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Reinhard Gehlen
Colonel Reinhard Gehlen, c. 1943
Born (1902-04-03)April 3, 1902
Died 8 June 1979(1979-06-08) (aged 77)
Place of birth Erfurt, German Empire
Place of death Starnberg, West Germany
Allegiance  Weimar Republic (to 1933)
 Nazi Germany (to 1945)
United States
 West Germany
Service/branch Wehrmacht Heer
Rank Generalmajor
Battles/wars World War II
Cold War

Deutsches Kreuz in silver during World War II
Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz am Schulterband

in 1968
Knight of Maltadisambiguation needed.

Reinhard Gehlen (3 April 1902 – 8 June 1979) was a Major General in the German Wehrmacht during World War II. Starting in 1942 he served as chief of Fremde Heere Ost (FHO), the German Army's military intelligence unit on the Eastern Front. During the emerging phases of the Cold War, he was recruited by the United States military to set up a spy ring directed against the Soviet Union (known as the Gehlen Organization) which employed numerous former SS, SD and Wehrmacht officers and eventually became head of the West German intelligence apparatus. He served as the first president of the Federal Intelligence Service until 1968. Gehlen is considered one of the most legendary Cold War spymasters, though some at the CIA cast doubt on this.[1]

Early life and military service

Reinhard Gehlen was born into a Roman Catholic family in Erfurt, the son of a bookstore owner. He joined the Reichswehr in 1920. He attended the German Staff College, graduating in 1935, after which he was promoted to captain and attached to the Army General Staff.[2]

Gehlen was on the General Staff from 1935–1936 and in 1939, Gehlen was promoted to major.[2] At the time of the 1939 German attack on Poland he was a staff officer of an infantry division.[2] In 1940, Gehlen became liaison officer to Army Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch. He was later transferred to the staff of Army Chief of Staff General Franz Halder.

In July 1941, Gehlen was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, sent to the Eastern Front and assigned to the German General Staff, section Fremde Heere Ost, FHO or Foreign Armies East as a senior intelligence officer.[3]

In the watershed year of 1942, according to Gehlen's memoir,[4] he was approached by Colonel Henning von Tresckow, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and General Adolf Heusinger to participate in an assassination attempt on German head of state Adolf Hitler. His role was to be minor. When the plot culminated in the failed bomb plot of 20 July 1944, Gehlen's role was covered up and he escaped Hitler's retaliation against the conspirators. Throughout his years at FHO, Gehlen allowed determined opponents of the National Socialist government to hold conspiratorial discussions inside his section and he was present at Berchtesgaden in the final days before 20 July when details of the assassination attempt were discussed.[5]

In the spring of 1942 Gehlen took over FHO from Colonel Eberhard Kinzel.[6] Even before the disaster of Stalingrad, Gehlen realized that FHO must be fundamentally reorganized and he methodically set about finding the right personnel. Gehlen scoured army personnel files, searching for linguists, geographers, anthropologists, lawyers and junior officers who had recently joined FHO. He accepted anyone who seemed suitable to him and who would be likely to raise the intellectual level of FHO. A stream of fresh and energetic officers and experts flowed in.[7] It was this cadre that amassed a comprehensive data file on the Red Army, producing assessments and "defeatist reports" that reached Hitler. Their discouraging accuracy eventually resulted in his dismissal in April 1945, but not before his last promotion, to the rank of major general.[8]

During the war, Gehlen's organization accumulated a great deal of information about the Soviet Union and the battlefield tactics of the Red Army. When the Iron Curtain descended in 1946, leaving the Western Allies with virtually no intelligence sources in Eastern Europe, Gehlen’s vast store of knowledge made him very valuable.[2]

Realizing early on that Germany would ultimately be defeated, Gehlen made preparations to ensure his own survival after the fall of the Third Reich. He ordered the microfilming of the holdings of Fremde Heere Ost and had them placed in watertight drums, which he buried in several places in the Austrian Alps.[9] He had fifty cases of archives buried at the Elendsalm in the mountains of Upper Bavaria,[10] planning to sell them after the end of hostilities.

After World War II

Gehlen in 1945

On 22 May 1945, Gehlen surrendered to the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) in Bavaria. He was brought to Camp King and interrogated by Captain John R. Boker near Oberursel. Because of his knowledge and contacts inside the Soviet Union he was very valuable to the Americans. He offered them his intelligence archives and his network of contacts in exchange for his liberty and the liberty of his colleagues imprisoned in American POW camps in Germany. Boker quietly removed Gehlen and his command from the official lists of American POWs and managed to transfer seven of Gehlen's senior officers to the camp. Gehlen's archives were unearthed and brought to the camp secretly, without even the knowledge of the CIC. By the end of the summer Boker had elicited the support of Brigadier General Edwin Sibert, the G2 (senior intelligence officer) of the Twelfth Army Group.[11] General Sibert contacted his superior, General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff, who then worked with William Joseph Donovan, the former head of OSS and Allen Dulles, then the OSS station chief in Bern, to make suitable arrangements. On 20 September 1945, Gehlen and three close associates were flown to the United States to begin work for them. While there, Gehlen exposed a number of Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officers who were secret members of the US Communist Party.

In July 1946 Gehlen was officially released from American captivity and flown back to Germany,[12] where he began his intelligence work on 6 December 1946 by setting up an organization of former German intelligence officers, first at Oberursel near Frankfurt, then at Pullach near Munich,[2] called the "South German Industrial Development Organization" to mask its true nature as an undercover operation and spy ring. Gehlen handpicked 350 former German intelligence agents to join him, a number that eventually grew to 4,000 undercover agents. This group was soon to be given the nickname the "Gehlen Organization" or simply "the Org."

Gehlen Organization

Gehlen had always been under the sponsorship of US Army G-2 (intelligence), but he eventually succeeded in realizing his ambition of establishing an association with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), established in 1947. The CIA kept close tabs on the Gehlen group. For many years during the Cold War, Org agents were the only eyes and ears of the CIA on the ground in the Soviet Bloc nations.

Every German POW returning from Soviet captivity to West Germany, between 1947 and 1955, was interviewed by Org agents. The Gehlen Org employed hundreds of ex-Nazi members and also had close contacts with East European émigré organizations. Unheralded tasks, such as observation of the operation of Soviet rail systems, airfields and ports were important functions of the Org, as was the infiltration of agents into the Baltic and Ukraine. The Org "Operation Bohemia" was a major counter-espionage success.[13]

The Gehlen Organization was eventually compromised by East Germany, communist moles within itself and by communists and their sympathizers within the CIA and the British SIS (MI6), particularly Kim Philby. As the Org slowly emerged, bit by bit, from the shadows, Gehlen and his group came under relentless attack from both sides, East and West. The British, in particular, were hostile toward Gehlen and segments of the British press made sure the Org became known.[14]


CIA report on negotiations to establish the BND (1952)

Ten years after the end of World War II, on 1 April 1956, the Gehlen Organization was officially handed over to the government of the Federal Republic of Germany under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.[2] It formed the nucleus of the newly created Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND or Federal Intelligence Service).[2] Gehlen held the top leadership post (President of the BND), presiding over spectacular successes as well as failures, until being forced out in 1968. His downfall was as dramatic as his rise, resulting from several factors, including the discovery of Heinz Felfe, an ex-SS lieutenant and Soviet agent in the Pullach headquarters complex,[15] estrangement from Chancellor Adenauer earlier in 1963 and above all, by his increasing inattention to business and his delinquent leadership which, taken altogether, resulted in a decline in efficiency of the BND. He retired from government service in 1968, receiving the pension of a Ministerialdirektor (one of the most senior civil service grades),[16] plus, allegedly, a pension from the CIA. He died in 1979 at the age of 77.


Gehlen received the German Cross in silver and the War Merit Cross 1st class during World War II[citation needed] and the Federal Cross of Merit with Shoulder Ribbon in 1968.[citation needed] He also was a Knight of Maltadisambiguation needed.[citation needed]


Perhaps the definitive assessment of Gehlen and his organisation has yet to be written. However there are those in the CIA at least who have expressed doubts about some of the mythologizing undertaken by Gehlen himself and other authors.[1]

See also

  • Gerhardt Boldt

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 Anonymous (2 July 1996). "The Service: The Memoirs of General Reinhard Gehlen by Reinhard Gehlen. Book review". CIA Historical Review Program (Release in Full). CIA. Retrieved 18 December 2012. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Reinhard Gehlen – Biografie WHO'S WHO
  3. FHO was organized in 1938 (on the break-up of section "Foreign Armies") with the task to prepare situation maps of the Soviet Union, Poland, Scandinavia and the Balkans and to assemble information on potential adversaries
  4. Gehlen, Reinhard; trans. David Irving (1971). The Service — The Memoirs of General Reinhard Gehlen. New York: World Publishing. pp. 97–99. 
  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. 38. ISBN 0698104307. 
  6. Höhne & Zolling, p. 10
  7. Höhne & Zolling, p. 13
  8. Höhne & Zolling, p. 44
  9. Christopher Simpson: BLOWBACK: The First Full Account of America's Recruitment of Nazis, and its disastrous Effect on our domestic foreign policy. Collier Books, New York 1988, ISBN 0-02-044995-X, pp. 41.
  10. Höhne & Zolling, p. 52
  11. Christopher Simpson: BLOWBACK: The First Full Account of America's Recruitment of Nazis, and its disastrous Effect on our domestic foreign policy. Collier Books, New York 1988, ISBN 0-02-044995-X, pp. 41–42.
  12. Höhne & Zolling, p. 63
  13. Höhne & Zolling, p. 157
  14. Höhne & Zolling, p. 172
  15. BND cryptanalysts deciphered KGB messages leading to Felfe
  16. Höhne & Zolling, p. 1

Bibliography and sources


External links

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

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