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Potsdam Station (John Russell World War II Spy Thriller #4) Hardcover – Apr 5 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Press (April 5 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1569479178
  • ISBN-13: 978-1569479179
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 2.9 x 23.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 431 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #612,462 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Praise for Potsdam Station:

“John Russell has always been in the thick of things in David Downing’s powerful historical novels set largely in Berlin . . . Downing provides no platform for debate in this unsentimental novel, leaving his hero to ponder the ethics of his pragmatic choices while surveying the ground level horrors to be seen in Berlin.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Zelig, Russell, the hero of Downing’s espionage series, can’t seem to resist inserting himself into climactic moments of the 20th century ... Downing has been classed in the elite company of literary spy masters Alan Furst and Philip Kerr ... that flattering comparison is generally justified. If Downing is light on character study, he’s brilliant at evoking even the smallest details of wartime Berlin on its last legs.... Given the limited cast of characters, Downing must draw on almost Dickensian reserves of coincidences and close calls to sustain the suspense of his basic hide-and-seek story line. That he does ingeniously. It helps to read Downing’s novels in order, but if Potsdam Station is your first foray into Russell’s escapades, be forewarned that you may soon feel compelled to undertake a literary reconnaissance mission to retrieve and read the earlier books.”
Washington Post

“The echo of the Allied bombings and the crash of the boots of the invading Russians permeate the pages in which David Downing vividly does justice to the drama... The book is a reminder of what happened and those who allowed it to happen...The book lives up to the others in the Russell series, serving as yet one more reminder of a world too many have entirely forgotten.”
Washington Times

“Downing is brilliant at weaving history and fiction, and this plot, with its twists and turns—all under the terrible bombardment of Berlin and the Third Reich’s death throes—is as suspenseful as they come. The end, with another twist, is equally clever and unexpected.”
Toronto Globe and Mail

“Excellent period work.”
Tulsa World

“The main attraction is the tragic mis-en-scène of a once-beautiful city undergoing the ravages of modern warfare, a wide-angle synthesis of scenes and snapshots from the history books. A wide canvas painted with broad strokes.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Gripping ... Downing convincingly portrays the final days of the Nazis in power, and his characters are rich enough to warrant a continuation of their stories, even after the war.”
Publishers Weekly

Praise for the John Russell Series:
"Epic in scope, Mr. Downing's "Station" cycle creates a fictional universe rich with a historian's expertise but rendered with literary style and heart."
—The Wall Street Journal

“Will have readers clamoring for a sequel.”
“An extraordinary evocation of Nazi Germany on the eve of war, the smell of cruelty seeping through the clean modern surface.”
—C. J. Sansom, author of Revelation
“Wonderful…. Downing’s mingling of history and thrills makes this a must read.”
Rocky Mountain News
“A beautifully crafted and compelling thriller with a heart-stopping ending as John Russell learns the personal faces of good and evil. An unforgettable read.”
—Charles Todd, author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge Series
“An atmospheric tale.”
St. Petersburg Times

About the Author

David Downing grew up in suburban London. He is the author of numerous books for adults and children, including four novels featuring Anglo-American journalist John Russell. He lives with his wife, an American acupuncturist, in Guildford, England.

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Most helpful customer reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Downing brings to life through the characters, the compelling history of events, perceptions, of ideas,and of the crumbling of a state, . Despite the hind sight knowledge of the history, the characters acting within it become compelling.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is one of the best books in the John Russell series, it covers a brief period in late April 1945 when the Nazi Empire is crumbling and the people of Berlin are suffering from Hitlers' refusal to give up. The story of Russell's efforts to use the Soviet army's imminent capture of Berlin to help him find his son and girlfriend in the madness of Berlin is riveting. The description of the crumbling Berlin with it's ill-equipped child soldiers trying to defend against a battle hardened Soviet Army, and the crazy efforts of the SS trying to keep those soldiers from giving up, even though the cause is lost, is a sad statement on the total obedience of some of the Nazis even to the end. The stories of the three main characters in this madness are woven together with great skill and the narrative never slows down. I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the Russell series or for anyone looking for a good read.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Sverre Svendsen TOP 500 REVIEWER on Dec 6 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This was the 4th of Downing’s ‘Station’ WW II crime/thriller/spy novels that I have read. It involves the time period from April 6th to May 2nd, 1945. The locations are Berlin and Moscow. The journalist John Russell, who had to flee Berlin in 1941, has been to England and the U.S. lately he is marooned in neutral Sweden. He is increasingly worried about his girlfriend Effi and his son Paul who are back in Germany and he has lost touch with. He devises a scheme to get into Germany with the help of the Soviets. He convinces them that he can be of help to the invading Soviet army which is fast approaching Berlin. He succeeds in selling his services but becomes apprehensive that once his services have been rendered he will be liquidated.

I did not think this book was as suspenseful as the previous three. It deals mostly with the plight of Berliners as their normalcy is shattered by daily bombings and Soviet missiles. The narrative contains hundreds of street and place name references which mean very little to most readers. Downing’s research is impeccable so I am sure most every reference is correct but including so much detail can be annoying for readers; I kept asking myself whether I should be remembering this or that street or location but in the end I mostly ignored all place references, except the ones for the stations. The narrative in each chapter switches from John’s, Effi’s and Paul’s scenarios and situations. Normally there is no problem with that modus operandi except that the pages offer no indicator, like a symbol or graphic divider, to indicate that the scene is changing. In quite a few places the narrative changes from one character to another as the page is being turned.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Athens on June 30 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Well researched and interesting for the lover of historical novels.
However, long monotonous descriptions make the reader stop and put the book doen for awhile.

Proofreading of the the texts would be advisable: too many mistakes, grammatical and other.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 81 reviews
71 of 77 people found the following review helpful
A wrenching end--no spoilers! July 14 2010
By AMK - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
As I enjoyed the three previous *Station* novels, I ordered this from Amazon UK as soon as it was published there and was glad I got my hands on it. That said, I was initally a little disappointed that the action had skipped across some three years from the previous volume, and that this installment picks up in 1945. It brings together all the key protagonists as the Reich contracts to its core, Berlin, and from the start, the level of suspense is high.

This book, even more than its predecessors, must have been a challenge to write. Downing has to work hard to orchestrate his characters, bringing Russell back from the US [via Moscow] and his son back from the Russian Front. The latter is relatively simple--he retreats--although that is not without its many dangers; the former is more complex and while the plot is more than plausible, its twists and turns ratchet up the plot to a higher level of physical action than the series has seen before.

I thought I had seen and read enough about Berlin in 1945 to have had a sense of time and place, but this account takes the challenge of survival to a whole new level. The noise, smells and sights are piled on, almost to breaking point--as indeed they were for the German population, who were waiting either to vanquish their enemies at the last moment, as Hitler promised, or instead to die, as most expected.

By the last third of the book, I was virtually unable to read ahead or put the book down--the tension was almost too much. It seemed impossible that the characters could survive the SS, the Red Army or the USAF bombs (and of course, in reality, many did not]. As the Thousand Year Reich shrinks to a city, then a few districts, the familiar characters are aligned, find each other, lose each other and .....well, you need to read it yourself!

I can't say this was a fun summer read. It goes well beyond the minimalist action of comparable novels by Alan Furst or Phillip Kerr and offers up instead an inferno of intense experience that feels entirely convincing and is clearly based on extensive research, like the other three volumes. For this reason, as author and reader have invested so much on these characters, it would be a shame if David Downing now abandoned these people; just as Bernard Gunther has become a more interesting character after 1945, I hope we get to see what happens to this cast in the post-war world.
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
The vortex of war--Berlin, April 1945--a fine new book by David Downing Aug. 30 2010
By Blue in Washington - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Author David Downing has previously written three first-rate war/spy novels in the "Berlin Station" series that feature Anglo-American journalist, John Russell as protagonist. The books chronicle Russell's struggles to survive the prewar political and espionage whirlpool and to protect his German family as the increasingly aggressive and xenophobic Nazi regime prepares to launch WWII in the mid-1930s. These stories have been wonderfully researched, are full of well-sketched characters and a landscape detailed with great accuracy, and always high in nervous energy and, above all else, are highly entertaining. They are all well worth reading. The fourth book in the series, "Potsdam Station", may be the best in the series as author Downing notches up the action of the story to a level well beyond intelligent and cerebral that characterized the earlier books. It's a great action/thriller read that I had difficulty putting down after the first couple of pages.

The time period in "Potsdam Station" jumps ahead to the closing days of the war in Europe, as the Allies are closing in on the German capital and the Nazi armies have mostly retreated to a perimeter of a few miles around Berlin. John Russell, after escaping from Germany in 1941 to avoid interment after the entry of the U.S. into the war, has spent most of the interim in America and with American forces in Britain and France, working as a war correspondent. He has been cut off from news of his family and loved ones in the Reich--his fiance Effi Koenen, his son Paul and his in-laws. Desperate to reach all of them before Germany falls, Russell convinces the Soviet Government to allow him to enter Berlin with their forces. The deal is made only after he agrees to perform a service to the Soviets that would smack of treason to his own and other Allied governments if they learned of it. The core of the novel then becomes the question of whether Russell can reunite with his family and protect from the likely post-defeat horrors that await the German population at the hands of Soviet forces hell bent of victory and revenge.

Meanwhile, the stories of Russell's son, Paul, and fiance, Effi, both battling for own lives in or near Berlin, are told in harrowing, day-to-day detail. Effi's underground existence and resistance activities are engaging and have the ring of authenticity, but it is Paul's story, as a young soldier with the shattered German defense forces around the capital that is really grabbing. Paul's metamorphoses from Hitler Youth true believer to political atheist bent on simple survival convincingly evolves as the Soviets move closer to Berlin and the Third Reich implodes.

This is an exciting story by a writer in top form. You will find it at least on a par with Furst, Steiner, Kerr and Shriner. Highly recommended.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Potsdam Station April 28 2011
By Stephen M. Smits - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This World War II novel centers around three related lives that have been separated by the tumult in and around war time Berlin. John Russell is an Englishman who resided in Germany for many years prior to the outbreak of the war with Russia. Russell, a journalist who earlier in his life became a Communist, escaped from Germany in 1941, leaving behind his girlfriend Effi (described as a well-known movie star before the war) and his son, Paul. Effi chose not to leave, instead involving herself in resistance efforts to rescue Jews from deportation. Paul, once a member of the Hitler Youth, is now a teen age soldier serving with the retreating German forces during the Russian advance on Berlin.

The story parallels the events of the three characters in the last days of the war. Russell is trying to return to Berlin via the Red Army's advance to reunite with Effi and protect her from the likely depradations of the Soviet troops. Paul, who was estranged from Russell after his sudden flight from the country, is closely involved in the desparate last battles against the Russian advance. Effi is threatened with exposure and goes underground to escape detection by the Gestapo.

The book is a convincing thriller. The characters nearly miraculously escape the destruction and death that others fell victim to on a massive scale. The author has close knowledge of war time Berlin and his descriptions of the characters' movements around the city create in the narrative a vivid sense of place. The novel succeeds in several dimensions: the storyline's progression is exciting, the scenes and places are realistic, and one feels fully fixed in the times, as opposed to a retrospective perspective of times gone by.

This is one of a series of novels about John Russell, not apparently the first. While the story is self-contained there was some lack of clarity about events and motives that must have been laid out in previous novels. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable read.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Excellent on its own terms April 28 2011
By GirondistNYC - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Having finished this and run through the earlier books, and having read the rather polarized reviews for the series on Amazon by others who share my interest in the period and genre, I thought it might make sense to put down my thoughts. This is an excellent conclusion to a fascinating series. It is not Kerr's Bernie Gunther books, nor is it Alan Furst. I don't think the author intended them to be in that category. While the other authors (brilliantly) take the conventions of noir crime and espionage genre fiction and set them in the darker corners of Nazi Europe (and in Kerr's case the aftermath) Downing is I think doing something much less plot and atmosphere dependent. Kerr and Furst could be turned into wonderful movie thrillers, but Downing is rather more of a sprawling BBC series where the characters and what occurs to them over time is the lens by which the horrors of the Third Reich are examined. These books are basically about what happens to a group of essentially likeable but rather lucky and privileged characters from 1938 to the fall of Berlin who are not hard-bitten detectives, professional spies or heroic resistance figures. I can see why people expecting a taut plot and epic confrontations would be bemused by the rather meandering route the characters take and the sections describing the heroes watching soccer, having a picnic or a long lunch in some detail, but at least for me that was one of the strengths of the book -- Russell isn't a conventional hero or antihero, just a fairly decent person in a world gone mad. The scenes with him lounging around with Effi or taking Paul to Hertha are necessary (a) because Russell's primary motivation for almost all of his actions involve Effi and Paul, and they're critical to establishing why he does what he does (the moral weight of which increases exponentially over time) and (b) along the way, they provide wonderful period details (the lunches move ever downward in quality with rationing, the Hitler Youth starts eating away at the Hertha games, etc.). For me, at least, this approach worked very well indeed because the interpersonal relations were sufficiently well drawn by the end that I really cared about what happened to them, and watching these non-heroic, rather sheltered and occasionally self-absorbed people go through the Nazi period succeeded in illuminating some of the historical and moral questions of the period in a new light. The drawback of this approach is that this series in particularly ill-suited to being read out of sequence: You really need to read them all, because taken in isolation the plots and period details aren't perhaps up to the competition's -- the strength is watching what happens over time (e.g. the trainspotter's and Baedeker guide aspects of the descriptive passages on Berlin make more sense by the time the last book comes around and the shelters are in the U-Bahn). I'd also say that the series occasionally strains credulity with some of its plot twists, and this for me came perilously close to breaking the willing suspension of disbelief by the time I got to Potsdam Station, which is why it only gets four stars. Still well worth reading this, and the series, on its own terms though -- I positively hated the choice Russell made at the conclusion, but I understood why he did it, and that is a pretty good result for character driven historical fiction (cf. Kerr's otherwise excellent Field Grey, where I still don't know what Bernie was bloody thinking at the end).
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Fastmoving story as our characters try to survive the fall of Berlin Aug. 16 2014
By Daniel Berger - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I've enjoyed David Downing's John Russell series, but this book is particularly fine. Historical novels set at the fall of Berlin in 1945 are particularly grabbing for me, because of the fatefulness of it all, and also because of its grayness. More on that later.

For three books Downing dealt with John Russell's complex intrigues in prewar Nazi Germany. Now he has put together a series plot which allows him to look at Berlin's fall from three different perspectives simultaneously.

Russell escapes Germany in the previous book, "Stettin Station", in 1941 after Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war makes the Anglo-American journalist an enemy alien. A war correspondent since then, now in April 1945 he goes to Moscow on a dangerous long-shot bet - that he can cover the Red Army's entry into Berlin, ostensibly to write about it, but really because he wants to find girlfriend Effi Koenen. Russell doesn't know if she's alive but if so she'll be in danger when the city falls. The NKVD first jails him, then make him an offer he can't refuse - parachuting into Berlin with a spy team charged with bringing back Germany's atomic secrets. Russell's intimate familiarity with Berlin makes him a good guide.

His son Paul Gehrts was a 14 year old Hitler Youth when Russell left. He's now in the Wehrmacht, and at 18, after a year at the Eastern Front, a war-weary artilleryman trying to stay alive as his unit falls back towards Berlin. He's lost all his naïve Hitler Youth gung-ho and idealism. He sees Nazism as the lie that it is, and its war effort a lost cause. His mother and stepfather are dead. So is his first love. He's angry at his father for having left.

Effi Koenen, a onetime movie actress, lives under assumed names and continues to do what she's been doing since Russell fled: Helping Jews and others escape the country. She works closely with a Swedish diplomat who gets them on ships to neutral Sweden. It's harrowing work: if any of her charges are caught and tortured, they will tell what they know of her to the Gestapo. She uses all her acting ability to disguise who she really is. As the Russians advance, she finds herself with a new charge - an 8-year-old Jewish orphan who has somehow managed to survive this long, and has no one else.

So we're looking at this simultaneously from all three perspectives. Russell sees what's happened to the city he left more than three years before, and suspects his NKVD keepers will kill him once the mission is complete to keep their new secrets, secret. (And because, well, that's how the NKVD rolls.) He has no idea if Paul or Effi or any of his other former or almost relatives - his former brother in law Thomas, Effi's sister Zahra, Paul's mother Ilse - are still alive, or how to find them in a huge city now in ruins. Meanwhile the SS still roams its streets executing anyone deemed a deserter or traitor. Every decision he makes about where to go and how to get there - this subway station or that? this person's house or that? streets or rails or through the woods? - will affect whether he survives or not.

Effi experiences the fall of Berlin as other civilians do. Most of the people left are women. Food is in increasingly short supply. Her real identity and Rosa's are still too dangerous to disclose to anyone. Every other building has been reduced to rubble by relentless Allied bombing and now Soviet shelling. Goebbels' propaganda machine still spreads propaganda about secret weapons, about a surprise peace deal bringing the US and Britain into the war against the Russians, about German armies poised to relieve Berlin, and a few people actually still believe it. Many people flee to the West towards Allied lines, knowing the Red Army will rape every German woman they can find.

Paul, as his own unit is decimated and he finds himself without orders, must steer clear of insane SS types while still seeking to do his duty as a soldier - and wondering what, exactly, his duty now is.

The odds for any of them - German soldier, German woman, Anglo-American journalist/spy - surviving this cataclysm are iffy.

Downing keeps ratcheting up the tension, and the story moves fast as the net closes on Berlin. The reader knows each day brings the war significantly closer to its finish and its aftermath. Russell, Paul and Effi and circle around in the dying city, and you wonder when and how they will finally meet one another.

What makes this series great is its understanding of the shades of gray created by dual citizenship, by competing ideologies and dictatorships, by marriage, by blood, by familiarity. The beginners course on World War II is about good guys and bad guys. The advanced course gets into all the things blurring that.

Like the Jewish informers still, in 1945, working for the Gestapo, walking the streets and fingering other Jews they recognize who are living in hiding.

Or the American agreement not to enter Berlin. Is it to let the Red Army have its day after fighting the brunt of the war against the Nazis? Or is it to continuing letting them take most of the casualties, with the postwar lines of occupation already decided? Are the Communists heroic anti-fascists and partisans, or part of a death machine as formidable as Hitler's? Amidst this all, individuals just try to survive.

Russell is mostly English, a Tommy fighting in the trenches in World War I, but has U.S. citizenship through his mother. He was a Communist in the 1920s, but has long since walked away from that. Germany may be the home of the Nazis, but it's also home to those he loves, like Paul and Effi, and more widely to a city, Berlin, whose style, sophistication and sarcasm had always held it a bit apart from the Nazi ethos.

And his circle embodies the pros and cons - former brother-in-law Thomas, whose business protects Jewish employees until well into the war; Effi's sister Zarah, her husband a fanatical Nazi to the end; Paul, whose heart is torn as a child by wanting to be as German and patriotic as his friends, while having a father who's a foreigner and quite skeptical of this whole Hitler thing.

One vignette has Russell encounter a German Communist railway worker who helps hide him and a scientist on his spy team. Russell realizes what romantic and idealistic views the man holds about Communism - having been isolated from it, and the terror state it's become, for decades - and how disillusioned he'll become once seeing his beloved revolution in action.

And while the liberation of some cities is overwhelmingly positive, the fall of Berlin is darkened by our knowledge of what will follow - the violence against helpless civilians, the rape of the women, a new dictatorship succeeding the old one, the gulags and POW camps in the East replacing the Nazi death camp system. Only the choice of victims will change.