Fiction Book of the Month: Michael Ridpath on Traitor’s Gate

We interview the bestselling thriller writer about his first foray into historical fiction, based on the 1938 plot against Hitler.
Home » Author interviews » Fiction Book of the Month: Michael Ridpath on Traitor’s Gate

Traitor’s Gate was your first foray into historical fiction, and you picked the eve of the Second World War and Nazi Germany. Why was that?

After writing eight financial thrillers, I decided I wanted to do something new.  A spy thriller intrigued me.  I was intimidated by John le Carré and his Cold War thrillers, so I decided to try to seek out something less well known, either from the Second World War or just before.  I stumbled across the plot to assassinate Hitler in September 1938, which I had never heard of.  The more I read about it, the more fascinating I found it, especially when I read that Chamberlain knew about the plot, but chose to ignore it and do a deal with Hitler at Munich instead.  The two years before the war are fertile ground for a spy writer.  The stakes were high: war versus peace; Fascism versus democracy (or communism); Britain versus Germany.  These divisions didn’t neatly overlap, leading to interesting conflicts for a novelist’s characters.  My character Theo is a good German, hates Fascism but also hates war.  Difficult for him – great for me.

It was quite a long time in the writing, and drafting! Is that usual for your novels?

Traitor’s Gate took by far the longest time to write of any of my books.  I started writing in 2005 and the book wasn’t published until 2013.  I wrote seven drafts.  The first four were too historical and too slow.  The fifth was fast-paced but had lost its colour and its heart.  It was only when I put the book aside for three years that I was able to see that if I combined the best parts of the 2nd draft and the 5th draft I would end up with a fast-paced historical thriller.  So it took a while, but I learned a lot.

Whilst your main characters are fictitious, you conducted a huge amount of research into the novel, and much of the cast existed. How difficult was it to interweave these characters with real people?

Extremely difficult.  In retrospect, I included too many real people and events.  The problem wasn’t so much writing scenes that followed history, it was being unable to change the scenes’ order.  Pacing is important to me, and I frequently change the order of scenes and revelations in my book to make them more exciting.  The trouble is you can’t change the order of real historical events!

The von Fritsch affair was a key element in persuading many, particularly Admiral Canaris, to become more active in their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis. You’ve mentioned you included it in more detail in your first draft – did you remove it for space reasons?

I included two interesting historical events in early drafts of the novel: one was the blackmailing of General von Fritsch by the Nazis, and the other was the German occupation of Vienna.  They were good scenes, but they were not intrinsic to the thriller plot involving Conrad and Theo, and they both took place before June 1938.  When I was trying to spice up my novel – the fifth draft – I decided that if I squeezed the plot into the three months June to September 1938 and cut these scenes out, the book would be a more exciting read.  There is an old piece of advice to writers: “Kill your darlings.”  Bye-bye Fritsch and bye-bye Vienna.

We’re talking around the time of the new movie Munich about Chamberlain’s doomed attempt at appeasement.  Although he may have been had a clear idea of what he wanted, surely the result of that approach was humiliation for Britain and France, and the shameful dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and so surely should have seen this and supported the coup?

Hitler in the Sudetenland in 1938

I read that the film is positive about Chamberlain and appeasement.  To some extent, I can understand this.  After the horrors of the First World War – the war to end all wars – the main aim of most people in Britain, including Chamberlain, was to avoid another one.  By definition, declaring war on Germany would not have achieved this.  So I was prepared to be sympathetic to Chamberlain.  He is also sometimes portrayed as a ditherer.  I found him decisive with a clear, but wrongheaded, idea of what he wanted to do. He trusted Hitler, he felt that Hitler was a man he could do business with, and that a dramatic gesture on his part – flying to Germany – would show Hitler that Chamberlain meant business therefore Hitler would come to a sensible agreement for peace.  Conversely, Chamberlain did not trust the German generals who threatened to overthrow Hitler; in his mind they were the bad guys who had started the First World War.  Hitler thought that Chamberlain was ein Arschloch.  Hitler may have been right.

It’s fair to say that Lord Halifax has a bit of a bad reputation, but he comes out quite well in your novel. What are your thoughts on him?

In my view, Lord Halifax was a decent, if unimaginative minister who wanted to do the best for his country.  He had influence in Cabinet and so he became the man that first Chamberlain in 1938 and 1939 and then Churchill in 1940 had to persuade.  He was willing to listen and to change his mind, and he did so.  He stood up to Chamberlain in September 1938, concluding that after trying everything the British government should accept that Hitler could not be trusted.  He was right.  And again, in May 1940, although he initially considered seeking peace terms with Hitler, he eventually was won round by Churchill to keep Britain fighting.  He was right again.

I’ve visited Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp outside Berlin that Annelise is sent to. I went very soon after the wall came down, and the Russians had just surrendered control. They were very keen to leave the camp as close to 1945, thereby demonstrating how horrific the Nazis had been. Have you visited, and what were your impressions?

I visited Sachsenhausen and found it a predictably depressing experience.  We tend to forget that before 1938 the concentration camps were filled with socialists, communists, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I read a fascinating account by Gabriele Herz, a female Jewish socialist inmate who described the uncompromising bravery of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who insisted on repeating that Hitler was evil.  Obviously, they were all killed.  Less obviously, the rest of us have forgotten them.

Frank Foley is an amazing man. He’s been written about increasingly (Alex Gerlis and Lyn Smith to name but two). Was it difficult to find information on him?

Frank Foley was the unassuming British Passport Control Officer in Berlin who ran the MI6 station there.  He was modest and believed in the Official Secrets Act, so little was known about him, until Michael Smith, an historian of MI6, noticed his name cropping up.  Smith wrote an excellent biography of the man.  Foley helped many thousands of Jews escape Germany.  This is commemorated by a grove of trees in Israel, and rather poignantly on a stone by the Jewish cemetery in Golders Green, which used to be on my route to the tube station.  I was very keen to give Foley an important role in Traitor’s Gate.

One of the challenges of historical fiction, particularly for the Second World War, is that many readers will know what happened. How do you keep the suspense?

That was one of the key problems about writing a story based on a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1938.  It didn’t work.  You know that; I know that.  I showed one of my early drafts to Ronald Harwood, a skilled playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter.  He suggested what I needed was some kind of prologue that suggested the story was about Conrad, my hero, rather than Hitler.  It was brilliant advice.  The book now starts with a letter from Conrad to his father saying Conrad is about to assassinate Hitler and he will probably die in the attempt. So the question for the reader is now not will Hitler be killed? but how will Conrad try to kill Hitler and will Conrad survive?  Those first two pages changed the experience of the whole book for the reader.

It was reviewed very favourably, what were your thoughts on its reception?

I was pleased that people enjoyed it as a tense thriller as much as a description of interesting historical events.  I was disappointed that it wasn’t published in Germany, and to this day I am not sure why; perhaps modern Germans don’t want to read about Nazi Germany for pleasure.

Michael Ridpath is the bestselling author of Free to Trade and Traitor’s Gate which was published in 2013.