Disentangling war is a thorny business. The strands of motive and hostility that go into making it are brought together slowly. Only over the years does ancient animus join with ambitions, slights—real or imagined—to attain an easily ignited critical mass. World War II was no exception,
World War I left a bitter legacy. When the victors met at Versailles in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson’s good intentions and Fourteen Points notwithstanding, France’s representative, Georges Clemenceau, managed to exact Carthaginian terms. They were terms the German representative characterized as “the death of many millions of German men, women and children.”2 British economist John Maynard Keynes was present at Versailles and offered a more eloquent and apocalyptic vision:
If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and the progress of our generation.3
indeed. the misery and humiliation in the wake of versailles served hitler well. He used them as a springboard to power, and just twenty years later, Keynes’s dire prophecy was realized.
Yet in World War II there were some on both sides whose thinking transcended the knee-jerk nationalism that war so quickly fans into flame. They understood that the outcome of this war would shape the future more profoundly than previous wars, and they worked to break the boundaries and proscriptions of conventional wartime behavior. They worked first to avert the war, and then to stop it, hoping to find an early, equitable peace and thereby create a stable Europe. On the German side, the initial motivation was to avoid a war no one but Hitler wanted and for which no one felt prepared. Gradually the concern driving the anti-Hitler resistance shifted to preserving Germany’s Western orientation. Ultimately it was simply a desperate statement, a cry of conscience and moral imperative. On the American side, the thinking grew out of in a larger, less parochial worldview. On both sides, the Germans and the Allies were well traveled, well connected, and often had longstanding family ties on both sides of the water. They were better informed, more sophisticated, less susceptible to jingoistic headlines and able to find the truth behind the propaganda. They knew that the world had become smaller, dominated by fewer but more powerful forces, and that any future, even more fearsome, war should be guarded against with all possible means. Perhaps not surprisingly, they operated at the top levels of the German and American intelligence services, the Abwehr and the OSS respectively. Both sides discovered the terrible truth behind Visser’t Hooft’s dictum.
schoolbook histories suggest that wars are fought between antagonists united behind their respective causes. This is a myth; the truth is quite different. Beneath the ostensibly common cause—winning the war and vanquishing the enemy—lie innumerable differences: of opinion, interests, politics, prejudices, rivalries, jealousies, and goals. There are so many, in fact, that, looked at closely, the presumed unity of purpose dissolves quickly.
And so it was in the war. Many factions did not align themselves along the anticipated lines. America did not want to join another European war; the suffering and disillusion of the first was still a vivid memory. President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a deeply divided populace. Aviator-idol Charles Lindbergh was a popular spokesman for a potent isolationist contingent, the America First Committee, whose large and vocal membership held to strict nonintervention.4 Lindbergh charged that Roosevelt would renege on his election-year promise to America’s mothers and fathers that their boys would not be sent to any foreign wars.
In early 1941, when FDR announced that the United States should become the “arsenal of democracy” and supply $7 billion worth of armaments to the British in the lend-lease program, the antiwar rhetoric only escalated. Lend-lease was described as a way of “waging an undeclared war.” Some worried that America was committing suicide.5 As it happened, Roosevelt did break his promise, but only after he had been elected to a third term, and Pearl Harbor had provided a horrific rationale. With Hitler’s declaration of war on America four days later, the isolationist voices were silenced.
Yet several American corporate giants continued prewar business alliances that had helped Germany rearm. Some of them deliberately evaded U.S. laws and war objectives, flouting proscriptions against trading with the enemy in pursuit of profits and continued business alliances during the war. Roosevelt was well aware of the massive business involvement of major American corporations with Germany and its rearmament program, but he was willing to tolerate it, and even support it to a degree. The world was climbing out of a depression, and the reasoning was that a wartime economy brought prosperity; making money was good for the country and good for morale.
But the war deepened. Rifts developed between U.S. policy makers and the OSS intelligence operation that was feeding them information. The rifts gradually widened until much of the intelligence went either unheard, or unheeded, a situation that has parallels to the recent rift between policy makers and the CIA. The State Department was itself divided and increasingly at loggerheads with the Department of the Treasury. There were deep divisions between Roosevelt, his cabinet, senior military, and intelligence on the issue of unconditional surrender. The OSS’s Allen Dulles and William Donovan anticipated future conflict with the Soviets and saw Germany as a crucial ally and stabilizing force in a postwar Europe. They advocated a “go easy on Germany” policy that was in direct conflict with Roosevelt and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau.
Depleted and traumatized by the Great War, Britain was militarily and economically unequal to another war in 1938, but her political leaders were sharply divided on how to avoid it. Chamberlain had vivid memories of the horrors of the Great War and hoped to spare England another. Principal British policy makers, preoccupied with a crumbling empire, saw little to gain from establishing contacts with Germans. Senior officials in the British Foreign Office gave little weight or credence to German diplomats and private citizens urging a tough stand against Hitler. They chose to ignore even their own intelligence that confirmed what they were hearing from the Germans about Hitler’s war plans. In their opinion, if there were troubles in Germany, they should stay in Germany. The messengers of German opposition to Hitler were seen as insufficiently democratic in any recognizably Anglo-American sense and traitorous to boot—reason enough to avoid contact with them. Though they were unaware of it at the time, the British had their own traitor working within their intelligence establishment, another instance of disunity.6
The Anglo-American relationship involved considerable hedging and deceit on both sides, and was complicated further by differing aims particularly in terms of empire. Before the United States entered the war, it was a relationship conducted between Roosevelt and Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, largely without Chamberlain’s participation. Nor were later British-American relations necessarily harmonious. Churchill agreed to unconditional surrender only grudgingly and not without qualms, and postwar policy toward Germany became another deeply divisive issue.
The notion that the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and France threw themselves wholeheartedly into defeating Germany with no aims but the common goal is as much a myth as is the idea of unity of purpose among the Axis powers. The so-called Grand Alliance—Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—was a paragon of instability. Both Roosevelt and Churchill played a complex game with Stalin, cajoling one day, promising support the next, only to then conspire against him. Stalin, meanwhile, kept his “allies” in a state of constant anxiety, relentlessly playing them against one another for his ultimate aim: vast territorial hegemony that would allow him to stretch his communism as far as his armies could reach. Though the Free French Forces operated in concert with the United States and Britain and participated in the Allied campaigns in North Africa, southern France, Normandy, and the liberation of Paris, their relationship with the British was marked by resentment, even rancor. Churchill referred to the Cross of Lorraine—the symbol chosen by General Charles de Gaulle for the Free French—as the heaviest of the crosses he had to bear.
As for the neutrals, neutrality was often more professed than observed. The Spanish, while technically neutral, had battalions fighting with Germany in Russia. The vaunted neutrality of Switzerland, Sweden, and Portugal did not extend to interrupting trading with Germany, shipping raw materials, and accepting gold known to be looted from occupied countries for huge profits. Neutrality did, however, provide a meeting ground where the opposition could try to establish contact, as the numerous trips of Adam von Trott zu Solz and Helmuth von Moltke to Turkey, Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway attest. It was through the neutrals, too, that an ongoing ecumenical dialogue played out.
Equally important, yet largely unknown in the United States and Britain, was—and still is—the internal debate and dissension within the Third Reich. Hitler’s Germany, so often depicted as a fearsome, monolithic empire of evil, was anything but unified behind his drive to war. The enthusiasm of the army that had initially welcomed Hitler had waned; its generals warned of precipitating a war certain to become a long and unsustainable one. The people of Germany did not want a war; they were tired and destitute after the last one and the onerous peace that followed. The German Foreign Office was divided between the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop contingent and a significant number of diplomats under Ernst von Weizsäcker opposed to Hitler, playing a risky double game. Religious leaders stood up against the regime. Hitler’s intelligence services were divided; domestic espionage, run by Nazi loyalists, fought ongoing turf wars with the Abwehr, but there was dissention even within the ranks of the SS, and several high-level defections to the opposition. The leadership of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence network, turned against Hitler early. Under the protection of Admiral Canaris, its upper echelon became home to many who opposed the Nazis and collaborated actively with Allied intelligence and the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS.
Even in 1939, before the war began, Germans opposed to Hitler struggled with differing political orientations and territorial claims. The older generation adhered to conservative, sometimes imperial traditions. The younger Kreisau group was striving for complete renewal and a pan-European future. As the war moved Germany closer to total destruction, these differences began to lose significance.
Alienated from their own nation, the German opposition to Hitler desperately wanted to maintain what one of its leaders referred to as ties to the “greater world.”7 They turned outward to inform, to find support in engineering conditions for a coup, and to keep alive the hope for a future that transcended the totalitarian, nationalist nightmare in which they felt trapped. The “unofficial opposition diplomacy,” directed principally at Britain but also at the United States by Carl Goerdeler, Adam von Trott, and many others in the late 1930s, failed.8 The hope for a coup to eliminate Hitler and bring down his regime to avert war collided with predictable prejudices and suspicions. Yet the hope survived, long after the war was truly begun. Well into 1944, the opposition still hoped to soften unconditional surrender and ameliorate the catastrophe for Germany and Europe that they were convinced would result from it.
Relatively early, the main oppositional impetus moved from the diplomatic front into the military and intelligence arenas. Diplomacy had not found an ear, but German military intelligence, the Abwehr, made significant contact with their new American counterpart, the OSS, and here at least, the opposition message found a more receptive audience. Yet once the intelligence gathered was sent to policy-making circles, their message fell on deaf ears and the same silence descended. If the pleas from OSS’s Allen Dulles that Roosevelt offer support to the resistance were heard at all, they were not heeded. Whatever urgent, repeated entreaties came from diplomats, from intelligence, from the military, churchmen, industrialists, and civil servants, the official Allied stance remained intransigent. There seemed to be no interest in an early peace, and there was neither recognition nor support for the resistance to Hitler. All approaches were met with silence.
Given the many voices and the ample intelligence warnings the Allies received from German emmisaries of Hitler’s intentions, it is surprising that so little notice was paid to the internal divisions within the Third Reich. Repeatedly, the German opposition to Hitler, desperate to bring about a change, engaged in treasonous contacts with the enemy, in the hope of finding allies. It cost most of them their lives. From today’s perspective, the picture is one of greater unity of purpose between the upper levels of the Abwehr and the top tier of the OSS, who were “enemies,” than between some of the proclaimed allies in the war.
the wartime corollary of sophocles’ firm imperative “know thyself” is “know your enemy.” This is what has shaped intelligence over the centuries. Yet as Walter Laqueur wrote in The World of Secrets: “In intelligence the opportunities for mistakes are almost unlimited.”9 There are too many gaps in what is known, too many ways to be deceived. Prejudices are difficult to put aside; mistaken assumptions and misplaced suspicions can easily lead the analyst astray. Complacency, overconfidence, and misguided hopes are equally dangerous. The irrelevant and confusing “noise” of intelligence may not translate into comprehensible information. Even if the myriad variables are sorted and arranged into a reasonable theory, the theory is at risk of becoming enshrined. If contradictory evidence is discounted to save the cherished theory, the theory is a danger. All things considered, it might be as reasonable to consult Nostradamus or the stars as to rely on intelligence.
There are also instances where intelligence is impeccable, and is completely ignored. That is what this book is about—not the failure of intelligence but the failure to use good intelligence sensibly, or at all. This was true of the information that gradually revealed Hitler’s policy of exterminating European Jewry, a dark veil that hung over the war—a known fact that was not acted upon.
It was also true of the German dissent, resistance, opposition—however it is styled—that was known but went unrecognized and unsupported by the Allies. Theirs is a complicated story, and difficult to present without obscuring passions or prejudices or both. It is also a sad story, because, for the most part, the voices of the German opposition fell on deaf ears, and a peace that might have been saved, or at least restored more quickly, was lost at a cost of millions of lives.
The subject is vast, and while this book makes no claim to comprehensiveness, it traces several of these people and their thinking in the midst of wartime politics and policies. It records their efforts to avert the war and, when that failed, to shorten it. It also tries to explain some of the reasons for their failure.
Part of the failure was certainly due to the split between intelligence and policy that surfaces so often in OSS files, specifically between Allen Dulles, William Donovan, and the Washington policy makers who felt that intelligence should have no part in shaping policy. What comes between intelligence and policy are the knee-jerk prejudices, old war wounds, and all the usual suspects that interfere with real communication and trust. James Mooney, an executive sent by Roosevelt to explore a negotiated peace with Germany before the war, was disheartened by what he called “an invisible barrier to understanding.”10 Mooney’s motivations have been questioned, but he did see that just before the war, with so much at risk, men in corresponding positions in their respective governments were still unfamiliar with each other’s ideas. There seemed to him to be little interest in any genuine exchange of thought, or a sincere effort to understand each other.
In the books and personal recollections of the relations between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to World War II, there are frequent references to two particular senses: sight and hearing. Actually, the references are to the lack of those senses. Visser’t Hooft, whose observation opens this book, and Philip Conwell-Evans’s None So Blind were only two of many contemporary witnesses to the sensory failings of the time.11 What was missing both before and during the war was an ability to hear, to imagine, and, above all, to heed. In the preface to The Secret War against Hitler, William Casey, later director of the CIA, enumerates four critical lessons gleaned from the OSS’s experience: close observation and analysis of the miscellany of intelligence; the danger of deception; the need for scrutiny and evaluation of new technology and weapons systems. Finally, he notes the importance of remaining alert and receptive to assistance from forces within the ranks of our enemies.12
It was here that the Allies failed, not in intelligence, but in putting intelligence to use. For those in the German resistance to Hitler, as for those on the Allied side most closely involved with them, it was a story of frustration, desperation, and ultimately tragedy. As Allen Dulles pointed out, at no time did the German resistance to Hitler benefit from any support, material or otherwise, such as the Allies offered the French Resistance. Was it a failure of communication, or a much larger failure—a failure of imagination?
In the eyes of the British, the German opposition inhabited what has been called “the landscape of treason.”13 They faced a hidebound unwillingness to think beyond the familiar, literal definitions of loyalty and patriotism, to transcend national interest for the sake of a larger responsibility. It is an attitude neatly expressed by Anthony Eden, who remarked that any response to the opposition was “not in the national interest.”
An exception to this thinking found a voice—a familiar voice—that provides appropriate and resonant book ends to this story. Speaking on the radio in 1938, Winston Churchill told an American audience just after Munich that “if the risks of war . . . had been boldly faced in good time, and bold declarations made and meant . . . [had Hitler been faced with] a formidable array of peace-defending powers . . . [it] would have been an opportunity for all peace loving and moderate forces in Germany . . . to make a great effort to reestablish . . . sane and civilized conditions in their country.”14
Seven years later, after a brutal and devastating war, he revisited this theme: “If the Allies had resisted Hitler strongly in his early stages . . . the chance would have been given the sane elements in German life, which were very powerful . . . to free Germany from the maniacal system into the grip of which she was falling.”15
In the meantime, those who had hoped to counteract the recognizable evil, and had moved bravely into the “landscape of treason” had not had a hearing. Their attempts to move the world beyond “national interest” and the comfortable prejudices that dictate national policies had had no perceptible impact on a war which ultimately ground them, and many millions of others, into dust.
Copyright © 2006 by Agostino von Hassell. All rights reserved.