Though images of swastikas and the thrust-out salutes are easily recognizable as symbols of the Nazis in World War II, little is known of the Nazi political foreign intelligence service—otherwise known as Office VI—until now.
Illinois State University’s Associate Professor of History Katrin Paehler’s new book, The Third Reich’s Intelligence Service: The Career of Walter Schellenberg, is the first analytical look at this entity. She tells the story by recounting the rise of its head, Walter Schellenberg, and of the organization.
“In the 1930s, the Nazi SS [Schutzstaffel or “Protective Echelon”] was trying to build its own policing and intelligence conglomerate,” said Paehler, who teaches courses on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, and co-edited A Nazi Past: Recasting German Identity in Postwar Europe. “Those who rose to power in this intelligence service could embrace the Nazi ideology when it suited them, and discard it when it did not.”
Until Paehler’s book, few works looked at the operations of Office VI, also known as SD-Ausland or the foreign intelligence section of the SS. While many have explored the military side of intelligence from the Nazis, Office VI has been shrouded in mystery.
A release of documents in the 1990s by the Nazi War Crimes Interagency Working Group (IWG) at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., sparked new avenues of research for historians, including Paehler who was in her graduate days at the time. Through the years, she studied more and more declassified documents in Washington, Moscow, and across Germany. “There is a staggering amount of information,” said Paehler, who decided to use the rise of Walter Schellenberg as a way to explore Office VI and the question of ideology versus bureaucracy in Nazi Germany.
Born in 1910, Schellenberg became an active figure among the “Nazi intellectuals,” who usually worked in Nazi security and intelligence. Paehler describes the Nazi intellectuals as “smart and scary—scary because they were so smart. They could turn a phrase, reimagine, and run a system.” These men, like Schellenberg, tended to use Nazi ideology when it could separate and elevate them from others. “Schellenberg was very good at playing both sides to find proper patrons and to navigate Nazi Germany.” His final patron was Heinrich Himmler, who was one of Hitler’s right-hand men.
Himmler, who oversaw the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office), placed Schellenberg in charge of Office VI. Not much successful intelligence appeared to come from Office VI, noted Paehler. “Himmler and Schellenberg came to rely on Nazi ideology in doing intelligence work, and it turns out ideology is a really lousy platform for intelligence because they were just off their rockers. There is crazy, and there is crazy, and these guys were really crazy.”
Office VI instead came to represent the infighting of the fracturing Nazi party. “Schellenberg and Himmler were smart and devious, and knew how to pull out the stops,” said Paehler. Under Schellenberg, Office VI expanded rapidly and engulfed its competitor, the military intelligence service, called the Abwehr by painting them as ideologically lacking.
In answer to a question that has plagued historians for decades, Paehler discovered documented evidence in Moscow that Schellenberg and Himmler also attempted to take over the Foreign Ministry Office from Joachim Rippentrop. “Hitler sided with Rippentrop, and that was the signal for everyone else to pull back,” she said.
After the war ended, Schellenberg was given a six-year sentence at the Nuremburg war criminal trials, yet only served until 1950, when he was released on a medical pardon. Before he died in 1952, he spent a year drafting a memoir that Paehler considers mostly a fabrication. “It is a series of tall tales,” she said simply. “He was attempting to put his best foot forward to the powers that be, and those powers were the United States.”
Paehler said the book should be seen as a start in attempting to reconstruct the story of Schellenberg and Office VI, and to separate fact from fiction. “There are mountains of captured Nazi documents in places like Moscow” she said. “It might be possible to reconstruct many intelligence operations from them, if one wants to dive into it.”