Andrew Nagors­ki is the author of Hitler­land and The Nazi Hunters, released this week. Andrew is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

As a jour­nal­ist, I had a deeply ingrained instinct not to share too much infor­ma­tion with col­leagues from rival pub­li­ca­tions. We social­ized often, chat­ter­ing away in bars and restau­rants and on the occa­sion­al stake­outs, dis­cussing the obvi­ous news devel­op­ments, but almost all of us remained guard­ed about what­ev­er we were report­ing at the moment that was in the least bit orig­i­nal. You nev­er want­ed some­one else to pick up on your idea and run with it — cer­tain­ly not before you had the chance to get it into print first.

I had learned a key les­son: the more peo­ple know about what you’re doing, the more like­ly it is that you will receive tips about sources and leads you were unlike­ly to dis­cov­er on your own. And the more sources and leads you have, the bet­ter your book will be.

In the case of The Nazi Hunters, the pay­off of this approach came ear­ly, when I was just begin­ning to orga­nize my research. Joyce Bar­nathan and Steve Strass­er, two for­mer Newsweek col­leagues, came to our house for din­ner. When I men­tioned my new project, they imme­di­ate­ly replied that I should meet their friend Her­man Ober­may­er. As a young Jew­ish G.I. at the end of the war, he had worked with the U.S. Army hang­man who would lat­er dis­patch the con­demned top Nazis at Nurem­berg. That inter­view and sub­se­quent research proved cru­cial to the first chap­ter of my book, which tells the sto­ry of those hang­ings — and the hang­man — in detail. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, when Michael Hoth, an Amer­i­can friend from Berlin, stopped in to see us in New York and I told him what I was work­ing on, he offered to intro­duce me to Peter Sichel, who head­ed the first CIA out­post in the Ger­man cap­i­tal after the war. Sichel came from a Ger­man Jew­ish fam­i­ly that sent him to Britain in 1935 when he was twelve years old, lat­er mov­ing to the Unit­ed States and serv­ing in the OSS dur­ing the war. He offered a star­tling­ly hon­est assess­ment about how his oper­a­tion quick­ly lost inter­est in fight­ing the last war,” as he put it, focus­ing on the new rival­ry with the Sovi­et Union instead of chas­ing Nazis. This explained why the Nazi hunters were soon reduced to a rel­a­tive­ly small band of men and women who were ded­i­cat­ed to a cause that had gone out of fashion.

Aside from a strong open­er, any good book needs to demon­strate the piv­otal moments in its sto­ry. When I was writ­ing The Great­est Bat­tle, about the epic push by Hitler’s armies to seize Moscow in 1941, I was increas­ing­ly con­vinced that Stalin’s deci­sion not to aban­don the Sovi­et cap­i­tal when it looked like its defens­es were col­laps­ing was just that kind of moment. Through a much younger rel­a­tive in the Unit­ed States, I learned about Pavel Saprykin, who was approach­ing his hun­dredth birth­day in 2005 and still liv­ing in Moscow. Saprykin had been a rail­way work­er assigned to the spe­cial train that was pre­pared for the Sovi­et leader’s evac­u­a­tion. As he recalled in our inter­view, he saw Stal­in walk up to the train on Octo­ber 18, 1941, pace the plat­form, but then not board it. Instead, he left the sta­tion. So there it was: the piv­otal moment ful­ly illustrated.

There’s also the need to have a strong end­ing to any sto­ry. When I was research­ing Amer­i­cans in Ger­many for my book Hitler­land, Ina Navazel­skis, a for­mer jour­nal­is­tic col­league who now works at the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, alert­ed me to the let­ters of Philip Tal­bot, who vis­it­ed Ger­many in 1938. Tal­bot was still alive at that point, and he, in turn, urged me to con­tact his friend Angus Thuer­mer, who had been a young AP reporter in Berlin then. When I vis­it­ed Thuer­mer in Mid­dle­burg, Vir­ginia, he shared his rec­ol­lec­tions and pho­tos, par­tic­u­lar­ly of his intern­ment with oth­er Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists and diplo­mats after Ger­many declared war on the Unit­ed States, which became the final chap­ter of my book.

Of course there is always a dan­ger that some­one will hear about your project and seek to beat you to it. But these days, I’m more than will­ing to take that risk. A book is not like a news­pa­per sto­ry: it can’t be pro­duced overnight. If some­one is work­ing on a sim­i­lar sub­ject, you can’t stop them, any­way. And each book is dif­fer­ent, even if there may be over­lap. I’m con­vinced that what makes a book worth read­ing is the rich­ness of the nar­ra­tive and cast of char­ac­ters. And I know that in the case of my books so far, I would have had much weak­er sto­ries to tell if it were not for all the valu­able tips I received when I spread word about what I was doing far and wide. 

Andrew Nagors­ki served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, War­saw, and Berlin. He is avail­able for book events and speak­ing engage­ments through Jew­ish Book Council’s JBC Net­work author tour­ing program.

Relat­ed Content:

Andrew Nagors­ki served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, War­saw, and Berlin. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Hitler­land, and has writ­ten for numer­ous publications.