Book review: Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War, by Danny Orbach

Drawing on declassified documents and interviews with retired intelligence officers, this is a compelling and eye-opening book about a grubby time, writes Vin Arthey

Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War, by Danny Orbach

In 1944, Hitler’s Head of Intelligence for the Eastern Front, Reinhard Gehlen, could see the writing on the wall and started making plans. He microfilmed his notes on the Red Army put them in water resistant crates and buried them in various locations. For months, he identified like-minded staff, and in 1945 he offered the Americans, then the fledgling West German government, the services of his team, the "GehlenOrg”, along with his intelligence on the Soviet Union which now occupied East Germany.

It worked, but the self-satisfied Gehlen did not keep himself ahead of the game. Inevitably, his growing workforce included a number of true-believing Nazis and anti-Semites, some of whom had been directly involved in the mass murder of Jews. The words "Fugitives” and “Mercenaries” in Danny Orbach’s title are apt for his new, compelling and eye-opening book about a grubby time. A number of Gehlen’s gangsters turned out to be double agents, working primarily for East Germany or the Soviet Union, and some of their behaviour, uncovered by Orbach, makes the Cambridge Five look like a bunch of naughty little boys being sneaky at a children’s party.

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Orbach goes on to show how some of these gangsters trafficked arms to the Algerian nationalists seeking independence from France, which led to covert action by the French intelligence services and to tensions between the French and West German governments. Next, he focuses on the emerging role and power of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Mossad was tasked with to exploring and reducing the alleged involvement of German scientists advising Nasser’s Egyptian government as it developed missiles to be used against Israel. This antagonised the West German government, which was attempting to develop good relations with Israel. Egypt was also a conduit through which the gunrunners were getting weapons to Algeria. Orbach doesn’t mention this, but one wonders now whether the British, French and Israeli operation to counter the Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal in 1956 had a second objective – attacking or at least warning off the neo-Nazi mercenaries.

This narrative and these themes are peppered with names which will be familiar to many readers, such as Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s sometime trouble-shooter, who “rescued” Mussolini from captivity, the Israeli Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and his main quarry Adolf Eichmann. In fact, the nastiest fugitive in Orbach’s story is Eichmann’s personal assistant, Alois Brunner, whose picture is used for the book’s cover. Brunner had settled in Syria for safety. He survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1980 but was an embarrassment for the Syrian government and he finally died in a squalid Damascus prison cell in 2001.

I do have some quibbles. There is some odd phrasing in the book and some repetitions indicating the need for some robust editing, but this aside, Fugitives is an important and ground-breaking book. Danny Orbach has had access to declassified Israeli intelligence documents and retired senior officers of Mossad, Shin Bet and other intelligence services. This aspect is especially revealing, as it shows not only the tensions between the government and its intelligence services, but the fact that Mossad itself was prepared to buy assistance from once implacable enemies. We see, too, how there was ebb and flow in how and when Israel was working to track down Nazi war criminals, and which particular individuals. Orbach points up the importance of North Africa and the Middle East during the Cold War, and how the Soviet Union was buying intelligence from former Nazis. There are welcome new perspectives here, and a reminder that times move on. Fifteen or 20 years after the end of the Second World War, old Nazi intelligence was not much use in assessing the aims and intentions of the Soviet Union. Like all old soldiers, the "GehlenOrg” simply faded away.

Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War, by Danny Orbach, Hurst, 320pp, £18.99

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