Our Nazis: the Gehlen Org

Photograph Source: Reinhard Gehlen as a Wehrmacht Major General in 1945. US Army, Signal Corps – Public Domain

In February 2019 Germany opened a brand new intelligence complex in the city of Berlin. The new headquarters of the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst or Federal Intelligence Service) occupies a huge space—by the way, much as STASI or State Security Service once did in East Berlin the former German Democratic Republic—and supposedly employs a total of over six thousand persons. The move from its former secret location in the Munich suburb of Pullach reflects both the centralization in Berlin of federal institutions that after World War Two were widely dispersed throughout Germany and importantly, European Union-NATO leader Germany’s efforts to get away from the nation’s Nazi past. The new BND location in Germany’s capital city seems also a giant step away from the former obsessive secrecy of its location in Munich, hidden away in that obscure suburb and operating under a cover name and, above all, until the late 1950s an affiliate of the CIA. The move to Berlin can be interpreted as the BND’s declaration of sovereignty.

The BND dates back to its formation in 1956 when it replaced the CIA-affiliate, known (or rather largely unknown), as the Gehlen Organization, named after its creator, the East European specialist, former German Lieutenant General Reinhard Gehlen. In the immediate postwar, Gehlen Org, as it was called in intelligence parlance, zeroed in on Soviet-dominated East Europe. Its operations were financed by the CIA and staffed by hundreds of Gehlen’s own Nazi intelligence staff and former SS men released from West European internment camps to join Gehlen’s first headquarters in the Spessart Mountains in central Germany. Since American intelligence of those times knew little about the Soviet Union, ultra-top secret Gehlen Org was the CIA’s eyes and ears throughout East Europe.

A look at the figure of Reinhard Gehlen and his relationship with the CIA is well worthwhile since to a certain extent he and his SS men established early postwar policies of the USA vis-à-vis its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. Policies which have remained largely intact. When the former General’s staff swelled to some three thousand persons his Gehlen Org was transferred to a twenty-five acre compound in Munich-Pullach where it operated under the innocuous name of South German Industrial Development Organization. By the early fifties Gehlen Org was said to employ some four thousand intelligence specialists in Germany and a like number of undercover agents throughout Eastern Europe. Its work consisted of the infiltration of secret agents into East European countries, espionage, analysis and the laying of policy guidelines for the CIA.

The CIA-Gehlen secret link is in fact one of the most disturbing examples of the U.S. relationship with Nazism and Nazi Germany dating back to the formative period of Hitlerian Nazism in the early 1920s. Few people know even the name “Gehlen”. Yet, he and his SS men not only indoctrinated the newborn CIA but to a great extent determined and led American postwar activities in East Europe and in a special way toward the Soviet Union and Russia today.

Historiography has shown examples of American economic assistance to the young Nazi movement in Munich from 1919-1920, which many U.S. planners saw as a future force to crush Soviet Communism against which the USA along with Great Britain and France had been intervening militarily in Eastern Russia since 1917. As far as America’s collaboration with German Nazism is concerned, silence has been the rule. Moreover, denazification after Nazi Germany’s defeat was a joke. It never happened. Anyone who spent time in Germany even a decade after the end of WWII could hear right and left the refrain of older, non-denazified Germans and high-ranking American military: America and Germany together to crush the Soviet Union!

But Reinhard Gehlen? (born April 3, 1902 in Erfurt, died June 8, 1979 in Munich-Starnberg). What kind of a man was he? Gehlen, the German military intelligence man. German nationalist and traitor. Conspirator and liar. Man of light and dark. Day and night. Both Führer loyal and traitor long before Hitler fired him … perhaps also for incompetence. Gehlen, fake Nazi, opportunist, administrative bungler and nepotist, naive dabbler but also East European expert. All these things in his seventy-seven years. Yet, despite all, he seemed destined to become President of the BND, allegedly thanks to the CIA and also to his friendship with Conrad Adenauer, first Chancellor of the postwar German Federal Republic.

In any case, schemer or brilliant expert in intelligence matters, Reinhard Gehlen was highly praised as he worked his way up through the military ranks, finally reaching the General status. But generalship did not satiate his ambition. He wanted more. From the start he strove for something of his very own. With no one over him. An appealing quality to the early CIA which desired the same. And still does. Whether or not the CIA ever completely mastered Gehlen is a moot question. Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of Russia—was the chance of a lifetime for an enterprising man like Gehlen. He was a military man, an intelligence man, but he contrived to have his very own intelligence organization. That ambition was realized when he took over the Wehrmacht Foreign Armies East (Fremde Heere Ost or FHO) military intelligence service in Eastern Europe, a parallel intelligence gathering organization, separate from the regular army’s Abwehr. He was the expert. The boss. Except for the Führer—whom he bamboozled as he later must have the CIA—his hands were free. So it was no surprise that his information gradually began to differ from that of the Abwehr. His intelligence had the Gehlen stamp.

William T. Vollmann in his marvelous 800-page novel about Germany and Russia and World War Two, Europe Central, inserts examples of his wartime reporting. When General Paulus’s Sixth Army was surrounded by Russian armies which methodically crushed everything inside the encirclement, Fremde Heere Ost (Gehlen) reassured Paulus that “the enemy troop concentrations remained much too weak for far-reaching operations.” Cynicism or incompetence? And while the Sixth Army of 300,000 German soldiers was being crushed and Paulus’s last Panzer tanks had been lost, Gehlen sent him old air reconnaissance photographs in which there was no indication at all of Soviet troop movements. Then when the horse steak rations were ending even for the top officers in the cellars of besieged Stalingrad, Gehlen’s Fremde Heers Ost reported that “the situation of Stalingrad might very well be serious”. Then—ah, that sly and unpredictable Gehlen!—while the German part of Stalingrad was falling and Paulus about to surrender, Gehlen briefed the Führer that “a powerful enemy tank attack was repelled after a temporary break-in” and “enemy artillery fire was strengthening”, “there is enemy pressure on our positions” and “enemy advances on many fronts”, reports which infuriated the Führer.

His increasingly pessimistic reports displeased the Führer to the degree that before war’s end he fired him. But what did our Gehlen care? He was never one to be caught with his pants down. He was prepared. Those misleading reports concerning Stalingrad indicate he had been planning far ahead. During the war years he had collected an enormous quantity of intelligence on the Soviet Union and on the precious Soviet Order of Battle, which he stored in water-tight drums and buried in secret places in Austria. Then like others who could, he let himself and his trusted aids be captured by the American CIC, the Counter Intelligence Corps, where a warm welcome awaited him.

In 1945, the gap in U.S. intelligence about its former ally and new enemy, the Soviet Union, was abysmal. Russia! Communists! Russia! Soviet Union! Who speaks their crazy languages anyway? Few American military men knew anything about those boundless expanses and enigmatic peoples in the East reaching nearly to America. Soviet studies quickly blossomed in American academia. The military began training first hundreds, then thousands of recruits in the languages of East Europe. While anti-Soviet, anti-Russian propaganda intensified, the American mood quickly turned anti-Soviet, anti-communist. The Cold War was revving up. The U.S. wartime OSS intelligence regrouped and in 1947 was reborn as the CIA. Gehlen was one of its cornerstones; some observers even consider Gehlen a co-founder of the Central Intelligence Agency. Reinhard, the man of light and dark, offered his precious intelligence treasures about America’s great enemy. And he brought with him those hundreds of German East European specialists some of which I had occasion to meet later.

In retrospect, Gehlen’s role in US intelligence—as far as the Soviet Union in the first ten postwar years is concerned—appears as a case of the tail wagging the dog. The CIA hired him and his people, paid them while it learned from Gehlen Org just what Soviet Russia was all about. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow functioned but what did it know about the gritty-gritty of its Soviet ally’s military operations. Gehlen had to know his time was limited. CIA patience was limited. So he worked fast. And his hands were everywhere in the defeated and destroyed Germany. One said that every German prisoner of war returnee from Soviet internment was processed by Gehlen … like being interrogated by the SS. But also by American military intelligence organizations in effect many still managed by the Gehlen Org in Munich. Why? Because the Germans knew the right questions to ask.

Clashes of interest were inevitable. Secretive, ambiguous Gehlen was all the while contriving his German future, which was realized in 1956 when he became the first President of the Federal Intelligence Service, (BND).The CIA controlled the Gehlen Org and the fictitious country of Germany itself but it could not control as in the decade before a secret intelligence service headed by an ambitious man like Reinhard Gehlen accustomed to a controller role. CIA domination and control of Gehlen’s BND must have gradually transformed into a sort of Big Brother—Little Brother relationship. We may assume it remains the same in the U.S. occupied Federal Republic of Germany, now today straining at the leashes toward a new relationship with its old foe, Russia. It was always as much Russia as it was Communism that Hitler’s Nazism opposed. Yet, it has long been a love-hate-envy relationship, that of Germany and Russia. The two countries simply have too many common interests to stay apart forever. When and if Nord Stream 2 opens, untold change in the Russian role in Europe will arrive together with Russian gas. And ironically German-Russian relations are the key.