The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings is an extremely intriguing and engaging book that goes beyond the depths of physical warfare in World War 2, into the arts of espionage and covert operations that were used by each of the participating nations in order to gain an advantage over their foes. By explaining each of the covert operations of the involved nations, I was able to garner a more thorough understanding of the key role espionage played all throughout the war. In my opinion, Max Hastings has done an incredible job by neglecting bias and providing factual evidence in the text in order to create a credible and informative source on this topic. There are many reasons as to why I chose to read this book and conduct my analysis project on it.
One specific one was the intriguing title, which made it seem as if there was an entire other war during World War 2 which had to do with spies and espionage, alongside the physical warfare that was conducted. This interest and curiosity in the tille encouraged me to read a few pages of the text on Amazon in order to determine if the subject of the book was indeed as amusing as the title. I was immediately fascinated by the first few paragraphs of the introduction which explained to me the topic the book would cover, which was the importance of espionage and covert operations in World War 2. For example, Max Hastings stated that “Those who killed each other were the most conspicuous, but in many ways the least interesting: outcomes were also profoundly influenced by a host of men and women who never fired a shot. While even in Russia, months could elapse between big battles, all the participants waged in an unceasing secret war – a struggle for knowledge of the enemy to empower their armies, navies and air forces, through espionage and codebreaking.”(Hastings, XV) By reading this portion of the introduction, I had understood that this book would truly be as interesting as I imagined when I saw its title. The spark ignited by Max Hastings in the first few paragraphs of his text lured me into reading this marvelous book, a book that I will never forget. All throughout the book, there were many stories and events that fascinated me and were enjoyable to learn about.
A particular one was about Operation Barbarossa because of its importance to the outcome of the war. Max Hastings described it as “the defining event of the Second World War – and its most baffling, because it achieved surprise when its imminence was manifest.”(103) The description of the events that shaped Operation Barbarossa, as well as the description of the effects of this operation were striking because of the role of spies and covert operatives in warning Stalin of incoming Axis Power troops along the border of the Soviet Union. In addition, it was especially interesting to learn more about the Soviet Union and Japanese espionage and covert operations because in school we are not taught of these topics. By reading this book I was able to gain more knowledge about the impact of undercover operations on the foreign nations, and their eventual effect on the outcome of the war. For example, on pages 146 and 147, there are images depicting intercepted transcripts from the German embassy in Washington, informing the Japanese that codebreakers from the US had cracked Purple, which was a diplomatic cryptographic machine used by the Japanese Foreign Office during the war. I found it extremely intriguing that the Japanese chose to ignore this warning, as it posed a serious threat to all of their covert operations all throughout the war. The minor details presented by Max Hastings in The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 fascinated me immensely because of his ability to describe their major effects on the outcome of the war.
Due to the fact that the book was a fact-based non-fiction text, it didn’t impact my feelings about the War, but rather informed me more of the Axis powers and their use of espionage to develop their strengths. My opinion prior to the start of the text was that World War 2 was a gruesome and horrible war, and that the world was fortunate that the Allies wound up defeating the Axis powers. After reading this book, my opinion still hasn’t changed, as I still believe that without the defeat of the Axis powers, the world would not be the same today. Even though my opinion has not changed, my knowledge of the war has, as I have gained a deeper understanding of the accomplishments of covert operatives, as well as the massive Soviet espionage operations conducted in order to gain a better chance to win the war.
Furthermore, I really enjoyed how Max Hastings explained the moral impact of espionage on the people affiliated with it, as well as the postwar impact of espionage. Hastings describes that all throughout Europe, the story of the Japanese was considered a model for determination, as they continued to fight for freedom even though they knew the end was in sight. For example, he states “the men and women who served as SOE’s field agents offered a sacrifice to the cause of freedom which became evident to the people of most occupied societies after the war, even if they knew nothing of it during their years of trial.”(279) I found it interesting that in the midst of his recounting of the World War 2 events, he presented one of the impacts of the “never give up” attitude of the Japanese. Also, I enjoyed how he described the impact of espionage on the morality of a person, rather than just giving an account of the events that shaped the war. He stated that “Yet SOE’s operations were more important then, and seem justified now, by their moral impact and contribution to fermenting insecurity, tension, sometimes murderous hysteria among German occupying forces.”(279) I loved how he was able to portray how codebreakers and covert operatives were affected, and not only the people fighting on the physical front.I extremely enjoyed reading this book and gaining knowledge of the hidden aspects of the Second World War, such as espionage and code-breaking.
Max Hastings wrote an informative book that demonstrated even the smallest events during a war can massively impact outcome of the war. His ability to do so resulted in this marvelous book known as The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, which taught me that there are always hidden events in all historical accounts, and it is important to uncover them in order to find out the truth as to why history has been shaped the way it has.