The Second Objective

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
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This book was published in 2007, which was a fairly active year for Frost. Just six months after the publication of The Second Objective, he released his third golf book, The Match, and the summer in between those two books saw the release of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The Twin Peaks Definitive Gold Box Edition DVD also arrived this year.

Frost is never shy about wearing his influences on his sleeve, and here, he’s clearly channeling Day of the Jackal and—especially—The Eagle Has Landed. In fact, at least one edition of The Second Objective has an endorsement blurb from Jack Higgins, author of The Eagle Has Landed, prominently featured on the back cover. Like both Eagle and Jackal, Second Objective is about a fictional assassination (or, in the case of Eagle, kidnapping) attempt on a real-world leader. Like Eagle, it’s about a Nazi plan to send German soldiers disguised as Allied forces into enemy territory to target a prominent Allied leader. Like Eagle, its German soldier protagonist is surprisingly likeable and audience-friendly. There’s a mention at one point during Second Objective of the soldiers potentially wearing their German uniforms under the Allied uniforms, perhaps an intentional nod to Eagle where the characters memorably do exactly this (in Objective, they don’t end up doing this). Both books even feature references early on to SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny’s real-life daring 1943 raid and rescue of the imprisoned Benito Mussolini, as a sort of teeing-off point to present the fictional mission in the book as more credible.

In terms of inspirations, one also has to imagine that Frost took some notice of the The Da Vinci Code’s stunning two-year run on the New York Times Bestseller list just a few years earlier. Although Dan Brown’s book infuriated historians, theologians, and literary critics alike, its easy-to-read populist prose and short cliffhanger-fueled chapters led to historic sales that have rarely been seen before or since for a book without the words “Bible” or “Harry Potter” printed on the cover. I’m not sure what Frost’s opinions are on the quality of Brown’s book (and Second Objective doesn’t bear any particular similarity to it beyond its genre), but it must have been encouraging for Frost to realize that there was a potentially very substantial market out there for a genre he clearly loves to work in: conspiracy thriller that blurs the lines between historical fact and invented events, a genre Frost had toyed with at least as far back as his unmade Goddess / Venus Descending script. In terms of books, Frost had dabbled in this type of work with his Doyle novels, The List of Seven and The Six Messiahs, but those were largely straightforward in being predominantly works of supernatural fiction with a smattering of real-world figures and events mixed in. With The Second Objective, Frost goes much further in terms of coloring between the lines of history, plausibly inserting real documented events and well-researched anecdotes throughout the book and leaving the reader to wonder (or google) exactly where fact ends and fiction begins. He would later take this style to its logical and masterful conclusion with The Secret History of Twin Peaks.

The book’s action is set around the Battle of the Bulge, and of course the progress of that offensive is taken from historical record; in particular, the Malmédy massacre is the centerpiece of a memorable chapter. Likewise, the various dialogue exchanges during cutaways to U.S. military HQ between Generals Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Patton, if not necessarily matters of hard historical record, are at least well-established in anecdotal public record—including the great Patton line after being informed of a change in strategy: “What the hell, Brad, we’ll still be killing Krauts”.

A deceptively short section at the back of book, entitled “A Note on Sources,” is worth an extended examination, in terms of trying to parse out fact from fiction. Frost correctly points out that Operation Greif (the Skorzeny-led mission to capture the bridges over the Meuse River in Belgium as part of the larger Ardennes Offensive) comes from fact, and that the operation did use commandos clad in U.S. uniforms and operating U.S. vehicles (some confiscated from POWs, many specially manufactured for the mission, with varying levels of quality). However, in actuality, the purpose of the Einheit Stielau sub-unit that the book focuses on was seemingly just to sow chaos and confusion among the Allies. The soldiers in this unit were the best English speakers the Germans were able to pull together from their ranks; while across Allied lines, these men changed street signs around (as Frost depicts the characters doing at one point in the book), gave bad directions to soldiers, relayed inaccurate communications, convinced one Allied unit to withdraw from their position, etc. Once word got out about the presence of Germans in U.S. uniforms, this played even more favorably into Stielau’s goal of causing mayhem, as U.S. troops became incredibly suspicious of one another, leading to backups at checkpoints and delays in transport, as well as wrongful imprisonments and even a couple of deaths of suspected Germans who were actually American G.I.s.

The Allies learned of the supposed plot to kill General Eisenhower, as Frost notes in the “Sources” section (as well as depicting it in the main body of the book), from a captured German commando named Schmidt (although Frost calls this man Karl Schmidt for some reason, when his given name appears to have been Wilhelm). It is true that, after the U.S. received this intel, they sequestered Eisenhower under heavy guard for several days as a matter of caution, much to Ike’s annoyance. However, while Frost takes Schmidt at his word (because it makes for a more compelling story), very few if any reputable historians today believe that there was any actual plot against Eisenhower (the so-called “Second Objective” of the title), and common sense says that Schmidt was simply continuing the mission’s goal of spreading misinformation and confusion. Still, the main plot of the book springs from this seed, and gives Frost a springboard for the book’s action. (Side note: As accurately depicted in the book, Schmidt and his team were executed by the Allies a few days after giving their confessions…although Frost shifts the date of the executions from December 23 to Christmas Eve for dramatic effect, and changes the number of team members from three to four to fit his storyline.)

One aspect of the book that is fictional and sensationalized, beyond question: the many acts of gruesome violence committed by the commandos (mostly the villainous Erich Von Leinsdorf). In reality, when Otto Skorzeny eventually came to trial at Dachau for violating the laws of war by sending men behind enemy lines in American uniforms, his defense was that none of the men committed any acts of combat or violence while in American uniforms, and it was therefore a legitimate “false flag” operation and not a violation of the Hague Convention. The Allied court agreed and he was acquitted. If any of the commandos had committed acts like those Von Leinsdorf does throughout the book, and the Allies had been aware of it (as they are in the book), this defense clearly would not have worked. In the afterword, Frost discusses Skorzeny’s trial and acquittal, but conveniently leaves out the key argument of his defense, which would undermine the book’s plot.

Going back to the “Note on Sources” section: Frost implies—without outright saying so—that he used recently-declassified American Military Intelligence documents in writing the book. The book has an acknowledgement for Frost’s “expert researcher” Jennifer Bidwell, but no mention of any government sources or contacts. So it’s unclear whether he is basing the information presented in the “Note on Sources” section on official records (for instance, Schmidt’s interrogation transcript), on second-hand sources, or is just playfully making some of it up to prop up the book’s verisimilitude. Most of the remaining “facts” he mentions in this section, I was unable to verify as fact or fiction based on information available online.

Frost says that there were two American-born German soldiers who took part in the attack, one named William Sharper (who appears as a character in the book; we’ll get to the second American in a bit). A google of Sharper’s name did not yield any results in conjunction with either Operation Greif or Einheit Stielau (which doesn’t necessarily mean anything one way or the other; information on the individual participants besides Schmidt is pretty scant online). Another figure who is not mentioned in the “Sources” section, but appears as a member of the unit in the book, is Gerhard Bremer: I did find reference to him as a member of the SS who participated in the Ardennes Offensive (i.e., the Battle of the Bulge). However, the real Bremer apparently lived until 1989, whereas in the book he dies violently in 1944.

Frost says that there were twenty members in the commando group that took part in the Second Objective, with eighteen of them being either killed in action or executed by the Allies, leaving only two unaccounted for. In reality (putting aside the dubious historical basis for the Second Objective itself), I don’t believe there is any way of being this precise or specific about exact numbers, given how much misinformation the captured Nazis fed their interrogators, and this feels to me like Frost simplifying things to tell a tidy story. Skorzeny himself, after his surrender, told the Allies that 44 Germans crossed Allied lines wearing U.S. uniforms, and all but eight returned safely to Germany.

Frost seems to freely admit that at least two characters in the book are fictional: the protagonist Bernie Oster, and the villain Erich Von Leinsdorf. Bernie Oster is the other American-born soldier mentioned above, as well as one of the two men mentioned in the “Sources” section who has never been accounted for according to Frost. Frost is implying that he based the Bernie character off a real American-born German soldier who participated in the commando squad and disappeared, but my question then is: if the real guy’s identity is unknown, how does Frost know he was born in America? In a subtle way, I think this is actually Frost being coy and winking at the audience, letting us know that we’re all in on the joke here. (As an aside, The Eagle Has Landed has a framing device that shows author Jack Higgins researching the book, light-heartedly presenting fiction as fact in a somewhat similar way.) As to Von Leinsdorf: Frost claims that another participant in the operation, the son of a German diplomat, learned English while growing up in England; by not specifically naming this figure as Von Leinsdorf in the “Notes” section (after previously mentioning Schmidt and Sharper by name earlier in the same paragraph), Frost is implying that Von Leinsdorf is a fictionalized character based off of this supposed real figure who shares the same backstory.

Putting aside matters of separating fact and fiction, at least for now, and turning to the merits of the book itself…

As I said above, the book plays it safe by making our primary German POV character, Bernie Oster, a very sympathetic, sanitized, reader-friendly figure. I think I would have found it more compelling to have a morally compromised antihero character; in the Conversations book, Frost mentions that one of his interests in writing this book was to explore the “banality of evil”:

How could ordinary people have been drawn into such madness? I would argue that was a self-protective response to an untenable psychological situation. They’re being ordered to commit mass murder. Most people aren’t going to roll up their sleeves and howl at the moon while they drink blood at midnight. Most are going to treat it like they’re punching the time clock, normalize it so they can reduce the impact on their nervous system and psyche.

That’s all well and good (again, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, go watch Zone of Interest, which deals with exactly this topic!). But by making our lead character a sweet kid from Brooklyn who hates Nazism from the outset and never joined the party, who just had the bad luck that his parents returned to the home country when his dad’s Pfizer job dried up in the Depression, who has never killed or even been in a killing-adjacent job posting (and who repeatedly refuses to kill throughout the book even in life-threatening situations), who is largely ignorant of the genocides being committed aside from a few wafting rumors (which he admittedly chooses to ignore) …none of this really helps to develop that “banality of evil” theme in a meaningful way. Yes, Bernie could have and maybe should have done more…and he certainly beats himself up over this as the book develops. His primary arc is in recognizing that his previous small acts of rebellion, deliberately mistranslating some intercepted Allied radio transmissions, were not enough: by going along and following orders so as to avoid being killed, he has aided the Nazis in their crimes. But Frost goes out of his way to give this kid just about the cleanest hands imaginable given the circumstances, really undercutting what he was apparently trying to say. And most of the other German characters don’t get all that much character development (Von Leinsdorf aside of course).

Erich Von Leinsdorf starts out as very much what I would term a “Frostian” villain, in the mode of Windom Earle, and Terence Peregrine Keyes in Before I Wake. These are guys who just want to watch the world burn, so to speak; nihilists, sophisticated and sociopathic, narcissistic, given to very elaborate planning, master manipulators, masters of disguise (all of these guys love disguises!), prone to verbose self-aggrandizing monologues. For much of the book, Von Leinsdorf doesn’t have a lot of depth, except that we learn fairly early that his father (a successful German diplomat to England, where Erich grew up) was outed as being one-eighth Jewish, and thereafter was essentially demoted and ostracized, leading to his suicide. After that, Erich Von Leinsdorf lost himself in the Hitler Youth and became a party hard-liner, obviously wearing a chip on his shoulder about that one-sixteenth of non-Aryan weakness in his blood and raging against it with every fiber of his being. He was stationed at Dachau, not only delighting in the “eradication” of the “genetic virus” of Jewish DNA, but also assisting in the insane sadistic “research” of Sigmund Rascher. In the later chapters of the book, Von Leinsdorf takes on some more psychological depth. About midway through the novel, he has an extended meltdown where he shouts some emo stuff about the meaninglessness of life, and reveals that he is suicidal and the only thing keeping him going is the mission (and, in a broader sense, his devotion to the Nazi party). We then learn that he actually stood by and watched his father die of hanging, as the dad regretted his decision at the last and tried to free himself, with Erich refusing to help. And yet, Von Leinsdorf also refers to his father as “a decent man” and seems to mean it (although even in the same breath there’s condescension, saying that his talent couldn’t match his ambition). Toward the end of the book, Erich’s ambivalence toward his own choices seems to really come crashing down on him. Unable to wall off his intruding thoughts as he used to, he seems to be riding a cresting and falling ocean of emotion, finding comfort in almost transcendent feelings of peace and harmony related to the geometrical precision of Paris and later Versailles, and a choral performance at St. Pierre de Montmartre, with these highs suddenly interrupted without warning by dark memories of his deeds at Dachau and a vision of hands holding him down in a coffin.

Plot-wise, Von Leinsdorf is really the author of his own demise, to a point where you have to question how much is pure self-sabotage, given his self-loathing antisemitism and his self-admitted borderline suicidality. Out of the nineteen other guys he chooses for the mission, we only get to know a handful (and most not that well); but very early on, he decides that two of the men he hand-picked for important positions, Gunther Preuss and Karl Schmidt, are liabilities (Von Leinsdorf chose Schmidt as one of the four primary team leaders, and even before embarking on the mission Von Leinsdorf has decided that Schmidt is a “weak-kneed intellectual and chronic complainer”). Bernie obviously is also not at all an ideal choice for the mission, and one has to wonder about Von Leinsdorf’s judgment in choosing such unqualified people. More to the point, Von Leinsdorf’s bloodlust leads him to kill as the first solution to every problem he encounters; it’s the murders he commits at the checkpoint that first draw attention (the group’s mission instructions specifically said to avoid engaging the enemy), and the continuing trail of bodies he leaves behind allows Earl Grannit to track and eventually catch up with him.

Speaking of Grannit: he’s an NYPD homicide detective who finds himself put to use by the U.S. Army in its newly-formed Criminal Investigation Division (CID), and once he’s introduced into the book, he essentially becomes co-protagonist with Bernie Oster. The two don’t meet until a ways into the story; leading up to that, the book begins to alternate roughly 50/50 between the reluctant Bernie’s ongoing exploits with the psychotic Von Leinsdorf, and Grannit’s investigation of the various crime scenes the Germans leave behind, as Grannit and his partner Ole Carlson begin to piece together what’s actually going on. Grannit is the typical archetype of the cop who has seen too much and become emotionally withdrawn, much like Detective Jimmy Montone in Before I Wake. As Grannit is too world-weary and taciturn to ever give voice to how he’s feeling, we get our most insight into his character through a French police inspector who appears briefly, Georges-Victor Massou. Massou goes on a bit about the “sadness of spirit” that results from constantly being immersed in acts of violence, and Grannit (in what is for him an act of extreme emotion) bows his head and nods slightly in agreement. Not necessarily the most fleshed-out character, but as with Montone in Before I Wake, a likeable enough hero to follow…and he has his conflicted dark side as well, as he demonstrates repeatedly that he won’t hesitate to beat statements out of witnesses or make false promises to get confessions (hey, it was 1944, it was a different time).

Grannit’s dynamic with his partner Ole Carlson cracks me up, and is reminiscent of Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley (even though I know Frost didn’t have any involvement with writing those characters). Ole, an affable South Dakota insurance investigator and volunteer fireman (Grannit finds that the combined skills from those two professions make him ideal for cop work, even though he advises Ole not to pursue police work after the War), is persistently good-naturedly asking Grannit questions about his life and about detective work and just generally is a lovable dork, to the curmudgeonly Grannit’s constant annoyance. (Also interesting to note Frost here drawing the link between detective work and insurance investigation that we will later see in The Return.)

(Continued below due to character limit)
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Another fairly significant character is the roguish grifter Eddie Bennings, an enterprising U.S. corporal who’s part of a scheme to intercept shipments of supplies intended for American troops, and instead sell them to black market brokers in Paris. He’s arrested by Grannit very early on, but an amnesty offer gets him out of the hoosegow, and he ends up coming into Von Leinsdorf’s orbit. Despite his own opinion of himself as worldly, Eddie’s kind of a hapless hedonistic dope, and acts as an amusing foil to Von Leinsdorf for a portion of the book.

General Eisenhower himself is the focus of a few chapters taking place at Versailles, and Frost portrays him as a very even, steady presence who despite all the chaos going on around him always manages to lead by example and set the tone for everyone else to follow. Frost can’t resist giving Eisenhower one cute prescient line alluding to his future: when he’s placed under heavy guard and lockdown, Ike bitches, “This must be what it feels like to be president.” (Frost does briefly mention Ike’s supposed affair with Kay Summersby, a matter of some historical debate as to whether it was an emotional affair, a physical affair, or just a close friendship.) Roosevelt and Truman get brief mentions, but don’t appear. A frothing, amphetamine-fueled Hitler appears briefly in the prologue.

The book presents a “Captain Stielau” (no first name given) who runs the training program for the German unit in the early chapters. As I’ve mentioned, the sub-unit of infiltrators that the book primarily focuses on is called Einheit Stielau in both the book and in reality, but I don’t believe there was any actual Captain Stielau. (“Einheit Stilau” means “Stalwart Unit.”)

Von Leinsdorf notes at one point that “greif” means “griffin,” and he surmises that Operation Greif was named this because the griffin is “[h]alf German eagle, half Allied lion” (presumably referring to the British in particular, with their lion crest). Therefore, the griffin would represent the Germans camouflaging themselves as Allies. I have no idea if that was the Germans’ actual intention for the name or just a clever parallel that Frost drew, but it’s pretty neat either way.

One of my favorite passages occurs pretty early on, about a quarter into the book, when our two main duos of Bernie & Von Leinsdorf and Grannit & Ole are all in the same place at the same time for the first time, a field hospital, but neither group knows who the other is yet. A lot of fun, thriller-style crisscrossing occurs between them as Von Leinsdorf has to figure out how to murder not one, but two patients back-to-back without attracting attention, and make a speedy exit.

A key plot point revolves around being able to spot the Germans’ forged papers because the U.S. papers have a misspelling (“haedquarters”), and although the Germans initially copied the error on the documents they issued to their commandos, they later corrected it on a reissue. This appears to be based on a story mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Operation Greif, which cites as its source The Boys’ Crusade, a 2003 book by historian and WWII veteran Paul Fussell. In Fussell’s version of events, the misspelled word that the Germans corrected was “indentification.” In Frost’s book, Grannit says the Nazis are “arrogant fucks” who can’t help themselves in trying to best the Americans, even when their correction of the spelling error gave them away.

One of my favorite quirks in Von Leinsdorf is how he considers Paris the greatest city in the world, but despises the French (“Beautiful country. Dreadful people”).

There’s a passage that’s maybe a bit unintentionally comedic where—in very high-strung circumstances—Bernie has to prove to Grannit that he’s American, and they realize they’re both from Park Slope. Bernie goes on and on frantically spouting details about the neighborhood for about two pages, and you get the sense that Frost just really wanted to show off by cramming in a lot of period-specific descriptions of Brooklyn. I know Frost lived in Brooklyn Heights when he was pretty young, but that was in the 1950s; Bernie’s time in Park Slope North was in the 1920s and 1930s, so presumably Frost had to do some research. Funnily, when I google “Foppiano’s Brooklyn,” a candy store Bernie mentions, to see if it was a real period-specific shop, the first hit is an article about North River, a novel by journalist and author Pete Hamill partially inspired by his childhood in 1930s Brooklyn. Hamill’s North River came out just two months after The Second Objective. I have no idea whether Frost knew Hamill, or if it’s entirely a coincidence, but 2007 was apparently a good year for Foppiano’s leaving a literary footprint. (Incidentally, apropos of nothing, Pete Hamill also wrote the liner notes for Bob Dylan’s best album, Blood on the Tracks.)

It’s revealed fairly late in the book, and very casually, that Grannit is Jewish. Before that happens, though, there’s a passage where Bernie tells Grannit what he had learned from Von Leinsdorf: that Dachau is a death camp and they’re killing Jews. He asks Grannit if they know about this back in America, and a seemingly shocked Grannit shakes his head. In reality, the mass genocide we now call the Holocaust was first reported in the U.S. media in late 1942, although the incredible extent of the death toll was not known until much later; and, as is typical of humanity when confronted with great atrocities, or any inconvenient truth, many simply disregarded or ignored the reports, perhaps accounting for Grannit’s avowed ignorance.

In the book, there are four main units, comprised of four men each, making up the “Second Objective” group. We learn the ultimate fates of all those groups throughout the book. There is also a mysterious fifth unit of four men (hence, Frost claiming in “A Note on Sources” that there were twenty men). This last unit is hinted at briefly earlier in the book, but only pops up near the end of the novel, to aid Von Leinsdorf. It’s honestly not really clear what exactly these guys do, other than one guy who is dressed as American Military Police Counterintelligence, who gets Von Leinsdorf out of a sticky situation in Paris. That guy ends up driving off and is never seen again, and I don’t think we ever see the other three guys at all. When Frost says in “A Note on Sources” that only two members of the twenty remain unaccounted for after the others were killed in combat or by execution, one of those surviving two is clearly Bernie…but I don’t know who the second one is meant to be. I guess we’re just to assume that three members of that fifth group were ultimately found and captured but one got away? I’m not sure why Frost would even specify that though, as it just makes things needlessly confusing. If, as it appears, he was trying to make the numbers neat and tidy, why not just make Bernie the only one who got away as opposed to mentioning a mysterious second person?

The final chapter, a denouement taking place in 1955 (beginning on the day of the Dodgers’ first-ever World Series win—their only win as a Brooklyn team) is unexpectedly wistful and moving.

The novel opens and closes with Otto Skorzeny, who is largely a background presence for the main body of the book, but comes across as a pragmatic and somewhat complex figure in the glimpses we get. As portrayed by Frost, in the prologue, Skorzeny is already almost certain of German defeat and thinks Hitler is delusional, but still feels strong devotion to the man who raised him from obscurity. In the afterword, Skorzeny surrenders to the Allies shortly after the end of the War, but after being exonerated in an Allied court and continuing to be held prisoner, he stages an escape, leaving a note explaining that he would return to face justice only when he believed it was by a truly impartial system. Frost engages in a bit more conspiracy theorizing in the afterword, claiming that American OSS director Bill Donovan (regarded as the “father of the CIA”) aided the former SS officers who staged Skorzeny’s jailbreak, with Donovan apparently regarding Skorzeny as a valuable intelligence asset. The basis for believing that the OSS/CIA was involved in the escape seems to come from claims that Skorzeny himself made later in life. While Frost takes this as fact, it seems to be far from proven…however, that being said, there also appears to be very compelling evidence that the CIA did use Skorzeny as an asset in the following decades, as they did several other former Nazis.

Lastly, as he closes out the book, Frost claims that Skorzeny was the “godfather” of Odessa, an organization that was “[o]perationally conceived on the back of Skorzeny’s World War Two commando force,” and that “to this day Odessa remains the original prototype for the modern terrorist organization.” This is a whole other rabbit hole. “ODESSA” (an acronym for the German phrase meaning “Organization of former SS members”) was used as a catch-all phrase by the U.S. as they tried to track down former Nazis. There were certainly concerted and dedicated plans put in place by the Germans that allowed former Nazis to flee and set up new identities elsewhere en masse post-War, and there is some evidence that the Germans themselves used the name “Odessa” to refer to some of these operations. The concept of a vast and still-active network of Nazis using this name came to popularity in 1972 with Frederick Forsyth’s fictional thriller The Odessa File (Forsyth’s follow-up novel to his Day of the Jackal), and a few years later with Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil. In any event, calling this supposed group “the original prototype for the modern terrorist organization” seems rather sensationalized, when “Odessa” has never been blamed for a single attack anywhere in the world. (All of this may or may not have any relationship whatsoever to that “fuckin’ town of Odessa,” where, much like the Nazis, Carrie Page seems to be hiding from something.)
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