Reinhard Gehlen

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Reinhard Gehlen
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-27237-0001, Reinhard Gehlen.jpg
Colonel Reinhard Gehlen, c. 1943
Born(1902-03-03)3 March 1902
Erfurt, German Empire
Died8 June 1979(1979-06-08) (aged 77)
Starnberg, West Germany
Allegiance Weimar Republic (1920–1933)
 Nazi Germany (1933–1945)
 United States (1946–1956)
 West Germany (1956–1968)
Battles/warsWorld War II
Cold War
AwardsDeutsches Kreuz in silver during the Second World War
Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz am Schulterband
Knight of Malta (1968)

Reinhard Gehlen (3 April 1902 – 8 June 1979) was a German general and intelligence officer who was chief of the Wehrmacht Foreign Armies East (FHO) military-intelligence unit during World War II (1942–45); spymaster of the CIA-affiliated anti–Communist Gehlen Organisation for the United States (1946–56); and the first president of the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) of West Germany (1956–68) during the Cold War. Gehlen was regarded as "one of the most legendary Cold War spymasters."[1]

Gehlen became a professional soldier in 1920 during the Weimar Republic. In 1942, he became chief of FHO, the German Army's military intelligence unit on the Eastern Front (1941–45). He achieved the rank of major general before being sacked by Adolf Hitler because of the FHO’s pessimistically accurate intelligence reports about Red Army superiority. In late 1945, at the start of the Cold War, the U.S. military (G-2 Intelligence) recruited him to establish the Gehlen Organisation, an espionage network against the Soviet Union, which employed former military officers of the Wehrmacht and former members of the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the Sicherheitsdienst (SD).

Gehlen was the first president of the Federal Intelligence Service of West Germany from 1956 to 1968. While this was a civilian office, he was also a lieutenant-general in the Reserve forces of the Bundeswehr, the highest-ranking reserve-officer in the military of West Germany.[2]

Early life[edit]

Gehlen was born to a Roman Catholic family; his father was a book-seller in Erfurt. In 1920, he joined the Reichswehr.


In 1935, Gehlen graduated from the German Staff College.


After college, Gehlen was promoted to captain and assigned to the German General Staff.[3]

Gehlen served on the General Staff until 1936, and was promoted to major in 1939; at the time of the German attack on Poland (1 September 1939) he was a staff officer in an infantry division.[3] In 1940, he became liaison officer to Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, Army Commander-in-Chief; and later was transferred to the staff of General Franz Halder, the Chief of the German General Staff. In July 1941, he received a promotion to lieutenant-colonel and was sent to the Eastern Front, where he was assigned as senior intelligence-officer to the Fremde Heere Ost (FHO) section of the Staff. In an analysis of letters interepted from Soviet soldiers shown to Hitler on July 7, 1943 Gehlen cited some examples of human tragedies reflected in the captured letters, and commented pointedly: "These were no 'subhumans,' the people who wrote these letters."(File H3/644)[4]

Head of FHO[edit]

The anti–Communist espionage networks of the Gehlen Organization remained in place after Red Army conquest and consolidation of Soviet hegemony in the east of Europe.

In spring of 1942, Gehlen assumed command of the FHO from Colonel Eberhard Kinzel.[5] Before the Wehrmacht disasters in the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943), a year into the German war against Soviet Union, Gehlen understood that the FHO required fundamental re-organisation, and secured a staff of army linguists and geographers, anthropologists, lawyers, and junior military officers who would improve the FHO as a military-intelligence organisation despite the Nazi ideology of Slavic inferiority.[6]

Hitler assassination plot[edit]

In summer 1944, Colonel Henning von Tresckow, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and General Adolf Heusinger asked Gehlen to participate in their plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.[7] As head of the FHO, Gehlen allowed the military conspirators to make their plans under his protection; moreover, he was present at their meetings at Berchtesgaden; yet, after the bomb plot failed on 20 July, he escaped falling victim to Hitler's revenge.[8]


Gehlen's cadre of FHO intelligence-officers produced faithful, true, and accurate field-intelligence about the Red Army that contradicted rear-echelon perceptions of the Eastern battle front, which Hitler dismissed as defeatism, philosophically harmful to the Nazi cause against "Judeo-Bolshevism" in Russia. In April 1945, despite his professionalism and the accurate military intelligence, Hitler dismissed Gehlen, soon after his promotion to major general.[9]

Preparation for Post-War[edit]

The FHO collection of both military and political intelligence from captured Red Army soldiers assured Gehlen's post–WWII survival as a Western anti–Communist spymaster, with networks of spies and secret agents in the countries of Soviet-occupied Europe. During the German war against the Soviet Union in 1941–45, Gehlen's FHO collected much tactical military-intelligence about the Red Army, and much strategic, political intelligence about the Soviet Union. Understanding that the Soviet Union would defeat and occupy the Third Reich, Gehlen ordered the FHO intelligence files copied to microfilm; the FHO files proper were stored in water-tight drums and buried in various locations in the Austrian Alps.[10] They amounted to fifty cases of German intelligence about the Soviet Union which were at Gehlen's disposal for sale to Western intelligence services.[11] Meanwhile, as of 1946, when the Soviet consolidated their hegemony and sphere of influence in central, eastern, and south-eastern Europe as agreed at the Potsdam Conference of 1945 and demarcated with what became known as the Iron Curtain, the Western Allies of World War II, the U.S., Britain, France, had no sources of covert information within the countries where the occupying Red Army had vanquished the Wehrmacht.

After the Second World War[edit]

On 22 May 1945, Gehlen surrendered to the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) of the U.S. Army in Bavaria and was taken to Camp King, near Oberursel, and interrogated by Captain John R. Boker. The American Army recognised his potential value as a spymaster with great knowledge of Soviet forces and anti-communist intelligence contacts in the USSR. In exchange for his liberty and the liberty of his command (prisoners of the U.S. Army), Gehlen offered the Counter Intelligence Corps access to the FHO’s intelligence archives, and to his anti-communist espionage network in the Soviet Union, known later as the Gehlen Organization.[3] Boker removed his name and those of his Wehrmacht command from the official lists of German prisoners of war, and transferred seven FHO senior officers to join Gehlen.[citation needed]

Reinhard Gehlen as a Wehrmacht Major General in 1945

The FHO archives were unearthed and secretly taken to Camp King, ostensibly without the knowledge of the camp commander.[citation needed] By the end of summer 1945, Boker had the support of Brigadier General Edwin Sibert, the G2 (senior intelligence officer) of the U.S. Twelfth Army Group,[12] who arranged the secret transport of Gehlen, his officers and the FHO intelligence archives, authorized by his superiors in the chain of command, General Walter Bedell Smith (chief of staff for General Eisenhower), who worked with William Donovan (former OSS chief) and Allen Dulles (OSS chief), who also was the OSS station-chief in Bern. On 20 September 1945, Gehlen and three associates were flown from the American Zone of Occupation in Germany to the U.S., to become spies for the U.S. Government.[citation needed]

In July 1946, the U.S. officially released Gehlen and returned him to Occupied Germany.[13] On 6 December 1946, he began espionage operations against the Soviet Union, by establishing what was known to U.S. Intelligence as the Gehlen Organisation or "the Org", a secret intelligence service composed of former intelligence officers of the Wehrmacht and members of the SS and the SD, which was headquartered first at Oberursel, near Frankfurt, then at Pullach, near Munich.[3] The organisation's cover-name was the South German Industrial Development Organization. Gehlen initially selected 350 ex-intelligence officers of the Wehrmacht as staff; eventually, the organisation comprised some 4,000 anti-communist secret agents.[citation needed]

Gehlen Organisation[edit]

Since he started working for the U.S. Government, Gehlen had been subordinate to US Army G-2 (Intelligence). He resented this arrangement and in 1947, the year after his Organisation was established, Gehlen arranged for a transfer and became subordinate to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA kept close control of the Gehlen Organisation, because for many years during the Cold War of 1945–91, its agents were the CIA’s only eyes and ears on the ground in the countries of the Eastern Bloc.[citation needed]

East German propaganda in 1957

Between 1947 and 1955, agents of the Gehlen Organisation interviewed every German PoW who returned to West Germany from captivity in the Soviet Union. The network employed hundreds of former Wehrmacht and SS officers, and also had close contacts with the anti-Communist organisations of the East European émigré communities in Western Europe. They observed the operations of the railroad systems, airfields, and ports of the USSR, and their secret agents infiltrated the Baltic Soviet Republics and the Ukrainian SSR. Among their successes was Operation Bohemia, a major effort of anti-communist counter-espionage.[14]

The security and efficacy of the Gehlen Organisation were compromised by East German moles within it, and by Communists and their sympathizers within the CIA and the SIS (MI6), especially Kim Philby, himself a Soviet secret agent. As the spies emerged from the shadows, Gehlen, personally, and the Gehlen Organisation, officially, were attacked by the governments of the Western powers and the Soviet Union. The British government was especially hostile towards Gehlen, and the politically liberal British press ensured full publication of the existence of the Gehlen Organisation, which compromised the operation.[15]

BND (Federal Intelligence Service)[edit]

The Gehlen Organisation in transition: CIA report on the negotiations to establish the BND (1952) of West Germany.

Eleven years after the end of World War II, on 1 April 1956, the U.S. Government and the CIA formally transferred the Gehlen Organisation to the authority of what was by then the Federal Republic of Germany, under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1949–63).[3] By way of that transference of geopolitical sponsorship, the anti–Communist Gehlen Organisation became the nucleus of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, Federal Intelligence Service).[3]

As the spymaster of the Gehlen Organisation, Gehlen became president of the BND as an espionage service, until he was forced out of office in 1968. The end of Gehlen’s career as a spymaster resulted from a confluence of events in West Germany: the discovery of the professional secret agent Heinz Felfe (a former SS lieutenant and a Soviet agent) working at BND headquarters;[16] political estrangement from Adenauer, in 1963, which aggravated his professional problems; and the inefficiency of the BND consequent to Gehlen’s poor leadership and continual inattention to the business of espionage as national defence.[citation needed]

Gehlen retired in 1968 as a civil servant of West Germany, classified as a Ministerialdirektor, a senior grade with a generous pension; eleven years later, in 1979, he died at the age of 77.[17]



  1. ^ Deane, John R.; Mason, Jack C (2018). "Chapter 3". Lessons in Leadership. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813174969.
  2. ^ Pahl, Magnus. Fremde Heere Ost: Hitlers militärische Feindaufklärung, p. 32, Ch. Links Verlag, 2013, ISBN 3862842037.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Reinhard Gehlen – Biografie WHO'S WHO
  4. ^ Gehlen, Reinhard (1971). The Service — The Memoirs of General Reinhard Gehlen. David Irving (trans.). New York: World Publishing. p. 65.
  5. ^ Höhne, Heinz; Zolling, Hermann (1972). The General Was a Spy: The Truth about General Gehlen and His Spy Ring. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. p. 10. ISBN 0698104307.
  6. ^ Höhne & Zolling, p. 13.
  7. ^ Reinhard Gehlen, p. 97-99.
  8. ^ Höhne & Zolling, p. 38.
  9. ^ Höhne & Zolling, p. 44.
  10. ^ Simpson, Christopher (1988). Blowback: The First Full Account of America’s Recruitment of Nazis, and its Disastrous Effect on Our Domestic Foreign Policy. New York: Collier Books. p. 41. ISBN 0-02-044995-X.
  11. ^ Höhne & Zolling, p. 52.
  12. ^ Simpson, pp. 41–42.
  13. ^ Höhne & Zolling, p. 63.
  14. ^ Höhne & Zolling, p. 157.
  15. ^ Höhne & Zolling, p. 172.
  16. ^ BND cryptanalysts deciphered KGB messages that led to Felfe.
  17. ^ Höhne & Zolling, p. 1.

Bibliography and sources[edit]


External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
President of the Federal Intelligence Bureau
Succeeded by
Gerhard Wessel