By a string of coincidences I came across Otto Skorzeny’s memoirs again a few days ago. They are freely available through the Internet Archive as a scan of the book, and several execrable versions of the OCR. Worse, it is a badly translated, hardly proofread book, filled with run-on sentences, typographical and grammatical mistakes, missing words and inconsistent formatting.
But all that seems almost appropriate when considering the book as a whole. As an historical artefact and symbol of the story it represents. But more of that later.
My original online search was for Israeli counter-intelligence activities. This yielded up the names Dan Raviv and Yosse Melman as authors of several books on Israel’s espionage operations. One of the searches under those names offered up a link to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, featuring an article the pair had written about Otto Skorzeny, advancing as declassified insider-information the almost bizarre suggestion that he had been an Israeli hit-man! A story so bizarre, on the face of it, that it couldn’t have come out of Hollywood. And yet it’s an apparently accurate account of an Israeli mission to neutralise German rocket scientists working for Egypt in the 1950s and ‘60s. A mission overseen, among others, by Yitzhak Shamir, former head of the Mossad, and former Israeli Prime Minister.
What makes the story so bizarre? The background of the ‘hit man’.
Who is Otto Skorzeny?
Best known as the Waffen SS commando who rescued Mussolini from a Grand Sasso mountaintop resort in the Italian Abbruzi region’s Appenines on 12 September 1943. Il Duce had been imprisoned there after being deposed. It was a daring operation involving unpowered gliders landing about 100 SS commandos and Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) on a narrow, rocky strip of ground, and employing Italian Police general Fernando Soleti to persuade the garrison of 200 riflemen not to resist.
The mission succeeded without a shot being fired, and with Skorzeny becoming its heroic focus.
Skorzeny was a minor figure in the Third Reich, made famous by circumstance, his tremendous luck in surviving it all, and his consequent ability to tell his story, with few men willing or able to contradict him.
At 193cm in height, weighing more than 90 kilos, and sporting prominent sword duelling scars on his face, Skorzeny cut a dashing figure. He was an Austrian engineer who joined the Waffen SS shortly after the Anschluss and participated as a regular soldier and junior officer in military operations, including on the Russian front, before developing a German commando capability and personally leading several high-risk missions.
At one stage he was falsely thought to be tasked with assassinating Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, leading the Americans to refer to him as ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’. It was a title he wore with some pride, even if it was a little melodramatic. And inaccurate.
Skorzeny survived the war, even after Operation Greif, during which he and his men crossed enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge, dressed as Allied soldiers, to sow confusion, and possibly to sabotage the advance.
In 1947 he was tried at Dachau on charges of contravening international conventions on warfare by disguising himself in battle, but was found innocent because the Allies had undertaken similar missions themselves. He was held pending further investigation of his SS career, but miraculously escaped captivity. Some historians say he was aided by former SS men dressed as Americans. No one says openly that he was let go by the Americans, who enlisted his help in his post-war life as an international adventurer in South America and elsewhere. To say that would imply the US wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and its successor, the CIA, were engaged in disreputable activities, and in need of suitably skilled freelancers they could disown, or whose existence they could simply deny. The Wikipedia page on Skorzeny is probably the CIA’s preferred history of the man, with its tapestry of lies, incongruous claims, and curious gaps, interwoven with a few facts, in a story that shouldn’t be quite so nebulous.
Skorzeny ostensibly retired to a civilian life in Francoist Spain after his escape, where he ran a modest engineering firm hardly capable of supporting his jet-setting lifestyle even after being officially ‘de-nazified’ in Germany during the early 1950s. There is no clear proof that he was active in underground SS networks smuggling former officers and men out of Europe. There is no clear proof of any part of his post-war life. But there are his books, beginning in the 1950s with his accounts of his commando missions, and ending shortly before his death from lung cancer in 1975 with the book I stumbled across: My Commando Operations.
The translation is by a mysterious David Johnston, about whom I can find no details, despite the blithe claim on some online book shops that he is the present Governor General of Canada. Johnston is listed as translator of a number of books about WWII German military history originally published in German. I suspect it is a pseudonym for one or more German translators contracted on the cheap. That suspicion is strengthened by my observation that the Skorzeny translation confuses English and German grammar, especially rules of capitalisation, and translates German idioms literally, which often gives them a stilted and senseless character. Moreover, the German habit of run-on sentences (Schachtelsätze) has been carried over into the translation, albeit without the necessary punctuation to retain intended meaning and structure.
One example of this is a turn of phrase I can almost hear Skorzeny speak into a microphone as he dictates his memoirs on an old reel to reel machine. It concerns mystifying a circumstance or identity by adding the adjectival ‘certain’, as in ‘they were looking for a certain Luftwaffe general’, or ‘send a jeep for us at a certain bridge’. The implication is that the precise name or location is known, but conspiratorially withheld. In German this would have been similar to saying ‘ein gewisser Luftwaffe general’ or ‘schikten einen Jeep für uns an einer gewisser Brücke.’ But each use of the adjective has potentially different meanings. Is it doubt that the person existed at all? That a putative identity was false, that the location of a bridge cannot be named, or that it was not a bridge at all? An experienced translator would have interpreted such meanings where they were of consequence, and omitted the repetitious qualification where it added nothing to the meaning.
Another example is the uncapitalised rendering of proper nouns, like ‘Marxists’ and ‘Nazis’. Yet another is the frequent presentation of run-on sentences, corresponding with German Schachtelsätze, which are grammatically correct in German, but not in English, particularly not without disciplined and consistent punctuation.
I have no direct knowledge of this, but I suspect Skorzeny dictated the manuscript in German – it has the feel of being spoken rather than written. I can imahine Skorzeny sitting at huis heavy wooden desk, in his Spanish house, Using a large and old fashioned microphone witgh a big reel to reel machine, sipping Armangnac, perusing papers and books strewn over the desk and side-tables, as he told his story, in the heavily accented German of Bavaria and Austria.
I suspect the translator did not have a sufficient, native grasp of English to render the recording, or as mauscript of it, in equally relaxed English, or at least in a style not tied to a conversational idiom appropriaste only to German.
The book, printed in China, probably in 1993, was not well proofread, if at all. Every chapter is littered with dozens of obvious spelling mistakes, missing words, inconsistent use of italics, and other jarring signs of carelessness. I presume the Chinese printer worked from the translator’s manuscript rather than inserting these errors randomly as a value-added service.
In the 1970s I read one of Skorzeny’s earlier books in the original German. My recollection is of a relaxed, conversational narrative style, free from error enough for me not to remember them. I think My Commando Operations is a reworking of the earlier material, updated to include some more anecdotes and sources that Skorzeny obviously thought of as important endorsements of his particular interpretations of history.
My intention is not to regurgitate the memoir. Interested readers can refer to it themselves. Rather, I see the book as an artifact that must be taken as a Gestalt to gain an insight into the historical period through the filter of a particular kind of thinking and synthesis.
If you combine the awkwardness of the translation with some knowledge of the underlying structure of the language used by Skorzeny, and you add to it the theme of paranoid conspiracy theory that suffuses the book, you get a very distinct flavour. A flavour that drew me in because I thought there was something hauntingly familiar about it that transcended my prior acquaintance with Skorzeny, or other books I’ve read about the period.
It took about a hundred pages – part 1 of book – to recognise the Siren Song: Skorzeny spoke in the same register as the people staffing the White House, and as other people in the Anglophone world currently calling themselves ‘conservatives’.
It begins with the self-righteousness of being hard-done by after WWI (after Obama, after the EU, after the Global Financial Crisis) but pulling himself up by his bootstraps to become an engineer (salt of the earth), and participating in wholesome, ‘non-political’ student sporting associations that merely sought to honour pan-Germanic traditions (evangelism, nationalism, jingoism, populism).
Then comes the great patriotic overture of how much all good Austrians supported the Anschluss to ward off pernicious communists, Slavs, and the Jews Skorzeny painstakingly avoids mentioning (huuuuge majority vote, Brexit, jingoism, misogyny, xenophobia).
There isn’t really a contemporary equivalent to joining the Waffen SS, though one can see parallels in destructive vengefulness against large sections of local populations in the uniform adherence by today’s so-called conservatives to luddite ‘trickle-down’ economic theories that are destroying the middle class and entrenching poverty, concentrating wealth in increasingly smaller affluent minorities.
Skorzeny’s accounts of the ‘massive’, ‘continuous’, ‘treasonous’ ‘conspiracies’ against Hitler and the Third Reich, though, clinch the deal. Against all reason and known facts, Skorzeny proposes that Nazi Germany fought only just wars, attacked Russia only to head off its own imminent attack on Germany, could have won that war, but was continually frustrated in seeking peace with Britain and the USA by a cabal of German traitors and the ‘Red Orchestra’ of Soviet espionage activities.
And then there was that flavour of functional illiteracy that seems to accompany all nominal ‘conservative’ rhetoric. It would be unfair to sheet the blame for that home to Skorzeny; he composed in German, and the book I read was published a couple of decades after his death. And yet the shambles of the English prose references the inevitable ignorance and stupidity of all reactionaries, and those even further to the lunatic right.
Language aside, Skorzeny’s conception is so devoid of realism about the character of the Nazi leaders and their disastrous decisions that I was left wondering whether Skorzeny could possibly have believed his own rhetoric, or whether he was deliberately addressing an audience he thought of as gullible enough to uncritically accept as fact his confected historical revisionism.
I suspect it is evidence of Skorzeny’s own ill-educated simple-mindedness, and of an escalation of commitment that did not permit him to see the absurdity of his propositions about historical events and personalities that were pretty well de-bunked by the 1950s, let alone the 1970s, when he made his last revisions to his memoirs.
In business, escalation of commitment means persisting with an investment, product, or project despite clear signs that it is failing. Instead of cutting one’s losses, one ‘escalates’ the prior commitment of money and resources. It is a pathology, like continuing to gamble after having lost all the money available. Or like having tied one’s own identity so tightly to the rightness of a cause that denouncing it now might devalue or completely unravel one’s own personality. How valuable is a legend based on Waffen SS adventures if it is acknowledged to have been in the employ of maniacal war criminals?
This, too, is evident in Trump’s America, where the luddite commitment to destroy all things Obama is leading Republicans to seek direct damage to their own country, their own constituents, and their own future well-being. Trump himself is all of that writ large … in Comic Sans. He seems compulsively driven to act on careless words and ridiculous misconceptions, like a congenital cretin, or a macabre circus clown. His act is akin to sitting on the outside of a tree branch, and sawing away at it closer to the trunk, apparently completely unaware that he will not be suspended in mid-air, as if by magic, when he’s done with his suicidal idiocy.
Unlike some commentators, I don’t believe Trump is a Nazi. Not even a neo-Nazi. By their words and actions, he and his inner circle expose themselves as too stupid to so much as use ideology as a cover for their imbecilic, larcenous narcissism. But there are those looking to ride the Trumpist coat-tails who are far more malevolent. The entire contemporary Republican Party is shot-through with Christofascists, white supremacists, and plutocrat lackeys who think a new breed of totalitarian can be manipulated and put on a leash. Just like the German churches, upper class, officer corps, and industrialists thought of the Nazis in the 1930s.
Unfortunately the Trumpist self-delusion is evident in Anglo conservatives everywhere in the world; they cannot, or refuse to, find the rationality in themselves to step away from disastrous economic, foreign, and social policies that harm their nations and increase the risk of major social strife as ordinary people are stripped of their well-being and any opportunity for improving their living standards that does not involve violent upheaval. All for the sake of a blinkered ideology that has demonstrably failed, but is kept alive, like a zombie coma patient, with excuses and justifications – all resting on the simple-minded notion that the failure of trickle-down economics could be a success yet if only some imaginary set of wreckers and saboteurs could be stopped. Stopped with ever more authoritarian and anti-democratic measures. Success through destruction of democracy and liberty.
The difference between Skorzeny and his modern analogues is that he is dead, and his cause was comprehensively annihilated decades ago.
It is only his mind-set that lives on.
Unfortunately for us, we live in an era in which millions of people are just as ‘educated’ and petty-bourgeois as he was. Think of all the people today who call themselves an ‘engineer’, or some other kind of technocrat professional, and you have the foundation of a large class of people without the power of critical thought, and maybe also without the empathy and humanism that would stop them from supporting ideologies that hurt and kill other people.
No war crimes were ever proven against Skorzeny. His own account offers the breathless assurance that he never participated in, or saw any atrocities; I think that’s just a little more than I can believe of an ex SS officer with Skorzeny’s exposure to the Nazi war machine. But he was undoubtedly a combat veteran who displayed great personal courage as a soldier and commando.
His contemporary analogues are almost uniformly cowards and wimps. So scared of their own shadows they shoot everything that moves. They see threats in penniless migrants, self-willed women, the dispossessed poor, little children, and anything else that stirs more vigorously than trees in a breeze.
Tragically, their leaders are the dumbest, most uninformed, bellicose juveniles to hold office since the 1930s.
The existence of these Skorzeny analogues, though, should be a reminder that history can always repeat itself when we ignore its lessons, as we are doing right now. The people who scoff and insist that unless people dress in Nazi costumes to literally re-enact past events, history is not repeating itself, are probably the very people whose votes and actions (or inactions) might be critical in preventing worse to develop from the contemporary Skorzeny school of thought. Or to give it wings.
Postscript added after Google Plus discussion
When I began the internet search that resulted in this essay, the very last thing I was thinking of was Trump. In fact I anticipated none of the search results that led me to the Skorzeny memoirs.
I’m pretty widely read on WWII history, and I was exposed early to the peculiar British fascination with all things Nazi; in my youth there was never a time when there weren’t large, full colour picture books about the Nazis on sale in every British newsagent. Some of the books the English consumed avidly would have been illegal in West Germany at the time, for ‘unnecessarily promoting the Nazis’.
But I always thought the ease with which many people jumped to comparisons with Nazis was unwarranted. The very acronym fixes it as a particular historical phenomenon that defies resurrection or emulation. Likewise I thought that the left intelligentsia of the 1970s and ‘80s was too quick to describe as fascist the characteristics of any politics not to their liking, effectively devaluing the adjective. Making it meaningless. The methods of serious scholarship require that a range of characteristics must be present in a political conception before it is properly described as fascist. This is true also of communism, democracy, liberalism, and conservatism in a way that has always been misunderstood in American political dialogue, and that now seems deliberately obfuscated in the entire Anglophone world. For example, liberalism has nothing at all to do with communism, and contemporary politicians calling themselves ‘conservatives’ are mostly nothing of the kind.
In the past I have smiled agreeably when encountering the many passionate denunciations of Trump as some kind of modern day fascist dictator, but I was never enthused by the comparison.
I do not wish Trump well, but he is no Nazi, no fascist, and not even a conservative. He has no ideology, unless compulsive lying, theft, and narcissism are more than pathologies. I was always wondering – idly – whether comparing Trump to Hitler was an insult to Hitler, to Trump, or just to all the rest of us.
Nor was a I much of an Obama fan. I surely preferred him to McCain and Mitt Romney, but I saw him as an old-school conservative who missed opportunities to turn back a tide of kleptocrat legislation, and, most disappointingly, who deepened and widened the authoritarian apparatuses of the American state. Obama didn’t invent extra-judicial assassinations, but he made drone strike murders routine.
However, even in that context, Obama was a gentleman and friend of man compared to the grotesque, ignorant, cheap and nasty corruptibility of Trump, his family, and his coterie.
With that sub-conscious perspective on the subject, it took me quite a while to recognise what it was about Skorzeny’s memoirs that seemed so familiar, in a narrative sense.
The earlier Skorzeny book I had read decades ago was a much shorter, less expansive account of just his commando missions, sans political justifications and ruminations. It probably had to be, published in the 1950s as it was, with Nazi ideology still being an existentially dangerous subject.
That’s why the memoirs surprised me. They are not the kind of stodgy, pseudo-intellectual claptrap of Mein Kampf – an execrably boring, long-winded tract reflecting a mediocre mind’s confused and confusing attempts at unifying strands of ignorant resentment (Nietzsche’s ressentiment?) into crypto-religious political doctrine.
Instead Skorzeny’s tone had something of a barracks flavour to it. Soldier talk at a level the officer corps generally avoided. In his own words, he was a junior officer until promoted to captain to head up the special operations unit that became the basis of his career as a commando. He was promoted again to major upon the success of the Mussolini mission, and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel. What I mean to say is, he was probably promoted well beyond his capabilities on the basis of some derring do, Hitler’s personal attention, and his propaganda value.
Do you remember Oliver North? Ronald Reagan’s fall guy for the Iran-Contra scandal. There are odd similarities between the careers of North and Skorzeny; adventurers promoted beyond their capabilities on the back of guts, dumb luck, and blind obedience.
Tangentially, I was impressed and taken aback by the illustration of Nazi thinking presented in a much underrated 2001 BBC film, Conspiracy, that presented a speculative interpretation of a meeting at Wansee in Berlin on 20 January 1942. Presided over by SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the purpose was to hammer out the ‘final solution’.
Kenneth Brannagh’s performance as Heydrich, and Stanley Tucci’s as Adolf Eichman were breathtaking. Filmed with such simplicity it could have been a stage play, director Frank Pierson brought Loring Mandel’s script alive with engrossing verité. I was spell-bound by the sheer monstrous callousness of the characters, portrayed by some of Britain’s finest actors (I think Tucci was the only non-Brit in the piece). I recommend the film both as spectacle and as intellectual insight into Nazi mentality.
I think Heydrich really was a Nazi, while Skorzeny would have probably given his allegiance and obedience to a wide variety of populists if history had taken different turns.