Book review: Hitler was mad on technology
The prologue to Annie Jacobsen’s “Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America” opens with Adolph Hitler in 1942 telling his inner circle, “I’m mad on technology.”
Hitler didn’t mean “technology” in the sense that we do today—electronics and the like; he meant warfare technology: rocket science, aerospace, chemicals, biological weaponry, and the technology of intelligence gathering, including the gruesome technology of prisoner interrogations.
Most of Hitler’s technologies were a colossal waste, and all were drenched in blood. That didn’t seem to bother a coterie of powerful American intelligence officials, who were convinced that the US needed to get hold of that Nazi death-technology, or else the Soviets would destroy us.
In part, they learned their excessive paranoia about Soviet intentions from their Nazi war criminal prisoners, who insisted that the Soviets were a few years away from dominating the world. One also gets the sense from reading this book that top US military-intelligence officials were far more sympathetic to the Nazis than one would’ve assumed, after all that carnage.
Incredibly, President Truman was kept in the dark about the program to bring Nazi scientists to the US when it was first made operational. The program was made official in a Joint Chiefs of Staff secret memo dated July 6, 1945, headlined “Exploitation of German Specialists in Science and Technology in the United States.” Military Intelligence G-2 was put in charge of the operation.
A few months later, the program was kicked back to a top secret intelligence agency operating under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). According to Jacobsen’s book, it was this secret, enigmatic intelligence agency, that first developed and promoted paranoia about Soviet intentions to rearm and dominate the world, predicting that the Soviets would be ready for “total war” against the US in 1952.
This same agency took control of the Nazi war criminals, who, under the paranoid Red Scare thinking emanating from the JIC, were now considered assets, rather than criminals or threats. The JIC warned falsely that it had intelligence that the Soviets had captured nearly all the “important German scientists,” and therefore recommended a stop to all prosecutions, and to immediately employ as many German scientists as possible. It wasn’t until over a year later, in August 1946, that Truman gave in and approved Operation Paperclip.
And so, with the help of Nazi scientists, America developed massive stockpiles of completely useless and dangerous chemical weapons and biological weapons, all of which were later destroyed under orders from President Nixon.
Most of those chemicals were produced at one or another of IG Farben’s slave labor plants, such as their plant at Auschwitz. IG Farben had been the largest corporation in Europe, the fourth largest in the world. Under the Nazis, IG Farben invented new nerve agents including tabun and sarin gas, both of which were replicated by the US Chemical Corps in the late 1940s and 50s, using the same Nazi scientists. Hitler’s bioweapons scientists, who during the war experimented on live human beings (code-named in Nazi documents as “adult pigs” or “large pigs”), were brought to the US to replicate the work they did for Hitler, producing large stockpiles of dangerous biological weapons.
The Chemical Corps also hired a Nazi chemist named Fritz Hoffmann to launch a new area of warfare, “psychochemical warfare”—meaning hallucinogens like LSD and other psychoactives. In the early 1950s, “psychochemical warfare” was being pitched as the “war of the future.”
The US Chemical Corps sent the Nazi chemist to travel the world testing out hallucinogens like mescaline, Mongolian mushrooms, Venezuelan yaxee and so on. Later, Hoffmann helped develop Agent Orange, and located for the CIA a number of poisons intended for use in assassinations—shellfish toxins from sea urchins, exotic toads, plants and fungi — that could be weaponized and delivered to the target using fountain pens, hi-tech dart guns, and invisible powders.
“The poisons Fritz Hoffmann sought for the CIA included substances like curare, a South American blowpipe poison that paralyzes and kills people. Curare was the poison that the CIA’s U-2 pilots carried in their flight suit pockets, hidden inside a tiny sheath inserted into an American coin.”Richard Kuhn, another Nazi war criminal, arranged for the US to get a hold of LSD, which was first manufactured in Switzerland.
The most famous of the Nazi scientists protected and employed under the Paperclip program was Werner von Braun, the father of America’s space program. Until the fall of Berlin in 1945, von Braun was a Nazi zealot, rising to the rank of SS Major under Himmler’s personal sponsorship. Von Braun was the chief Nazi scientist behind the V-1 and V-2 rockets that terrorized Britain. In early 1945, when Himmler ordered Von Braun to up production of the V-2 rockets from two a day to 100 a day, he went on a slave labor binge, personally inspecting inmates at camps like Buchenwald before securing contracts with SS camp commanders.
To ensure his slaves maximized production, Von Braun terrorized them and worked them to death, killing 20,000 of his 60,000 slaves. Nearly every day, slaves were hanged to death on electric cranes, their bodies left to rot over the workers in the dank tunnels as examples to those who didn’t work hard enough. One day, 57 slave laborers were hung from cranes, slowly strangling them, as the rest of the workers were forced to watch.
Along with Von Braun were Nazi aerospace doctors who performed murderous experiments on camp inmates, pumping them full of salt water, subjecting them to deadly extreme altitude tests, freezing them to death and so on. Two of those Nazi scientists brought to the US had awards named after them. Since 1963, the Space Medicine Association in America has been giving out its Herbertus Strughold Award to scientists for “outstanding contribution to aviation medicine.” Jacobsen’s book describes how Strughold personally oversaw the use of epileptic children in deadly high-altitude chamber experiments at his Reich Air Ministry lab. He is considered “the father of American space medicine.”
But America’s most nightmarish use of Nazis takes place in Camp King, located just outside of Frankfurt. Camp King, with help from Nazi scientists, became the earliest prototype of a CIA “black site”—a secret offshore interrogation center. As Jacobsen explains:
“How the CIA used Camp King remains one of the Agency’s most closely guarded secrets. It was here in Oberursel [oustide of Frankfurt] that the CIA first began developing ‘extreme interrogation’ techniques and ‘behavior modification programs’ under the code names Operation Bluebird and Operation Artichoke. The unorthodox methods the CIA and its partner agencies explored included hypnosis, electric shock, chemicals, and illegal street drugs.”Imagine you’re a Soviet military man or spy, and you’re fresh off winning the costliest war victory in history. The Soviets lost 17 million people in their war against the Nazis. And then, just a few years after that victory, you find yourself waking up in a CIA “black site” in Germany, being experimented upon and tortured by Nazi scientists. The Nazi doctor in charge of Camp King during the CIA “extreme interrogations” was Kurt Blome, the head of Nazi Germany’s biological weapons program. One captured wartime memo revealed Blome discussing the extermination of 35,000 Poles near the town of Posen.
At Camp King, the CIA and Kurt Blome conducted their experimental interrogations on Soviet spies, some of them brought to the camp by another top Nazi working for the CIA in West Germany named Reinhard Gehlen. A rare action memo described one instance in which two Soviet spies rounded up by Gehlen were funneled to Camp King for interrogation under the experimental program. Jacobsen quotes the CIA memo:
“In the first case, light dosages of drugs coupled with hypnosis were used to induce a complete hypnotic trance. This trance was held for approximately one hour and forty minutes of interrogation with a subsequent total amnesia produced.”Another American military doctor who worked with the Nazis and CIA described what went on at Camp King as “drugs, torture, brainwashing”—drugs acquired by their pet Nazi scientists.
Through painstaking research and a true gift for storytelling, Jacobsen has produced a book that’s both a thriller, and an outrage. Nearly all of the Nazi “science” was either useless or counter-productive. The Nazi scientists and their staffers saved by the Americans were not only unrepentant murderers, they were conmen, backbiting cowards, and many of them turned out to be turncoats as well, doubling as Soviet agents. Our Paperclip Nazis played a not-insignificant role in ramping up Red Scare paranoia about the alleged Soviet threat. The greater the Americans believed in the Soviet world-domination threat, the more the Americans felt they “needed” the Nazis to work for them.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]