Europe European History History Nazi Germany Second World War

The Failed Spy Who Helped Start WWII

It’s 1939. Hitler is planning the invasion of Poland, but he needs a plausible justification for this act of blatant aggression – the claim to Danzig will hardly be sufficient.

Hitler turns to a consistently reliable and so-far loyal underling – Heinrich Himmler. An ex-student, esoteric occultist and former chicken farmer (with rather limited success) Himmler consistently proved himself to be a ruthless and capable administrator. As head of the SS he was later responsible for organising the Holocaust. But in 1939 his job was to find a pretext for the assault on Poland, which Hitler foolishly did not expect to become a world war. For that, Himmler turned to Reinhard Heydrich.

A disgraced naval officer, Heydrich had been recruited by Himmler in the early 1930s to form a Nazi intelligence service in the years before the Nazis took power.[1] Himmler invited Heydrich to an interview, mistakenly assuming that his background as a naval signals officer meant he had a background in intelligence; Himmler was looking for a man with espionage experience. Ridiculously enough, Heydrich, who had read spy novels, was asked to lay out his plans for an intelligence organisation and immediately went about describing how he would form one based on those novels. He got the job.

Heydrich was just as ruthless as Himmler, albeit with less self control in his personal life. He had been expelled from of the navy for conduct unbecoming of a gentleman (or anyone else) when he fornicated with a young woman whom he promised to marry – while being engaged to another. Heydrich’s hedonistic personality saw him thrown out of the navy into the hands of the Nazis.

Over time Heydrich’s  security service (or Sicherheitsdienst, SD) grew to be a huge apparatus of terror and intimidation in Nazi Germany. With his boss Himmler as Chief of German Police, Reich Minister of the Interior and Reichsführer-SS, Heydrich became a powerful member of the inner circle with Himmler’s blessing. The two formed a demonic duo focused on power at any cost. Several old Nazi veterans who stood in their way ended up unceremoniously shot.

Now Himmler was expecting more good work from Heydrich. To undo Poland for good, Heydrich turned to his old friend Alfred Naujocks, an unlikely spy and former driver with a good record on the surface. The problem was that Naujocks was of questionable competence.

Naujocks had joined the SS in Kiel in 1931 – coincidentally, the same city Heydrich had served in during his time in the navy. A former mechanic, Naujocks escaped domestic issues with his wife by signing on as a driver at an SD command in Berlin in 1934, followed by a career as a clerk in the central registry.  Naujocks had no experience in intelligence work whatsoever that we know of. However for some reason, Heydrich decided to take on Naujocks as a spy in foreign operations and trust him with all manner of important tasks.

Was Naujocks secretly working as an informer for Heydrich during his time as an SD driver? I believe it to be possible. His role would have seen him responsible for transporting senior SD members around Berlin. This would have given him ample opportunity to listen to any indiscreet conversation and then report back to his superiors. Heydrich and Himmler were never too shy to spy on fellow party leaders in order to undermine potential rivals. Naujocks may have proven his worth as an informer, leading Heydrich to believe he could be trusted for bigger and better things. This is all just speculation, however.

The SD’s foreign arm, SD-Ausland was actually rather inept compared to the Abwehr (naval intelligence). Since it was built entirely from the bottom-up, the SD really had no idea how to run complex foreign operations. Heydrich may have been grasping at straws when he hired Naujocks. Or it may simply be a case of age-old nepotism in which Heydrich hired a man he knew. The only real successes of SD-Ausland were in acquiring material from open press sources abroad (which literally involved reading foreign newspapers, hardly an achievement) and minor intelligence sources from ethnic Germans around Europe.

In November 1934 Heydrich sent Naujocks and a colleague to the then-Czechoslovak capital Prague to eliminate (read: kill) a Nazi opponent. Instead of doing their job, they became concerned that the Czech police were onto them and fled back to Berlin instead. In February 1935 Heydrich sent them back to Czechoslovakia again, this time to kidnap another regime opponent. Instead of kidnapping him they managed to fail their task and shoot the fellow dead instead. Naujocks also managed to get himself shot and injured in the process.

Heydrich must have been feeling unusually kind, because he kept Naujocks onFrom 1936 to 1937 Naujocks was sent on a casual tour of Europe to familiarise himself with major cities and locations. On SD money. At this stage I’m starting to wonder if Heydrich was declining in the head when he kept blowing money on Naujocks, but I digress. Naujocks travelled to Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France and England.

Accompanied by an SS man who worked for industrial giant AEG, Naujocks would have had the perfect cover if he wished to take the initiative and make contact with potential informers, gather intelligence on key sites in Europe or meet key political figures under the auspice of business to gain valuable information from their chatter, even if these weren’t his orders when he set off. Instead Naujocks made no attempt to do any intelligence work whatsoever or even request to do any, regarding the trips as recreational. To be fair, it seems the trip was indeed intended to be recreational by Heydrich, who was apparently content with paying through the (very long) nose for his friend. Dictatorships don’t like underlings taking the initiative – especially the Nazi regime. Naujocks was well aware of what happened to Ernst Röhm and thus had little initiative to show any initiative himself.

In autumn 1937 Heydrich rewarded Naujocks for his… Erm… Valuable work, by making him an SS Captain and placing him in SD-Ausland. Heydrich then rewarded him further by introducing him to Himmler, Goring, Ribbentrop, Goebbels and other senior Nazis. In early 1938 Naujocks became a major and was made chief of the South-East Europe sector of SD-Ausland (also known as Office III of the SD). Naujocks’ appointment changed very little in SD-Ausland, he tended to rely on patriotic German businessmen working abroad who willingly provided him with information and expected no reimbursement for their services.

In 1939 Heydrich gave Naujocks another mission – this time he was to eliminate a Propaganda Ministry official by the name of Berndt who had annoyed Heydrich in some way. Naujocks immediately decided to become “ill” and went to bed instead. Heydrich was finally a little bit irritated by Naujocks and a superior told him he would do well to leave. Never one to take a hint, Naujocks stayed on and even managed to get himself a tiny role in the haggling over the fate of Slovakia in March 1939.

In August he was assigned to the role for which he was most infamous, faking a “Polish attack” as part of Operation Himmler. The operation was despicably simple; German propaganda had portrayed ethnic Germans in Poland as oppressed and miserable for some time. Now something more incriminating was needed. The Germans faked several Polish raids on German territory, with SS and SD men in Polish uniform attacking border posts, terrifying locals by spraying their weapons inaccurately, conducting acts of sabotage and then withdrawing. To make the charade more realistic they took the bodies of several life-sentence concentration camp inmates, gave them lethal injections, stuck them in Polish military uniforms and then riddled them with bullets. They were then dumped all around 21 locations near the border to make it appear as if Polish soldiers were raiding poor, innocent Nazi Germany.[2]

Naujocks was in charge of one of these 21 operations. A radio station at Gleiwitz was the main site of the faked “attack” on 31 August/September 1 1939. Naujocks and 5 or 6 men went to Gleiwitz, bringing with them the bodies of several prisoners from Dachau concentration camp in Polish uniform. Some weren’t even dead due to botched executions and were instead shot on location. Naujocks’ team had their faces disfigured to make them impossible to identify. The bodies were even transported in cases labelled “Konserve” (“preserves”). This caused the operation to be nicknamed among some after the war as “Operation Canned Goods” or “Operation Konserve”.

The corpses were dumped all around the station and fake Polish propaganda was broadcast to make it seem as if the station had been occupied by Polish troops. A dead “Pole” was placed next to the microphone as if he had been the one making the broadcasts. Journalists were brought in to film and report on the grisly scene.[3]

Needless to say, this didn’t convince international opinion when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1 1939. War was afoot and the rest is history. Naujocks, however, seems to have possibly upped his competence over time. He later played a key role in the Venlo incident, a decisive propaganda victory which saw British agents Captain Sigismund Best and Major Richard Stevens abducted in the Netherlands. Naujocks was also involved in Operation Bernhard, an attempt to forge British bank notes to undermine the British economy.

His newfound success was not to last, however. Heydrich still bore a furious grudge and had him demoted in 1940. In 1941 he was kicked out of the SD altogether for questioning one of Heydrich’s orders and sent to the Eastern Front, a move commonly regarded by many German soldiers as an effective death sentence. Naujocks survived however, and was sent to the west in 1943 due to ill health of some sort. There he became an economic administrator for German troops in Belgium and once again managed to get himself involved in scheming and intrigue, being linked to the deaths of several members of the Belgian resistance.[4]

Promoted to Obersturmführer (first lieutenant). Naujocks participated in acts of killing, intimidation and sabotage against the population of Denmark from 1943-1944, murdering famous Lutheran pastor Kaj Munk. He later turned himself over to the approaching American forces in November 1944. Despite confessing to his crimes, testifying at Nuremberg and escaping custody before his trial, the police don’t seem to have made a very active effort to get him back; he was able to work as a businessman in Hamburg without seriously attempting to hide. He allegedly worked with famous ex-commando Otto Skorzeny on the ODESSA operation which helped Nazis flee to Latin America, before dying of a heart attack in Hamburg on 4 April 1966. Largely forgotten in many historical accounts, Naujocks seems content to have left it that way. His victims can seek contentment, however, in the knowledge of what’s coming to him in the hereafter.

[1] Gerwarth 2011, p. 37

[2] Manvell, Fraenkel (2007) Heinrich Himmler: The SS, Gestapo, His Life and Career, p.76

[3]  Lightbody (2004) The Second World War: Ambitions to Nemesis p.39

[4] Wistrich (2013) Who’s Who in Nazi Germany (3rd ed.), p.176

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