The Secret History of Israel’s War Against Hitler’s Scientists

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Years after the Holocaust, the Mossad learned that Egypt was working with German scientists on weapons of mass destruction. Photo Illustration by Gluekit

Since World War II, Israel has used assassinations and targeted killings on more people than any other country in the Western world. In many cases, its leaders have determined that in killing a designated target—and protecting its national security—it is moral and legal to endanger the lives of innocent civilians. Harming such people, they believe, is a necessary evil. 

Israel’s reliance on assassination as a military tool did not happen by chance. It stems from the roots of the Zionist movement, from the trauma of the Holocaust and from the sense among Israelis that the country is perpetually in danger of annihilation. And that no one would come to its aid.

Because Israel is such a small country, because the Arab states have long talked of and attempted to destroy it, and because of the perpetual menace of terrorism, the nation has developed a highly effective military and, arguably, the best intelligence community in the world. It has also developed the most robust, streamlined assassination machine in history.

The following reveals some of the early successes and failures of that machine.

FE_Mossad_03_659233393 Gamal Abdel Nasser, then Egyptian president, makes a speech at the Abu Zaabal steelworks near Cairo, on May 1, 1970. Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty

On the morning of July 21, 1962, Israelis woke up to their worst nightmare: Egypt’s newspapers reported the successful test launch of four surface-to-surface missiles. Two days later, the Egyptian military paraded the missiles through Cairo. Some 300 foreign diplomats watched the spectacle, as did President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He proudly declared that the military was now capable of hitting any point “south of Beirut.” The implication was clear: Israel was in Nasser’s crosshairs.

The next day, a broadcast delivered in Hebrew from Egypt-based radio station “The Voice of Thunder From Cairo” was more explicit. “These missiles are intended to open the gates of freedom for the Arabs,” the anchorman boasted, “to retake the homeland that was stolen as part of imperialist and Zionist plots.”

A few weeks later, Israelis learned that a team of German scientists had played an integral role in developing these missiles. World War II had ended 17 years earlier, and suddenly the traumas of the Holocaust, suffused as they were with images of German scientists in Wehrmacht uniforms, gave way to a new and different existential threat: weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Israel’s new great enemy, Nasser, whom Israelis regarded as the Adolf Hitler of the Middle East. “Former German Nazis are now helping Nasser in his anti-Israeli genocide projects” was how the Jewish press described the news. And the Mossad, to say nothing of its political and military leaders, had been caught unaware, learning of Egypt’s missile project mere days before the test launch. It was a devastating reminder of the little country’s vulnerability.

The German scientists developing the Egyptian missiles weren’t obscure technicians. They were some of the Nazi regime’s most senior engineers, men who’d worked during the war at the research base at Peenemünde, a peninsula on the Baltic coast where the Third Reich’s most advanced weaponry was developed.

“I felt helpless,” said Asher Ben-Natan, the director general of the Defense Ministry, “as if the sky were falling on our heads. [David] Ben-Gurion [Israel’s first prime minister] spoke again and again of the nightmare that kept him awake at night—that he had brought the surviving Jews of Europe to the state of Israel, only for them here, in their own country, to undergo a second Holocaust.”

The Mossad, which was created shortly after the formation of Israel in 1948 to monitor and protect the country against external threats, conducted a top-secret inquiry into the affair in 1982. It described Egypt’s 1962 announcement of the missile project as “one of the most important and traumatic events in the history of the Israeli intelligence community.”

Mossad chief Isser Harel placed the entire agency on high alert. An atmosphere of crisis swept through every corridor of the intelligence service. The agency’s operatives immediately began breaking into Egyptian diplomatic embassies and consulates in several European capitals to photograph documents. They were also able to recruit a Swiss employee at the Zurich office of EgyptAir—a company that occasionally served as cover for Nasser’s intelligence agencies. The Swiss employee allowed Mossad operatives to take the mailbags at night, twice a week, to a safe house. The operatives opened their contents and photocopied them, then experts resealed them, leaving no sign they’d been tampered with, before returning the mailbags to the airline office. Soon, the Mossad had a preliminary understanding of what Cairo was planning.

The Egyptian project had been initiated by two internationally known scientists, Eugen Sänger and Wolfgang Pilz. During the war, they had played key roles at Peenemünde Army Research Center. In 1954, they joined the Research Institute of Jet Propulsion Physics, in Stuttgart. Sänger headed this prestigious body. Pilz and two other veteran Wehrmacht specialists, Paul Goercke and Heinz Krug, were heads of departments. But this group, feeling underemployed and underutilized in postwar West Germany, approached the Egyptian regime in 1959 and offered to recruit and lead a group of scientists to develop long-range surface-to-surface rockets. Nasser readily agreed and appointed one of his closest military advisers, General ’Isam al-Din Mahmoud Khalil, former director of air force intelligence and the chief of the Egyptian army’s research and development, to coordinate the program. Khalil set up a compartmentalized system, separate from the rest of the Egyptian army, for the German scientists, who first arrived in Egypt for a visit in April 1960.

In late 1961, Sänger, Pilz and Goercke relocated to Egypt and recruited about 35 highly experienced German scientists and technicians to join them. The facilities in Egypt contained test fields, laboratories and luxurious living quarters for the expats, who were well paid. Krug, however, remained in Germany, where he set up a company called Intra Commercial, which was the group’s European front.

Almost as soon as the Mossad gained a basic grasp of the situation, however, more bad news arrived. On August 16, 1962, a grave-faced Harel came to see Ben-Gurion, bringing with him a document from the Egyptian intelligence mailbags that had been photocopied two days before in Zurich.

The Israelis were in shock. The document was an order written in 1962 by Pilz, to the project managers in Egypt, and it included a list of the materials that needed to be acquired in Europe for the manufacture of 900 missiles. The document also raised fears among Israeli experts that the Egyptians’ true aim was to arm the missiles with radioactive and chemical warheads.

Ben-Gurion convened urgent meetings with his top defense officials. Harel had a plan. Sort of. The intelligence collected so far revealed a weakness in the missile project: The guidance systems were lagging so far behind, they were borderline nonfunctional, which meant the missiles could not go into mass production. As long as this was the case, Egypt would need the German scientists. Without them, the project would collapse. Harel’s plan, then, was to kidnap or to eliminate the Germans.

‘We’ll Finish You Off’

FE_Mossad_09 Heinz Krug gets off a plane in a Mossad surveillance photograph. courtesy of Ronen Bergman

Toward the end of August 1962, Harel went to Europe to put his plan into action. The weather was getting cold, heralding the worst winter in many years. After two weeks of trying and failing to surveil Pilz, Harel decided to act against Krug.

On September 10 at 5:30 p.m., a man who introduced himself as Saleh Qaher called Krug’s home in Munich. He said that he was speaking on behalf of Colonel Said Nadim, chief aide to Khalil, and that Nadim had to meet Krug “right away, on an important matter.” Qaher added, in the friendliest of tones, that Nadim, whom Krug knew well, sent his regards and was waiting for him at the Ambassador Hotel in Munich. The matter at hand, Qaher said was a deal that would make a tidy profit for Krug. It was impossible to discuss it at the Intra office because of its special nature.

Krug didn’t see this as unusual, and he accepted the invitation. What he didn’t know: Qaher was actually an old Mossad hand, whom we’ll call Oded. Born in Iraq, he had been active in the Zionist underground there, fleeing the country in 1949 after almost being caught. He’d gone to regular schools in Baghdad, with Muslims, and could pass for Arab.

Krug met him in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel. “We, Colonel Nadim and I, need you for an important job,” Oded said. The next day, he went to the Intra offices to pick Krug up and take him in a taxi to meet Nadim at a villa outside the city. “He never suspected for a moment that I wasn’t who I said I was,” says Oded. “I flattered Krug and told him how we, in Egyptian intelligence, appreciate his services and contribution.”

The two arrived at the house where Krug believed Nadim was waiting for him. They got out of the car. A woman opened the front door, and Krug went in. The door closed. Oded, as planned, remained outside. Three other operatives were waiting inside. They stunned Krug with a few blows, gagged him and tied him up. When he came to, he was examined by a French Jewish doctor recruited by the team. He thought Krug was suffering from slight shock, so he recommended not giving him sedation shots until later. A German-speaking Mossad operative told Krug, “You are a prisoner. Do exactly what we say, or we’ll finish you off.”

Krug promised to obey, and he was placed in a secret compartment built into one of the vehicles, a Volkswagen camper, and the whole squad, including Harel, set out for the French border.

By the time, they reached Marseille, Krug had been sedated, and he was soon placed on an El Al plane flying Jewish North African immigrants to Israel. The Mossad handlers told the French authorities he was a sick immigrant.

Meanwhile, the Mossad launched a wide-ranging disinformation operation, with a man resembling Krug and carrying documents in his name traveling around South America, leaving a paper trail indicating Krug had simply grabbed the money and run. Simultaneously, the Mossad leaked disinformation to the media saying Krug had quarreled with Khalil and his people and had apparently been abducted and murdered by them.

In Israel, Krug was imprisoned in a secret Mossad installation and subjected to harsh interrogation. At first he remained silent, but he soon began cooperating, and over the course of several months he “yielded much fruit,” according to a Mossad report. “The man had a good memory and he knew all of the organizational-administrative details of the missile project.” The documents that were in his briefcase were also useful. The report concluded, “This data made it possible to build up an intelligence encyclopedia.”

Krug even volunteered to go back to Munich and work as a Mossad agent. Eventually, though, after it seemed that Krug had told his interrogators everything he knew, the Mossad pondered what to do with him. Complying with his offer to go back to Munich would be very dangerous—Krug could betray his new controllers, go to the police and tell them how the Israelis had abducted a German citizen on German soil. Harel chose the easier way out, apparently without informing his boss, the prime minister. He ordered one of his men to take Krug to a deserted spot north of Tel Aviv and shoot him.

When it was over, an air force plane picked up the body and dumped it into the sea.

Who Can Kill More Germans?

FE_Mossad_06_KK2CEY Isser Harel, the former head of Israel’s Mossad. Paul Fearn/Alamy

The success of the Krug operation spurred Ben-Gurion to approve more targeted killing operations. He authorized the use of Military Intelligence (AMAN) Unit 188, a secret outfit that put Israeli soldiers under false cover inside enemy countries.

Harel resented Unit 188. Since the mid-1950s, he had been trying to persuade Ben-Gurion to transfer it to the Mossad or at least to put him in charge of it. But the army was vehemently opposed to this idea, and Ben-Gurion turned him down.

The head of AMAN, Major General Meir Amit, didn’t believe the German scientists were as grave a threat to Israel as Harel did. Yet because of the interorganizational rivalry with the Mossad, he demanded that his unit also be permitted to act against them. An intense competition over who would kill more Germans began.

During that time, Unit 188 had a veteran operative under deep cover in Egypt. His name was Wolfgang Lotz, and he was the perfect mole. The son of a gentile father and a Jewish mother, he was uncircumcised and looked German—tall and blond with pale skin. He created a cover story as a former Wehrmacht officer in General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps who had become a horse breeder and returned to Egypt to start a stud farm.

Within a short time, Lotz, a gifted actor, had become an integral part of the growing German social circle in Cairo. He supplied Unit 188 with many details about the missile projects and its personnel. He could not, however, eliminate them in actions that would require his direct participation, for fear he would be exposed. Yosef Yariv, the head of Unit 188, decided that the best way to do away with the German scientists would be to use letter and parcel bombs.

Yariv ordered Natan Rotberg, the assassination explosive expert of Unit 188, to start preparing the bombs. Rotberg was working on a new type of explosive: thin, flexible “sheets of explosive material, developed for civilian purposes, which were meant to fuse two pieces of steel when they went off” and would allow him to make more compact charges. “We had to develop a system that could be kept unarmed and safe during all the shuffling that a letter goes through in the mail system, and then go off at the right time,” Rotberg explained. “The envelope’s mechanism thus worked in such a way that the bomb was armed not when it was opened, which would make the whole thing very explosive, but only when the contents were drawn out.” (French intelligence collaborated on the research and development.)

The first target to be sent one of the new letter bombs was Alois Brunner, a Nazi who had been a deputy of Adolf Eichmann and served as commander of a concentration camp in France, sending 130,000 Jews to their deaths. Unit 188 located him in Damascus, Syria, where he’d been living for eight years under an assumed name. The Arab countries gave asylum to more than a few Nazis, and in exchange they received various services. Brunner helped train the interrogation and torture units of the Syrian secret services.

He was found with the help of Eli Cohen, one of the unit’s top agents, who was active inside the upper echelons of the Syrian defense establishment. After Ben-Gurion gave his approval for the elimination of Brunner, Yariv decided to try out one of Rotberg’s devices on the Nazi. “We sent him a little gift,” said Rotberg.

On September 13, 1962, Brunner received a large envelope in Damascus. It exploded after he opened it. He suffered severe facial injuries and lost his left eye, but he survived.

Still, encouraged by having gotten the bomb delivered to the target, Unit 188 was eager to use the same method against the German scientists. The Mossad objected. As Rafi Eitan, a senior operative of the organization, explained to me, “I oppose any action that I don’t control. The mailman can open the envelope, a child can open the envelope. Who does things like that?”

Getting to the Germans in Egypt turned out to be a very complicated matter; they didn’t receive their mail directly. Egyptian intelligence collected all of the mail for the project and its personnel at the offices of EgyptAir, where it was sent on to Cairo. So the Mossad and Unit 188 decided to break into the airline office at night and place the exploding envelopes into the mailbags.

Using a new method for opening locks with a sophisticated master key, Mossad operatives entered the Frankfurt offices of EgyptAir on November 16. The break-in specialist was half-hidden behind a female operative as they leaned together against the door like a couple of lovers. The team went inside the office but failed to find the mailbag. The next day, they tried again. While they were busy with the door, a janitor appeared, totally inebriated. There were no women with the team this time, so two of the men pretended to make out and managed to escape without arousing the janitor’s suspicion. The next night, the operatives tried again, and this time it went smoothly. The pouch of mail was on one of the desks. The team inserted the booby-trapped envelopes into the bags.

The Israelis had selected Pilz as the prime target. The intelligence gathered about him indicated he was divorcing his wife so he could wed his secretary, Hannelore Wende. The wife lived in Berlin, but she had hired a lawyer from Hamburg. So the letter bomb targeting Pilz was designed to look as if it had come from that lawyer, with his logo and address appearing on the back. “The planners of the project assumed that such a personal item of mail wouldn’t be opened by Wende,” said the final report on the operation.

But the planners were wrong. Wende, who received the letter on November 27, opened it. The envelope exploded in her hands, blowing off some of her fingers, blinding her in one eye and ripping some of her teeth out of her gums. The Egyptian authorities realized what was going on. Using X-ray machines, they located the other booby-trapped mail items, then handed them over to be defused by specialists from Soviet intelligence in Cairo.

The Israeli operation had ended in failure.

‘This Is the Target—Go Kill Him’

FE_Mossad_07_179669354 Egypt’s missiles on parade in Cairo in the summer of 1964. Express/Archive Photos/Getty

The blasts frightened the scientists and their families but didn’t make them give up their cushy jobs. Instead, Egyptian intelligence hired the services of an expert German security officer, a former SS man named Hermann Adolf Vallentin. He visited the Intra offices and the project’s suppliers, advising them on security precautions, from replacing the locks to securing their mail deliveries.

The next target on Harel’s hit list was Hans Kleinwächter and his laboratory in the West German town of Lorch, which had been hired to develop a guidance system for the missiles. Harel sent the Birds—an operational unit used by both the Mossad and the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service—to Europe to abduct or kill him if necessary.

Harel set up his headquarters in the French city of Mulhouse. Birds commander Eitan recalls: “It’s the middle of the winter, horrible snow, bone-chilling cold.… Isser is furious, sitting in some boarding house in France, beyond the Rhine. He shows me some pictures and says, ‘This is the target—go kill him.’”

But the Birds, who had been helping Unit 188 in previous months, were exhausted. Eitan recalled telling Harel that the circumstances were not ripe for a targeted killing, that they needed “to wait a bit and create a trap of our own, not just shoot people in the street.”

But Harel wouldn’t listen. On January 21, 1963, he dismissed the Birds and called in Mifratz, the Mossad targeted killing unit commanded by Yitzhak Shamir (a future prime minister of Israel), to have Kleinwächter taken care of. What Harel didn’t know was that Vallentin had figured out that Kleinwächter would be the Mossad’s next target. He gave him a series of briefings, made sure he was constantly accompanied by an escort and gave him an Egyptian military pistol.

On February 20, a Mossad lookout saw Kleinwächter alone on the road from Lorch to Basel, Switzerland. They decided to make their move when he got back. Shamir, who, together with Harel, commanded the operation in the field, assigned the job of firing the shots to a trained assassin named Akiva Cohen. Harel also sent a senior operative, the German-speaking Zvi Aharoni (who, two years earlier located Eichmann in Argentina and later helped bring him to face justice in Israel). They waited for the target to get back in the evening. But he didn’t show up, and the Israelis called the operation off.

A few minutes later, Kleinwächter finally appeared, and the operation resumed. The Mifratz operatives’ car blocked Kleinwächter’s, Aharoni got out and went up to Kleinwächter, pretending to ask for directions. The idea was to get him to open the window. He began doing so. Cohen, who approached Aharoni from behind, drew his gun, tried to aim it through the open window and fired. The bullet hit the glass and shattered it, then hit Kleinwächter’s scarf, but it missed Kleinwächter’s body. For some unknown reason, the pistol didn’t fire again.

Aharoni saw that the plan had failed and yelled at everyone to abscond. But the way both vehicles had stopped on the narrow road prevented the Mossad men from fleeing in their car, so they ran off in different directions.

As they fled, Kleinwächter drew his pistol and began firing at the Israelis. He didn’t hit anyone, but the operation was yet another missed opportunity.

The Butcher of Buchenwald

Harel then launched a number of operations aimed at intimidating the scientists and their families, including anonymous letters threatening their lives and visits in the middle of the night offering similar warnings.

These also failed when the Swiss police arrested a Mossad operative named Joseph Ben-Gal after he threatened Paul Goercke’s daughter, Heidi. Ben-Gal was extradited to Germany, convicted and sentenced to a short term in prison.

By the spring of 1963, Harel’s Mossad hadn’t slowed the Egyptians’ progress. So Harel began leaking stories to the press—some true, some embellished, some outright lies (that the Germans were helping Egypt produce atomic bombs and deadly lasers)—about Nazis building weapons for Arabs to kill Jews. Harel was totally convinced that the German scientists were Nazis, still determined to complete the Final Solution and that the German authorities were aware of their activities but doing nothing to stop them. In reality, according to the 1982 Mossad report on the affair, they had become accustomed to wealth under the Third Reich, had become unemployed when it fell and now were simply trying to make money off the Egyptians. But Harel dragged the whole country along with his obsession.

To prove his claims, Harel presented information gathered in Cairo about a Dr. Hans Eisele, the Butcher of Buchenwald, who’d been involved in appalling experiments on Jewish inmates. He was designated a war criminal but escaped trial and found a comfortable refuge in Egypt, where he became the physician of the German scientists. Harel also fingered a number of other Nazis in Cairo, though none of them belonged to the group of missile scientists.

His goal was to publicly vilify Germany, with which Israel had a complicated relationship. Relative moderates such as Ben-Gurion and his chief aide, Shimon Peres (also a future prime minister) disagreed with Harel’s approach. At a time when the United States was reluctant to provide Israel with all the military and economic aid it asked for, the fledgling nation, they maintained, could not afford to jeopardize the economic and military assistance it was receiving from the West German government. Hard-liners such as Golda Meir and Harel, on the other hand, rejected the notion that the Federal Republic of Germany was a “new” or “different” country. History, to their minds, had left a permanent stain.

Harel also called in the Editors Committee, a unique Israeli institution, then composed of the top editors of the media, that self-censored items at the request of the government. He asked the committee to provide him with three journalists, whom he subsequently recruited. They were sent to Europe, at the Mossad’s expense, to gather intelligence about the front companies that were buying equipment for the Egyptian project. Harel claimed he needed the journalists for operational reasons, but he wanted to use their involvement and the materials they collected to launder information he already possessed; as such, it could be disseminated to the foreign and Israeli media to manufacture newspaper reports and create a climate suited to his purposes. Harel’s stories generated a media frenzy and a growing sense of panic in Israel. Ben-Gurion tried to calm him down, to no avail. “He [Harel] was not, in my opinion, quite sane,” said Amos Manor, the Shin Bet chief at the time. “You couldn’t have a rational conversation about it with him.”

It ended, as most obsessions do, in Harel’s own destruction. His publicity campaign, the frenzied newspaper stories he’d planted about Hitler’s minions rising again, badly wounded Ben-Gurion. Critics such as Menachem Begin, the opposition leader, attacked the prime minister for not having done enough to stop the threat posed by the German scientists—a threat Israelis saw as a danger to their existence—and for leading his country into a conciliation with West Germany, which now seemed to be at least indirectly responsible for a new Final Solution.

On March 25, 1963, Ben-Gurion summoned Harel to his office; the Mossad chief had carried out some of his media operations without the prime minister’s approval and now his boss was upset. The prime minister reminded Harel that he was supposed to implement government policy, not set it. Offended by the rebuke, Harel offered his resignation, confident the Old Man, as Ben-Gurion was known, couldn’t manage without him and would beg him to stay.

Ben-Gurion thought otherwise. He accepted the resignation on the spot. Harel’s once brilliant career ended in a failed bluff and utter defeat. He was immediately replaced by Amit, the chief of AMAN.

But it was too late for Ben-Gurion, too. Harel’s campaign had played into the hands of Begin, among others. Less than two months after replacing Harel, Ben-Gurion resigned, convinced he’d lost the support of his own party. He was replaced by Levi Eshkol.

56 Burglaries and 30,000 Documents

Mossad David Ben Gurion (center), Israel’s first prime minister, declares independence for the state of Israel, on May 15, 1948. Reuters

Amit, one of the IDF’s brilliant young commanders, took over a Mossad in disarray. The agency was deeply demoralized. In the nine months since Egypt had announced its four missile tests, the Israelis had learned little about the program, and everything the Mossad and AMAN had tried had failed to even slow the project, let alone dismantle it. Pressuring Germany had made no difference.

Amit set about rebuilding the organization, reinforcing it with the best personnel he knew from AMAN. As soon as he took over, he ordered a halt to any matters that he considered extraneous, and a drastic reduction of the resources being devoted to the hunt for Nazi criminals, explaining, “We have to produce information about the enemies of the state of Israel nowadays.” Amit knew that he needed a tactical reset, and that the Mossad had to rethink its approach to the problem of Egyptian missiles.

His first order, then, was for a shift away from targeted killing operations and for the vast majority of his resources to be focused instead on trying to understand what was going on inside the missile project. Secretly, however, with most of the top officials of the organization out of the loop, he prepared a targeted killing project of his own against the scientists. Operations personnel were trying to find ways to send parcel bombs from inside Egypt, significantly shortening the time between the sending and opening of the package. They tried out the method on a relatively easy target, the physician Eisele. On September 25, 1963, there was a blast in the post office in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Maadi: A letter bomb that had been addressed to Dr. Carl Debouche, the false name Eisele was using, exploded and blinded a postal worker.

The failure of this operation convinced Amit that targeted killings should be used only sparingly. Nevertheless, he ordered the Mossad to prepare plans to shoot, blow up or poison the scientists in case nonviolent means proved ineffective.

Amit ordered the Mossad to step up break-ins at all the offices connected to the missile project in West Germany and Switzerland. These operations were enormously complex. The sites were well guarded—both by Egyptian intelligence and by the men under Vallentin, the German project’s security chief—in the hearts of crowded European cities, in countries where the law was strictly enforced.

Mossad operatives burglarized the Egyptian embassies, the Egyptian purchasing mission in Cologne and the Intra office in Munich. They broke into the EgyptAir office in Frankfurt no fewer than 56 times between August 1964 and December 1966. The information they obtained (operatives photographed some 30,000 documents up to the end of 1964 alone) was important, but far from sufficient. The Mossad had to recruit someone on the inside of the missile project. This critical task was assigned to a division called Junction, which was responsible for bringing in the bulk of the organization’s human intelligence.

Unlike in Hollywood movies, most of this information is not collected directly by Mossad employees darting about in the shadows. Rather, it is gleaned from foreign nationals in their home countries. The Mossad case officers responsible for recruiting and operating these sources are called “collection officers,” and they are expert psychologists. They know how to persuade a person to betray everything and everyone he believes in: his friends and family, his organization, his nation.

But none had been able to work on anyone close to the Egyptian program. Recruiting agents in Arab countries became a long-term priority, but in the short run, Junction would have to look elsewhere.

‘A Favorite of the Führer’

FE_Mossad_11_548163481 Otto Skorzeny (left) with Adolf Hitler in September 1943. ullstein bild/Getty

In April 1964, Amit sent Eitan to Paris, which served as the nerve center of Israeli intelligence, to run Junction’s operations in Europe. Vallentin was becoming more of a problem, and Junction needed to take care of him.

Avraham Ahituv, Junction’s coordinator in Bonn, had an idea, and he presented it to Eitan in Paris in May 1964. He’d identified a dubious character who’d sold arms and intelligence to the Nasser regime and also was close to the German scientists. “There is just one small problem,” Ahituv said. “The man’s name is Otto Skorzeny, and he was a high-ranking Wehrmacht officer, Hitler’s special operations commander, and a favorite of the Führer.”

“And you want to recruit this Otto?” Eitan asked sarcastically. “Wonderful.”

In 1960, Ahituv told Eitan, Harel had ordered Amal, the unit that handled the hunt for Nazi war criminals, to gather as much information as possible about Skorzeny, with the goal of bringing him to justice or killing him. His file said he was an enthusiastic member of the Austrian Nazi Party, had enlisted in 1935 in a secret SS unit in Austria and had taken part in Kristallnacht. He rose rapidly in rank in the Waffen-SS, becoming head of its special operations units.

Skorzeny parachuted into Iran and trained local tribes to blow up oil pipelines serving the Allied armies, and he plotted to murder the Big Three—Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt. He also had a plan for abducting and killing U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower. Skorzeny was even personally selected by Hitler to lead the Gran Sasso raid, which successfully extricated Benito Mussolini, the Führer’s friend and ally, from the Alpine villa where he was being held prisoner by the Italian government.

Allied intelligence called Skorzeny “the most dangerous man in Europe.” He was not, however, convicted of war crimes. He was acquitted by one tribunal, and after he was re-arrested on other charges, he escaped with the help of his SS friends. He took refuge in Francisco Franco’s Spain, where he established profitable commercial relations with fascist regimes from around the world.

Skorzeny’s acquaintance with the scientists in Egypt, and the fact that he’d been a superior officer to Vallentin during the war, was enough, in Eitan’s view, to justify trying to recruit him, despite his Nazi past. Eitan felt that if it helped Israel, it was worth it.

Through a number of intermediaries, the Mossad established contact with Countess Ilse von Finckenstein—Skorzeny’s wife. She would serve as the Mossad’s entrée. The agency’s file on the countess says that she was “a member of the aristocracy. She is a cousin of the German [prewar] Finance Minister Hjalmar Schacht.… She is 45, a fairly attractive woman, brimming over with energy.”

“She was involved in everything,” said Raphael “Raphi” Medan, the German-born Mossad operative who was assigned to the mission. “She sold titles of nobility, had ties with Vatican intelligence and sold arms as well.” She and her husband also had liberal ideas about their relationship. “They didn’t have children,” Medan said, “and they maintained an open marriage. Ilse always looked stunning. Every two years she underwent hormonal treatment in Switzerland in order to preserve her youth.”

Medan “had had a reputation, because of his European good looks, for being able to influence women,” according to the Mossad report on the affair. They set a meeting for late July 1964 in Dublin. Medan introduced himself as an Israeli Defense Ministry employee on leave, looking for an opening in international tourism. He might be interested in taking part in a Bahamas development project that the countess was involved in, he said. The countess liked Medan, and when their business talk was over, she invited him to a party at her farm. This was the start of a series of meetings, including some wild partying in Europe.

According to a Mossad rumor that circulated for many years and was gently hinted at in the reports but not explicitly stated, Medan “sacrificed” himself for his country—and took advantage of the German couple’s open marriage—by wooing the countess and eventually taking her to bed. Medan, however, simply said, “There are things that gentlemen do not speak about,” and described their encounter, with a smile, as “good and even gratifying.”

‘A Life Without Fear’

FE_Mossad_12_803842928 Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, Austria, in May 1986. François LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

In Madrid, on the night of September 7, 1964, Medan told the countess that a friend of his from the Israeli Defense Ministry wanted to meet her husband “about a very important matter.” The friend was already in Europe and waiting for a reply.

Convincing von Finckenstein to cooperate was not difficult. Only four years before, Israel had found, grabbed, tried and executed Eichmann. Powerful forces in the Jewish world, including Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, were trying to find and prosecute Nazis like Skorzeny. Medan was able to offer the countess—and, by extension, her husband—a “life without fear,” as Eitan put it.

The next morning, von Finckenstein informed Medan that her husband was ready to meet his friend—that night, if possible. The Mossad operative called Junction’s Ahituv to Madrid. He set up a meeting in a hotel lobby that evening, where he introduced the two.

The Mossad’s internal final report on the affair, though written in dry professional language, could not overlook its intensity: “Avraham [Ahituv] is a scion of a religiously observant family, a native of Germany educated in a religious Jewish school. For him, the contact with a Nazi monster was a shocking emotional experience that went beyond the demands of the profession.”

In the detailed report Ahituv submitted, on September 14, 1964, he described the talks he had that week with the former SS man:

Skorzeny was a giant. A hulk of a man. He was obviously remarkably strong physically. On his left cheek was the well known scar from his pictures, reaching his ear.

Two moments gave me a shock. Skorzeny was looking for a number in his phone book to give me. [H]e took a monocle out of his pocket and stuck it into his right eye socket. His appearance then, what with his bodily dimensions, the scar, and his aggressive gaze, made him look like the complete Nazi.

The second incident happened after our meeting, when we were dining together in a restaurant near his office. Suddenly, someone came up to us, clicked his heels together loudly, and greeted him in German as “My General.” Skorzeny told me that this was the owner of the restaurant and he used to be one of the top Nazis in those parts.

They spoke about the war and the Holocaust, among other things, and Ahituv brought up the issue of Skorzeny’s participation in the Kristallnacht pogroms. He pulled out a long list of people who had taken part in the attacks and presented it to Skorzeny, who was familiar with the document because the accusation had been raised and discussed during his war crimes trial.

He pointed to an X inked next to his name. “That’s proof that I did not participate,” he said, though Nazi hunter Wiesenthal interpreted the mark as proof of just the opposite. Skorzeny complained that Wiesenthal was hunting him and that more than once he had found himself in a situation where he “feared for his life.” Ahituv decided not to stretch the point too far and did not argue.

At a certain point, Skorzeny got tired of talking about the war. “It was clear that there was no point in playing hide-and-seek,” Ahituv wrote. “I told him I was in the Israeli [intelligence] service. [Skorzeny said that] he wasn’t surprised we had gotten to him. He was definitely prepared for an exchange of views with us as well.”

“An exchange of views” was Skorzeny’s delicate way of saying that he agreed to full and comprehensive cooperation with Israel. Skorzeny demanded a price for his help. He wanted a valid Austrian passport issued in his real name; a writ of lifetime immunity from prosecution, signed by Prime Minister Eshkol; and his immediate removal from Wiesenthal’s list of wanted Nazis, as well as some money.

Skorzeny’s conditions sparked a sharp argument in the Mossad. Ahituv and Eitan saw in them “an operational constraint and a requirement for the success of the operation.” Other senior officials argued that they were “an attempt by a Nazi criminal to cleanse his name,” and they demanded a new look at Skorzeny’s past. This new investigation revealed further details about the role he played on Kristallnacht, “as the leader of one of the mobs that burned synagogues in Vienna,” and that “until recently, he was an active supporter of neo-Nazi organizations.”

Amit, practical and unemotional as always, thought that Eitan and Ahituv were right, but he needed the moral support of the prime minister. Eshkol listened to Amit and consulted some of the high-ranking Mossad members who were Holocaust survivors (unlike Amit, Eitan and Ahituv, who were not), hearing their vehement objections. Nevertheless, he finally approved giving Skorzeny money, a passport and immunity.

The prime minister also approved the request concerning Wiesenthal, but that wasn’t his decision to make, nor the Mossad’s. Wiesenthal was an opinionated and obstinate man. Although he had close links to the Mossad, which financed some of his operations, he wasn’t an Israeli citizen, and he worked out of Vienna, outside of Israel’s jurisdiction.

In October 1964, Medan met with Wiesenthal to discuss, without elaborating the details of the operation, why Skorzeny had to be removed from his blacklist of Nazi criminals.

“To my astonishment,” Medan recalled, “Wiesenthal said, ‘Herr Medan, there is not a chance. This is a Nazi and a war criminal, and we will never strike him from our list.’”

Skorzeny was disappointed but still agreed to the deal. The Führer’s favorite, a man wanted all over the world as a Nazi war criminal, had become a key agent in the most important Israeli intelligence operation of its time.

The Final Blow

Skorzeny’s first step was to send word to his friends in Egypt that he was reviving a network of SS and Wehrmacht veterans to establish a Fourth Reich. To prepare the groundwork, he would tell them, his organization had to secretly gather information. The German scientists working for Nasser would thus be required, under their Wehrmacht oaths, to provide Skorzeny’s phantom organization with the details of their missile research so it could be used by the new German military force in the making.

At the same time, Skorzeny and Ahituv also masterminded a plan to get information out of Vallentin, the formidable security officer, who knew everything about the Egyptian missile project.

Unlike with the recruitment of the sophisticated and experienced Skorzeny, who was aware he was dealing with a Mossad man, and whom Ahituv never tried to mislead, the two decided to use some subterfuge on Vallentin.

Skorzeny played his part perfectly. He summoned Vallentin to Madrid under the pretense that he was hosting a special gathering for his subordinates from the “glorious war.” He put the security chief up, at Mossad expense, in a luxurious hotel and presented him with his phony plan for reviving the Reich. Then he revealed that this was not his only reason for the invitation to Madrid and that he wanted him to meet “a close friend,” an officer of the British MI6 secret service. The British, he said, were interested in what was going on in Egypt, and he asked Vallentin to help his friend.

Vallentin was suspicious. “Are you sure the Israelis aren’t involved?” he asked.

“Stand to attention when you’re spoken to, and apologize!” Skorzeny fired back. “How dare you say something like that to your superior officer!”

Vallentin apologized, but he wasn’t convinced. And he was right. Skorzeny’s “friend” was no Brit but an Australian-born case officer in the Mossad named Harry Barak. Vallentin agreed to meet him but not to cooperate, and the meeting between the two led nowhere.

Skorzeny immediately came up with a solution. At his next meeting with Vallentin, he told him that his friend from MI6 had reminded him that a cable Skorzeny had sent near the end of the war, in which he notified the general staff that he was promoting Vallentin, had not reached its destination. He was being retroactively promoted.

The security chief’s eyes lit up. The move was purely symbolic, but it clearly meant a lot to him. He stood up and gave the “Heil Hitler” salute and thanked Skorzeny profusely.

The latter told Vallentin he was ready to give him a written document confirming his promotion. Vallentin was grateful to his new friend from British intelligence for the information he had provided, and he agreed to help him as much as he wanted.

In time, Skorzeny invited other former Wehrmacht officers involved in the missile project to Madrid. They attended lavish parties at his home, billed as gatherings of Waffen-SS special forces veterans. His guests ate, drank and enjoyed themselves late into the night, never knowing that the Israeli government was paying for their food and drinks and bugging their conversations.

The information provided by Skorzeny, Vallentin and the scientists who came to Madrid solved most of the Mossad’s information problem regarding Egypt’s missile program. It identified who was involved in the project and what the current status of each component was.

Thanks to the information from this operation, Amit’s Mossad managed to destroy the missile project from the inside, using a number of methods. The intel agency, for instance, was able to identify a secret Egyptian plan to recruit scores of workers from the Hellige aircraft and rocket factory in Freiburg who were about to be dismissed. Amit decided to take advantage of the momentum to carry out a quick move aimed at preventing their departure for Egypt.

On the morning of December 9, 1963, Peres, then deputy defense minister, and Medan carried a locked case containing a number of documents in English that was based on material supplied by Skorzeny and Vallentin, among others, and flew off for a meeting with one of West Germany’s senior politicians, former defense minister Franz Josef Strauss.

The information Peres presented to Strauss was far more detailed and grave than anything that had been presented to the Germans previously. “It is inconceivable that German scientists would help our worst enemy in such a manner, while you stand idly by,” Peres told Strauss, who must have grasped what leaking this material to the international press would mean.

Strauss looked at the documents and agreed to intervene. He called Ludwig Bölkow, a powerful figure in the German aerospace industry, and asked for his help. Bölkow sent his representatives to offer the Hellige scientists and engineers jobs under good conditions at his plants, as long as they’d promise not to help the Egyptians.

The plan worked. Most of the group’s members never went to Egypt, where the missile program urgently needed their assistance with the balky guidance systems—a development that fatally crippled the project.

The final blow came when a representative of Bölkow’s arrived in Egypt to persuade the scientists already working there to come home. One by one, they deserted the program, and by July 1965 even Pilz was gone, having returned to Germany to head one of Bölkow’s airplane component divisions.

The German scientists affair was the first time the Mossad mobilized all of its forces to stop what it perceived as an existential threat from an adversary, and the first time Israel allowed itself to target civilians from countries with which it had diplomatic relations. In its 1982 report, the Mossad analyzed whether it would have been possible to resolve the affair using “soft” methods—generous offers of money from the German government to the scientists—without “the mysterious disappearance of Krug, or the bomb that maimed Hannelore Wende, or the other letter bombs and the intimidation.”

The report concluded that it would not have been possible. The Mossad believed that without the threat of violence directed at them, the German scientists would not have been willing to accept the money and abandon the project.

9781400069712-fullsize-rgb The New York Times best-seller “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” (Random House, 2018). Random House

This story is based on an excerpt from the New York Times best-seller Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations (Random House 2018). While writing the book, the author met with 1,000 sources—from Israeli prime ministers and heads of the Mossad to the assassins themselves. He also obtained thousands of new, relevant documents about the Israeli spy agencies.​