Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Dangerous Otto Katz: The Many Lives of a Soviet Spy

Although born a Baby Boomer, I was raised by parents for whom WWII was the defining event in their lives. Every year on December 7, my mother sent me off to school with the admonishment to remember that it was Pearl Harbor Day. My family watched every movie ever made about the war and all of the television series set during the war.

The Cold War with its accompanying Duck and Cover Drills defined my life. Signs in public buildings directing visitors to fallout shelters were ubiquitous. NATO stood guard in Europe. A war was being fought in Viet Nam to prevent the spread of Communism in Asia. I read long and deeply trying to understand the how and why of the Communist threat that hung like a malevolent cloud over my life.

When I picked up this book, my first thought was “Otto who?” I thought that I knew just about everything about the political threats of the first half of the Twentieth Century. The reason I had never heard of Otto Katz is that he was so successful as a spy, few people ever knew his real name. Born in 1895 to a wealthy Czech family, he was a lazy playboy and a “useless” soldier during WWI. After the war, he drifted to Berlin joining the art scene and becoming a true believer in Socialism.

It was his wealthy background and artistic contacts that made him such a successful spy and fundraiser for the Russians. He travelled the world using different names and passports making him difficult to track by Western intelligence agencies. He spent time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, in Hollywood amongst German expatriates such as Marlene Dietrich and the director Fritz Lang, and in Mexico City where Germans who had fled Hitler’s Germany had settled.

In the end, it was his cosmopolitanism that did him in. In Stalin’s paranoid mind, anyone who had spent significant amounts of time outside of the Eastern Bloc was suspected of having been turned by Western intelligence agencies. The fact that Katz was a Jew sealed his fate. He was tried and executed in 1952.

Author Jonathan Miles does a good job of tracing Katz’s complex life. The book is rich in detail about Katz’s life up to the beginning of WWII. After that point, the narrative becomes less detailed and more hurried as if Miles is impatient to get to the end of his story. Katz’s trial, execution and rehabilitation a decade later are given short shrift. I wish that Miles had taken more time and given more weight to the last decade of Katz’s life. It was an important period not just in his life, but also in world history. WWII shaped the political landscape of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Katz was an important participant and deserves a full treatment of his entire life, not just part of his life.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

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