This is not a neutral, unbiased review. Even before finishing The Cicero Spy Affair: German Access to British Secrets in World War II, I'd bought second and third copies to forward to author and scholar par excellence Richard Wires for autographing and forwarding to relatives as gifts. How many other reviews posted on this website -- or any other, for that matter -- are based on a copy of the subject volume autographed by the author at his home? I bet very few. This review is an appreciation, really. If you like the numerous excerpts I've included below, you will have to get the book to get more, as this is only a sampling.
I met Dr. Wires at Ball State University in 1975, when I was a European history major working for him as a student assistant when he was chairman of the history department. Four years later, he supervised my senior thesis in European intellectual history on Nietzscke, Malraux and Jaspers. Over the last twenty years, we've stayed in touch though postcards during travels, home visits, phone calls and letters. He is a quintessential intellectual whose history of the most remarkable spy episode during WW II, if not ever, warrants only one - and even that is tongue-in-cheek - criticism: stylistic inconsistency. Specifically, the book is only elegantly written where it is not eloquent. A typical passages of the latter characteristic are:
"In the extensive literature about espionage affairs and intelligence activities during World War II the episode known as Operation "Cicero" has gained prominence and popularity, because of its remarkable character and ironies. For more than four months during the winter of 1943-1944 the valet of Britain's ambassador in neutral Turkey photographed secret papers that his employer failed to safeguard properly; by selling his undeveloped films to a representative of German intelligence in Ankara for a reported total of $1.2 million the servant became history's then most highly paid spy. The access to one of its opponents' most important embassies marked Germany's outstanding achievement in an otherwise poor record of secret service work. But little came of the success. Many of the documents were extremely valuable, but the dictatorship never used the information effectively; the enterprising spy escaped being caught but soon discovered that his money was mostly counterfeit."
The prominence and popularity of the literature about Elyesa Bagna, a Turkish kavass, or valet, who brazenly photographed secret papers of Britain's ambassador to neutral Turkey and sold the rolls of film to a handler at the German embassy for $1.2 million in what mostly turned out to be bogus pounds during the height of WW II is extraordinary and "has become a staple of intelligence lore." Fortunately, the Germans made little effective use of their intelligence lodestar, owing to the intrinsic rivalries, conflicts and jealousies of Nazi totalitarianism, a maze of party, military and career figures, including ambassador and one-time Weimar chancellor Franz von Papen, one of the nearly-purged non-Nazis outmaneuvered at the onset of Hitler's takeover of Germany's interwar democratic attempt in 1933. Cicero even inspired a 1952 movie, Five Fingers, portrayed as a documentary that falsely shows German knowledge of D-Day (in truth, the Germans only learned the word "Overlord," meaning little more than a second Allied front against some target in the northwest part of so-called "Fortress Europe," i.e., the German occupied nations of the continent).
The legacy of the affair is in the lessons learned and the embarrassment of the British reluctantly coming to terms with the scope of the compromises even today, as demonstrated by the sluggish sales of The Cicero Spy Affair in the U.K. In the U.S., however, some stores have sold out their initial stock and each speaking engagement by the author generates further opportunities for spoken history telling, one of the highest praises a historian can receive.
Nearly twenty five years ago, a college history professor sitting next to me at a formal lecture by Dr. Wires said he was the only person he'd ever met who could write a speech, read it verbatim as an oration, and hold the audience's rapt attention as he infused us with knowledge, insight and expansion of whatever we knew, or thought we knew, to newer, higher levels. This reader genuinely "heard" the author on every page of The Cicero Spy Affair.
Writing accurate history requires meeting an exacting standard; Dr. Wires has exceeded it, though. Chief Justice Rehnquist demonstrated the difficulties in meeting this standard when he recently said that, if you think you know a subject, write a book on it and read the reviews. The Chief Justice's referenced book mentioned the dates of admission to the union of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, all wrong! He also referenced a Confederate who kept fighting after Appomattox who, in truth, fell at Shiloh three years earlier. The comment by the Chief Justice, who is certainly not mistake-prone but, rather, is blessed with a wry, dry sense of humor, illustrates the demanding standard of the historian's blend of craft, science and art. Even the most accomplished researcher can still err, but The Cicero Spy Affair appears, by all accounts, to be definitive.
Still not convinced you should read it? Your loss. Say you're not a twentieth century history, military intelligence specialist, read it anyway. Read it for its comprehensive research, documentation, analysis and explanations, and accompanying insightful photographs. Its passages on the vacillations and evasions of Europe's key neutral country, in light of Allied, Nazi and Soviet influences, the (thankfully) inefficient competitiveness of the German intelligence offices and the ineptitude of British security as a result of sleeping pills, piano playing and extremely careless handling of very secret writings all will amaze, enrich, entertain and astonish you. Read it.