How the Soviets Recruited Nazi War Criminals to Spy on the West

‘Thrill-seekers and opportunists’: Recently found information reveals how former Nazis infiltrated the West German spy agency

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Soviet intelligence agent Heinz Felfe, right, at the presentation of his memoir published in 1986.
Soviet intelligence agent Heinz Felfe, right, at the presentation of his memoir published in 1986.Credit: B. Bannov / Sputnik via AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Former Nazis who served in the SS and Gestapo infiltrated the West German intelligence agency as moles and caused it serious harm. After World War II, these spies were controlled by the Soviet Union, which had been their sworn enemy just a short time before. This surprising episode is documented in a new study by historian Danny Orbach based on recently published intelligence documents from the CIA and BND (West Germany’s – and now united Germany's – Federal Intelligence Service).

Orbach describes how the Soviets, through the use of these double agents, managed to get their hands on West Germany’s most highly classified information and to “cause mortal harm” to its intelligence community.

And how did these supposedly rabidly anti-Communist Nazis come to be working on behalf of their detested former enemies? “Some were thrill-seekers and opportunists,” Orbach says, “and some worked as mercenaries and moles for the highest bidder.” He says that besides the Soviet Union, former Nazis also worked, in different ways, on behalf of Arab countries, and even Israel, according to some partial reports.

Following its defeat in World War II, Germany was divided into two countries in keeping with the division of Europe into a Western, democratic bloc and an Eastern, communist bloc. The BND waged a campaign against Communist subversion. To this end, it absorbed into its ranks veterans of the Nazi intelligence and security apparatus, including war criminals, in the hope of benefiting from the professional experience of these (supposedly) avowed anti-Communists.

However, as Orbach writes, employing these former Nazis in the BND turned out to be a double-edged sword. At the time, none of the agency’s top intelligence officials imagined that these men would seek to aid the Soviet Union in its espionage battle against West Germany.

B-17 Flying Fortresses as they drop their bombs over German communication lines at Chemnitz, near Dresden, on February 6, 1945.Credit: AP

Orbach lists a number of reasons why the former Nazis crossed the ideological divide. The first has to do with human nature: To avoid angering the Americans and the German left, the West German intelligence chiefs assigned most of the former Nazis to relatively low-level positions. “This decision turned out to be disastrous, since the new recruits largely felt discriminated against, frustrated and embittered – a weakness that made it easier for hostile organizations to recruit them,” Orbach says.

He adds that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, veterans of the Gestapo and SD (the Security Service of the SS, commanded by Reinhard Heydrich) “were connected through close networks of friendship and business ties, and influenced one another, even if some supported the West and others supported the Soviet Union.” So if one of them worked for the Communist East, he could fairly easily recruit others – “like a computer virus that taints a densely packed Internet network,” Orbach says.

But there were other reasons why it was easy for the Soviets to recruit former Nazis into their ranks: Orbach cites an internal CIA study that theorized, rightly, that the Soviets had a simple thesis: “Former SS and SD personnel are war criminals who can only go on with their lives by hiding their past actions … and therefore are vulnerable to blackmail.” And some, says Orbach, were “unreliable sorts who were sloppy and lax about security, which made the Soviets’ work easier.”

One of these spies was Hans Sommer, a war criminal who participated in the torching of synagogues and massacres during World War II. His job in West German intelligence was to infiltrate neo-Nazi organizations to identify former Nazis who were working for the Soviet intelligence services. In the course of his work, he crossed the lines and also became a Soviet agent, until he was fired in 1953.

Another Nazi who deserted to the Soviets was Hans Clemens, a former Gestapo officer from Dresden, who during the war beat and threatened to kill Victor Klemperer, the Jewish-born linguist who later gained fame as a diarist. In 1944, Clemens was an SS officer in Rome, where he took part in a massacre of Italian civilians.

Painter Theodor Rosenhauer at work in Dresden after the allied bombing raids of February 13, 1945.Credit: Deutsche Fotothek

And what led him to serve the Communists after the war? Orbach says Clemens “deeply despised the Americans” and wanted to take vengeance on them for having abused him, he believed, as a POW and for the bombing of his city, Dresden, in which some of his relatives were killed. He also needed money and was on the lookout for “exciting adventures.” But there was one more, unique reason: Clemens believed that Communism would be victorious in the next war. And so, after having served the losing side, Germany, in both world wars, “now, at last, he wished to join the victors,” Orbach explains.

At the behest of the Soviets, he infiltrated West German intelligence as a double agent, and later recruited two more veterans of the Nazi security and intelligence services as moles too. The senior one of the group was Heinz Felfe, a former SD officer who also hailed from Dresden and harbored a deep fury at the West for having bombarded his beloved city and leveled his childhood home. In time, Felfe became “Moscow’s most important mole in the West German intelligence service,” according to Orbach.

Two months after he was recruited into Soviet intelligence, Felfe infiltrated West German intelligence. The man who “recruited” him into the BND, without realizing that he was bringing a mole into the organization, was another former Nazi, Wilhellm “Willie” Krichbaum, former commander of the secret field police and a notorious mass murderer who was now working for the West German intelligence.

The reports that Felfe was dispatched from West German intelligence to the Soviet Union were smuggled to their destination in crates of baby food. He met with his Russian handler in cinemas, cathedrals and other public places. Felfe was later promoted and served in BND headquarters, where he got close to the centers of power and was eventually appointed head of the Soviet desk in the counterespionage department.

“He did untold harm to all the West,” Orbach says. Every day he would smuggle out documents under his clothing, photograph them and then develop the negatives at his isolated summer home. In total, Felfe relayed to his handler more than 15,000 secret documents and 20 rolls of microfilm.

Historian Danny Orbach.Credit: Galit Ninio

Among other things, he exposed the identities of at least 100 CIA agents who were operating in the Soviet Union, disrupted BND and CIA intelligence operations, provided the Soviets with agents’ code names and addresses and revealed to them the secret structure and work methods of the West German intelligence service and other West German agencies. “For the Soviets, the information he gave about the arming of the Bundeswehr, the West German armed forces, was especially useful,” Orbach says.

Orbach, 38, lectures in history and Asian studies at Hebrew University. His fields of research are varied and include revolutions, political assassinations, military resistance, war crimes, military adventures, espionage and double agents in Germany, Japan, China, Israel and more. He writes a historical-political blog (“The Owl”) and records a podcast on intelligence and espionage (“Triple Agent”). He published the current research in Tabur, a journal of Hebrew University. It will be included in his upcoming book, which is about the work of veterans of Nazi intelligence during the Cold War, with an emphasis on the Middle East.

Orbach says that even as suspicions mounted about Felfe, the West German intelligence chiefs did not arrest him. Perhaps because they just couldn’t believe that a former Nazi would cooperate with the Communists. “The West German security and intelligence officers associated moles and double agents with leftists who had ties to Communist organizations or anti-Nazi resistance fighters. Not at all with veterans of the Nazi security and intelligence services,” he says.

Felfe was finally arrested in 1961, after a decade as a double agent. But the damage he did to the agency that had employed him did not end there. The agency’s image suffered a dreadful blow once it became known that a former Nazi, spying for the Soviets, had reached such a high-level position there. Orbach says that the Soviet infiltration of West German intelligence was “one of the most significant Soviet intelligence achievements at the start of the Cold War. And it was made possible to a large extent because of the ideological fallout of the Third Reich.”

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