Albatross and the Third Reich. A Strange Bird, but a wonderful book.

‘Strange Bird’ is a wonderful new book by Michele Troy, subtitled ‘The Albatross Press and the Third Reich’.  It vividly recounts the difficulties of a business publishing modernist British and American literature in 1930s Germany under the Nazis, and the lives of the key people involved as they cope with the sometimes brutal consequences.

Strange Bird

Michele Troy is Professor of English at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.  On one level her book is a meticulously researched academic study, where every assertion is backed by detailed research referenced in copious footnotes.   But on another level it’s more like a novel, following the lives of a whole cast of characters, but particularly the three main founders of Albatross – John Holroyd-Reece, Max Christian Wegner and Kurt Enoch.

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Kurt Enoch (right) with novelist Erskine Caldwell, in the US after the war

The book is beautifully written, again more like a novel in places, but the story the author has uncovered is almost too implausible for the plot of a novel.  There are twists and turns as the business has to adapt to Nazi control and suspicion, and the team is then split apart by restrictions on Jewish ownership of property in Germany.   I won’t include too many spoilers, but the story reaches a climax with the German occupation of Paris in 1940.  The contrasts in the experiences of the main participants at that point are almost heartbreaking, but there is far more to come.  Triumph turns to disaster and disaster turns to recovery in very personal terms as well as in political, military and business terms.

Max Christian Wegner

Max Christian Wegner, after the war

Holroyd-Reece, Wegner and Enoch all had very successful publishing careers separately from Albatross, both before and after the war, and they worked together for only a few years.  I’ve long believed that in that short period they were able to create something really special, and that the Albatross series was a remarkable achievement in both literary and business terms.  But I had little idea before picking up this book of quite how remarkable it really was.  It needs the context of time and place, of everything that was going on in 1930s Germany, followed by the war and the post-war chaos, to understand the extent of their achievement.  ‘Strange Bird’ brings together the context and the achievement and ties it together with the intertwining personal life stories of three remarkable men.

Holroyd Reece Christmas Card 8 and 9

John Holroyd Reece in his Paris office, drawn by Gunter Böhmer for a 1938 Christmas Card

All three died many years ago, but as well as researching many archives, Michele Troy has tracked down relatives and uncovered personal reminiscences that transform the book from a dusty academic work to a spellbinding thriller.  Above all it’s the stories of the people that you come away with from this book.  They’re engaging stories and engaging people, for the most part sympathetically drawn characters, despite all their faults.

The book is part history, part biography, part novel, part academic treatise, part detective story, part bibliographical research, but above all it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.   I hope many more people will read it.

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Posted on June 21, 2017, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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