For some years I have wondered about Gehlen and I have written this up for SST in order to get the opinions of such a well-informed group on the two questions I ask at the end.
Reinhard Gehlen (1902-1979) was a German General Staff officer who in July 1941 was assigned as senior intelligence officer to the Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East) intelligence section of which he took command about a year later. In April 1945 he was fired (or more likely, seeing the way things were going, quit) and resurfaced in May, surrendering to the US Army and offering his knowledge and organisation to the victors. His offer was accepted, his past and the past of his group cleansed, and eventually the Gehlen Organisation became the nucleus of the West German intelligence organisation and he became its boss. Wikipedia tells us he was forced out of that position in 1968 because his organisation had been penetrated by the Soviets and because of “poor leadership”. For an anti-Soviet specialist, he did run a pretty sloppy outfit: vide Heinz Felfe, a Soviet agent who was brought into the Gehlen Organisation quite early in its history. He wrote a book in which he justified all this which I read years ago. Which all contributes to the question that I am asking you to comment on.
But before I get to the question, a vignette in a railway car in Finland. On 2 June 1942, a year after the German attack on the USSR, Hitler invites himself to Marshal Mannerheim’s 75th birthday celebration. The Finns record the first eleven minutes of their conversation before the Germans catch them and the recording exists. This bit sets the scene:
They have the most monstrous armament that is humanly conceivable (‘menschendenkbar’)…so…if anybody had told me that one state… if anybody had told me that one state can line up with 35.000 tanks (Hitler uses the word ‘tank’), I had said ‘you have gone mad’…
Hitler continues expressing his astonishment at the Soviet armaments industry, complaining that the Germans have only “good weather armament”. After other remarks indicating that he is beginning to realise that he is in a contest Germany cannot win, the recording ends.
All of which leads me to this observation: German intelligence on the Soviet military was poor.
If we look at the whole course of the war we see that almost all the surprises come from the Soviet side. While the initial attack surprised the Soviet leadership (although it did have quite a bit of intelligence of the coming attack), after that it’s almost always the Germans who are surprised. Hitler’s dumbfounded comments to Mannerheim shows there was no conception of the scale of Soviet industrial production, to say nothing of its surge capacity. David Glantz has convincingly argued that unexpected resistance in the Battle of Smolensk sealed the end of the hope of a quick victory. The appearance of unknown divisions in front of Moscow (thanks to a Soviet intelligence coup) in the winter of 1941 was a surprise. The Stalingrad counter-attack was a surprise. The Soviets almost seem to have been aware of the Kursk battle plans before the German front line commanders were and again the counter attack was a surprise. Operation Bagration, perhaps the biggest military operation in history, while the Germans were expecting something, was another shattering surprise.
So, in a word, the Russian military intelligence has many surprises to its credit while Gehlen’s FHO… not so many intelligence successes. (And taking Hitler’s rant to Mannerheim into account, not at the beginning either.)
The Americans and the other Western allies were delighted with Gehlen’s offer. Washington in particular had very little knowledge of the Soviets; indeed the FBI seems to have been only dimly aware that one of the most important Soviet defectors ever – Aleksandr Orlov – was living quietly in the USA. The British had some intelligence from earlier times from people like Bruce-Lockhart or Reilly but that was long out of date and it is unlikely that they had much in 1945. And, as we now know, British intelligence was practically a branch plant operation of Moscow Centre. Neither France nor Canada (Gouzenko was September and had nothing much to offer on the Soviet Army) would have had anything to offer. So they were very happy to take up Gehlen’s offer – a whole network of agents, knowledge, historical records, reputation and interrogation data: a treasure trove; offered for nothing except making the Nazi past disappear. One must assume that the Gehlen organisation became the primary source – if not the sole source – of information on the USSR’s military.
I can’t now find the reference but I remember being told by a specialist that there was an important meeting in the late 1940s chaired, as I recall, by Field Marshal Montgomery, that discussed what the nascent Western Alliance could do against a Soviet attack or military threat. The meeting assumed (I recall) that the Soviets could field 150 divisions on fairly short notice for an attack. The Western Allies couldn’t possibly muster anything like that number. The conclusion was that any attack from the USSR could only be stopped by nuclear weapons. Who could have been the source of the 150 division figure other than Gehlen?
Now it is true that, in whatever country the Soviet Army had ended the war, “elections” were held in which socialist or communist parties came to power and stayed in power. (Austria being an exception). There were at least two ways that one could understand this extension of Soviet power. One was that they were the actions of an expansionist hostile power that fully intended to go all the way to Cape Finisterre if it could and, if not prevented, would. In such an case the Western Allies would be fully justified in forming an defensive alliance to deter Soviet expansion. The other possible interpretation was that, after such a hard victory in so fearfully destructive a war, Moscow was determined that never again would its neighbours be used as an assembly area and start line for the forces of another Hitler. Such an interpretation would call for quite another approach from the Western Allies. We all know which of the two interpretations was followed by the Western Allies. And who else would have encouraged that interpretation than their new expert on all things Soviet?
So we find two extremely important founding Cold War decisions taken right at the start: that Moscow was expansionist and that the Soviet Army was so powerful that nuclear weapons gave the only hope of stopping them. Each decision might well have been taken without him but it is surely reasonable to see Gehlen’s hand in both.
So I have the following questions:
- Did Gehlen actually know anything about the Soviet Armed Forces or was he basically winging it all along?
- How influential was he in setting the course of the Cold War towards hostility and away from cooperation?