Attracted to complex, history-changing characters: British author Ben Macintyre (IANS Interview)

New Delhi, Feb 12 (IANS) An American prince in 1830s Afghanistan, the notorious but unlikely double agents of the Second World War and the Cold War, a corpse that deceived the Nazis, a famous German philosopher’s sister trying to set up a colony in 19th century South America – it is some extraordinary, history-changing stories that Ben Macintyre has brought into limelight, from his penchant for “complex characters”.

“I am attracted to double, different characters… complex characters… of some unlikely people in unexpected settings,” the British historian, columnist and author told IANS in an interview. Macintyre, who was here for the Jaipur Literature Festival, has 10 books to his credit including a biography of Ian Fleming and his famous spy character, while his latest is on double spy ‘Kim’ Philby.

His debut “Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche” (1992) is the story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s sister and her failed bid to set up a “racially pure” (and vegetarian!) German colony in Paraguay in the 1880s. It then goes on to tell how, once back home, she entwined her own theories on race and nationalism to create a distorted version of his philosophy – snapped up by Hitler and the Nazis to their own ends.

Macintyre confesses he was drawn to this topic by the motif of “unlikely people, with a rich vein of eccentricity, who willingly transplant themselves into a completely new culture”.

After “The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth” (1997) and “A Foreign Field” (2001), about four British soldiers, who cut off behind enemy lines in France during World War I, lived in a village for over an year before being betrayed and shot as spies, he returned to this theme of “transplanted” people.

“The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan” (2004) is the story of Quaker Josiah Harlan (1799-1871), who reached British India and became an army surgeon, served Maharaja Ranjit Singh and then found himself in Afghanistan, where he became the prince of Ghor and raised the American flag on the Hindukush range during an expedition.

Macintyre says he came across Harlan’s name in a historical piece on Afghanistan following the American invasion in wake of 9/11 and intrigued, dug into research including reading his memoirs which are unpublished and “possibly unread”.

“Harlan was an extraordinary, complicated figure. He was not an obvious hero… was a very tricky and difficult man,” he said of the American who eventually went back home and died in penury.

Equally engrossing is Macintyre’s trilogy of World War II deception operations. “Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman” (2007) is about a British conman captured by Germans and agreeing to work for them but supplying disinformation to his handlers, even in face-to-face encounters.

“Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II” (2010) is about how a varied cast including an eccentric RAF officer, a gifted Jewish barrister, a famous forensic pathologist, a gold prospector, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submariner, three novelists, a transvestite English spymaster, an irascible admiral, and a dead Welsh tramp – who framed a plan that convinced Germans that the Allies were poised to invade Greece, not Sicily in 1943. “Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies” (2012), which deluded Germans on the Normandy landings, has an equally strange cast – a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a wildly imaginative Spaniard, and a hysterical Frenchwoman.

Macintyre said that while there have been several books on these operations, most were “propaganda” written post-war and not based on documented evidence but he benefitted from declassified archival material. “It was a huge amount and full of details… very interesting,” he said.

“A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal” (2014) is on the British spy who long worked for the Russians.

“Philby was complete double character… nobody does it better. He was the spy in the enemy camp who ended up running it, but always remained an enigma. His motives are still unclear,” he said.

Noting Philby figures in several novels, Macintyre says his life was so extraordinary that “you don’t need to make fiction of it”.

“If it (his life) was presented as fiction, no one would believe it,” he said.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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