Agent Zo: the Polish blonde with nerves of steel

In recent years, far from diminishing, the number of books on the Nazis, Occupied Europe and the Holocaust – events that now lie three quarters of a century in the past – seem only to grow. New archives are opened and attics are raided for forgotten diaries and letters. One historian who has mined them with great skill is Clare Mulley, the author of books on spies and Hitler’s pilots. She has now unearthed a story about a bold and resolute Polish agent, Elzbieta Zawacka, who went by the name of Zo. Her adventures are extraordinary, and their background is no less fascinating. Agent Zo is as much a book

The circus provides perfect cover for espionage

The hall was before me like a gigantic shell, packed with thousands and thousands of people. Even the arena was densely crowded. More than 5,600 tickets had been sold. Cyril Bertram Mills started his circus career accompanying his father to European horse fairs in the 1920s. The two of them were soon familiar faces on the German circus scene, travelling between shows to recruit acts for London. The Munich Circus was a particular draw; but sometimes they hired out their circular wooden building to other local acts. The opening quote of this review comes from Adolf Hitler. Mills was at first dismissive of the Munich Nazi party leader, pointing out

Why were Germany’s Covid files redacted?

There are two kinds of long Covid. One is a medical syndrome, the other manifests as a healthy obsession – an urge to shed light on what happened during the pandemic crisis. Too many questions remain unanswered: why did Sweden come out of the pandemic better than other countries without having endured a lockdown? Why were masks imposed when scientific studies repeatedly demonstrated that they were unnecessary? Why was discrimination introduced between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated when it was clear that vaccines were incapable of blocking the transmission of the infection? And why, since the lockdowns, has there been such a high excess-death rate in Europe? Why were masks

The horrors of the Eastern Front

Ten years ago David Cameron, as prime minister, pledged £50 million for the centenary of the first world war. The focus was on ‘capturing our national spirit in every corner of the country, something that says something about who we are as a people’. Beyond a celebration of the Tommy on the Western Front and a belated acknowledgement of colonial Britain’s sacrifice, it was a missed opportunity. There was little attempt to better understand the region where the war began – and where, according to Nick Lloyd’s exhaustive The Eastern Front, it never really ended. Indicative of his understandable wariness about penetrating beyond Britain’s comfort zone (he is the acclaimed

Fighting every inch of the way: the Italian Campaign of 1943

In Whitehall, visible to even the most short-sighted from the gates of Downing Street, stands an outsize statue of Lord Alanbrooke, the strategic adviser to Winston Churchill during the second world war. His job was to help the prime minister see the big picture and concentrate on the decisions that really mattered. This was no easy task. Churchill was both a tricky master and ‘tinkerman’, but Alanbrooke had Ulster blood and knew how to say no. One little village, San Pietro Infine, took more than a week and 1,500 American casualties to capture He also had a remarkable facility for explaining complex strategic problems in simple terms. There is good

How the British intelligentsia fell out of love with Germany

An economic slowdown, the far right on the rise, even apocalyptic hailstorms – what on earth is happening in Germany? Is Europe’s industrial powerhouse on the slide? Well, yes and no. Germany is in recession, and Germany’santi-immigration party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), is growing stronger, but the bad news coming out of Germany indicates a more lasting sea change: liberal Britain has finally fallen out of love with the Bundesrepublik. It’s not just British Teutonophiles who are troubled by the rise of AfD. This week Germany’s domestic spy chief, Thomas Haldenwang, warned about growing right-wing extremism within the party and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has echoed these concerns. ‘Ban the

You think British trains are bad? Try German ones

I found Jean-Pierre standing at a half-open window gulping down lungfuls of stale Dutch air as our night train chuntered, unseeing, through an expectoration of towns: Zutphen, Eefde, Gorssell. He was 79 years old, he told me, and returning to Berlin for the first time in 61 years for a meeting with an old friend. Our steward made it absolutely clear he couldn’t give a stuff that there was no buffet car Back in 1962, Jean-Pierre had been a very young Belgian Jesuit employed in smuggling hard currency from West to East Berlin, which he did by stuffing the notes inside a plaster cast which covered his right leg. There

What does the European centre-right stand for?

Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), dropped the bomb last weekend. In a TV interview, Merz opened the door for collaboration with Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the nationalist-populist party that is home to Germany’s cabal of crackpots and right-wing extremists. He didn’t say what form such co-operation would take, but talked about finding ways to run local councils when the AfD won democratic elections – which happened a few weeks ago when Hannes Loth won a mayoral race in a small town in Saxony-Anhalt. The reactions to Merz’s comments came thick and fast. Politicians from the left questioned his democratic credentials. He’s the ‘wrecking ball of

The unlikely rise of Germany’s defence minister

An unlikely political star has risen in Germany. Boris Pistorius, a 63-year-old father of two is a career politician and, as of January, defence minister, an office that has proved a dead end for many of his predecessors. On the face of it, Germany’s Boris has little by way of stardust. Yet he is the country’s most popular politician by a country mile and his department is set to increase its budget at a time when overall government spending is being sharply cut. It seems for the first time in decades, Germany is serious about security and defence – but how long will that seriousness last? Pistorius is often seen

How divided is Europe on China?

39 min listen

The word ‘West’ is often used as a shorthand to describe liberal democracies in Europe, and perhaps in Asia too, such that we’ll often talk about ‘the West’s attitude to China’, or the ‘West’s relations with China’. But this is at best a lazy shorthand – because when you dig a little deeper, it’s clear that there is no unified West on China. On this episode, I’m joined by Noah Barkin, senior advisor at the Rhodium Group and author of the Watching China in Europe newsletter with the German Marshall Fund, to disaggregate the idea of ‘the West’, focusing especially on the continent of Europe. How do different European nation

The Franco-Prussian war changed the map of Europe – so why are we so ignorant about it?

Is there a single major European conflict of the past 200 years that gets so little attention in this country as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71? In 1961 Michael Howard brought out his history of the war, but Howard and the odd battlefield tourist apart, Rachel Chrastil’s bibliography – strong on contemporary memoirs, strong in fact on everything from the miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary and the cult of St Radegund to the transmission of smallpox – is curiously thin when it comes to British interest. There may be simple enough reasons for this – among them, Britain’s determined neutrality and the infinitely worse conflicts to come – but

Germany’s missteps in Ukraine have left Scholz fighting for his political life

Difficult though it may be to believe, there is chaos at the top of the German government over its mishandling of the war in Ukraine. Germany’s defence minister, Christine Lambrecht of the Social Democratic party, has quit her post after the most extraordinary series of unforced errors.  The war has brought all of this to a head. It has exposed Europe’s lax security and complacency. But German defence has been in a league of its own for many years. Over the course of the war, there has been no end to the amount of troubling information that has emerged.    German authorities so underrated the chance of war, the country’s intelligence chief

Why Munich is the ideal Advent destination

Ambling through the Christkindlmarkt, Munich’s biggest Christmas market, feeling distinctly tipsy after my third (or maybe my fourth?) mug of Glühwein, I experienced a strange sensation, something I hadn’t felt in ages. For the first time in a long while, I realised I was feeling rather festive. Back in Britain, I’m the archetypal Christmas grouch – but leave me in a German Christmas market for a few hours and I become a big kid again. This is the first year since Covid that Munich has been able to mount a proper Christmas market season. That might not sound like such a big deal to Brits, but it’s headline news in Bavaria.

How the Queen helped to fix Germany

The Brandenburg Gate has often reflected the state of the German nation. Throughout the centuries, Berlin’s iconic landmark has been a symbol of victory, defeat, unity, division and restoration. It has even reflected Germany’s energy crisis, no longer lit in order to save electricity. But on Friday night it shone brightly once more: in red, white and blue as Germany mourns the death of Queen Elizabeth II. This is much more than a gesture of condolence. ‘Expressing our sympathy and our mourning by lighting the symbol of our city and our country in the colours of the Union Jack to honour Queen Elizabeth II fully represents the sentiments of people

Green parties are facing a reality check

How pleasant it is to watch an idea fall apart. Especially when it is an idea held by people you don’t particularly care for. In recent years all of the democracies have been plagued by green parties. The kindest interpretation of them is that they provide a wake-up call of some sort: a reminder that we should be kind to our planet, that sort of thing. But in every country they got too free a ride. They ended up preaching catastrophism to a supplicant media. And they ended up demanding that we all get off fossil fuels yesterday without any satisfactory explanation of how we were meant to keep the

Is Germany afraid of China?

The German air force has taken off for its first deployment in the Indo-Pacific region. It will take part in Australia’s biennial warfare exercise Pitch Black from Friday, side by side with other western nations as well as regional partners such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Berlin’s show of solidarity will be welcomed by Nato allies, but it will also draw pushback from China. It’s an opportunity for Germany to show that it can make a meaningful contribution to the deterrence of Chinese aggression in the Pacific. But in order to do so convincingly it will have to resist pressure from Beijing with more confidence than it has in

Germany’s energy crisis is a warning to Britain

During the eurozone crisis, southern European states had to go cap in hand to Germany to stave off national bankruptcy. A decade on and it is Berlin doing the begging. Europe has reluctantly agreed a 15 per cent cut in gas use this winter in the hope that German factories can stay open and German citizens can keep from freezing. Meanwhile, Russia’s state-controlled energy giant Gazprom threatened to reduce the gas flowing through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline yet again so that Germany would receive only a fifth of the amount it did before the Ukrainian invasion. While Berlin has said it plans to wean itself off Russian gas over

Putin has Europe where he wants it

Have we reached the endgame of Vladimir Putin’s energy war against the West, the point at which he turns off the gas for good? This afternoon, Gazprom announced that from Wednesday morning it will cut the quantity of gas flowing through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany to 33 cubic metres per day. This will halve the current flow of 67 million cubic metres and is just 20 per cent of the 167 million cubic metres which flowed through the pipeline before the Ukraine invasion. Ostensibly, the cut is for reasons of ‘maintenance’. That is unlikely to wash. Nord Stream 1 relies on a compressor station powered by six

How Germany’s energy crisis could bite Britain

For now, Berlin can breathe a sigh of relief: after a ten-day shutdown for maintenance, the Nord Stream 1 pipeline is back online. Russia is once again heating German homes, fuelling German industry, and using German money to finance its war in Ukraine. But this happy exchange may not continue; the pipeline is still operating at just 40 per cent of its usual capacity, and Vladimir Putin is warning this could fall to 20 per cent next week. With Germany’s gas reserves just 65 per cent full – thanks in part to state-owned Russian energy company Gazprom’s curious oversight in maintaining them last year – and plans to refill it

Enlarging Nato will ostracise Russia (1997)

It’s 25 years this month since Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary were invited to join Nato. The Spectator’s cover story that week was this essay by Susanne Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group and granddaughter of President Eisenhower. Explore The Spectator’s archive here. Washington, DC When historians, decades from now,  consider the 20th century they will probably be struck by how the major conflicts of the century were ultimately resolved. At the century’s end, Germany, the country that wreaked more destruction on the world than any other power, is economically prosperous, unified and firmly locked within Nato — all due to the magnanimity of its victors. The Russians, on the other hand, enter the new