The World’s Greatest Spy Stories
Edited by Kurt Singer
Published by W.H. Allen, 1954

Pictured is the 1957 paperback edition published by WDL.

Also known as ‘The World’s Best Spy Stories’ in the US.

In the past I have looked at Eric Ambler’s To Catch a Spy and Alan Williams’ The Headline Book of Spy Fiction. Both of them are anthologies of spy stories. Likewise is Kurt Singer’s The World’s Greatest Spy Stories (as the title would no doubt suggest). But Singer’s book is quite different from the other anthologies for two main reasons. The first is that is was initially published in 1954, and although Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale was originally published in 1953 in the UK, it wasn’t released in paperback in the US (under the title ‘You Asked For It’) until 1955. Put simply, this book predates the great spy-boom of the sixties and is in no way influenced by James Bond. Likewise it predates Len Deighton and John LeCarré.

The second reason that this book is a bit different to other anthologies, is that interspersed between each of the stories are retellings of factual espionage events by Kurt Singer. If you look at the cover image, you can see that it says ‘Fact and Fiction’. The ‘Fact’ portions are Singer’s chapters – or more correctly – other peoples stories as related to Kurt Singer. But before we go any further, it is probably best if I explain a bit about who Kurt Singer is. Firstly here is a snippet from his mini – biography at Portraits of Survival on the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara website:

When Hitler came to power in 1933, my wife Hilde and I started an anti-Nazi underground newspaper which we published in the basement of our bookstore in Berlin. The newspaper reported on the suffering of the first German concentration camp prisoners. The camps at that time were created for the Nazi opposition including political prisoners and the racially unacceptable. In our newspaper, we asked people to send food packages to inmates of the camps, and we had reports from foreign broadcasts. The newspaper was distributed clandestinely through a group of resistance workers who placed papers in Storm Trooper barracks, government buildings, restaurants and sporting events, and wherever the public was assembled. This was a fight of the mosquito against the elephant.

When one of our co-workers was caught and brutally beaten, she gave away our address. I was wanted for high treason – I was considered a traitor to the state, and if caught I would have been executed. I escaped first to Prague, then Vienna, and then via Danzig on a cargo ship to Sweden. Hilde was caught, and received a lenient one year prison sentence due to the fact that she was represented by a high Nazi attorney hired by her family. When she was released, she joined me in Sweden. There, Hilde wrote and published the book ‘I was Hitler’s Prisoner.’

While in Sweden, I published several books on topics related to the Nazi regime – on the Nazi policy of forced sterilization, on Hitler’s Olympics, and the coming air war. I wrote the first biography of Carl von Ossietzky, a Liberal editor of a Democratic magazine called ‘Die Weltbuhne’ which was strongly anti-Nazi. This book was instrumental in getting Ossietzky, a concentration camp prisoner, the Nobel Peace Prize which was awarded in 1936. In 1940, I wrote a biography of Hermann Göring – the Nazi Air Force chief who ordered the aerial bombardment of England. Göring asked that the book be banned and confiscated, and that I should be extradited to Germany. To avoid extradition, I was able to arrange a visa to the U.S. as a correspondent for a Swedish newspaper. We left from Petsamo, a town in north Finland, on the ship named Matilde Thoren; Hilde and I and our six month old baby arrived safely to Ellis Island in New York.

This next snippet is from Kurt Singer’s introduction in The World’s Greatest Spy Stories:

Odyssey into Spyland

Fourteen years ago I was held on Ellis Island in New York harbour. From my barred window I saw the Statue of Liberty. My wife and five-months-old daughter
Marian were also held by the United States Immigration Department in a different wing of this old building.

It was America’s Independence Day – the 4th of July. France had fallen while we were in mid-ocean. Hitler eas ready for the invasion of England. The United States was officially neutral.

The detention did not disturb me. I knew I was safe. I had escaped both the Nazis and Communists in Finland. I knew the Lord would protect me and my family. America would not send me back. But I could not talk. To avoid legal complications it was advisable not to disclose that i had close contacts with the British Secret Service, with the Norwegian Secret Service and the police chiefs of several countries. America was neutral. I was not. I hated Hitler. I hated Stalin. I could not be neutral.

Little did I know then what was ahead of me in the field of espionage and counter-intelligence. I never dreamed at the time that the United States Atomic Energy Commission would utilize my reports on atomic espionage and that I would write half a dozen books on spies and traitors.

At the risk of trivialising, what is no doubt a truly remarkable life (and if it comes off as trivialisation – I apologise), Singer’s life could serve as the template for Victor Laszlo in the film Casablanca – as portrayed by Paul Heinreid. I can find no reference to this, and who actually wrote the script to Casablanca is a contentious issue, but I just wonder if one of the Hollywood scribes who worked on Casablanca had heard Singer’s tale? Ah, that’s just the way my mind works…jumping off at tangents. Anyway… back to the book under discussion.

Apart from the writers from the sixties, most of spy-lit’s usual suspects are represented in The World’s Greatest Spy Stories. There is Sommerset Maugham’s Ashendon and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. This book also includes Belgrade 1926 from Eric Ambler’s Mask of Dimitrios. Ambler also took that chapter for his contribution to To Catch a Spy, but Ambler ‘tweaked’ his story slightly in his anthology, so it read more like a short story rather than an extract from a larger novel.

One of the more interesting stories is Hilda Jung’s The Execution (as told to Kurt Singer). Initially it seems like a parallel to Singer’s own story, because Hilda Jung also ran a secret printing press in her basement with her husband, Paul. But despite the initial similarities, the story actually concerns the fate of two aristocratic German women who Hilda Jung ended up being imprisoned with. The women in question were Benita von Berg and Charlotte von Natzmer who were manipulated by a Polish spymaster named Serge Sosnowski. It’s a sad tale and shows what a dirty business, espionage is.

The chapters are as follows:

Introduction: Odyssey into Spyland – Kurt Singer

The Secret Agent’s Badge of Courage · Ernest Hemingway
The Spy School in Leningrad · Jan Valtin
Belgrade, 1926 · Eric Ambler

The Executioner – Hilda Jung (as told to KS)

The Man Who Did Business with Himmler – Edwin Mueller

The Traitor – W. Somerset Maugham

I Was a Red Spy in Korea · Serge Molonkev (as told to KS)
A Man’s Foes · Pearl S. Buck
The Informer · Joseph Conrad

The Dark Invader – Franz von Rintelen

Code No 2 – Edgar Wallace
Guilty Without Trial · Victoria Wolff
The Death of a Communist – Douglas hyde

Blowing up a Train – T.E. Lawrence

Apparently this book was re-issued as The Secret Agent’s Badge of Courage (after the story by Ernest Hemmingway) and an additional chapter, called Francis G. Powers: Modern Space Spy was added.

The World’s Greatest Spy Stories is a very entertaining read, with easy to digest bite size portions. Dotted with personal non-fiction tales, the book has a certain weight and poignancy that many other compilations of spy stories fail to capture.

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One Comment

  1. Armstrong Sabian

    I'm a big fan of Singer's "Spy Omnibus," which is all factual stories, and was first published in 1959 (I think). I've wound up using it quite a bit on the ever-in-the-works Mister 8 comic project.

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