In the face of historical evil, would you have the courage to resist? It's a question that weighed heavily on the members of the CASSIA Spy Ring - a civilian resistance operation based out of a church in occupied Vienna. Vanessa Kirby joins ex-CIA officer Christopher Turner and Austrian intelligence expert Siegfried Bier to uncover a story of extreme courage in the face of insurmountable odds. In Part 1, we meet clergyman Heinrich Maier and rubber tycoon Franz Messner - unlikely friends who became the core of a new movement. Together, they recruited like-minded individuals to strike back at the Nazi regime.
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True Spies, Episode 122 - CASSIA Spy Ring, Part 1: The Priest and the CEO

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

SIEGFRIED BEER: There is no other group that got as far as CASSIA. This group really had a plan. This group really wanted to inform. First of all, to prove that there are Austrians who are against this regime and then also to improve the information flow, to let them let the Americans know whatever they also wanted to know.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby and this is True Spies, CASSIA Spy Ring Part 1: The Resistance Network. This is a story of espionage with the highest possible stakes. A true tale of cunning and deceit, international alliances, and fatal betrayals. An unparalleled act of civilian resistance. Yet it all begins quietly, on a verdant square in the 18th district of Vienna, Austria in 1943. In a church.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: It looks like a typical - what we would call - a parish church, a neighborhood church. It has a broad courtyard in front of it with cobblestones. It has lots of trees. So it's very leafy. It has a small place for children to play. And then it's a red brick church with a large spire. 

NARRATOR: This church housed secrets that, if revealed, would bring dozens of lives to a sudden end. And yet - who would have suspected a place of worship to be a center of so much clandestine activity? The ordinariness of it all - that was the strength of Gersthof Church. And its congregants - a true cross-section of Viennese life.

SIEGFRIED BEER: All of these people were just regular folks. They were people working in regular jobs and somehow managed to integrate themselves into this group and develop plans and the people had the courage to go abroad and organize such activities. Absolutely amazing.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: There are the kinds of people who turn a blind eye to the evil that's happening across the street. And then there are the people who find it distasteful but take no action. And then there are people who are willing to risk their life, their livelihood, to take action. 

NARRATOR: How much would you give of yourself - if it meant saving countless others? This is the story of a civilian spy ring that would become known by its code name, CASSIA. It’s a tale of heroism and defiance, about a group of everyday people who put their lives on the line to gather and share intelligence on the Nazis. It's a story we’re telling here on True Spies in two parts. And it’s a story that was almost unknown to the wider world until this man wrote a book about it. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: I retired in 2015 and cast about for what I would do in my retirement. I retired overseas. So the last day that I worked, I was doing operational things and then the next day I woke up at home and I wasn't doing operational things.

NARRATOR: Christopher Turner is an American author who spent 25 years working for the CIA.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: I perhaps noticed this story because I was hyper-vigilant and then the investigative parts of the story were similarly very natural for me. Tugging at a string and unraveling a larger piece of fabric is what I did for 25 years. So it was very natural for me to see clues leading possibly to a hidden story, secrets. And then uncovering those, one by one.

NARRATOR: Once a spy, now an investigator, Christopher was researching the unknown names and forgotten places that would soon constellate the story of CASSIA. Little was known about who they were or what they had achieved, but there were plenty of clues beginning with a plaque on a church wall.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: I was walking around Vienna and I came across some very obscurely written memorials to different people. And all of these memorials were clustered in my neighborhood in the 18th and 19th District of Vienna. And they would talk about 'Martyred for the freedom of Austria' and things like that. And so I began doing research and I discovered that there was a deeper story behind some of these plaques. 

NARRATOR: Christopher immersed himself in his research, dusting off archives and probing dark corners, finding clues, and piecing together a narrative. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: And at first I told my wife that I think I might have an article here. This is interesting. This is a little-known piece of history, mostly forgotten, and after six months or so of research and writing I said, "I think I might have something more like a journal article or a monograph, a standalone monograph." And then by month 10 or 11, I said, "I have a book."

NARRATOR: He was aided in his investigation by an Austrian academic named Siegfried Beer. 

SIEGFRIED BEER: I'm seen mainly as an intelligence historian.

NARRATOR: A man who stumbled into his field of expertise much in the way that Christopher stumbled upon CASSIA - only three decades earlier. 

SIEGFRIED BEER: Quite by chance, in the 1980s, when I had a stipend to work in Washington, one day, an archivist came up to me and said, "Where are you from, did you say?” And I said, of course, “Austria”, honest as I am. And he whispered in my ear, "We have just received very interesting material.” And I said, “From whom?” And he whispered again, more quietly, “From the CIA.” And, at that point, the CIA opened up the archives of its forerunner OSS. And that's when I started working on intelligence issues and intelligence questions connected to Austria.

NARRATOR: As you might be able to tell from his accent, Siegfried is a native of Austria. But CASSIA was not a name he grew up hearing. It wasn’t until about 30 years ago that he stumbled upon this lesser-known resistance movement.

SIEGFRIED BEER: In the early 1990s, I came across documents on CASSIA and I had to sort of put it together. I actually produced an article that was not unimportant for Chris Turner, I believe, because it was the first article that actually cited documents.

NARRATOR: But let’s back up. Back to that leafy square in Vienna’s 18th district. Back to that red brick church. Back to the plaques… 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: Gersthof Church is where the story not only begins in the late 1930s, but it's also where the story begins for me. There's a very, very small, obscure plaque under a tree that was planted in the honor of a former curate of that church named Heinrich Maier. And he was martyred for his resistance work against the Nazis during the Second World War.

NARRATOR: This is where we meet our first hero. Gersthof Church would turn out to be the hub of Austria’s little-known resistance movement, co-founded by a parish priest named Heinrich Maier, 30-years old, full of energy, well-liked. Known to have a good sense of humor and to play football with the children of parishioners. But even though he was married to the church, he was still concerned with worldly matters. In particular, the frightening political environment in which Austria had found itself after the annexation by the German Reich known as the Anschluss. In the early years of Hitler’s rule, Maier formed alliances with religious and political figures who shared his distaste for the Reich. But as the situation worsened, he began to seek out relationships that would help him take action against the Nazis. And he did so right at home in his own Gersthof Parish Church. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: It was there that Heinrich Maier and a nearby neighbor of his, Franz Josef Messner, who was a senior industrialist and the CEO of a large, sprawling multinational rubber company, first met in the 1930s.

NARRATOR: Franz Josef Messner was the CEO of a company called Semperit, a position he would soon come to leverage in extraordinary ways. He’s the second hero in this story. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: He was not a practicing Catholic. He had been baptized into the Catholic Church but he was actually an adherent of Buddhism and he was a worldly man. He had lived all over the world. But when he went to a relative's mass at Gersthof Parish Church, he met this young curate who was intellectually curious. Heinrich Meier, the curate, was a double doctorate, and the CEO also held a doctorate. And they had these rich discussions about art and culture and Buddhism and philosophy, and that's how they first met each other. There was a meeting of intellectual similarity between them.

NARRATOR: Messner’s company, Semperit, manufactured car and truck tires and was headquartered in Vienna.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: After the war, it was probably one of the top two or three companies in the Reich in terms of its size. And it was an instrumental part of Hitler's war machine in that all vehicles run with tires and all vehicles in conflict zones and rough off country battlefields go through tires and things like that very, very quickly. And so do airplanes. Airplanes have tires. They were manufacturing the full spectrum of military vehicle tires. This was a really key industry.

NARRATOR: It would turn out to be an instrumental part in the resistance, too. The two men were in agreement that they had a part to play in saving lives across the Reich - and in preserving the Austrian economy, so that the country could put itself back together again after the war came to an end. A parish priest and a wealthy industrialist businessman might not sound like the most likely pairing. Nor did their personalities suggest that the two might get on as friends. Maier, the priest, was by all accounts a man of great character.

SIEGFRIED BEER: There have been several books written on him and so many people commented on the fact that he was a learned man at the same time that he was an empathetic man.

NARRATOR: And the industrialist, Messner?

SIEGFRIED BEER: He was a little bit more ambivalent. He was a good businessman but I am not so sure about his human qualities. He was a ladies' man. I'm not critical of ladies’ men. After all, ladies profit from ladies’ men, too. But Messner has a couple of historians behind him. One is Siegfried Beer and the other one is Christopher Turner. And there is no movement for anything else. But that's the injustice of history.

NARRATOR: More importantly, the two men shared a common morality. And by 1938, the escalation of the German Reich forced them to act on their convictions. So, quietly, at the church and in its environs, the priest and the industrialist conceived of a resistance organization populated with Austrians who wanted to fight back against the fascist regime taking over their beloved country. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: At first it was just a group of like-minded resistors, for lack of a better word, people who abhorred what Nazism represented and disagreed with the annexation, the Anschluss of Austria into the Third Reich. And they were trying to find ways to reconcile this looming evil with who they thought they were. The center of Vienna and Austria, in general, was the center of culture, music, and literature. It's the town where Germans, like Beethoven, came and lived in their final years and produced their richest compositions. Mozart was from Salzburg but spent all of his productive years in Vienna. Freud was from Vienna. It's a very, very rich place. And they saw this sordid political movement as subverting their place in the world.

SIEGFRIED BEER: These people, except for Heinrich Maier, were not always anti-Nazis. As a matter of fact, I think in the beginning they worked for the Germans in one way or another. But what was important is that they realized in the course very early that they were serving the wrong people, the wrong cause. And then turned it around. First in the opposition and then in joining this group and actually doing something about their conviction.

NARRATOR: Christopher and Siegfried discovered that this group of people, thrown together by their shared disgust of what was happening to their beloved city, used their connections to gather information to support the Allies and other arms of the resistance. They would be citizen spies working in opposition to one of the most powerful and malevolent regimes mankind has ever seen.

SIEGFRIED BEER: These people that Heinrich Maier collected were all people with some kind of insight in some areas. And, of course, they were not interested so much in attacking the party or the leadership. That was much too dangerous. But they had realized that they needed to show to the Allies that there are Austrians who know that what is happening, what has happened to them, was a tragedy, a tragedy that with the help of the Allies could be turned around. In other words, Hitler could be defeated.

NARRATOR: Ambitious? Absolutely. Dangerous? Unquestionably. They proceeded in forming their group with the utmost caution.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: They were very careful in the way that they went about their recruiting. They went to people, trusted intermediaries and people they knew from their congregation and with whom Heinrich Maier had spoken, and people in Messner's sprawling business empire across Europe whom he personally had selected for their positions. And they felt them out on their attitudes about the war and about Nazism and things like that before they slowly drew them into greater and greater confidence in what they were thinking about doing.

NARRATOR: And the CASSIA spy ring was born. By 1942, the core group of CASSIA spies had been well established. A dozen or so key individuals, plus several more who were instrumental to their cause.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: There were the founders - the industrialist and the priest - but then they were melded through intermediaries. They were melded with other very disparate groups. 

NARRATOR: One such group? A communist cell. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: The sort of card-carrying communist members that were tolerated in pre-annexation Austria were quickly scooped up by the Gestapo and were imprisoned or worse, sometimes executed. So the group that survived past the annexation was pretty good at operating clandestinely already. So these intermediaries, primarily former Social Democratic politicians like the former mayor of Vienna, helped to bring these groups together, introducing them to one another and seeing if their goals were similar. And then the assessment between these groups began and they decided, okay, we can work with you guys. We can multiply our capacity by joining forces with you.

NARRATOR: Another group they decided to join forces with was a circle of monarchists - people who believed Austria had veered off course long before Hitler annexed the country.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: These are people who had this nostalgic view of the Hapsburg Empire and waxed nostalgic about the return of the Habsburgs to rule modern-day Austria. So they saw Hitler and his ilk to be natural oppositionists to what their ambitions were. 

NARRATOR: And then there were the pacifists. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: They were opposed, of course, to things like authoritarianism. Their biggest problem was war. They didn't want Austria or their brothers and sisters, fellow Austrians, to be involved in war and killing.

SIEGFRIED BEER: They were not Catholics because of Heinrich Maier. Really almost represents the whole political spectrum of Australian politics. But it wasn't Austrian politics that was important to them. What was important to them was to make contacts with the Allies, give them information and give them advantages when it came to planning - obviously military planning and occupation planning - and also help them in terms of the aerial war, the bombing war.

NARRATOR: This eclectic group of concerned Viennese citizens had laid out its goal: To aid the resistance movement by helping the Allies gather information about weaponry and machinery. It’s a task of extraordinary magnitude, even for trained intelligence officials. But for lay people, without any support, resources, or education in the art of espionage - well, it’s almost unthinkable. And yet, in short order, CASSIA proved their merit and, within a matter of months, they were among the first to provide intelligence on other weapons of war - not just the Nazis’ planes and bombs, but also their camps.

SIEGFRIED BEER: They knew that in the concentration camps terrible things were happening.

NARRATOR: From an unassuming church in a quiet district in 1942 Vienna, a parish priest and the CEO of a rubber company have founded a resistance organization and recruited an eclectic group of spies and informants. Their aim? To gather information to bolster the resistance and communicate to the Allies their willingness to fight the Nazis. It wasn’t that the group knew what they would find, exactly. But the group was well-connected enough to know where to look for information. And they had reason to believe that they might uncover some very dark secrets.

SIEGFRIED BEER: These people were not necessarily the best informed about what was going on in concentration camps, but they knew that these existed and they knew from observation in Vienna - most of them were from Vienna - how the Jews were treated in Vienna. So they knew that in the concentration camps terrible things were happening. And not just to Jews, but also to political opponents of the regime.

NARRATOR: Maier and Messner’s spy ring used their ties to the rubber industry to pull back the curtain on what was really going on in the camps although what they found wasn’t immediately embraced as fact.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: In the early days of the war, some of this was met with disbelief, like, “Oh, my gosh. Come on. You don't have to paint them as greater villains than they are.” But then over time, there was more information that suggested that this initial reporting had been valid. Auschwitz was the primary camp that they reported to the Allies to - actually, to the United States - at this point. And there were three different camps in that complex that were of the most importance. There was Auschwitz and then there were other camps. And one of the nearby camps was called Monowitz, and Monowitz was a slave-labor camp. And there was a giant factory there for producing synthetic rubber. And, of course, Messner, being the CEO of the largest rubber company in the Third Reich, had all sorts of reasons to go there and to interact with people. And then some of his representatives who are like-minded, who are part of his coterie, were tasked to find out more about what was happening there.

NARRATOR: Messner and others had reason to be suspicious. People who got injured at Monowitz, or who fell ill, were mysteriously shipped away from the camp and never returned.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: It became pretty common knowledge that they were being murdered. They were being inserted into this industrial killing machine at Auschwitz, at the death camp. And he dutifully recorded all of this information before it was well known among the Western Allies. And he reported it back.

NARRATOR: It’s hard to remember now that we see images of war every day, shared on social media and across the web, that so little could be known about the war as it was taking place. But the truth about Nazi internment camps came out slowly. It wasn’t until 1944 that aerial photography taken by the Allies confirmed the horrors that were taking place in Auschwitz. And it wasn’t until the liberation in 1945 that horrific images from Europe’s death camps were first made public to the world. Yet CASSIA spies were among the first people to learn what was taking place - a truth so unthinkable that their findings were met with disbelief. But their intelligence went directly to the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the US intelligence agency that was the forerunner to the CIA.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: And you must remember that none of these people had intelligence training. They were all just using their instincts to both stay alive and to guide their ambitions, their activities. 

SIEGFRIED BEER: The whole group, the 20-some people, were really going about this in the resistance with a plan in a very skillful way considering that they were all amateurs.

NARRATOR: Within just a few short months, the priest and the CEO had gathered around them various communists, monarchists, doctors, and pacifists… truly an eclectic bunch. But in order to strengthen their work, they also mobilized the people around them, building concentric circles of intelligence-gatherers.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: All of those people had access to different industries themselves. They had relatives and friends who were working in arms factories. And they tried to organize resistance inside those arm factories to introduce flaws into the manufacturing processes of the brass works or the steelworks, but also to collect intelligence on where these things were located, what they look like from the air, and they drew sitemaps. And the idea was that if we can pass these drawings in this information, this locational information to the Allies, it will inform their bombing so that they can target very specific parts of the military-industrial complex without sacrificing innocent citizens in nearby villages.

NARRATOR: Messner’s company, Semperit, held outposts outside the Reich. Those international branch offices connected the group with people with industrial expertise and afforded Messner the ability to work outside of Vienna. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: His offices were spread throughout the Reich, but also outside of the Reich, because he was able to travel outside of the Third Reich to negotiate deals on raw materials, and acquisition of raw materials that were otherwise unavailable to Germany. And one of his primary offices outside of the Third Reich was in Istanbul, which is a key part of this story as well. And so, because he was able to travel there frequently, actually, with the blessing of the Third Reich and as a leading industrialist in the Third Reich, he had essentially unlimited access to other industrialists. They were all part of the same clutch of bigwigs. And so he had a lot of access to what other people were doing as well.

NARRATOR: Think about it. Sitting at the head of the table of the largest rubber company in the Reich gives you a window into how the war is being waged. Messner’s position opened up a rare opportunity for CASSIA - the ability to collect intelligence about the very weapons and heavy machinery that were powering the war.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: Through Messner, they had a lot of access to the war industry, as you might imagine, a large international rubber company that's making tires for military vehicles has access to a lot of different things. And through Messner alone, they were able to collect secrets on things like the V1 and v the V1 cruise missile, the buzz bomb that many people know from hitting England. And then there's the V2 ballistic missile that was this larger weapon that was an actual ballistic missile. Both of those were the first operational cruise missile and ballistic missile in the world.

SIEGFRIED BEER: These were people who had information on all kinds of topics on war production, the armament factories, rubber plants, and so on. What was really important for the Americans in Istanbul and in Bern - and of course, also in Algiers - was to find out how they could quicken the war by, for example, attacking war-producing factories, ammunition-producing factories, weapons producers, airplanes… whatever. This is what they could do.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: And they were actually able to find things like the U-boat fleet's attempts to create stealth submarines using sonar-resistant rubber panels. And so these were all really interesting things because at this time, early in the war, the U-boat fleet was decimating the commercial traffic between the United States and Britain. They were trying to strangle Britain at this point.

NARRATOR: CASSIA knew their power, and over time, they began to look for ways to put their insights to better use. They needed to get their findings into the hands of the Allies. Communicating CASSIA’s intelligence became a key concern of Messner’s. And the solution he found came in the form of a trusted friend and colleague.

SIEGFRIED BEER: The third man in the CASSIA ring that was, I think, almost as important as Maier and Messner, was, of course, the Semperit friend and worker Rüdiger, Gustav Rüdiger.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: A close friend of Messner and was also one of his most trusted deputies. Before the war, he was dispatched to head up the Istanbul office of Semperit, which was very, very important. Istanbul was known as a place where a lot of things could get done. There were a lot of businesses represented there. And that became very, very important to the Third Reich, those businesses in Istanbul, because that was their gateway to raw materials that were otherwise unavailable to them.

NARRATOR: While war raged in Europe, having a link to Turkey opened up a lot of opportunities for Messner and his spy ring. It allowed him and his associates to leave the Reich, at a time when they wouldn’t normally be able to. Turkey was a neutral territory in the war, and both Allied and Axis powers could go there to make deals, acquire materials, and - in this case - pass along intelligence.

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: In the modern espionage vernacular, he would be known as a legal traveler. In other words, he had legal and cover consistent reasons for going to another place. And that's where the story gets interesting, but that's where the story also gets a little dicey.

NARRATOR: Messner and Rüdiger weren’t trained spies. They didn’t know how to form key alliances with the major Allied intelligence services. All they knew was that they had important information at their fingertips, and they wanted to share it with the forces that could put an end to the horrors taking place across Europe. But trying to do so would mean the beginning of the end for the CASSIA spy ring.

SIEGFRIED BEER: The Austrians were fully trusting that they were dealing with professionals on the other side, particularly in Istanbul. 

CHRISTOPHER TURNER: ‘Dogwood’ became both the salvation of the OSS in Istanbul and the stuff of its downfall.

NARRATOR: In the next episode of True Spies CASSIA's rise, and its precipitous fall. 

SIEGFRIED BEER: The Nazis were very, very, very thorough torturers. And if you get that treatment day in, day out, day and night, I'm not surprised that the people break.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for the second installment of CASSIA Spy Ring. Or if you’re a subscriber to *Spyscape Plus* in Apple Podcasts, there’s no need to wait. You can listen to part two right now.

Guest Bio

SPYEX Consultant Christopher Turner (pictured) served 25 years at the CIA and completed several sensitive assignments in the Far East, South Asia, and Europe. Christopher also served as a senior instructor and course director, teaching advanced tradecraft and leadership. He is the author of the nonfiction book The Spy Ring: A History of OSS’s Maier-Messner Group and the historical espionage thriller Where Vultures Gather, among others.

Historian Siegfried Beer taught in the Department of History at the University of Graz from 1978 to 2013. His venia legendi is for late modern and contemporary history. His main teaching and research areas are international politics and Anglo-American cultures since 1776, Austria in the 20th century, and the role of intelligence since 1918.

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