On 9 September 1952 a man walked into Frankfurt Police HQ and confessed he belonged to a top secret paramilitary group. In the event of a Soviet invasion he was to sabotage enemy installations, blow up bridges, and assassinate collaborators.
The whistle blower was disgruntled Waffen-SS veteran Hans Otto and the organisation Technischer Dienst (TD, Technical Service). It was 2,000 strong and funded by the United States government. Parallel groups existed across Europe. TD was staffed by ex-Third Reich soldiers, few of whom had changed their ideas since the fall of the Third Reich.
This bothered Otto, a rare Nazi with a conscience, particularly when his comrades drew up lists of untrustworthy public figures to be liquidated in the event of an invasion. The list included politicians whose only crime was to be socialists. Otto’s conscience itched even more when the American in charge of TD approved the measures.
Otto’s revelations rocked Germany. Secret armies? Nazi veterans? American support? The West German government was forced to admit that TD had been created as part of ‘Stay-Behind’ network patterned after the resistance groups that harassed Nazi occupiers in the Second World War. This time the enemy was Russia. Flushed out into public, TD was shut down and the story died away.
In 1978 a Norwegian policeman tracking an illegal alcohol still discovered a hidden weapons cache on the estate of Hans Meyer, member of the Norwegian Secret Service. In court Meyer claimed the cache was the property of Norwegian Stay-Behind group Rocambole (ROC for short). Defence Minister Rolf Hansen admitted the group’s existence but denied journalists’ claims it had connections with NATO or the American CIA. The scandal had little impact outside Norway.
Only in 1990 was the full extent of the Stay-Behind network exposed thanks to loose lipped Italians and a determined judge. Re-opening the dormant investigation of a 1972 car bombing in the village of Peteano, Judge Felice Casson uncovered a Neo-Fascist activist who claimed Italy had its own Stay-Behind group. It was called Gladio (named after a Gladiator’s sword) and recruited from the far-right. Rather than prepare for a Soviet invasion, Gladio staged terrorist attacks to turn public opinion against the Italian Communist Party.
Into the Light
An official commission looked into the allegations. Prime Minister Guilio Andreotti admitted Gladio existed but denied everything else. Unfortunately for him, the Soviet Union had just collapsed and with it went the pressure cooker atmosphere of secrecy surrounding the Stay-Behind network. Andreotti’s revelations opened mouths across Europe and secrets tumbled out.
Absalon in Denmark, Rose des Vents in France and Belgium’s SDRA8 were among the groups intended to sabotage a Soviet occupation. They had been created at the request of NATO and operated under the watchful eye of the CIA and Britain’s MI6. A Stay-Behind network was a prerequisite of NATO membership, as West Germany discovered when it joined in 1955 and had to reactive its TD group. The remit went further than NATO. Neutral Switzerland also had a unit.
Some countries, like Norway, published official reports on their Stay-Behind networks, while Great Britain was among those denied all knowledge. The borderland between public exposure and cover-up bred rumours. Were far-right members of SDRA8 responsible for a series of bloody supermarket robberies in 1980s Brabant? Did Neo-Fascists in Gladio attempt a coup in 1964? And once the threat of Soviet invasion receded did the CIA use the Stay-Behind schemes for a different purpose – to destabilise countries where Communists seemed in danger of taking power through democratic elections?
Daniel Ganser’s book NATO’s Secret Armies claims to answer those questions. Supporters say it is a meticulously researched account of how paramilitary units subverted democracy on the orders of the deep state and pushed an unsavoury far-right agenda. Critics call it a mess of politically motivated conspiracy theories and factual inaccuracy that never amounts to anything more than propaganda. Judge for yourself.
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