The German Strategic Mastermind Behind America’s Post-War Order

Ashley Knedler/Neuschwanstein Castle, Schwangau, Germany

Ever since John Winthrop declared from Southampton in 1630, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” there has been a moral and moralizing dimension to the way Americans view their role in the world. The American exceptionalism that was, for the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a Christian missionary pronouncement, would ebb and flow over the next almost four-hundred years down to the present. But it has never gone away.

Since the end of the Second World War, the ideological landscape of American foreign relations has been dominated by the latest incarnation of Winthrop’s call in the form of post-war liberal internationalism. It morphed slightly to become American “liberal hegemony” following the end of the Cold War, but has remained fundamentally the same. This liberal internationalism served to legitimate and make coherent—even imbue with a sense of eternal meaning—a set of institutions built and actions taken to manage American security, political, economic, cultural, and ideological needs following the end of the Second World War.

This ideology tied together security interests (bipolar competition against the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war) with political ones (a bipartisan Washington consensus on foreign policy that made big institution-building and power projection possible). At the same time, it captured the underlying economic need to build domestic and international markets for American consumer goods. Most of all, it satisfied a deep almost religious need for Americans to be part of something righteous—this wasn’t merely a justification for security, party politics, or consumer capitalism: God was on our side.

Post-war liberal internationalism resulted from this statecraft and was designed to address a set of underlying needs domestically and internationally. As productive as it may have been for effecting an American sphere of relative peace, prosperity, and freedom, this ideology emerged as a means to those ends, and not as an end in itself.

But underlying needs and interests often change faster than institutions created to manage them. Institutions ossify and, unless reformed or replaced, continue to do whatever they were created to do, regardless of whether that is still necessary. Ideologies work the same way.

America no longer faces the same security, political, or economic problems that it did in the late 1940s. But in the case of American liberal internationalism, successive generations of foreign policy leaders—especially since the end of the Cold War—have taken on this ideology less as a rational conclusion of statecraft and more as an article of faith. With the ideology ascending to the point of hegemony, the statecraft that birthed it has atrophied to the point of near extinction.

To understand the difference between statecraft and ideology, it’s helpful to study the milieu out of which this statecraft emerged; and to make the clearest distinction, it’s useful to look at cases where action deviated most strikingly from public ideology. This does not refer to the long history of American ideology betraying the national interest, but rather to cases where out of public view, statesmen sought to advance the national interest, as they understood it, in ways that clashed with the ideology of the day.

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Perhaps the best example is how the United States protected and employed former Nazi German officials, beginning just months after Hitler’s death and persisting into the 1960s, to aid U.S. efforts against the Soviet Union. Many readers will be familiar with Operation Paperclip, a secret intelligence program to bring German scientists, technicians, and engineers to the United States to assist with the Cold War and Space Race. The most famous case is the exfiltration and assimilation into NASA of Werner von Braun and his team of German rocket scientists who took America to the moon. Sometimes scarce human capital provides a decisive strategic advantage.

What is less well known and more illustrative of the post-war American strategic milieu is the figure of Gustav Hilger, a German diplomat and expert on the Soviet Union, who the Americans rescued in 1945. The U.S. government relied on Hilger for his expert knowledge of Soviet strategic thinking and his advice on how America might subvert Soviet control of the Eastern European territories which had been newly liberated from their German masters.

During Nazi Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe, the German bureaucracies (such as the Foreign Office, where Hilger oversaw “Eastern questions”) learned extensively about the worldviews of the people whose land they occupied and whose lives they often disrupted and ended. The Third Reich’s focus on carrying out a national and racial expansion project, including the destruction of states and the imposition of mass violence upon these populations, required an understanding of both terrain and people. Hilger not only had knowledge from this wartime “German experience” in Eastern Europe, but he had also lived in the Soviet Union for most of his life and had dealt with its leaders for decades.

The life of Hilger at the intersection of U.S.-German-Soviet relations from the 1930s to the 1950s is a useful microhistory through which to understand the American strategic culture Hilger influenced and benefited from. Hilger was apparently the only person who knew Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Konrad Adenauer, and George Kennan personally—four of the most consequential figures of the 20th century—and yet almost no one has heard of him. With the notable exception of a German book last year by Jörn Happel, The East Expert—Gustav Hilger: Diplomat in the Age of Extremes, Hilger remains largely unknown—especially in the Anglophone world. (For example, he did not even have an English-language Wikipedia page until I created one in December of last year.)

An ethnic German born in Russia to a German businessman in 1886, Hilger spent most of his life in Russia until 1941. Hilger’s CIA file notes that Stalin supposedly said of him, “German heads of state and German ambassadors to Moscow came and went—but Gustav Hilger remained.” Fellow Western diplomats in Moscow in the 1930s considered Hilger an encyclopedia on all things Russian and Soviet.

After the war, Hilger was brought to Virginia for debriefing interviews in 1945 and then sent back to Germany to oversee analysis of the Eastern European spy ring created by Gen. Reinhard Gehlen (former head of German military intelligence on the Eastern Front) that the Americans had taken over sponsoring. (It would be turned over in 1953 to Adenauer’s government to become West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service: the BND.) When Soviet intelligence got wind that Hilger was back in Germany and demanded his arrest, the Americans arranged a complex rescue operation to bring Hilger and his wife to the United States, where the Office of Policy Coordination (the CIA covert operations arm) paid his rent and salary. He worked on papers for the OPC and the State Department.

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To understand how Hilger came to Washington to advise the U.S. government, it’s necessary to return to a dacha some twenty kilometers south of Moscow in the early 1930s. Several of the junior diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Moscow rented this dacha in 1934 for relaxation and recreation—just a year after the U.S. government established ties with the Soviet Union and reopened its embassy in Moscow. In the words of George Kennan’s biographer John Lewis Gaddis, “not far from Stalin’s own country retreat, it had a log house, a tennis court, a garden, horses to ride, and a high wooden fence.”

What emerges from study of memoirs and contemporary papers is the picture of a “Dacha Crowd” centered around the American diplomats Charles Thayer, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan, Carmel Offie, and Ambassador William Bullitt. But membership in the Dacha Crowd extended to other Western diplomats posted to 1930s Moscow including Brits like Fitzroy Maclean (considered one of the principal inspirations for Ian Fleming’s James Bond).

The group also included Germans, notably, Hans Herwarth von Bittenfeld, whom the Americans called Johnny (and who spied for them) and Gustav Hilger, whom this group “widely appreciated,” in the words of Burton Hersh’s The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA. In his own memoirs, Herwarth declares Hilger “the most outstanding member of the [German] Embassy’s staff.” On the Dacha Crowd, Herwarth recalled, “In fact we founded such a group; like Great Britain, the Society had no written constitution, but it existed nonetheless. Since our discussions were frank, we were careful to admit only people in whom we had complete trust.”

The group was the epicenter of the “carnivalesque atmosphere” of the Western diplomatic scene in 1930s Moscow. Writing to Kennan in 1940, Thayer recalled the “madness of ’34,” in Moscow and the “not entirely sane existence we led before with Mrs. and mistresses all together in an alcoholic haze.” Hersh describes how the dacha served as a “kind of clubhouse for the beleaguered Americans to socialize and relax, quite often with their counterparts from the other uneasy Western delegations.” This Dacha Crowd, many of whom would grow up into the Georgetown Set, were crucial to bringing Hilger to the U.S. after the war and saving him from probable execution either by a war crimes tribunal, or at the hands of Soviet intelligence.

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The intervening years had proved fateful for Hilger. He worked on brokering a series of diplomatic agreements between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany—most notably the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact that enabled the destruction of the Polish state under German-Soviet partition and invasion in September 1939.

For all his geopolitical skill, Hilger appeared to his contemporaries “naive” especially about the motives of the Nazi figures that were now running his own state. Like many in the diplomatic corps and military, Hilger was critical of the way the war was being conducted—especially the breaking of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941.

According to Zachary Shore’s account in What Hitler Knew: The Battle for Information in Nazi Foreign Policy, the few times that Hilger briefed Hitler, he argued against invading the Soviet Union and tried to paint a “balanced picture of Russia’s strengths.” Hitler had little patience for officials whose views of German state interest were not aligned with Nazi party ideology, and Herwarth describes how Hilger’s interactions with Hitler “did little more than leave Hitler wondering where the loyalties of this russified German lay.”

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Hilger was expelled from Moscow along with the rest of Germany’s diplomats. He returned to Berlin to advise Foreign Minister Ribbentrop on “all Russia matters,” although apparently Ribbentrop paid very little attention to his advice. Hilger continued to oppose the decision to go to war with Stalin (apparently unaware that in Hitler’s mind this had been part of the plan from the beginning). When Hilger wrote a memorandum deprecating Germany’s chances in the war on the Eastern Front, Ribbentrop “threatened him with concentration camp [sic] if he continued in this vein,” according to now-declassified American intelligence reports.

None of his objections to Nazi policies, however, prevented Hilger from continuing to “serve the Reich dutifully throughout the war,” according to Simpson. The recent book Das Amt und die Vergangenheit (The Foreign Office and the Past) has documented the close association between the Foreign Office, the S.S., and the Reich Main Security Office (RHSA) in an 880-page report much too detailed to recount fully here. While Hilger was never a Nazi party member, his senior post in the Foreign Office under Ribbentrop made him aware of and complicit in war crimes and atrocities, especially the “Holocaust by bullets” in German-occupied Eastern Europe, from his perch in Berlin.

By spring of 1945, Hilger was “thoroughly depressed and reproaching himself bitterly for having worked with Ribbentrop and thereby promoted Hitler’s policies,” wrote Herwarth after visiting Hilger in his home outside Salzburg. His only son had been killed on the Eastern front near Orel. That their son “should have been killed in a war between Russia and Germany came as a terrible blow to Hilger and his wife since their love and loyalty was equally divided between the two countries.” According to Herwarth, Hilger “could think only of suicide,” but instead he soon surrendered himself to U.S. forces in Salzburg on May 19, 1945, in part out of fears of what his treatment would be if he were captured by the Soviets.

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When Hilger was wanted for “torture” (read: war crimes and atrocities) by U.S. war crimes investigators, the Dacha Crowd came to the rescue. Charles Thayer, now working for the OSS, on a tip from his old Dacha Crowd companion Herwarth, helped Hilger get transferred to the U.S. with other top Third Reich civilian and military officials. During some nine months of internment, much of it at P.O. Box 1142, the comfortable secret military interrogation center in Fort Hunt, Virginia, Hilger met John Gunther Dean. Dean was himself a German Jew, and a young Army intelligence officer who had fled Germany in December 1939. This was no ordinary prison; Dean was tasked with keeping the “prisoners” happy. This often meant playing tennis or horseback riding.

Much later, after his own career as an ambassador in the U.S. Foreign Service, Dean spoke of his formative relationship with the man:

Gustav Hilger was the most knowledgeable man about a country we knew relatively little. He was a fine gentleman. People came from all over the U.S. Government to talk with him. Sometimes they needed interpreters. Sometimes I would just take him to a tea house and have a cup of tea with him—always in civilian clothes. He told me his life. I kept him company…He held very balanced views. Hilger represented what I thought was good in the German people…I learned that perhaps sometimes bad solutions are better than the alternative, which might be a tragedy.

Hilger’s knowledgeable responses to a series of interrogation questions on the Soviet Union proved his intelligence value to the Americans. Hilger’s interrogations, on topics ranging from Russia’s administration of Eastern Prussia and the constitution of the Soviet Union, to the collectivization of its agriculture and Russian antisemitism, produced detailed commentary that filled dozens of reports.

In an answer to “How much reliance is placed on the United Nations security organization as compared with bilateral alliance and military preparedness to protect the position of the Soviet Union?” Hilger responded with an eleven-paragraph treatise on the history of how the Soviets viewed the world and what effect it had on their lack of confidence in any “international security organization.”

As useful as his insights were on the sundry intelligence topics covered in the interrogation reports, it would be a November 8, 1946 paper “Observations on General A. A. Vlasov and the so-called ‘Vlasov-action’” that would positively confirm Hilger’s usefulness for the Americans. In the paper, which remained classified “Secret” until 2006, Hilger describes his conversations with the Russian General Vlasov, and the potential—both in the view of Vlasov and Hilger—for a German military and psychological operation to have gathered anti-Bolshevik defector forces across the Soviet Union, defeated the Red Army, and overthrown the Bolshevik regime—if only Hitler had put it in place in time.

The paper is written to teach the U.S. government lessons about conducting psychological operations against the Soviet Union:

…the discontent of the peoples of the Soviet Union with their present rulers is so deep-seated and so great that they would support every effort from abroad which would appear to them as fit to free them from the hateful regime. This task, however, cannot be achieved by military means alone. Skillful psychological warfare is absolutely necessary and must be conducted simultaneously.

This paper came to Kennan at a key moment on U.S. thinking vis-a-vis the Soviet Union during the early Cold War period. Kennan and Offie, of the Dacha Crowd, would within two years create such a “psychological operations” organization in the OPC at the newly established CIA and task it with conducting the same anti-Soviet “psychological operations” Hilger had prescribed.

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In 1946, when American military intelligence joined with former Wehrmacht military intelligence chief Gen. Reinhard Gehlen to continue sponsoring Gehlen’s “Organization,” a network of spies in the Soviet Bloc, the U.S. Army secretly returned Hilger to Germany to head up analysis of the Gehlen Organization’s “frequently worthless” intelligence output.

After Soviet intelligence learned Hilger was back in Germany, they requested his extradition as a war criminal and arrested members of his family in the Soviet Zone to force the issue. Hilger was later told Soviet intelligence considered him to be the “most dangerous German” who had served at the Moscow embassy before the war.

So in 1948, Hilger sought refuge in the United States. At the same time, George Kennan and Carmel Offie, now senior officials in the State Department and CIA, needed advice on destabilizing the Soviet Union’s satellites. What followed was an elaborate American operation to bring the rest of Hilger’s family first into the American sector in Berlin. The Dacha Crowd, many of whom had grown up into the “Georgetown Set,” managed to bring Hilger back to Washington for a second time.

The OPC became, in effect, the operational arm of Kennan’s office, and above it, the Truman administration’s newly minted National Security Council. Its “Policy Coordination” name betrayed OPC’s real role as the U.S. government’s principal worldwide covert action arm. National Security Council directive 10/2 of June 1948 assigned to OPC responsibility for:

“propaganda; economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberations [sic] groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.”

It was the OPC, through Carmel Offie, that would bring Hilger to the United States and handle him under project names “EUCHRE” and “PBSTEAM,” using the personal aliases of “Arthur T. Latter” and “Stephen H. Holcomb.”

Kennan and Offie also pushed for the Hilgers to receive visas and waived normal protocols in the process. Kennan wrote in his appeal to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), “Hilger was never a member, or sympathetic to, the Nazi Party, but rather he was a conscientious and able civil servant of the German government…[who] should receive special consideration.” Offie and the CIA paid Hilger $500 a month, helped him get a house, and tried to “obtain for [Hilger] some connection to Georgetown University, for which organization he will actually do very little work.”

Jörn Happel describes how Kennan “paved the way for Hilger in the United States,” which included campaigning “for his fatherly friend” by visiting him, providing him with contacts, and encouraging him to write his memoirs. Happel writes, “within a short time Mary and Gustav Hilger created an open house in the USA. Visitors came and went.”

By April 1949, Hilger had already written sixteen reports ranging from “Strategy and Tactics of Bolshevism” to “The Ukrainian Problem as it Showed up in the War between Germany and the Soviet Union” and “Observations on the Collapse of the Hitler Regime In Germany and the Weak Points of the Stalin Regime in the Soviet Union.” Hilger would meet frequently with his old friends Kennan and Bohlen, then considered Washington’s top experts on U.S.-Soviet relations. Bohlen recalled, in an interview with Christopher Simpson for his book Blowback, that he, Hilger, and Kennan “formed an analysis team specializing in the interpretation of Soviet geopolitical strategy following the outbreak of the Korean War.”

According to now-declassified documents, Kennan continued to intervene personally for Hilger to receive high-level security clearances. This upset some in the CIA who saw the danger in giving a man with such foreign allegiances access to raw intelligence, and, in practice, that even Hilger’s occasional presence in the CIA’s cafeteria could potentially blow covers.

It was not just clearances and access that the Dacha Crowd was able to provide. Kennan and Offie secured for Hilger a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, through the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, to work on his memoir-history of German-Soviet relations, The Incompatible Allies. The book’s preface states: “the present work would not have been possible without the active interest and help of a great number of people.” Hilger thanks Kennan and Offie by name. Hilger was also invited by Professor Clyde Kluckhohn to present a paper and seminar on “The Soviet Foreign Service Officer through the Changing Years” at Harvard’s Russian Research Center in 1951.

Having served in Washington as an unofficial envoy for Konrad Adenauer and the new government he was forming in West Germany, it is no surprise that Hilger would accept in September 1953 a high post in the new German Foreign Office. Hilger was appointed Botschaftstrat (Counselor) in the Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office), the exact same position in the same office—it should be noted—where he had worked under Ribbentrop. Hilger was promised a full pension for the entire period from 1923 to his future retirement in 1956 as “bait” to leave his comfortable life in Washington for a new one in the West German capital.

Nicholas Poppe, a Russian linguist who had worked for the S.S.-affiliated Wannsee Institute and who was brought to the United States under similar circumstances to Hilger, gives Hilger even more credit for supporting Adenauer behind the scenes. Poppe writes in his memoirs that “the existence of the Adenauer government was to a large extent the result of Hilger’s activities.” Hilger was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit in 1957. He continued to provide informal advice to West German and American officials until his death in 1965.

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The Hilger story is useful to understand the statecraft and ideology of U.S. foreign relations. In studying Hilger and his connections with American officials, we span the formative years of an elite cohort (that Hilger would know and influence) whose rise to prominence in American foreign policy-making during the Truman administration set the stage of American Cold War strategy and ideology.

While this elite group was looking at foreign relations and strategy from the perspective of rather dispassionate analysis—influenced by the British and German strategic cultures they observed during the 1930s and 40s—the ideology they projected to go along with the liberal international order they were building sold a different image to the American people, especially the great American middle classes that dominated public life. This ideology was one in which America was for spreading truth, justice, and the American way in the face of the evil Soviet menace.

No matter whether you call them the Dacha Crowd, the Georgetown Set, the Old Boys, or the Wise Men, the same strategic culture that birthed the post-war liberal international order also birthed the OPC, which recruited the likes of Gustav Hilger and had a worldwide mandate for covert action, psychological warfare, and destabilizing governments. A notable shear exists between the story liberalism tells about itself, and reality.

We end up in a rather dissociative situation. It is quite easy to view the Hilger story simply as an instance of American institutions acting hypocritically with regard to their liberal foundations. But what if success had not depended on such principles at all?

Today, the institutions of American empire chug on largely out of sight and out of mind. Surface level discourse is dominated by reductive ideology that, by the end of the Cold War, was less well-adapted to addressing the underlying needs for which it was created: peace, security, and prosperity. America looked very different entering the nineties than it did after World War II, but it relied on largely the same institutional framework to deal with the world, and it preached much the same messages. Since then the dominant alliance of neoconservatism and liberal interventionism has led only to the consensus of “liberal hegemony” resting on even less sound strategic thought.

The ideological layer is just the tip of a much bigger institutional iceberg—institutions that have ossified as this strategic culture of concentrated and coordinated agentic activity has declined. What remains are just formal institutions that putter along and an ideology that persists in dominating discourse, regardless of its usefulness. The spirit is gone. It’s hard to keep institutions functional.

In the era of Hilger, the people behind these institutions were deeply interconnected and shared overlapping goals. To the extent that these goals differed in reality from public ideological reasoning, the players involved knew the whole score. That was how the Dacha Crowd could cooperate so effectively in bringing Hilger, an official of a former enemy, to work on helping them defeat a current enemy.

But when an initial generation dies off, it becomes more difficult to keep everyone on the same page. The expansion and bureaucratization  of institutions as time goes on accelerates this tendency. It’s quite difficult to give continuity to implicit and informal goals. The generation of officials following the Dacha Crowd might, at best, apprentice under those with living memory of the old guard. But by the following generation, any connection to them would require archives and histories: learning from the dead not the living.

Instead, most have to make do with the public frame. It has become a common trope to discuss how liberalism needs a resurgence in its values and ideals. Liberalism itself is presented as a very good idea which has led to global prosperity. The implication is that liberalism is at its core a philosophical development rather than a concrete institutional heritage, as if a cadre of political philosophers in university laboratories deduced it from pure reason. It certainly presents itself that way.

But given a close examination of the origins of post-war Western liberalism in institutional expediency and practical power politics, it is a mistake to take it too seriously as a coherent philosophical ideology. As an intellectual system, it is the output of shrewd statecraft and is as much a propaganda product as a philosophical one. For every sincere liberal thinker trying to apply a set of principles, there were numerous actors responsible for cooking up that set of principles on far more pragmatic grounds.

And cooked up it was, in this case of its post-war iteration, to galvanize the population for a war stance towards the man formerly known as “Uncle Joe.” Recast as the red tyrant, Stalin now became the enemy of freedom.

Foreign relations—even those of a democracy—will always require some degree of official secrecy and dissimulation. This has remained an unresolved problem throughout the whole history of statecraft and diplomacy. But foreign relations dominated by decadent ideology, and institutions that are increasingly unmoored from the underlying interests and needs they were designed to address, can serve only to further aggravate the schizophrenic nature of our relationship with the rest of the world and our increasingly less productive behavior abroad.

The first step toward resolving this discoherence is bringing our political worldview and institutional machinery back into alignment by reexamination and reformalization. Only then could we undertake real moral improvement of that machinery.

Our default trajectory is to bumble into a crisis that will force that realignment the hard way. But we could also preemptively undertake the necessary program of harsh self-examination and reorientation. Understanding parts of our history like the Hilger story, which discohere with how we’d prefer to see ourselves, is a good start.

Matt Ellison is a research associate at the Hoover Institution. He has a degree in foreign service from Georgetown, where he studied international politics. The views expressed here are his own.