Hitler's Spies

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

David Kahn, a distinguished journalist and historian, is the author of the widely celebrated book, The Codebreakers. His latest study, the outgrowth of a doctoral dissertation completed under the direction of H. R. Trevor-Roper at Oxford University, represents the most comprehensive work to date on the intelligence operations of Nazi Germany during World War II. The title of Kahn’s book, Hitler’s Spies: German Military Intelligence in World War II, is, however, doubly misleading. In the first place, as the author notes in the preface, the term “spies” is used metaphorically to include all forms of intelligence gathering, not just espionage. Thus, for example, Kahn covers in great detail the structure of Nazi Germany’s communications intelligence, which, in part, involved codebreaking, the interception of radio messages, and the censorship of mail and telegrams. In addition, he devotes considerable space to the analysis of all the intelligence gathered, by whatever means. The second misleading term in the book’s title is the word “military.” The book does not deal solely with intelligence gathered by the German armed forces; it also encompasses the intelligence gathering activities in political and economic areas by various government ministries, the National Socialist Party, and private individuals. Collectively, of course, the goal of those people working within these four areas was to insure the military victory of Nazi Germany.

Chances for the realization of ultimate victory would have been immeasurably improved if the intelligence gathering activities within these four areas of Nazi society had been unified from the outset of the war. Contrary to Nazi Germany’s monolithic façade, Kahn notes, no single high-level body controlled intelligence. The disorganized nature of German intelligence, with several competing agencies performing the same functions, was but a microcosm of Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship. Hitler purposely created overlapping spheres of authority in order to perpetuate endless squabbling among his subordinates, thereby safeguarding his own position.

Among the German intelligence gathering agencies which Kahn describes at length are the Abwehr, Foreign Armies East, the Foreign Office, the Forschugsamt (Research Department), and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD: Security Service). Within the command structure of the armed forces, the Abwehr (meaning “defense”) and Foreign Armies East were especially important. Kahn devotes an entire chapter to the Abwehr’s military espionage and counterespionage activities and to the career of its legendary leader, Admiral Wilhelm Franz Canaris. Early in 1944, Hitler, angered by the ineffectiveness of the Abwehr (which was a major center of the anti-Nazi resistance), removed Canaris as its head and subordinated the agency to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), the Nazi Party Reich Security Administration. More effective than the Abwehr was Foreign Armies East, administered after April 1, 1942, by Reinhard Gehlen. Through his efforts, the Germans always knew what units of the Red Army stood opposite them on the Russian front. Kahn, however, contends that Gehlen frequently failed in his important task of predicting major Soviet offensives, notably the one launched by the Red Army at Stalingrad in November, 1942.

Two important agencies of intelligence in German government circles were the Foreign Office and the Forschungsamt. Under the leadership after 1938 of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Office expanded its intelligence gathering activities. Now, in addition to the traditional methods used by its diplomats in gathering information, Ribbentrop created a spy service based on German missions abroad. The success of this operation in gathering information paled, however, in comparison with the Forschungsamt, one of the most successful of Germany’s intelligence agencies, set up in 1933. This agency, according to the author, tapped wires, intercepted radio messages, and broke codes in the entire gamut of political and economic intelligence. Kahn sheds much light on the Forschungsamt and eight other related agencies which together comprised Nazi Germany’s highly effective communications intelligence network.

The Nazi Party had an intelligence organ of its own, the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, organized in the early 1930’s under the leadership of the brutal Reinhard Heydrich. The SD had a domestic and a foreign arm which in 1939 were incorporated with government police agencies, into a party-state organization known as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, also under the leadership of Heydrich until his assassination by Czech resistance fighters in...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Book World. August 13, 1978, p. E1.

Booklist. LXXIV, July 15, 1978, p. 1714.

Guardian Weekly. CXIX, September 24, 1978, p. 21.

New Statesman. XCVI, October 27, 1978, p. 552.

Time. CXII, July 10, 1978, p. 82.