John Lucas Interview

John Lucas

We chat with the author of The Baroness: Unmasking Himmler's Most Secret Agent
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John Lucas, your latest book is your first venture into the Second World War, having previously written about true crime, why is that?

I’ve always been just as interested in espionage and spies as I am crime and criminals, because they both exist on the same sort of plane – parallel but intertwined with the regular, legitimate world that most of us operate in. Often there’s a clear overlap and I wrote about that before in my book Dope Kings of London, which is about drug trafficking in the early twentieth century. My research got me interested in trying to find another untold spy story that could form the basis of a book.

The key character of your book is Anja Bergroth Manfredi de Blasiis. How did you discover her story?

Anja’s story was actually buried in her husband’s MI5 files at the National Archives. He was deemed to be more important because he’d been the first of some fifty suspected stay behind Nazi agents to be captured in Italy. His wife, despite being a personal agent of Himmler’s, was only of secondary interest.

I thought Anja’s story was fascinating but there simply wasn’t enough information to start writing anything substantial. It was only possible to make progress after I enlisted the help of a Finnish genealogist to investigate her family. After that, I was able to access documents held in German archives, and find traces of Anja in OSS files.

Hers is a morally ambiguous tale, and she was suspected of being a spy by Italy, Germany and the allies. Do you have a suspicion as to where her loyalties lay?

Anja undoubtedly acted in her own self-interest most of the time. She was a White Finn and therefore highly unlikely to have been a Soviet spy. I don’t think she worked directly for the Western Allies because they detained her at the end of the war. But her connection to the Finnish establishment is tantalising.

Anja’s uncle was the Finnish ambassador in Rome during the war, and she worked in the classic spies’ cover profession of journalism, so I do think it highly likely that she passed information to Finland, even though I couldn’t find proof of this. As to why she might have done it, I would still say self-interest over patriotism.

She had to deal with some repulsive people, principally Heinrich Himmler. How did she manage to manipulate him?

Himmler was a dangerous, sociopathic maniac, but on a personal level he was also foolish and naive. He was already taking political advice from his masseur, Felix Kersten, at the time he met Anja, and refused to believe he was a spy.

Where Anja was concerned, she spoke of using her ‘feminine charm’ as a method of espionage, and sexual attraction certainly seems to have played a part. But Himmler was also thinking of the bigger picture, the opportunities that someone of her social standing and connections could provide. Anja was a prospective way out for Himmler at the end of the war and she played on that to her advantage.

Himmler killed himself shortly after being captured, but what was his original plan vis a vis the allies?

Himmler’s best case scenario would have been Britain and America joining forces with Germany to fight the Soviet Union. His spy chief, Walter Schellenberg, spent several years trying to convince him to bring this union about by overthrowing Hitler. Anja fitted into the puzzle because he hoped her Western contacts, Jewish friends, and upper-class background, would help to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the West.

The Nazi regime has been described as a bunch of thugs and criminals – does Heinrich Himmler share any character traits with today’s criminals?

It’s an interesting question, because corrupt politicians are more or less criminals by definition and you can’t get much more corrupt than propping up a tyrant. And of course, as head of the SS, Himmler oversaw the biggest organised mass murder in human history. More broadly, professional crime is now a huge industry and those who do it for a living, for example drug traffickers, cyber criminals, etc, are often sociopaths, or at least extremely lacking in empathy. They are also incredibly selfish, venal, and have a propensity to tell lies, all traits shared by Heinrich Himmler.

What do you think this nuanced story can tell us about the wider debate around nuance in history, where a black and white/right and wrong approach is attractive to some?

The journalist Hunter S Thompson once said something about it being impossible to tell any story in full, and I think that’s because there’s always a missing part of the jigsaw – what’s truly going in peoples’ heads. Nevertheless, it’s very hard not to try and guess and I suppose it’s much easier to do that if you can create a world of binary choices that don’t fully reflect reality.

That said, you can make a lot of reasonable judgments based on peoples’ actions, and in the case of the Nazis there is little doubt about their motivations and who was in the wrong.

But Anja’s story shows how people do sometimes have to make unpleasant choices in their own self-interest, probably not really thinking about or caring how history will judge them.

Do you plan to remain in the Second World War, or return to crime?

My next book is going to build on something I wrote about organised crime a few years ago. I do also hope to work on the story of a spy whose career began in Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising and continued with MI5 through to the Cold War. That might become my first attempt at a historical novel and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into the research.

John Lucas is the author of The Baroness: Unmasking Himmler’s Most Secret Agentwhich is out now.

Aspects of History Issue 8 is out now.