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Hitler's Paris spies preferred good life to dirty work
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The Times 2 October 1999

Hitler's Paris spies preferred good life to dirty work

Michael Binyon

"Unlike the British, the Germans never took spies seriously," said Inga Haag, a former secretary to Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, and later a member of its Paris headquarters. "We had to have agents and reports, but as real spies they were very inefficient. Anyway, the best spies always worked for both sides."

Frau Haag, now in her late 70s and living in London, was affectionately nicknamed "The Painted Doll" by Canaris when she went straight into the Abwehr on leaving school. A beauty in her day, a fervent anti-Nazi and later one of the first Germans to get top security clearance for political work in Nato, she appears this evening in a BBC2 documentary, The Spies Who Fooled Hitler, on how MI5 captured and turned those sent to Britain into double agents.

According to Frau Haag, this would not have been difficult. She paints a picture of an organisation that was amateur, snobbish and, in the early stages of the war, a refuge for aristocrats, people with Jewish blood and old school officers who opposed Hitler. She said many spies sent to Britain were determined to defect as soon as they landed. Most of their reports were little more than gossip.

She spent two years working with these amateur spy masters, many of whom were retired First World War officers ousted when the Abwehr was absorbed into the more efficient SD, the Nazis' own intelligence operation. Running an agent in Britain became something of a status symbol - reports were sent to army commands in the east and west, and Hitler was kept informed.

The Abwehr kept its distance from the more brutal methods of the Gestapo. But it was already discredited: Admiral Canaris was implicated in the July 20 1944 bomb plot, sent to a concentration camp and executed. Frau Haag, a cousin of Adam von Trott, one of the plotters, had even secretly delivered passports in Paris to Jews whom Canaris had tried to protect. By 1942, however, she had left Paris, followed her husband to Romania and then spent the rest of the war in Ribbentrop's Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

A fluent English-speaker who had spent much of her childhood in Britain, she was set to work translating into German English books that could be used for propaganda. It was futile work, increasingly disrupted by bombing. But she met most of the Britons then living in Berlin, including P.G. Wodehouse. "It's all nonsense that he was a traitor. I used to listen in to his broadcasts. It was nothing like Lord Haw Haw - he was laughing at the Nazis," she said.

Wodehouse lived at the Adlon Hotel, one of Berlin's smartest, helped by English-speaking admirers who knew his books. "When I went there one day to meet my husband, who should I see but Wodehouse and his wife with a little dog. Not even Hitler would have been admitted to the Adlon with a dog."

She insists that the Adlon was not a Nazi hotel - "Goebbels specifically insisted that his staff should not go there as it was reserved for diplomats." The atmosphere was stylish if surreal, even in the last nightmare days. "I remember after we were bombed the staff were looking in the rubble for coffee beans."

She had almost no contact with Canaris after 1942. The German spying operation, though never efficient, became more important as the threat from Britain grew and Germany lost supremacy of the air. Eventually the spies controlled by MI5 played a vital role in the great deception over the site of the D-Day landings.

But Frau Haag, now a regular honoured guest at German receptions in London, insists that only the spies who were ideologically motivated were effective - like the communists after the war, including one found in her own office at Nato.

Now there are few to testify to the chaos MI5 inflicted on the Abwehr: Frau Haag is a lonely and honourable witness.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.