The CIA's Nazi Spy Chief

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The rise and fall of ZIPPER, the real world HYDRA.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier told audiences a story about HYDRA, a Nazi organization of spies and advanced technology that infiltrated the United States and SHIELD after World War II thanks to Operation Paperclip. While it's true that Operation Paperclip recruited former Nazi scientists, Paperclip primarily focused on rocket scientists while programs like Alsos, Surgeon and TICOM (the Target Intelligence Committee) focused on scientists and engineers of other backgrounds, the real world HYDRA, ZIPPER, tried to grow it's "beautiful parasite" in post-Nazi Germany.

ZIPPER was the code name applied to the Gehlen Organization, one of the few Nazi controlled intelligence apparatus' to meaningfully survive the fall of the third reich. The organization was named for Reinhard Gehlen, the general who had run the military intelligence organization for the eastern front under the indirect command of Adolf Hitler. When his analysis of the strength of the Red Army reached Hitler's desk and was labeled as defeatist, the general was relieved of his command, ultimately due to his competence. However, before that happened General Gehlen had made plans with his senior staff to continue the fight against the Russians after the inevitable fall of Nazi Germany, and to work with the United States to do so.

To ensure their records would survive the volatile collapse of the third reich, and that they would have leverage with the United States, the general buried his documents in several caches throughout the Bavarian Alps. The general remained there through the final days in the war before surrounding to American forces. During his debriefing as a prisoner of war, he vividly told the Americans about his concerns regarding communism and the threat that he realized the Soviet Army posed to Europe and the United States. To demonstrate his good faith,

As a later CIA report detailed, "his views were so strong that he was able to convince his captors of these views" to the point that the leadership in Washington D.C. decided to allow General Gehlen to reform his unit - codenamed ZIPPER. In 1949, responsibility for the organization shifted from G-2, U.S. Army Intelligence, to CIA. The CIA's report explained that General Gehlen began devoting "his full energies to legalizing his organization as the West German Federal Intelligence Service. He achieved this goal in March 1956 and thereby became its first president. He became directly responsible to the Chanecellor's officer. After legalization he strove to develop his organization into a world-wide intelligence service having collection capabilities and liaison on a world-wide basis."

To do that, Gehlen dedicated ZIPPER to collecting, analyzing and distributing as much intelligence on Soviet activities and officials as possible. Notably, they stopped a spy ring run by the Yugoslavian State Security Administration and they carried out counter-espionage activities against post-Nazi German dissidents throughout Europe, codenamed Operation Rusty.

One of their most interesting cases came was the exposure of a Soviet assassination unit being run by SMERSH. While many people might be familiar with SMERSH from the James Bond franchise, SMERSH was a real organization founded by Stalin who's mission and name both boiled down to a simple imperative: Death To Spies. Gehlen and the ZIPPER organization have been credited with correctly identifying the existence of SMERSH.

ZIPPER also participated in Operation Jungle, which inserted intelligence and resistance agents, most of them trained in the U.K. and Sweden, into Poland and other Baltic states which were occupied by the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Soviet counterintelligence was able to compromise the operation, most likely by east German communist moles who had infiltrated ZIPPER or those who were sympathetic to them within MI6 or CIA. In one notable case, the ZIPPER attempts to support a Soviet resistance group in Poland failed as a result of the resistance group having been created and entirely controlled by Soviet intelligence.

By far the most infamous penetration came from Kim Philby, who had managed to compromise the highest levels of the U.K.'s intelligence apparatus and its connections to CIA. In hindsight, it's not surprising that Philby was able to infiltrate the organization so successfully - he had been the teacher of James Jesus Angleton, who ran the counterintelligence division for CIA for twenty one years.

The penetrations within ZIPPER ensured that the organization never stood of a chance of meaningfully infiltrating or influencing other intelligence organizations or their government's policies as HYDRA sought to do in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even if it had, however, ZIPPER's nazi roots were never far from the minds of the Central Intelligence Agency - even Allen Dulles who maintained a friendship with Reinhard Gehlen. In fact, a (no longer) secret CIA report estimated to have been written in 1954 addressed the issue. A draft of the report was aptly titled "Former Nazi and SS Membership in ZIPPER."

The report compares their known figures regarding the six hundred known members of ZIPPER, representing approximately half of the known total of Zipper members, to the figures reported by General Gehlen. The report concludes that about 13% were "either former, SS, SD, SA [Nazi secret police] members, NSDAP [Nazi Party] members, War Crime offenders and/or a combination of [the] same." If the number seems alarming and the idea that they would be simply allowed to continue their spy work, then it's important to remember that like any guard dog they were kept on a tight leash. CIA and MI6 kept a close watch on ZIPPER and infiltrated it. ZIPPER was welcome to help secure Germany against violence and uprisings, and to help in the Cold War, but they quickly put an end to anything smacking of Operation Werwolf, the unofficial (and thoroughly failed) Nazi plan to create stay behind forces to fight after the fall of German forces.

In the end, denazification and a close eye from the international intelligence community was enough to purge the last of any Nazi influence in the BND, effectively putting an end to ZIPPER. Now the organization only exists in archives and entertaining variations on the theme, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:27 PM EST | More details


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