The Service

Title:                      The Service

Author:                  Reinhard Gehlen

Gehlen, Reinhard (1972). The Service: The Memoirs of General Reinhard Gehlen. New York: World Pub.

LCCN:    73183092

DD247.G37 A313 1972



  • Translation of Der Dienst
  • Published in London [Collins, 1972] as The Gehlen Memoirs –The First Full Edition of The Memoirs of General Reinhard Gehlen 1942-1971

Date Updated:  October 17, 2016

This first review was by a CIA officer.[1]

Reinhard Gehlen was Chief of the Fremde Heere Ost (FBO) for Hitler’s eastern front, and later became chief of West German Intelligence (BND – Bundesnachrichtendienst)[2]

In April 1968, after some 22 years as chief of the West German intelligence service and 48 years altogether of public service, Lieutenant General Reinhard Gehlen retired as President of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND). He was accurately described as the doyen of western intelligence chiefs. Whatever was thought of Gehlen—and he had many enemies—he was by this time quite well known throughout the world, so it is not surprising that his retirement has occasioned no less than four books. Not surprisingly, there are several versions of Gehlen’s memoirs, some for European consumption, particularly in the UK, and some for U.S. readers. The U.S. version does take into consideration that the U.S. security services used the Gehlen apparatus after WWII for espionage against the Soviet Union.

The first to appear, in May 1969, was the East German effort Nicht Länger Geheim. The other three were published in their German editions within a few weeks of each other during the fall of 1971. Nicht Länger Geheim and The General Was a Spy[3] are tendentious and inaccurate; the Cookridge book is inaccurate; none of them is worth reading. Gehlen’s book The Service has many faults, a lot of which are inherent in such a book, but for any officer assigned to Germany it is worthwhile reading, and for anyone assigned to liaison duties with the BND it is a must.

The Service opens its American edition with Gehlen on board a flight to the United States to begin his cooperation with us, then turns back to his earlier career. The German original was more chronologically arranged in three parts. One deals with Gehlen’s experiences as chief of Foreign Armies East (Russian Theater G-2) from early 1942 until the end of the war. The second part deals with the postwar Gehlen Organization, first under U.S. Army and later CIA trusteeship, then accepted by Bonn as the BND. This second part also discusses the successes and failures from 1946 to 1968, the types of persons who worked for the BND, relationships with other services—in other words, the whole gamut of intelligence activities. The third part consists of three chapters on Soviet ideology, Soviet tactics, and the outlook for the world in the face of Soviet imperialism.

It should be borne in mind, particularly when reading the last part but also for the book as a whole, that Gehlen is a Cold Warrior. He always was and always would be; he makes no bones about it, he says that history will prove him heroic.

While I approached Gehlen’s book, The Service, with the keenest interest, I had not expected too much of it. For one thing, I was afraid that it would be written in field manual style. Secondly, intelligence chiefs may not, and do not, tell all; therefore many of the most interesting points are missing, and the picture which emerges is of necessity incomplete and distorted. I was wrong on the first point and right on the second. So far as style goes, the book reads easily. My overall rating of the book is a gentleman’s C plus. The reader should not expect too much in the way of excitement. And this word excitement brings up a point which must be discussed. There is a segment of opinion in German public life and in the ranks of CIA where the people seem unable to talk about Gehlen—they simply splutter. I have experienced this phenomenon in the ranks of CIA on many occasions during the past 15 years or more, and some of the articles and reviews on the book which appeared in the German press bear out the point about the be the judge, and he has no doubts about that judgment. Of course, during most of Gehlen’s years, the US Government and CIA in particular were heavily oriented in that direction too. Gehlen’s attitude almost certainly did not sit well with some of the political leaders in Bonn who were pursuing Ostpolitik, but in light of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Brezhnev Doctrine he certainly felt he had a point.

The section on Foreign Armies East (FHO) is perhaps the best part of the book, although it is of interest primarily to military historians. From all accounts, Gehlen did an excellent job as chief of an Order-of-Battle analysis organization. All commentators—from the U.S. Army (in a 1946 study) to Heinz Höhne in 1971—agree on this. It was during the latter part of this period, i.e., during 1943, that Gehlen decided to keep his people and files together and turn his organization over to the Americans. The Service does not tell us much that we did not already know about this period, but Gehlen’s description of the spring and summer of 1945 makes interesting reading. There are some fascinating anecdotes.

The Bundespost (the mail service), the Bundesbahn (the railroads, formerly called the Reichsbahn), and the German intelligence service are the only three national German organizations which carried on with a pause of only a few weeks when the war ended. Gehlen for his part, although betrayal to the Nazis of his post-defeat-plans would have meant death, was most concerned to legalize his position as much as possible. Therefore in April 1945 (before the end of the war) he disclosed his intentions to General Winter, Chief of the Operations Section of the Armed Forces High Command and received his “sanction.” I imagine that was about as high an authority as Gehlen dared to go at the time. Then, several weeks later in June 1945, after VE Day, Gehlen met Admiral Karl Doenitz, who had been appointed by Hitler as his successor during the last days of the Third Reich. Gehlen and the Admiral were now in a U.S. Army VIP prison camp in Wiesbaden; Gehlen sought and received approval from Doenitz too!

It is in May and June 1945 that the Americans first appear in this book and here I must say that neither the Americans in general, nor CIA in particular, have any reason to complain about what Gehlen has to say about us. He mentions very few personalities and for most of these he uses an alias or a similar device. A well-known figure such as Brigadier General Edwin L. Sibert, then G-2 of the European Theater, is mentioned by name, and in a very favorable way. The other Army officers are either given aliases or are referred to as Colonel D., Colonel L., or Colonel Rusty (a nickname).

The only CIA personality mentioned by true name is Allen Dulles, whom he describes as being, along with the Admiral Canaris, the best of the intelligence chiefs he met. The only other CIA personality is “Herr M,” (the first Chief of Pullach Base, who was Gehlen’s opposite number for nearly eight years); Herr M gets only brief mention, but in the most favorable terms. CIA is at one point gently chided for being overly bureaucratic; there is a heavily disguised reference to one of our OPC flaps; but that is about as far as the criticism goes. He discloses nothing which should not be disclosed and washes none of our dirty linen in public. Heaven knows there were some first class rows and hard feelings between Gehlen and the US, and while he was often at fault, there was one time in particular when, largely through bureaucratic inertia, US security folks were definitely the culprits, and where Gehlen on both official and personal grounds had every reason to be aggrieved and angry (he was, but only in private). The book shows him to be both a decent man and a big enough one to forgive, if not forget, these slights from the past. It is an old-fashioned way of putting it, but Gehien is a gentleman and behaves like one.

There are many faults in this book, but before discussing them let us look at his towering achievement, the biggest item on the credit side of his ledger. The idea of the BND was Gehlen’s. Whether he envisaged such an organization in 1943 is doubtful and unimportant, but by 1946 he was definitely thinking in terms of a national intelligence organization. He showed political skill of the highest order in pushing through his concept in the face of considerable opposition from other embryonic services in Bonn, various German politicians, allied intelligence services, and hostile services. He describes this process with modesty. The BND has today the most powerful and broadest charter of any western service. When one considers the duplication which abounds in other western intelligence communities, the position of the BND is both desirable and enviable. This does not mean to say that the BND is a first class intelligence service; it is not (more on this later), but it is in a position to become one.

Now for the debit side of the ledger. Here the reviewer must read carefully. Obviously there were things known that Gehlen could not say. Tempered criticism is in order, however. In the first place, Gehlen was never a good clandestine operator, nor was he a particularly good administrator. And therein lay his failures. The Gehlen Organization

The BND always had a good record in the collection of military and economic intelligence on East Germany and the Soviet forces there. But this information, for the most part, came from observation and not from clandestine penetration. As far as we know (and we know a great deal) the Germans never had a good political penetration in East Germany or anywhere else in the Soviet Bloc. Thus Gehlen’s descriptions of most of his so-called successes in the political intelligence field are, in my opinion, either wishful thinking or self-delusion. While one might have expected the German service to be capable of staff penetrations within the East German government, the extent of its greatest success seems to have been the recruitment of the boyfriend of a secretary (ELLI B—Operation Gaensebluemchen, mentioned by Gehlen) in East German Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl’s office; the boyfriend was able to debrief the unwitting ELLI B on what went on in the office. The unfortunate woman paid for her indiscretion with her life. Similarly, when Gehlen states that he received “two reliable reports” in the 1950s that Martin Bormann was living in the USSR, I can only wonder and point out that he never informed us, although that case and others like it were discussed in great detail by CIA and the BND. That Gehlen and Canaris had a conversation about a Soviet penetration of Hitler’s entourage, and that they considered Bormann the most likely candidate, is entirely credible. Furthermore, although there is no evidence one way or the other, I accept the possibility that an unprincipled villain such as Bormann would have been very receptive to a Soviet recruitment pitch by, say 1943, when all could see that the war was lost. Bormann’s being a red-hot Nazi was no bar to such an alliance. Any real Nazi despised democracy and admired dictatorships.

To get back to Gehlen’s descriptions of world events and his cases found in Chapters 5 and 9, I consider the picture to be too rosy, far too rosy.

Gehlen makes much of the struggle between his organization and the East German intelligence service under Ernst Wollweber. This ended with the dismissal of Wollweber and one infers that the West Germans “won” this one. Perhaps they did in a certain sense. But the very real and crushing defeat of the BND came at the hands of the KGB and is best personified by the Felfe case. Again Gehlen is severely limited in what he may say, but the fact of the matter is that staff security, while a horrendously difficult problem in Germany in the early post-war ,years, was also the well-nigh fatal weakness of the German service. He could have dwelt on these very real difficulties, for there are at least ten reasons why West Germans were, in the early days at least, peculiarly susceptible to Communist blandishments. The West German government was thoroughly penetrated, and more frankness on Gehlen’s part with respect to this problem would have been in order. His two and a half pages on Felfe make poor reading.

Gehlen’s critics have made much of the ring of informants which he is said to have woven through West Germany. This question of domestic operations is a difficult subject to evaluate. Consider the following points: there was no national security organization in West Germany until 1950, and not much on the state level before then; Gehlen was, with justification, desperately concerned about Communist. penetration and in running CI cases naturally became involved with West German citizens; West Germany swarmed with Communist spies, literally thousands; Gehlen operated a lobbying apparatus aimed at paving the way for his organization to become the BND; Gehlen did make some accusations about West German citizens, some of which were justified and some absurd; some West Germans genuinely thought they were being investigated by Gehlen’s people—sometimes they were, sometimes they were not; Gehlen’s many enemies were quick to turn any of his mistakes to their advantage. I do not consider that Gehlen’s activities in this field, while sometimes ill-advised, were nearly as sinister as some of his critics make them out to be. Gehlen does not discuss this aspect in his book, but his reviewers do, so it is worth mentioning.

Gehlen is bedeviled by one of the problems which beset the intelligence business. The problem is that people will believe almost anything you tell them about it. As one senior CIA official put it: “Talking to people about intelligence is the same as talking to young people about sex. The more improbable you make it, the more they believe it.” For years Gehlen was the Master Spy, the Man of Mystery, Spy of the Century. His whole career as a General Staff officer, then the secrecy of the U.S. Army and CIA trusteeship, the mystery surrounding the Pullacb headquarters compound, and particularly, because of a genuine fear of Communist reprisals (such things frequently occurred during the Cold War days), the fact that he never allowed himself to be photographed—all this built up a legend far in excess of the reality. This comes out very clearly in The General Was a Spy [see note 8 below] and Cookridge’s book.[4] To those in the know, however, this legend, while harmless, was known for what it was, just a legend. But now his book provides his critics with a perfect peg on which to hang their criticism. A review in the West German news magazine Der Spiegel by a former high-ranking German security officer entitled “A Well-Deserved Self-Revelation” is a case in point; the theme is that Gehlen has at last revealed himself as a straw man. In point of fact, if you do not know the full inside story and accept Gehlen’s book, he does not reveal himself as such. However the review has many excellent points (spoiled, let it be said, by the critic’s intemperance) and viewed against the overblown legend, the denouement is quite shattering.

Gehlen might have made more of one aspect of his service which is generally rated quite high. I refer to his intelligence analysis department, which from its beginnings had turned out a lot of sound work. But Gehlen, although not an operator, loved operations for operations’ sake, and tended to see the success or failure of his organization in these.

As I said, an intelligence chief should not write a book on his own organization; the forbidden subjects are too numerous and too restraining, and a stunted picture is bound to emerge. But for better or worse Gehlen wrote one, and it makes interesting reading, at least for the specialist. I have thought of raising that C plus to a B minus, but I think I’ll leave it as it is.


General Gehlen’s memoir of his quarter of a century as master German intelligencer, published serially in Die Welt, has been stoutly denounced by such disinterested historians as E. H. Cookridge (Gehlen, Spy of The Century, p. 35) and Heinz Hohne (The General Was a Spy, p. 174), not only for its reticence on the full scope of the General’s activities during both the Nazi and postwar years but, more importantly, its startling albeit undocumented disclosures—most notably the recent headliner about Martin Bormann, Hitler’s trusted deputy, who Gehlen claims was in fact for many years a Russian counteragent.

Others—like Dr. Otto John, the alleged double defector whom Gehlen personally vilifies—have strongly questioned the memoir’s factual reliability while consigning the sensationally revelatory material to the category of fiction. Doubtless the debate over Gehlen will continue and, as is history’s wont, the real truth might never be known. But a careful, dispassionate reading does point up one potentially important and omnipresent clue—the General’s alternatingly whiny and vain defensiveness about his “org” and his special role as leader, and it does not seem unfair to speculate that if indeed Gehlen has fiddled the truth his sulky professional pride might well be the reason. Time and again he complains that officials (from Hitler to Erhard with the Americans in between) did not heed his intelligence reports, did not defend his operation against press “smear” campaigns and meddlings by the “ignorant bureaucracy,” did not give him sufficient latitude and were constantly maneuvering to replace him (though Hitler, in a rage, is the only one who actually did, an act which surely saved Gehlen’s career).

The General is more mysterious than complicated, more a dedicated organizer of information than an ideologue, but it is logical that the latter fifth of his memoir should be a cautionary testament addressed to the leaders of the west, expounding the one and only guiding political notion he ever had: beware the Russians for they seek world domination, a machination which can at least in part be thwarted by building strong espionage “services.” This memoir is the only personal statement by Gehlen we are likely to have. That alone makes it a valuable historical document, despite its suspicious veracity.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[5]

Most reviewers were justifiably disappointed in this book. Gehlen’s account of his intelligence career and his judgments of his success cannot be accepted as the final word. He has the habit of taking credit for successes and discounting the possibility that he may have been wrong. Blackstock and Schaf in Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage and Covert Operations[6] call this book unreliable and often deliberately misleading. A sensational revelation, the identification of Martin Bormann as a Soviet agent, is not supported by any evidence. The event that did much to burst the Gehlen myth, the uncovering of Heinz Felfe of the BND as a Soviet penetration, is not well treated. While there are some worthwhile observations on intelligence’s role in policy formulation and national security, remarks that the FBI functioned perfectly and had Soviet intelligence under control in the United States show the author’s tendency to make judgments without first-hand knowledge. George Bailey’s description of Gehlen’s book in the introduction as the most informative on intelligence he has read is excessive praise; it is typical of the effusive homage of Gehlen found in popular works. For a more balanced judgment of Gehlen as head of Foreign Armies East, see Kahn’s Hitler’s Spies.[7] Höhne and Zolling’s book on Gehlen, The General was a Spy,[8] was the immediate cause for Gehlen’s own memoirs.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[9]

General Gehlen was the senior German intelligence officer on the Eastern Front during WWII. After the war, he established the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND)—the best German foreign intelligence service. The Gehlen memoirs have many of the usual attributes of an intelligence service chief’s personal recollections: self-serving to highlight his successes and rationalize his shortcomings; more lengthy coverage of his early successes and relatively cursory on his failures (i.e. Felfe case); and an absence of “inside” information due to security limitations, the threat of possible libel suits, or the natural guardedness of a lifetime intelligence practitioner. Yet, as the memoirs of an intelligence leader of the Cold War period, the book contains much of value to the discriminating reader. (See also Höhne and Zolling, The General Was a Spy—note 3 above).

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[10]

The unreliable and often deliberately misleading memoirs of the former head of German military intelligence on the eastern front during World War II. Because of the files he had accumulated on the Soviet Union, files which he had hidden during the immediate postwar period, he began work for U.S. army intelligence and then for the CIA. He operated an espionage service against the Soviet Union until 1955 when his organization was transferred to the Federal Republic of Germany to operate as its worldwide intelligence establishment. After a series of scandals on leaks of information and infiltration .of his organization, he retired in 1968.

[1] Anonymous. “The Service: The Memoirs of General Reinhard Gehlen by Reinhard Gehlen. Book review by Anonymous. CIA HISTORICAL REVIEW PROGRAM, RELEASE IN FULL (2 JULY 96). Originally this review was classified Secret but was declassified and released by the CIA and is on the CIA web site. It has been edited for continuity.

[2] BUNDESNACHRICHTENDIENST (BND). The principal Federal German intelligence agency was established in the Munich suburb of Pullach in April 1956 under the leadership of Gen. Reinhard Gehlen, and he ran the organization until his retirement in May 1968. During the Cold War, the BND suffered penetration at the hands of the KGB, and in October 1961 Heinz Felfe, Gehlen’s trusted chief of counterintelligence and a former wartime Sicherheitsdienst officer, was convicted of having spied for the previous decade, and another mole, Hans Clemens, was also arrested. At their trial they admitted to having passed films containing more than 15,000 classified documents to their Soviet handlers. In 1998 Dr. Hans-Georg Geiger was placed as the BND’s president by Dr. August Manning. See West, Nigel (2006). Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, p. 41

[3] Höhne, Heinz (1972) and Zolling, Hermann. The General Was A Spy: The Truth About General Gehlen And His Spy Ring. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972.

[4] Cookridge E. H. (1971). Gehlen: Spy of The Century. London: Hodder and Stoughton

[5] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, p. 209

[6] Blackstock, Paul W.(1978) and Schaf, Frank L. Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co.

[7] Kahn, David (1978, 1985). Hitler’s Spies : German Military Intelligence in World War II. New York: Collier Books

[8] Höhne, Heinz (1972) and Zolling, Hermann. The General Was A Spy: The Truth About General Gehlen And His Spy Ring. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972.

[9] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature: A Critical And Annotated Bibliography of Open-Source Literature (7th ed, rev.). Washington, D.C. : Defense Intelligence School, p. 27

[10] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p.



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3 Responses to The Service

  1. Pingback: The General Was A Spy | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: Twice Through The Lines | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  3. Pingback: Espionage and Counterespionage, Chapter 14 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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