The best books on covert operations to make your blood boil

Danny Orbach Author Of Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War
By Danny Orbach

Who am I?

I am an Israeli military historian, addicted to stories on the unusual, mysterious and unknown. While many of my fellow scholars are interested in the daily and the mundane, I have taken a very different course. Since childhood, I've been fascinated by decisions human beings make in times of crisis, war, and other situations of partial knowledge and moral ambiguity. Therefore, I wrote on coups d’etat, military undergrounds, covert operations, and espionage. After graduating with a PhD from Harvard University, I began teaching world military history, modern Japanese history, and the history of espionage at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For me, reading about covert operations is both a hobby and a profession.

I wrote...

Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War

By Danny Orbach,

Book cover of Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War

What is my book about?

In the aftermath of WWII, the victorious Allies vowed to hunt Nazi war criminals “to the ends of the earth.” Yet many slipped away to the four corners of the world or were shielded by the Western Allies. Other Nazi fugitives became freelance arms traffickers, spies, and covert operators, playing a crucial role in the clandestine struggle between the superpowers. From posh German restaurants, Damascene safehouses and fascist holdouts in Franco's Spain, Nazi spies created a chaotic network of influence and information. This network was tapped by both America and the USSR adding a combustible ingredient to the Cold War covert struggle.

Shrouded in government secrecy, clouded by myths and propaganda, the enigmatic tale of Nazi fugitives in the early Cold War has never been properly told—until now.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations

Why did I love this book?

Ronen Bergman’s history of Israeli targeted assassinations is a stunning piece of investigative journalism. Beginning with the chilling Talmudic dictum, “if someone comes to kill you, rise and kill first,” Bergman explains how a policy of assassinations was deemed by generations of Israeli leaders as a safe and cheap substitute to conventional warfare. From the dark basements of the Zionists undergrounds to the sophisticated joint command rooms of the IDF, the Mossad, and the Shin-Bet, the author uses his unprecedented access to secret sources to tell a breathtaking story, often pausing to ponder on the morality and usefulness of secret assassinations in the fight against terrorism. A true page-turner, I found it balanced, accurate, and fascinating, a rare feat in accounts of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

By Ronen Bergman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rise and Kill First as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'A gripping investigation of Israel's assassination policy' Sunday Times
'Remarkable' Observer
'Riveting' Daily Mail
'Compelling' John le Carre

Winner of 2018 National Jewish Book Award
From the very beginning of its statehood in 1948, the instinct to take every measure to defend the Jewish people has been hardwired into Israel's DNA. This is the riveting inside account of the targeted assassinations that have been used countless times, on enemies large and small, sometimes in response to attacks against the Israeli people and sometimes pre-emptively.

Rise and Kill First counts their successes, failures and the…

Hunting Evil

By Guy Walters,

Book cover of Hunting Evil

Why did I love this book?

Guy Walters’ book is perhaps the best account of the Nazis who escaped after the Second World War and the attempts to hunt them down. Unlike most writers in this field, Walters relies on thorough archival research. A sharp and critical thinker, he debunks countless myths, including the story of Odessa, the supposedly global organization that helped former SS members to escape, and the inflated accounts of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. After reading the first page, I could hardly lay this book down. This deep, thoughtful, and often blood-boiling series of unhappy endings leave you deeply immersed, and sometimes make you want to yell in rage over the injustice of it all. 

By Guy Walters,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hunting Evil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the end of the Second World War some of the highest ranking members of the Nazi party escaped from justice. Some of them are names that have resonated deeply in twentieth-century history - Eichmann, Mengele, Martin Bormann and Klaus Barbie - not just for the monstrosity of their crimes, but also because of the shadowy nature of their post-war existence, holed up in the depths of Latin America, always one step ahead of their pursuers.

The nature of their escape was as gripping as any good thriller. They were aided and abetted by corrupt Catholic priests in the Vatican,…

Book cover of Operation Mincemeat : The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II

Why did I love this book?

Some espionage stories are so absurd as to defy belief, and yet they are true. This masterpiece by Ben Macintyre tells the story of such a plot: the story of Operation Mincemeat, a successful British attempt to deceive the Germans by planting false documents on a dead body, then dropping it on Spanish shores and into the clutches of Germany’s many spies. For me, this successful deception story was fascinating not only because of the breathtaking pace of events, but mainly due to its curious literary dimension. In order to make the deception work, the British designed the life story of “William Martin,” an officer that never was, using their literary skills to create a credible character of an English military gentleman. As Macintyre shows, they played exactly into the stereotypes of the German enemies on “Britishness.” Elaborating on this process, this book is a fascinating espionage story of double and triple mistakes, almost a comedy of fools, doubling as a psychological thriller. 

By Ben Macintyre,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Operation Mincemeat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One April morning in 1943, a sardine fisherman spotted the corpse of a British soldier floating in the sea off the coast of Spain and set in train a course of events that would change the course of the Second World War. Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and certainly the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: he was dead. His mission: to convince…

Book cover of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel

Why did I love this book?

The life of a spy is psychologically difficult as he must keep loyalty to his own country, while secretly blending in with that of the enemy. For the Middle Eastern Jews who spied for Israel during its war of independence, the heroes of Matti Friedman’s excellent book, life was even more difficult, by upbringing and background their identity was interwoven with that of the enemy. In this book, Friedman follows these spies and covert warriors through a breathless sequence of assassinations and espionage operations against the Arab foes besieging Israel from all sides. Aside from being taken over by the plot, I love this book because it raises intriguing questions of identity during times of crisis and war, still relevant in the turbulent region of the Middle East and beyond. 

By Matti Friedman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Spies of No Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Wondrous . . . Compelling . . . Piercing.” —The New York Times Book Review

Award-winning writer Matti Friedman’s tale of Israel’s first spies has all the tropes of an espionage novel, including duplicity, betrayal, disguise, clandestine meetings, the bluff, and the double bluff—but it’s all true.

Journalist and award-winning author Matti Friedman’s tale of Israel’s first spies reads like an espionage novel--but it’s all true. The four agents at the center of this story were part of a ragtag unit known as the Arab Section, conceived during World War II by British spies and Jewish militia leaders in Palestine.…

The Secret War Against Hitler

By Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Andrew Chandler,

Book cover of The Secret War Against Hitler

Why did I love this book?

In this gripping memoir, Fabian von Schlabrendorff recounts his way into the heart of the German conspiracy against Hitler. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, he fell under the influence of Colonel Henning von Tresckow, “a natural enemy of National-Socialism and one of the most outstanding figures in the German resistance.” Working as a team, Tresckow, Schlabrendorff, and their co-conspirators planned to kill Hitler during a visit to the eastern front in March 1943 with a bomb camouflaged as three wrapped bottles of liqueur. As recounted in Schlabrendorff’s memoirs, he and Tresckow concocted several other assassination attempts with carefully concealed bombs, suicide bombers, and sharpshooters. When the dust settled, the author was one of the only members of the inner circle who survived to tell the tale.  

By Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Andrew Chandler,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Secret War Against Hitler as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the few survivors of the German Resistance, von Schlabrendorff traces his anti-Nazi activity from his student days in the 1920s, through Hitler's rise to power, to the war and his involvement in the July 20, 1944, plot. He vividly recalls the double life of the Resistance leaders during World War II, the futile secret meetings of the conspirators, and their efforts to enlist the aid of weak and vacillating German generals.

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