Thursday, May 17, 2012


Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare — Exposing Hitler's Undeclared War on the Americas (1939) by John L. Spivak

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase and Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don’t forget to check out the wide range of reviews, past and present, at both their blogs.

“You will proceed to Prague,” Richter instructed him, “and lose yourself in the city.”

The Gestapo chief opened the top drawer of his desk and took a small capsule from a box. “If you find yourself in an utterly hopeless situation, swallow this.”

He handed the pellet to the nervous young man.

“Cyanide,” Richter said. “Tie it up in a knot in your handkerchief. It will not be taken from you if you are arrested. There is always an opportunity while being searched to take it.”

This is but one instance of Nazi Germany’s espionage activities during World War II. This particular incident took place at Bischofswerda, what was then the Czechoslovak-German frontier, months before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.

In Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare — Exposing Hitler's Undeclared War on the Americas, John L. Spivak, an American socialist and journalist, describes numerous instances of how the Nazi propaganda machine led by Joseph Goebbels infiltrated scores of countries — socially, politically, industrially and economically — in order to gain the upper hand in the World War.

Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 was, it would seem, made easier by Nazi agents and sympathisers whose covert operations had increased greatly in days and months leading up to the conquest of the Central European country.

By taking over Czechoslovakia, the German dictator broke the Treaty of Munich he had signed in September 1938 with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier and Italian Fascist Leader Benito Mussolini. The Czechs had no representation at the conclave which allowed Hitler to have only the German-speaking Sudetanland of Czechoslovakia. Instead, he occupied the entire country.

Infiltration into other countries by all other means, besides war, was uppermost in the devious mind of Hitler who did not want Germany caught on the back foot as it was during World War I.

“To understand the feverish activities of foreign agents and native Americans working with foreign agents, one must remember that when the World War broke out in 1914, Germany was caught with only small espionage and sabotage organisations in the United States,” Spivak tells us. “It cost the German War Office large sums of money to build them under difficult and dangerous conditions. The Nazis do not intend to be caught the same way in the event a war finds the United States on the enemy side or, if neutral, supplying arms and materials to the enemy.”

Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare (Modern Age Books, 1939) details how the Nazi propaganda network infiltrated into the heart of countries — its people, its industry, and its government — in what was, arguably, a mind-numbing exercise to achieve two chief goals. One, interfere in the affairs of the country to the extent that public opinion turned against its government and undermined any effort on the war front; and two, bring these countries into the fascist circle. Here the Nazis were targeting highly influential people, including powerful world leaders like Chamberlain and doyens of US industry, who were reportedly in favour of appeasing fascist Germany.

Hitler used the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis to carry out espionage activities in Britain, United States, Central America including Panama Canal Zone, and Mexico, and eventually threaten the peace and security of the US. He knew America was the only country that could prevent Germany’s geographical domination of Europe and political supremacy in the world. He wanted to spread discord and confusion in the US with the hope that domestic issues would force that great nation to stay out of the war.

There are some interesting revelations in this book. For instance, Spivak talks about the Fifth Column in several European countries, especially in Czechoslovakia and France, through which the Nazis and Italian agents built a secret underground army of spies and 

The Fifth Column originally refers to the fascist sympathisers within Madrid who aimed at overthrowing the Spanish government through spying, sabotage and terrorism. During WWII the term was used to describe the various fascist and Nazi organisations operating within the borders of non-fascist nations.

Elsewhere, Spivak writes about the “influence of Nazi ideology upon England's now notorious ‘Cliveden set’ which maneuvered the betrayal of Austria, sacrificed Czechoslovakia and is working in devious ways to strengthen Hitler in Europe.” Comprising some of the most ambitious and powerful men and women in Britain, the ‘Cliveden set’ apparently had a potent effect upon the growth and influence of fascism throughout the world.

In Spivak’s words, “The small but carefully selected group of guests (at Cliveden House) had been invited ‘to play charades’ over the weekend — a game in which the participants form opposing sides and act a certain part while the opponents try to guess what they are portraying. Every man invited held a strategic position in the British government, and it was during this ‘charades party’ weekend that they secretly charted a course of British policy which will affect not only the fate of the British Empire but the course of world events and the lives of countless millions of people for years to come.” We don't know how far this is true.

Other chapters
The 137-page copyright-free ebook is divided into several incredible chapters, such as:

France's Secret Fascist Army — about a plot to destroy the Popular Front government and establish fascism in France with the help of leading French industrialists and top army bosses

Dynamite Under Mexico — where Nazi agents spread anti-democratic propaganda to turn popular sentiment against the ‘Colossus of the North’ and to develop a favourable attitude toward the totalitarian form of government).

Surrounding the Panama Canal — which, among other things, included buying or leasing land for colonisation and converting into an air base, if necessary).

Secret Agents Arrive in America — the one country where the Nazis concentrated maximum in terms of propaganda, espionage and smuggling. Besides, America had abundant sources of raw materials and foodstuffs that are critical in any war.

Nazi Spies and American ‘Patriots’ — the web rapidly embraced native fascists, racketeering ‘patriots’ and deluded Americans who swallowed the Nazi propaganda).

Other chapters include Henry Ford and Secret Nazi Activities, Nazi Agents in American Universities and Underground Armies in America.

My first impression upon reading Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare was: it can’t be true, not all of it at least, and certainly not the extent of Nazi interference in America’s affairs. For, had it been the case then history would have been quite different. Germany used the Fifth Column to achieve most of its nefarious schemes though Spivak doubts whether “the motive is primarily to win the Americas over to the joys of totalitarian government or to the theory of Aryan supremacy. The money and the effort seem to be expended for more practical reasons” such as having a clear advantage during the war and even winning it.

My second impression was that Spivak (1897-1981), who has authored several books about the working class, racism, and the spread of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe and America, had spun a fantastic yarn. I wasn’t alone in thinking so. According to an article at Wikipedia, people doubted his conclusions, especially his assessment of the threat of domestic Nazism and anti-Semitism. 

John L. Spivak
British diplomat-turned-academic E.H. Carr called Spivak’s work "ambitious" and found nothing new except "fantastic stories about the German and Italian spy system."

He said, “According to Mr. Spivak, the leaders of secret anti-Fascist organisations sought to meet him, although not only their personal freedom and perhaps even their lives, but also, to a certain extent, the success of the movement itself, were at stake. With all respect for Mr. Spivak's abilities, the risks taken by these German, Polish and Austrian revolutionaries seem to be utterly unreasonable and the destinies of the anti-Fascist movement put in rather reckless hands.”

The book is interspersed with many first-person accounts by Spivak, particularly his interactions with agents, collaborators and sympathisers, while they were “working” for the Fifth Column. In one interview Spivak is penetrating to the extent that his subject is distinctly uncomfortable but nevertheless answers his questions. There is no way to verify these personal accounts.

Secret Armies: The New Technique of Nazi Warfare is a well-researched and well-written book which gives you two choices — either you believe it or you don’t. I am inclined to go both ways. While Hitler’s propaganda machine was very effective across the European mainland, I don’t think it succeeded, as well as Spivak would like us to believe, in Britain or the United States. The writer’s account of Nazi Germany’s secret, albeit well entrenched, presence in the two countries lacks credibility. Finally, Hitler’s miscalculation over America’s decision to enter the war against Germany, rather than take on Japan after Pearl Harbour, is testimony that the well-oiled Nazi propaganda had failed across the Atlantic. Which begs the question: was there one in the first place?

Wall Street's Fascist Conspiracy: Testimony that the Dickstein MacCormack Committee Suppressed (New Masses, January 29, 1935) was one of two articles John L. Spivak wrote exposing what he claimed to be a Wall Street tycoon plot to, reportedly, overthrow the government with a military coup. Apparently, most Americans didn’t know it existed.


  1. I know there was a pretty strong fifth column in the US. This sounds interesting. I've always been fascinated with Nazi Germany. An interesting historical period.

  2. Really interesting choice Prashant. Temperamentally I am probably less sceptical about some of the assertions than you I suspect. There were a lot of fascist groups (still are in fact) at the time so a lot of this is not that hard to believe. You make one slightly curious point near the end:

    "Hitler’s miscalculation over America’s decision to enter the war against Germany, rather than take on Japan after Pearl Harbour ... "

    That makes it sound like the US didn't have a War in the Pacific - did I missread it?

  3. Charles, I have heard and read about the Fifth Column and it would be really interesting to find out what it did and how widespread it was. Nazi Germany is, indeed, a very fascinating historical period both within and outside the context of world War II.

  4. Thanks, Sergio, equally so for your keen observations. I agree there were a lot of fascist groups in Britain and the United States (as there might still be) at the time of WWII and while Hitler's propaganda network might have made substantial inroads into both the countries, I doubt it had the kind of impact the dictator hoped for. I think it fell far short of his expectations in so far as pulling the two countries towards fascism was concerned.

    On the second point, Hitler, I feel, did miscalculate America's decision to go to war with Germany. Though, I should have mentioned that the US officially declared war on both Germany and Japan around the same time, in December 1941. My understanding is that America's first real conflict with Japan in the Pacific war theatre came only in mid-1942, several months after the attack on Pearl Harbour. This was because US warships of the Pacific Fleet were out at sea when Japan struck.

  5. I've never read this, Prashant, but it does sound grandiose in scope.

    I'm thinking that the truth was fantastic enough NOT to need any embellishment.

    I recently read THE LONG NIGHT - William L. Shirer and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Steve Wick which put me behind the scenes in the early days of Nazi ascendancy as journalist Wm. L. Shirer was on the scene to report what was going on as best he could. (Broadcasting and even the sending of print stores was kind of primitive in those days) He was actually living in Berlin at one point so was on hand until 1940 when he fled the country. He then broadcast from London, with Edward R. Morrow.

    An interesting book though not as good as I thought it would be.

  6. P.S. I'm wondering if the Fifth Column activity in this country had much to do with our avoidance of the obvious truth of Germany's early and ever more deadly aggression against Jews.

    Concentration camps were being built right and left and everyone knew about them. I'm wondering if in those early days, the American government chose to look the other way because of - perhaps - Fifth Column pressure from within?