Reinhard Gehlen, the Friendly Nazi

Reinhard Gehlen, the Friendly Nazi

Good guys doing good, bad guys doing bad and, in the very serious waning days of World War II in Europe and after some initial moments of clarity, complete and total confusion about who was who. Into this heady confusion steps Nazi Reinhard Gehlen, a Wehrmacht major general and man with a plan so compelling that after the Allies announced victory on June 5, 1945, he found himself employed in the U.S. three months later.

The plan? The formation of the Gehlen Organization from the still-smoking embers of the Nazi intelligence agency — designed to bury the Soviets and fueled by intelligence assets Gehlen had hidden all over the Alps and Bavaria.

Which, if you think about it, was a bold move for a guy who had already used up a few of his nine lives. Gehlen barely escaped after being involved in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler and the reprisals that followed, making him the perfect man to have the plan. His Foreign Armies East gave him a deep understanding of what theSoviets had been up to, despite the fact that his assessments were routinely dismissed by Hitler as “defeatist.” But Gehlen was as grim about German war prospects before the cessation of hostilities as he was positively “upbeat” about America’s prospects after them. Specifically with an eye toward getting as many ex-SS and ex-Wehrmacht officers hired as possible.

Getting hired put them on the payroll instead of on trial. But for this to make sense today you have to remember that the postwar setting was crazy. There was espionage and counterespionage in the Soviet satellites, the partitioning of East Germany to the Soviets and West Germany to the U.S., Britain and France, as well as President Harry S. Truman’s Operation Paperclip, which brought more than 1,500 German scientists and engineers over to the U.S. — all of which largely meant you couldn’t keep track of the players without a scorecard. Moreover, although Truman had demanded that anyone hired not be Nazis, members of the Nazi party or Nazi sympathizers, this demand was roundly ignored and the truth possibly hidden from Truman himself but most certainly from the American public.

And the scorecard from Gehlen’s perspective amounted to a 1948 annual budget of roughly $14.7 million in today’s dollars. Not bad for an organization that eight years later grew to about 4,000 people, was absorbed into a legitimate German agency, the Federal Intelligence Service, that exists to this day and that kept Gehlen employed until he was forced into retirement in 1968. The Germans gave him a pension when he retired and, allegedly, so did the Americans.

“For as generally unsuccessful as Gehlen was,” said David H. Lippman, author of World War II Plus 75: The Road to War, referring to Gehlen’s most notable failure (the infiltration by Soviet agents, which got him dismissed in 1968), “he was pretty successful. And a very shadowy character, like most spymasters.”

Success can be defined in many ways, but a former Nazi general dying comfortably at 77, in 1979, unprosecuted for anything related to the war years or his rumored involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy — most notably cited by Dick Russell in his critically acclaimed almost-600-page book, The Man Who Knew Too Much — certainly ranks right up there.