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3. THE HOLCROFT COVENANT (1978)
TIME PERIOD: Late 1970s into the near future of the 1980s.
The crowded sub-genre of espionage tales about fugitive Nazi war criminals working with a younger generation of acolytes to launch a Fourth Reich probably reached its height with this Ludlum novel. Every entertaining element of that sub-genre came into play in The Holcroft Covenant, all of them woven into one epic-length story.
Take The ODESSA File, Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil and roll them in with the Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie plus the real-life files of Nazi Hunters like Simon Wiesenthal. Now stir in Robert Ludlum’s supreme talent for making implausibly melodramatic espionage plots seem chillingly possible and enjoy!
PLEASE DON’T JUDGE THE HOLCROFT COVENANT BY THE HORRIBLE FILM ADAPTATION FROM 1985. THAT MOVIE IS A SILLY AND INEPT BUTCHERING OF THE NOVEL.
HERO: Noel Holcroft, an American architect who is secretly the son of the fictional Heinrich Clausen, a masterful economist whose financial acumen was a cornerstone of Hitler’s Third Reich. Noel’s mother fled Germany when she found she was pregnant and did not want her hated husband Heinrich raising their child. She married an American man who raised Noel with her as if he was his own child.
All of that seems like ancient history to thirty-something Noel Holcroft, a successful New Yorker going into business for himself after working as an architect at various prestigious outfits. From out of the blue, representatives from the Grande Banque de Geneve contact Noel about a numbered Swiss Bank Account which his father left to him and the children of two associates.
Holcroft initially wants nothing to do with the bloody, tainted fortune of nearly 900 million dollars but the bankers from Geneva let him read documents from his father. In those aged documents addressed to his then-unborn son, Heinrich Clausen states he regrets being part of Hitler’s organization and – now that he has learned of the ongoing Final Solution at the death-camps – he wants to make amends. The secret account is the tool.
If Noel carries out his father’s wishes, he will inherit two million dollars from the bank account, with the rest going to Holocaust survivors or their families. All of this must be done in secret to prevent the Swiss Bank Account’s funds from being tied up in court for decades by claims against the Nazis from other individuals and nations victimized by the Third Reich.
This story element shows Ludlum at his best: the lure of two million dollars provides the very real incentive to Noel to go along with all the secrecy surrounding this strange Covenant of his father’s. More cynically, readers could say that it actually provides a rationalization for Holcroft to play along.
Our protagonist can assure himself that “Hey, if I don’t go along with this plan then hundreds of millions of dollars will never reach their intended beneficiaries … THAT’s why I’m cooperating, NOT just because of the money coming to ME.” This self-deceiving motive makes Noel Holcroft seem more real than many other Ludlum heroes.
VILLAIN: Johann Von Tiebolt, the son of one of Heinrich Clausen’s cohorts in diverting funds to the Geneva Account. Johann is known to the world at large as John Tennyson and is the designated New Fuhrer who will lead the Fourth Reich.
Yes, as would have been suspected by anyone whose mind wasn’t clouded by the possibility of two million dollars and a life of financial independence, the Geneva Account is REALLY intended for a global network of Nazi descendants and new recruits.
Johann Von Tiebolt/ John Tennyson has emerged as the ideal leader of the conspiracy. Blonde, blue-eyed and in excellent physical condition this New Fuhrer poses as a journalist. That cover lets him roam the world secretly committing political assassinations and otherwise furthering the goals of the gestating Fourth Reich.
SYNOPSIS: The 900 million dollars in the Geneva Account will finance the finalization of the decades-long plans the Nazis’ network has been working on. Those plans are for literal world conquest by way of political, financial and media manipulation. Noel’s father was lying to his son when he wrote about his Covenant.
Realizing that the Fuhrer’s madness had doomed the Third Reich, Clausen joined the Wolfschanze plot to kill Hitler but when that failed he knew he had to find another way to preserve the Nazi cause. Heinrich diverted funds from Hitler’s war effort, from unsuspecting Nazi officers and from treasures outrightly stolen from conquered nations and with those funds established the secret Swiss Bank Account.
Meanwhile his co-conspirators oversaw a plan to plant “the best and the brightest” of Nazi youth as sleeper agents around the world. Johann Von Tiebolt was one of those children. Headquartered in South America, this far-reaching and decades-spanning conspiracy would be run by Nazi war criminals in hiding and by new disciples to the Nazi philosophy.
Noel Holcroft slowly comes to realize all of this but becomes less and less able to do anything about it. Although he starts out searching for the now-adult children of his father’s co-conspirators, the escalating violence he encounters every step of the way forces him into actions which wind up marking him as an international fugitive.
Holcroft’s odyssey in South America to find the Von Tiebolts gets him caught in the middle of intrigues between wealthy Nazi fugitives, remnants of the ODESSA network and international Nazi hunters. Out of necessity Noel acquires the survival skills to keep himself alive, aided by Johann Von Tiebolt’s beautiful sister Helden, who becomes Holcroft’s love interest.
Helden is unaware of her brother’s role as the New Fuhrer and thinks he really is just an international journalist. She has hidden from the shame of her family’s Nazi legacy her entire life and enthusiastically joins Noel in the effort to elude their enemies and use the Geneva Account to make amends. (So she thinks.)
On to Europe to find the final heirs of the Covenant – the Kesslers. This search is complicated by agents of the Nachrichtendienst: an organization of Nazi-hating Germans determined to stop the Geneva Account from being used to launch the Fourth Reich.
Meanwhile, Johann oversees final preparations of his own, covertly manipulating the Western World’s intelligence agencies into conflict with the Nachrichtendienst to get those enemy organizations fighting each other instead of him. He also promises to untangle Holcroft’s legal problems for him in order to assure smooth sailing for accessing the Geneva Account.
SPOILERS: Yakov Ben-Gadiz, one of the Jewish operatives allied with the Nachrichtendienst, seemingly arrives like the cavalry. Yakov helps Noel and Helden and fills in the few details that the couple have not yet pieced together about how they’ve been exploited.
Our heroes form a plan to defeat Johann and his co-conspirators BUT in the most surprising finale to any Robert Ludlum novel …
The villains WIN. Johann/ John Tennyson gains access to the Geneva funds and – as planned – uses them to finalize his organization’s plans around the world.
By way of very brief mock news stories Ludlum lays out the successful political, financial and “insurgent” military blitzkrieg overseen by Johann. After less than a year of bloodshed the Fourth Reich lives in all but name. Shrewdly, Johann and company do NOT announce themselves as Nazis, they just DO all the things the Nazis wanted to do.
In this new global order the U.N. is abandoned as obsolete and a new outfit is formed called Anvil. That group will be like a new U.N. but with actual, supreme political power around the world. Needless to say, Johann will be the head of Anvil, and is praised for bringing peace and stability to the world.
Noel, Helden and Yakov have survived in hiding and have formed the seeds of covert resistance to the new world order (as it were). Their debut plan: to assassinate Johann.
COMMENT: The downbeat ending – which comes across like it’s from a Pilot Movie for a television series – is the main reason I rate The Holcroft Covenant above so many other Robert Ludlum novels.
Not only did Ludlum nicely employ all the ingredients of Resurgent Nazi pulp fiction but he wrapped it all up with an ending nobody would have seen coming.
And that epilogue is especially jarring! In just a few words the author paints a chilling picture of a world firmly in the grip of its new fascist leaders. A dictatorship with a seemingly friendly face, content to rule through subtlety more than blatant intimidation.
Since the United Nations was formed in the aftermath of the defeat of the Axis Powers, Johann’s formation of Anvil in the aftermath of his victory takes on even more sinister meaning. Anvil will use the old UN building, so it almost plays like a more finessed version of Hitler forcing France to surrender in the train car which hosted Germany’s surrender in World War One.
As a sign of Robert Ludlum’s gradual descent into mediocrity and, ultimately, Dime Novel hackery, he would re-use the mechanics of Johann Von Tiebolt’s plan for global conquest in some of his future novels like The Aquitaine Progression, The Apocalypse Watch and others. The plan didn’t work for those villains, however.
The Holcroft Covenant marked the end of a certain story-telling approach by Ludlum. Up through this book the heroes of his novels were not professional superspies. They tended to be down-to-Earth regular guys put in extraordinary situations where the sheer animal will to survive was what saw them through.
Though Robert’s tales DID feature superspy characters, those impossibly talented espionage professionals tended to be villains. Think of Stefan Varak in The Chancellor Manuscript, Lawrence Fasset in The Osterman Weekend, or MacKenzie Hawkins in The Road to Gandolfo. (Which I’m always tempted to call The Gandolfo Road just to make it conform to Ludlum’s usual title format.)
Johann Von Tiebolt, Codename: The Tinamou, is yet another physical and mental paragon of intelligence agents who works for the bad guys. After this novel, Ludlum’s prodigious masterspies were, often as not, the main characters. Think of Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity, or Brandon Scofield and Vasili Taleniekov in The Matarese Circle, or Michael Havelock and Jenna Karras in The Parsifal Mosaic.
(NOTE: Even though intelligence agents like Matthew Canfield in The Scarlatti Inheritance and David Spaulding in The Rhinemann Exchange were the heroes of their respective stories neither of them were veritable James Bonds like Bourne, Scofield or Havelock. Canfield is even singled out for being the worst shot in his section.)
At any rate, ever since I first read The Holcroft Covenant years ago I’ve wanted to see a television series about Noel, Helden and Yakov leading a rebellion against Anvil’s global dictatorship.
If the virtually forgotten alternate history novel The Man in the High Tower can inspire a series then surely the strength of Robert Ludlum’s name would carry a series set in the alternate future established by the dark finale of The Holcroft Covenant. +++
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