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Cecil B. Currey on U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis

Filed under: U.S. Policy
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)


Failure to Know the Enemy

U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis, by Richard Breitman, Norman J. W. Goda, Timothy Naftali, and Robert Wolfe, Cambridge University Press, 2005, 495 pp.

Reviewed by Cecil B. Currey

The front matter of this book contains a statement never before encountered by this author: “Excepting the Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion, this is a work of the United States government and is not protected by copyright in the United States.” That unsettling sentence is not the only problem with the book.

All its authors are respectable scholars. Breitman is professor of history at American University and the author or coauthor of seven books, as well as editor of the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Goda is associate professor at Ohio University and the author of one previous book on Heinrich Himmler and the Final Solution. Naftali, associate professor at the University of Virginia, was a consultant to the 9/11 Commission and is coauthor of a study of Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy. Wolfe was, for more than thirty years, a senior research specialist at the National Archives, working with captured German and World War II war-crimes trial records, and is the author of two books.

This is a very reputable set of scholars. Presumably, then, the above-quoted statement indicates that their book was created for and at the behest of the government and only later, in preparing the manuscript for Cambridge University Press, did they add the Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion.


A Deadly Passivity

Whatever its provenance, however, the book fails to offer new information. The opening paragraph of the Introduction asserts that “troubling questions of conscience and history” remain from World War II. “Was it possible for the Allies to rescue some Jews from the Holocaust, or was that notion a myth. . . . ?” Or again, “Some U.S. businesses collaborated with the Nazi state before and during World War II. What was the extent of these activities, and what was the result? What happened after the war to those who had perpetrated wartime atrocities?” The Introduction goes on to state that “many of Nazi Germany’s secrets leaked” to Western intelligence officials, underground organizations, and some anti-Nazi Germans.

What was the result of these disclosures? How did the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the British MI6, and the many other intelligence-gathering agencies of the State Department, army, air force, and navy use the information they collected?

This long and detailed book presents no evidence that any of their efforts shortened the war by even a day-nor any hint that these agencies were at fault in not using whatever knowledge they did obtain to save more than a handful of Jews destined for the death camps. Despite a plethora of information about what was happening to Europe’s untermenschen, Allied spies disbelieved, ignored, or denied such evidence entirely and maintained that little or nothing could be done about German atrocities. They seemed to believe that attempting to do anything would hamper the larger war effort.

At the end of the conflict, the Army Counterintelligence Corps, the largest American intelligence unit of the immediate postwar period, and other intelligence groups whitewashed a huge number of criminals from the SS, the SD, the German police, and other groups-even those drawn from the staffs of the death camps-so as to use their knowledge in postwar plotting against the Soviets. One such out of thousands was the war criminal General Reinhard Gehlen, who became head of the West German Secret Service.

Although there was no compelling reason to use such men, American and British intelligence agencies rescued them from punishment and in effect rewarded them for their knowledge and experience. For the most part they could not deliver valuable intelligence; what they provided was often misleading, self-serving, or worthless.

Indeed, this book reveals that Western intelligence organizations almost never penetrated Nazi agencies to garner secrets that would be useful in prosecuting the war. Some tried; others simply accepted whatever they were told by their sources and never sought answers for themselves. Instead, intelligence agents’ lives were lost, and money wasted, for nothing.


The Chase National Bank Affair

Chapter 7, titled “Banking on Hitler: Chase National Bank and the Rückwanderer Mark Scheme, 1936-1941,” presents a notable exception to the dull tenor of the rest of the book. Lower-level staff at Chase learned of a program approved at the institution’s highest levels to make money for the bank while aiding Nazi Germany.

They took their knowledge to the FBI, disclosing how, beginning in 1936, the bank had helped the Nazi government earn badly needed U.S. dollars through the sale of German marks. This money was seized from Jewish families, sent to America, laundered by the bank, and then used to help people of German descent living in America. Some of these people wanted to return to the mother country either temporarily or permanently and needed money to do so. Others wished to continue living abroad but wanted to purchase goods in Germany, which they could do with confiscated Jewish funds .

The FBI conducted an exhaustive investigation after learning of the program in October 1940, four years after it had begun. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover then asked the Attorney-General’s Office for an opinion on whether the practice was illegal. Hoover’s agents had assembled a 281-page list of 2,800 mark purchasers all over the United States, and it was circulated to FBI offices everywhere. By May 1941 it included 7,300 names, later increasing to over ten thousand.

This search unearthed some of the earliest evidence of both naturalized Germans and those who remained aliens who were disloyal to the United States. Yet Attorney-General Frank Murphy allowed almost nothing to be done with this information. Despite Hoover’s protests, the Attorney-General’s Office did nothing to prosecute Chase officials. The authors note that this “extraordinary story of Chase National’s . . . cooperation with the Nazi government . . . has remained mostly buried to this day.”



Little having been learned of Nazi activities during the war, most of this book concerns information that was unearthed after it ended. The book has many stories and vignettes of Nazi figures, but also contains too much technical material for nonspecialists.

A final caveat is that the book’s illustrations might have been helpful if printed clearly. However, the words on the reproduced documents are for the most part unintelligible.

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DR. CECIL B. CURREY is emeritus professor of military history at the University of South Florida.