Companion Reads: ‘The Monuments Men’ and ‘Agent Zigzag’
I’m not entirely sure why, but I often find myself reading about World War II when I travel. It isn’t a topic I usually find myself gravitating to, but for some reason when you put me on a plane destined for far-off shores, I turn to WWII.
For my most recent holiday, I ended up reading The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (by Bret Witter and Robert M. Edsel) and Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal (by Ben Macintyre) within a few days of each other. Unsurprisingly for two books about various intrepid “good guys” triumphing over various forms of Nazi horribleness, they pair together quite well.
Both books are what might be categorized as “popular history,” i.e. lighter historical fare intended for the general public. In addition to presenting big stories in a more digestible form, these books are liberally sprinkled with factoids and usually insert dialogue throughout to make the overall book feel a lot like an adventure novel. Accordingly, they’re easy, interesting, comulsively readable books. I devoured two in three days!
Monuments Men is the more famous of the two thanks to the George Clooney movie of the same name back in 2014. Both tell the story of a little-known band of U.S. and British soliders tasked with saving art and architecture in WWII. Nazis were stealing things, bombs were destroying others, and the government reached the incredible conclusion that someone needed to make sure these priceless artworks and places were protected and saved.
It’s a terrific story — and only part of a bigger one: the authors focus on France and Germany during the end of the war (roughly 1944-45). They admit much of the Monuments Men’s work happened after the war and in Italy, but promise another book focused on that part of the story. (It came out in 2013 and is called Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis.)
Meanwhile, the indominatble Ben Macintyre is back in fine form in Agent Zigzag, a more microscopic tale than Monuments Men. Zigzag focuses on one unusual agent and everything he did to mess with the Nazis (spolier: a lot).
For Macintyre fans, Zigzag is slightly less engrossing than Operation Mincemeat (a previous travel read for me!), largely because the protagonist is a lot less likeable.
Mincemeat was about the creative, smart-as-whips guys at British military intelligence who came up with the craziest of plots to confuse the Germans, most of which worked swimmingly.
Meanwhile, Zigzag tells the story of Eddie Chapman, an English criminal recruited into the German secret service who then beame a double agent for England. He’s not a terribly “good guy,” but he is the hero of this story, even though he keeps stealing from his colleagues at MI5 and trying to position himself for greater glory.
Chapman’s problems make Zigzag less enjoyable than some of Macintyre’s other books, but it’s still a great read with fascinating looks at the German secret service (largely populated by Germans who opposed Nazism), the occupation of France and Norway, and still more creative notions dreamt up by MI5 to mess with the Germans.
Indeed, both Zigzag and Monuments Men are tremendously satisfying at focusing in on just that: messing with, and ultimately defeating, the evils of Nazism. And as we live through another time that demands resistance and creativity, these books couldn’t be more inspirational and relevant.
“Not All Monuments Men Were Men” by Tom Mashberg in The New York Times
BBC Radio 4 interview with Agent Zigzag author Ben Macintyre