Strange Love

The 1951 World Series was an epic sports event. The “subway series” not only featured two exciting New York teams, the Yankees and the Giants, but it marked the climax of what became known as “The Season of Change.” Joe DiMaggio, the legendary “Yankee Clipper,” would bow out of baseball after the series. And two young future Hall of Famers—Yankees rookie Mickey Mantle and Giants rookie Willie Mays—would make their World Series debuts. The twenty-year-old Mays, who idolized DiMaggio, finally had a chance to exchange a few words with his hero when photographers urged the two sluggers to stand together for a picture. “It was a dream come true,” said the rookie, who played the series in a daze.

Game 6, which was played on October 10 in front of nearly sixty-two thousand people in Yankee Stadium, would assume mythic proportions in baseball fans’ memories. The Yankees withstood a thrilling ninth-inning comeback charge by the Giants, winning the game 4–3 and taking the series. As DiMaggio trotted off the field to the roar of the crowd, he was already fading into history. “I’ve played my last game,” Joltin’ Joe told his teammates, who gathered around him in the locker room, handing him baseballs, bats, and other mementoes for him to sign. At thirty-six, DiMaggio’s body was failing him and he didn’t want to let down his fans and fellow players. “He quit because he wasn’t Joe DiMaggio anymore,” his brother Tom later said.

Among those sitting in the stands on that bittersweet day at Yankee Stadium were two well-dressed German gentlemen in their forties, accompanied by a younger man who was their CIA handler. Like DiMaggio, the older German, Reinhard Gehlen, was a legendary figure, but his achievements were of a completely different order. Gehlen did not look like an imposing figure. He was slightly built and had a receding hairline, brush mustache, and ears that were as sharply peaked as a bat’s. His skin was so pale that it seemed “translucent” to his CIA companion. Only his striking blue eyes gave any indication of the intense ambition that had driven Gehlen throughout his career.

During the war, Gehlen had served as Hitler’s intelligence chief on the eastern front. His Foreign Armies East (Fremde Heere Ost) apparatus relentlessly probed for weaknesses in the Soviet defenses as the Nazi juggernaut made its eastward thrust. Gehlen’s FHO also pinpointed the location of Jews, Communists, and other enemies of the Reich in the “bloodlands” overrun by Hitler’s forces, so they could be rounded up and executed by the Einsatzgruppen death squads. Most of the intelligence gathered by Gehlen’s men was extracted from the enormous population of Soviet prisoners of war—which eventually totaled four million—that fell under Nazi control. Gehlen’s exalted reputation as an intelligence wizard, which won him the Führer’s admiration and his major general’s rank, derived from his organization’s widespread use of torture.

Though many in the Yankee Stadium crowd that day would have been deeply displeased to learn Gehlen’s identity, the German spymaster, wearing his trademark dark glasses, sat undisturbed in the stands, enjoying the carnival exuberance of the afternoon. The game itself was of little interest to Gehlen—it was his German companion, Heinz Herre, who was the rabid baseball fan. Herre, who had served as Gehlen’s indispensable deputy ever since their days together on the eastern front, became so enamored of America’s favorite pastime after the war that he could spit out players’ statistics like the most obsessive of baseball card collectors. During the war, Herre had studied the Soviet enemy with equal intensity, learning the Russian language and immersing himself in the country’s politics and culture. Now his compulsive curiosity was focused on all things American.

Herre, a tall and lean man with an appealing smile, had a knack for ingratiating himself with his U.S. colleagues. Though the socially awkward Gehlen lacked his deputy’s facility with Americans, he knew it was an essential skill. In the final days of the war, Gehlen astutely concluded that the U.S.-Soviet alliance would inevitably break apart, providing an opportunity for at least some elements of the Nazi hierarchy to survive by joining forces with the West against Moscow. He knew that his own fate depended on his ability to convince his new American masters of his strategic value in the emerging Cold War. Gehlen did this by trekking into the Bavarian mountains, as U.S. forces approached, and burying cases of microfilm containing Nazi intelligence on the Soviet Union. The German spymaster then leveraged his expertise and underground connections in Eastern Europe, convincing U.S. military officials of his indispensability as an authority on the Soviet threat.

Gehlen’s canny maneuvers won him and his top staff a flight out of war-ravaged Germany on a DC-3 military transport to the United States, where they were moved into comfortable quarters at Fort Hunt in Virginia. Here Gehlen was introduced to his American intelligence counterparts, including Allen Dulles, who, after listening to the German spymaster’s pitch, decided that the U.S. government should bring the former Nazi intelligence operation under its supervision.

Instead of being handed over to the Soviets as war criminals, as Moscow was demanding, Gehlen and his top deputies were put on a troop ship back to Germany.

Back home, Gehlen’s spy team was installed by U.S. military authorities in a compound in the village of Pullach, near Munich, that had once served as the headquarters of Hitler confidante Martin Bormann. Gehlen’s dream of reconstituting Hitler’s military intelligence structure within the U.S. national security system was about to be realized. With the generous support of the American government, the Gehlen Organization—as it came to be known—thrived in Pullach, becoming West Germany’s principal intelligence agency.

In 1948, after a heated internal debate, the CIA decided to take over supervision of the Gehlen Organization from the U.S. Army, which had growing concerns about the type of agents Gehlen was recruiting and the quality of their intelligence work. Gehlen had promised Army officials that he would not hire former SS or Gestapo officials. But as his organization grew, it absorbed some of the most notorious figures of the Nazi regime, such as Dr. Franz Six. A former professor at Berlin University, Six left the classroom to become an intellectual architect of the Final Solution as well as one of its most enthusiastic enforcers, personally leading an SS death squad on the eastern front. After the war, Six was hired by the Gehlen Organization but was later arrested by U.S. Army counterintelligence agents. Convicted of war crimes, Six served four years in prison. However, within weeks of his release, Six was back at work in Gehlen’s Pullach headquarters.

Many in the CIA vehemently opposed any association with such a stigmatized organization, including Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the agency’s first director, who in 1947 strongly urged President Truman to “liquidate” Gehlen’s operation. The following year, the CIA station chief in Karlsruhe, Germany, expressed his own disgust at the prospect of a merger with Gehlen’s group, calling it an old boy’s network of ex-Nazi officers “who are in a position to provide safe haven for a good many undesirable elements from the standpoint of a future democratic Germany.” But Gehlen had his influential supporters in Washington.

Gehlen’s backing came primarily from the Dulles faction within the national security establishment—and once again, this faction would prevail. In October 1948, James Critchfield, the new chief of the CIA’s Munich station, was given the task of evaluating Gehlen’s operation and recommending for or against it. The thirty-one-year-old Critchfield was a Dulles man: he had been identified as a talented prospect by Eleanor Dulles while serving with Army intelligence in postwar Vienna, and he was later recruited into the CIA by her brothers. In his final report, Critchfield firmly concluded that the CIA should fold Gehlen’s group under its wing. It was the beginning of a fateful relationship that would shape Cold War politics for decades to come.

The CIA officially assumed responsibility for the German spy organization in July 1949, with Jim Critchfield taking over as Gehlen’s supervisor. Critchfield moved his base of operations to Pullach, setting up his office in Bormann’s former bedroom. Gehlen had turned Pullach into its own separate world, with over two hundred of his top staff and their wives and children living and working in the compound. Before Critchfield moved in, the German spymaster himself had lived with his wife and four children in Bormann’s two-story house. Known, ironically, as the “White House,” its décor still retained touches of Nazi kitsch, including a stone German eagle looming over the front door, whose claws were now empty after U.S. soldiers chiseled away the swastika they once held.

As Critchfield’s CIA deputies and their families moved into Gehlen’s gated community, an intimate social fusion began to develop between the former enemies. The Germans and Americans worked and partied together, their children attended the same one-room school, and their families even went on ski trips together in the nearby Bavarian Alps. By 1953, the CIA and Gehlen Organization were so entwined in Germany that some Washington officials, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Roger Keyes, expressed strong concern.

Just a few years before, Gehlen and his top men—who included high-ranking officers of the German General Staff, FHO, and even SS—had been dedicated warriors of the Third Reich. And yet Critchfield convinced himself that, except for “some borderline cases [who] worked in peripheral areas of the organization . . . [Gehlen’s] key people . . . had come out of the war and the Nuremberg Trials with reasonably clean slates.”

Critchfield was the son of a small-town North Dakota doctor and schoolteacher, graduating from North Dakota State University and joining the Army on the eve of the war. He had the thick, wavy hair and dark good looks of a central casting military hero. Critchfield served in North Africa and Europe, rising through the ranks to become one of the Army’s youngest colonels and winning the Bronze Star twice and the Silver Star for gallantry. Crossing the Rhine in the final weeks of the war as the commander of a mobile task force, the young colonel was one of the first American officers to witness firsthand the results of Hitler’s Final Solution. In late April, his unit came across an annex of Dachau. The camp was nearly empty, but there was evidence all around of the horror that had taken place there. At one point, the young Army colonel and his soldiers watched in “shocked silence” as two skeletal camp survivors chased after an escaping SS guard, wrestled him to the ground, and choked him to death.

Despite his war experiences, Critchfield prided himself on keeping an open mind about the ex-Nazi commanders with whom he later worked. “Gehlen and his senior staff, and their wives (many of whom also worked in Pullach), all impressed us as being unusually intelligent and well educated,” Critchfield observed. “In personal characteristics, apparent values, and thoughts about the future of Germany and Europe, these [ex-Nazi] officers did not seem to me significantly different from my contemporaries in the U.S. Army.”

Critchfield knew from the beginning of his professional relationship with Gehlen that he was dealing with a “difficult personality.” Gehlen once subjected his CIA supervisor to a three-hour “harangue” against U.S. interference in his spy organization’s affairs. Despite Gehlen’s occasional histrionics, Critchfield expressed admiration for his German colleague’s pragmatic, businesslike style and his welcome habit of “getting right to the point.” If Gehlen had not been rescued by U.S. intelligence authorities after the war, he almost certainly would have been convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg. But Critchfield graciously overlooked Gehlen’s past. “He had a high standard of morality,” Critchfield later observed, without a hint of irony, “with Christian beliefs that were evident and reinforced by his wife Herta and their family.” This simple, trusting American attitude made Critchfield an easy mark for Gehlen and the other quick-witted Nazi veterans whom he supervised.

Reinhard Gehlen was a man of ratlike cunning. He had managed to work his way up through the Wehrmacht’s intelligence hierarchy; to survive a falling-out with Hitler late in the war over his increasingly dire intelligence reports; and not only to avoid the hangman’s noose at Nuremberg but to persuade the Americans to give him a leading role in their shadow war against the Soviet Union. His overriding goal was to rebuild the Nazi power network and return Germany to a dominant role on the European stage. Gehlen harbored deeply mixed feelings about Germany’s American conquerors; he had a cringing respect for their power and money but was deeply resentful about being forced to answer to them. He often treated his handlers, including Critchfield, more as enemies than allies, keeping them in the dark about his operations and even putting them under surveillance.

Late in his life, Critchfield admitted to a Washington Post reporter, “There’s no doubt that the CIA got carried away with recruiting some pretty bad people.” In a secret 1954 memo, later declassified, the agency acknowledged that at least 13 percent of the Gehlen Organization was made up of former hard-core Nazis. But, to the end of his life, Critchfield insisted that Gehlen was not one of these “bad people.”

“I’ve lived with this for [nearly] 50 years,” Critchfield told the Post in 2001. “Almost everything negative that has been written about Gehlen, in which he has been described as an ardent ex-Nazi, one of Hitler’s war criminals—this is all far from the fact.”

Happily deluded about Gehlen’s true character, Critchfield worked hard to develop a good rapport with the German spymaster throughout their six-year partnership at Pullach. It was Critchfield who arranged the trip to America for Gehlen and his alter ego Heinz Herre in the fall of 1951, highlighted by the final game of the World Series. Gehlen’s CIA caretaker saw the American odyssey—which was scheduled to include high-level meetings in Washington, as well as a train trip west to California—as a way to cement the agency’s relationship with the cagey German and strengthen his bond with America.

As Critchfield put together the itinerary for Gehlen and Herre, the CIA hierarchy realized that the Germans’ trip was fraught with potential problems. Gehlen remained a controversial figure within U.S. national security circles, where some were still pushing to fire him. An October 1950 CIA report on Gehlen, remarking on his tendency to throw fits and make demands on his American overseers, dismissed the German as “a runt, and, even as runts go, a rather unimpressive one . . . he suffers from a ‘runt complex.’” A flurry of interoffice CIA memos on the eve of Gehlen’s U.S. junket fretted that “his trip can obviously produce a variety of political embarrassments” and predicted that “Gehlen will be somewhat difficult to control on this trip.”

In the end, the trip was a triumph for Gehlen and his supporters in the CIA. After Gehlen and Herre arrived in New York on September 23, 1951, Critchfield escorted them on their railway tour of America. On their way to the West Coast, they stopped over in Chicago, dropping by a 1930s-era speakeasy one night where, “much to the surprise of all of us,” recounted Critchfield, “we were greeted by a famous member of the Mafia.” As they rolled westward on the rails, the three men shed their business skins and eased into the lazy pace of tourists. But the Germans could not drop all their espionage training. “We looked out on the Rockies from the top of Pike’s Peak and walked among the great redwoods outside San Francisco,” recalled Critchfield. “Gehlen was an insatiable photographer and Herre, like the General Staff officer that he was, equipped himself with maps and sought out the highest observation point for surveying each tourist objective.”

Returning to Washington, D.C., on October 8, they checked into a suite at the Envoy, an ornate, old-world hotel in the leafy Adams Morgan neighborhood. Dulles arranged for Gehlen and Herre to meet with CIA director Beetle Smith. Dulles hosted a private dinner at the Metropolitan Club for the Germans and several CIA officers with whom they felt comfortable, including Richard Helms, who had run U.S. intelligence operations in Germany after the war.

The 1951 trip to America sealed the relationship between “UTILITY,” as Gehlen was code-named by the Americans, and the CIA. Over the years, the agency would occasionally wrestle with its conscience over the alliance. But CIA officials invariably suppressed these doubts and moved on. In 1954, an unsigned CIA memo to the chief of the agency’s Eastern Europe division acknowledged that a number of individuals employed by Gehlen “appear from a qualitative standpoint particularly heinous.” By way of illustration, the author of the memo attached biographical summaries on several of Gehlen’s most repellent recruits, including Konrad Fiebig, who was later charged with murdering eleven thousand Jews in Belarus during the war. Nonetheless, the memo concluded, “We feel it is a bit late in the game to do anything more than remind UTILITY that he might be smart politically to drop such types.”

But the CIA’s intimate relationship with Gehlen came with a price in the global arena. Soviet propagandists made much of the arrangement, and even British intelligence allies vented their outrage. In an August 1955 memo to Dulles, the chief of the CIA’s Eastern European division reported on a diplomatic luncheon in Bonn, during which British officials freely aired their disgust to their American friends. “They were quite blunt in expressing their feelings that the Americans had sold their souls to the Germans because of their frantic and hysterical desire to thwart Soviet military strength,” the CIA official informed Dulles.

Allen Dulles was unruffled by the controversy that swirled around his German colleague. He airily dismissed concerns about Gehlen’s wartime record. “I don’t know if he’s a rascal,” Dulles remarked. “There are few archbishops in espionage. . . . Besides, one needn’t ask him to one’s club.” But, in fact, Dulles and Helms did invite Gehlen to their clubs—including the Metropolitan and the Chevy Chase Club—whenever the German spymaster visited Washington. Dulles had no reservations about working with such men, so why shouldn’t he also drink and dine with them? Dulles even brought along Clover on those occasions when Gehlen’s talkative wife, Herta, accompanied him to America.

Dulles went to generous lengths to maintain a congenial relationship with Gehlen, sending him gifts and warm greetings on Christmas and his birthday, and even on the anniversaries of their professional alliance. One of Gehlen’s favorite gifts from Dulles was a small wooden statuette of a cloak-and-dagger figure that the German spymaster described as “sinister” looking, but nonetheless kept on his desk for the rest of his life. Gehlen, in turn, cabled his own chummy messages to the U.S. intelligence chief, and once sent him a gold medallion of St. George slaying the dragon—the Gehlen Organization’s emblem—“as a symbol of our work against bolshevism.”

Dulles knew that Gehlen was a devoted family man. The German intelligence chief closely managed the affairs of his extended family, installing a number of them in positions with “the firm,” as his organization was known by its employees. In late 1954, when Dulles heard that Gehlen was seeking to get his oldest daughter, Katharina, into a good U.S. college, the CIA director immediately began making inquiries on her behalf. Radcliffe, where his own daughter Joan had gone, made it clear that it was not inclined to give the daughter of a former Nazi commander special treatment. But Katharina Gehlen did win admission to Hunter College in New York City.

She later followed family tradition and went to work for her father, acting as a junior spy on occasion and carrying confidential packages across borders. Gehlen proudly confided to American colleagues that on one such mission, Katharina had the foresight to hide her diplomatic pouch “below a layer of soiled feminine niceties” in her suitcase when crossing the border. In those more decorous times, the inquisitive customs official promptly terminated his inspection as soon as he came to the young woman’s dirty underwear.

In 1955, as the CIA prepared to transfer the Gehlen Organization to the West German government, the agency generously continued to back Gehlen, giving him enough money to buy a lakeside estate near Pullach, where he enjoyed sailing his boat on weekends. Critchfield claimed that Gehlen bought the manor with a modest interest-free loan of 48,000 deutsche marks (about $12,000) from the CIA, which Gehlen himself insisted he repaid in full. But reports in the Soviet bloc press characterized the estate as a gift from Dulles that was worth as much as 250,000 DM.

Gehlen was deeply grateful to Dulles, whom he code-named “The Gentleman,” for his unflagging support. “In all the years of my collaboration with the CIA, I had no personal disputes with Dulles,” Gehlen wrote in his memoir. “He pleased me by his air of wisdom, born of years of experience; he was both fatherly and boisterous, and he became a close personal friend of mine.”

Despite the deep affection he had for Dulles, Gehlen felt free to air his complaints about U.S. government policy whenever he suspected that America’s Cold War vigilance was softening. The Gehlen Organization saw the Cold War as the final act of the Reich’s interrupted offensive against the Soviet Union. In August 1955, after Eisenhower’s tentative peace efforts at the Geneva summit, a CIA memo reported that “UTILITY was blunt in his criticism of the U.S. position at Geneva. He expressed the opinion that in the realm of international politics one should never tell a Russian that one will not shoot him, and should under no circumstances be as convincing in this position as President Eisenhower was at Geneva.”

Western leaders negotiated with Moscow at their own peril, Gehlen firmly believed. The Soviet Union enticed you with this and that, but underneath its skirt, “one will see the cloven hoof of the devil,” he said.

Gehlen kept up his martial drumbeat throughout his intelligence career. Thomas Hughes, who served as director of foreign intelligence in the Kennedy State Department, recalled an evening early in the Kennedy presidency when Dulles gave Gehlen a platform for his militarism. “Allen Dulles had a soft spot in his heart for the ‘good Germans,’ expansively defined,” said Hughes. “One of my first social events in the Kennedy administration’s intelligence community was a dinner given by Allen Dulles one night at the Chevy Chase Club in honor of Gehlen, who was visiting from his Munich headquarters. Gehlen led the discussion, advising us how to deal with ‘the Bear,’ his term for the Soviet menace. J. Edgar Hoover, sitting next to me, kept murmuring, ‘The Bear, the Bear. That’s it. The Bear.’”

Gehlen liked to say that his cold-steel view of the Soviet adversary came from his hard-won experience on the eastern front. But it was also calculated to please American hard-liners, particularly his masters, the Dulles brothers. Some critics in Western security circles attacked the ideological bias of the Gehlen Organization’s intelligence reports, which exaggerated the Soviet bloc’s military strength and nuclear capability. But the “cooked” intelligence served the Dulleses by giving them more ammunition for their militant Cold War stance.

The covert Cold War in the West was, to an unsettling extent, a joint operation between the Dulles regime and that of Reinhard Gehlen. The German spy chief’s pathological fear and hatred of Russia, which had its roots in Hitler’s Third Reich, meshed smoothly with the Dulles brothers’ anti-Soviet absolutism. In fact, the Dulles policy of massive nuclear retaliation bore a disturbing resemblance to the Nazis’ exterminationist philosophy—a link that would be darkly satirized in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, with its Führer-saluting doomsday scientist. No other cultural artifact of the period captures so perfectly the absurd morbidity of the Cold War, and its Wagnerian lust for oblivion. We live “in an age in which war is a paramount activity of man,” Gehlen announced in his memoir, “with the total annihilation of the enemy as its primary aim.” There could be no more succinct a statement of the fascist ethos.

In the months leading up to the CIA’s transfer of the Gehlen Organization to the government of West Germany, there was another flurry of debate about Gehlen in Washington and Bonn, which grew so heated that it spilled into the press. At the same time, the Federal Republic of Germany, under the rigid leadership of the elderly, conservative Catholic Konrad Adenauer, was also involved in delicate negotiations with the United States over West Germany’s proposed entry into NATO. In October 1954, during a visit by Adenauer to Washington, General Arthur Trudeau, chief of U.S. Army intelligence, met privately with the chancellor to discuss the Gehlen problem, telling the German leader that he did not trust “that spooky Nazi outfit at Pullach.” Trudeau advised Adenauer to clean house before Germany was admitted into NATO.

All hell broke loose in Washington when Dulles learned that Trudeau had trespassed on his turf. Although the Joint Chiefs of Staff continued to back their man, it soon became clear (if it wasn’t already) who was running the intelligence show under Eisenhower. Trudeau found himself transferred out of military intelligence to a remote post in the Far East, and a few years later he quietly retired from his country’s service.

During this turbulent, transitional period in West German affairs, Reinhard Gehlen was confronted with a strong domestic challenger for his espionage throne. In fact, Otto John—the head of BfV, West Germany’s internal security organization (the equivalent of the FBI)—was the only serious rival Gehlen would face during his long reign at Pullach. British intelligence saw Otto John as a far superior alternative to Gehlen. As a survivor of the ill-fated Valkyrie plot against Hitler, John lacked Gehlen’s unsavory baggage. After the coup failed, John narrowly escaped with his life to London, where he worked with British MI6 for the remainder of the war, returning to Germany after Hitler’s defeat to assist with the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

A self-described liberal, John worried about the “re-Nazification” of Germany, as he witnessed the growing power of Gehlen and the many other former Third Reich officials who were finding key positions in Bonn. High among these officials was Chancellor Adenauer’s right-hand man, Hans Globke, who had helped draft the notorious Nuremberg Laws, the racial identification system that served as the basis for the extermination of German Jews.

A CIA comparative analysis of Gehlen and Otto John unsurprisingly found that “John is the more moral of the two.” But, the report continued, John was “no match for UTILITY in the knock-about of German intelligence politics”—as was soon to be revealed.

In May 1954, John flew to the United States to meet with Eisenhower officials and discuss his democratic vision for postwar Germany. Dulles invited him to lunch at his Georgetown house, and afterward they walked and chatted in his garden. Dulles was eager to hear John’s thoughts on the rearmament of West Germany, a hotly debated issue at the time that Cold Warriors like Dulles strongly supported. John assured the CIA director that he, too, favored rearmament, but only if it was done in a grassroots, democratic way by forming local defense units, instead of “from the top downwards,” which would further empower the militaristic types from Germany’s past. Dulles was not pleased with what he heard. “My whole impression of John,” he wrote in a memo later that year, “was that he was not a very serious character.”

Dulles was predisposed against John to begin with. Gehlen had filled the CIA director’s ears with venomous reports about his German intelligence rival, calling him “unsteady and rootless,” professionally inexperienced, and even prone to alcoholism. What Gehlen clearly found most disturbing about John, however, was his heroic past as an anti-Nazi resister. His moral stature, particularly among the British allies, made him a powerful threat to Gehlen.

John’s meeting with Dulles probably sealed his fate. After he returned home, the BfV chief became the target of a covert campaign engineered by Gehlen to politically undermine him. Soon, Otto John’s life would take a sensational turn. In July, while on a trip to West Berlin to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the failed putsch against Hitler, John disappeared. The news that West Germany’s security chief had vanished sent shock waves around the world. But the story grew even stranger when John later surfaced in East Germany, denouncing Adenauer’s rearmament policy and his administration’s weakness for ex-Nazis. Gehlen gloated over his political enemy’s exit from the Bonn stage. “Once a traitor, always a traitor,” remarked the man who still considered opposition to Hitler as treason.

Then came the final twist in the bizarre spy drama. In December 1955, as the Bundestag (West Germany’s parliament) launched an inquiry into the John affair, he suddenly reappeared in West Germany, claiming that he had been drugged and bundled off to East Berlin against his will. West German authorities did not buy John’s story, and he was arrested and convicted of working on behalf of East Germany’s Communist government, serving four years in prison. But for the rest of his life, John insisted that he was the victim of political treachery, and he strongly implied that it was Reinhard Gehlen, the man who benefited the most from his downfall, who was responsible.

The elimination of Otto John paved the way for Gehlen to consolidate his power. In February 1956, the West German government formally moved to create a foreign intelligence service, the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), and soon after, with Dulles’s strong endorsement, Gehlen was officially named its first chief. Gehlen’s triumph was complete: through ruthless determination he had transformed his Nazi intelligence apparatus into the Gehlen Organization and finally into the BND, giving him an official power base and legitimacy that made him the envy of his fellow Wehrmacht warriors.

In March 1956, Reinhard Gehlen’s staff prepared to lower the Stars and Stripes, which had flown over the Pullach compound ever since Hitler’s defeat, and replace it with the black-red-gold tricolors of the Federal Republic of Germany. But as Jim Critchfield and his wife packed their family belongings in preparation for his transfer to the Middle East, there was one more urgent piece of business for the departing CIA station chief to handle. On March 13, after returning from a week of secret government meetings in Bonn, Gehlen requested that Critchfield come alone to his office to discuss “a matter of some importance and considerable sensitivity.” The German spymaster was suffering from a cold and he seemed worn down, but he was too anxious to speak with Critchfield to delay their meeting.

Gehlen quickly dispensed with the usual pleasantries and proceeded to present an urgent report on the state of European security. France and Italy, he said, seemed to be moving toward “the reestablishment of [left-center] Popular Front governments.” Likewise, political trends in West Germany could lead to the fall of Adenauer’s conservative government and its replacement by a coalition including the Social Democratic Party and “anti-Adenauer elements of the Right.” Though not Communistic itself, such a government would inevitably take a softer, “neutralist” line toward the Soviet Union, Gehlen predicted, and he himself “would not survive” in this pro-détente atmosphere. If a government like this took over in Bonn, Gehlen warned, it would be “vulnerable to political penetration and eventual control by the East.”

After painting this ominous portrait, Gehlen got to the heart of the matter. He was prepared to take drastic action to prevent such a political scenario from unfolding in Bonn—going as far as to overthrow democracy in West Germany if necessary. Critchfield immediately reported on his startling conversation with Gehlen in a cable sent directly to Dulles in Washington. In the event of a leftward shift in Bonn, Critchfield informed the CIA director, “UTILITY would feel morally justified in taking all possible action, including the establishment of an illegal apparatus in the Federal Republic, to oppose elements in Germany supporting a pro-Soviet policy.” Gehlen, Critchfield added, would like to “discuss a plan for such an eventuality” with his friend Dulles, “in great privacy.”

It is unlikely that Dulles was shocked by Gehlen’s proposal to reinstitute fascism in Germany, since CIA officials had long been discussing such authoritarian contingency plans with the Gehlen Organization and other right-wing elements in Germany. In 1952, West German police discovered that the CIA was supporting a two-thousand-member fascist youth group led by ex-Nazi officers who had their own alarming plans for terminating democracy. Police investigators revealed that the CIA-backed group had compiled a blacklist of people to be “liquidated” as “unreliable” in case of a conflict with the Soviet Union. Included on the list were not just West German Communists but leaders of the Social Democratic Party serving in the Bundestag, as well as other left-leaning government officials. There were cries of outrage in the German parliament over the revelations, but the State Department worked strenuously behind the scenes to suppress the story, and similar alarming measures continued to be quietly contemplated throughout the Cold War.

These authoritarian plans were part of a sweeping covert strategy developed in the earliest days of the Cold War by U.S. intelligence officials, including Dulles, to counter a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe by creating a “stay-behind network” of armed resisters to fight the Red Army. Code-named Operation Gladio, these secret CIA-funded networks attracted fascist and criminal elements, some of which later played subversive roles in West Germany, France, and Italy, disrupting democratic rule in those countries by staging terrorist acts and plotting coups and assassinations.

In the end, Gehlen didn’t feel the need to overthrow democracy in Bonn, but his organization did undertake a variety of secret activities over the years that seriously undermined democratic institutions in Germany. Backed by U.S. intelligence, Hitler’s former spymaster implemented wide-ranging surveillance of West German officials and citizens, including opening private mail and tapping phones. Gehlen defended the snooping as an internal security measure aimed at ferreting out Soviet and East German spies, but his net grew wider and wider until it was cast across an increasingly broad spectrum of the population, including opposition party leaders, labor union officials, journalists, and schoolteachers. Gehlen even used his spy apparatus to investigate survivors of the Valkyrie plot against Hitler, including Dulles’s wartime comrade Hans Gisevius, all of whom he suspected of being Soviet agents.

One of Gehlen’s more ethical deputies complained, “Gehlen is becoming a megalomaniac. He actually wants to play Gestapo for the Americans.” Gehlen was acting not just on behalf of his U.S. patrons, but his clients in Bonn. Even some CIA officials worried that Gehlen was being improperly used by Hans Globke to gather information on political opponents and fortify the Adenauer administration’s power. Gehlen, warned a CIA dispatch from Bonn, “has let himself be used most indiscriminately by Globke to further the latter’s quest for power.” On one occasion in the 1950s, the savvy Globke paid a visit to Gehlen’s Pullach headquarters, poring over the dossiers of various German political figures—and taking the opportunity to remove his own file.

Ironically, while justifying his political snooping as a necessary countermeasure against enemy infiltration, Gehlen’s own organization became notorious for its penetrability. The Heinz Felfe affair was the most notorious Soviet mole case during Gehlen’s career—and, indeed, one of the biggest scandals in Cold War espionage history. Felfe, a former Nazi bully boy who had led rampaging gangs on Kristallnacht in 1938, was recruited into the Gehlen Organization in 1951. Not long after, the adaptable Felfe became a Soviet double agent. Fed a steady stream of inside tips by his Russian handlers, Felfe began to impress Gehlen as a master spy, and he rose quickly through the Pullach ranks. Finally, the bedazzled Gehlen named Heinz Felfe head of all anti-Soviet counterintelligence operations, a position that put the double agent in ongoing contact with the CIA and other Western spy agencies. Felfe’s reign as a top-level Soviet mole in the Gehlen Organization stretched for over a decade. By the time he was finally caught, he had wreaked inestimable damage on the West German apparatus, resulting in the arrest of dozens of senior Gehlen agents behind the Iron Curtain, as well as the breaking of numerous codes and secret channels of communication. A significant swath of German and American intelligence fieldwork had to be uprooted and started all over again.

After the Felfe scandal exploded in the press in 1963, Gehlen tried to minimize the importance of the deep breach. But though he would hold on to power by the skin of his teeth for the next several years, the spymaster never fully recovered from the political fallout. Adenauer never forgave Gehlen. For the “runt” Gehlen, who craved the approval of Germany’s father figure, the falling-out with the chancellor was a grievous blow. The spymaster was already in Adenauer’s doghouse for another scandal that had broken the previous year, when Gehlen was accused of leaking classified information about West Germany’s nuclear armament plans to the magazine Der Spiegel. The leak—which was calculated to damage Adenauer’s defense minister, yet another rival of Gehlen—made the chancellor so furious that he had considered ordering Gehlen’s arrest, finally deciding against it out of fear that it would only add to his administration’s political embarrassment.

But Adenauer was still in a foul mood about Gehlen in June 1963, when Allen Dulles dropped by the chancellor’s office in Bonn for a visit. By then, Dulles himself had been forced out of office by President Kennedy. But the former CIA director still traveled the world like he was running the show, and whatever capital he stopped in, Dulles found open doors. That day in Bonn, Adenauer asked Dulles point-blank what he thought of Gehlen. According to a CIA memo, Dulles “replied, as usual, that he had known [Gehlen] long and well and regarded him as a stout and honest fellow.”

Adenauer was not satisfied by the answer. The aging leader, who felt Dulles had imposed Gehlen upon him, was in no mood to be manipulated again by the American spymaster. The chancellor responded “surprisingly,” the agency memo continued, “by asking [Dulles] if anybody involved in his business could be really honest. [Dulles] asked if [Adenauer] did not regard him as an honest fellow.” The chancellor offered an elusive reply.

The following month, Adenauer was still fuming about Gehlen. One afternoon in July, he ordered the U.S. ambassador to be dragged out of a Bonn luncheon so that the chancellor could give him an earful about Gehlen. In his opinion, said Adenauer, Gehlen “is and always was stupid,” which the Felfe fiasco had underlined in red. There was only one reason, said the chancellor, that he had put up with the spymaster all these years: because of Dulles’s “personal interest” in Gehlen.

After Dulles left the CIA, the relationship between the agency and Gehlen was never as congenial. The German stopped visiting America, and the old tensions began to resurface. By 1966, Gehlen was even airing his suspicions that the CIA had put his family residence under surveillance. He expressed these fears, according to one CIA official, “apparently more in sorrow than anger.”

But by the time he retired, all this unpleasantness had been forgotten and the agency threw itself into planning an elaborate farewell for its longtime comrade. In September 1968, an illustrious crowd of CIA and U.S. military officials gathered for a Washington banquet to honor Gehlen. In the months leading up to the farewell ceremony, the CIA mulled over the proper medal to bestow on the German—the agency’s Intelligence Medal of Merit, or the National Security Medal. Dulles was among those who attended the gala event. He later sent a warm note to his old colleague Dick Helms, who by then was running the CIA, thanking Helms for including him in the Gehlen dinner and expressing how much he had enjoyed “the opportunity to see so many old and mutual friends of the General.”

Reinhard Gehlen lived out the rest of his years at his lakeside retreat, surrounded by his family—including his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, who moved into one of two houses on the estate—and his German shepherds, who provided the only security he felt he needed. On windy days, he still enjoyed soaring back and forth across the lake in his sailboat, another gift from the CIA.

The occasional journalists who dropped by found him in good spirits, happy to relive his past and to share his thoughts about the state of world affairs. During his reign at Pullach, he had maintained an abstemious regimen, drinking only mineral water or soda at meals. But now he would indulge in a glass of sherry with his visitors. Gehlen had no qualms when the conversation turned to the war years; he seemed to enjoy talking about his exploits on the eastern front.

The journalists who came by for sandwiches and sherry tended to be a generous sort. They asked the kinds of questions usually directed at retired statesmen or business leaders.

“When you look back on your life, how do you see it?” asked a reporter from a Danish newspaper, as she and Gehlen strolled in the garden that sloped down to the lake.

“I can only be grateful to fate,” he replied thoughtfully. “Everybody makes mistakes here in life. [But] I don’t at the present moment know what fundamental mistakes I have made.” What made him “especially” happy, said Gehlen, was that he had been able to give so much “human help” to the world.

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