Nazi Spies and the Problem with Gossip

In the summer of 1943, a dead British soldier had drifted onto shore near the Spanish town of Huelva. He had a briefcase chained to his belt. His wallet identified him as Major William Martin, a courier for the Royal Marines. He had a receipt for an engagement ring in his coat pocket, along with a photograph of a woman in a swimsuit, a letter from a creditor, and a ticket stub for a play. A sealed envelope contained a letter addressed to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer in Tunisia, and it discussed the thrust of Allied strategy for the impending invasion of Southern Europe.

By 1943, the Allied forces had beaten back Nazi tank divisions in North Africa and were planning to cross the Mediterranean. Would they invade through Sicily, as Mussolini and a number of Hitler’s top generals expected? Would they take Sardinia, a safer target but one that was less valuable? Or would they run an end around and invade through Greece, cutting off Nazi supply lines? Hitler suspected Greece. The letter in Major Martin’s briefcase made that suspicion explicit: the Allied armies would mount a simultaneous invasion of Greece and Sardinia.

Major Martin’s documents were passed along to the Nazi spy Karl-Erich Kuhlenthal. Kuhlenthal was tall with a hawk-like nose. He wore double-breasted suits and kept his fingernails perfectly manicured. He drove a French coupe and was said to play tennis “beautifully.” The locals of Madrid called him “Don Pablo.” Kuhlenthal came from a wealthy and prestigious German family. His father was a distinguished solder who rose to the rank of general and served as the military attaché in Madrid. The head of the Abwehr – the Nazi equivalent of the CIA – was a close relative. He was also part Jewish. This made him, as journalist Ben Macyntire notes, “frantically eager to please, ready to pass on anything that might consolidate his reputation.” Kuhlenthal needed to stay as far away from Germany as possible. Giving the Fuhrer good news was the best way to do that. It didn’t occur to Don Pablo whether Major Martin’s documents might be fake. He declared them authentic, and passed them to the next man up the chain.

That next man up was Baron Alexis von Roenne. Von Roenne presided over the intelligence branch of the German army’s high command, what was known as the Fremde Heer West (FHW). Von Roenne had what Macintyre describes as a “mystical reputation for divining and predicting Allied intentions.” Hitler himself thought Von Roenne to be infallible. Von Roenne was both short and slender and looked like a banker, but he was a Word War One hero and the recipient of the Iron Cross. “Hitler had implicit faith in Von Roenne and in his reasoning ability, and seems to have liked him personally,” says Macintyre. The feeling wasn’t mutual: Von Roenne intensely disliked Hitler and was appalled by the Nazi regime. Von Roenne, at every turn, actively sabotaged the Nazi war effort. He helped convince the high command that the Allies would land at Calais rather than Normandy. And though he suspected Major Martin’s documents to be a hoax, he dutifully passed them on to Hitler. “There is absolute, convincing proof of their reliability,” he said.

von roenne

None of us are part of the intelligence community, but we often participate in what could easily be described as social espionage. Maybe a trusted friend is tearfully telling you that your girlfriend is cheating on you. Maybe the talk around the water cooler suggests that the next person up the rung just bombed an important presentation. Perhaps an unnamed source is suggesting who your team will be selecting in the NFL draft. It hardly matters. The problem with espionage – whether it is dealing in classified intelligence or everyday gossip – is we can’t know when it’s been apprehended by a hidden agenda. There are people like Kuhlenthal who pass on secrets because they believe it helps themselves. And there are people like von Roenne who pass on secrets because they believe it hurts their enemies. We want to believe that people have our best interests in mind, but that is rarely the case. Whether or not they actually know the truth is entirely irrelevant. Whether dealing in state secrets or the high school rumor mill, one principle applies: you can’t trust spies.

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