Hitler’s Undercover War: The Nazi Espionage Invasion of the U.S.A.
© 1989 William Breuer
Wars are not confined to battlefields, even when the fields of conflict are as wide-open as the open oceans and the very sky itself, as they were in World War 2. Victories and defeats can be effected in the quiet of the night, by men and women ostensibly noncombatants, whose intelligence and skillful deceit is applied in just the right areas to supply vital information, or sabotage endeavors. Hitler’s Undercover War is a rare history of German intelligence operations before and during the Second World War, ending only in the total defeat of the Nazi state. It is doubly a history of the growth of the FBI, from suited cops chasing bootleggers to sophisticated intelligence men vying to out-maneuver devils most devious. Written by a soldier of the war, heart fully on his sleeve, it has the immediate excitement of a spy thriller with a most satisfying conclusion.
The story begins long before the rise of the National Socialists, just after the peace of Versailles which concluded the Great War by dismembering Germany’s army and forcing its new civilian leaders to accept the Allied costs of fighting the war, and responsibility for starting it in the first place. In an age of constant militarism, surrounded by powers which hated her, Germany’s disarmament wouldn’t last long. Soon into the 1920s, in fact, programs were being developed to keep the German army up to speed — through whatever means necessary. If Germans could not refine military aviation at home, they would watch other nations’ progress with great interest….and appropriate it when necessary. This was made easy, Breuer writes, by the fact that the United States was utterly naive in the area of espionage and counter espionage; at one point Customs agents literally discover a briefcase full of military blueprints, give the nervous man carrying them a stern reminder to come in for questioning next week, and let him go. The German ‘Abwehr’, its military intelligence group, created separate and later coordinating spy circles to collect and funnel war-related R&;D Germany’s way.
Things grow darker once the Nazis assume power and begin plotting nothing less than world domination. The United States’ status as a nation of immigrants is no less impactful here than it was in the leadup to the Great War, when immigrants of competing parts of Europe protested the thought of their new nation waging war on their homeland. The Abwehr capitalized on the fact that many Americans were German who still wanted the best for their native land, even if they had left it behind. The German-American Bund, for instance, led the way in protesting the thought of the United States getting into another of “England’s wars”, labeling Roosevelt a warmonger. They were aided by Nazi agents with press connections, who flooded areas with isolationist propaganda. Hitler’s intelligence handlers were far quicker to resort to violence; once a man or woman had been vouched as a Good German, worthy of serving the Reich and presented with an offer to spy, they and their family on both continents were threatened with harm if they did not answer the call. (Such arm-twisting would eventually backfire, when one German-American immediately became a double agent, allowing the FBI to penetrate and take down one especially prominent intelligence cell.)
As the “New Germany” realized war with the United States was inevitable, its spy networks widened and readied for direct action. They remained at work tracking military developments, attempting to steal plans and parts for items like the Norden bombsight, and continually forwarding to Germany details on American troop strength and deployment. Once the war began, however, they began actively attempting to sabotage factories and misdirect shipping. (Shipping information was especially vital given the American lend-lease programs, which sent arms and other equipment to both Britain and the Soviet Union. With U-boats prowling right off the coast of the Atlantic seaboard, loose lips truly did sink ships.) On one especially dramatic occasion, a boatload of Nazi agents disembarked on a beach with trunks of explosives, with plans to disperse throughout the United States and cause pandemonium by blowing things to pieces. They were partially undone by the fact that a Coast Guard seaman just happened to chance upon them burying their explosive booty and chattering in German.
Hitler’s Undercover War will definitely interest readers with a taste of intelligence operations; here we have men creating and applying vintage spy paraphernalia, like matchbooks with secret codes, microfilm captures of confidential documents rolled into pens, and buxom blonde fatales flirting with guards so co-conspirators can do some snooping. The period charm extends to the unfiltered adoration of the FBI: J. Edgar Hoover is described as a “lantern-jawed supersleuth” who abstains from dating on the grounds that it will distract him from his work. His determined avoidance of taking the Mafia seriously, and his antagonist role during the Civil Rights movement make his star shine far dimmer these days, so the Captain American-esque descriptions are little much. To give Breuer’s treatment of him and his team credit, however, they were fighting the Nazis, some of whom were authentic Judases in selling out American troops for money, with no genuine love for the country of their youth to excuse them.
- The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, James Corum. Far more information on how Germany was able to ‘invent’ a modern air force so soon after Hitler’s rise to power, which included sending agents to tour air shows, reviewing western aviation journals, experimenting with civilian aeronautics, and even partnering with the Soviets.