In researching his 2016 thriller The One Man, Andrew Gross came upon information about Nazi sympathisers in the US in the lead up to America’s entry into World War II. Not all of this was secret. Between 1939 and 1941 there were plenty of high profile Americans expressing support for Hitler and his regime and actively campaigning for America to stay out of the war in Europe.
This period and the impact it had on society has been fertile ground for novelists. Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel The Plot Against America considers what might have happened had Charles Lindbergh, the highest profile Nazi sympathiser, gained the presidency over Roosevelt. Kate Atkinson’s recent novel Transcription is based around the work of MI5 to root our Nazi sympathisers who operated in England even as the bombs rained down on London.
Gross takes a much more prosaic approach. While the subject matter is interesting, The Fifth Column takes a generic thriller approach to plot and character. The narrator, Charlie Mossman, is a disgraced former university lecturer, estranged from his wife and child after a drunken bar room brawl ended in tragedy and landed him in prison for two years. So that when he thinks that his wife’s Swiss neighbours are secretly German spies no one believes him. Everyone around him is a bit of a cliché – the avuncular Bauers who are secretly cold-hearted German spies, the French émigré who Mossman ends up starting a relationship with and confiding in, the State Department Official who finally believes his story. And the plot similarly, feels like something out of a James Bond movie (although apparently partially based on fact).
While this is far from Gross’s best book, the history of The Fifth Column is important to consider particularly in what is now a very divided America. The fact that there was a rally in New York in 1939, where people openly wore swastikas and loudly espoused the anti-semitic rhetoric of the Nazis, the fact that there were high ranking officials in the State Department who supported this philosophy even after Germany declared war on the United States, shines a light on the ultra-nationalists movements of today. And for this reason alone, The Fifth Column is worth considering.