Cover image of "Avenue of Spies," a book about Occupied Europe

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

If it’s true that “God is in the details,” wouldn’t it stand to reason that history can best be understood through the stories of the individual people who experienced it? It often seems that way, doesn’t it? Certainly, the reality of life in times past is far easier to get our arms around when we read about the lived experience of individuals rather than the kings, generals, presidents, and other muckity-mucks who tend to dominate the history books.

Avenue of Spies is a case in point. Despite all the reading I’ve done about World War II — dozens, and perhaps more than a hundred books — I found Alex Kershaw‘s book about Occupied Europe and one extraordinary American family’s experience there to be at least as revealing as the best political or military histories. I learned things that would never turn up in conventional history books, things that gave me the feeling that I was getting at least an inkling of what it was really like to live in Nazi-occupied territory while despising the Nazis and everything they stood for.

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe by Alex Kershaw (2015) 314 pages ★★★★☆

The title of this book about Occupied Europe refers to the Avenue Foch, the widest thoroughfare in Paris. There during World War II the Gestapo had commandeered one venerable mansion after another, turning some into offices and others into torture chambers. This was the headquarters of Nazi efforts to deport French Jews to concentration camps and to destroy the French Resistance. The same street was home to an American surgeon, his Swiss wife, and their adolescent son whose house lay within yards of the headquarters of Hitler’s secret police.

The doctor, Sumner Jackson, was the wartime head of the American Hospital, which he operated as an escape route for scores of downed American and British pilots. Jackson’s home on the Avenue Foch served as the Paris hub of one of France’s principal Resistance networks, courtesy of Jackson’s wife, Toquette. There, virtually under the noses of the Gestapo, Resistance fighters and couriers visited under cover as patients of Dr. Jackson, dropping off or picking up communications from their comrades.

Kershaw focuses not just on the heroic Jackson family but also on Helmut Knochen, the Gestapo’s chief spy-hunter in France and, later, effectively the ultimate authority in the country outside of Vichy France, the fascist client state established under the aegis of the German occupation. Knochen and his staff were notoriously effective in hunting down, torturing, and killing scores of Frenchmen and women who volunteered for the Resistance. Along with the French militia, the Milice, and the pro-Nazi leaders of the Vichy government, they were also ruthless in searching out and deporting many thousands of French Jews, nearly all of whom perished either in the Nazi death camps or by being worked and starved to death in German factories.

In other words, if you’re looking for light reading, this book isn’t it. However, it would be difficult to find a fictional account of the times that is equally suspenseful, and if you want to gain deeper understanding about the day-to-day reality of life under the Nazis in occupied Europe, Avenue of Spies will open your eyes.

Alex Kershaw is a British historian, journalist, and nonfiction author who has written six popular previous nonfiction books about World War II.

For more great reading

You’ll find this book listed on my posts, 5 top nonfiction books about World War II and Good books about the French Resistance.

You might also enjoy The 10 best novels about World War II and 20 top nonfiction books about history.

And if you’re looking for a broader view of human history, check out New perspectives on world history.

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