World War II had been over scarcely a week when a U.S. Army DC-3 touched down outside of Washington, D.C., ferrying a top-secret German cargo. Stepping off the plane, possibly disguised as an American general, was Nazi legend Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler's master spy.
His slight physique - five feet eight, 130 pounds - belied his strategic importance to the U.S. officials who welcomed him with open arms. As chief of the Third Reich's Foreign Armies East, Gehlen had been Hitler's most senior officer on the Russian front. He had run an elaborate network of Nazi spies against the Soviet Union - the new villains in the budding Cold War.
Though he was forty-three years old, and Germany lay in ruin, Gehlen's best years were still ahead of him. He was about to make an offer that America's military and governing elites couldn't refuse: He would put his clandestine nexus of Nazi SS officers, underground fascist sympathizers, fugitive war criminals, and encyclopedic Soviet files into the service of Uncle Sam.
A shrewd survivor, Cehlen had buried his organization's plenary files on the USSR in the Austrian Alps as soon as Nazi Germany's collapse became imminent. Gehlen knew that the battle against communism would replace the war against fascist Germany as the overriding military and political goal of the capitalist West. "My view," he wrote in his memoir, "was that there would be a place even for Germany in a Europe rearmed for defense against Communism. Therefore we must set our sights on the Western powers, and give ourselves two objectives: to help defend against communist expansion and to recover and reunify Germany's lost territories." (Apparently, Gehlen's bargaining chip was so valuable, his host were willing to overlook the general's still-current ideas about Deustchland uber alles.)
Shortly after Germany's surrender to the Allies, Gehlen had descended from his Alpine retreat, audaciously turning himself over the American authorities. "I am head of the Section Foreign Armies East in German Army headquarters," he announced in his prepared speech. "I have information to give of the highest importance to your government."
"So have they all," snapped an army captain, who sent the arrogant, hot-tempered general packing to the camp at Salzburg with the rest of the Nazi prisoners. But he wouldn't stew there for very long. Within a month, with the Soviet Union demanding custody of Gehlen and his files, Hitler's spy master began to receive a stream of important American visitors.
At Fort Hunt near Washington, were an NCO butler and several white-jacketed orderlies catered to his needs, Gehlen conferred with President Truman's national security advisor, a gaggle of army intelligence generals, and Allen Dulles, a giant in America's wartime intelligence outfit, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Later Dulles would take the helm of the CIA.
After a year in Washington, Gehlen returned to the Father-land - not as a prisoner, but as an influential agent in America's anticommunist war of nerves with Russia. Gehlen took command of his old organization and became America's foremost intelligence source on the Soviet Union. His influence over American policy would be sweeping; and like the proverbial Faustian pact, there would be later reverberations: His exaggerated reports of Russian military strength would escalate the Cold War to dangerous peaks.
How the U.S. government came to collaborate with Gehlen and hundreds of other high-ranking Nazis is a rarely told chapter of American history. American officials, increasingly paranoid about the threat of Soviet influence in postwar Europe and around the world, found expedient soul mates in the Nazi scientists and SS officers they recruited. After all, Nazi Germany's fascists were vehemently opposed to communism, too. Invoking the exigencies of the Cold War, Dulles explained away any misgivings about hiring Gehlen: "He's on our side, and that's all that matters."
Even as the U.S. military was hunting down Nazi war criminals, other branches of the U.S. government were quietly enlisting many of the same fugitives. Project Paperclip was the U.S. War Department's code name for its secret importation of Nazi scientists, using sanitized, rewritten "records" to sneak the Germans through U.S. immigration. In Germany, many of those scientists had benefited from fatal experiments performed on prisoners at Dachau and from slave labor at other concentration camps. During the early 1980s the U.S. Department of Justice identified numerous Nazi veterans who were still living in America.
Truman's National Security Council issued classified directives sanctioning the use of former Nazi collaborators. The paper trail was subject to a massive coverup, and the complete history of America's dalliance with Nazis remains partially obscured. They may not have save Hitler's brain, as the B-movie conspiracy theory had it, but the Fuhrer's intelligence apparatus found a new host, transplanted onto America's spy and military agencies. It's ironic that when President Truman demobilized the OSS, he warned against setting up a permanent "Gestapo-like" intelligence agency, even as his administration was dotting the i's and crossing the t's on its make-work program for former and possibly not-so-former Nazis and their quislings.
Among the notorious Nazi fugitives quietly pardoned and employed by the postwar American government for intelligence work was Klaus Barbie, the SS "Butcher of Lyon." Barbie worked with Gehlen after the war and even lived for a time in the United States.
Though Gehlen promised his handlers, "on principle," that he wouldn't recruit former SS and Gestapo men, he immediately broke his official word, hiring at least six SS and Sicherheitsdienst (SD) veterans. And America's intelligence elite looked the other way.
Franz Six was described by Adolf Eichmann as "a real eager beaver" when it came to the genocide of Jews. "The physical elimination of Eastern Jewry would deprive Jewry of its biological reserves," Six had announced at a conference on the so-called Jewish Question. He put his plan into practice in Smolensk, where his unit murdered some two hundred people in cold blood, among them "thirty-eight intellectual Jews who had tried to create unrest and discontent in the newly established Ghetto of Smolensk," he reported to headquarters.
Emil Augsberg, a staffer under SS chief Himmler, also had led a murder squad in Russia. According to his Nazi Party records, he achieved "extraordinary result…in special tasks," an SS euphemism for mass murder of Jews. Gehlen would find good use for Augsburg's specialty: overseeing assassinations behind "enemy" lines.
For the Gehlen Organization, both Six and Augsberg reactivated their Nazi spy networks in the Soviet Union and hired unemployed German intelligence veterans, many of whom were fellow fugitives. Gehlen must have realized that unofficial Allied policy favored the employment of war criminals: Augsberg was simultaneously moonlighting for several other U.S. intelligence agencies and a French government clandestine group, all the while serving in a private network of ex-SS officers.
When the U.S. Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) caught up to Six, he was convicted of war crimes and got a twenty-year sentence. (Augsberg was luckier: the CIC didn't arrest him - it hired him.) After only four years in prison, though, Six won clemency - and U.S. permission to rejoin the Gehlen Organization as a valuable asset to Western security.
Gehlen's group not only formed the core in America's absorption of Hitler's espionage elite, it also helped midwife the newborn CIA: During the early postwar years, all of the Agency's anti-Soviet assets in Eastern Europe were managed and mastered by Gehlen. Sometimes his reports were retyped verbatim on CIA stationary and passed along to Truman. Gehlen also held great sway over NATO's intelligence and strategy. According to one estimate, the master spy generated 70 percent of NATO's information on the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Europe.
In effect, the West's bulwark against the USSR was utterly dependent on information flowing from an operation run by former Nazis - and said information was often spurious, at that.
In his sobering book on America's recruitment of Nazis, Blowback, Christopher Simpson notes that Gehlen's alarmist reports helped ratchet up tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War: "Gehlen provided U.S. Army intelligence and later the CIA with many of the dire reports that were used to justify increased U.S. military budgets and intensified U.S./USSR hostilities," Simpson writes.
Gehlen's exaggerated reports about an imminent Soviet attack - when in fact the Russians were still licking their postwar wounds - came close to touching off several times. According to Gehlen biographer E. H. Cookridge and others, in 1948Gehlen nearly convinced the United States that the Soviets were about to launch an assault on the West. He advised that the West would be wise to strike first. later, during the 1950s, his erroneous claims that the Soviets had outpaced America in the military buildup fueled fears about the so-called missile gap, which helped stoke up anticommie feelings to feverish levels.
"The [CIA] loved Gehlen because he fed us what we wanted to hear," former CIA officer Victor Marchetti told Simpson. "We used his stuff constantly, and we fed it to everybody else: the Pentagon; the White House; the newspapers. They loved it, too. But it was hyped up Russian boogeyman junk, and it did a lot of damage to this country."
Ironically, the Org also damaged the CIA's anti-Soviet work. The Org's underground groups were so riddled with Soviet double agents, that Western intelligence was compromised for decades. John Loftus, formerly the chief prosecutor of the Justice Department's Nazi-hinting section, summed up the Soviet infiltration of anti-East Bloc groups this way: "It really shows how Soviet intelligence was able to keep communism afloat for the last seventy years."
Intentionally or not, Gehlen undermined the very "national security" that had justified his recruitment in the first place.
Which brings us to some interesting, yet unsubstantiated, speculation. Some researchers proposed that Hitler's haughty spy master had a plan B, an ulterior motive beyond the personal survival instinct and rabid anticommunism. Conspiracy researcher Carl Oglesby contends that Gehlen's postwar organization operated as a cover for the Odessa, an international underground set up by deputy fuhrer Martin Bormann to preserve the defeated Nazi Reich. Oglesby calls Gehlen's group "by far the most audacious, most critical, and most essential part of the entire Odessa undertaking." Military intelligence historian (and espionage veteran) Colonel William Corson seconds this notion.
The Gehlen Org, Oglesby argues, provided a have for fleeing Odessa members by putting them on the American intelligence payroll - a brilliant gambit. More than a few of Gehlen's operatives were indeed Odessa members.
Oglesby's evidence is curious, if not entirely convincing. A declassified CIA document from the 1970s reports that while he was in a U.S. Army VIP prison camp in Wiesbaden, "Gehlen sought and received approval" for his deal with the Americans from Hitler's appointed successor, Admiral Karl Doenitz. "The German chain of command was still in effect," Oglesby concludes, "and it approved of what Gehlen was doing with the Americans."
Whether or not the Gehlen Org was a diversion to preserve an underground Nazi empire is an open question. But Gehlen did manage to attain his goal of splitting away from U.S. intelligence to serve the fledgling West German government. Gehlen's Org continues to live on, as Germany's BND intelligence service.
The Org's legacy also survives in America. The forty-year defense buildup that helped transform America into the world's largest debtor nation, as well as the ongoing exploits of Gehlen's godchild, the CIA, in the expedient realms of political assassination, propaganda, and covert operations certainly owe a debt to Hitler's master spy, and the men who signed him up to "our side."