Illegal Army of Nazi Veterans Remained Hidden, Influential for Decades

A buried 321-page file has emerged from German intelligence detailing the existence of a secret army in Germany, marshaled by former members of the Nazi Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. West Germany's Chancellor turned a blind eye when he learned of the group—according to the file—as did the good shepherds of our very own CIA.

The secret army described in the file was led by a cadre of approximately 2,000 ex-Nazi officers with a total force of 40,000 men, frequently described as elite units ("Crack-Divisionen") reassembled with their old friends from the war.

The group's stated goal was to protect the emerging state of Western Germany from potential Communist invasion, but in practice it devoted itself to the surveillance of domestic left-wing politicians, including Social Democrat (SPD) Fritz Erler, and prominent student activists, like Joachim Peckert. (Peckert later became a senior official at the West German Embassy in Moscow.)

Illegal Army of Nazi Veterans Remained Hidden, Influential for Decades

The group's chief organizer, Albert Schnez (directly above, at right), reportedly maintained ties with the Nazi intelligence service of General Reinhard Gehlen, as well as the League of German Youth—banned by the West German government in 1953 for its right-wing extremism—and its specialized Technical Service, which also included former Nazi officers and was also secretly funded by the American government in preparation for a war against the Soviets.

Misleadingly (or maybe just euphemistically) labelled "Insurances," the file detailing the Nazi veteran cadre was found by Historian Agilolf Kesselring while attempting to establish more complete employment records for the German intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND. The insurance file belonged to the Gehlen Organization, Germany's Eastern Front intelligence apparatus during WWII. The intelligence service, later transformed into the BND after forging a now infamous alliance with the CIA in the early days of the Cold War.

"The alleged intelligence those recruits peddled was mostly hearsay and gossip designed to tell their American interrogators what they wanted to hear, in the hope of escaping retribution for past crimes, or for mercenary gain, or for political agendas not necessarily compatible with American national interests," Robert Wolfe, a retired senior archivist for the U.S. National Archives, told the Washington Post.

It may take decades for better documentation on the insurance group's activities to surface, but the implication is already very clear: It was a Red Scare conducted in the shadows by war criminals; an anti-Communist wet dream to leave even Joe McCarthy trembling and ashamed.

When news of Schnez's secret and illegal army reached the West German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, in 1951, the insurance group's leader was neither forced to the margins, nor corralled like the wacko-leader of a secessionist militia. He was, instead, courted and promoted for his moxie, as a biographical sketch of Schnez by Der Spiegel makes clear:

By the end of the 1950s he was part of the entourage of then Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss (CDU) and later served the German army chief under Chancellor Willy Brandt and Defense Minister Helmut Schmidt (both of the SPD).

Statements by Schnez quoted in the documents suggest that the project to build a clandestine army was also supported by Hans Speidel—who would become the NATO Supreme Commander of the Allied Army in Central Europe in 1957—and Adolf Heusinger, the first inspector general of the Bundeswehr.

In other words, one could shout, "They were all in on it!" in a high pitch, with some degree of accuracy. The severity of the recently discovered collusion between senior-level West German military leaders and these former Nazi officials has been such that it's provoked existential questions from legislators in the German Bundestag about the nature of its national security apparatus. As posed a little over a month ago following a Bundestag inquiry:

Rather, pace Dr. Agilolf Kesselring, it must now be asked, what impact did this early precursor to the Bundeswehr have on its internal Constitution. As Dr. Kesselring Agilolf mentions, inter alia, although Albert Schnez was only a colonel in the Wehrmacht, he was transferred to the Bundeswehr as a brigadier-general in 1957: an apparent reward for—it may be repeated—illegal activities.

[In the original German: Vielmehr, so Dr. Agilolf Keßelring, müsse nun danach gefragt werden, welchen Einfluss dieser frühe Vorläufer der Bundeswehr auf deren innere Verfasstheit gehabt habe. Dr. Agilolf Keßelring verweist unter anderem darauf, dass Albert Schnez, obwohl in der Wehrmacht nur Oberst, 1957 als Brigade-general in die Bundeswehr eingestellt wurde—offenbar eine Belohnung für dessen—es sei wiederholt: rechtswidrige—Tätigkeiten.]

And, obviously, the CIA found about this all too and was okay with it.

Thanks to a wave of declassifications precipitated by the 1998 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, we now have copious documentation of a CIA-organized "stay behind" network organized in Germany concurrently with Schnez's hidden army.

The European stay-behind groups—colloquially known as Operation Gladio after the Italian wing that the Guardian reasonably labelled "terrorists"— were a bunch of warmed-over fascist sympathizers, regular Nazis, and other paramilitary goons that American, British and NATO intelligence all thought would be good to pay for sabotage and guerrilla warfare campaigns across Eastern and Western Europe. As has often been the case, the target was pernicious Soviet Communism, but the collateral damage was anything vaguely Left-ish.

In a CIA memo dated October 1952, an unnamed CIA agent discusses meeting with the head of the German stay-behind group, Walter Kopp (codenamed KIBITZ-15), who has just learned of the existence of Schnez's secret army and its collaboration with the Gehlen spy network (codenamed ZIPPER). Schnez, the memo says, coordinated with Gehlen's group via Otto Skorzeny: a notorious SS paramilitary colonel who the U.S. had reportedly allowed to escape from an internment camp. (Pictured at the top of this piece, Skorzeny famously rescued Mussolini when he was kidnapped by the Italian government, put down the Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler, planned a post-War paramilitary group the Werewolf SS, and founded the Spanish neo-Nazi group CEDADE.)

Skorzeny, judging from the memo, appears to have adopted most of Schnez's clandestine military preparedness policies as the Gehlen group's own—the closest there is to an explanation as to where Schnez's network went, or how it would later seep itself into the formation of the legally mandated West German armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

Like a funny smell in the basement that turns out to be zombies, Fascism's terrifying resurgence across Europe in recent years has struck some Americans completely by surprise. There was that fascistic Croatian celebration upon their qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. The growing influence seen last year of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece and the vocally anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary. Then, this past May, there was the chilling sight of France's odious National Front, the UK's Independence Party, and various other far-right nationalist parties doing alarmingly well in the European Parliamentary elections.

Commentators have been right to point to the austerity measures following the 2008 financial crisis as having fostered the conditions for this fascist revival, but it seems shortsighted not to (at least) find some blame for NATO's CIA-assisted stay-behind programs for their continued support of Europe's fascist torchbearers across the 20th Century.

There is an embarrassingly popular, decorous explanation for these kinds of post-War Faustian bargains seen everywhere historians and journalists write about them: "the logic of the Cold War." Such "exigencies" were unavoidable in a "brutal calculus between superpowers" or some other horseshit. Perhaps a more clear-minded, logical explanation might simply be that they were "bad ideas" or "big mistakes." Describing them that way might even imply that it is someone's job to correct them.

[photos of Otto Skorzeny via the Taylor Library and Staatsbibliotek Berlin; photo of Albert Schnez with German politicians Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in 1969 via Bundesarchive]

To contact the author, email matthew.phelan@gawker.com, pgp public key.