In Cracking the Nazi Code, University of New Brunswick professor Jason Bell describes how Canadian Winthrop Bell (no relation) tried to warn the world about the rise of far-right extremism in Germany after the First World War, in the period predating the birth of the Nazi party. Bell did everything he could to alert Canadian and British leaders about the growing power of a group determined to eliminate all non-Aryans worldwide.
Winthrop Bell was born in Halifax in 1884, excelled academically, and in 1914 was studying philosophy at the University of Göttingen. His focus was the field of phenomenology, which emphasizes close observation. When war broke out, he was interned as an enemy alien for the duration of the war. Upon his release in 1918, Bell went to England to find work. Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden was a family friend, and Borden may have been the one to recommend Bell to the British government.
The Allies needed first-hand information about Germany as they negotiated the Treaty of Versailles, and it was clear that Bell’s fluency in German, his pre-war connections, and cultivated observational skills would make him an excellent spy. With a job as a Reuters reporter as cover, Bell returned to Germany as agent A12, tasked with reporting the unvarnished truth to Great Britain without provoking German suspicion.
Jason Bell’s retelling of Winthrop Bell’s reports on interwar Germany, only recently declassified, is an in-depth and illuminating study of the country at a critical time. Due to the continuing Allied blockade, starvation loomed and unemployment was skyrocketing. The democratic government was desperately trying to hold the centre, but their credibility was compromised by civilian suffering. Bell described a country that was on the brink of, but had not yet lost all chance of avoiding, a takeover by reactionary forces. Winthrop Bell himself was a fervent supporter of democracy, and in a 1919 report to his superiors, he urged the British government to not only remove the food blockade, but also to send funds to Germany to assist in its recovery.
Jason Bell conveys how early on Winthrop Bell became aware of, and tried to warn others about, the rise of a group of deeply racist Germans whose goal was genocide long before the publication of Mein Kampf. (The author’s choice to refer to this group as “Nazis,” even if it is for simplicity’s sake, is problematic, as that name was not coined until the early 1930s.) It is clear from Winthrop Bell’s papers that this group was putting down roots in Germany far earlier than explored in many histories of the era.
For all that he is the focus of the narrative, Winthrop Bell himself is elusive. Although he animates certain scenes, Jason Bell does not spend a lot of time on his subject’s personal life – perhaps because the information is unavailable – and this makes it hard to understand Winthrop Bell’s motivations and his determination to tell truth to power. Based on the tone of some of his reports and journalism, one can imagine how frustrating it must have been for Bell to know how many of his ignored suggestions could have had a tremendous impact. Because we simply don’t know, it is hard to get a clear sense of the man behind the spy.
In 1939, as a private citizen back in Canada, Bell would pen warnings of Hitler’s plans (based on his knowledge of German extremists and a close reading of Mein Kampf in German), which he passed on to a Harvard colleague affiliated with U.S. intelligence, and also published in the newsweekly Saturday Night – several years in advance of other reports of the Holocaust.
The author’s use of clichés and hyperbole sometimes threatens to distract from a story that is dramatic simply because of the facts. Jason Bell repeatedly reminds us how “millions of lives hung in the balance,” which simply isn’t necessary if the reader knows what happened in the Second World War. A more measured tone would have removed the distraction and let readers see the tragedy of what could have been, based on the evidence presented.
The revelations in Cracking the Nazi Code deserve wider attention and, although the point is not made directly in the book, the path not taken in the aftermath of the First World War should show future victors of conflicts how they need to put aside thoughts of revenge in order to work together for a better future for humanity as a whole.