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Ghosts in the Mirror: France's Crusade Against Former Nazis in the Algerian Insurgency

It was a quiet evening in evening in Schwabing, an upscale suburb of Munich, on October 14, 1960. Very few neighbors even noted the bulky man who exited an apartment into a dark alleyway named Blütenstrasse. The man, Wilhelm Beisner, a former SS intelligence agent and currently a dubious businessman, travelled so frequently to the Middle East and North Africa that he was almost unknown in the neighborhood. From the windows of his Mercedes, the former SS spy was able to see his wife, Alice, who had just left the building with their two dogs. A second later, he started the engine and the car exploded. The Munich police that hastened to the scene opened an investigation, but the BND, West Germany’s secret service, soon took over, and the entire affair was hushed up. The wounded victim did not want to speak, either. “A Beisner that sings is a dead Beisner,” wrote one of the newspapers, ominously. To the chagrin of those who followed the story, the mysterious assassin was never found.

This forgotten story, which I read a long time ago in a German newspaper, aroused my curiosity. As I soon discovered, it was only the trip of the iceberg of an extraordinarily convoluted plot. Browsing the yellowish corners of old magazines, diplomatic correspondence, secret services documents and police reports, it soon became clear to me that Beisner was targeted by “The Red Hand,” allegedly a rogue organization of French settlers that assassinated Germans who smuggled arms to the Algerian FLN insurgents. Recent studies, however, had shown that this was yet another deceit, because the “Red Hand” was merely a front for the French secret Service, SDECE.

In the late 1950s, the French discovered that a chain of Neo-Nazi arms traffickers known as OTRACO (Orient Trading Company) were smuggling Soviet and Czech Arms to the FLN. These merchants of death, some of them former SS officers and veterans of the Nazi intelligence community, planned to use the profits to enrich themselves, foment Arab revolutions against the Western powers and fund neo-Nazi movements in Europe. At the same time, some of them spied for the BND, West Germany’s intelligence agency.

For the French, stopping these merchants was a matter of life and death. How could they win the war in Algeria with their former Nazi enemies supplying the insurgents with modern arms? Therefore, they launched a campaign of assassinations and intimidation against all such German traffickers, OTRACO included. Some, like Beisner, had their cars blown up. Others were mowed down by vicious shrapnel, shot dead in broad daylight or even pierced with poisoned darts. The French shared some of this intelligence with Mossad, the Israeli secret service, that used it in its own hunt of Nazi criminals and German scientists who cooperated with Israel’s Egyptian enemies.

For me this curious story, which I discovered bit by bit in various archives and libraries, raised some interesting questions. Often today, we debate whether targeted assassinations of prime enemy targets may win a war or a conflict. The French war against OTRACO is an interesting case in point. Though French intelligence archives are unfortunately closed, I was able to get a glimpse into the mind of the “Red Hand’s” architects from hints in German documents. It seems that the masterminds of France’s dirty war against the FLN, both politicians and generals, truly believed that by interdicting the weapons supply of the FLN, they could win the war in Algeria. For them, the Nazi merchants seemed like a mortal enemy, probably also because of memories of the Nazi occupation of France. The exaggerated importance attached to these Nazi traffickers was the basis for Paris’ campaign of targeted killings.

However, at least in this case, targeted killings were a double-edged sword. The German arm smugglers, troublesome as they were, could at least be followed, their vessels could be blown up and their shipments were liable to relatively easy interdiction. Once they were removed from the scene by the “Red Hand” assassination campaign, the vacuum they left behind was promptly filled by the Soviet Union and Red China; the French could not stop Russian and Chinese ships without risking a world war. In addition, this blatant campaign of assassinations undermined West German sovereignty and poisoned the relations between Western Europe’s primary powers precisely when Paris needed West Germany the most. Therefore, Frances’ dirty war only exacerbated the problem it purported to solve. Without a viable strategy to solve the Algerian problem – and France had none – daring operations could not win the war, only complicate it.

However, France’s delusions were dwarfed by those of the West German secret service, which employed some of these Nazis in a bid to gather intelligence in the Third World, promote West German interest in Algeria and crowd the Soviets out of the North African game. Reinhard Gehlen, the all-powerful chief of West German espionage, exaggerated, much like his French counterparts, the importance of these former Nazi spies and the extent of their influence in the Middle East. Therefore, when France began assassinating them, he was locked in an uneasy contradiction. On the one hand, Bonn’s foreign policy was based on cooperation with France. On the other hand, the assassination of BND spies such as Beisner could expose that while wooing France, Gehlen secretly helped to supply the FLN with deadly arms. For that reason, Gehlen tried to take over the Beisner murder investigation and bury it in the dark. By poisoning the relationship of West Germany and France, the obsession with Nazi arms merchants was detrimental to the interests of both countries.

In the end, the Nazi fugitives and mercenaries like Beisner and his fellow OTRACO arms merchants were not important in and of themselves. Their historical significance derived from the misguided significance which states, governments, and secret services ascribed to them, and from the overreaction of these states, governments, and secret services to their existence. Like ghosts in the mirror, they faded into oblivion the moment mesmerized viewers turned their attention elsewhere.