BOOK: Curt Riess, "Total Espionage"
Curt Riess: Total Espionage. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941. xii + 318 pp.
A few years ago I stumbled upon a cheap paperback reprint of a book first published in late 1939, Gestapo by an author with the curious old-worldly name of Philip St. C. Walton-Kerr. Until then I usually thought of the Gestapo as merely a secret police, an institution that worked within Germany to find and suppress opponents of the regime, whether domestic or foreigners, as well as members of any of the other marginalized groups which the Nazis sought to oppress. However, Walton-Kerr’s book shows that Gestapo’s activities were very extensive outside Germany as well. German agents were particularly active in Central and Eastern European countries, trying to increase German influence in their political and economic life, spreading Nazi propaganda among German minorities in these countries, supporting and encouraging various groups with pro-fascist leanings, spreading discontent among unsatisfied minorities in the hope of destabilizing and weakening the governments of their countries. Gestapo was also active in other parts of the world (e.g. Western Europe, Middle East, the Americas), although there its work was perhaps somewhat more difficult and closer to the traditional understanding of espionage.
Anyway, this is what I learnt from Walton-Kerr’s book. I was quite fascinated by it and read most of it two or three times. Now another chance encounter brought me another book about German espionage, Total Espionage by Curt Riess, a book I had never heard of until I noticed it in one of eBay’s notification e-mails: one of the words in the auction description incidentally matched one of my want keywords on eBay. How could I resist another book on this fascinating topic?
This is a book about the German espionage activities in the years before WW2. Thus its focus is somewhat broader than that of Walton-Kerr’s book; it is not only about the Gestapo but also about various other German organizations, whether secret or not, as long as they were involved in espionage (in fact the Gestapo was relatively small compared to the total number of people involved in spying for Germany; p. 136). Indeed one of the main messages of this book is that together with total war comes “total espionage” — hence the title of the book — total war requires the cooperation and coordination of all spheres of life, all parts of the economy and society, etc., and the same also holds for total espionage, which becomes necessary in the era of total war. Judging from Riess’ book, it was the totalitarian countries who first took steps towards total espionage: many elements of it can be found first in the Soviet Union (p. 11) and in imperial Japan (p. 89), while the Nazis have perfected it still further. The Western democracies were a few steps behind (e.g. the French, p. 40; the U.S., p. 45), although they were catching up quickly (see esp. Part VI of the book). For some time one of their problems was that even though their intelligence services obtained useful information, e.g. about German rearmament, this information was ignored or distrusted by the politicians (e.g. the British prime minister Baldwin, p. 31, and later Chamberlain, p. 59).
The book is written in a somewhat journalistic style, which is not really surprising since the author is a newspaper correspondent. I’m not really used to that style of writing (at least not in books), and I can’t quite make up my mind whether I should like it or not. There are many passages that could just as well be written in a neutral, moderate tone, but the author opts instead for something much more meretricious, using the innumerable journalistic devices which “spice up” a text, make it more exciting, etc., devices which would be perfectly appropriate for a spy novel, but I’m not quite delighted to see them in a nonfiction book. (Some passages particularly awash with this style may be found on pp. 62, 153-6). Or perhaps it’s not only a matter of style but also of period? Sometimes I felt that the style of this book has a certain colloqual, brash, in-your-face quality, which reminded me somewhat of the characters of the film noir movies in the same period, played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart. But I shouldn’t give the impression that the style of the book is problematic or annoying; it’s just a bit different from what I’ve been used to, that’s all.
Ocassionally I also felt that the book was somewhat “granular” in structure: that each section was too much a vignette of its own, with not enough of a red thread to connect them all into a whole. Possibly this is due to a journalist’s habit of writing individual articles rather than longer texts, or perhaps it is not the book’s fault but mine, due to insufficiently careful and concentrated reading.
Anyway, the book contains many interesting passages and anecdotes, which all in all do build up to a fascinanting portrayal of how wide-spread an activity espionage is in modern times. From the very beginning onwards, the author very clearly debunks the popular image of espionage as a romantic, glamorous activity, practised by people like Mata Hari; this is what espionage might have been like in a former time (p. 20), but modern espionage, the “total espionage” that this book is about, is much more an organized activity, involving thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, who collect huge amounts of material in ways which are often quite dull and mundane, and these numerous little bits of data are then sifted and analyzed and eventually yield quite a lot of information about other countries, not just their military but also their economy, infrastructure, public utilities, politics and society.
The German system of total espionage made use of a large number of people, organizations, and institutions (p. 95): officers’ associations who were in touch with the many German officers who left Germany after WW1 to help organize the armies of South American countries (pp. 22-23, 246); in the U.S., there were the Friends of the New Germany (p. 54); German consulates were “springing up like mushrooms” (p. 69); planes flown by German pilots would make unusual detours to observe interesting parts of foreign countries (p. 71, 244); news agencies (p. 105); various associations and clubs dedicated to maintaining contacts with particular countries or regions (p. 104); film studios would send large crews abroad to shoot documentaries as well as perform acts of espionage (p. 128); foreign politicians and journalists were bribed or blackmailed (pp. 107-8, 157; perhaps the French foreign minister Bonnet is one of the most striking examples, pp. 163, 165), and pro-fascist groups in foreign countries supported (the Cagoulards in France, p. 110; the Sinarquists in Mexico, p. 237; the Green Shirts in Brazil, p. 247; Becerra’s dictatorship in Bolivia, p. 247); via the Auslandsorganization, all Germans living abroad were encouraged to report their observations to the German authorities (p. 114), particular attention was being focused on German engineers, technicians, scientists, chemists, sailors and people in other professions who were particularly likely to obtain valuable information (p. 119); however, other Germans abroad were also used, even cabaret singers (p. 129), waiters, language teachers, domestic servants (pp. 70-1, 130), as well as Germans travelling abroad as tourists (p. 131); Germans living abroad were exempt from mobilization because of their value as spies (p. 148); foreigners were given opportunity to study in Germany, and connections with them were kept in the hope that they would one day provide useful information (pp. 120-1); German businesses in foreign countries would also provide information, and were sometimes encouraged to offer their services at uneconomically low values to make sure they would get the jobs (e.g. radio transmitters, p. 133; airlines, pp. 243-4);
There are a few interesting pages on the training of German agents, pp. 137-40.
Apparently German agents in France were quite successful, and managed to infiltrate many important institutions; pp. 166-177.
As the French collapse was approaching in June 1940, the officers of the French secret service managed to disappear, together with the entire archives of their organization, none of which came into the possession of the Nazis. This exciting and dramatic story is told on pp. 184-97. As of the writing of the book, the ultimate fate of the documents was still unknown. Well, this is one of the downsides of reading books that were written not long after the events whereof they speak.
Apparently, Rudolf Hess was one of the main organizers of the Nazi system of espionage (p. 86). I found this interesting; until now I haven’t read much about him, and he always seemed very much a minor figure, with his famous flight to Britain in May 1941 merely a bizarre footnote in the history of WW2. It seems that certain influential Britons were favourable to the idea of concluding peace with Germany and perhaps joining it in its attack against the Soviet Union, and Hess hoped to make contact with these people and discuss the treaty before the attack began. There were no realistic prospects of this, however; it was merely a trap organized by the British secret service (pp. 277-282). It isn’t quite clear to me why this was done anyway; perhaps, given Hess’ prominent role in organizing the German espionage system, the British hoped to seriously weaken this system by depriving it of its head; or perhaps they hoped they might be able to exchange him for some of their own agents, who had fallen into German hands (p. 179)? Anyway, I think I’m going to have to read something more about Hess to find out if he really had such a major role in German espionage. At some point I would also like to read more about these pro-German circles in Britain, the Cliveden set and what not.
Many of these espionage tricks are fairly simple but in a clever and ingenious sort of way. For example, in January 1940 the Allies got hold of a document suggesting that Germans were about to attack Belgium; the Allies therefore rearranged their forces according to their plan for such an eventuality; however, the document was a fake planted by the Germans, who had no intention of attacking Belgium just yet, but merely wanted to observe how the Allies planned to defend themselves against such an attack (pp. 152-3).
The Germans were also active in other parts of the world, such as Africa (p. 213), the Middle East (p. 214), and Japan (p. 217), but there their work was more difficult and they did not accomplish very much. The Italian secret service was apparently quite incompetent (p. 226) until the Gestapo took it over in 1940 (p. 230). Incidentally, it seems that Mussolini had been a French agent during WW1 (p. 227).
The Germans also made many efforts in Central and South America. In Mexico, they offered to buy or barter for oil when Mexico was being boycotted by U.S. and British companies whose wells it had nationalized (pp. 202, 205). They also supported various revolutionary and pro-fascist movements (pp. 237-8). However, the Mexican secret police was apparently quite successful at defending itself from these Nazi machinations (pp. 239-40). In South America there were many German investments (p. 241); German airlines performed military espionage (pp. 243-4) and built airfields that could acommodate military airplanes in addition to civillian ones (p. 244); many Germans were advisors in South American armies (p. 246); German agents supported the Green Shirt movement in Brazil, and Becerra’s dictatorship in Bolivia (p. 247); Germans even tried to claim Patagonia for themselves, saying that the Argentinian claim to it is invalid due to the large number of German farmers who had settled there (p. 248).
The book ends on a more optimistic tone, however, and the last part (from p. 250 onwards) shows how the German espionage is being resisted and countered more and more successfuly, and is suffering ever greater setbacks.
Comparing this book with Walton-Kerr’s book mentioned at the beginning of this post, I would say that they complement each other more often than overlap (nor have I noticed any glaring disagreements between the two), so I think it was worth reading both. Walton-Kerr has more details on the Gestapo “dismantling” of Czechoslovakia, as well on as its activities in Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. It also has more details on the selection and training of its agents. On the other hand, Riess’ book has more material about other German espionage activities, i.e. by organizations other than the Gestapo, as well as about German activities in other parts of the world (particularly South America, Western Europe, and the U.S.).
Incidentally, the book is printed on paper of a curious kind; thick, brownish in colour, somewhat rough to the touch and a little unhomogeneous, with individual fibers like short curled hair noticeable every now and then. Perhaps this was due to some sort of wartime paper rationing scheme.
The book’s typography has a curious limitation: apparently the printers were able to produce such accented characters as the French è but not the German characters with umlauts, ä ö ü, which are therefore consistently written as ae oe ue. Actually ä does appear once, on p. 77 (Sängerknaben); but e.g. on p. 120 we find Hafenaemter, not -ämter.
Another curiosity of this book is its use of the word kidnaped. I don’t think I’ve seen it before, and I always thought that only kidnapped is acceptable; however, the dictionary allows kidnaped as well.
ToRead: the dust jacket contains an advertisement for Munich Playground, by Ernest R. Pope (another journalist), which apparently contains much salacious and titillating material on the Nazi bigwigs in Bavaria. Of course one may have very reasonable concerns about the objectivity of such a book (writing about your enemies during a war surely doesn’t make it terribly easy to be unbiased), but in the spirit of that Italian proverb “if it isn’t true, it’s at least a good invention” (I wish I could quote it in Italian, but I can’t speak Italian myself, and on the web each page seems to have a slightly different spelling of this proverb, so I have no idea which one is correct), I think I’ll definitely try to buy and read it.