Report: US intelligence agent was “impressed” by repression of White Rose Society by ex-Nazi

According to a report released a few months ago on US recruitment of ex-Nazi war criminals following WWII, a US special agent was so impressed by an ex-Nazi’s work linking the White Rose Society to Soviet communism that he urged “more active exploitation” of the man for the purpose of fighting the Cold War.

The report, published by the US National Archives, is titled Hitler’s Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence, and the Cold War and was authored by Richard Breitman and Norman J.W. Goda. It was released as an addendum to a 2004 report by the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group, apparently to cover material revealed in documents declassified since then. The documents disclosed and reviewed by Hitler’s Shadow contain “evidence of war crimes and about the wartime activities of war criminals; postwar documents on the search for or prosecution of war criminals; documents about the escape of war criminals; documents about the Allied protection or use of Nazi war criminals; and documents about the postwar political activities of war criminals” (p. 1).

The revelations concerning the White Rose Society are contained in Chapter 3 (“New Materials on Former Gestapo Officers”). Ex-Gestapo officers in post-war West Germany initially faced mandatory arrest by US Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) since they held ranks in the SS were viewed as potential threats to the occupation. The CIC soon came to rely on them for information on political movements all across the spectrum, including right-wing and communist groups. One of these assets was a man named Anton Mahler. For a brief period in 1941, he was a member of the 665-man Einsatzgruppe B death squad in occupied Belarus which took part in the mass killings of 45,000 people, mostly Jews. Mahler admitted his own involvement in this force on a US governing authority questionnaire in 1947. The US and West German authorities never inquired further and he never brought it up again.

Mahler was released from US detention in September 1948 and subject to judgement by a Spruchkammer (Denazification Court). After being initially declared a lower-tier Nazi “activist,” he had this ruling successfully revoked on appeal in September 1949. At about the same time he submitted a resume to the CIC and mentioned his anti-communist work while serving in the Gestapo as a point in his favor. Throughout the course of 1949 he became a full-time employee for the regional CIC and held daily talks with Special Agent Herbert Bechtold on the activities and techniques of the German Communist Party (KPD). He also worked under another ex-Gestapo officer named Eugen Fischer, who used his contacts in numerous social and political groups to serve as an “independent source” for different CIC agents.

When Mahler and Fischer agent were subject to criminal complaints for brutal interrogations conducted under the Nazis, regional officers asserted to CIC headquarters that “every effort should be made to prevent a trial of these men on the present basis […] because the interests of this agency and perhaps to a great extent the entire United States occupation forces could be protected” (p. 46). More senior CIC officers expressed distrust of Fischer’s network and were willing to let him and Mahler take the fall. After being convicted both men fled the region before their sentencing session.

While Fischer’s location remained unknown, a total exploitation of all phases of their experience not previously covered in the more cursory interrogation. This phase of the investigation pertains primarily to leads and cases once handled by these agents returned a few days later to work for the CIC. Special Agent Herbert Bechtold reported that he was contacting ex-Gestapo agents for the purpose of “a total exploitation of all phases of their experience not previously covered in the more cursory interrogation. This phase of the investigation pertains primarily to leads and cases once handled by these agents” (p. 48). For Mahler the case under review was his 1943 investigation of the White Rose Society, during which he interrogated Hans Scholl. The case was an “additional chance to re-establish his anti-communist bona fides with the United States” (p. 48). The resulting report was entitled “Sedition Activities of the Scholl Twins.”

[Mahler’s report] is of interest to scholars of the White Rose insofar as the 17-page report includes Gestapo efforts to stop the distribution of anti-Hitler leaflets before the arrest of Hans and Sophie Scholl in February 1943. But it also paints Hans Scholl, whom Mahler interrogated, as a Communist. Scholl came, Mahler said, from a “Marxistic (sic) oriented family, which nevertheless spread a cloak of religious piety over its existence.” White Rose leaflets, in Mahler’s retelling, “were atheistic and cultural Bolshevistic propaganda….” Under interrogation, Hans Scholl argued “that communism had been a decided improvement over the Czarist dynasty” and that “an alliance between the Soviet Union and Germany could only be advantageous to both nations.” Mahler further emphasized that White Rose member Falk Harnack was the brother of Arvid Harnack, a leader in the Soviet spy ring in Germany known as the Red Orchestra, and that the Gestapo had never been able to investigate the possible connections between the two organizations. In reality, there was nothing communistic about any of the White Rose leaflets. But the connection impressed Special Agent Bechtold. He recommended “more active exploitation” of Mahler (p. 49).

Very little is known about Mahler’s activities after this. The file ends with a request by him to a neo-Nazi party for assistance in escaping to Argentina with some money.

The revelation that an insidious smear of the White Rose Society–based on the (most likely coerced) confessions of a political prisoner in Nazi confinement–was praised by a US intelligence officer should be disturbing to most Americans. The group is today a symbol of non-violent resistance to tyranny, particularly on the part of idealistic, intellectually-inclined youths. One cannot help but wonder how many men like Herbert Bechtold there were in the ranks of the US intelligence community in post-war Europe.

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