Jack Higgins, Good Germans, and the Problem of Sympathy in Fiction The danger of war fiction that forgets why wars are fought and who is implicated in its crimes.

Michael Caine as Wehrmacht officer Kurt Steiner in The Eagle Has Landed. (ITC Entertainment)

Henry Patterson, who wrote as Jack Higgins (and as Harry Patterson, James Graham, Martin Fallon, and Hugh Marlowe), died this month at the age of 92. Patterson published some 85 books, going back to 1959, which were translated into 55 languages and sold an estimated 250 million copies.

More than 50 million of those were his WWII novel The Eagle Has Landed (1975), about Nazi paratroopers dropping into England to kidnap or kill Winston Churchill during his stay in a secluded village on the Norfolk coast.

A movie was made of it a year later, the last for director John Sturges (Magnificent Seven; The Great Escape). Eagle starred Michael Caine as Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner, the commanding officer of the Luftwaffe Fallschirmjäger unit; Robert Duvall as Colonel Radl, his Abwehr handler; Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin, an Irish Republican Army “soldier” working for the Nazis; and Jean Marsh as Joanna Grey, a Boer woman living in the English village, who helps Devlin clear the way for invasion.

Patterson’s British publisher was skittish about having Nazis as heroes against the Brits, so Americans published the book first. When it did come out in Britain it was on bestseller lists for 36 weeks, and Patterson felt vindicated. As The Guardian says, the book launched him into “thriller superstardom,” and after that “his books [were] guaranteed to find a place in every airport departure lounge in the world.”

I liked Eagle, book and movie, when I was a kid. WWII had ended only 30 years earlier and still suffused the culture. Narratives about the war often emphasized shared experience, including being on the winning side militarily or morally. Most (melo)dramatized heroism, toughness, determination, patriotism, sacrifice, camaraderie, and cool. Many of the movies were ensemble pictures, such as The Dirty Dozen (1967), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), and A Bridge Too Far (1977), as if to reinforce that everyone came together to play a role. (It also sold more tickets.) The war movie genre even became a silly TV comedy in Hogan’s Heroes—impossibly, tastelessly set in a prisoner of war camp, with Jewish actors playing the four main Nazi roles—but it still projected Allied superiority.

Patterson’s British publisher was skittish about having Nazis as heroes against the Brits, so Americans published the book first. When it did come out in Britain it was on bestseller lists for 36 weeks, and Patterson felt vindicated.

In the movie The Eagle Has Landed, the Axis-serving characters (with the exception of Himmler: Donald Pleasence in sinister glasses) are meant to be sympathetic, signaled by their personal sense of honor, stoic bravery, professionalism, and mutual respect. Anti-hero movies were popular then, but despite its protagonists being soldiers of the Reich, Eagle was downright chivalrous.

As a kid, even I knew that The Eagle Has Landed was pretty square compared to, say, the film MASH (1970), which also starred Duvall and Sutherland. MASH was set in the Korean conflict but had Robert Altman’s Vietnam-era sensibility. Duvall’s and Sutherland’s characters, Frank Burns and Hawkeye Pierce, were both American army surgeons, which made them “good,” but by temperament and belief they were essentially enemies.

MASH scared me a little with its irreverence, fierce resistance to authority, and trickster cruelty, and Frank Burns’ piety creeped me out. I preferred Eagle because I thought Michael Caine was captivating as Kurt Steiner. He was meant to be a hero, and I believed it. Call it an issue of sympathy.

 

•  •  •

 

“Sympathy” in narrative usually means something more like “complex interest” than “pity.” The goal is (often but not always) to make characters as human as possible, within constraints of form, so audiences will find them meaningful.

This requires treating characters with respect, at least to the point of trying to understand them, even if they are crooks, sadists, torturers, murderers, or Nazis. (This is a basis for the explosion of popularity of true-crime series now, for which women are said to be the biggest audience.)

But if a narrative dramatizes very well, it risks justifying bad people or making us feel we “understand” or “identify with” them. This too is sometimes called “sympathy”—though it is more like empathy—for the devil.

As Louis Menand wrote recently at The New Yorker in a review about historians as storytellers, “We live in a judgy age, and judgments are quick. But what would it mean to empathize with a slave trader? Is understanding a form of excusing?”

If Adolf Hitler was human and not a manifestation of supernatural evil, and if he was ever sane enough to have agency, then there should be, we seem to feel, explanations. These narratives ripple out uncomfortably and ultimately implicate the human animal.

This is the Hitler problem of narrative. Look at the furor over writer George Steiner’s novel The Portage to San Cristobal of AH, in which Hitler is found alive in the jungle by an Israeli commando team and during extraction performs a long apologia for why he did what he did. Critics of the novel say that by making Hitler too articulate, even giving him his own theses on why Jews have been historically maltreated, Steiner gives Hitler absolution.

If Adolf Hitler was human and not a manifestation of supernatural evil, and if he was ever sane enough to have agency, then there should be, we seem to feel, explanations. These narratives ripple out uncomfortably and ultimately implicate the human animal.

“The world at large was the instrumental accomplice to the ‘Final Solution,’” George Steiner writes in the afterword to the University of Chicago Press edition of Portage.

If we do not try to understand fully in human terms, we are left only with outlines, caricatures, and melodrama.

The Hitler Filmography: Worldwide Feature Film and Television Miniseries Portrayals, 1940 through 2000, by Charles P. Mitchell, lists 100 portrayals of Hitler that seem to cover every possible way he might be viewed. Mitchell warns there have been many others. He did not include portrayals before or after his chosen period, of course (and my sense is that Hitler has shown up more than ever in the last 22 years, in increasingly complicated portrayals, as in My Führer (2007) or JoJo Rabbit (2019)). Mitchell did not include documentarian films, shorts, amateur productions, background parts for Hitler, movies (including The Eagle Has Landed) in which Hitler appears only in clips from real newsreels, or pornography, about which he says demurely, “The present filmography has bypassed this field.”

We might hope a historical figure or event could, with study, provide a Platonic Idea from which artistic forms would manifest, meaningfully and even coherently. But as Ron Rosenbaum says in Explaining Hitler, “[T]he search for Hitler has apprehended not one coherent, consensus image of Hitler but rather many different Hitlers, competing Hitlers, conflicting embodiments of competing visions, Hitlers who might not recognize each other well enough to say ‘Heil’ if they came face to face in Hell.”

An essay by Martin Kramer in Mosaic in 2020 questions the difference between the historical capture of Adolf Eichmann and its several Hollywood portrayals. (Robert Duvall played Eichmann in The Man Who Captured Eichmann (1996), the first big-screen production of that abduction genre.)

Operation Finale (2018), with Ben Kingsley as Eichmann, was one version some saw as problematic. Director Chris Weitz and Kingsley “feared that casting Sir Ben as Eichmann might pose a problem,” Kramer writes, so “they worked hard in advance to frame any potentially negative fallout as benighted. Their message: it was legitimate to show Eichmann’s human side, because he was human.

“‘The tragedy is that the Nazis were human beings,’ Kingsley said. ‘And I think to demonize them, to play them as a B-movie villain, to play them as some Marvel comic baddie would do a terrible injustice to the history and to the victims of the Holocaust.’ ‘Ben and I,’ said Weitz, ‘were both intent that Eichmann be portrayed as a human being. Not in order to garner people’s sympathy for him, but to indicate that this kind of crime is committed not just by demagogues and sociopaths.’

“All of this neatly evaded the point. […] No one doubted that Eichmann had a range of human emotions, that he loved his wife and children, or that he enjoyed small pleasures. The point…was, and is, that Weitz and Kingsley portray him as empathetic, clever, affable, and, yes, ‘impish.’ Their Eichmann isn’t just human; this captive is captivating.”

From the start the Eichmann film attempts created problems. Bestselling author Leon Uris, “[t]he first person to appreciate the cinematic potential of the story,” Kramer says, “cabled Teddy Kollek, then [Prime Minister of Israel David] Ben-Gurion’s chief of staff…to propose an ‘exciting motion picture’ based closely on Eichmann’s ‘chase and capture.’”

We might hope a historical figure or event could, with study, provide a Platonic Idea from which artistic forms would manifest, meaningfully and even coherently.

Kollek was very worried that a “Hollywood-style, cloak-and-dagger treatment of the capture would eclipse the story of the Nazi genocide.” Any such film should put the Holocaust “front and center,” he insisted, and “’Nazi atrocities’ shouldn’t just be mentioned in passing bits of dialogue but should ‘form the major part of the visuals of the film.’” (Uris backed out of the project for funding reasons.)

“[T]he issue, in a nutshell,” Kramer writes, was “that there was no way to compress and integrate the immense Holocaust story into a few days of ‘chase and capture’ in Argentina.”

 

•  •  •

 

Despite Patterson’s anger at his British publisher for resisting his manuscript for The Eagle Has Landed, he must have believed at some level he was in for criticism.

The spine of his plot began with a short story by Graham Greene, “The Lieutenant Died Last Night” (Collier’s 1940), which was collected only in The Last Word and Other Stories (Penguin 1999). It is the story of a London exurb invaded by a squad of Nazi paratroopers who intend to sabotage the rail line. They descend on “enormous parasols,” from the point of view of old Bill Purves, the local drunken poacher, who takes some time to understand what they are up to. The soldiers gather the villagers and tell them frankly they will kill them if they try to escape, but they are not brutes. Even when they shoot a young man for running, they aim for his legs. Old Purves hunts them, in a disturbing manner, and shoots most of them in turn. Greene is writing literary fiction, so sympathy becomes a complicated thing; there is little heroism without irony. Purves comes on their lieutenant he has wounded, who begs him to shoot him, so he does. Purves takes a photo of a baby from the man’s body, feels sickened by it, but keeps it and takes it out and looks at it now and then. He “feels bad” when he does, but he does not know why.

As S.P. MacKenzie points out in “Nazis Into Germans,” a film was made from this short story, called Went the Day Well? (1942). It is recognizable as the precursor to Eagle, but in Went the Day “the villagers are the selfless heroes, the paratroopers brutally sadistic Nazis.” (The film was made in part because the British Ministry of Information was worried the English had grown lax about the possibility of invasion.)

Thirty-four years later, MacKenzie says, when Eagle was made, there had been “a polar shift in moral compass.” “By the time the epic Battle of Britain (1969) reached the screen, the aircrew of the Luftwaffe were being portrayed as just as brave and skillful as their Royal Air Force counterparts.” By 1983, a Gallup poll showed that more than 25 percent of people in the UK thought Germany was “Britain’s best friend in Europe.”

And so, in Eagle, the villagers are a mixed lot, as if this better represents reality, but their types are exaggerated. A huge young farmer harasses and has evidently raped local women in the novel, and the parish priest (now a former paratrooper himself) cusses and tries to attack Kurt Steiner. For the Germans’ portrayal, Patterson falls back to the trope of good people caught up in a bad system—“We are little men, you and I, caught in a very large web,” Colonel Radl says—and fortifies his defenses.

Toward this sympathy, on which so much narrative depends, the novel echoes a common sentiment that the Wehrmacht, and therefore the Luftwaffe Fallschirmjäger we are meant to admire, are professionals whose role is not to be confused with that of the SS, and that in fact the Wehrmacht disdain the SS and the Nazi Party. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website says,

 

During World War II, the German military helped fulfill Nazism’s racial, political, and territorial ambitions. In addition to pursuing traditional military objectives, the Wehrmacht targeted Jews and other supposed racial inferiors, civilian and military alike, for abuse and death. […] The policies pursued by the Nazis and the military stood in stark contrast to existing codes of honorable military conduct and international law. A few individuals acted according to those codes and laws, but the vast majority of German soldiers, and especially senior officers, cooperated with the Nazis—even to the point of committing genocide.

 

Patterson’s Reich is a sketch, with the implication that evil resides mostly at the Nazi top. His Himmler is an emotionless paper-shuffler in the “banality of evil” role. Hitler is a scarecrow dancing in rage at military failures or in delight at the (real-life) Nazi commando rescue of Mussolini. Goebbels is a bootlicker who “hop[s] as usual from one foot to the other like some ten-year-old schoolboy bursting for a pee.”

A few other “bad” Nazis are set up for disapproval, including historic figures Jürgen Stroop, who razed the Warsaw Ghetto and put down the Uprising, and Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, both of whom were executed after the war. Most of this (except for Himmler) is offscreen in the movie, further flattening its effect and allowing a focus on genre intrigue and adventure. (The screenplay is by Tom Mankiewicz, who worked on several Bond films.)

The other “Germans”—not Nazis—in Eagle are portrayed as sympathetic in various ways. Admiral Canaris is shown briefly, as Radl’s boss, saying bad things about Hitler and his cronies. Audiences in the 1970s might have remembered that in real life Canaris, who in his anti-Semitism was apparently the one to suggest Stars of David to mark Jews in public, plotted against Hitler after 1940, saved hundreds of Jewish lives, and was executed by the Nazis after an SS show trial in the last months of the war.

The Fallshirmjäger are portrayed as determined, courageous, skilled warriors. They laugh, sing, and recall previous campaigns with bitter nostalgia; one sacrifices his life for two children in the village. It is hard to keep their names straight because they are interchangeable and in the end disposable. Above all, they love their leader, Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine in the movie), signaling that we should too.

Steiner loves them back. For further points he is made the son of a pre-Reich Major General who (in the novel) has seen the Final Solution in action and hates it. Steiner is also half-American (“like Churchill”). He always acts the officer and gentleman, but to keep that from becoming insufferable, he explains that all paratroops are rascals.

We are invited to compare Steiner with the American officer who commands a company of Army Rangers, bivouacking nearby, who will fight the Fallshirmjäger when their plot is discovered. In the movie, Larry Hagman plays him as a combination of JR Ewing and Major Anthony Nelson from I Dream of Jeannie—arrogant, harried, pop-eyed, a cliché of ambition frustrated by incompetence. He Larry Hagmans so hard that he gets most of his own men killed then impetuously storms the castle himself. Fate is left no choice but to shoot him and make him fall on his own grenade. This is followed by a comic reaction shot of one of his surviving troops looking at the walls as if to say, “Gee, Larry Hagman, what’d you do that for?”

Many reasons are given for why Radl, Steiner, the paratroopers, and their Boer and Irish spies should be given allowance by English-speaking readers, despite the characters’ agreement that their mission is useless for the war effort. The first, of course, is that Steiner and his men are soldiers and are assigned the mission. The assignment also comes as they are being punished (by being used as human torpedoes) for Steiner having saved a Jewish girl in flight from Jürgen Stroop.

I would say the troops are just relieved to be off their inglorious torpedoes, or are just following orders—the Eichmann defense at Nuremberg—but they love practicing their fighting trade and cheer with excitement when they learn their target, assigned by Himmler himself. It does not really matter to them who holds their leash, as long as it is let slip.

Patterson twists his ending so hard that Churchill falls out of it. The man Kurt Steiner believes is Churchill and does or does not shoot, depending on film or book, is an actor, a double. Everything in the 356 pages, or two-and-a-half hours of screen time, has been for nothing. Maybe this was Patterson’s biggest, unconscious, defense against criticism.

“I find it impossible to do anything else,” Steiner says late in the novel. In that way of genre fiction betraying itself with ironies it does not see, Steiner is said to be a veteran of several actions where historically atrocities were committed by men like him, including Crete and Kyiv.

It is also meant to be a motive that Steiner’s father is being held by Himmler on charges of treason for complaining about the camps, and that Steiner is made to understand his father will be tortured to death if Steiner does not complete the mission. Steiner’s anger makes him tell Radl that he and his troops could as easily drop in on Berlin instead, if assassination is in order, but this is never seriously considered, and Steiner is mostly resigned he can never help his father anyway.

Patterson twists his ending so hard that Churchill falls out of it. The man Kurt Steiner believes is Churchill and does or does not shoot, depending on film or book, is an actor, a double. Everything in the 356 pages, or two-and-a-half hours of screen time, has been for nothing. Maybe this was Patterson’s biggest, unconscious, defense against criticism.

 

•  •  •

 

What is this narrative? What are we to understand in its portrayal of the drama, when we stand back and consider the sympathies invoked?

I might suggest it is a reconciliationist text, an opportunity for two sides that were in conflict to come together to celebrate what they believe they had in common all along—individual valor, chivalric honor, the music of Bach played on an English church organ by a Nazi paratrooper—and never mind the causes of the war, or the participation in the narrative of the victims of the conflict, or even much mention of them, and never the word Holocaust.

What Patterson really wants us to look at (and to be held in suspense by and then to find thrilling) is long shots of WWII aircraft flying through snowy German mountains, men parachuting onto a beach and moving off through the dark, and characters explaining how this will all go. It is all logistics.

Having re-read the novel and re-watched the movie this month on the passing of Patterson, I see, as I did not see as a boy, how they work as an adventure story for boys, and how the film MASH, which received five Oscar nominations and won one for Best Adapted Screenplay, and won the precursor to the Palme d’Or, is an artful response to madness and butchery.

It is not wrong that people get trapped in systems they cannot escape. It is one of the primary themes of literature. But what Patterson really wants us to look at (and to be held in suspense by and then to find thrilling) is long shots of WWII aircraft flying through snowy German mountains, men parachuting onto a beach and moving off through the dark, and characters explaining how this will all go. It is all logistics.

Put it this way: Might there be a made-for streaming movie, 20 years from now, that makes sympathetic a spec-ops squad from the Wagner Group (whose mercenaries in real life Putin uses as a private army, not unlike the SS) as they infiltrate Kyiv to abduct or kill Ukrainian President Zelensky? Their commander does not care much for Putin, personally, but believes, like Oberstleutnant Kurt Steiner, in “the greatest game of all” and that “giving your word and keeping it, [and] standing by friends whatever comes [show] honour….”

We can wait to decide until then, if time is left, if crummy narratives help keep the human race shuffling on its path to extinction.

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