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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Potsdam Station’

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POTSDAM STATION
By David Downing
Soho. $25, 304 pages

A LESSON IN SECRETS
By Jacqueline Winspear
Harper, $25.99, 336 pages

There are few more dramatic events in war than the fall of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. What increased the terror as Berlin was about to fall was that Hitler continued to preside over the slaughter amid a farce of teacups in the Reichstag.

The echo of the Allied bombings and the crash of the boots of the invading Russians permeate the pages in which David Downing vividly does justice to the drama. Even as Hitler's suicidal moment approaches, it remains incredible that at no time did reality intrude on the genocidal frenzy with which the Nazi dictator engulfed the world. The book is a reminder of what happened and those who allowed it to happen.

This is the latest of Mr. Downing's chronicles of the adventures of John Russell, a journalist, and his friend Effi, who has spent her war rescuing Jewish refugees in Germany.

They are trying to survive in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, with Russell engaged in a high wire act of negotiation with the Russian military that trusts him no more than he trusts them. He bargains partly to protect Effi from becoming one of the thousands of German women brutalized and raped by Soviet soldiers bent on avenging the atrocities committed by the Nazis in their invasion of Russia. But there is no need to dramatize the situation in 1945 Berlin where children were at as much risk as adults, and the Nazi frenzy was given full range.

Mr. Downing uses telling vignettes of those times. Buying a newspaper, Russell notes that the phrase "heavy fighting" in the vicinity of a city meant that it had most likely fallen to the Allies. An announcement that extra rations would be issued in honor of the fuhrer's birthday carried a warning of imminent disaster because such rations had to be collected in advance. And there are the signs of lingering German madness in the assertion of an elderly Berliner that "we made it through" because of Hitler's introduction of wonder weapons," meaning the most recent Allied air aid was the last.

Russell speculates that the only reason for a halt in the Allied bombing was that the Soviets were now poised to take over Berlin. Russell's ploy to cut a deal with the Russians is successful yet he is sharply aware that the danger is far from over. Yet the plot is almost entirely overwhelmed by its setting. It is difficult to concentrate on the rescue of one woman or child while the thunder of the bombing resounds through the pages, and it is all the more impressive because of recalled reality.

Mr. Downing recounts how to survive in a terrible era while aware of the price that must be paid for any dealings with the representatives of Josef Stalin, perhaps the only dictator who could have competed with Hitler for sadism and brutality. The book lives up to the others in the Russell series, serving as yet one more reminder of a world too many have entirely forgotten.

 

There is some irony in the fact that National Socialism as embodied in Adolf Hitler is already casting its sinister shadow over post-World War I England in Jacqueline Winspear's latest Maisie Dobbs novel.

The intrepid former nurse of the trenches during the war in France has extended her private practice as an investigator and branched out into intelligence work. The budding Nazi party in England is part of the intrigue when Maisie finds herself working with Scotland Yard's Special Branch. She is drawn into the investigation by the murder of a college principal who was the author of a children's book allegedly aimed at promoting peace among nations.

Maisie plunges into a tangled and risky problem, again defying social rules and regulations of a world in which women were barely emerging from the concept that their place was at hearth and home and not gadding about playing detective. Ms. Winspear deftly sketches the problems that Maisie not only faces but blithely ignores.

She is permitted a romantic interest as well as money in her own right as a result of a legacy from her late mentor, but Maisie gives the strong impression that her work comes first. However, she is in the vanguard of that group of women liberated before their time who did not feel it mandatory to have a wedding ring before climbing into bed with their loved one. In this case, the loved one appears to be a man of infinite patience as well as charm.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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