Germany's foreign intelligence agency wants to shed light on its past by opening the books on its many former Nazi employees during the post-war era. A team of historians is to be given this task.
Reinhard Gehlen was a flexible man: The former major-general and chief of the Foreign Armies East military intelligence organization within the German military once spied for Hitler; soon afterward he was in the service of the United States.
Gehlen helped set up Germany's post-war secret service for the Americans, the body that would go on to become the Federal Intelligence Service (BND).
With the Cold War looming, Gehlen did not hesitate to look to the ranks of former Nazis in his recruitment drives. Culprits of the Holocaust - former SS and Gestapo members - were given a new lease on life, and a new identity with the BND.
In 1965, an internal BND investigation tracked down around 200 former Nazis in the agency's employ. Some 70 were deemed unsuitable for continued service and dismissed. It is believed the number of former Nazis in government ranks could have been much larger, a hypothesis that remains unconfirmed. Though this is about to change.
Over the next four years, four historians will delve into the history of the BND, focusing on the years 1945-68 - the era of Reinhard Gehlen. Talks are currently underway with professors Wolfgang Krieger, Jost Dülffer, Rolf Dieter Müller and Klaus-Dietmar Henke to take up the investigation.
Gehlen helped set up the BND's predecessor
Henke was formerly at the head of the Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives during the 1990s. "This was thrilling work," he says as he recalls his time spent focusing on the former East German secret police. "But this new adventure would be much bigger."
That is because no one outside of the BND has ever seen the documents on the immediate post-war era, and there's no knowing what secrets the four historians could come across once they start delving into the material.
"The fact that such an authority is taking this step is an important achievement," Henke says. "And it's also perhaps a sign of a kind of cultural change."
A new generation
More transparency is something that BND President Ernst Uhrlau has long pushed for. The time for a historical overhaul has come, says the 64-year-old, who will soon be at the end of his time in office. Uhrlau says there is a new understanding within the BND of what an intelligence service in a democratic society should stand for - including being the subject of scrutiny.
"And I believe that there is a basis of tolerance and also a readiness to deal with criticism and mistakes, which was not the case with the previous generation," Uhrlau says.
The next steps in the process of opening up the BND's Nazi past will be taken up by an internal working group. But Uhrlau, who has been with the BND since 2005, says the process has faced hurdles. He cites his attempt to bring renowned historian Gregor Schöllgen into the project - the effort failed over disagreements between Schöllgen and the Federal Chancellery, which oversees the country's intelligence agencies, to grant unlimited access to confidential files as well as publication possibilities and financial support.
Uhrlau wants to see more transparency in the BND
Now, on the second attempt, there is a hope the Chancellery will make a concession by granting access to confidential dossiers. According to Henke, access to these secret documents is a necessary condition for the project to succeed. He says he is optimistic.
However, national security remains an issue, as the lives and safety of thousands of people are intertwined with the BND files. Thus, the potential for conflict is great when it comes to the matter of what can and cannot be freely published.
Uhrlau says that the historians investigating the BND's past will remain fully independent and that files will be made public without limits. Still, there are no plans as yet for a general release of BND documents, and the agency says it will decide on a case-by-case basis with reference to the valid legislation and to protecting sources and people's privacy. One thing is certain: a long tug-of-war over information will ensue.
Uhrlau says neither the BND nor the Chancellery can afford a second failure with regards the intelligence agency's past. "This is a historic project," he says. "Many interesting things can be expected in the next 10 years and beyond."
Author: Vanja Budde / dfm
Editor: Nancy Isenson