand soldiers, I’d take China.” She posed in khaki uniform with a samurai sword, sang popular songs and wrote a partly fictitious memoir.
Yoshiko called herself the Manchu Joan of Arc, her detractors dubbed her the Oriental Mata Hari and the Japanese press adored her. Her true motives are hard to discern among the propaganda and lies. “Perhaps,” Buruma writes astutely, “she was just trying to live up to her fantasies of being a hero in men’s clothes.”
The fiction woven into her life continues long after her death. So far Yoshiko has been the subject of four novels, eleven plays, eight films, five TV dramas, four mangas and a video game. She is frequently depicted as a peace-loving patriot, led astray by warmongers, who only sought to bring China and Japan together.
Kawashima Yoshiko called herself the Manchu Joan of Arc, her detractors dubbed her the Oriental Mata Hari and the Japanese press adored her.
A multiple biography with overlapping chronology is a tricky feat and Buruma, an Anglo-Dutch author and former editor of The New York Review of Books, pulls it off magnificently, maintaining the distinct dramas, filleting fact from fiction with sympathy and balance, but maintaining the overarching psychological narrative.
He never misses a mordant aside or a telling detail: Himmler whining over his tummy aches; the Chinese warlord with so many concubines he remembered them by numbers; Weinreb’s belief that he was descended from Shaul Wahl Katzenellenbogen, the Jew who occupied the Polish throne for one day in 1587 when the electors could not make up their minds.
I wanted many more photographs. There are just seven small and grainy images inserted into the text. Frustratingly, Buruma frequently describes pictures the reader cannot see.
War is fertile ground for fantasists and braggarts; when propaganda runs rampant and speaking truth is dangerous, it is easier to make yourself up. The three longed for importance, and were swept up by their own make-believe: “They conned themselves.”
“Bad things can be done with good intentions, and bad people can sometimes do good. Moral judgment has to deal with degrees.”
Kersten’s postwar claims were beyond extravagant: saving the Dutch population from being deported to Poland, preventing Finnish Jews from being shipped to death camps, and even shielding the husband of the Dutch queen from Nazi retribution. In fact, he was a good-time Charlie, a chancer who grew so fat from the proceeds of rubbing the backs of senior Nazis that a specially widened seat had to be constructed for him on Himmler’s private train.
But Kersten was no war criminal either, and he certainly intervened with Himmler at the end of the war to save Jewish and other prisoners, including women held at Ravensbrück concentration camp. “The bon vivant was also moved by a sliver of human decency.”
All three collaborators found vigorous defenders when the fighting stopped. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper declared Kersten “one of the great benefactors of mankind” before rowing back, something he would do even more athletically in 1983 after vouching for the forged Hitler diaries.
The war presented opportunities for counterfeiters of every stamp, but the postwar world demanded a strict moral accounting, the division of the past into perfect good or absolute evil, even though, as this superb book proves, there are no such things.
Ben Macintyre is a writer at large for The Times of London and the best-selling author of The Spy and the Traitor, A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat, Agent Zigzag, and Rogue Heroes, among other books. Macintyre has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work