March 28, 2024


Cracking the Nazi Code: The Untold Story of Agent A12 and the Solving of the Holocaust Code. By Jason Bell. Pegasus Books. $29.95.

     The relentless ongoing preoccupation with the minutiae of World War II is surely connected with the uncertainties and complexities of modern life, geopolitics and warfare, with World War II thought of as the last “good war” by the Allies against the forces of pure evil, including Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese hegemonic imperialism – although fitting Stalin’s Soviet Union into a place in this pantheon is admittedly problematic. It is nevertheless a bit surprising that, nearly 80 years after that war’s end, authors of all sorts – not merely historians – continue to mine the conflict for what seems to be a never-ending supply of fascinating tidbits and untold stories. Such material actually exists with regard to any and every war: the grand stories of battles overshadow but do not eclipse the tales of purely human tragedy, triumph and turmoil with which all conflicts are pervaded. But perhaps because World War II is still within the memories of some who fought in the conflict, perhaps because record-keeping was far more advanced during that war than during World War I and previous conflicts – without the fraught sociopolitical gloss of later wars in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere – it is to World War II that historians and popular authors alike turn again and again for “inside stories” of what happened, why, and under whose aegis.

     Exactly where Jason Bell’s story of Winthrop Bell (no relation) fits in this exhumation is a bit difficult to say. Winthrop Bell was from New Brunswick, Canada, where Jason Bell teaches philosophy. Winthrop Bell was imprisoned in World War I at the University of Göttingen, where Jason Bell has been a Fulbright professor. And the men’s connections through academia and, specifically, philosophy pervade Cracking the Nazi Code, which may be the first “untold story of World War II” book to include extended discussions of philosophical topics: “Phenomenology’s distinctiveness comes from close attention to appearance as the route to the essential. …Another key feature of phenomenology is its attention to interpersonal relations. …Instead of the simple Cartesian cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), phenomenology described an ongoing relation among the cogito (I think), the cogitamus (we think), and the world. To understand nature, we need to compare notes among poets, natural scientists, and all honest observers who prefer truth to falsity and knowledge to ignorance.”

     That is a lot to swallow in a book that supposedly focuses on a long-unknown element of a war fought the better part of a century ago; and Cracking the Nazi Code is at times burdensome to read because of Jason Bell’s philosophical musings as well as his scholarly preoccupation with getting many, many details of many, many events (and the many, many people involved in them) just right, and his offhand academia-pervaded remarks: “He was perhaps snared by Chaucer’s waggish spirit without realizing the danger.”

     Nevertheless, when Jason Bell stays focused on Winthrop Bell’s role as a spy – Agent A12 in Britain’s MI6 – and his knowledge of Nazi Germany’s secret plans for the Final Solution that is now known as the Holocaust, Cracking the Nazi Code makes for engrossing, even enthralling reading. Indeed, when he wants not to become discursive but to encapsulate someone, Jason Bell can do so with aplomb, as in his description of Captain Mansfield Smith Cumming, known simply as C, the founder and head of MI6: “Cumming was a charming man who loved danger. He drove, boated, and flew at reckless speeds. He travelled on intelligence missions while wearing a disguise, with a sword hidden in a cane – just in case a promising source led him into a trap. It was, C proclaimed, ‘capital sport.’ …Cumming’s other notable calling card [was] his wooden leg (he lost the original in a high-speed car accident).”

     Jason Bell is equally good at limning Winthrop Bell’s large circles of friends, acquaintances, supporters and adversaries, among whom were Albert Einstein, Edith Stein (later St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Ralph Bell (Winthrop’s brother and Canada’s director-general for aircraft production), Robert Borden (prime minister of Canada), Lord Charles Hardinge (a strong believer in appeasing fascism and Nazism), and many others.

     Oddly, however, Winthrop Bell himself remains a touch elusive throughout Cracking the Nazi Code, even though Jason Bell effectively explains what information Winthrop Bell found, how he deciphered apparently innocuous comments and documents, how he tried with only partial success to warn governments of Nazi plans for widespread extermination of Jews and others, and how the officials who did take his warnings seriously made sure their countries were better prepared for the outbreak of hostilities and the extreme violence that World War II would bring. Winthrop Bell’s underlying motivations and personality are never analyzed in depth by Jason Bell, who is, after all, a philosopher rather than a psychologist. Perhaps the comparatively paltry personality analysis makes sense: there appears to have been a foundational modesty that led Winthrop Bell to shun the limelight – not only out of necessity, when providing secret intelligence to governments, but also when the war was won and he was offered honors of all sorts that he turned down.

     This exploration of Winthrop Bell’s story does include some fascinating intricacies, although the ultimate real-world importance of his discoveries about German plans and his disclosure of them to highly placed officials is difficult to judge: no one really knows to what extent Winthrop Bell’s research affected the course of World War II, for all that Jason Bell – whose footnotes reference everything from Aristotle to Joseph Conrad to his own academic publications – tries diligently to play up the significance of Winthrop Bell’s discoveries and communications. The reality is that no matter how many “untold stories” of the war are unearthed and told, there will always be more as long as the long-lasting fascination with World War II continues to be, well, long-lasting.

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