When Israel Hired Ex-Nazi Officers

To thwart Egypt’s Nasser in the 1960s, Mossad worked alongside German war criminals

When Israel Hired Ex-Nazi Officers
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, in the 1960s. He was, writes Orbach, “tormented by sleepless nights” over Egypt’s rocket program – and sought to recruit someone from within it / PhotoQuest / Getty Images

“Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”

A few months ago, on the way home from the university, I found a folder with this motto in my mailbox, the motto of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. It was a drab-looking government envelope, the sort one might expect to receive from the municipality or the tax authorities. For me, however, it was supposed to contain the answer to a riddle I had pondered for almost four years. Since I began my work on the book “Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War,” I was fascinated, yet troubled, by persistent rumors that the Israeli Mossad worked with former Nazis, among them war criminals, in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Rumors on this murky subject had in fact been circulating for years. In 1967, the Polish culture minister, Kazimierz Rusinek, declared that “it is no secret, that many Nazi criminals serve the Israeli state and live in its territory. I cannot give you a precise number, but I’m certain that more than [one] thousand professionals of the Nazi Wehrmacht serve as military advisers to the Israeli Army.” This communist propaganda was of course overblown. There were not “one thousand” former Nazis working with Israel, not hundreds and not even dozens. But were there, at least, several?

Later, reporters, not all of them hostile to Israel, mentioned specifically one name: Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favorite commando leader. Did Skorzeny, in fact, cooperate with the Mossad in the 1960s, and for how long? And if so, why? Why did Israeli intelligence leaders, some of them Holocaust survivors, agree to bond with him? That was the question that the drab-looking Mossad envelope was supposed to answer.

The realm of intelligence is rarely populated by sentimental people, and after World War II, all victorious allied countries were quick to exploit former Nazis, including war crimes suspects, for intelligence gathering and other purposes.

“I don’t know if he’s a rascal,” said Allen Welsh Dulles, director of the CIA, of one of these German officers. “There are few archbishops in espionage.” Arab states, such as Egypt and Syria, followed suit and were quick to employ former Nazis, some of them war criminals, as intelligence, scientific and military advisers.

The first time that Israel made such a decision was in 1949, when Mamad, the Foreign Ministry’s intelligence service and the predecessor of the Mossad, recruited the Nazi Walther Rauff, one of the vilest Holocaust perpetrators then alive and the inventor of the “gas vans,” mobile gas chambers in which thousands of Jewish men, women and children were choked to death. Rauff, a former military adviser in Syria, agreed to sell information on his former employers. The besieged Jewish state, faced with existential threats from its Arab neighbors, could hardly be picky about its intelligence assets.

The cooperation with Rauff was short and fleeting, but in the early 1960s Israeli intelligence leaders faced the same dilemma yet again. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Israel’s archenemy, developed long-range rockets with the help of German scientists. When this became known, in July 1962, Nasser boasted that his new rockets could hit any point south of Beirut, i.e. any point in Israel. The government in Israel reacted with panic. Mossad interpreted the presence of the German scientists as a Nazi ploy to destroy the Jewish state.

Fears of Nasser’s willingness and ability to annihilate Israel’s population centers were not entirely groundless, as Nasser’s extensive deployment of chemical weapons against civilians during the Yemen War from June 1963 onward would show. Though the Egyptian rocket program was many years away from achieving the ability to rain down conventional — let alone chemical — warheads on Israel’s cities, this was not readily apparent to Israeli decision-makers at the time. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, tormented by sleepless nights, began to wonder whether his Zionist movement had brought the Jews to Palestine, only to lead them to a second Holocaust. Had the Jews been saved from the Nazis, only to be slaughtered by Egypt’s armies, now equipped with German expertise and nonconventional rockets? It was “as if the sky were falling on our heads,” said Asher Ben Nathan, the director general of the Defense Ministry. The Mossad launched a campaign of assassinations against the German scientists in Egypt but failed to stop the project. Many attempts were supposedly thwarted by Hermann Valentin, a former SS sergeant who served as the Egyptian program’s security officer.

The Mossad now believed it must recruit someone from the inner circle of the rocket program, preferably Valentin himself. The new head of the Mossad, Meir Amit, appointed in March 1963, may have already known about the precedents of working with nefarious Nazis such as Rauff, so recruiting a small fry such as Valentin was not much of a dilemma. But the question of how to approach him remained a tough nut to crack.

The Mossad folder that I received gave me the next chapters of the story. Bursting with excitement, I leafed the pages, reading the incredible story with a mix of revulsion and fascination. By nature, I am a practical person, a military historian and a firm believer in realpolitik. Those who participate in existential wars must use all means, fair or foul, to protect their homeland, and the Israelis back then certainly believed that thwarting the Egyptian rocket program was a matter of life and death. As I will write below, Skorzeny was indeed accused of war crimes, but he was not a vile murderer like Rauff. Some of the Israeli decision-makers and intelligence operatives indeed worked with him with due caution and emotional distance. Others, as we shall see, gave in to his charms. Skorzeny, too, was fascinated by the Jewish state, and this, in my opinion, is the most interesting part of the story. It is a story that goes beyond military intelligence and into the ability of humans to put aside — if not entirely forget — the past.

The first hint that Israel received on Skorzeny came from a man named Steinbiechler, an Austrian engineer who worked in the Egyptian program while moonlighting as a Mossad source. He told his handlers that he [Steinbiechler] was in touch with Skorzeny, a famous SS commando leader. Skorzeny was also an authority figure to Valentin, the former SS sergeant, who had served under him during the war. Perhaps it would be possible to recruit the famous commander in order to gain access to his former lieutenant?

Otto Skorzeny was a shady figure. He was renowned for famous commando operations during World War II, including the daring raid to liberate the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in September 1943, though he often took for himself more credit than was due. In the 1960s, he was suspected in various crimes: burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht, killing “defeatist” German soldiers and even experimenting with a “poison gun” on prisoners. Admittedly, much of this information originated in East German propaganda and was thus difficult to verify. In the 1960s, there were judicial proceedings against Skorzeny in Austria, but nothing came of them. Tall and daunting, with a prominent dueling scar on his face, he was described by Rafi Eitan, the Mossad spy chief in Europe, as “a soldier of the first grade.” Robert B. Biek, U.S. assistant air attaché in Madrid, remembered that Skorzeny was “very friendly and affable … not unlike being welcomed by a huge bear or engulfed by a huge St. Bernard dog.”

The “hook” used by the Mossad was Skorzeny’s beautiful wife, Countess Ilse von Finkenstein, with whom he was in an open relationship. Described by a CIA informant as a “very attractive and highly intelligent woman,” the countess was seen by many as the moving force behind her famous paramour. An adventuress in her own right, Finkenstein was in touch with several intelligence services (most notably in France), invested in tourism in the Bahama Islands and often invited rich men to parties on her horse farm.

In order to approach her, the Mossad dispatched the former head of “Amal,” the Mossad’s Nazi-hunting unit, Rafi Meidan. Meidan was a Jew “of German descent, known by his European looks. He was a handsome man with influence on women of a certain age.” Through an intermediary, Meidan introduced himself to the countess as an employee of the Israeli Defense Ministry, currently on leave and looking for options to invest in international tourism. That was a perfect strategy: It was designed to provoke Ilse’s curiosity and love of adventure, without deterring her with an excessively open approach.

The first meeting between the two took place in Dublin, and to Meidan’s delight, the countess immediately took a liking to him. Quickly enough, the relationship developed into an intense (and according to persistent rumors, also intimate) personal bond. The countess and her Jewish brother-in-law partied with the Mossad agent in bars and clubs, drinking profusely and telling each other jokes in Yiddish and German. Finally, on Oct. 7, 1964, the Israeli operative told Ilse that a “senior security official” from his country wanted to meet her husband regarding a matter of state, of the utmost importance and having nothing to do with the colonel’s Nazi past. Flush after a night of clubbing, the countess agreed to contact her husband. Skorzeny, his curiosity aroused, informed the Israelis that he was prepared to meet them immediately, preferably that same night.

For the sensitive mission of negotiating with Skorzeny, Eitan, the head of “Junction”, the Mossad Department responsible for recruitment of agents in Europe, chose Avraham Ahituv, another German-Jewish operative. A future head of Israel’s internal secuity service, the Shin Bet, Ahituv was a scion of a religious Jewish family and intensely despised Nazis, Skorzeny included. He met Meidan and the countess in the lobby of a luxurious hotel in Madrid, and after 15 minutes of small talk the three saw the huge hulk of Skorzeny fill the doorway. Meidan and the countess retired to a “business meeting,” leaving Ahituv alone with the famous Nazi. In his report on the meeting, the Mossad operative wrote:

We remained in the hotel lobby. Our conversation took place [for two hours and 15 minutes] until 21:00, mostly in English. … Skorzeny was a giant, clumsy man, probably endowed with extraordinary physical power. His left cheek showed the famous scar from the pictures, extending all the way to his ear.

The meeting was a difficult emotional experience for Ahituv, who hated what he was doing. Once, for example, the owner of the restaurant came, clicked his heels and congratulated Skorzeny in German. The colonel explained to his Israeli interlocutor that he [the owner] was “one of the most important Nazis in these parts.” In another occasion, Skorzeny put on his monocle, resembling “the perfect Nazi.” Uncharacteristically for a secret service recruiter, Ahituv brought up the uncomfortable issue of the Holocaust right at the start of the conversation but took pains to differentiate between “criminals” and “officers” such as Skorzeny. The colonel, in turn, was not ready to apologize for anything. Instead, he emphasized (as his wife did before him) that he took no part in the Holocaust. Then, he surprised Ahituv by saying that “until their meeting, he knew little on Israel” but still liked this small, daring country, “a novelty for the Jewish people” whose inhabitants “excel in physical work.” Israel, he added, is the solution to antisemitism, and he couldn’t understand why all Jews didn’t immigrate there. Then, in a more antisemitic tone, he said that he was always amazed that “Jews led all Communist parties and espionage rings.” Far from being insulted, Ahituv “explained the reasons for this phenomenon.” Meidan, who came to check on Ahituv, found him and Skorzeny “absorbed in a conversation on the Jewish problem.”

In retrospect, it is amazing how quickly and naturally the conversation between Skorzeny and Ahituv flowed into recruitment. Later, Eitan surmised that Skorzeny cooperated with the Israelis because he was afraid of ending up like Adolf Eichmann, and only the Mossad could offer him “a life without fear.” Most probably, however, Skorzeny’s recruitment was more a result of Ahituv’s approach. Wisely, the Mossad operative did not try preaching to Skorzeny. When bringing up the issue of rocket scientists in Egypt, he did not adopt the common Israeli approach of “German murderers who are trying to kill us twice in a generation” and instead asked for Skorzeny’s advice as a “professional intelligence operative,” a colleague. The colonel, pleased by the compliment, boasted of his friendship with Nasser and some of the leading scientists in Egypt. That was the movement Ahituv was waiting for. He asked Skorzeny whether he knew the security officer Hermann Valentin, who was once his subordinate, implying that the Mossad wanted to recruit him. Skorzeny cautioned against such a direct approach and offered to recruit the security officer to a “Western intelligence service,” making him a duped agent of Israel.

Wisely, Ahituv played on Skorzeny’s self-importance and love of adventure, allowing him to believe that he was an ally of the Jewish state’s famous intelligence service rather than a hired agent. According to the Mossad’s in-house report, Skorzeny did not ask for money but only for one small favor. Hearing from Ahituv that his [Skorzeny’s] memoirs appeared in Hebrew, he asked the Mossad to publicize this fact in order to counter Jewish objections to the publication of his book in West Germany. Even that small request turned out to be controversial. While Ahituv and his commander, Eitan, saw it as essential to the success of the operation, many in headquarters deemed it as the whitewashing of a Nazi criminal. Mossad officials now raised again the suspicions about Skorzeny’s role in the Kristallnacht. Meir Amit, the head of the Mossad, and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol also became involved. After much deliberation, they agreed to offer Skorzeny the Hebrew introduction to his translated book, but Ahituv gently persuaded him not to make use of it. Such publication might expose his connection to the Israelis and discredit him in neo-Nazi circles. The colonel reluctantly agreed and promised “not to burden” his Israeli allies in the future.

Meidan recalled, however, that Skorzeny also asked for another unofficial favor. Might the Mossad request Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter from Vienna, to remove Skorzeny from his list of wanted Nazi criminals? According to Meidan, Wiesenthal point blank refused. For him, Skorzeny was a war criminal, involved in the burning of synagogues, and he would not let him off the hook, even for the benefit of the Mossad. The Mossad had a list, obtained from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, of culprits of the pogrom in Vienna, where Skorzeny’s name, and his alone, was marked with an X. The colonel told Meidan that it proved that he was not involved in the burning of synagogues. Wiesenthal was not convinced. Skorzeny was disappointed by the Nazi hunter’s refusal but still agreed to cooperate with Israel.

Eitan, who managed Skorzeny through Ahituv, also met with the colonel directly. His opinion of him was very positive. According to Eitan, the colonel was a “soldier of the first grade” who wanted to build a new, better Germany, nationalistic but free of Nazism. “Never did I encounter any animosity toward Jews in our meetings,” he recalled. But now, Skorzeny, Eitan and Ahituv had to discuss the practical question of recruiting Hermann Valentin.

On Oct. 8, Skorzeny invited Valentin to Madrid. The security officer, surprised and greatly flattered by the attention of his former commander, readily agreed. Then, after wining and dining Valentin, Skorzeny raised a thorny issue. His friends in British intelligence, he said, would like to strengthen Egypt so it would not need Russian assistance but at the same time keep it weak enough so as not to tempt it to embark on new military adventures. Therefore, they needed precise details on Egyptian armaments. Skorzeny heard that Valentin was working for Cairo. Would he agree to speak with the British?

Valentin was apprehensive. “Aren’t the Israelis involved?” he asked the colonel. “Stand at attention when you’re spoken to!” Skorzeny bellowed in feigned anger. “How dare you speak like this to your commander?” Valentin apologized. The next day, he agreed to meet two MI6 agents, who were in fact Ahituv and Harry Barak, an English-speaking Mossad operative with a British aristocratic demeanor. The conversation was difficult. Valentin barely spoke any English. Barak understood German but could speak only English and Yiddish, which he of course could not use. The security officer repeatedly asked the “British officials” why they had no IDs, how much they would pay him and what compensation he would receive if he should be fired by the Egyptians. Barak said, through Ahituv, that “the most efficient secret service in the world does not behave in such a way. We do not exploit a man and throw him to the wolves. If something changes, we will take care of you for your entire life.” And yet Valentin was not fully convinced. Skorzeny promised to use one last trick. He invited his former subordinate for drinks, spending time with him until the small hours of the morning.

The next morning, Valentin had to leave for Egypt, but Barak and Ahituv met him before his departure. To their surprise, the SS sergeant greeted them with a broad smile. He turned to Ahituv and said in German: “I would like you to translate my words to the major [Barak]. Yesterday I had a talk with the colonel [Skorzeny]. He told me something I didn’t know. He told me that you advised him about it. It seems that I was about to become an officer, that he [Skorzeny] recommended my [promotion] to the German General Staff. They authorized it, but due to the chaos prevalent in the last days of the war… he never received their letter.” And then he added, flush with pride: “Skorzeny is ready to give me a letter confirming that he knows about my promotion to the General Staff. I am your man!” He repeated the last phrase several times in English.

As the Mossad historians wrote in the operation’s folder, all were surprised to see that Valentin, the much-dreaded security officer of the Egyptian rocket program, was in fact “a giant with feet of clay.” In the CV he presented, Valentin introduced himself as having been a miserable, illegitimate child who grew up without knowing his mother, escaped from his adoptive parents at 15 to join the French Foreign Legion and then served in the SS. Even there he suffered discrimination, excluded from sensitive operations and never promoted above the rank of a sergeant (a weakness that, as we have seen, Skorzeny was quick to exploit). After his recruitment, Valentin behaved like a purring cat and emphasized to his employers that he admired the British all his life and would like nothing more than to become a full-fledged member of MI6. Barak told him that he would have to earn this distinction through hard work.

And work hard he did. Within a few months, Valentin told his handlers almost everything they wanted to know about the Egyptian rocket program, giving up-to-date, authentic and sometimes surprising material. He debriefed Ahituv and Barak about conversations with scientists, the results of experiments, production goals and the ongoing difficulties of the German experts with the Egyptians and with one another. Crucially, he told the Mossad that the German team failed to develop a working guidance system for the rockets. The Egyptians, he said, were afraid to launch inaccurate rockets lest they hit Arab population centers or the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. This was an important soothing message for the Israelis. Valentin also said that the Egyptians were disappointed with their German experts and were looking to concentrate more authority in their own hands.

The information given by Valentin calmed Israeli decision-makers and made a big contribution to the secret negotiations between Israel and West Germany that finally put an end to the affair. According to Mossad records, both Valentin and Skorzeny continued to work for the Mossad for several years, though their contribution was meager. From time to time, Skorzeny would meet his handler, possibly Ahituv, for long nocturnal conversations. The talks would begin in Skorzeny’s office and then move to a restaurant and a bar. They would often continue to speak later while walking in the street. According to Mossad records, they discussed world affairs, from the Vietnam War to apartheid in South Africa. Sometimes the debate turned stormy, especially when Skorzeny expressed his unabashedly racist views, which the Israeli handler abhorred.

The secret affair between Israel and Otto Skorzeny ended with the latter’s death in 1975. For me, the importance of the connection lay not mainly in the murky realm of intelligence but rather in the insights one could gain on the flexibility of human memory. It demonstrated the ease with which former foes — even victims of genocide and their murderers — can cooperate closely when circumstances change. The ability of human beings to adapt is marvelous, indeed sometimes painfully so.

“Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War” was published in the U.S. by Pegasus Books on March 1. It will be published in the U.K. by Hurst on March 3.

It is available here and all other retailers.

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