Military historian Sayer (co-author: Nazi Gold: The Story of the World's Greatest Robbery—And Its Aftermath, 1984) and biographer/historian Dronfield (The Stone Crusher: The True Story of a Father and Son’s Fight for Survival in Auschwitz, 2018) examine a little-known episode in the final days of Nazi Germany.
Readers familiar with the history of the Third Reich will know that various German officers and diplomats floated offers of a separate peace and conditional surrender to the Western Allies. Less familiar is a desperate operation, ordered by Hitler himself, to use “Prominenten”—important prisoners of the regime such as French socialist leader Léon Blum and the opposition pastor Martin Niemöller, to say nothing of a couple of British officers fortuitously named Churchill—as bargaining chips to be used in negotiation, and killed if negotiation failed. The prisoners were both civilian and military, including officers of the Red Army, the Greek government, and Great Britain, the last having become specialists at escape from previous internments. Gathered from various prison camps around the Reich, the “VIP hostages" were taken south into an area that was a supposedly impregnable mountain fastness where the Reich would resist the Allied invaders indefinitely. As it happens, that resistance crumbled, and 139 Prominenten survived. The authors’ prose is mostly serviceable, but the story that unfolds is engaging not just for the facts, but also for the possibilities: What if the Nazis had stuck it out in their alpine strongholds and actually played their chips? Of particular interest is the closing chapter, a sequence of denouements that are sometimes surprising and sometimes grimly inevitable: The Soviets executed a couple of their imprisoned generals, with one “rehabilitated” 16 years afterward, so that “he was unable to benefit from the decision,” while one of the erstwhile captors involved himself in a postwar organization that supported fugitive war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele.
A footnote to history that will interest students of World War II.