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Shanghai on the Metro: Spies, Intrigue, and the French Between the Wars Review

Updated on July 6, 2024

Between 1919 and 1939 France was, other than colonial wars, at peace. You might not know this from reading French books and the newspapers however, which were full of legions of tales of spies, dark plots, conspiracies, and the “permanent war” waged between nations by their agents, with suspects including Germans, Muslims, White Russians, anti-colonial resistance movements, terrorists, and above all else red Comintern agents. French newspapers spun lurid tales of foreign plots against France, and the tales of French adventurers and various spies, both French and international, real and imagined, filled legion after legion of books that continued to fly off the presses in their thousands, even at the peak of the Great Depression. Shanghai on the Metro: Spies, Intrigue, and the French Between the Wars by Michael Miller looks at the development of espionage and its usage during the Great War, but even more importantly how travel, adventure, espionage, the memory of the war, and the conditions of the Interwar shaped French cultural life and society during these years.

Spies have always existed of course, or at least have for as long as human civilization has – there are jokes about it being the second oldest profession, and a lot of the time it overlaps with the oldest one. Any reading of French history around the First World War dredges up a lot of references to spies and infiltrators for sure: August 1914: France, the Great War, and a Month that Changed World History. I can remember pointing out absurdities such as Maggi advertisements being feared to be secret supply caches for German soldiers, it being feared that there were hundreds of thousands of Germans in Paris ready to rise up, and that there were spies setting up targeting signs for German bombers. The French also had stories about the Franco-Prussian War and the Germans implanting arbitrarily massive numbers of spies into eastern France, with 30,000 as a commonly cited number.

But as Shanghai on the Metro explores, these fears redoubled and changed in nature due to the influence of the First World War. The strategic effects of spies turned out to be limited (the only two major intelligence or political work coups were unrelated – the British interception of the Zimmerman Telegram, and the Germans sending Lenin into Russia in a sealed train), but again, you wouldn’t have believed this from reading the memoirs of the spies. Intelligence services and their capabilities multiplied dramatically, with huge new plans – lurid schemes of sabotage, hugely ambitious germ and biological warfare proposals, and colonial destabilization that would cause rival imperial empires to go up in flame. In the post-war era, these facets, combined with the ever-present memory of the war, gave rise to the trope of “permanent war,” with a constant subterfuge of spies and agents conducting a war of the shadows for national superiority.

This was also linked to the rise of new ideologies, such as fascism and above all else communism, with in France in particular the fear of shadowy communist infiltrators who in particular aimed to overthrow the French colonial empire. Vast new populations of stateless people and emigres popped up, most famously the White Russians who had fled communist victory in the Russian Civil War, and these offered fertile ground for ongoing espionage and subterfuge. All of this combined to keep espionage and spies in the limelight. Shanghai on the Metro doesn’t make any sense to quantify nor to institutionalize this (indeed it generally tends to be rather dismissive of the value of most of these espionage efforts),+ and this is not its effort: rather it explores some of the features of this, and above all else the cultural representations of this and what they had to say about French society. This is something to keep in mind since one can easily get the impression from the title that it is a work on French espionage: it isn’t, although it does discuss it at length, but instead is focused on the culture and image of espionage.

Linked to espionage were other aspects of mobility and Interwar dramas. New transportation technologies with cars and trucks meant that the world became smaller, but continued to, in the mountains of Central Asia and swathes of Africa, offer relatively untouched lands. Air travel was another realm of adventure, one with dashing heroes such as Jean Moroz, who had stories such as taking off of mountain slopes trying to deliver the mail. There was still a sense of romance and drama attached to these travels, danger and excitement, one that is mostly gone today. Bustling and chaotic metropoles such as Shanghai had sprung up, rich with scandals and contrasts.

It can only really be said that the French delighted in these stories, found them wonderfully titillating and enjoyable. Travelers went across the world and wrote about their experiences – as one example, there were no fewer than 125 books on the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s written by French travelers. French travelers delighted in telling stories about their travels through East Asia and the Middle East. The newspapers were full of many a dramatic tale about assassinations and kidnappings, with white Russian emigres being particularly favored topics for drama.

One of the most interesting parts about this is how, in contrast to other cultural writings on France in the period, Shanghai on the Metro depicts the French as having self-confidence and vivacity. Most books focus on France’s sense of damage, its turning in on itself, the sclerotic and failing final years of the Third Republic, the sense of fear and anxiety. There were elements of this in the story, it’s hard to avoid the sense of frivolity which engulfed the French, constantly focusing on minor scandals instead of serious issues, a feeling of the decline of French prestige and the French language, and of course the huge number of spies gives at least some feeling of the potential for foreign invasion, but as a whole when the French went on travels abroad they wrote positively about their home, and yet they still wanted to engage with and see the world.

This is not a uniquely French story, even if it focuses on France, and it helps to understand and see the broader culture of the Interwar period. The sense of novelty, the truly global sense of repercussions (including the sense that they could impinge back on Europe, as compared to the comfortable security of the pre-war era), the love of adventure, the romantic attachment to the vanishing unexplored and local, its sense of fragility, the raw edges and the fears of racial and political contamination from the East and communism: it could have been written about many countries, and this helps to center France as part of the world even as the story focuses on it in particular.

Shanghai on the Metro is a brilliant cultural history. It manages to convey the feeling of an era and to shed new light on French cultural life, one that moves beyond the normal grim and sad tale of gloom and decline, showing the humor, gaiety, and even self-confidence of France between the wars. It both gives a wide range of anecdotal incidents, but also connects them to broader trends and developments, written with real elan and personality. A very enjoyable and engaging work of cultural history.

5 stars for Shanghai on the Metro

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