The Man Who Started the Second World War

The Gleiwitz incident, and the mystery of Alfred Naujocks.
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At 8.00 on the evening of 31 August 1939, a team of six SS agents stormed a radio station in the German town of Gleiwitz, close to the Polish border.  They were led by Alfred Naujocks: a Sturmbannführer in the SS, and an agent of the SS intelligence corps; the Sicherheitsdienst (SD).  He and his men fired a few shots and handcuffed the startled station personnel. One of them then broadcast a stirring speech in Polish, full of anti-German rhetoric, calling on the Poles to rise up against their historic enemy: ‘The hour of freedom has arrived’, he concluded, ‘Long Live Poland!’ Outside, meanwhile, a truckload of concentration camp inmates had been delivered. Drugged but alive, they were dressed in Polish uniforms, strategically arranged around the site, and then machine-gunned. The world awoke to the astonishing news that Poland had launched an unprovoked attack on Hitler’s Germany, and that German forces were ‘returning fire’. The Second World War had begun.

Alfred Naujocks in 1944, after his surrender.

Just over five years later, as the war that Naujocks had started ground on to its gruesome conclusion, Naujocks decided to end his part in it.  On 19th October 1944, he surrendered to troops of the 102nd American Cavalry Reconnaissance Group close to the front line near Wirtzfeld on the German-Belgian border. He gave his name as Alfred Bonsen, made no attempt to resist and immediately asked to be taken to a commanding officer. He carried a kit bag containing a change of clothes, a large sum of money in three currencies and a letter addressed to an official in the Foreign Office in London.

The GIs had little idea of the mysterious individual’s true identity. But at the local US headquarters, he confessed that he was travelling under false papers. His real name, he said, was Alfred Naujocks and he was acting as an emissary of the Austrian Resistance.

Under interrogation he revealed his life story. Born in 1911 in Kiel, the son of a salesman, he joined the Nazi Party in the turbulent 1920s, briefly studied at university, developed a talent for brawling, and had his nose flattened by a Communist wielding an iron bar. In 1931 he joined the SS, and was soon serving as adjutant to the high-flying Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Sicherheitsdienst.

His record was indeed grimly impressive. As well as Gleiwitz, he had been involved in a host of top-secret operations.  In 1935, he had tracked down and murdered a radio operator from an anti- Nazi group the ‘Black Front’ who was broadcasting anti-German propaganda from Czechoslovakia.  In November 1939 he had carried out the kidnapping of two British secret agents in neutral Holland, Major Richard Stevens and Captain Sigismund Payne-Best – the famous “Venlo Incident” – which had led to the unravelling of MI6’s entire western European network. He had developed an ingenious plan to ruin the British economy by swamping the UK with forged £5 banknotes. He had served in the administration of occupied Belgium, headed a brutal suppression of the Danish resistance and helped establish the notorious “Salon Kitty”, a high-class brothel in Berlin, patronised by blackmailable visiting VIPs, whose rooms were bugged, and whose ‘madame’ was an SD agent.

To those in the know, therefore, Naujocks was one of the most prominent SD agents. He was an ‘intellectual gangster’; the archetypal amoral Nazi ruffian. He was a confidante of Heydrich, and was party to the inner workings of the SS empire. What was he doing defecting to the Allies in the autumn of 1944?

As befitted someone of his importance, Naujocks was spirited to Britain after his arrest. He passed through the notorious ‘London Cage’: a holding centre for German prisoners, and on to Camp 020; a special unit where enemy agents were ‘turned’.  At each stage he was interrogated. Again and again, he told his story.  He portrayed himself as the victim of his cold and pathological superiors. His career in the SD was presented as a series of increasingly acrimonious clashes with Heydrich. He would balk at assignments, he said, only to be branded a coward and severely reprimanded. Even when he successfully carried out a mission, he would be berated for some minor misdemeanour. Heydrich, he said, was a vindictive and sadistic master, who was waiting for a chance to ‘wring his neck’.

The relationship deteriorated still further as war approached. Naujocks claimed to have refused to carry out an assassination. Again, he was branded a coward. Even Gleiwitz brought him few plaudits, as he was accused of losing his nerve and botching the mission. Heydrich was victimising him, he thought, because he knew too much – not least about Heydrich’s own nocturnal visits to “Salon Kitty”.

Naujocks claimed that he decided to leave the SD in the autumn of 1939. He felt that he had been repeatedly passed over for promotion and wanted to try his luck in the Luftwaffe. However, when Heydrich heard of the plan he scuppered it. He would veto four further requests from Naujocks to be released from his service.

Reinhard Heydrich in 1940

Gradually Naujocks began to be affected by the strained relations with Heydrich. In the summer of 1940, he told his interrogators, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was grudgingly granted extended sick-leave. In January 1941, he was  summoned to Berlin and arrested. Charged with corruption, he was stripped of his rank and ordered to join the Waffen-SS. He was then sent to the Russian front as a simple soldier, narrowly avoiding assignment to a ‘punishment battalion’. He was under no illusions – Heydrich, he thought, was trying to kill him. Yet he survived.  And after six months, during which he was wounded four times, he was invalided out with shrapnel injuries, a double duodenal ulcer and jaundice. He returned to Berlin and was formally discharged in July 1942.

After Heydrich’s assassination that summer, Naujocks claimed to have been able to “breathe again”.  He took a desk-job in the German administration in Brussels, and settled into a comfortable routine, enjoying the perks of an occupying functionary with a Belgian mistress.  He was still approached by former SD associates requesting that he carry out secret missions – to the Balkans, Italy, Denmark.  But he would resist, claiming ill-health, and, if pressed, accept on condition that he be permitted to return to Brussels upon completion.  His enthusiasm for the Nazi regime had disappeared, he told his interrogators.  He was merely going through the motions.

In the spring of 1944, he claimed to have encountered a resistance organisation called the Free Austria Movement.  Contact had been made through a ‘like-minded’ old friend from Kiel, who was in the Austrian SS administration, and after a series of meetings, Naujocks agreed to act as an emissary.  It was in this guise that he was apprehended at the front.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the British refused to believe Naujocks’s story.  They seem to have swiftly rejected the idea that he was working for the SD to compromise the Austrian Resistance.  But they still had little time for him.  They described him as a “goldmine of information” and praised his “truthfulness and frankness”.  They noted admiringly that he had never asked to ‘cut a deal’ and that he was fully prepared to bear the consequences of his actions.  But they could not accept his claimed attack of conscience.  They depicted him in the most uncompromising of terms.  He was “a killer without hate and without shame”, “a callous murderer” who was “capable of any underhand activity” and was trying “to pose as the innocent dupe of vile masters”.  His defection, they considered, was totally disingenuous: probably an attempt to “secure better terms for himself”.  At best, he was a coward, trying to save his skin.  At worst, they feared, he was engaged in “another diabolical plot”.  One report concluded starkly that “this man should most certainly be put to death”.

Indeed, when they had finished with him, this was what the British had in mind.  On 31 August 1945, he was transferred to the American zone in Germany to stand trial as a war criminal.  Soon after, however, he escaped, and though his depositions were read out at Nuremberg, their author was on the run.  Recaptured in the late 1940s, he was touted for trial.  But, for all his nefarious deeds, he only ever faced charges brought by the Danish government.  And, after serving just three years, he disappeared into post-war obscurity.  He died of cancer in Hamburg in 1960.

The British may have been right about much of Naujocks’s story.  He was, after all, a habitual and professional liar.  He was also utterly unscrupulous and untroubled by morality or conscience.  “Capable of anything” claimed one former SS comrade.  A man who “would sell his own mother” according to another.  His history alone dictated that he couldn’t be trusted.

So Naujocks was once again condemned as a coward, even a traitor.  But it might be that he was a more complex case than the British imagined.  His link to the Austrian Resistance was certainly an invention, as, it seems, was his claimed nervous breakdown.  And he had clearly put a positive gloss on his SD career.  But, with the benefit of 60-years of hindsight, much of the remainder of his story bears the ring of truth.  Heydrich was indeed capricious and vindictive and other sources have confirmed that his relationship with Naujocks had irretrievably broken down.  Naujocks did then serve on the Eastern Front and returned as an invalid.  Thereafter, jaded and disillusioned from his experiences, it may well be that he sought to disappear into the Belgian occupation authorities, and, at the first opportunity, to surrender himself to the Allies.  His defection was an act of brazen self-preservation, but it was a defection none the less.  And, what is more, it would have taken some degree of conviction, if not bravery, to carry it out.  Reading the British interrogations reports, it sometimes appears that Naujocks would have earned himself more respect from his captors if he had fought on to the last stand in Berlin.

This is not an attempt at a whitewash or rehabilitation – that would be crass – Alfred Naujocks was a self-confessed murderer, kidnapper and thief.  Rather it is an attempt to ‘close the book’ on one of the most mysterious and indeed infamous characters of the Third Reich.  In most published sources, Naujocks appears as a shadowy cat’s paw of Heydrich, cropping up at Gleiwitz, Venlo and elsewhere with often bloody consequences.  He has become an almost mythical figure, but the man behind the myth has remained virtually unknown.  Whatever one’s conclusions about his case, one thing is clear – the curious story of Alfred Naujocks deserves to be aired.

This is an excerpt from Wolf’s Lair: Inside Hitler’s Germany, by Roger Moorhouse, published by Sharpe Books. Roger’s latest book is First to Fight: The Polish War 1939.

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