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 freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and The Forward.