An excerpt from
The Hunt for Nazi Spies
Fighting Espionage in Vichy France
Organizing German Espionage
Adolf Hitler in his famous Mein Kampf, first published in 1925, was scathing in his comments about France. As a racist he believed the French were inferior to what he saw as the “Aryan” master race of Nordic stock. Moreover, he described France as contaminated by its colonial contacts with the peoples of Africa: “France is racially becoming more and more Negroid, so much so that now one can actually speak of the creation of an African State on European soil.” He was particularly critical of French foreign policy, writing of “France’s unbridled lust after hegemony.” It was not just that France, as he saw it, was trying to dominate Europe. More importantly she was trying to crush Germany: “Finally we must be quite clear on the following point: France is and will remain the implacable enemy of Germany. It does not matter what Governments have ruled or will rule in France, whether Bourbon or Jacobin, Napoleonic or Bourgeois-Democratic, Clerical Republican or Red Bolshevik, their foreign policy will always be directed towards acquiring possession of the Rhine frontier and consolidating France’s position on this river by disuniting and dismembering Germany.”
To understand the objectives of the German secret services in France, we need first to look briefly at the general framework of Nazi policy in the country, a policy that naturally shared some of Hitler’s conceptions.
In 1940 the Nazis were looking to erase the humiliation of their 1918 defeat. They wanted revenge for France’s attitude at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, where Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau had been the firmest in pressing for harsh terms against Germany. Of the Western powers, France was also most insistent during the interwar period on their strict application. In January 1923, after Germany had failed to meet the reparations payments it was required to make by the terms of Versailles, the French briefly invaded the Ruhr area of Germany.
In such circumstances, it might seem surprising that the Germans were initially moderate in the immediate aftermath of their crushing victory of 1940. Military leaders ordered their soldiers to behave in a “correct” manner and propaganda posters showed German soldiers caring for the abandoned population of northern France. In some respects, the Franco-German armistice signed on 22 June was lenient. The military clauses were in keeping with patterns established by previous treaties. There were no permanent territorial demands; the integrity of the French empire was respected; a part of France remained under a sovereign government; the fleet was not confiscated.
Of course, this relative moderation was a tactic. At that time the Nazis had other concerns. They were still at war with the British and wanted to see them off quickly so that Hitler could turn his war machine against his most natural ideological enemy, Soviet Russia. Knocking Britain out of the war would be easier if France was fully neutralized. This meant making sure that any French desire to continue fighting was thwarted. A relatively moderate armistice would, it was hoped, ensure that the legal government of France did not leave the mainland to pursue the war in its colonies, and would avoid giving the French fleet an incentive to join forces with the British. There was also a more diplomatic calculation at play. Hitler wanted to show the British they need not fear a brutal armistice so that he could eventually convince them to sign a similar document rather than continue in what seemed like a hopeless battle. If Britain could not be persuaded to reach terms, Hitler hoped to use France as a launching pad for Operation Sealion (the invasion of Great Britain). For this, a pacified France was required.
Despite this deliberate tactic of moderation, the Nazis could not resist the temptation of humiliating their hereditary enemy symbolically. The German victory parade followed the same route through the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Élysées as the French victory parade had taken after the First World War. The armistice was signed in the same railway carriage at Compiègne where the German envoys had had to sign their armistice in 1918. Along the prestigious rue de Rivoli in Paris the Nazis hung massive red, white, and black swastika flags.
Beyond the attempt to disgrace France there were also the first elements of a policy conceived to permanently weaken and reduce the country’s status to that of “a large Switzerland.” As a deliberate tactic to encourage division France was divided up into several zones of occupation. The main ones were the occupied zone in the north and the unoccupied or free zone in the south, but in the northeast there was also a reserved zone, a forbidden zone, an attached zone, and the Alsace-Moselle region was annexed outright, though the armistice had made no reference to the future of this province. Each zone had different administrative regimes and was separated by demarcation lines making it nigh on impossible to govern the country efficiently.
However, the Nazis were not only interested in weakening and partitioning France but also in exploiting it. As soon as they arrived in the occupied zone, Nazi services compiled an inventory of works of art. More than twenty thousand pieces of art were pillaged from France, mostly those belonging to private Jewish collections. Massive exploitation of the French economy was also a feature of occupation as the Germans sought resources to bolster their war effort. The occupier made huge demands on the industrial and agricultural sectors, transporting large quantities of produce eastwards to the Reich. Each day, occupation costs ranging from 300 to 500 million francs had to be paid by the Vichy government. In addition, the occupier unilaterally imposed its own arbitrary rate of currency exchange that significantly overvalued the Deutschmark in relation to the franc.
Of course the Nazis also pursued ideological aims in France as they did in all occupied countries. In 1940, their anti-Semitic policy consisted of expelling Jews from German controlled territory and pushing them toward the free zone. Then, starting in 1942, the Nazis inaugurated a more radical phase with their deportation to the extermination camps in Eastern Europe. A brutal policy against political opponents was also applied. No opposition was tolerated. Resisters could find themselves arrested, often tortured, and sometimes executed. In carrying out these aims the Nazis relied as much as possible on the French administration and on the good will of the Vichy regime. The paradox is obvious: the Nazis aimed to permanently weaken the country, yet they needed a sufficiently strong French state to deal with any threat to public order and to resist any Allied invasion attempt. Thus, to minimize the use of German resources, Nazi leaders officially let Vichy retain a certain degree of sovereignty in the southern zone and in the colonies.
Espionage was a glaring breach of this sovereignty, but it was the only effective means of checking if Vichy deserved its relative autonomy. German intelligence agencies wanted to check that the French were loyally applying the terms of the armistice, even in the nonoccupied territories of southern France and the French colonies. The terms of the 1940 armistice charged special delegations of German officers located in the nonoccupied territories with an official mission to check the way the French were adhering to the armistice. These delegations provided a “legal” means of surveillance but they lacked spontaneity. Any official inspections they carried out had to be announced ahead of time, which gave those to be inspected the opportunity to camouflage illicit activity. Spies on the other hand could operate without passing through French bureaucratic channels and as a result were better placed to uncover breaches.
The first objective of German spying was thus to keep the French under surveillance. Joseph Barthélemy, Vichy’s justice minister, complained in his memoirs that “the Germans always knew what had been said and done within minutes of each cabinet meeting.” He held Pierre Pucheu, minister of industrial production and then minister of the interior, responsible for these leaks, but there were many other possible sources of indiscretion around the French government. Copies of the correspondence of Pierre Laval, who served as vice-premier between July and December 1940 and then again from April 1942 to August 1944, are thought to have been communicated to the occupying authorities by the lover of his private secretary. The Germans placed a spy among the police bodyguards of each of the three leading figures of the state, that is head of state Marshal Philippe Pétain, Laval, and Franois Darlan. The sister of the police inspector “protecting” Darlan, Vichy’s premier throughout 1941 and in early 1942, was the mistress of Hugo Geissler, head of the Gestapo delegation in Vichy! Another method of controlling the government was to exploit individuals in personal contact with it. René Bigot was arrested by the Germans in 1940 whilst trying to cross the demarcation line separating occupied and unoccupied France. Knowing that his uncle was a friend of Marcel Peyrouton, the former minister of the interior, the German secret services decided to take advantage of his contacts to gain information on the Vichy universe. In this case, the intrigue did not work for very long. Bigot, quickly overcome with remorse, confessed to a priest who put him in contact with the French counterespionage services. He was then arrested by the French police but the German attempt to use him shows clearly that even a collaborating government was to be kept under surveillance.
One concern of the Germans was that the French would secretly rebuild their armed forces. To counteract a possible French military threat, they had to penetrate any organization likely to be used for such a clandestine mobilization. The police, the youth groups, the army, and any paramilitary groupings thus had to be infiltrated. Women were often used to seduce important French figures. The Marseille police was forced to transfer one of its captains, the alcoholic captain Dubois of the ST counterespionage branch, because he was sleeping with a woman known to be a German secret agent.
The victors could not drop their guard. They had to keep a close watch on any possibility of rebellion. It was for this reason that spies devoted so much energy to assessing French military capabilities. They noted the position and movements of military units as well as the transport of weapons and drew up inventories of equipment, fuel stores, and ordinance. Part of their mission was to provide information on the attitude, the valor, and the general stance of French officers. Other intelligence was also sought: the fighting value of military units, their methods of recruitment, the level of the soldiers’ pay. Any impulses of resistance within the army had to be eliminated. For this reason, particular attention was paid to the activities of the French intelligence services that might be in breach of article 10 of the armistice.
Indeed it would be fair to say that military espionage was the most common form of intelligence gathering activity. Albert Reymann, who was condemned to death by the French on 4 October 1941, had denounced to the Germans clandestine stocks of arms secreted in a suburb of Casablanca. Guillaume Alscher was informing the Armistice Commission in Casablanca about the movement of planes and military units in French North Africa. Adrien Demoulin was condemned to death in November 1941 by a court martial in Algiers for having sent on information concerning fortifications in Dakar and practical information about joining the foreign legion in Marseille. Marc Dreesen was gathering intelligence on the French navy in Toulon, which he was then passing on to the German Armistice Commission of the town. The charge of treason against Albert Becker was for serving as an intelligence agent for the Reich. Between March and May 1942, he had sought information about the size and equipment of French garrisons, camouflaged military material, French troop movements, and the attitude of French troops toward the Reich.
Of course it was not only the government and the army that needed to be kept under surveillance, but also the population. Lieutenant Colonel Oskar Reile of the German military intelligence network, the Abwehr, wrote, “Throughout the country we required individuals who allowed us to constantly take the pulse of the French.” The German secret services needed to be informed of the population’s attitude toward the Pétain government to confirm that allowing France to be governed through a French government was pacifying the population in the way that Germans hoped. The risks of a revolution were also calculated. The Nazis attached great importance to public opinion, remembering how insurrection had brought to power their principal enemy, the Soviets. At the political level, certain categories such as Jews and anti-German Alsatians were the object of special scrutiny from the espionage services, leading Germans to focus on illicit departures from French ports or clandestine passages of the demarcation line.
If the accounts of former members of the Resistance are to be believed, there were few people actively opposing the Vichy regime and the Germans at the end of 1940. But the Germans were aware that the population’s initial docility was likely to be brief. Any individual suspected of anti-German propaganda was to be watched. Questionnaires given to the spies asked them to note the reaction of the French authorities to the distribution of leaflets by Gaullists, supporters of the dissident General de Gaulle, who was in exile in London at the time calling for continued resistance through radio broadcasts transmitted into France on the airwaves of the BBC. Agents were also expected to find the locations of illegal meetings and places that were used for Gaullist recruitment. German intelligence services used agent-provocateurs to infiltrate anti-German movements and networks.
In addition, the secret services were responsible for ensuring the security of German administrations. Agents were sometimes sent into the southern nonoccupied territories and the colonies to investigate individuals applying for jobs in German services in the northern, occupied zone. This was a counterespionage precaution against the infiltration of their services by Allied or Gaullist agents. For two reasons it was also necessary to locate agents who had not returned from earlier missions: Firstly, if an agent had been arrested, the Germans could intervene with Vichy to try to secure their release. Secondly, some agents, paid an advance, had not been able to resist just disappearing without providing the information requested. They had to be found so they could be punished.
As has already been noted, the exploitation of France was one of the occupier’s objectives. It fell to the secret services to prepare future pillaging in those areas not yet directly occupied. Locating potential war booty was amongst the tasks of the agents sent into these areas. In the files I consulted, at least three arrested agents were on missions to draw up inventories of works of art in the nonoccupied zone. But the pillaging was not only cultural; it was also economic. Spies were interested in the quality of the harvest, the state of industries and maritime traffic, in food and gasoline supplies, and in stocks of coal and raw materials. This intelligence gathering had three aims. To predict potential risks of popular uprising, the Germans needed to be informed of what supplies were available to the French and colonial populations. At the same time, this intelligence could help to find business and industrial opportunities for German firms in the nonoccupied territories. Could these companies find partners or market opportunities in these regions? Could they settle there themselves? But, above all, this intelligence work made it possible to catalog the country’s wealth to exploit it to the maximum. In March 1942, a report from the French army’s general staff estimated that each day the Germans were passing more than 100 million francs worth of merchandise from the free zone to the occupied zone. From 1940 to 1944 the occupiers spent a total of almost 127 million francs buying up goods on the black market. This parallel market gave them the opportunity to purchase raw materials in France without having to go through the normal channels nor bother with cumbersome bureaucracy. The intelligence services played an important role in this process. The link between the black market and the secret services was particularly evident in the case of the Abwehr, the military espionage structure. Right from the start, the Abwehr was closely associated with the biggest central procurement department for the Germans: the Otto bureaus. The Otto bureaus benefited from the Abwehr’s experience in the art of camouflaging illegal transactions. For the Abwehr, the partnership brought in vast sums facilitating its administrative independence.
This is a good place to underline the role held by North Africa in the objectives of the German intelligence services. At first sight, German interests there might appear limited. The armistice treaty referred only implicitly to North Africa and the immediate colonization of the region did not seem to be one of Hitler’s priorities. But European countries had long coveted African territories. The Germans may have lost their own colonial possessions in Africa at the end of the First World War but they had not entirely given up their colonial designs there; these remained a long-term objective. Among the French territories in North Africa, it was Morocco that interested them most, as they had longstanding connections, including German firms that had been established there for many years. This French protectorate also had the strategic asset of a coastal line along the Atlantic. Although the German plans for territorial expansion in the immediate focused mainly on Eastern Europe, the secret services prepared the future by organizing anti-French propaganda in North Africa.
A French counterespionage report of March 1941 noted a massive increase of German espionage in North Africa dating from December 1940 and January 1941. This was no doubt partly a reaction to the dismissal of the pro-German vice-premier Pierre Laval from the French government on 13 December 1940. Laval’s firing had irritated the Germans, who considered it, wrongly as it turned out, to signal Vichy’s change in diplomatic direction. Hitler believed that it was inspired by General Maxime Weygand, who by that time was serving as Vichy’s governor in North Africa. Thus Weygand’s North African fief was increasingly visited by numerous German agents after Laval’s firing; they sought information on Weygand’s activities, but also aimed to punish him.
It seems that the Abwehr was probably behind a mutiny of a regiment of Algerian soldiers within the French army. On Saturday 25 January 1941, the members of this regiment massacred their French officers and seized weapons. They advanced toward the city of Algiers where they opened fire on the European population. Investigations after the incident highlighted how the inequalities of army treatment of native soldiers compared to French soldiers had been used to stir up resentment. These investigations also mentioned that the mutiny was not spontaneous. The soldiers were thought to have been contacted by members of the Parti Populaire Algérien working for German intelligence. This fact has not been checked in German archives. Was the mention of German involvement simply a sign of the paranoia of Weygand and his immediate subordinates? Probably not. Firstly, such an action would fit in with the habits of the Abwehr. Secondly, given that this action undermined public order it would fit in with the Nazi policy aimed at weakening France and taking advantage of every opportunity to divide it. Finally, there were several reports during 1941 mentioning that the Germans were trying to make use of Arab nationalism against France.
Whatever the exact role of the Abwehr in this mutiny it is certain that the Germans did not trust Weygand. This was not new. As a protégé of First World War commander-in-chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch, he was associated in German minds with the signing of the 1918 armistice. Besides, Weygand’s anti-German comments were well known on the German side of the Rhine. For the Germans, his appointment to North Africa increased the risk of the region’s possible dissidence at a time when some French colonies had begun defecting from Vichy to support General de Gaulle. In reality Weygand was not a real threat to the Germans since he ultimately refused to disobey Marshal Pétain’s instructions, but that was not how the Germans saw it. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Abwehr leader since 1935, was among those who thought that the French were going to use North Africa to secretly rebuild their forces. He even thought that Hitler had made an error in not occupying this area in 1940; the Abwehr sought to compensate for this oversight.
North Africa was not only dear to the French but it was also important to the Allies, and therefore to German intelligence. The British used the passage through the Mediterranean to ensure communication with their colonies. Gibraltar and the Suez Canal were of vital interest to the British, and military campaigns in Egypt and Libya were their most important theaters of operation at that point in the war. The Americans also became aware of the interest of North Africa: months before their entry into the war they had sent emissaries to Morocco in the framework of the so-called Murphy-Weygand agreements of February 1941, which allowed Americans to supply food to the French. The Germans feared that these emissaries would not limit their activities to aid, and might engage military preparations in the area.
Thus French North Africa gave German intelligence services reason and opportunity to spy on the Allies. One of Josef Beitelberger’s missions was to inform of any Allied planes flying over Morocco or any attempt of Anglo-American forces to land in North Africa. German intelligence posts in French territory kept track of the neighboring areas belonging to or occupied by the British: the post in Morocco spied on air and maritime traffic to the British territory of Gibraltar. Spying missions in dissident French colonies were also launched from the German intelligence posts in Vichy’s North Africa, and from spring of 1941 the activities of American envoys were also under surveillance. The specter of an Allied landing in French North Africa became more likely once the United States entered the war in December, and became increasingly so throughout 1942. From mid-October on, the Axis secret services were busy arranging their defense against a possible Allied invasion in French North Africa, and preparing a total occupation in the free zone of mainland France as a response. It’s probable Operation Torch, the Anglo-American landing in French North Africa, did not come entirely as a surprise. German intelligence seemed to have at least partially foreseen this landing. But the German army was no longer able to intervene effectively: although North Africa was important to the German secret services in France, it was considered secondary by the high command in Berlin, which focused primarily on the struggle between German forces and the Russians in the Soviet Union.
German secret services thus had multiple missions. The surveillance of the French was not the only objective of German intelligence—it also had to prepare future military campaigns, protect German administrations, and organize the exploitation of France. Paul Paillole, one of the leaders of the French counterespionage services, provided the following summary in April of 1942: “So, what is being spied on? What does the enemy seek among us? Everything.” The activities of the German secret services highlight the contradiction of Nazi policy in France. Sometimes, it sought intelligence in order to avoid insurrections. At other times, however, it seems that its priority was creating incidents or, at least, making life difficult for French authorities. In short, Germany’s primary aim was the neutralization of France.
How was the German intelligence network organized in France? The development of the German secret services in France followed a similar pattern to that of the entire Nazi administrative machine, beginning with an initial domination by the military followed by the rapid rise of organizations issued directly from the Nazi Party. The structures and activities of intelligence evolved in tune with Franco-German relations, the priorities of the time, the rhythm of the war, and the political intrigues of the Nazi state.
In the military, intelligence gathering was mainly conducted by the Abwehr, which was connected to the General Staff of the German armed forces, or Wehrmacht. In addition to an administrative section, it was divided into three subsections, or Abteilungs. Abteilung 1 was the espionage service proper working for all three branches of the armed services (land, navy, and air), and also engaged in economic espionage. Technical support services were attached to it, such as those specializing in creating false documents, photography, signals, and so forth. Abteilung 2 specialized in organizing “fifth columns” through sabotage and subversive activities. It was expected to take advantage of dissident tendencies in the country and to fire up ethnic and cultural minorities (with regard to France that meant nationalists in North Africa, Brittany, and Alsace). The mission of this subsection was to spread false rumors. Abteilung 3 was in charge of counterespionage and of military security. Within this bureau a section specialized in the infiltration and misinformation of enemy networks. Such a division into specialized bureaus demonstrated the organizational changes that had occurred in the world of espionage since the end of the nineteenth century. In its modern conception, spying had become increasingly bureaucratic. Archives were essential, hence the need for an administrative section. The amount of technical equipment had also considerably increased through advances in photography and communications. Finally, another modern element: the enemy was no longer looked upon only militarily. Investigations were thus broadened to understanding public opinion and economy as well as undermining enemy capabilities through sabotage.
Prior to 1940, French territory was monitored by three posts (Abwehrstelle or Ast) of the Abwehr based in Münster, Wiesbaden, and Stuttgart. Posts in Berlin and Hamburg specialized in matters relating to aeronautics, maritime questions, and the French colonies. After the occupation of June 1940, the posts of Münster, Stuttgart, and Hamburg grew sub-branches in the occupied zone. Colonel Friedrich Rudolf, the head of the Münster post, settled in Paris in the Hôtel Lutetia, a building that ironically had served as base for anti-Nazi German émigrés during the 1930s. In 1941, Rudolf became the coordinator and the centralizer of all the Abwehr’s activities in France. Lieutenant Colonel Reile, head of Abwehr 3-F (Abteilung 3–French section) in Paris, became leader of the counterespionage section. Later, there were also major posts in Angers, Biarritz, and Dijon.
In November 1942 the Germans invaded the previously unoccupied zone of southern France and this led to a shifting of posts and sub-branches to the south and a shrinking of the Abwehr’s network in the northern zone. An Abwehrstelle was established in Lyon, and smaller Nebenstelle were set-up in Limoges, Marseille, Nice, Perpignan, Toulon, and Toulouse. Of course, the Abwehr had not waited for this total occupation to operate in the south and, still more intensively, in French North Africa. Immediately after the signing of the 1940 armistice, Germany attempted a massive infiltration of the nonoccupied territories and its staff grew spectacularly right up to the total occupation in 1942.
Two key elements stand out: German espionage against France expanded massively after the French defeat of 1940 and the Germans readily trespassed into the nonoccupied territories. These two elements can be explained by both a basic mistrust of the French but also the internal politics of the Nazi state, where rival administrations performing similar tasks vied to outdo each other.
Distrust toward France can be explained easily. Historically France and Germany had often been on opposing sides in long series of military conflicts: most recently in the Napoleonic wars (1799–1815), the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), the First and Second World Wars (respectively 1914–18 and 1939–45). France was thus a “hereditary enemy.” France was unlikely, all of a sudden, to give up its claim of being a major power. Certain acts of the Vichy government already mentioned above also lent their weight to German suspicions, such as Philippe Pétain’s organization of the dismissal of Vice-Premier Pierre Laval . In reality his elimination had little to do with diplomatic alliances; rather his unpopularity was discrediting the whole of the Vichy government. Throughout the country the dismissal of Laval had a positive effect on Pétain’s image and some were prepared to wrongly credit him with playing a diplomatic “double game,” publicly collaborating with the Germans, whilst privately negotiating with the British. Even some Resisters were initially prepared to entertain such ideas: for example, Henri Frenay’s Combat movement was very slow to stop using Pétain’s name as a reference in its clandestine newspapers. This cannot have escaped the notice of the Germans and was unlikely to inspire them with much confidence. Possibly the deepest reason for Nazi mistrust of the French lay within their own history. After the First World War German leaders themselves had secretly rebuilt their country and remobilized for war, flouting many of the terms of the Versailles treaty. They remained acutely aware of the possibilities of freeing oneself from the yoke imposed by diplomatic agreements and thus insisted on keeping a tight rein on the vanquished.
This vigilant control was particularly true of the Abwehr, as its origins influenced its behavior toward occupied countries. To understand this, we need to go back to the Versailles treaty of 1919 that forbade all German espionage activity and thereby officially eliminated the military intelligence service. It recreated itself under the innocuous name of Statistiche Abteilung (statistical section) before adopting the title Abwehr in 1925, becoming an espionage as well as counterespionage organization. By around 1935 the Abwehr had developed into a large and powerful organization. The Abwehr’s own clandestine origins informed its instinctive mistrust of Vichy France.
The massive growth in Abwehr activity in France was also fueled by the rivalries within the Nazi machine. In Germany, the army had already lost the battle for influence against new politicized structures born from the Nazi Party itself. But the occupied countries were virgin territories where the struggle for power could start again from scratch. The military wanted to take advantage of this situation to redistribute power in their favor; indeed, the army found itself in a position of strength following the invasion. It could bask in the glory of a spectacular victory in the field won with unexpected speed. Moreover, in 1940, France was to serve an essentially strategic and military purpose as a launching pad for Operation Sealion (the invasion of Great Britain). Moreover, at the beginning it was the army that had an official monopoly on policing and espionage in France, thus it sought to exploit its position with respect to competing Nazi agencies.
Military domination in espionage was not to last. Organizations performing similar tasks directly for the Nazi Party rapidly gained the upper hand. In 1938 the process of reorganization, centralization, and politicalization of police structures in Nazi Germany had culminated in the creation of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) under the command of the ruthlessly brutal Reinhard Heydrich, Canaris’s determined adversary. This police structure operated as a pseudoministry with a mission to apply the Führer’s will and to protect the Nazi state, particularly against ideological or racial enemies. Both the central umbrella organization, the RSHA, and its local policing structure, the Sipo-SD (Sicherheitspolizei-Sicherheitsdienst) or security police were dominated by members of the Nazi Party and the SS, that elite structure that had grown into an army from its origins as Hitler’s bodyguard. The Sipo-SD is often referred to erroneously as the Gestapo, but in reality the Gestapo was only one of its sections.
These organizations installed themselves in France very discretely. Military supremacy in 1940 was such that the SS were not supposed to operate in this country at all. Their first appearance was thus clandestine. The young, ambitious, and career-minded Helmut Knochen arrived first, accompanied by a Sonderkommando (special commando) of about twenty SS. This thirty-year-old PhD, a protégé of Reinhard Heydrich, was to be the driving force behind the German police in France until 1944. Two other Sonderkommandos arrived before the end of July. To justify this, Heydrich took advantage of security measures taken during a visit Hitler made to Paris in the summer of 1940. Despite jealously guarding their prerogatives, the military nonetheless agreed that Knochen should be given an auxiliary role of surveilling ideological enemies. This compromise was accepted by the military because their own services were overworked in the political domain, the very domain in which the SS excelled.
Initial SS implantation thus owed a lot to tactical maneuvers. Their expansion from the middle of 1941 reflected the growing influence of the SS within the rest of the Reich. This stemmed largely from the increasingly central place held by ideological questions—the SS’s specialty—that is, the radicalization of anti-Communist and anti-Semitic policy within the Nazi state. Two events were both symbols and catalysts of this: Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) on 22 June 1941 and the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942 where the annihilation of Europe’s Jews was organized.
The SS also took advantage of Hitler’s increasing mistrust of the military, as the Führer saw the Wehrmacht as too ideologically lukewarm and too socially conservative. From June 1942, the Abwehr gradually began to lose its authority to the Sipo-SD. Although the two services coexisted till 1944, the Abwehr was eventually absorbed by its rival.
Two of the SS services are of particular interest: the fourth and sixth bureaus of the Sipo-SD. Operating in France from headquarters in Paris, the fourth bureau of the Sipo-SD was officially known as the Gestapo. In principle, Gestapo staff members were recruited from within the Nazi Party and the SS, but in reality it also contained many former civil servants and former police. The Gestapo’s role was to address political questions, conduct counterespionage, and defend the Reich and the National Socialist Party against anti-German and anti-Nazi activities. Initially the Gestapo arrived in Paris under the pretext of ensuring the security of a military parade that was to take place in September 1940, but the parade was cancelled. The Gestapo was first led by Major (Sturmbannführer) Schmitz who was quickly replaced by Karl Beumelburg from Prague. In the fall of 1940, the Gestapo set up a subsidiary bureau in Vichy under the auspices of SS captain (Hauptsturmbannführer) Hugo Geissler. This ordinary-looking thirty-seven-year-old was about 5 feet 8 tall, had an oval face, an inconspicuous pointy nose, very blue eyes, and slightly curly blond hair. Geissler, who had worked as an interpreter in the Nice casino before the war, spoke French pretty well and passed himself off as an Alsatian. Assisted by five German subordinates, he recruited French agents to organize intelligence missions in nonoccupied France. The main goal of these missions was to garner information on opponents of the Reich who had found refuge in France. Thus Geissler pressured the Vichy government into agreeing to the extradition of the German social democrats Rudolf Breitscheid and Rudolf Hilferding in February 1941.
The sixth bureau of the Sipo-SD, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, or security office), was the real intelligence organ of the Nazi Party and was responsible for collecting political and military information. Most of its German personnel lacked police experience and were recruited exclusively from the SS. Until 1942, the SD staff outside of Paris was smaller than its Parisian contingent, but gradually it began stepping up its operations in the nonoccupied territory. A clandestine service was established in Vichy, led by Dr. Reiche, a young SS Lieutenant (Unterstrumführer) operating undercover as a diplomat. Until 1942, the Sipo-SD showed little interest in French North Africa, although Reiche did spend a few weeks there. The Bordeaux suboffice of the Sipo-SD also had a few contacts with the colonies through French informants who were in North Africa for business reasons. Amongst its agents was the charismatic journalist Count Richard de Grandmaison (agent AG 311) who had already distinguished himself with his anti-Communist activity during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. It was only from the spring of 1942 that the SD began to expand its operations in French North Africa, including the establishment of a specialized service for North African affairs.
I have already mentioned the rivalries between the military and the police but there were also rivalries within the Sipo-SD itself. There were professional rivalries between the fourth and sixth bureaus leading to interference in each other’s missions, and there were also personal rivalries. Beumelburg, the head of the Gestapo, often broke the chain of command, preferring to bypass Knochen and send his reports directly to Berlin.
Rivalries affected the evolution of the structures, but we need to be careful not to exaggerate them. While rivalries often stimulated the administrative zeal of among the different bureaus as they strove to compete with one another, there also was some overlap of ideals and even occasional cooperation. Even though the SS were more involved in the ideological struggle than the Wehrmacht, we should remember that racist, anti-Semitic, and antiliberal ideas were already common currency within the German armed forces. The military’s opposition to the SS was grounded more in practicality than principles: they feared the SS’s methods and ambition. It should be noted, however, that despite their late opposition to the Nazi regime, the Abwehr strove for German victory and the weakening of France. Within this framework, the military at times actually worked hand in hand with its institutional rivals, the SS. Sometimes they even used the same agents and exchanged intelligence.
Axis spies in the nonoccupied territories had to use institutional or individual covers because their activities were illegal. Diplomatic missions provided the best institutional cover since they provided diplomatic immunity. Delegations of the armistice commission were established in the major cities of the southern zone and in North Africa. The American historian Robert Owen Paxton emphasizes the limited role these commissions had on the diplomatic relations between France and Germany. He is right in the sense that the most important negotiations were held through different organizations such as the Militrbefehlshaber in Frankreich (MBF, or military command in France), the German embassy and the bureaus of the Sipo-SD. Nevertheless armistice commissions did play a fundamental role in Nazi policies in France. If the colonies are taken into account, we can see that the majority of French territory was not directly occupied. Before November 1942, the Germans occupied less than 10 percent of this territory. The armistice commissions were to serve as their eyes and ears in the rest. These commissions were charged with official surveillance missions through accredited diplomats, but they also recruited unofficial agents for extraconventional activities such as black market dealings, propaganda, and espionage. How important these commissions really were was shown by Franco-German and Franco-Italian wrangles about what their exact role and staffing levels should be. Other diplomatic missions also participated in surveillance, both officially and clandestinely. The Nazis deliberately breached the neutrality of their Red Cross delegations. The delegates’ official role was to help German residents in France, but in fact they were often used for spying. Diplomatic consulates also organized espionage. It is thus not surprising that Theodore Auer, the general consul of Germany in French Morocco, was also the head of the Gestapo in the protectorate.
In 1942, economic espionage became increasingly important because of the growing needs of the Nazi war economy. For this type of spying, intelligence agencies were often assisted by industrial and commercial firms with branches in France or North Africa, such as the Renschauseen, Lobischlek, Mawick, and Boland companies in Morocco. For the purposes of intelligence gathering in Africa, espionage services also made use of certain firms that were supplying food to the German Afrika Korps, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s desert army. These companies, through their official mission, had a certain freedom of movement between Europe and Africa that facilitated espionage.
French surveillance of diplomatic missions encouraged the Axis to increasingly employ “independent” agents operating without direct contacts with the diplomatic institutions. Even without institutional cover, it was relatively easy to implant agents during the months following the defeat because the foreign spies could justify their presence. This was easy when so many refugees were seeking new homes after the exodus of more than six million French and Belgians who had fled in desperation in advance of the German armies in June 1940. There were also thousands of Alsatians who had been expelled from their native region when the Germans annexed it in July 1940, and thousands of Jews from Bade-Saarpfalz who had been dumped in Vichy France by the Germans that October. Some spies thus posed as refugees. French Resistance sources noted this danger in a report dated March 1942: “Often German espionage agents pass themselves off as refugees, cleverly taking advantage of the emotions of those who listen to them in order to extract a variety of information.” This report cited the case of a woman operating under the name of Regina Reisch, an Austrian citizen, who “passes herself off as a Jewish victim of Hitler’s regime.” Taking advantage of circumstances is a basic tool for a spy.
Often spies pretended to be members of the Resistance. Posing as opponents of the Nazi regime was the best way to extract information from a population that generally despised Germany, and it was certainly the best way to get recruited by the Resistance organizations spies were trying to infiltrate. After their arrests, these individuals often started out by claiming they were working for the British or the Gaullists before admitting the truth. Following his arrest, Edouard Buch confessed: “I was never supposed to divulge the mission I was charged with, and in the event of interrogation by the French police I was to try to convince them that my presence in the free zone was solely motivated by my desire to get away from the Germans.”
Certain professions also served as cover for spying activities. Journalism has traditionally been associated with espionage. The two professions are not that distant from each other because in both cases, their members have to seek information and in both cases the end justifies the means. German and French journalists freely circulated in Vichy, and their integrity was sometimes open to question. The profession of traveling salesman, whether real or fake, also provided an ideal cover because it justified the extensive travel spies often had to undertake.
For both the spies operating under diplomatic cover and the agents sent directly by the offices of the Abwehr and the SD or Gestapo, communication was an essential element for the successful completion of their task. Collecting intelligence is useless if there is no way to transmit it. Here again the Germans had recourse to institutional and individual means. Diplomatic missions made use of both official and clandestine radio networks. Intelligence sent from the nonoccupied territories through this method was centralized in Bourges in central France and in Wiesbaden in western Germany. The diplomatic pouch was also used to get around French surveillance. The independents also had their radio networks. A small number of agents had received radio training in spy schools in Paris, Dijon, Angers, Besanon, Stuttgart, or Barcelona. In addition there were direct contacts to exchange intelligence. On 13 and 14 August 1942 there was a meeting of the principal German espionage agents in North Africa. Independents often went back to their handlers in the occupied zone to give their intelligence and receive other missions. The problem with this constant to and fro was the risk of attracting the attention of French counterespionage. To remain clandestine, the intelligence networks established “mail drops” in the nonoccupied territories, that is to say addresses where agents could deposit their information. These drops had the advantage of enabling agents to extend their missions in the unoccupied zone or the French colonies whilst avoiding suspicious constant coming and going. The disadvantage was that if the drop was identified, any agent making contact with it could be caught.
Axis intelligence networks worked extensively and secretly in France. Espionage is not necessarily the sign of hostility between two countries—it happens between friendly nations even in times of peace. However, the sort of spying that was carried out in France, through its nature and scope, resembled more closely the kind the Nazis carried out in enemy countries rather than in a neutral or friendly one. One might have expected the armistice to bring a reduction in German spying in France, but that was not the case. German spying took full advantage of the opportunities provided by the partial occupation of the country and expanded still further. The number of posts and sub-branches working against France doubled between June 1940 and July 1941 and kept on growing afterward, particularly in North Africa. This highlighted the tensions between the French and the Germans in spite of the conciliatory stance of the Vichy government.