Istanbul Intrigues » Preface
This is a book about Istanbul and about those who conducted political and espionage missions there during the Second World War. It is a work of nonfiction based on extensive archival research and interviews. Each event and every conversation is reconstructed as accurately as possible.
Whenever I interviewed those involved, four decades after the events herein described, there always came a moment when these Americans, Austrians, Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, Israelis, Russians, and Turks would almost visibly reach back in time. Their eyes would light up in recalling those remarkable days that had forever marked their Jives. To some, these were moments of great achievement and romance; to others, searing tragedy. For all of them, it was an era of great perils and passionate idealism when they hoped their actions would shape a new world.
One of Istanbul’s most intriguing wartime characters was Wilhelm Hamburger. A highly successful German intelligence officer who later defected to the British, Hamburger then disappeared from history until I found–on my last day of research in the OSS archives–one of his letters that the ass had intercepted in 1945. In a postscript, Hamburger mentioned the new name he was taking. After checking a Vienna telephone book, I had his address within an hour.
It was particularly meaningful for me to visit Vienna a century to the day after my great-grandfather left there for America. I walked to Hamburger’s apartment down streets named for the city’s great composers. Wiry and charming, as described in Allied intelligence reports forty years earlier, he spoke with me for six hours.
Hamburger’s wealthy, sophisticated upbringing made him self-confident and poised. He spoke candidly about his experiences. After defecting, he worked on psychological warfare in Cairo until the mis-trustful British exiled him to Sudan. By 1945, Hamburger was exhausted and angry. His beloved Vienna was wrecked, and he feared his scattered family was dead or in the hands of the Soviets. Over the years, he rebuilt his fortunes, as the luxuriously furnished flat showed.
For Hamburger, his secret contact with George Earle in wartime Istanbul had been a central event in his life. An American politician and friend of President Roosevelt, Earle also thought himself a great spy. One American diplomat described Earle this way: “The most bizarre and despicable character I had ever known.” Hamburger and other Austrian patriots had spent a great deal of time cultivating Earle as what they hoped would be a reliable channel to the White House.
Like so many who had performed espionage and counterintelligence work during the war, Hamburger had spent decades pondering a painful question. Finally, he turned to me and asked if “anything we did made any difference?”
Events in Istanbul did greatly affect the war and the world that emerged from it. Defeating German efforts to seduce Turkey and conquer the Middle East was essential for Allied victory. Failure to subvert Berlin’s Balkan allies quickly enough doomed millions of people and made inevitable Soviet domination of eastern Europe. Intelligence sent from Istanbul helped Allied bombers devastate German industry and shorten the war. Frictions there were catalysts in the Cold War; experience gained there formed a foundation for building the postwar U. S. intelligence agencies.
It became possible to discover the truth about these events only after a treasure trove of information became available when the CIA released the vast archives of its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
But Freedom of Information requests were necessary to obtain more material, and there were additional tens of thousands of pages of embassy cables, army and navy intelligence reports, prisoner interrogations, and captured German records to examine. The most difficult task was to uncover the people behind the code names. Like a counterintelligence officer, one had to seek some slip in a cable or detail in an interview that made possible a breakthrough. There were also journalists’ accounts, Turkish newspapers, British military and diplomatic records, and the correspondence of the Zionist delegation in Istanbul. I interviewed dozens of people now living on three continents and in twenty American states.
Among those I most wanted to meet was Lanning Macfarland, war- time head of the OSS in Turkey. I knew he was from Chicago but had no luck locating him. One day I discovered Macfarland’s 1942 application to join the OSS, which mentioned he was a trustee of a small Iowa college. I wrote a letter to the school and received Macfarland’s obituary and his son’s address. By coincidence, the son was visiting Washington the day before I left on along research trip abroad. Inspired by my letter, Lanning Macfarland Jr. had opened a locked suitcase left by his father and found a 180-page memoir detailing his father’s operations in Istanbul. He graciously gave me a copy.
And so it went, interviewing people in an attempt to reconstruct life in wartime Istanbul: an appointment to meet with an ex-OSS man in a cafeteria; a visit to one former U.S. diplomat at his New Hampshire retirement home, to another at his New York club; a drive up to Nyack, New York (whose beautiful Hudson River vista bears a striking similarity to Istanbul) to see a Turkish official’s widow; an accidental meeting at a California reception with a German-born refugee who had been a professor in Istanbul. In southern Virginia, Robert St. John–one of the great foreign correspondents–told me about his experiences in the Balkans. In England, I took a train to a retired British diplomat’s country estate to resolve the mysterious, world-famous case of the British ambassador’s valet who spied for the Germans. We spoke in his dining room amid 2OO-year-old pictures of his ancestors. A Soviet defector, forty-five years after fleeing Stalin, insisted we meet in a way that allowed him to reconnoiter the place to ensure I was not a KGB agent. I drove two hours through Israel’s Negev desert to meet one leader of Istanbul’s Zionist rescue mission and went to Jerusalem’s city hall for an interview with another, Mayor Teddy Kollek.
In Washington, I met a former Hungarian diplomat, Aladar Szegedy, who lived only a few blocks from where I grew up. Well into his eighties, Szegedy served coffee with a sure hand and then pulled out reams of Hungarian articles and documents and recounted with remarkable accuracy his experiences as a Foreign Ministry official active in secret peace contacts with the Allies in Istanbul. He described, as if it had happened only yesterday, being thrown into the Gestapo’s Budapest prison.
A few lines from Tom Stoppard’s remarkable play Travesties, about Zurich during World War I, were an inspiration: “Great days….Zurich during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers, radicals of all kinds. I knew them all. Used to argue far into the night … at the Odeon, the Terrasse…” The lines fascinated me. Stoppard masterfully brought to life the relations between famous and obscure people, the ways that memory recalls or distorts life, and those particular moments when history is at a crossroads and all the onlookers know it.
The dramatic story of a neutral city as a center of intrigue during World War II provided the plot for one of the best American films ever made. Yet many of the scenes fictionalized for Casablanca actually did take place in an Istanbul swarming with diplomats, spies, refugees, and intelligence merchants.
I recalled those ideas while boarding the Zurich-Lucerne train with Professor Yehuda Bauer. We had talked in Jerusalem and Washington about our parallel research on the period, debating over the meaning of events and speaking–as one would of old friends–about long-dead spies and agents we had never met. We were on our way to see Alfred Schwarz who, under the code name “Dogwood,” had run the largest U. S. intelligence operation in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Schwarz had never before granted an interview. His very existence was a secret. Anthony Cave Brown had written in his book on the OSS that Dogwood’s “real name…has never been revealed anywhere, and he may have died suddenly and mysteriously. ” He went on to hint that the man had either defected to the Russians at war’s end or been murdered by the OSS.
Actually, Schwarz remained in Istanbul for many years and then became a banker in Austria and Switzerland; some of his former associates helped me locate him. It was merely a short taxi trip from the Lucerne station to his home. On the left was the city’s famous medieval bridge with its paintings of the dance of death memorializing the black plague; on the right were the lake’s clear waters and, beyond, the massive snow-covered Alps.
A few minutes later, I had the rare thrill–after a two-year search–of meeting one of my main “characters.” The 83-year-old Schwarz was articulate and hospitable. He spent the whole day talking freely of relevant events–at least up to a point. The Dogwood spy ring had ended in debacle in the autumn of 1944, but Schwarz insisted he had voluntarily quit in “December 1943 or January 1944.” A proud man and himself a student of psychology, Schwarz had either rewritten or successfully blotted out large portions of his past.
Schwarz had some bitter reminiscences. His entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust. He sincerely believed in 1943–as he did that day–that if the Americans had responded to secret German peace offers at the time, the war could have ended years sooner with millions of lives saved. At a moment in time, Schwarz felt the world’s future rested on his shoulders. He was forced to conclude in retrospect that either he failed this test or that the Americans were criminally foolish in refusing to listen to him.
Schwarz also felt strongly about another failure. Like other central Europeans opposing Nazi tyranny, he was equally averse to Soviet control of his country. Schwarz’s fellow Czechs and the Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians, and Romanians in Istanbul dealing secretly with the Allies all faced this paradox. Schwarz angrily recalled how OSS officials told him that either the Soviets would tire of occupying eastern Europe or the local people would expel them. Another example, he felt, of American naiveté.
He was much less willing to talk about Dogwood’s problems. In one U. S. military intelligence report on German agents in Istanbul, I had come across the name of Luther Kovess. I guessed that Kovess was also a key American agent. Finally, I discovered a single sentence in an OSS cable nestled among a thousand others instructing the Washington office to deposit $100 in Kovess’s bank account. Further research showed that Kovess was the mysterious “Jacaranda,” the liaison man between the OSS and Hungarian anti-Nazi officials and officers. But Kovess had been the Istanbul representative for a company that was a front for German intelligence. In addition to Kovess, there were a half-dozen other suspicious agents employed by both OSS-Istanbul and its German enemy.
Schwarz admitted knowing Kovess but was convinced that he was absolutely reliable. Another double agent, Frantisek Laufer, was described in the files as a “close friend” of Schwarz. Schwarz claimed to have met Laufer only two or three times, although, over forty years later, Schwarz could still accurately describe him. Obviously, Schwarz, with all his sophistication and experience, had been fooled by German double agents.
Yet it was hardly surprising that so many people had betrayed so many causes in those years. Istanbul was a neutral city where enemies fighting to the death sat table by table in elegant restaurants listening to Gypsy orchestras. It was a city where a German and an American intelligence agent fell in love with the same beautiful Hungarian singer. Those who had barely escaped from lands of bombed-out buildings, shortages, and fear came to a place of bounteous peace. For people daily risking their lives elsewhere, as one of them put it, the most urgent question in Istanbul might be the waiter’s query, “Do you prefer red wine or champagne with your dinner?”
Great days…Istanbul during the war. Refugees, spies, exiles, painters, poets, writers, radicals of all kinds…