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Author, film researcher and member of the Swedish Military History Commission.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

KGB Sleeper Agents: "The Americans" vs. Reality

KGB (Cheka) agent number 1, Felix Dzerzhinsky, in Moscow, USSR 1991.

OK, you have watched the TV series ”The Americans” and are curious about the reality behind the story. Well, I have a suggestion – read the book that shows, again, that fact beats fiction.

My view of ”The Americans” in a nutshell: an entertaining drama series with some really good actors, but also rather far from the very real Soviet agents masquerading as non-Soviet citizens in the West under assumed or created identities, also known as ”illegals”. While the basic idea of the TV series, of two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in the suburbs with their children, is factual enough, most of the action in the series is pure fiction. The KGB did not plant agents in other countries to have them shoot people just about every working week. Sure, KGB agents did kill folks abroad, but only rarely, and only very rarely by using their very expensive illegals. So, like the TV series ”Manhattan”, too many important scenes in ”The Americans” simply did not happen in real life.

Also, ”The Americans” has some flaws in the way things look. Sure, the people who have procured the 1970´s and 80´s clothes, music and cars for the series have – I think – done a good job. I reckon that few recent TV series have gotten the look of the eighties as right as ”The Americans”. However, the 1980´s Soviet Embassy in Washington hardly was decorated with those really old Soviet propaganda posters. Then there are the KGB uniform mistakes in the episode ”Covert War” (season 1 episode 11). And the name Zhukov. OK, not an uncommon Soviet (Russian) name. But considering Georgy Zhukov, the Red Army´s WWII top military commander, couldn´t they have come up with another name?

Now, if you are keen to get to know the reality behind ”The Americans” I can recommend the real story of Jack Barsky, ”Deep Undercover”. Barsky was born in the GDR, better known as East Germany, in 1949 as Albrecht Dittrich. While his life and autobiography does not have the action of ”The Americans” it is still an exciting read. It is also a deeply personal and amazing story, that really should please not just espionage buffs.

”Deep Undercover” provides testimony about the preparations and purpose of the Soviet illegals after Stalin´s death. To summarize Barsky´s purpose: to become succesful and enter into the highest American circles and be ”…a rich undercover revolutionary in the United States” (quote from the book). Why all this effort then? Well, to ultimately influence US policy and promote revolutionary change in the West. But aside from this long range aim Barsky also gets to do some more immediate, practical tasks in the US.

The main objective of subversion explains Barsky´s interest in e.g. secessionist initiatives in Canada and a search for radical political leaning in the West. Left or right – equally interesting. Main thing to fan those flames, hasten revolution.

As I mentioned, Albrecht Dittrich/Jack Barsky was originally not a Soviet citizen but an East German one. Being Swedish, I think this makes him a bit extra interesting, as the KGB could outsource some of its work with Swedes to East Germans. For example, the more than twenty Swedish volunteers in Soviet special operation forces (spetsnaz and the ”Bernhard” sabotage group) were led by two Germans who both became top leaders within the KGB´s East German version, the Stasi (I have written about these Swedes and Germans in two books). Now, Barsky had no KGB tasks in Sweden, he only used Stockholm as an east-west transportation hub, but his relationship to the KGB provides insights into the larger KGB-GDR system.

A key term in Barsky´s book is value system. When the very expensively trained subversion agent´s own value system changes, everything changes. In this lies a huge lesson for the future. Actually, this makes the book a story of so much more than one KGB spy.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Casablanca of the North

On the cover: a USAAF + OSS marriage in Stockholm. Cover design: Jason Orr.

Liberty Lady is a highly personal yet also credible and important history of both US airmen and the men and women of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Sweden during WWII.

The book title was natural, as it was also the name of the author´s father´s B-17 Flying Fortress, that crashed on the Swedish island of Gotland. The author, Pat DiGeorge, would simply not be around, had ”Liberty Lady” not landed safely in Sweden. One of the men aboard, Herman Allen, became one of the 1,218 (!) USAAF crew members interned in Sweden. These Americans are part of my own book Germans & Allies in Sweden. But Pat DiGeorge provides so much more colour and detail to their lives. For example she relates that the jitterbug was introduced to Sweden by a group of American aviators. As DiGeorge correctly states, ”The German internees were never given the freedom allowed to the British and the Americans.”

When Herman met «Hedy», a Swedish-American lady working for the OSS in Stockholm, he found the love of his life and among their children is Pat DiGeorge. Her book provides an amazing insight into the rich lives of both Herman and Hedvig «Hedy» Johnson Allen. On the road from their cradles to their graves one also gets fascinating peeks into the lives of personalities like Count Folke Bernadotte, highest responsible for all interned airmen in Sweden, and Arctic aviation pioneer Colonel Bernt Balchen, who like Herman Allen had one leg in the USAAF and one in the OSS.

Swedes of course also are a big part of Liberty Lady, and not only pro-Allied ones. It is amazing to follow the strange friendship between Herman and one of the Swedes who worked for the Germans.

It is pretty amazing that so few previous books in English have focused on wartime Stockholm, thick with espionage. German and Allied spies not seldom stayed in the same Stockholm hotels and sometimes ate side by side in the restaurants. As DiGeorge writes, the WWII American embassy in Stockholm ”sat at the centre of one of the most important listening posts of the war”. Liberty Lady solves several puzzles, providing valuable insights not only into the OSS in Stockholm but also the wartime visit by USAAF General Curtis.

DiGeorge´s book is also about the B-17 «Liberty Lady» aircraft itself, it is fascinating to read and see how parts of it to this day remain «all over the island of Gotland». Now a personal revelation, I have a rather strange family connection to the place where «Liberty Lady» went down, Mästermyr on Gotland. You see, I inherited a photograph from a relative of mine who was at Mästermyr. The photograph depicts a bomber that he himself photographed. But it is not a B-17, but a German Heinkel He 111. Yes, Mästermyr was the place where a He 111 went down in 1940, after having been hit by Swedish anti-aircraft fire. My photo of the He 111 on Mästermyr is in my book Germans & Allies in Sweden.

Finally, it was great to learn from Liberty Lady that Pat DiGeorge too had the privilege of working with the late Swedish-American historian Carl Finstrom.

In short, Liberty Lady is THE English language book about espionage and love in WWII Sweden, especially in Stockholm, the Casablanca of the north.

Monday, May 22, 2017

My Top 3 Star Wars 1977 Antiques

My three gems from 1977 - thanks dad!

The wear evident on my 1977 Star Wars publication is a testimony of my special interest in how Star Wars came about. The two records released the same year have also never ceased to inspire me.

The Movie Spectacular pictured above was published by Marvel Comics already in 1977 and features sources of inspiration like Amazing Stories magazine and Flash Gordon comic strips (that became movies from 1936), wonderful photos from both the filming and actual film as well as some background about the people behind the movie.

You can, of course, listen to the soundtrack on Spotify or a CD. But IMHO nothing beats listening to the 1977 record on a gramophone. Well, OK, a live performance by an orchestra might be better. But then I am also fortunate to have a 1977 record with the actual dialogue and sound effects. Although/because it is sound only it adds a dimension of imagination. So, in spite of 3D technology and what have you, listening to "The Story of Star Wars" still is a wonderful pleasure.

Interested in Star Wars behind the scenes and the history of Star Wars? In that case I am certain you will want to read about my top three Star Wars books.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Top 3 Star Wars Books

There is a pretty high probability that you too have drunk blue milk on May 4.

With the 40th anniversary of the release of the very first "Star Wars" (later retitled "Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope"), fast approaching (this May 25) these are the Star Wars books you're looking for...

Now, if you are expecting me to include Star Wars novels in my list I will have to somewhat disappoint you, although I will say that some of the Boba Fett quotes in The Bounty Hunter Wars: The Mandalorian Armor (1998) by K.W. Jeter are magnificent. The are two reasons the following list is not about the novels, or the comics: I have not read that many of them and my main interest is the movies themselves.

So, the following is "just" a list of the three books about Star Wars that I have come to value most, after almost 40 years of being a Star Wars fan. Yes, I saw Star Wars on the big screen in 1977, at least twice and it might have been thrice.

1. I find it hard to even imagine a more complete book about how it all started than The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler. But understand that it is not about the episodes that followed.

2. To get what I believe is a strong idea what it was like making and especially designing the first Star Wars movie, turn to Cinema Alchemist by Roger Christian. Mr. Christian being the gentleman who i.a. built THE lightsaber.

3. To begin to understand the whole galaxy of films, books, comics", conventions etc that Star Wars today constitutes - go to How Star Wars Conquered The Universe by Chris Taylor.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lenin In Stockholm 1917-2017

Fake history on the cover, Stalin was not part of Lenin´s homecoming via Sweden.

As a student in Soviet Moscow 1991 I daily passed a giant Lenin poster in the entrance of our dormitory. Until one day it had just vanished. Previously, I had seen the spot-turned-into-a-monument in Stockholm where he was photographed in 1917. It is now 100 years since he was standing on that spot, on his way to revolutionary Russia.

The train trip that Vladimir Lenin made from his long exile in Switzerland to the epicenter of Russian politics in Petrograd (the former and later Saint Petersburg) is now on my mind both for historic and current reasons. One is tempted to call what Germany did, making that trip happen, an act of hybrid war against Russia. Going a step further one might say that the modern Kremlin has recently itself come to practice the German idea of helping Lenin. But not just helping one Lenin, but a bunch of "Lenins" in several countries, thus increasing the stress not only on targeted states but also on selected alliances.

Catherine Merridale's recent book Lenin on the Train makes Lenin's 1917 journey to Petrograd's Finland Station come alive, and it has now also appeared in Swedish and I have therefore reviewed it in my native language. Apparently, it has come out in English with two different covers. I must say that the one also used for the Swedish version is superior to the modernistic one. Not least because it contains a "beautiful" example of fake history standing right behind Lenin - Stalin was not on that train.

I have previously blogged in English about Lenin monuments in Sweden, like the one in Stockholm that is all about his physical presence in Stockholm on April 13, 1917. The next day he arrived at a train station not far from where I am writing these words, the one in Boden - that unlike the Stockholm station has retained very much of its outer appearance. From Boden Lenin did not have to travel long to reach Russia, as at the time the border town of Tornio in north Finland was still part of the former Russian Empire, since a few weeks called the Russian republic.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Freedom Is Not Free

The destroyer "Georg Thiele", part of the task force sent to Narvik - where she still is.

On April 9, 1940 both Denmark and Norway were invaded by Germany. Until last year there were more than a dozen defenders of Norway 1940 still alive, such as Swedish volunteer Jan Danielsen. This year Jan is no longer around and soon this major event in Nordic history will have no living witnesses.

Being with Jan and listening to him was something really special, he was simply a wonderful person that inspired me with his vitality and ideas. He didn´t have to say things like "freedom is not free" - he had lived those words.

All in all some 300 Swedes went over to Norway in 1940, all to join the Norwegian Army and none to fight for Germany. There would have been many more if the Swedish government had not suppressed this volunteer movement. There were hundreds, if not some thousands, in the just disbanded Swedish Volunteer Corps for Finland that Jan had also been in, that were eager to also fight for Norway. But the Swedish government basically stopped this from happening.

Jan with local Narvik reenactor Jon, wearing the type of uniform that Jan wore.

Thanks to veterans like Jan I have come to better understand how rich with possibilities life is, and how very small most of my "problems" actually are.

Me onboard "Georg Thiele". The life vest is because I went there by a small boat.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Stockholm Terror Attack 2017

Having lived in Stockholm and with family & at least one friend very close to today´s attack, it is with an unreal feeling I am writing this. But instead of just being angry I decided to write down how I perceive the attack and what I feel must be done.

A truck was driven into a crowd in central Stockholm, killing at least four and wounding about 15. The similarity to the recent terrorist attacks with vehicles in Germany, France and the UK is obvious. But what may be just as telling is that the truck came to a bloody halt only about 100 meters from the spot where a suicide bomber attacked in 2010, miraculously only killing himself. His name was Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly and he was a Swedish citizen. According to the FBI, his bombing could have killed 30 to 40 people.

However, the 2010 Stockholm bombing was far from the first sign. In fact, the first Swedish citizen to die for the sake of jihad did so in 1993. Yes, 24 years ago. His name was Mikael Glinka and I have written about him. Since then several hundred Swedish citizens have joined jihadist groups. Now, the (main) killer in today´s mass murder may not have been a Swedish citizen, but the problem then still is jihadism in Sweden. It is simply appalling how only last year Swedish legislation began to catch up with reality, and how top Swedish terrorism experts (I am not one of them) have long been largely ignored. This slow pace and ignorance is lethal. It has to stop.