True Spies, Episode 123 - CASSIA Spy Ring Part 2: The Best Laid Plans
NARRATOR: 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?
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: In late March, right after he had said mass, our hero Maier was taken. Two Gestapo agents dressed in long black leather trench coats came in, snatched him, dragged him to a waiting sedan that was idling at the curb outside of the church, and took him to Gestapo headquarters in the First District.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby and this is True Spies - CASSIA Spy Ring. Part 2: The Best Laid Plans. CASSIA was a civilian spy ring founded by a priest, Heinrich Maier, and the CEO of a multinational rubber company, Franz Josef Messner. If you haven’t heard Part 1 of this story, go back and have a listen to Episode 122. And if you have, well here’s a quick recap. Beginning in 1942, the CASSIA spy ring sourced intelligence about the goings-on of the Nazis in Austria, which had been annexed by the German Reich. One of the group’s greatest strengths was its diversity. Group members drew upon their contacts across Austrian society to source information and resist the dangerous machinations of the fascist regime. In particular, the CASSIA spies were well-connected in the industrial realm, thanks in large part to Franz Messner’s position at the head of the rubber company Semperit. No one in the group had any experience with espionage. They were all simply trying to help defeat the Nazis, however best they could. Yet the information they unearthed was of extraordinary consequence to their country and the millions of people being persecuted by the Reich. In this episode, we tell the story of how the ragtag group of CASSIA spies found themselves part of a bigger effort and found themselves jeopardized by German moles. But first, unbeknownst to Cassia, another intelligence effort to bolster the resistance was taking place elsewhere in Europe.
SIEGFRIED BEER: The British had a plan already in 1943 to say and act differently toward Austria, than toward Germany.
NARRATOR: This is the Austrian intelligence historian Siegfried Beer.
SIEGFRIED BEER: Why? Because Austria obviously was insignificant compared to Germany on the one hand. On the other hand, the Austrians had failed between the wars to establish a state, a viable state because the majority of Austrians wanted to be Germans. They wanted to join Germany, the German Reich, even before Hitler. And by the end of World War II, there were still a lot of Austrians who didn't believe in the small Austria of the First Republic, the inter-war years.
NARRATOR: The British Special Operations Executive, or SOE, recognized that Austria was in a bad position to resist fascism within the Reich and reestablish itself as a strong, autonomous power.
SIEGFRIED BEER: It was clear that the question was identity. And the British realized that if they help the Austrians establish an identity separate from Germans and Germany, and support them economically, they could create a viable state. And that's exactly what happened.
NARRATOR: In 1943, the SOE launched what it called the Clowder Mission, providing resistance factions with weapons and other forms of support. That helped to strengthen groups within Austria that wanted to distinguish themselves from the German Reich. The consequences of the Clowder Mission became clear over the years that followed, as Austria rebuilt itself and its economy, especially after 1955 when Austria officially became an independent state. But the fuller picture of the mission wouldn’t come into focus for over 40 years. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When we last heard from Siegfried and former CIA officer Christopher Turner, we were in Istanbul. The year was 1943, and Istanbul was awash with spies from all sides.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: When you think of Istanbul, you have to think of the movie Casablanca. It has a lot of moving parts, a lot of people skulking around in shadows, and a lot of people trying to make deals. And some people were trying to make legitimate deals and other people were trying to do espionage. And other people were just opportunists and thieves and everything else, just trying to pick up on the crumbs of all these other activities. So it was a Star Wars bar scene. It was this mix and mash of different kinds of people, from high-born European nobility to grubby thieves all interacting with one another and all trying to gain an advantage on each other.
NARRATOR: Gustav Rüdiger, a close friend of Messner’s and an employee of Semperit, was looking to forge an alliance between the CASSIA spy ring and the Allied powers. Within Istanbul, he had a unique window onto the industrial decision-making going on within the Reich, and he was committed to helping CASSIA get that information to the nations who were fighting the Nazis.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: Gustav Rüdiger worked in this environment very effectively. He had very, very high priority directives from the Third Reich to maintain the pace of operations at Semperit. And so, he was a key to that. The raw materials had to come from him. Deals had to be made through that office. It was the outside link to the rubber industry for the Third Reich. So he had every reason to just move through all of these different circles. The black market was not off limits to him either. He was looking to make black market deals, whatever he could do, so he could go anywhere and do anything without raising any eyebrows.
SIEGFRIED BEER: He had been in Istanbul for a long time and he had good contacts within the Semperit company but every intelligence organization needs to find out for itself who it can trust and who it has to be careful with.
NARRATOR: It wasn’t long before Rüdiger learned that lesson for himself.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: In very short order, he found somebody who was involved in the intelligence trade.
NARRATOR: Just what Rüdiger had been hoping for. Someone who could pass CASSIA's intelligence along to the Allies.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: So this principal agent that the British had, his name was Alfred Schwartz.
NARRATOR: Alfred Schwartz was a native of what is now the Czech Republic, and he’d become a very successful business owner in Istanbul. Then, when the war began, he found he was able to turn a profit by growing his own intelligence network.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: Schwartz sold himself as being a very, very sophisticated operator, and he did indeed assemble this giant network of different spy rings, not just one ring, but many spy rings. And in that was his utility. And the way he was able to command high prices from intelligence agencies is that he had access to a lot of different things. If you asked him for information on what color fingernail polish Eva Braun used, he could get it. And where does Hitler get his haircut? He could get a guy. So the problem with that is that he was a businessman. And at first, this fellow was running a network for British intelligence. But British intelligence eventually grew colder about this agent's capabilities. And, like all good advanced intelligence services, pawned him off on the newer intelligence service, which was the brand new OSS.
NARRATOR: The Office of Strategic Services was formed in 1942 to account for deficiencies in the American intelligence system. The British services MI6 and SOE served as a model.
SIEGFRIED BEER: The British had been in the business longer and the British were better trained - MI6 and SOE - than the Americans.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: The brand new OSS, it had been formed shortly after the war began and largely trained by the British. And it was filled, packed to the gills with people who are very well-intentioned but not particularly skilled. What skills they had, they had picked up in short training courses provided by the British.
SIEGFRIED BEER: The Americans were, compared with the British, quite lenient and quite liberal - In Istanbul, at least. The Americans were well-meaning and of course, they knew they had the stronger machine behind them the stronger power. So they didn't lack confidence, they lacked experience.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: But they were put into positions of great responsibility because the bench was empty at this point. There were no options.
SIEGFRIED BEER: The important thing is that you understand the British in Istanbul did not believe that CASSIA was an operation that they wanted to support. They were against it. And one has to say the British were usually right.
NARRATOR: Of course, that wasn’t known to the CASSIA spy Gustav Rüdiger at the time. He’d been in search of a conduit to the Allies - and lo and behold, he’d found one in Alfred Schwartz, the OSS’s latest catch. Schwarz, however, didn’t exactly have a sterling track record.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: He was turned over to the OSS's new chief and they said, "Hey, listen, we've had a little bit of trouble with this guy. But it seems like he has some access to some interesting characters. He's running a network. He's a businessman. He does this on the side for us to make extra cash. And we think he might be of utility to you. At least he's a starting point for your operations here. You can start to build up networks, intelligence networks, through this guy." So he was dutifully what we call 're-encrypted', given a new code name, Dogwood. And Dogwood became both the salvation of the OSS in Istanbul and the stuff of its downfall.
NARRATOR: Schwartz was an intelligence outsider. And that was the first problem to contribute to CASSIA's demise.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: He ran his network like he ran his business. Bigger is better. The more people I have, the better this will be, and the bigger it is.
NARRATOR: Even if you’re a new listener to True Spies, you can probably surmise there’s a flaw in that logic.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: In intelligence operations. Big is bad. Big is not good. The value of intelligence is in its secrecy, in its clandestine entity. And that point was understood by him but deprioritized by him over growth - profit, profit, and growth - were seen as things that were that he wanted to pursue.
NARRATOR: Schwartz met Messner’s friend Rüdiger, and CASSIA was folded into the Dogwood network. Rüdiger would become Schwartz’s most prolific agent. A great get for the businessman-spymaster. For his part, Rüdiger didn’t know what sort of relationship he was walking into. He didn’t know about Dogwood’s shortcomings - of which there were many - or the fact that the group had become so large that it was now unwieldy. And anyway, it wasn’t as if Rüdiger had a myriad of attractive options to choose from for his clandestine resistance organization.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: It's a dog-eat-dog world in Istanbul. And trying to find someone who had legitimate contacts with Western intelligence was probably very, very difficult. And in that, he found Schwartz, and Schwartz did have legitimate access to Western intelligence. It's just that he wasn't in, again, in modern vernacular, he wasn't suitable for the job of a principal, what we call a principal-agent, somebody who is recruited as an agent who has access to so many sub-sources.
NARRATOR: So Rüdiger and his group were folded into the Dogwood network - hence the botanical name CASSIA - and joined other rings with code names like Juniper and Redbird. Make no mistake, it was still a rather ragtag group. But now their analysis would be received by a major Allied power. That’s a pretty big boon for a group of civilian spies. You might think the acquisition would improve the work CASSIA was able to do. But the spies received no additional training from the OSS. And even though their analysis was now reaching the Allies, as they’d hoped, it wasn’t having the impact they wanted. In part because, even though they were reporting to the OSS, the US Air Force was suspicious of the intelligence they were providing.
SIEGFRIED BEER: They provided information that the Americans didn't get otherwise. And that, of course, means that they also therefore couldn't corroborate it. And so, I think that was one of the motives why they were so critical of some of the information that they got from the CASSIA group.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: So it's going through all of these different levels, right? It's going through the filter of Dogwood. Alfred Schwartz is going through him. And by the time it gets to the Air Force analyst, we're not even sure from a quality control perspective if it's really very similar to what was originally passed by Messner's group. And then they thought that the Americans that the Air Force analysts and targeters would refine that package a little bit because they didn't have aerial photography and they didn't have any sort of overhead imagery to deal with. They were just dealing with it on the ground as tactical collectors. But in those discrepancies, the Air Force analysts said, “See, this is proof. This isn't exactly the way it's supposed to be. So this is definitive proof that these people are playing us.”
NARRATOR: In other words, Air Force analysts knew that CASSIA had connections to major factories in Austria and they believed the spies were working to protect their own business interests.
SIEGFRIED BEER: Both Messner and Rüdiger tried to avoid the bombing of the Semperit works and all the companies that were connected to rubber production which, I think, is understandable. Excuse me, if you work for a company, then obviously you want to avoid that if you can. But that was taken as proof that they were leading the Allies on.
NARRATOR: With all the best intentions, the OSS were reaching all the wrong conclusions.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: Instead of assigning blame to the way the OSS was handling the Dogwood network, or instead of assigning blame to their star principal agent Dogwood, they were saying that the CASSIA spy ring bunch is up to no good. Maybe Messner is a profiteer. Maybe he's trying to position himself for playing both sides. If there's an Allied victory, he wants to be in the catbird seat.
NARRATOR: Intelligence analysts in Washington believed that Messner had doctored his reports to improve his standing with the OSS. As a result, CASSIA's analysis wasn’t heeded.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: Meanwhile, the true moles in this operation were burrowing ever more deeply.
NARRATOR: The CASSIA spy ring was finally in cahoots with the Allied powers, thanks to a partnership with the Dogwood spy network, which worked with the OSS. Thanks to Alfred Schwartz, Dogwood’s principal agent, they’re now part of an organized collection of resistance groups run out of Istanbul. But there was a fly in the ointment: the American Air Force was suspicious of the analysis it was receiving. And as it turns out, Alfred Schwartz’s big-tent approach to recruitment was not doing his espionage network any favors.
SIEGFRIED BEER: It's very clear the at the high point when it seemed that they had found the right people, that they were willing to go into a partnership - just at that point it seemed as though that this thing was going to take off - these treasonous acts happened all at once.
NARRATOR: CASSIA had been founded on a good-faith effort to take down the Nazis. But Dogwood? It was a money-making venture. And that left the door open for people with less altruistic motives. People who would ultimately bring down the group from the inside out. Meanwhile, OSS had all but stepped aside.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: This profitable enterprise was profitable for them as well. Out of the 1,000 or 1,200 reports that Istanbul produced during World War II, I think 700, 750 were from Dogwood alone. So they say, “Okay if this guy insists that he operates in this unconventional manner and doesn't want to tell us who his sub-sources are - and he doesn't want us getting our fingers into his pie - then we're just going to let him run it the way he wants to run it.” So, without oversight, he started recruiting more and more sources and he introduced a number of foxes into the hen house that way.
NARRATOR: The OSS wasn’t providing much oversight to Schwartz’s intelligence operation at all. They were content to stay out of it, as long as Dogwood kept delivering their analysis. And that’s how they were infiltrated by the enemy.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: They detected the Dogwood Network and they wanted to know what was going on in the Dogwood Network. And the tried-and-true method for that is to introduce moles into a network and to have them burrow around and see what they can find.
NARRATOR: It started with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. Remember Alfred Schwartz’s business motto, Bigger Means Better? Well, he didn’t see anything suspicious in these recruits. He snapped them up.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: One of the most damaging may have been a childhood friend from the Czech Republic that Schwarz knew as a child, and went to school with. And that guy, his name was Laufer. But also there were several others. So there were these different personalities who had who claimed they had great access to interesting information, and the Germans were willing to give them authentic feed material to improve their standing inside the Dogwood Network.
NARRATOR: Think of an intelligence organization like a boat…
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: The bulkheads are what protect the boat from sinking. If one of the sections is compromised, if there's a hole punched in the bow by a small iceberg, then the whole ship doesn't flood with water and sink. So those bulkheads are very important to intelligence operations. They prevent cross-contamination. They prevent the water from filling all of the compartments and sinking the ship. But Schwartz wasn’t an intelligence officer and he wasn't being told how to operate by OSS. So he allowed a lot of cross-contamination between these different elements of his giant, sprawling network. And it didn't require a lot of effort on the part of these German double agents to quickly find out the source of some of this very interesting strategic intelligence being leaked out of Austria and they stumbled very quickly upon the CASSIA spy ring.
NARRATOR: The German agents were quickly able to root out not just CASSIA's secrets, but who their members were. And therein lies a sad irony of the whole operation. These German moles were able to learn far more about the Austrian resistance group than the OSS ever had.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: The CASSIA spy ring people didn't know it yet, but their days were already numbered by the end of 1943. And by the beginning of 1944, the German security apparatusAbwehr and the Gestapo had come together with a plan to dismantle the castle. And starting in January, that's when the arrests began.
NARRATOR: The Germans began on the fringes of the network and worked their way in. First, they arrested the people supporting CASSIA by distributing anti-Nazi propaganda. Then, in mid-January, they arrested a group of young conscripts - pacifists who had joined CASSIA as part of the resistance and were dodging the draft. And in February, they arrested a district policeman who had been informing the Viennese police.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: It's a daisy chain of arrests. Right? And each person, they suck off the street, they interrogate, get more information, and they work themselves to the next person.
SIEGFRIED BEER: And because these people could not communicate within their group except by meeting, they didn't even find out about it. And so it ended all tragically.
NARRATOR: Throughout this time, the CASSIA spy ring continued to operate. And because it had become such an important resource for Dogwood, CASSIA received a great deal of support from Schwartz. Schwartz sent two of his most trusted sources to finance the group and supply them with a clandestine radio - not knowing that those sources were German agents. From within the group, those agents were able to gather enough information to ensure that the arrests continued apace, slowly striking down increasingly powerful members of the spy ring. Toppling them one by one, from the outside in. Until they reached the top of the organization - the Gersthof Parish Church priest Heinrich Maier and his friend, the industrialist Franz Josef Messner.
SIEGFRIED BEER: It was at that point, March in 1944 when that happened within just a couple of days.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: In late March, right after he had said mass, our hero Maier was taken by two Gestapo agents dressed in long black leather trench coats. They came in, snatched him, and dragged him to a waiting sedan that was idling at the curb outside of the church and took him to Gestapo headquarters in the First District.
NARRATOR: Then they came for Messner.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: The very next day, as a result of these German double agents' efforts through Dogwood, Messner was dispatched to Budapest, which you can reach by just driving from Vienna. And he drove his Semperit-provided car to Budapest to receive a clandestine radio from the OSS and he had the next tranche of funding, operational funding so that they could pay their sub-sources and continue their operations. And it was a sting operation. Waiting in the hotel was one of the agents who had set the whole thing up and a clutch of security agents. And he was arrested on the spot and dragged back to Vienna.
NARRATOR: What happened after that…well, you might be able to imagine. Maier, having been arrested first, was the first of the two men to be subjected to the Nazis’ traumatizing interrogations. They wanted to extract as much information as they could from him, implicating as many of his collaborators as possible.
SIEGFRIED BEER: The Nazis were very, very, very thorough torturers. They had specialists for special cases. And of course, for foreign agents. They had their men, people. And if you get that treatment day in, day out, day and night, I'm not surprised that the people break.
NARRATOR: Under duress, Maier admitted that Messner had established contact between CASSIA and the Allies. By late April, he had given up the names of several CASSIA members. The Gestapo used Maier’s confessions to prod Messner into giving up more information. But in time, both men realized that they had been pitted against one another and had become pawns in the Nazis’ game. Maier took back what he had said about Messner, and Messner refused to share what he knew. In October, the men were prosecuted in court, along with eight other CASSIA members. Both Maier and Messner were convicted of conspiracy to commit high treason, a crime punishable by death. A year after his arrest, Maier was led to the guillotine. His final words were: “Long live Christ the King. Long live Austria.”
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: All of the principal people in this in this story were either guillotined in Vienna or in the case of poor Messner, he was shifted back and forth while they were deciding what to do with this scion of the Reich, this major industrialist. And eventually, 10 or 12 days before the liberation of Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, he was gassed and cremated.
NARRATOR: Nearly everyone involved in the spy ring was executed. When the war was over, resistance efforts like those carried out by CASSIA were celebrated. But the plaudits quickly faded away. At that point, Austria wasn’t ready to celebrate its heroes - or even to recognize them.
SIEGFRIED BEER: When the war was over, the Austrians were confused. They were again occupied and these occupying powers stayed for 10 years.
NARRATOR: Austria was jointly occupied by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union immediately after the war. It wasn’t until 1955 that Austria was declared an independent state.
SIEGFRIED BEER: I've always argued that Austria needed to be liberated by other Armies because the Austrians were not capable of liberating themselves. They were not capable of putting up enough resistance to make a major difference when it came to defeating Nazism. Austrians became cozy with the occupiers. And they were not made responsible for the idea, for their behavior.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Austrian identity remained a work in progress and that prevented the country from reckoning with its complicity in what went on during the war. Remember how the British intelligence forces had launched the Clowder Mission, providing resistance factions with weapons, as part of a larger plan to counteract Austrians’ coziness with their occupiers? Well, in the end, it worked. And what happened in the years after the war helped to deepen Austria’s sense of itself.
SIEGFRIED BEER: In the ‘50s and’60s, Austria, because of the Marshall Plan and other support, really turned things around. And when people were asked how they felt, they more and more felt to be Austrians. And by the ‘70s and ‘80s, a majority of Austrians were Austrians. You could say they were patriotic Austrians.
NARRATOR: In other words, Austria’s newfound self-image had done a lot to support its growth after the war. What’s known as the “victim theory” helped the nation set itself apart from Nazi Germany, the idea that Austria was itself a victim of the Nazi regime and therefore not responsible for the atrocities it committed.
SIEGFRIED BEER: You can be sure that a CASSIA group working in Germany in the same way as they did in Vienna, in Austria, would have been acknowledged a long time ago.
NARRATOR: But while the majority of Austrians were content to wash their hands of the crimes of the past, the past inevitably caught up with them. When the diplomat Kurt Waldheim ran for president of Austria in 1986, the country had to take a hard look in the mirror. Waldheim had worked as an intelligence officer for the Nazis and had been complicit in the deaths of thousands of Jews and resistors. His presidential candidacy occasioned what’s now known as the Waldheim Crisis.
SIEGFRIED BEER: The Austrian government had to address the issue, pay restitution, really turn things around, and had to admit by the 1990s that we also had to share the guilt for World War II and for the establishment of the Third Reich. We needed the Waldheim Crisis and the American demand to do restitution to Jewish property in real terms.
NARRATOR: For decades, Austria’s World War II heroes had been overlooked. Even worse, when their contributions to defeating the Nazis were acknowledged, they were considered unpatriotic, at best. That includes Cassia.
SIEGFRIED BEER: The majority of Austrians actually looked at those people as traitors. I remember even in the 1990s when I gave a lecture and I introduced to the audience a former agent - an Austrian who volunteered to work for the OSS in World War II and then actually parachuted into Austria - I let this man talk about him. The whole room despised this man because he was not loyal to that old German Reich.
NARRATOR: Had the members of CASSIA survived, they might have received a similar treatment. One of them was Gustav Rüdiger.
SIEGFRIED BEER: He survived the war and yet didn't really tell his story, not even to his own boys. I talked to one of the boys, but they knew nothing about it. He was mum about it. He did not talk about it. Why? In self-defense. He knew he would be treated as a traitor to the cause.
NARRATOR: Things are changing now, and have been since the Waldheim Crisis. And that’s thanks to people like Siegfried, who’s done some of the most important research on CASSIA and their role in the history of Austrian intelligence.
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: Christopher’s book, The CASSIA Spy Ring in World War II Austria, is introducing the group to an English-speaking audience and giving CASSIA its due, eight decades later.
CHRISTOPHER TURNER: If you look at the Polish resistance model, everyone was a former military officer who helped to organize Polish resistance, and many of them were former Polish intelligence officers. And so there was a professional element behind it. But this group didn't have any of that. They were driven by a sense of right and wrong. They saw how society was sorting it out. The large majority of people maybe didn't approve of the annexation of Austria into the Reich but were willing to live with it. They were willing to avert their eyes downward and ignore the abuses. And just as long as they were not directly affected by the war or by this oppressive, draconian security regime, they would just live their lives. And then there were people who are, of course, a smaller fraction of people who were collaborators, who were actively participating in some way. But then there was this tiny group who just couldn't let things go. They just had their backbones and their convictions.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Next time, we’re heading down Mexico way for a tale of two kidnappings featuring ex-Special Forces operators Jeff Miller and Nick Brokhausen. Or, if you’re a subscriber to *Spyscape Plus* on Apple Podcasts, there’s no need to wait: you can listen to it right now.
SPYEX Consultant Christopher Turner (pictured) served 25 years at the Agency, during which he completed several sensitive assignments in the Far East, South Asia, and Europe. Christopher served as a senior instructor and course director, teaching advanced tradecraft and leadership. He is the author of the nonfiction book TheSpy Ring: A History of OSS’s Maier-Messner Group and the historical espionage thriller Where Vultures Gather, among others.
Historian Siegfried Beer professionally taught and researched at 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.