In This Review

Partners at the Creation: The Men Behind Postwar Germany's Defense and Intelligence Establishments
Partners at the Creation: The Men Behind Postwar Germany's Defense and Intelligence Establishments
By James H. Critchfield
Naval Institute Press, 2003, 243 pp

As the United States approached war with Iraq in early 2003, some journalists turned to an 86-year-old retiree for perspective. A decorated World War II Army officer, James Critchfield later joined the CIA and became one of the nation's most influential spies. The journalists called him because of his stint supervising CIA activities in the Middle East in the 1960s, during which he helped arrange the 1963 coup that overthrew General Abd al-Karim Kassem and set in motion the Baath Party's 40-year domination of Iraqi politics. Had they been sharper, they would also have asked about the lessons of an episode from still earlier in his career: his creation of the foreign intelligence service of West Germany from the ashes of the Nazi state.

Critchfield died two weeks after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, but, fortunately, he had been able to keep his cancer at bay long enough to finish a detailed treatment of his experiences in postwar Germany. Part memoir and part history, the posthumously published Partners at the Creation tells the story of the men behind West Germany's emergence as a stalwart member of the Atlantic alliance in the 1950s. Its discussion of building new pro-U.S. security services from the remnants of a defeated tyranny could not be more timely: it serves as an uncannily appropriate backdrop to the agonizing dilemmas facing decision-makers in Iraq today.

THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY

Partners at the Creation focuses on Critchfield's mentoring of two of Hitler's former generals, the controversial Reinhard Gehlen and the lesser-known Adolf Heusinger, both of whom would ultimately play large roles in West Germany's national security community. During the war, Gehlen directed the German army's intelligence organization on the eastern front, the Fremde Heere Ost, while Heusinger was wartime chief of the operations division of the German army general staff. Heusinger participated in the resistance movement against Hitler and was jailed for it in 1944; Gehlen did not.

A defender of old-fashioned realpolitik, Critchfield credits U.S. success in occupied Germany to flexibility in handling former enemies, and he uses his own experiences as an example. Washington's relationship with Gehlen began in 1945-46, when the U.S. Army, looking warily at its Soviet counterpart, asked him to reconstitute both his wartime analytical group and the intelligence networks that had fed Berlin information on the Soviet military. Soon, the Gehlen organization ballooned in size (it eventually comprised 4,000 employees), and the Pentagon was looking for help in subsidizing and handling it. So, in 1947, the newly created CIA was brought into the picture, and by 1948 the agency was Gehlen's sole sponsor, with Critchfield in charge as the man on the ground.

Heusinger ran Gehlen's postwar analytical branch and was more pro-U.S. than his colleague. From 1948 on, he believed that Western Europe could not defend itself alone and that any future West German military would have to be closely tied to NATO. (He would go on to become chairman of NATO's military committee in the 1960s.) "Germany's transition from an enemy to an ally of the United States and the West was probably destined by broader forces," Critchfield writes. "But the ultimate success of this pivotal moment in history should be credited in no small part to Reinhard Gehlen and the small circle of former German Army General Staff officers at the center of the Gehlen Organization."

Those in favor of the swift and extensive rehabilitation of former Baathists and high-ranking military officers in Iraq might well cite Critchfield's experiences in West Germany as evidence of how successful such an approach can be. Yet that would not reflect the true balance sheet of U.S. sponsorship of Gehlen and his crew, for even Partners at the Creation hints that the policy had significant flaws, and observers more detached than Critchfield might take a much dimmer view of the compromises involved.

Gehlen and the CIA, for example, never agreed on how much information the Germans were required to reveal to their occupiers and patrons. "I think Gehlen's inclination to be secretive with the Americans about his organization was a major error," writes Critchfield. "When we reached what seemed to be an impasse on agreeing that he would provide essential information, I closed my briefcase and threatened to terminate my visit. Gehlen backed off and reverted to a compromise on these issues that was acceptable, under the circumstances. However, the issue was never entirely resolved." At the end of the book, Critchfield reveals that one of the costs of leaving this issue open was that the CIA could not force Gehlen to improve his group's operational security. As a result, the Soviets found the Gehlen organization easy to penetrate, and Gehlen's own chief of counterespionage against the Soviet bloc, Heinz Felfe, eventually proved to be a KGB agent.

Only this year, in fact, has the public learned the full extent of the moral and operational costs of the U.S. government's marriage of convenience with these former Nazi intelligence officers, and the Felfe case turns out to have been merely the tip of the iceberg.

In accordance with the 1998 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, the CIA and the U.S. Army have had to declassify thousands of documents on their relationships with Nazi war criminals. Gehlen himself may never have been indicted for war crimes, but we now know that at least 100 of his employees were former members of the SS.

To his credit, Critchfield assisted the Interagency Working Group (IWG) supervising these declassifications and made himself available to the historians (including this reviewer) tasked with providing initial assessments of what the newly public documents revealed. But he did not live to see the IWG's interim report, which paints a significantly less flattering picture of the bargain he and the Germans struck.

A ONE-SIDED AFFAIR

Although Partners at the Creation hints at how difficult Gehlen could be, the book sanitizes what was essentially a one-sided relationship in favor of the Germans. Gehlen was insubordinate, deceptive, and incompetent, yet he continued to receive rations for his employees and a large monthly stipend of $175,000. In 1950-51, the CIA seriously considered firing him, and it was only support from the incoming German government of Konrad Adenauer that got him off the hook. After 1951, there was less controversy -- but only because the CIA stopped asking for background information on the West German intelligence agents it was funding.

The consequence of this "don't ask, don't tell" policy was that for eleven years U.S. taxpayers subsidized a foreign organization that employed war criminals. Among the dozens of murderers and thugs working for Gehlen was Konrad Fiebig, hired in 1948, who had served with Einsatzgruppe B (a mobile killing unit) in Belorussia and was later charged with shooting 11,000 Jews. Erich Deppner, who ran Gehlen's operations out of West Berlin, had been deputy to Wilhelm Harster, an SS brigadier general who was Heinrich Himmler's representative in the occupied Netherlands. Deppner helped his boss supervise the deportation of 100,000 Dutch Jews to the death camps and was personally responsible for executing Soviet prisoners of war interned there. And Gehlen's chief Soviet expert, Emil Augsburg, had been detailed in 1939-40 to the special SS units that executed Jews and communists in Poland and later did the same thing in the western Soviet Union.

The CIA turned a blind eye to Gehlen's protection of these people because it was doing something similar itself. In its drive to acquire human intelligence on the Soviet Union, the agency allowed its field officers to recruit former members of Hitler's SS and excluded war criminals only if their war crimes were a matter of public record. As a result, it relied on men such as Otto von Bolschwing, who in the 1930s had helped design the system for expropriating Jewish property in Austria and then, as Himmler's representative in Bucharest, had instigated the brutal 1941 pogrom there. In 1953, the CIA rewarded Bolschwing for his help by pressuring the Immigration and Naturalization Service into allowing him into the United States, and he subsequently became a U.S. citizen.

These same policies led the CIA in 1959 to try to recruit Erich Rajakowitsch, a resident of Italy then engaged in East-West trade. During the war Rajakowitsch had served as Adolf Eichmann's representative in The Hague and personally supervised the deportation of Dutch Jews from France to the death camps in 1942. The only reason Rajakowitsch did not become a U.S. asset was because he refused the CIA's offer.

WHO WILL GUARD THE GUARDS

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, there has been a lot of talk about the importance of "unleashing" the CIA. As one former national security "principal" put it to me, Americans should be prepared "to recruit people they would not want to have dinner with."

It is true that the intelligence community needs a more energetic and sustained recruitment campaign. And it is equally true that contacts with unsavory characters sometimes prove beneficial. From the late 1960s through 1978, for example, the CIA had an apparently useful relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, Yasir Arafat's intelligence chief -- and the mastermind of the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

But abandoning one's principles in the quest for better intelligence can be an expensive proposition. In occupied Germany, the unregulated recruitment of former enemies brought dishonor to the country and operational failures to the intelligence community. For those seeking to reconstruct the Iraqi national security system and to expand the CIA's stable of useful Middle Eastern contacts, the West German case ought to be a cautionary tale.

One problem was the absence of real checks and balances. On paper, Washington had to approve all recruitments, but there is no evidence that Richard Helms, who supervised the agency's activities in Austria and West Germany throughout the early Cold War, ever turned down an operative because of his past. CIA headquarters established a climate that discouraged field officers from digging too hard. Not until Israel captured Eichmann in 1960, in fact, would the CIA bother to look at the records of captured Gestapo members to see how many of these killers it had recruited.

The motivations of individual CIA recruiters appear to have been generally honorable. They feared the Soviets and believed that all measures were permissible in learning about this new enemy. The problem was that no one at headquarters or in the field had time to do a cost-benefit analysis of hiring the worst elements of Hitler's regime. If they had, they might well have paused.

Initially, former Nazi intelligence officers were employed as "bird dogs" -- pointing out their former colleagues for arrest by U.S. authorities. For the most part, the Nazis did this very well, and had the relationship ended there, the United States would have gotten the better end of the deal. But U.S. field officers found it hard to let their agents go, and the agents had an interest in keeping their case officers happy.

Case officers are rewarded for the number of agents they recruit and the amount of material they send home. Former enemy intelligence officers understand this very well and are adept at inventing networks to meet the needs of their new bosses. Former Nazis played this game, taking the Americans to the cleaners and getting nicely paid for work of no significance.

Former enemy intelligence officers also understand how little their new bosses usually know or want to know about their backgrounds. The Allies captured the personnel files of the SS, for example, but the CIA did not always bother to check those files before hiring agents. The recruits complicated matters by lying about their own participation in "resistance" movements against the fallen tyrant. By the time the U.S. government figured out that its new friends were frauds, it was stuck with a massive disposal problem.

Hiring former enemy intelligence officers, even those not directly responsible for war crimes, also opened the U.S. intelligence community and its local client to penetration. Some SS men went over to the Soviets and helped the KGB identify people for recruitment. The KGB then blackmailed these individuals into working as penetration agents by threatening to reveal their crimes.

Finally, providing haven to former instruments of a vicious dictatorship plunged the United States into moral and political corruption. Gehlen was not the only German allowed to protect former members of the SS, and fascist elements were permitted to poison West German life for years.

The United States, incidentally, was hardly the only occupying power to follow such a course. The Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, the West German domestic security service led after the war by the British client Otto John, systematically hired former Gestapo officers, many of whom had served on the brutal eastern front. These men were kept on a secret list so that they could be paid without being formally de-Nazified. (Neither Washington nor London moved to shut down this operation for fear of discomforting the Adenauer administration.)

In the end, the rot spread far. The Soviet Union and East Germany reaped benefits from being able to sow doubt in West Germany by suggesting that Nazi killers were being protected by the Allies and the Adenauer government. In the United States, the need to cover up the protection of Nazi war criminals led to the perversion of the immigration process, stonewalling of Congress, and a decision by the CIA not to share with the U.S. Department of Justice information on war criminals residing in the United States.

LESSONS LEARNED

The CIA's work with Gehlen, of course, was not a complete failure. The Bundesnachrichtensdienst, the German foreign intelligence service that emerged from the Gehlen organization, has indeed proven itself a staunch ally. But at what cost? The West German organization the United States sponsored was thoroughly penetrated by the Soviets, and its ability to collect useful intelligence for NATO questionable. Meanwhile, the West German government paid pensions to Nazi killers into the late 1980s. The cost of this Faustian bargain for West German society is hard to calculate.

As U.S. forces scramble for help in setting up new police, military, and security services in Iraq, the temptation to rely on tainted personnel from the former regime will be great. But the costs of doing so too casually should be kept in mind. After all, the situation in Iraq today is even more dangerous than that of postwar Germany, not least because Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower's decision to rely on overwhelming force broke the spirit of even the most dedicated Nazis and left little option for regime loyalists to surface openly. Moreover, in Iraq, the lack of any real cohesion means that relying on compromised individuals from one or another ethnic group could inflame sectional passions.

The mistakes made by the CIA and the U.S. Army in West Germany need not be repeated in Iraq. The sorry case of General Jasim Muhammad Salih and his 24-hour command in Falluja suggests, however, that U.S. recruitment is in disarray. Salih appears to have been tapped by Washington even though no one knew what he had done for Saddam. If coalition forces have a central registry of information on the backgrounds of Iraqi personnel, local commanders do not seem to have access to it. Salih's downfall was that he was given a high-profile assignment; one can only guess at how many Salihs there are in less visible jobs. The Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse tragedy has awakened congressional interest in providing effective oversight in Iraq. Before the United States turns sovereignty over the country to the Iraqis and washes its hands of the institutions it has created there -- as the CIA did with the Gehlen organization in 1951 -- someone in Congress or the executive branch should ask, Whom have we hired in Iraq, and why?

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Timothy Naftali is Director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs and co-author of U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis.
  • More By Timothy Naftali