Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 4-At the Court of Spies
4 At the Court of Spies
The Sultan became fond of eating eggplant. Week after week, his courtier praised the many fine qualities of the eggplant. But, after a time, the Sultan tired of that dish, and his courtier began to criticize it. The Sultan asked, “Why did you once praise the eggplant and now you attack it all the time?” “Sire, ” replied the man, “I am your courtier, not the eggplant’s courtier.”
–sixteenth-century Turkish story
With a speed almost equal to that of the Orient Express, the German war machine raced toward Istanbul. First Czechoslovakia, then Poland had fallen. Now it would be the turn of Istanbul’s front yard, the Balkans. Every development was watched from Istanbul with mounting horror and terror; each new Nazi triumph brought fresh waves of refugees pouring into the city.
The triplets of war–the might of armies, the entreaties of diplomacy, and the wiliness of intelligence–had never been so thoroughly meshed as in 1940 and 1941. Istanbul was Germany’s backdoor to the Middle East and the Allies’ secret passageway into occupied Europe. It became a center of espionage and intrigue for both sides. Other neutral capitals–Madrid and Lisbon, Stockholm and Berne–were also intelligence battlefields. But Istanbul was the most hotly and openly contested one.
Spying is a complex business. Information must be not only collected but also properly evaluated and used. This process is jeopardized by enemy disinformation, ambiguous signals, forgery for profit (about 200 people made their living this way in Istanbul during the war), distortion by agents eager to please superiors or avoid blame, bureaucratic rivalries,
and leaders’ ideology. Hitler ignored these considerations, and in the beginning, his intuition was fantastically successful. But in later years, violating the rules of intelligence proved disastrous for Germany.
German successes were due more to a sophisticated program of subversion than to any skillful use of intelligence. Berlin’s minions brilliantly coordinated propaganda to spread a paralyzing terror of German might alongside soothing promises of Germany’s nonaggressive intentions. They subsidized newspapers and politicians in the target countries. They infiltrated agents disguised as business executives, archaeologists, or camera-toting tourists. Local German communities were organized into Nazi and paramilitary groups. Germany bought goods at high prices and exported products at low ones to foster economic dependency. It played on regional rivalries to conquer victims one by one.
Each military triumph strengthened the Axis’s appeal to opportunists or the fainthearted. As a secret U. S. intelligence study put it, “Both Axis and Allied propaganda alike hinge largely on their respective military achievements. Germany having so far scored in this field, her propaganda carries more weight than ours.” Slickly produced films of German victories had a great psychological impact on audiences unaccustomed to media manipulation. In Istanbul, the German consulate provided the films for “educational purposes” to the Turkish army. The officers, eager for this glimpse of modern warfare, saw the graphic portrayal of Poland’s and France’s fate as a foretaste of what might happen to Turkey if it entered the war.
These techniques also, however, put the Turks on guard against German interference in their internal affairs. The regular police arrested suspicious aliens; military intelligence watched the frontiers. Foiling foreign spies was the job of Emniyet.
Its agents staked out, shadowed, and politely interrogated foreign intelligence operatives and military attachés. All foreigners had to carry tezkeres, internal passports listing their travels and personal history. Dossiers were kept on every alien. Reporters and printers were registered. The Emniyet recruited informants from concierges in buildings where foreigners lived and among embassy secretaries, clerks, guards, and translators by appealing to their fear, patriotism, or cupidity. A merchant claimed he knew that every employee of the Ankara Palace Hotel, from
cook to manager, was an informer: “They’re all wearing the shoes I sold to the Emniyet!”
This network yielded much information about foreign espionage efforts. An Istanbul electrician, for example, reported that he had been hired to install an unusual amount of wiring in a house. The police followed the trail to a radio dealer and caught him sending secret messages to Germany from his boat. On the basis of his confession, more Germans and dozens of Turks were arrested.
The Emniyet’s first great triumph, though, was partly a matter of luck. In April 1940, a German was caught photographing a Turkish naval installation. On hearing of the arrest, his wife went out at 2 a.m. to see one of her husband’s friends; then she took poison and collapsed dead in the street. This dramatic behavior threw suspicion on the man she had rushed to inform, Hans Henning von der Osten, a well-known German archaeologist and former employee of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The arrested man’s papers showed von der Osten was coordinating German espionage operations. He was arrested, interrogated, sentenced by a military court to twelve years’ imprisonment, and deported.
The Germans found a clever way to limit friction with the Emniyet. All the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service) agents assigned to spy on Turkey worked for the post in Bulgaria. The Emniyet did not hesitate to arrest or expel them. But the Emniyet did not bother the Abwehr’s Istanbul station personnel, who focused on the Allies and stayed out of Turkish affairs. The Abwehr’s liaison man with the Turks was Wilhelm Hamburger, an Austrian-born agent under journalist cover. The Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Abwehr’s rival, which worked for the Reich Security Ministry, maintained its own contacts through Ludwig Moyzisch, nominally a commercial attaché.
Omnipresent in Istanbul, the Emniyet’s eyes and ears were positively omnipotent in the countryside. Government warnings about foreign infiltrators made peasants so suspicious that they would take up axes, scythes, and old shotguns to capture traveling diplomats; the peasants would set them free only after the diplomats spent several hours proving their innocence.
A touring American professor saw how mistrust of foreigners turned everyone into a police informant. Rotund and blond, with a mustache
and goatee, he appeared to be German. At a hotel, a Turkish air force lieutenant spat at him and had to be restrained by fellow officers. As he arrived in each town, the police would take him directly from the train platform to their office for questioning: “Where did you get these documents? Obviously you are not an American. These are false papers. How do you explain the fact that you were heard speaking German on the train yesterday?” Only with great difficulty did he persuade them that he was not a spy. In the end, they would express pleasure that an American was taking the trouble to acquaint himself firsthand with their country. He would then walk just a few blocks into town, where a crowd of boys shouting “Alleman!” (“German!”) would surround him and herd him right back to the police station.
Although an alert citizenry protected the interior, technical backwardness made the state’s secret communications vulnerable. The Germans had broken the Turkish diplomatic code, and reports on the messages were regularly submitted to Hitler. Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop did not dare give Hitler bad news; the führer ignored anything that contradicted his own views. Still, this information was valuable. Turkish messages became one of Germany’s most important intelligence sources, particularly on Soviet affairs. The intercepted and decoded reports included dispatches from Turkish military attaches in Moscow who were touring the front, descriptions of new weapons displayed at parades, the effect of German bombing raids, and the arrival of U.S. aid. Turkish dispatches from London provided the Germans with some information on Allied summit conferences.
A 1941 incident illustrates the complexities inherent in this kind of spying. In Istanbul, von Papen’s Iraqi counterpart told him that the British could read high-level Italian dispatches. German code breakers were asked if this might be true. “Of course,” they replied, “we’ve been doing it for years.” But how could Berlin alert Rome to the danger without admitting its own espionage? Hitler told Mussolini a cover story: “Information from Ankara led us to try our hand at decrypting a radiogram from the Rome-Baghdad traffic, and we have just succeeded.” To the Germans’ surprise, Italy kept employing the vulnerable code. The Italians wanted these messages to be discovered in order to control what their enemies and allies believed. Italy’s foreign minister explained in his diary, “In the future, the Germans will read what I want them to read. ”
Despite some successes, however, German intelligence was undermined by competition between Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’s Abwehr and the SD–the foreign intelligence unit of Reinhard Heydrich’s Security Ministry. The Abwehr looked down on the SD as incompetent; the SD saw the Abwehr as ideologically unreliable. The antagonism was symbolized by the contrasting backgrounds and personalities of their leaders.
The prematurely gray-haired Canaris, his face weather-beaten from service at sea, was a respected naval officer; the younger Heydrich had been dismissed from the navy for dishonorable conduct. Heydrich, the embodiment of Nazi brutality and fanaticism, was noted for his sense of sadism; Canaris, for his sense of humor. Heydrich served under Canaris in the 1920s and alternated between trying to destroy the admiral and seeking to win his acceptance. Canaris was a conservative nationalist who had little love for the Hitler regime and sheltered anti-Nazis in the Abwehr’s ranks. Before the war, Canaris used back channels, sometimes through the Vatican, to warn the British of Hitler’s aggressive intentions.
Canaris had joined the German navy at the age of 18. During World War I, his cruiser was scuttled off Chile to avoid capture by the British. Canaris escaped and made his way back to Germany. In recognition of his skill and initiative, he was sent on an intelligence mission to Spain, where he recruited seamen to provide the German U-boats with information on Allied shipping. He also befriended a young Spanish officer named Francisco Franco. Caught by the French while trying to return to Germany disguised as a monk, Canaris was released because of poor health, went back to Spain, and was safely evacuated by a German submarine.
After several naval commands in the 1920s and 1930s, he became the Abwehr’s chief in 1934 and built the tiny agency into an organization of 15,000 people. It gathered and analyzed reports from military attachés, agents under diplomatic or nonofficial cover, and local (“V-men”) informants.
As his Istanbul representative, Canaris chose Captain Paul Leverkuehn. Born in Lubeck in July 1893, Leverkuehn was a frail, bald, bespectacled man, chronically moody and nervous. But he was an industrious worker with a quick mind and extensive international experience including past service in Iran and Turkey.
Leverkuehn’s political credentials were, however, questionable by Nazi standards, and Hitler later called him “a typical Canaris man,” a
characterization not meant as a compliment. His law office at 7 Pariser Platz in Berlin was in the same building as that of his friend Helmuth von Moltke, whose circle of friends was the backbone of the anti-Hitler underground. Leverkuehn’s own background was conspicuously cosmopolitan. He studied law in Edinburgh and worked in Washington and New York, where he met fellow lawyer William Donovan, who later headed the OSS.
Eventually, the Nazi SD’s distrust of the Abwehr and its minions in Istanbul would prove well founded. But Leverkuehn and his colleagues did perform valuable services for Germany against four targets: the Balkans, the U.S.S.R., Turkey itself, and the Middle East. Beginning with three empty rooms and a desk, file cabinet, and typewriter, Leverkuehn soon built up a formidable network of agents.
Anyone dropping in at the Park Hotel restaurant or bar any evening between 1940 and 1942 would have witnessed the results of Leverkuehn’s work. Every evening, Leverkuehn’s agents assembled there; the mixed cast comprised pro-Axis characters including Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Arabs, Japanese, Turks, Iranians, an exiled Egyptian prince, and a half-dozen Scandinavian and Swiss hangers-on. Through the hotel’s front windows one could see the huge swastika flag atop the German consulate; ships carrying the same banner cruised under the balconies facing the Bosporus.
Some of the agents were tough guys who knew how to get things done in back alleys. One of them so often bragged about his espionage exploits in Iraq that he was nicknamed “Kovacs of Baghdad.” Although living in the Tokatliyan Hotel, he spent a lot of time at the Park Hotel meeting with colleagues and Arab agents. The Emniyet finally decided that Kovacs was spying on Turkey and should be deported. One of its officers baited the Nazi agent by saying, “We have discovered that you are Jewish.” Kovacs panicked, thinking his bosses might believe it, and started screaming that he would telephone the German consul to get a written declaration that he was indeed an Aryan in good standing. The policeman replied: “In Germany, Goebbels decides who is a Jew and who is not, but in Turkey we decide.” He was expelled to Bulgaria, where he continued his career.
Another rough character was a Turk who had been fired from a government job for allegedly selling documents to the Germans. He
frequented the best restaurants and often came to the Park with German agents. Allied agents at the bar would point him out to newcomers as “a man to be avoided.” Since he was a Turk, the British and Americans could not understand why he was still running around loose. The reason was probably that he kept the Emniyet informed on German activities.
Another group of Leverkuehn’s agents consisted of propagandists, smoother types who tried to bribe or influence journalists and the Turkish elite. They spent every evening in nightclubs, hotels, restaurants, and bars spreading and gathering rumors. For awhile, their leader was Alfred Chapeau Rouge, a tall, slender man with slightly grizzled gray hair who had served in Baghdad and Beirut and was officially listed as a vice-consul. His blonde Austrian wife was a rabid Nazi whose father was party leader in Bucharest. But the couple did not get along with von Papen. There was talk that the disfavor was because of their lavish spending at the Park and patronage of Jewish shops, but all the Germans did so. Even von Papen could be seen drinking coffee at the Haim and Mandil cafés. The real problem was that von Papen saw Chapeau Rouge as a bureaucratic empire builder challenging his authority. The ambassador forced his recall to Berlin in January 1942. Similarly, von Papen eliminated other rivals, including the local Nazi party chief who tried to establish his own intelligence network and openly insinuated that von Papen was ideologically unsound. The ambassador knew his secret peace feelers made him vulnerable to such charges.
In organizing Abwehr activities, one of Leverkuehn’s most active lieutenants was young Wilhelm Hamburger, another Park Hotel resident who was nominally a newspaper correspondent. The son of a wealthy Austrian businessman who was also an influential Nazi, Hamburger was responsible for several Arab spy rings and for smuggling goods to Germany past the Allied economic blockade. Among his frequent companions were Istanbul merchants who made big profits by selling goods to Germany. After dinner at the Park, Hamburger and colleagues would hold court in a small lounge next to the dining room, meeting agents to receive their reports.
Below Leverkuehn and Hamburger extended networks of thugs and tipsters that included Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Russian émigrés who bought information from seamen and dockworkers. They followed Hamburger’s orders in smuggling guns and gold to Arab or Iranian plotters,
helping German agents infiltrate the Middle East, and watching Allied officials.
The Abwehr also employed polished people, particularly beautiful women, who could move in elite and diplomatic circles. One of this group was Wilheminna Vargasy. She made a specialty of cultivating American and British men, never missing a cocktail party. Some found her ordinary, but others thought her charming and very sexy. Knowing she might be a German agent did not stop them from talking and flirting with her. She was blonde, with blue eyes, and spoke Hungarian, English, French, Russian, and Bulgarian with ease, as well as some Greek and Turkish. For a while, she worked for the American Associated Press correspondent despite Istanbul gossip claiming she had previously lived with a French general in Syria, photographing his papers and correspondence.
Her Axis connections were easy to spot. On her frequent visits to Bulgaria, Vargasy–traveling aboard a German military plane or in a first-class train compartment–was always seen off by German consulate officials. Once, when she had trouble obtaining a new visa from Hungary’s consul in Sofia, the German legation told the official to do as she wished. She also had a weak head for alcohol and sometimes made pro-Nazi and anti-British statements when drinking too much. After the Turkish police arrested and strip-searched her, she was thrown out by the Hotel Londra and had to take an apartment in the Pera district. British intelligence was particularly upset when it discovered she was having an affair with an American intelligence officer.
The Abwehr also had several dozen agents among Hungarian bargirls from the joints around Taksim Square and scores of part-time helpers among the hundreds of Germans in Turkey. Operations were financed by selling dollars and smuggled gold on the black market. Bribed railroad workers ran contraband across the border into Syria. In Istanbul, money was passed to agents at the Novotni and Abdullah’s restaurants, the Abwehr-subsidized Elli’s Bar, and the Taksim Casino.
Leverkuehn’s first and most loyal recruit was Paula Koch, sometimes sensationalized as the Mata Hari of the Second World War. In fact, she was a rather sober gray-haired lady, 56-years-old in 1940. She grew up in Aleppo, Syria, and was a highly praised nurse with the German army during World War I. In later years, she lived in Brazil and Indonesia.
Returning to the Middle East for the Abwehr, she made effective use of her long acquaintance with leading Arab families.
Most Abwehr efforts in Turkey early in the war were devoted to subversion and espionage in the Middle East. The objective was to gather intelligence on Allied military forces in the region and to stir the Arabs and Persians to revolt against the British and French authorities there. England ruled in Palestine and Jordan, exercised enormous influence in the nominally independent states of Egypt and Iraq, and controlled Iran’s oil fields. France reigned in Lebanon and Syria.
Koch and Hamburger set up efficient Abwehr courier systems connecting Berlin and the Balkans with Istanbul and Istanbul with the Arab world. They recruited members of dissident political groups, sailors, ship owners, and railroad workers to carry letters, instructions to agents, and propaganda into the Middle East and to bring back intelligence reports. During the earlier years of the war, material was sometimes delivered from Arab boats directly to German submarines.
But the most enduring communications link was through the Armenian nationalist party, the Dashnaks. Joseph and Lucy Ayvazian, owners of a resort hotel in southeast Turkey, were the network’s key figures. He had been orphaned and raised by Koch’s family as her stepbrother, so he was totally loyal to the female German agent. The hotel made an ideal meeting place and post office for the Abwehr. It was only natural for buyers from the Austro-Turk Tobacco Company, all of them Abwehr men, to stop at the Ayvazians’ hotel. Twice a year, a large shipment of money arrived from Berlin and was distributed to the Arab world through this chain. Intelligence from Arab agents was sent to Aleppo in northern Syria; from there, two bribed customs’ officials passed the reports to the driver of a bus that daily crossed the Turkish-Syrian border. Lucy herself often traveled between Istanbul and Syria. Scores of Dashnak members in a half-dozen countries were involved in the ring.
A related chain comprised Arab mercantile families who, in Middle Eastern style, had one relative in every port of call. The Ayvazians worked closely with the Barbour family. Farid Barbour lived in the Turkish port city of İyskenderun; cousin George owned a wine shop in Beirut; and another relative, Alexandre Azar, was a lemon exporter in
Tripoli, Lebanon. These commercial interests allowed them to travel and ship material between various countries.
A Turkish diplomat in Ankara put messages for German agents in his country’s diplomatic pouch. They were delivered to a rightist official in Turkey’s Beirut consulate who distributed them. Every opportunity was exploited, from opium smugglers carrying messages to Arab agents crossing borders as Moslem pilgrims visiting holy sites. A dozen different porters and trainmen on the Taurus Express between Istanbul and Syria also carried Abwehr messages, gathered gossip, and sometimes stole travelers’ papers. Transport workers in Iraq managed a covert branch-line operation into that country .The Palestinian Arab nationalist leader Fawzi al-Kawukji was particularly active in this work.
While most Arab politicians had bowed to London and sought its support, many of them resented this situation. When war had seemed imminent in the late 1930s, the British had tried to appease the Arabs by limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine and offering to ensure that Palestine would become an Arab-ruled state. This policy effectively blocked the Jews’ escape from Hitler’s empire and its gas chambers. Despite these British concessions, Palestinian Arab leader Amin al-Husseini rejected any compromise and led an armed revolt to expel both the British and the Jews.
Husseini’s followers, Iraqi militants, and Egyptian radicals collaborated with Hitler because they shared his anti-British, anti-Semitic views and held what Arab historian George Antonius called “a certain degree of undisguised admiration of Nazi achievements and power.” They also believed in strong leadership, militarism, extreme nationalism, and contempt for Western democracy. Germany’s unity and strength was taken as a model by many in the Arab world.
The rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia sought to keep afoot in each camp so that they could benefit no matter which side won. They were conspiring with the Germans while demanding British concessions on the basis of their alleged support. In 1939, for example, King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully asked the Germans to arm and finance Husseini’s rebellion in exchange for Saudi help.
After Italy invaded Egypt in 1940, Hitler took the region more seriously. He developed a grand strategy for total conquest: one German pincer would cut through the Balkans and U.S.S.R. toward Iran and
its oil fields, eventually meeting another advance through Egypt and the Middle East. German occupation of France also gave Hitler control over French-ruled Syria and Lebanon. When Germany and its friends appeared the likely victors, previously pro-British Arab moderates scrambled to join them. But the resentful radical nationalists fended them off, refusing to share the booty.
Pro-Axis ideas flourished particularly in Iraq, then the leading Arab oil producer, where nationalists considered their country destined to lead the Arab world and resented continuing British influence. Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid al-Gailani and a group of colonels called the “Golden Square” were powerful allies for the Germans. The presence of the Palestinian Arab leader, Husseini, in Baghdad was a bonus for the Germans. He had fled Palestine to escape arrest for his terrorist activities. Through von Papen, Husseini obtained Berlin’s subsidies beginning in March 1940. He became the main German agent in Baghdad, assisted secretly by the chief of Iraqi intelligence.
The Abwehr planned to arm the Iraqi rebels with weapons seized from the French in Syria. Other arms would be smuggled through Turkey in deceptively labeled crates. When all was ready, the Iraqi army would occupy the Royal Air Force base at Habbaniya, destroy oil pipelines, and expel the British. Husseini would then be installed as leader of Palestine to wipe out the Jews there.
When the British forced Prime Minister Gailani to resign, his pro-German supporters staged a coup to return him to power in April 1941. Some 9000 Iraqi troops surrounded the British base. To aid the uprising, the Germans sent a Heinkel-111 fighter-bomber squadron, 750 tons of arms and ammunition, and a military advisory team, which reached Damascus on May 12. The airlift was ordered to wait there for instructions from Baghdad. The Iraqi army, however, mistakenly shot down the arriving German liaison officer’s plane, and German bombing raids against the British base failed due to poor coordination with Iraqi ground forces.
A quickly assembled British military column rushed across the desert from Amman toward Baghdad, defeating the Iraqi insurgents, and reaching the outskirts of the capital on May 30. Gailani and Husseini fled, respectively, to Turkey and Iran. But before the British could gain control of Baghdad, Gailani’s supporters launched a pogrom in Baghdad’s
Jewish quarter, massacring at least 180 people, injuring 1000 more, and looting thousands of homes and businesses.
In contrast to the many Arabs who professed pro-Axis attitudes, the Zionists were virtually the democratic world’s sole allies in the Middle East. When war broke out, David Hacohen, director of the Jewish trade union’s construction firm in Palestine, contacted British intelligence on behalf of the Zionist movement. Hacohen, whose business in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq gave him many contacts, agreed to organize a network of twenty to thirty Jewish agents in Arab countries to watch pro-Axis activities and gather information. A small radio station was established at his house in Haifa for broadcasting to the Balkans. A British-run sabotage training school was set up in a nearby hotel. British troops, assisted by soldiers from the Jewish self-defense forces–including Moshe Dayan, who lost an eye in the action–invaded Syria and Lebanon on June 8, capturing Damascus three weeks later.
As the British forces advanced, German agents and their Arab allies fled to Turkey, where most of them were interned by the neutral Turks. Leverkuehn subsidized the escapees and in September 1941 organized a conference of Arab nationalist leaders in Turkey. The Germans decided to send Gailani and Husseini to Berlin, where they could advise the Nazi government. Some pro-German Arabs would remain in Istanbul to maintain contacts with underground movements, collect intelligence, and await the day when German troops would arrive on their borders.
Husseini, who had fled from Iraq to Tehran, was disguised as the Italian ambassador’s footman; he eventually left, along with the rest of the embassy staff, when Iran broke relations with Italy. Smuggling Gailani from Turkey to Germany was a more difficult endeavor. Leverkuehn thought about shipping him to Bulgaria in a packing case left in the consulate’s basement from prewar German archaeological expeditions, but then he switched to another plan.
When a seven-member German press delegation arrived in Turkey, the Germans informed their hosts that an eighth man, Herr Wackernagel, had come with the delegation to Istanbul but was too ill to accompany the others on their tour. The night before the group was to go home, Gailani arrived at the German consulate after sneaking away from a dental appointment. A German doctor wrapped him in bandages
like a mumps patient, and the next morning he was taken to the airport. The acuity of the Turkish delegation on hand to say farewell was dimmed by hangovers from the previous evening’s party. They wished the sick man a quick recovery. Gailani was soon enplaned for Germany.
Berlin’s espionage efforts in Iran were threatening enough to persuade the British and Soviets to take over that country in 1941. Iran was the source of much of Britain’s oil and also sat astride a major supply route for the U.S.S.R. Captain Bruno Schulze-Holthus, Abwehr chief in Tabrīz, went underground, protected by pro-German Iranian nationalists. At one time, he hid in a brothel. He left there one cold night disguised as a mullah, with a henna-dyed beard, dark silk trousers, and Persian clothes, walking along Shapur Street north to the main road and the city’s outskirts. His contact, the chief German agent in Iran, told him that one of the shah’s top generals, Fazlollah Zahedi, promised that “a great percentage of the Persian Army is ready to rise at a signal from us.” But there was no way to communicate this news to Berlin. Schulze-Holthus’s wife, the only German available, was sent on the long, dangerous journey across the mountains by donkey and finally reached Istanbul, where she reported to Leverkuehn.
Zahedi did not keep his promise. To avoid capture, Schulze-Holthus took refuge with the Bakhtiari tribes. The British, fearing he might sabotage the vital railroad carrying military supplies from Persian Gulf ports to the Soviet Union, chased him for several months until the tribesmen tired of the game and sold him to the British.
Despite setbacks in the Arab world and Iran, the Germans stepped up propaganda and made plans to install Husseini and Gailani, both handsomely subsidized, as heads of puppet governments in Palestine and Iraq. Currency was printed and uniforms manufactured for the projected Iraqi regime. The two men and their retinues competed for German recognition as the Arab world’s leader, bickering over spoils that never materialized. Their German supervisors also took sides, and the two factions spent the rest of the war engaged in petty plots against each other.
Meanwhile, the British acted energetically to arrest most of Berlin’s remaining contacts in Arab countries. In Egypt, British authorities threatened to depose King Farouk unless he removed his prime minister, who was receiving secret German subsidies, and his army chief of staff,
who had given maps of the British defenses to the Italians. In a humiliation Egyptian nationalists would long remember, Farouk gave in. The British disarmed and demobilized Egypt’s unreliable army.
Many Egyptians saw the war as, in the words of a young pro-German officer named Anwar al-Sadat, “a foreign conflict in which we had no interest.” When Germany’s Afrika Corps advanced into Egypt, the king, leading politicians, and army officers prepared to welcome the troops. “Great Britain stood alone,” Sadat wrote. “Her weakness in the Middle East was apparent to everyone,” and her military position in the war “had become untenable.”
Demonstrators in Cairo streets shouted for a German victory. But the British defeated Rommel at El Alamein on October 19, 1942, and he was forced to retreat. U.S. landings in Morocco and Algeria trapped him between British and American forces. The German invasion of the Middle East, which at one time seemed unstoppable, was at an end.
Far from being hurt by their collaboration with Germany, however, some of Berlin’s ex-agents went on to important postwar careers. Ayatollah Abdel Qassem Kashani, detained for pro-German activities, became leader of the Iranian anti-shah movement of the 1950s that was a forerunner for Ayatollah Khomeini. General Zahedi staged a 1953 pro-shah coup and became a pillar of that regime. Husseini returned as leader of the Palestinian Arabs and unsuccessfully continued his efforts to wipe out the Jews. Fawzi al-Kawukji, the most important Palestinian Arab military commander of the 1948 war, was one of Husseini’s men in Berlin. Yasser Arafat was a relative of the latter and took the former as one of his role models. Nasser and Sadat came to rule Egypt; the collaborationist Baath party came to rule Syria and Iraq–the latter’s, president, Saddam Hussein, was raised by an uncle who was active in the anti-British revolt.
While the Abwehr’s Istanbul-based Middle East efforts failed, the Nazis were simultaneously conducting far more successful operations in the Balkans. All those lands had been ruled from Istanbul before World War I. Now the same area would fall to a foreign empire threatening Istanbul’s security.