One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new city is to find a local used bookstore, go in, prowl the shelves and hunt for treasure. I’m intrigued by big dusty books resting anonymously among the rows, seemingly forgotten.
Recently in such a hallowed venue I spotted a large midnight blue hardcover titled OUT OF THE NIGHT by JAN VALTIN. I flipped to the copyright page and saw it was published in 1941. It was 749 pages. Without looking closer to see what it might be about, I laid down three or four bucks, took it home and started to read.
I quickly discovered I had stumbled upon an extraordinary book!
Out of The Night is the autobiography of a German-born man who became communist spy for the Soviet Union.
At the end of World War I, Valtin was a boy of 14 just trying to get by in a country shattered by war. To say that times were tough after the ruination inflicted upon the land would be a vast understatement. All the basics of life were scarce – food, shelter, jobs, security. Valtin writes:
“I would awake hungry, and was still hungry when I went to sleep. Hunger wiped out the lines between adolescents and full-grown men. A sack of flower was worth more than a human life. When a fruit cart of a peasant from Vierlanden was turned over in the street and a middle-aged man tried to shoulder me aside in the scramble for winter apples, what else could I do but stand up and hit him in the face. I was in my fifteenth year.”
Germany was on its knees and the communists saw great opportunity to inculcate the defeated masses with Marxist philosophy.
Valtin found that working as a gopher and bicycle messenger boy for communist operators was a way to get along in the chaotic environment. His father, a torpedo man in the German navy, never returned home. His mother was unable to provide for him. The only future Valtin saw for himself was to -- somehow, some way -- ship out to sea. His goal was to hire on as a deck hand for a merchant ship or freighter, starting as the lowest grunt, and work his way up to captain.
But Valtin never broke loose from his connections made with the communists of his youth – and so he injects himself into a hair-raising career of ever-increasing party activity, scheming, manipulations and intrigues. He took on ever-more dangerous assignments, acting as a courier and spying on other German political factions, including the budding fascist movements.
What ensues for Valtine is a life of sizzling danger, international plotting and spy games. He was often in the dark about who he was actually working for. He eventually becomes a double agent, spying also for the brutal German Gestapo, playing both sides off the other. He trucks with supremely dangerous characters and inhabits a shadowy world of mind-blowing complexity and perpetual uncertainty.
It reads like a thrilling John le Carré spy novel, except it’s all true – but wait a minute! – is it really all true?
Well: It eventually came to light that Jan Valtin was the pen name for a man by the name of Richard Krebs. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about a writer publishing under a nom de plume, and considering that he made many enemies along the way, one might expect him to publish under a different name.
However, this autobiography was so incredible it attracted the attention of a lot of smart and resourceful people, including the German writer ERNST VON WALDENFELS. He was able to show – by gaining access to documents released after the fall of communist East Germany in 1990-- that a lot of what Krebs claimed to have been doing as a Soviet-Gestapo double agent was greatly embellished or exaggerated. Krebs was also a skilled fiction writer, having published several novels.
On the other hand, large portions of his life story are true – and by any measure – Richard Krebs led an astonishing life of danger and adventure. Incredibly, he later served with the U.S. military in the Philippines during World War II! So he worked for the communists, Nazis and the Americans all at some point in his career! I haven’t even mentioned the times he spent as a sailor, captain of a Soviet ship, a copper miner in South America, and a stint as a prisoner in San Quentin! (He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon while in the United States).
So, Out of the Night may be an obscure book, but it retains a well-earned cult following today. Readers will receive a vivid inside look of what life was like in Post-World War I Germany, and a greater understanding of how Germany veered off onto the horrifying path leading to the even greater tragedy of World War II. You will also vicariously experience the frightening life of a spy. It’s an amazing book.
Join Ken Korczak in: THE STRANGE UNIVERSE OF DR. 58