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6 April 2022

What the Nazis did next

Danny Orbach’s intriguing book Fugitives details how former Third Reich officers sold their services to the West – and turned up the heat of the Cold War.

By William Boyd

A couple of years ago I was writing a six-part, Cold War spy-thriller for television that was set in Berlin in 1961, during the summer months before the Berlin Wall suddenly divided the city on Sunday 13 August. In one scene the protagonist, a British spy, visits an old-soldiers’ club while trying to track down an ex-Wehrmacht officer. Unthinkingly, I wrote something like: “CUT TO – a group of elderly men in their 60s.” Then, I thought, no – that’s far too old. In 1961 the Second World War had only been over for 16 years. These “old soldiers” would barely be middle-aged. It was an intriguing thought-experiment and it made me reconsider the whole immediate postwar demographic of Germany.

In the 1960s, let alone the 1950s, any German male in his thirties or forties could easily be assumed to have participated in the German war effort to one degree or another – whether as honest citizens, soldiers or more sordid, evil apparatchiks. What happened to all those survivors of the defeated and demobilised German armed forces? What happened to the former members of the SD, the SS and the Gestapo? Very few were captured, tried and punished. Most – it stands to reason – quietly blended back in to postwar German society. It is estimated that at the end of the conflict in 1945 the Nazi party had around 8.5 million members. Only a tiny percentage were hunted down and prosecuted. What happened to the millions of others?

This question is particularly germane to Danny Orbach’s highly intriguing book Fugitives, about the role former Nazis played in the nascent and shambolic Cold War espionage world. There were three basic choices available to these defeated and demoralised Nazis – join the West (their enemies), or the communists, represented by the Soviet Union (also their enemies), or sell their expertise to the highest bidder.

[See also: The cult of Stalin the intellectual]

Orbach concentrates on a key player who made the first choice, General Reinhard Gehlen, an espionage officer who had been responsible for intelligence analysis on the Eastern Front. At the war’s end, Gehlen realised he had a potent asset in the mass of information he had gathered on the Soviet Union and the Red Army. He had all his files microfilmed and then offered them to the Allies. He was recruited and effectively allowed to set up his own espionage operation – known as the Gehlen Org – which later morphed into the Bundesnachrichtendienst, the BND, West Germany’s federal espionage agency.

There was only one problem. Most of Gehlen’s spooks were former Nazis and one of them, Heinz Felfe, was a Soviet double-agent, one of the most successful “moles” in espionage history.  From the outset the Gehlen Org and then the BND was hopelessly compromised. When queried about the number of Nazis he recruited, Gehlen argued that the former members of Hitler’s security organisations had indispensable experience and knowledge in fighting communism – that, as Orbach writes, “they simply had to be employed”.

Gehlen was proudly exhibiting to his American spymasters what he termed “the German way” or Auftragstaktik (literally “mission tactics”). In this model, a superior officer issues instructions to his subordinates and then does not interfere with how that mission is carried out. The end – the accomplishment of the mission – justifies any means, in other words. One can easily see how in the world of espionage such laxity could have disastrous consequences. Heinz Felfe’s systematic betrayals were a consequence of the Auftragstaktik mentality.

But for those Nazis who could not bear to join their former enemies, either the Eastern or Western versions, there were other countries that would welcome their dubious proficiency. A large part of Orbach’s book is devoted to the role played by expatriate Nazis in Syria and in Egypt and other North African countries, where they “peddled intelligence”, ran guns to Arab freedom fighters (particularly the FLN in Algeria), and helped Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt attempt to build ballistic missiles. Giving covert aid to Arab countries was also a way of sustaining Nazi anti-Semitism and it was not long before Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, began to pursue the German scientists and former spies through kidnap, letter-bombs and straightforward assassination.

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This section of Orbach’s book sometimes reads like a caper movie – tales of dead-drop blunders, networks collapsing, botched assassinations, incompetent spies and lucky escapes – but because the key players were Nazis the darker undertones keep returning.

President Nasser’s missile-building programme was almost an eastern Mediterranean version of the Cuban missile crisis. In 1962, at the Revolution Day parade, Nasser proudly displayed Egypt’s new long-range rockets to his cheering populace. The Israeli government panicked, fearing a “second Holocaust” and rightly assuming Nasser was developing intercontinental ballistic missiles with only one target in mind. Moreover, these long-range rockets were being developed by German scientists with expertise gathered during Germany’s wartime rocket programme. David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli prime minister, ordered Mossad to initiate a campaign of terror and intimidation against the German scientists and their families, in Egypt and Germany, codenamed Operation Damocles. Mossad’s key weapon was a letter-bomb that could withstand any amount of rough handling. It only detonated when the letter was actually drawn out of the envelope. The technology was impressive but, of course, very often the person opening the envelope was not the target. Collateral damage was inevitable.

In fact, the Egyptian missile programme was beset with production difficulties and operational failures, while Operation Damocles caused a series of international scandals and made the relationship between West Germany and Israel parlous. As the threat of the missiles receded so Israeli-West German relationships improved. German scientists resigned or were lured back to Germany and victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 re-established the Middle East power balance in Israel’s favour. By then, Israel had its own nuclear deterrent.

[See also: Following grey whales from Mexico to Alaska]

In his epilogue, Orbach states that his book is “first and foremost about losers, the detritus of history”. Yet these “losers” generated a huge amount of alarm and crisis in Europe and North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. He argues that reactions to the, in truth, not very effective threat posed by these men were exacerbated by the repeated use of the word “Nazi”. They were “Nazi” spies and gun-runners, “Nazi” rocket scientists, “Nazi” double-agents. It was the word itself that made governments and espionage agencies paranoid and fearful. “As the 1960s progressed,” Orbach writes, “all sides came to understand that the German fugitives and mercenaries were not as important as once believed.” However, even eight decades after the end of the Second World War, the word still has the potential to inflame and motivate, as we can see with Vladimir Putin’s crazed justification for invading Ukraine.

Orbach writes in a fluent and readable style, though perhaps somewhat over-seasoned with clichés (questions burn, poverty is grinding, attempts are last-ditch, nooses tighten, and so on). Nevertheless, Fugitives is genuinely revelatory and Orbach’s research is impressive and scholarly. More to the point, the  many fascinating narratives he relates here could easily provide the raw material for a dozen espionage novels. I have a feeling a lot of writers will be inspired.

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William Boyd’s Cold War thriller “Spy City” is streaming on BritBox. His latest novel is “Trio” (Penguin)

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special