International Herald Tribune, March 16, 2010
I.H.T. OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
An Absurdist Film That Touches on Wartime Reality
By ISTVAN REV
Charles T. Pinck, president of the O.S.S. Society, an organization of
veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II
predecessor of the C.I.A., argued in the Washington Times that the
film "Inglorious Basterds" loses its pretense as a fantasy when it
attaches a fictional group of Jewish commandos to the real O.S.S.,
thereby giving the viewer the impression that this story is true.
"The fictional 'Basterds' may serve the film's purpose," Mr. Pinck
asserts, "but they do disservice to the history of the O.S.S."
Mr. Pinck would be surprised to learn that certain episodes of the
film are in fact closer to the history of the O.S.S. than they appear,
closer perhaps than even the film's director, Quentin Tarantino, would
Mr. Tarantino reportedly struggled with the ending of the film, until
he found a solution that mirrors obscure events in the last days of
World War II.
The so-called Jew Hunter, Colonel Hans Landa, splendidly played by
Christoph Waltz, is a thinly fictionalized portrayal of
Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff, who between 1936 and 1943 was chief of
staff to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, principal SS liaison
officer with Hitler's headquarters, and plenipotentiary of all SS and
Wehrmacht forces in Northern Italy at the end of the war.
The second highest-ranking SS officer to survive the war, Wolff was
not among the defendants at the Nuremberg war crimes trials,despite
his involvement in the deportation of Poles to the Treblinka
concentration camp in the summer of 1942, despite the role he played
in the deportation of Jews from Rome to Auschwitz, and in the medical
experiments in Dachau, and in the sterilization experiments conducted
on women and children in Ravensbrük.
He avoided prosecution, most probably through the intervention of
Allen Dulles, the head of the O.S.S. in Europe and the longest serving
director of the C.I.A. The release of C.I.A. files under the 1998 Nazi
War Crimes Disclosure Act substantiated what historians have long
suspected: Dulles had promised immunity to the SS general before the
end of the war.
Like the SS colonel played by Waltz in the film — who negotiates full
immunity, a military pension, U.S. citizenship and property on
Nantucket Island in exchange for ending the war (by letting the
Basterds kill the entire German high command, including Hitler) —
Wolff negotiated the surrender of the SS and Wehrmacht forces in
Northern Italy with Allen Dulles. The scene of the negotiations was
Switzerland (Dulles was stationed in Berne), not France as in
"Inglorious Basterds." Still, as Neal Ascherson wrote two decades ago
on the pages of the London Independent, "By selling his armies to the
Americans in 1945, Karl Wolff bought immunity, apart from a brief
confinement. ... This old man's sunny leisure dishonored both the dead
and the living."
The secret negotiations, called "Operation Sunrise," were of high
importance, as the German Army group stationed in Italy in April 1945
still had about 800,000 soldiers, and General Eisenhower did not want
to lose forces in an effort to bypass the so-called Alpine Fortress
between Italy and Austria at the time of the battle for Berlin.
Dulles, in his memoir, "The Secret Surrender," wrote that his aim was
to save lives and to protect historic sites. But stopping the Soviets
from occupying Northern Italy was as crucial as thwarting the Italian
Communist partisans from taking power after the war. Although the
Soviets had been informed about the talks they were excluded from the
We know from contemporary sources that the Soviets took the issue
seriously and accused the Allies, especially the Americans, of
secretly cooperating with the SS. President Roosevelt, in his last
telegram to Stalin before his death, tried to reassure Stalin that the
negotiations were not directed against the Soviets. Historians
speculate that the Cold War in fact started with the negotiations
between Wolff and Dulles on March 8, 1945, in Lucerne.
The German surrender in Northern Italy finally took effect on May 2,
1945, just six days before VE-Day, the end of World War II in Europe.
Even if the Cold War did not start with "Operation Sunrise," the
long-lasting effects of the secret surrender were not trivial. The
secret dealings between the American intelligence services and the SS
in Switzerland made the Soviets paranoid about Dulles, and about
clandestine contacts between Soviet operatives and the Americans, and
served as a pretext for the onset of the Cold War. Neutral
Switzerland, bordered by Nazi Germany, Austria, Fascist Italy and
occupied France, was not only the headquarters of the European
operations of the U.S. secret services but also the hub of Soviet spy
networks in Western Europe.
In 1973, when the Soviets produced their first television miniseries,
"The 17 Moments of Spring," the story centered around a Soviet agent
whose assignment was to stop negotiations between Karl Wolff and Allen
Dulles during the final months of World War II. In the series, Dulles
acts without the authorization of the U.S. president in order to
prevent the disarmament of Nazi forces and thwart the victory of
Bolshevism in Northern Italy. The series was broadcast with immense
success all over Eastern Europe and has been repeatedly broadcast ever
since, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Wolff was tried in 1948, but was almost immediately released from
prison. During the Eichmann trial in 1962, evidence once more surfaced
about Wolff's role in deporting 300,000 Polish Jews, the deportation
of Italian Jews, and ordering and witnessing with Himmler the murders
of partisans in Belarus together with Himmler (a 1970s interview with
Wolff is available on YouTube). He was sentenced in 1964 — when Dulles
was no longer the head of the C.I.A. — to 15 years imprisonment, but
due to ill health he was released in 1969. He then lived the life of a
retired citizen in Austria, lecturing about the SS and writing his
memoirs. Before his death in 1984, he played a role in the case of
authenticating the Hitler diaries, which turned out to be forgeries.
Dulles had a liking for Wolff, whom he described as "trustworthy,"
"extremely good-looking," "aristocratic" and even "Goethe'esque" —
whatever he meant by this.
At the end of "Inglorious Basterds," when, according to the immunity
agreement, Lt. Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt) releases Hans Landa,
he tattoos a Swastika on the forehead of the SS officer to prevent him
from denying his Nazi past. For Karl Wolff, however, it never occurred
to disavow who he was. When a prison guard forbade him to wear his SS
insignia he went on a hunger strike; he found nothing to be ashamed of
in his past.
Istvan Rev is a professor of history at Central European University, Budapest.
And here's a photo of Karl Wolff: