Sunday, July 09, 2006

BOOK: Alex Abella, Scott Gordon, "Shadow Enemies"

Alex Abella, Scott Gordon: Shadow Enemies: Hitler's Secret Terrorist Plot Against the United States. The Lyons Press, 2003. 158574722X. xv + 352 pp.

This is another of those instances where my decision to buy the book was partly influenced by the price, not just by the subject matter: it sounded only moderately interesting, but it was quite cheap ($5 for a remaindered copy of the hardback edition) so I decided to buy it anyway. And the results, as I should have expected, are that it's not a bad read but nothing terribly exciting either. I should learn to be more selective in the future. (In fact I already am — this book is one of my numerous last year's purchases; this year I'm buying much fewer books than last year.)

The book is about one particular instance of Nazi efforts to conduct sabotage and terrorism in the U.S. In 1942, eight agents disembarked secretly from German submarines on the east coast of the U.S. They were selected for the mission because they had all lived in the U.S. for substantial periods of time before the war (two of them were even naturalized American citizens). They were given some training in sabotage techniques in Germany, provided with explosives and other equipment, as well as impressively large amounts of money (a total of “$160,000, the equivalent of more than $1.7 million today, all in fifty-dollar bills”, p. 49). Their mission was both to sabotage various American factories (e.g. they were provided with “the complete plans of American aluminum plants built in the Tennessee Valley before the war under contract by [I. G.] Farben for Alcoa. The technicians who explained the plans were the very same ones who had supervised their construction”, p. 48) but also to plant explosives in certain (Jewish-owned) department stores and the like, in the hopes of demoralizing the civillian population and also to (p. 22) “link the bombings to Germans so that the United States government would overreact, persecuting German-Americans indiscriminately. This would then cause, in theory, all Americans of German origin to close ranks and support the Reich by default. This theory had very recent historical precedent”, i.e. the internment of Japanese-Americans following the Japanese attack on the U.S.

They didn't get very far, however — the leader of the group, George Dasch, apparently never seriously intended to carry out these operations anyway, but mostly saw the mission as a means of getting out of Germany (p. 73); he reported himself and his colleagues to the FBI within days after their landing. (Hoover, the director of the FBI, later made it look to the public as if it was all due to FBI's vigilance, rather than to betrayal by one of the saboteurs; p. 125.) In this he had the support of approval of another one of the would-be saboteurs, Ernst Burger, while the remaining six were committed to the Nazi cause and so the FBI had to arrest them by surprise, one by one. The story so far is covered in the first half of the book, with a few interesting chapters about the background of the eight agents, their training in Germany, and also about the various pro-Nazi organizations that flourished among the German-American community in the 1930s (and with whom several of the would-be saboteurs had at one time or another been affiliated). Some of the technology used by the saboteurs is also described, e.g. pp. 45–6 describe how a triggering mechanism can be built using dried peas: you put them in a tube, pour water over them and close it with a cork. Slowly the peas absorb water and expand, eventually pushing the cork outwards.

Their arrest by the FBI was followed by a trial in which they were found guilty, with Dasch being sentenced to thirty years of hard labour, Burger to hard labour for life, and the other six to death in the electric chair. They were speedily executed, while Dasch and Burger were released from prison (and then deported to Germany) a few years after the war. Anyway, this trial is the subject of the second half of the book. One of the authors (Gordon) is a lawyer, and it shows in the amount of attention devoted to various legal details and technicalities. This part of the book was a bit more boring for me, but someone with more interest in the legal questions involved could probably enjoy it quite a bit.

There is in fact much that I strongly dislike about the whole legal proceedings against these eight would-be saboteurs. The public opinion, of course, with the irrational bloodthirstiness that always characterizes it, and its sanity now further clouded by the fact that a war had been going on, just wanted them to be executed as soon as possible (p. 167). So did Roosevelt (pp. 126–131), the then president of the U.S., and to make sure that no time would be wasted with a lengthy trial in an ordinary court (where the accused would be protected by all sorts of legal and procedural safeguards), he appointed a ‘military commission’ (pp. 131–2) consisting of seven generals; they were to carry out a trial, be satisfied with evidence that would “have probative value to a reasonable man” (p. 132 — a lower standard than in ordinary courts, which require evidence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’), and inform Roosevelt whether they found the accused guilty and what sentence they recommended.

Of course, the defendants weren't too happy with this kangaroo court, and they managed to get the Supreme Court to decide whether they should be tried by a regular court after all. However, the Supreme Court decided that (although the S.C. wasn't terribly happy either to see the president side-stepping the judicial system in this way) using a military commission to try a case such as this one was legal. The argument seems to be that, even though they hadn't yet committed any acts of sabotage or terrorism, they entered the U.S. in enemy uniforms (which they did so they'd be treated as prisoners of war should they be captured at landing), but removed them afterwards, thereby turning themselves into spies, unlawful combatants (p. 259 — apparently this term, which became quite notorious in the recent years, actually has an old history and a well-defined meaning), etc., to whom a hefty chunk of the Hague conventions do not apply (p. 261), etc., etc. They were (unlawful) belligerents simply because they entered the U.S. in enemy uniforms and then took them off, regardless of the fact that they hadn't yet injured anyone or demolished anything (p. 263). Apparently the standard military thinking is that if you capture an enemy in uniform, he is to be treated reasonably decently as a prisoner of war, but if you capture an enemy out of uniform, i.e. a spy or saboteur or something like that, he can be pretty much shot without much fuss. I can't really approve of that — surely espionage and sabotage and so forth are inevitable and crucial parts of warfare nowadays, and somebody has got to do these things, so it really wouldn't be fair to kill somebody just because he has been captured as a spy rather than as a regular front-line soldier. Besides, these agents hadn't yet done anything — even if they did come as spies or saboteurs, why treat them so harshly when it's clear that they hadn't really done any spying or sabotaging yet?

Incidentally, the full text of the supreme court's decision is included in the book as an appendix, but it's pretty boring to read. The other appendices are more interesting — one about William Dudley Pelley and his fascist organization, the Silver Shirt legion; and one about the internment of German and Italian Americans during the WW2. This is less well-known than the internment of Japanese-Americans, and also proceeded on a considerably smaller scale, but it happened nonetheless. “Roosevelt wanted all German aliens and German-Americans to be interned” (p. 272); but that would mean several millions of people, so the idea was abandoned as impracticable. “By 1948, the government had arrested and detained almost 11,000 German-Americans.” (P. 272.) As for the Italians, many lived on the Pacific coast and made their living as fishermen; “they were forced to move, giving up their livelihood and their homes. The Coast Guard used many of the fishing boats to prowl the coast in search of Japanese submarines. In the meantime, the boats' owners were paid a nominal rent.” (P. 273.) It seems that the U.S. authorities were afraid that, in the event of a Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific coast, these Italians would side with the Japanese (since both were axis countries).

One very annoying thing in this book is the large amount of errors in German words — as if none of the people involved with the book had even a vague sense of German spelling. And remember that my knowledge of German is extremely rusty, so it's quite possible that there are other errors that I overlooked. Here are some examples: “Deutscher Weokruf und Beobachter” (the name of a newspaper; this misspelling occurs on pp. 20, 61, while p. 66 omits the ‘und’ but uses the correct form “Weckruf”, i.e. a wake-up call); “Kreigsmarine” (p. 4; they got it right on p. 247, though); “Ordnungs Dients” (p. 31; Google finds 318 hits for ‘Ordnungs Dienst’ and 194000 for ‘Ordnungsdienst’); “Hackenkruez” (p. 204); “Larger” (twice on p. 222, but they mean ‘Lager’, camp); “Unternehman” (p. 237). They are sometimes inconsistent with the umlaut characters (e.g. “Kapitänleutnant” on p. 4 but “Reichsfuehrer” on p. 17). On p. 268 they mention “Articles of War 38, 43, 46, 50½ and 70” — I wonder what Article 50½ is supposed to mean.

Here is another unusual passage from p. 28: “He [Dasch] was given the cold shoulder there for his lack of professional degrees and his use of common German—his many years in America had made him forget the complex High German or Hoch Deutch.” First, note the misspelling: Deutch instead of Deutsch, and it's usually written together anyway (Hochdeutsch). Secondly, High German usually refers not merely to the standard (written) form of German but to all dialects of German except those from northern Germany (which are known as Low German). Dasch was born in Speyer (p. 23), which seems far enough to the south that his native dialect was undoubtedly from the High German branch. See this explanation from the Wikipedia: “The German term Hochdeutsch is also used loosely, but not by linguists, to mean standard written German as opposed to dialect, because the standard language developed out of High rather than Low German. This is based on a misunderstanding, and the attempt to rationalise it by suggesting that ‘high’ means ‘official’ doesn't solve the problem. In English, ‘High German’ has never been used to mean ‘Standard German’.”

When Roosevelt was informed that all eight agents had been arrested: “As always when hearing good news, the president was exuberant yet sarcastic, and very specific in his reply to Biddle: ‘Not enough, Francis. Let's make real money out of them. Sell the rights to Barnum and Bailey for a million and a half—the rights to take them around the country in lion cages at so much a head.’ ” (P. 124.)

Security measures during the trial were ridiculously exaggerated, as if the defendants were eight supermen rather than eight measly saboteur wannabes.

John Martin, a drunken British sailor, visited the jail where the eight saboteurs were imprisoned, offering to help with the executions. “Allowing him and his friends to shoot the men, he explained, would save the American government some electricity.” With some difficulty the guards convinced him that his offer could not be accepted (pp. 193–4).

“Hitler was furious at the failure of his pet project. [. . .] Ever sly, Canaris let his leader vent, and then he offered the excuse that the terrorists really had not been Abwehr [intelligence agency led by Canaris] men but untrained Nazis picked by the SS. This further enflamed Hitler, who screamed, ‘Why not use criminals or Jews?’/ Canaris would later use Hitler's words to spirit Jews out of Germany, and fom the grip of the Gestapo, under the cover of service for the Abwehr, arguing that it was being done under the orders of the Fuehrer himself.” (P. 207.)

To conclude, this is not a bad book if you find the subject matter interesting. People who are keen on the U.S. legal system, the separation of powers (judiciary vs. executive), etc. might well find the legal questions raised by this case exciting, but I was rather bored than not. But if you are chiefly interested in this book for the sake of espionage and sabotage, or if you are hoping to read something thrilling like in a spy novel, you might be disappointed (after all, the eight agents were all arrested before actually doing any sabotage).



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