In The Baroness: Unmasking Himmler’s Most Secret Agent, John Lucas employs his investigative journalist’s intuition and delivers an intriguing espionage story. Yet, as he reminds the reader several times, the story of Baroness Anja Bergroth Manfredi de Blasiis is not only true but also wrapped in mystery and deceit.
Born in an upper-middle-class Finnish family, the future Baroness pursued her literary talents in the journalistic world in Germany, where she married a Jewish book trader. After divorcing her husband, the Finnish journalist travelled with her son across Europe collecting high-profile acquaintances until she tied the knot with an Apulian Baron. But in 1943, the Italian Armistice led Baroness Manfredi down a different career path – that of spy. As the war raged across the peninsula and the Nazi deadly persecution rounded up Italian Jews to their deportation and death, the noblewoman made a fateful trip to Berchtesgaden, where her relationship with SS-leader Heinrich Himmler began. Amid the scarcity of documentation about her role in the Nazi intelligence web, John Lucas still paints a vivid picture of Baroness Manfredi, and it is during the dramatic downfall of Himmler and the Nazis that she surreptitiously disappears.
Lucas holds his original intent and refrains from judgment on Anja’s ideological sympathies, which are hard to detect. Yet, in his detailed account of the intricate plots that the Nazi leadership in Italy developed to save themselves from the consequences of their murderous actions, Lucas showcases an impressive eye for research and historical narration. His writing is thorough and chronologically consistent, making it easier for readers to follow the story. Regardless of one’s expertise of the Second World War in Italy, Lucas ably represents the ambiguity and cynic opportunism that plagued all those involved across the spectrum as the final act of the Nazi genocidal plans intertwined with a no-holds-barred war.
Despite the impeccable research and the detailed historical narration, the lack of autobiographical sources from Baroness Manfredi forces Lucas to rely on secondary accounts that, while helpful, cannot provide comprehensive answers about Anja’s allegiance to the Nazi cause, her motives for spying, and her true feelings for ravine anti-Semite SS-leader Heinrich Himmler. The complicated Italian scenario of 1943-45 and the convoluted net of self-preserving interests that worked to end the war, leads to Lucas digressing from Anja’s original storyline. Yet, this occasional shift from Anja makes the book even more relevant. In presenting the characters surrounding Anja and their viewpoints, The Baroness should open up a further search into the intelligence relationships that characterised those war years in Italy. Lucas’s masterful book is a new starting point that lays down how crucial espionage was to the conclusion of the conflict in Europe.
Anna Matilde Bassoli is an Editorial Assistant at Aspects of History.