Strange Bird: The Alba­tross Press and the Third Reich

Michele K. Troy

  • Review
By – September 7, 2017

With the Sec­ond World War an obses­sion of jour­nal­ists and his­to­ri­ans of the past sev­er­al decades, it’s dif­fi­cult to cov­er new ter­ri­to­ry or pro­vide a new per­spec­tive. Michele K. Troy, how­ev­er, achieves this feat with Strange Bird: The Alba­tross Press and the Third Reich, in which she details the tribu­la­tions of Alba­tross – the Eng­lish-lan­guage book pub­lish­er and Pen­guin pre­cur­sor – and the effects of Nazism on the busi­ness. As a Ger­man-owned com­pa­ny fund­ed with Jew­ish mon­ey, Alba­tross was in a unique posi­tion to nav­i­gate the rise of the Third Reich giv­en the government’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with cen­sor­ship and pro­pa­gan­da. Through thor­ough research and thought­ful analy­sis, Troy explores this bizarre con­tra­dic­tion: How could such a pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny exist, and even thrive, dur­ing the Nazi era?

Begin­ning almost in lock­step with Hitler’s rise to pow­er in the ear­ly 1930s, Alba­tross began to dom­i­nate a mar­ket cre­at­ed by its most for­mi­da­ble com­peti­tor, Tauch­nitz. Known for sim­ple, ele­gant aes­thet­ics (the Strange Bird cov­er per­fect­ly repli­cates those of Albatross’s orig­i­nal titles, which were col­or-cod­ed by sub­ject mat­ter in vibrant hues) and sup­port of mod­ernist, edgy writ­ers such as George Orwell, Alba­tross became wild­ly suc­cess­ful at sell­ing mass mar­ket and con­tem­po­rary Eng­lish-lan­guage fic­tion across Europe.

With offices in Ham­burg, Paris and Lon­don, Alba­tross was well-posi­tioned to reach read­ers, as well as keep ahead of Hitler as he marched west. Giv­en these loca­tions, lit­er­ary heavy­weights of the era such as Sin­clair Lewis, Ernest Hem­ing­way and Sylvia Beach make wel­come cameos in Troy’s book. But stay­ing alive meant con­stant­ly nego­ti­at­ing and inter­act­ing with Reich Min­is­ter of Pro­pa­gan­da Goebbels, who was charged with mak­ing sure all cul­ture served the state.” While these entan­gle­ments were fre­quent and sus­pense­ful, and the details of the company’s tra­vails are fas­ci­nat­ing, the book reach­es true heights when delv­ing into the indi­vid­ual sto­ries of the company’s founders, a trio of men whose fates were deter­mined by their vast­ly dif­fer­ent socioe­co­nom­ic and reli­gious backgrounds.

An aca­d­e­m­ic who spe­cial­izes in inter­war Euro­pean his­to­ry, and mod­ernism and the lit­er­ary mar­ket­place, Troy is able to dig deeply into the almost day-to-day account of the sto­ry. And while the minu­ti­ae of Alba­tross are the focus, the rip­ple effect can­not be – and isn’t – ignored. The psy­cho­log­i­cal after­math of war, dis­place­ment, sep­a­ra­tion, uncer­tain­ty, and more are all at play through the unique lens of this pub­lish­er and its major play­ers. But the most eye-open­ing analy­sis is reserved for the Nazis them­selves who, in spite of their wild obses­sion with order as demon­strat­ed in their march­es, ral­lies and flag-wav­ing, were instead a bum­bling inter­nal mess.

Amy Oringel is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for risk advi­so­ry firm K2 Integri­ty, as well as a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesBusi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.

Discussion Questions