Friday, June 16, 2017

James R. Benn, Billy Boyle, and the corporate side of World War II

Jim Benn was a member of a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany on the subject of "World War II and Sons," and he deserved to be there. His Billy Boyle novels look at World War II through the eyes of a brash but unworldly young man who finds himself on Dwight David Eisenhower's staff during the war. This affords him the chance to travel throughout the war's European and North African theaters and, as Benn says below, to "investigate the lesser-known aspects of the war." The 12th Billy Boyle novel, The Devouring, will be published in September. Benn talks here about the book and what he learned while researching it.

I never imagined the twelfth book in the Billy Boyle series would be set in Switzerland. After all, as Harry Lime told us in the noir classic The Third Man, the only thing the Swiss are famous for is cuckoo clocks. My novels are set during the Second World War, and feature military detective Captain Billy Boyle, who investigates low crimes in high places for General Eisenhower. So how did Billy get to Switzerland in The Devouring (set for release in September 2017)?

This journey began when I was researching the French underground for the 2016 release, Blue Madonna. I stumbled across a brief mention of a group of young Jewish resisters in occupied France who worked to smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland. I’d never heard of that, and it piqued my interest, since I try to investigate the lesser-known aspects of the war. More research led me to Nancy Lefenfeld’s excellent 2013 book The Fate of Others; Rescuing Jewish Children on the French-Swiss border.

What I learned was chilling. 

The Swiss were almost as much the enemy as the Germans. The smuggling operation had to evade German patrols, mines, and barbed wire, and that was only half the trip. The Swiss were not fans of refugees, especially Jewish refugees. At the beginning of the war, Jews on the run from Nazi Germany were defined as non-political refugees and denied entry to Switzerland. In fact, the infamous red J stamped on the passports of German Jews was put there at the request of the Swiss government, to make it easier to sort out Jewish refugees at the border and send them back.C
Entire families who had made the hazardous journey across occupied France and made it across the doubly-guarded border were usually sent back when apprehended in Switzerland. They were even charged car fare to the border, where they were turned over to the Nazis and certain death.

Finally, the Swiss relented somewhat, and decreed that children under sixteen years of age, traveling alone, would not be sent back if they made it across the border alive. Hence the smuggling operation, led by Mila Racine, Simon Lévitte, and others involved in Jewish scouting organizations and Zionist youth movements. They escorted hundreds of children to safety. These valiant efforts were ended by 1943, due to stepped up German patrols and the capture of Mila Racine as she led a group of children.

So, this is not the story I tell in The Devouring. In the world of Billy Boyle it’s June 1944, shortly after D-Day. He’s sent to Switzerland to work with OSS Chief Allan Foster Dulles on Operation Safehaven, a plan to keep German assets in Swiss banks from being used for any post-war Nazi resurgence and to channel such funds into reconstruction efforts.

By German assets, I mean looted gold. Gold looted from conquered nations, gold torn from the teeth of concentration camp victims, gold from crates and crates of wedding rings, gold extorted from the powerless across Europe. Swiss banks colluded with the Third Reich to launder looted gold and enabled Germany to purchase war materials on the international market.

Louis Richard Sosthenes
By Source, Fair use,
Nowhere is the intersection of big business and Nazi Germany more bizarre than that of International Telephone and Telegraph and Focke-Wulf. Created in 1920 by Sosthenes Behn, ITT quickly grew into a giant corporation. Behn acquired a number of German firms in the 1930s, and in 1933 he met with Adolf Hitler. Behn understood how the politics of the Nazi regime worked, and he arranged for cash payments to be made throughout the war, via his German and Swiss contacts, to Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. His purpose was to ensure that the Third Reich not take over his German holdings. While a US citizen, Behn was not going to let something like a world war interfere with profits.

One of the German firms ITT had a substantial interest in was Focke-Wulf. ITT owned 29% of the German aircraft manufacturer, which produced fighter planes for the Luftwaffe, including the Focke-Wulf 190, a fighter particularly effective against allied bombers. Behn saw substantial profits from Focke-Wulf, and elected to plow them back into the company, making Focke-Wulf even more effective in its production of fighter planes.

Behn may have been betting on a German victory, although his real motivation is unproven. What is known is that he pursued profit above all. In the 1960s, ITT presented a case for compensation from the US government for the damage caused to Focke-Wulf plants (by those allied bombers that survived attacks by the Fw-190 fighter). ITT was awarded $27 million dollars in compensation. Ford and General Motors also won large amounts.

This is the upside-down world of corporate loyalty and greed that Billy Boyle finds himself in as he navigates the mean streets in the old town of Bern, Switzerland, home to Swiss bankers, Gestapo agents, spies of all nations, and Moe Berg, the smartest man in baseball. But that’s a story for another day. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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Blogger Elgin Bleecker said...

Thanks for bringing Mr. Benn and his Billy Boyle books to my attention.

June 27, 2017  

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