A Closer Look at Vienna’s History of Espionage

BOOK REVIEW: Our Man in Vienna: The Spymaster’s War at the Heart of Europe

By Panagiotis Dimitrakis / New Haven Publishing

Reviewed by William D. Murray, retired senior CIA Operations Officer

The Reviewer — William D “Bill” Murray retired in 2005 after serving more than 37 years at the CIA including 15 years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. He worked as a case officer and Chief of Stations in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, the Balkans and Western Europe and was the Agency’s senior officer in Paris on 9/11. He is co-founder and Vice President of the Council on Intelligence Issues.

REVIEW — Geography alone would be enough to determine that Vienna would always have importance in the affairs of Europe. The Roman emperor/philosopher Marcus Aurelius grasped its geographic importance as far back as 180 AD. Attacked repeatedly for centuries by the Ottoman Turks until the defeat of their last incursion in 1683, Vienna eventually became the seat of the Hapsburgs and their polyglot empire; an aggregation of frequently warring peoples of numerous nationalities. That empire ceased to exist in 1918, and this excellent book begins in that year. The author opens by evoking the memory of Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Greene wrote the screenplay and later based the published novella on that. In his research, Greene encountered and modeled his characters on the military men, international diplomats, intelligence personnel, refugees, con-men, black-market operators, and others he found there at the end of the Second World War. Greene’s mentor in the initial stages of his own espionage career, was Kim Philby who had secretly worked as a communist courier in Vienna in the mid-1930’s. The film’s protagonist, Harry Lime, may even be based on Philby.  Lime’s con, selling infected black-market penicillin to refugee children, was based on a case that Greene was told about. The author contends that international intelligence operations in Vienna from 1918 to the mid-1950’s influenced the activities and methods of these agencies throughout Europe for most of the twentieth century.

Our Man in Vienna reads like the desk sergeant’s blotter of a truly competent police counterintelligence service. The book is based almost entirely on declassified intelligence and diplomatic documents from the UK, France, the US, Nazi Germany, prewar Austria, Nazi Austria, Italy, and others. It is not a history; it does not attempt to follow a consistent story or timeline. It follows the activities of the various intelligence and diplomatic organizations that operated in the city. It is also not an analysis of operations or intelligence goals but a direct recitation of their activities as they were reported to their own masters or reported on by the services who penetrated them. In effect, it is a long series of raw intelligence and operational reporting.

Intelligence organizations have similar goals and methods, regardless of nationality, but each service develops its own style and culture. All of the services in this book were formed in the twentieth century and reading the book gives truly clear insights to how they developed and what their national masters wanted. In 1918, the major European nations viewed Vienna as an excellent location from which to gather information on the emerging nations of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, a vast political vacuum created by the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The services or organizations the author follows change as political situations evolved. From 1918 to 1938 we see the struggles of the Soviets, the British, the Germans and the Austrians themselves. We also get a look at the style of excellent, direct, on-the-ground reporting of the US State Department when the US lacked a formal intelligence service.

Three things strike me from this time. First, from the start, Soviet intelligence was intent on disruption, sedition, and supporting revolutionary movements throughout Eastern Europe rather than intelligence collection and reporting. They moved money, propaganda, and arms all over the area to foment revolution. Second, British intelligence completely penetrated and reported on the Soviets. The British government may not have known the details of every arms shipment, but they certainly had a clear view of Soviet intentions. The British kept their personnel in the same place for extended periods of time and British intelligence officers in Vienna knew the area and their targets very well. Third, until the advent of the Nazis in Germany, there was truly little interest on the part of anyone in what was happening in Austria or Vienna. Vienna was the place to live and meet your agents but was of little intrinsic interest. That situation began to change in the late 1920’s and throughout the 1930’s, as Vienna itself became a battleground between socialist, communists, and various right wing movements.

Austria’s conservative government found itself challenged by socialist and communist movements in the early 1930’s, and eventually fought a short civil war. Door to door interviews inside fortified houses with housewives in a majority socialist area of Vienna by the US chief of mission, shows the type of reporting that State did during that time. Communist elements within the socialist party had been importing weapons from Czechoslovakia, including at least sixty machineguns and enough small arms and rifles to equip three battalions. The final result was a bloody but futile attempt by the socialists to overthrow the Austrian government. Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss took complete and dictatorial power promoting his own Austrian version of fascism.

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Dollfuss did not last long. Beginning in the early 1930’s, German intelligence activity in Austria becomes more pronounced and we follow the various nations reporting on the operations of the Abwehr agents of Admiral Canaris. Dollfuss may have viewed himself as a sort of Nazi but to the Germans, he was an obstacle and they assassinated him in 1934. British and American reporting on German activity from this period until Hitler took over Austria in 1938, is the bulk of this part of the book.

After the Anschluss intelligence activity shifted from the British, who had to leave the city, to the Soviets, both NKVD and the Comintern. Soviet attempts, amateurish and ineffective, concentrated on subversion and disruption. Admiral Canaris, once he had defeated the British in Austria, shifted his own operations to his primary objective, ridding Germany of Adolf Hitler. The British tried to run operations, with mixed results, from Istanbul. They also supported Tito and others in Slovenia and former Yugoslavia in order to tie down German military units in East Europe so the units could not be moved to support German forces in France when the invasion occurred. One dedicated, hard-working British officer was assigned to assist Slovenian communist partisans. Living constantly on the run and under the most difficult and harsh conditions he once wrote in one of his messages that: “This is no life for a gentleman.”  His reward was to be executed in cold blood by the Slovenian communists he was supporting when they decided the war was ending and that Britain would then become an enemy. US intelligence, the new service on the block, entered the record through coverage of Allen Dulles in Switzerland. The documents, unfortunately, show that Dulles was consistently duped by fabricators and conmen although he also had some genuine achievements.

Like Germany and especially Berlin, Austria, and Vienna itself was occupied by the four winning powers at the end of WWII. Unlike Germany, Austria never experienced the denazification that occurred in Germany. In fact, the allied powers viewed Austria as a victim rather than an active collaborator of Nazi Germany. Vienna, a former imperial capital virtually unscathed in either the first or second world wars, was a beautiful city filled with palaces, cafes, restaurants, parks and all the pleasures a big city could offer. It was also a natural battleground between Soviet and Western intelligence services and a great place to conduct espionage. The cast of characters involved in these activities at this time is both extensive and fascinating. Both US and UK intelligence services produced some outstanding operators during this period and the author gives them their due. One thing becomes clear, leaving a good officer in place over an extended period of time is not a bad idea. Unfortunately, America’s consistent failure to produce language trained officers also becomes evident. Beginning with the occupation in 1945, the main target in Vienna was the Soviet Union, but US civilian intelligence did not assign a Russian speaking case officer there until 1952.

After Austrian leaders agreed to practice permanent neutrality, the allied occupation of Austria ended in 1955 and Austria formed its own government. Tensions between Soviet and Western governments over Austria continued until the so-called Khrushchev thaw of the early 1960’s. Interestingly, the most recent East-West spy transfer occurred at Vienna airport in 2010 when the US traded 10 Soviet illegals arrested in the US for four persons incarcerated in Russia. The transfer took place on the runway so no person from either group ever entered Austria.

This is an excellent book. The mass of documents that the author must have waded through to produce 266 pages of text must have been forbidding. The author does not analyze but he has picked the material carefully to provide excellent insights into both the history and work of numerous intelligence agencies. Use of The Third Man to evoke the special atmosphere of Vienna worked well. The first time I had an agent meeting in Vienna, I had the same feeling about the special atmosphere of this fabled imperial city. It may be old, but it has not lost its allure and this book does the city justice.                         

Our Man in Vienna earns an impressive of 3.5 out of 4 trench coats.



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