Spies, love affairs, Nazis and history, told with a flair

Paul O’Connor reviews a work of history that has Nazis, espionage, steamy love affairs and writing that rivals today’s best spy novels.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

SISTERS IN RESISTANCE: How a German Spy, a Banker’s Wife and Mussolini’s Daughter Outwitted the Nazis. By Tilar Mazzeo. Grand Central Publishing. 254 pages. $30, hardcover.

If you can’t imagine looking sympathetically on Benito Mussolini’s daughter, her husband and a Nazi intelligence officer, then Tilar Mazzeo’s latest piece of creative nonfiction is just the right book to challenge yourself.

Mazzeo has written a political thriller the equal in suspense to any of today’s bestselling spy novels. And, this story is real.

From the beginning, Mazzeo is blunt in her appraisal of the overall characters of Edda Mussolini, Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano and German spy Hilde Beetz. They were scoundrels. But, in one chapter of their lives, we learn, they courageously worked to save documents that could prove the culpability of Nazi higher-ups for a wide range of war crimes.

Important to remember here is that when Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Mussolini did not follow him into war. Italy only did so – on the side of the Axis – after France was mostly defeated in spring 1940.

That hesitation by Fascist Italy was largely due to Ciano’s reservations. He believed Italy was not prepared for war and should remain neutral. Along with his wife, Edda, he had sway over dictator Mussolini, at least until France collapsed.

Ciano was a dedicated diarist. From the late 1930s on, he recorded his daily activities and those of the German and Italian officials with whom he interacted. The information he compiled would be devastating to individual Germans and Italians if it ever became public. In particular, the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had much to fear.

Ciano, a vain, boastful and philandering man, did not practice discretion in any phase of his life, and it became well known in Rome, Berlin, London and Washington that these diaries existed. He bragged about them. Everybody wanted them, and a mad scramble to find them began after Ciano fell into disfavor at home and was then arrested for supporting Mussolini’s first downfall in fall 1943.

Ciano recorded the diaries in hopes that history would look kindly on the Italian people after the war. He blamed the war on the Germans and leading figures in the Italian government. His wife, Edda, sought to preserve them in hopes that they would save her husband’s life and Beetz, who eventually became Ciano’s lover, wanted first to secure them as part of her assignment but later to also help save Ciano.

A great many other characters become involved, including an American woman living in Switzerland who befriended Edda after agreeing to serve as an amateur spy for her country. There’s even a vain foreign correspondent who steals credit for much more than he deserves. Hard to imagine.

Also hard to imagine is the number of illicit love affairs transpiring as the world is at war and spies are trying to hunt down each other. The good guys, the bad guys and everyone in between: They are all cheating on their spouses out in the open, and the spouses are cheating on them, too. But at the same time, a number of them are working together to save the diaries. The movie will have to be R-rated.

Erik Larson is widely considered the best of the American creative nonfiction writers, with Devil in the White City and In the Garden of the Beasts as his best. To my mind, Mazzeo is every bit his equal. Irena’s Childrenand The Hotel on the Place Vendome are a match for Larson’s works.

As with Mazzeo’s other works, Sisters in Resistance reads like excellent fiction despite being nonfiction. Like Larson, Mazzeo has the skill to apply the techniques of creative writing to the much more restricted endeavor of composing true history.

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