When the NSDAP came to power in January 1933, Heydrich’s intelligence branch of the SS—the SD—consisted of about thirty paid agents scattered throughout Germany, as well as a few hundred unpaid collaborators within the political, governmental and state establishments. However, he moved swiftly to commission National Socialist lawyers and academics to represent the interests of the SS and SD within the state political police and to ensure that the political police operated within the framework of National Socialist ideology. Of course, this flies in the face of the popular perception of the SD as nothing more than a gang of radicals, thugs and faceless bureaucrats. Yet Michael Wildt has demonstrated1 that many of those at the very heart of the Third Reich’s security and intelligence apparatus came from the upper echelons of society: “well-educated academics, not part of a marginal or excluded minority, but members of the mainstream elite.”2 These were the men who were brought in to staff Heydrich’s organisation as it expanded throughout the 1930s. And it was they who ultimately orchestrated some of the worst crimes in history.
Between 1933 and 1934, the SD’s headquarters developed into five major branches: I Organisation; II Administration; III Domestic Political Information (including intelligence collection within the National Socialist movement, religious movements, Marxist and socialist groups, science and education and the legal system); IV Counter-espionage and Overseas Intelligence; and V Freemasonry. Additionally, two “independent desks” monitored press activity and provided technical support for all SD operations.
Despite this impressive structure and a growing reputation within the National Socialist movement as an inscrutable and effective espionage system, Heydrich’s SD in fact remained an extraordinarily amateurish operation. Although Heydrich attracted a core of young, ambitious intellectuals into his organisation, none of them had any experience in intelligence collection or investigation. Outside the central headquarters, the SD’s structure mirrored that of the regional and local General-SS, and the local units were encouraged to recruit contacts throughout German society to report on what was happening within their particular spheres. This reflected Himmler and Heydrich’s conception of how the British Secret Service worked. They much admired this organisation and imagined it to be an informal network of high-minded, unpaid patriots who collected information out of a sense of duty to the state. But SD contacts were given vague and unfocused instructions on the type of information they should be collecting; and while SD headquarters accumulated impressive collections of Zionist books and Masonic artefacts, these were of little or no value for operational intelligence.
In fact, in its early days, the SD’s most effective personnel were members of the SD in name only; they were employed primarily within the Gestapo. These included Heinrich Müller—a detective from Munich whom Heydrich made operational chief of the Gestapo in 1934—and his Bavarian police colleagues Friedrich Panzinger, Franz Josef Huber and Josef Meisinger, all of whom had previously taken part in the Bavarian state’s monitoring of the National Socialists.3 Heydrich, though, was sufficiently realistic to understand that these men, with their practical backgrounds in police investigations, would be much more effective than his own poorly trained and inexperienced intellectuals in uncovering enemies of the state.
Nevertheless, a number of Heydrich’s recruits went on to forge impressive careers within the SD and the Third Reich. Probably the most effective of them in the early days—and perhaps the best example of a highly intelligent and academically accomplished individual who was attracted by the SD—was Werner Best, a Hessian lawyer. He joined the SS in Hesse in 1931, and later that year he was working as a legal adviser to the Hesse National Socialist Party. In that capacity, he headed a team that drafted plans for a counter-revolution in the event of a communist seizure of power. Copies of these documents—known as the “Boxheim Papers” after the house where the team’s meetings were held—were seized by Hessian state authorities and became a source of much embarrassment to Hitler, who was attempting to persuade the German people that he would take power only by legal means.4 However, Best survived the scandal and was eventually installed as Heydrich’s Gestapo deputy in Munich.
On 30 January 1935, the SS-Sicherheitshauptamt (Security Main Office) was created as the third of the three original SS main offices—alongside the Main Office itself and the Race and Settlement Office. It had a central chancellery, a personnel branch, an administrative branch and a press office, as well as offices dealing with cultural information, enemies of National Socialist ideology; counter-espionage and counter-sabotage; and the dissemination of its findings. However, this organisational set-up proved to be short-lived, as Himmler, Heydrich and Kurt Daluege gained ever more control over the whole German police force.
As the senior police officer within the federal Ministry of the Interior, Daluege spent much of 1934 and 1935 purging the police of “undesirable elements”: social democrats, liberals and Catholics, as well as any SA officers who had been transferred into the police prior to the Night of the Long Knives. In their place, the SS sought to secure paid police appointments for its members. This continued until 17 June 1936, when, after lengthy discussions, Wilhelm Frick appointed Himmler Chief of the German Police in the Ministry of the Interior. (Of course, he also retained his position as National Leader of the SS.) Less than two weeks later, Himmler created two new main offices within the ministry: the Hauptamt Ordnungspolizei (Order Police Main Office), headed by Daluege; and the Hauptamt Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police Main Office), under Heydrich.5
Daluege now had command over all of Germany’s uniformed police. Eventually, this would include: the municipal police forces; the rural gendarmerie; the traffic police; coastguards; the railway police; the postal protection service; fire brigades; the air-raid service; the emergency technical service; the broadcasting police (who protected radio stations and investigated illicit reception of foreign broadcasts); the factory protection police; building regulations enforcement; the health police; and the commercial police. As Inspector of the Order Police, Daluege had the authority to appoint SS officers at state and provincial levels, and from March 1937 he could make appointments and set budgets at all levels, which allowed in-depth SS penetration of the police. Existing police officers were inducted into the SS with few formalities, and graduates of the SS officer schools at Braunschweig and Bad Tölz were given police assignments after graduation. It was not obligatory to be a member of the SS to succeed in the police, but it was commonly perceived that it would certainly not do any harm, so many police officers and NCOs chose to join.* However, Himmler and the SS never enjoyed total control over the German police. The central lines of authority were clear enough, but at the local level the police remained subject to direction from provincial and city authorities. In practice, this meant that many policemen took their orders from local National Socialist Party leaders who had no particular loyalty to Himmler.
Heydrich’s main office created an entirely new organisation: the Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo—Security Police). On paper, this was the amalgamation of the Gestapo (which had effectively been a nationwide force since 1934) and Kripo (headed by Arthur Nebe), the detective branch of the Prussian Police, to which the detective branches of the other state police forces were now added. (Previously, Kripo had been considered part of the regular police, so it had been under the general authority of Daluege.6) Sipo, like the Order Police, was a branch of the state, so, for the time being, it came under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior. But for members of the Gestapo and Kripo, much more so than for regular police officers, there were very clear career advantages to be gained from membership of the SS or the SD. Consequently, many hitherto apolitical career policemen signed up.
At this point, to avoid confusion with Sipo, the Sicherheitshauptamt once again became known officially as the Sicherheitsdienst. By now, this main office was consolidating its role as an intelligence clearinghouse and creating an organisational structure that would survive until the creation of the RSHA in 1939. Heydrich remained as chief, with SS-Brigadier Siegfried Taubert, an “old fighter,” as his chief of staff. Office I, under SS-Colonel Albert, was responsible for the administration and organisation of the SD, but it also included the “press and museum” department, headed by SS-Major Franz Six.
Six has sometimes been presented as an archetype of the ruthless intellectuals that Heydrich recruited into the SD, even though his academic qualifications were somewhat derided by his colleagues. Born in 1909, by the mid-1930s he was a clever young man in a hurry who had spotted the advantages of hitching himself to the National Socialist bandwagon. He gained his doctorate at Heidelberg University (supervised by an NSDAP professor) with a thesis entitled “The Political Structure as Represented in the Daily Press,” which was written in National Socialist jargon. He had been a party member since 1929, and had worked as a part-time journalist for various NSDAP newspapers while writing his thesis.7 As head of the press department, he created a system under which every newspaper and periodical that might possibly contain something of interest was scrutinised and reviewed for information. Of course, this generated masses of press clippings. According to George Browder, “Six would boast that he converted the haphazard exploitation of the press into the most reliable intelligence source in the entire SD, superior to any reports coming up from the field posts.”8 In truth, “open source” press reporting is used by all intelligence agencies to supplement their confidential sources of information, so if this really was the best source of intelligence that the SD had at its disposal, it was failing in its mission.
Office II, “SD-Inland” (Home), was headed by SS-Colonel Hermann Behrends, a protégé of Heydrich who had acted as his representative in Berlin in the very early days of the Intelligence Service. This was subdivided into branches dealing with “Ideological Analysis” and the “Analysis of Spheres of Life.” The former focused on supposed ideological and political enemies of the National Socialist movement, and it was here that Adolf Eichmann began his work on the “final solution to the Jewish problem” by building up a detailed knowledge of German Zionist and assimilationist matters.9 The latter was headed by the academic SS-Major Reinhard Höhn. Its brief was to collect information on the cultural, community and material life of Germany. Thus, for example, the highly qualified economist Otto Ohlendorf began his SD career in the Spheres of Life branch as the “Food Economy” desk officer. He subsequently went on to lead the branch, commanded a special task group in Russia, and was a member of a group who secretly planned German currency reform and the creation of the Deutschmark, before finally being executed by the US Army.
Under Höhn and Ohlendorf, the Spheres of Life branch conducted regular, confidential public opinion surveys. The results were then circulated throughout the upper echelons of the SS and the National Socialist Party as Meldungen aus dem Reich (Reports from the Reich). These took the form of anecdotal reports collected by SD operatives, and they were intended to give a flavour of the public mood, particularly as the war dragged on, and the impact of domestic and foreign propaganda on the population. A typical example from 1943 discussed the impact of bombing raids:
After the Russian attacks on Koenigsberg and Tilsit and the last British terror attacks on Rostock, Stettin, Mannheim, Ludwigshafen, Duisburg, Muehlheim, Oberhausen etc., the realisation has come to all parts of the Reich that from now on, no region of Germany is safe from air attack. Even in the mountainous districts, widely seen among the people as “Germany’s Air Raid Shelter,” people are expecting that the enemy air capability will be broadened to threaten these areas.10
The reports pulled few punches, and over time they became deeply resented within party circles, where they were seen as proof that the SD was gathering evidence of impropriety and inefficiency in the NSDAP. Höhn, who had instigated them, was eventually forced to leave the SD because of pressure from senior party officials; and both Heydrich and Himmler were at pains to demonstrate that his successor, Ohlendorf, was on a very short leash.
Office III, SD-Ausland (Overseas), was nominally commanded by Heydrich, but his chief of staff was SS-Colonel Heinz Jost, a protégé of Best. Its two branches dealt with “Foreign Spheres of Life” and “Foreign Political Espionage and Counter-espionage.” It seems that this office devoted considerable time and resources into trying to gather information from overseas, but enjoyed very little success beyond acquiring material from open press sources and some German minority groups. Certainly, there is nothing to indicate that the SD had a network of agents outside Germany, nor even that its leaders had any idea of how such networks could be recruited and maintained.11
On the other hand, Office III did provide Heydrich with a few officers whom he used for “cloak-and-dagger” operations outside Germany. The best known of these was Alfred Naujocks,12 a young mechanic who had joined the SS in his native Kiel in 1931. Three years later, he escaped domestic difficulties with his wife by signing on for a full-time SS role as a driver in SD-Regional Command East in Berlin, which at that time was commanded by Behrends. Then he became a clerk in the central registry. However, before long, for reasons that are not clear, Heydrich started to entrust Naujocks with special foreign missions. For instance, in October or November 1934, he sent him and another SD man to Prague to assassinate Otto Strasser. But after spending fourteen days in the city, they became concerned by Czech Police interest in them and returned to Berlin. Then, in February 1935, Naujocks and his colleague were again sent to Czechoslovakia, this time to kidnap a Strasser supporter who was broadcasting propaganda into southern Germany. They found their target but killed him in a gunfight, during which Naujocks was also wounded.13
In spite of this inauspicious start to Naujocks’ covert career, for some reason Heydrich continued to select him for clandestine missions. In 1936 and 1937, he was sent on a tour of Europe to familiarise himself with all the major cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Athens, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris and London. Naujocks was accompanied on these trips by another SS man who worked for the industrial giant AEG, which afforded them some degree of cover. The two men stayed in the better hotels at the SD’s expense and usually made contact with either AEG or German diplomatic staff. However, they made no attempt to gather information, and Naujocks regarded the trips as purely pleasurable.
By the autumn of 1937, Naujocks had been promoted to SS-captain and assigned to Office III. This was considered a prestigious posting, and Heydrich introduced him to several significant figures in the regime, including Himmler, Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Goebbels. In early 1938, Naujocks became an SS-major and was made chief of the South-East Europe section of Office III. This new position gave him a good overview of how the SD attempted to collect foreign intelligence: “He relied on reports submitted by German businessmen who travelled extensively in the countries concerned. They were not paid, but were enthusiastic National Socialists who prepared their reports on ideological grounds and expected no recompense for them.”14
In early 1939, Heydrich called Naujocks into his office to discuss a Propaganda Ministry official named Berndt who had evidently offended Heydrich in some way. According to Naujocks, Heydrich did not specifically order him to kill Berndt, but he did suggest that he should arrest the man with a drawn revolver and should use it at the first opportunity. However, Naujocks refused to carry out the mission; instead, he took to his bed, claiming illness. Heydrich was less than impressed, and Jost told Naujocks that he would be well advised to find a way out of the SD as soon as possible. He stayed in his post, though, and throughout the first half of 1939 was involved in a minor way in the haggling over the future of Slovakia, following the German dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.15
On 10 August, he was given the mission for which he is probably the best known: staging a fake attack on the German-Polish border. Heydrich informed Naujocks that his and other bogus attacks were needed to give Hitler a pretext to launch his planned offensive against Poland. Heydrich’s plan was to gather a number of “life-sentence” prisoners from concentration camps, kill them with a lethal injection, dress them in Polish uniforms, riddle them with bullets and then dump them at various locations along the border. The idea was that this would lead the world to believe that Polish soldiers had been making cross-border raids into Germany.
After he defected to the Allies in 1944, Naujocks claimed that his part in this, an attack on Gleiwitz’s radio station in Upper Silesia, was just one of a number of such operations that took place throughout August:* “Naujocks states that the bodies were forwarded to the villages where they were required in packing cases labelled ‘preserves.’ Some of the victims arrived at their destinations only half-dead, having been given inadequate injections, and these had to be put out of their misery before they could be used.”16 On Naujocks’ arrival in Gleiwitz, with a team of
five or six men…he arranged for a Polish-speaking German to take possession of the microphone “by force” and to begin broadcasting an appeal to his “countrymen” urging them to rise up against the Germans. The broadcast was then abruptly broken off, shots were fired in the studio, and finally a corpse, with which Naujocks had previously been provided, was left lying on the floor close to the microphone, riddled with bullets.17
Naujocks remained in Gleiwitz for more than a fortnight after this operation, and it was only when he travelled back to Berlin, passing vast numbers of German troops and equipment going in the opposite direction, that he realised war was imminent.
Dramatic as these operations doubtless were, they represent a schoolboy version of what constitutes “intelligence” work and reflect the essential amateurism of Heydrich and his subordinates. While the SD could boast many young, ruthless, highly intelligent academics, it also included more than a few semi-educated bumblers like Naujocks. But all of these men shared a poor understanding of how to obtain and report useful intelligence against real enemies. Consequently, they were rarely, if ever, able to fulfil their designated role.
IN NOVEMBER 1937, a further step was quietly undertaken towards the integration of the SS and the police. This was the creation of the role of Höhere SS und Polizei Führer (HSSPF—Senior SS and Police Leader), a “shadow” appointment that became effective only upon mobilisation of Germany’s armed forces. All HSSPFs were nominated personally by Himmler and answered directly to him (though, in practice, they were generally the regional SS commanders). Their task was to oversee the activities of SS and police units (from both the Order Police and Sipo) within their areas and to coordinate them with the civil and military authorities. Geographically, within Germany, the HSSPFs’ areas of responsibility were congruous with the military districts of the armed forces, although their political equivalents were the regional leaders—the local National Socialist Party leaders appointed personally by Hitler. Once Germany had begun to acquire occupied territories, further HSSPFs were created to work in combination with the occupation authorities, be they military or civil.18
Although their role was not widely publicised before the war, the HSSPFs were theoretically immensely powerful. As Himmler’s personal representatives, they were entitled to override directives from the SS main offices and, in an emergency, were permitted to take operational control of all police, SS and even military units in their areas of responsibility.
The major consolidation within the police and intelligence system of the SS occurred on 27 September 1939, when Heydrich’s two main offices, the SD-Main Office and the Security Police Main Office, were amalgamated to create theReichsicherheitshauptamt(RSHA—Reich Security Main Office).19 This was the conclusion of months of discussions that had debated the future of the SD. Those attending these meetings had been concerned that the organisation had several “faces.” First, it was an umbrella organisation through which Gestapo and Kripo detectives could acquire SS membership, rank and uniform, while demonstrating commitment to the regime. Second, it was a network of collaborators, contacts and information sources throughout German society. Third, it was a system of regional offices associated with General-SS area commands. Fourth, and most problematically, it was the central SD-Main Office.
There were two main issues regarding the SD-Main Office. First, in order to rationalise and streamline the system, the Gestapo had been made the sole state security investigative agency back in 1937, which meant the SD could no longer conduct investigations or make arrests in Germany. Moreover, while it could and did conduct operations abroad, these were crude, poorly focused, and far less effective than the missions carried out by the Abwehr, the armed forces’ intelligence service, headed by Canaris.* This meant that there was a credibility gap between the largely professional Sipo and the amateurish SD. Second, the SD was a party formation, not a state agency, so it was still funded by the NSDAP. The merger proposals, which were drafted by Walter Schellenberg, a highly intelligent young lawyer who had joined the SS in 1933 and had enjoyed a meteoric rise as a protégé of Heydrich, sought to bring the SD within the state fold and ensure that it could be adequately resourced.20
Ultimately, the structure of the new RSHA was a compromise. Some of the administrative elements of the SD-Main Office merged with their Sipo counterparts and became state agencies, but the two main branches of the SD that survived the merger, “Home” and “Overseas,” remained party formations and therefore dependent on funding from the NSDAP treasury. Thus, the structure of the RSHA was a straightforward amalgamation of the earlier main offices, in which administrative and budgetary functions were combined: Office I covered legal and administrative issues, under the leadership of Best; Office II dealt with “ideological investigation,” under Six; Office III was SD-Home, now under Ohlendorf; Office IV was the Gestapo, under Müller; Office V was Kripo, under Nebe; and Office VI was SD-Overseas, under Jost. Best also became Heydrich’s deputy chief for the whole RSHA.21
The creation of the RSHA as a central coordinating body was not widely broadcast, and for public purposes, the distinction between the state function of the Sipo and the party functions of the SD were maintained, with Heydrich continuing to be referred to as “Chief of the Sicherheitspolizei and SD.”22
The most striking aspect of the RSHA was its personnel. Between 1925 and 1930, the typical SS member was an ex-soldier who could display a higher level of commitment and loyalty to the party and its leadership than a counterpart in the SA, for example. But as the NSDAP became more established and grew in popularity, the SS began to attract a different type of recruit: talented, well-educated individuals like Heydrich and Best who saw the party as the future government of Germany, and saw the potential of the SS’s role as a security elite at the heart of the movement. Once the NSDAP did indeed come to power, this change became even more evident.
In his study of the leadership corps within the RSHA, Wildt has shown that it attracted a remarkable group of young National Socialist Germans. He studied 221 individuals holding senior positions in the organisation: 77 per cent were born after 1900; two-thirds had a university degree; and 50 per cent of these graduates also had doctorates.23 Most of them came from lower-middle-class backgrounds, and most were the first members of their families to have attended university.
Interestingly, many of these men had been activists within the National Socialist Student Federation while at university,24 indicating that they did not join the SS and later the RSHA merely through careerist opportunism. Rather, it seems they wanted to work within an organisation that was in the ideological vanguard of National Socialism because they were firmly committed to that ideology. So, when the time came for the RSHA to take a leading role in the attempted extermination of the Jews of Europe, they remained unflinching in their dedication to both the party leadership and the project itself.
Nevertheless, the leading intellectual within the RSHA did not last long as either chief of Office I or Heydrich’s deputy. Although Best had been instrumental in framing the ideological and legal framework in which the SS operated between 1934 and 1939, Heydrich came to realise that he was a poor practical operator. He was a committed National Socialist but remained a lawyer at heart, and as such he always tried to work within the bounds of the law. By contrast, Heydrich sought practical solutions and was not concerned by legal niceties.25 In 1940, Best left the RSHA and his office was split in two:* Office I was now concerned with personnel training and organisation; Office II was the administration and legal branch. (The old Office II—Six’s “ideological investigations” branch—became Office VII in the reshuffle.26)
This final organisational structure remained in place throughout the remainder of the war. In practice, though, the importance and output of both Office III and Office VII diminished rapidly as the war continued. As we have seen, SD-Home’s unvarnished reporting of public opinion became unpopular and controversial, and Ohlendorf had little freedom of operation. Meanwhile, the ambitious Six was intended to be the repository for all information relating to enemies of National Socialism, and it was assumed that his office would underpin much of the future work of the RSHA. Himmler, in typical grandiose style, described Office VII as: “The ‘Defenders of the Grail’ of the Third Reich.”27 However, it proved to be no such thing. During the early years of the war, Office VII recruits were dispatched to the occupied territories to gather as much information as they could. But the department lacked the capacity to evaluate it; and, in any case, much of what was collected was of purely academic or historical interest. Six soon lost interest in his own department, and after service at the front with the Waffen-SS in 1940 he tried to find himself a niche within the Foreign Office. In his place, SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Paul Dittel, an academic expert on Freemasonry, became acting head of the department. However, he also found much of its work futile and its staff far below the level he had expected: “Office VII was, for the most part, a typical collection of semi-intellectuals…mostly old members of the National Socialist Party, including university failures, some minor officials and quite a number of simple tradesmen.”28 If desk officers did ever display academic rigour, their efforts were generally not welcomed. Investigations by Office VII into the authenticity of the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” (a hoax first published in 1903 concerning a purported Jewish plot to take over the world), the “disastrous” and “destructive” Catholic Church, and the “subversive” character of witchcraft* reached conclusions that were completely at odds with the prejudices of Himmler and were duly criticised for “over-objectivity.”29 By the end of 1943, Office VII was little more than a haven for SD personnel seeking to avoid service at the front.
Both the Gestapo and Kripo remained effective executive agencies, but their primary role was investigative policing, albeit within a totalitarian society in which merely being of an “undesirable” ethnicity, religious faith, political outlook or sexual orientation effectively rendered people criminals and liable to punishment. Müller remained head of the Gestapo until the very end of the war, and in this role he oversaw the activities of Eichmann and his Section IV B4 of the RSHA. This department was principally concerned with the transport and murder of the European Jews, as well as counter-espionage and counter-dissent activities.
One of the Gestapo’s major successes, in conjunction with the Abwehr, came in its operations against the Soviet Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) espionage ring. Its detective work and interrogations during the late summer of 1942 eventually led to 118 trials, after which 41 members of the ring were beheaded and 8 hanged.30 By contrast, the Gestapo’s record against “serious” resistance in Germany was poor. Although it was aware of high-level opposition within the German political and military establishments—nicknamed the Schwarze Kapelle (Black Orchestra) by the Gestapo—the extent and intentions of these groups remained unknown until the assassination attempt on Hitler on 20 July 1944.
The Gestapo even failed to unearth an opposition group within the SS itself. In May 1943,31 the British Minister in Stockholm was approached by a young Waffen-SS officer named Hans Zech-Nenntwich, who claimed to be a deserter with important military information and a desire to fight against the National Socialist regime. After negotiations with the Swedish government, Zech-Nenntwich was flown across the North Sea in a Mosquito for interrogation. He had an extraordinary story to tell.
Born in 1916 in Silesia, he served as a pilot in the Condor Legion in Spain in 1937 and then wanted to become a police officer. However, in order to do this, he was obliged to join the SS-Special Purpose Troops. In 1939, he was attached to the Heimwehr Danzigfor the invasion of Poland (see Chapter 15). Thereafter, he attended the Officer Cadet School at Bad Tölz and was then posted to SS-Mounted Regiment 1, later the nucleus of the SS-Cavalry Division. He served with the Cavalry Brigade throughout 1941 and 1942 before being wounded and withdrawn to the brigade’s convalescent battalion in Warsaw. In March 1943, he was arrested by the Gestapo when trying to pass captured Russian weapons to the Polish underground movement. However, fellow Waffen-SS officers helped him escape, and he eventually managed to reach Sweden via Denmark.
More significant than any of this, though, was that Zech-Nenntwich claimed he was a member of an opposition group—the “League of Democratic Officers”—within the Waffen-SS. He said this group formed primarily as a result of the antagonism between the professional Waffen-SS officers produced by the officer schools and the “old fighters” who had been promoted above their ability purely because of their political service. However, he also claimed that many of his colleagues were sickened by the atrocities being perpetrated against Jews in the East, and Zech-Nenntwich himself “was particularly revolted by the bestial treatment of the Poles by the Gestapo.”32 He concluded by naming forty-four members of this opposition group, and its leader—SS-Brigadier Wilhelm Bittrich.
It was never firmly established that this story of an opposition group within the SS was true. But, equally, British intelligence never found any evidence to disprove it, and Zech-Nenntwich was treated as a genuine defector. His personal anti–National Socialism certainly seemed sincere, and he spent the rest of the war making propaganda broadcasts and advising on the interrogation of SS prisoners of war. He was also never forgiven by the German establishment for his betrayal: he was harassed by the German government throughout the 1950s and was eventually put on trial and convicted in 1964 for his own role in atrocities against Jews in 1941. Imprisoned for four years’ hard labour in a German prison in Braunschweig, he managed simply to walk out, after bribing his guards, and fled to Egypt, although he did later return to serve his sentence.33
The Gestapo had more success in dealing with less well-organised resistance groups and individuals because so many ordinary Germans were willing to denounce their fellow countrymen. The fate of the Weisse Rose (White Rose) group from Munich University exemplifies this. It had six core members: the brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alex Schmorell and Willi Graf, all of whom were students, and Kurt Huber, who was a professor of philosophy. Between June 1942 and February 1943, the group printed and distributed six anonymous leaflets calling on Germans to oppose the National Socialist regime. On 18 February, while handing out their leaflets at the university, they were seen by a caretaker and promptly denounced to the police. The Scholls and Christoph Probst were tried, convicted and executed just four days later; Schmorell and Huber were executed on 13 July; Graf on 12 October.34
As far as foreign espionage was concerned, Office VI, SD-Overseas, achieved something of a coup in November 1939 when an operation led by Schellenberg and Naujocks kidnapped two British MI6 officers, Major Richard Stevens and Captain Sigismund Payne Best, at a café in Venlo on the German-Dutch border. Payne Best had been liaising with German anti–National Socialist refugees in the Netherlands for some time and believed that he was dealing with members of the German armed forces who were planning a coup. In fact, his contact was an agent provocateur inserted into German émigré circles by the SD. This agent persuaded Stevens and Payne Best to attend two meetings with a “Major Schaemmel,” supposedly an anti-NSDAP conspirator but actually Schellenberg. At their third meeting, on 9 November, they were ambushed by a team led by Naujocks and bundled across the border for interrogation. A Dutch intelligence officer, Major Klop, who was also at the meeting, was shot and fatally wounded during the ambush.
Payne Best and Stevens were taken to the Gestapo office in Düsseldorf. They were not allowed any contact with each other, and were interrogated at length and in detail. Stevens was the head of station for MI6 in the Hague, under the cover of being a “passport control officer.” However, he was a relatively new recruit to MI6 and had limited knowledge of the service’s agents and operations. On the other hand, Payne Best was a member of the “Z Organisation”—a parallel and supposedly more secretive network that MI6 operated in Europe under the personal control of Claude Dansey, a senior MI6 officer who had been working with Payne Best for the best part of twenty years. Both men eventually revealed extensive information under duress, and a summary of what they said about MI6 was circulated by the RSHA in early 1940. However, this may not have been the success it seems. When Schellenberg was interrogated after the war, he maintained that Payne Best and Stevens had disclosed little useful information, particularly about the leading personalities of the British Secret Service; and Schellenberg’s poor understanding of the organisation of MI6 was a source of considerable amusement to British intelligence personnel.35
In fact, the post-war interrogation of Schellenberg and other Office VI personnel revealed that they never gathered significant information on British, Soviet or US capabilities or intentions.36 An attempt to insert agents into enemy territory was similarly unsuccessful. Office VI expended considerable effort in training and equipping two Irishmen and then parachuting them into the Irish Republic in December 1943. They had instructions to report on the naval, military and political situation in the UK, but they were arrested almost immediately, after details of their operation were uncovered by the “Ultra” intelligence-gathering system. This appears to have been Office VI’s only serious attempt to plant agents in Britain.37
HEYDRICH CONTINUED AS chief of the RSHA until 1942, but in September 1941 he was appointed acting Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, a role that took up much of his time and energy. He adopted a largely successful carrot-and-stick approach to increase war production in the region, much to the dismay of Czech resistance groups.
In the spring of 1942, a team of Czech commandos trained in Britain by the Special Operations Executive was parachuted into Czechoslovakia with the task of eliminating Heydrich. The team’s reconnaissance work revealed that he drove from his residence to the Hradˇcany Castle in Prague every morning, and this seemed to be when he was at his most vulnerable. On 27 May, the four commandos, led by Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, struck. They set an ambush on a hairpin bend and waited for Heydrich to appear. When he did, Gabcik jumped into the middle of the road, raised his submachine gun and pulled the trigger. But the gun jammed. Heydrich’s car screeched to a halt and he pulled his pistol from its holster and opened fire. At that point, Kubis lobbed a grenade under the car. It detonated, but then, to the Czechs’ astonishment, Heydrich emerged from the cloud of smoke, shouting and still shooting. A running battle developed as the commandos tried to escape from their athletic and apparently unharmed enemy. Kubis managed to slip between two passing trams and escape on a bicycle he had positioned nearby; but Gabcik seemed to be in real danger of being caught. However, Heydrich suddenly reached for his stomach, threw down his pistol and slumped to the ground. His driver, who had been slightly wounded in the blast, commandeered a passing bread van and took Heydrich to the nearest German military hospital. It was discovered that Heydrich had multiple shrapnel wounds, and he deteriorated over the next few days, despite being treated by Germany’s leading doctors. He died on 4 June from septicaemia, aged thirty-eight.38
Daluege replaced Heydrich as acting Reichsprotektor and initiated a wave of terror against the Czech population in revenge for his predecessor’s assassination. This culminated in the destruction of the village of Lidice on 9 June, when all 198 adult male inhabitants were shot, all the women were deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp, and every child was taken to Germany for adoption. Daluege stepped down from the Czech role in August 1943 after suffering a serious illness that also forced him to hand over control of the Order Police Main Office to his deputy, Alfred Wunnenberg, a professional police officer.39
Himmler himself had become chief of the RSHA in the wake of Heydrich’s death, but he handed over day-to-day responsibility to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, hitherto Senior SS and Police Leader Danube, based in Vienna. Kaltenbrunner, an Austrian lawyer and longtime member of the SS, assumed full leadership of the RSHA in January 1943 and held the post until the end of the war. But his relationship with Himmler was never as close as Heydrich’s had been, and he enjoyed far less independence than his predecessor. Where Heydrich had been an active pioneer, working closely with Himmler to expand and develop the role of the SS in intelligence, security and policing, and later organising the murderous special task groups in occupied Europe, Kaltenbrunner was an apparatchik who was only really interested in securing his own position. He achieved this through the political infighting that characterised the upper reaches of the National Socialist state, especially towards the end of the war.40
* They typically became unpaid members of a local General-SS or SD unit.
* Most accounts (e.g., Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head) suggest that the attack at Gleiwitz took place at the end of August and that it was a more or less unique attempt to give Hitler a casus belli. But in his interrogation in late 1944, Naujocks clearly indicated that his was one of several attacks, and that it took place in mid-August at the latest.
* However, the Abwehr itself was no more than adequate as an intelligence-collection organisation, primarily for structural reasons. The National Socialist state lacked a central intelligence coordinating body comparable to Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, which meant that the Abwehr often lacked direction in its intelligence collection. Moreover, any material it did collect was not necessarily collated with that retrieved by other agencies, including the RSHA.
* Best joined the Foreign Office and in 1942 became German plenipotentiary in Denmark.
* Desk VII C3 within Office VII, the Hexen Referat, was specifically tasked to monitor “witchcraft, sorcery and popular superstition.”