This book is subtitled 1915 – Germany’s Secret War by Howard Blum. It is a fascinating and very readable account of a corner of American history not very well explored lately; what happened in the early years of WWI, when the assassination of an Austrian arch-duke set Western Europe on fire – and America remained tenuously neutral. Very soon it became apparent to those in highest authority in Germany that the war would not be a walk in the park; that it would be a long and bloody war of attrition. In those circumstances, the United States could not be easily dismissed – even if it was considered such a backwater by the German general staff that it was lumped together with Mexico, to the disgust of Captain Franz von Papen. He was then assigned as military attaché to the German embassy in New York in 1913 – but in 1915 he was tasked with recruiting spies and saboteurs to wreak havoc.
Technically, the United States was a neutral, although quite a fair number of the wealthy social elite as well as the political leadership of the time were inclined to favor the British, and maintained strong cultural ties with England. Business and financial ties also favored the Allies – and considerable agricultural and industrial bounty flowed freely to England, France and Russia, to the indignation of the German government. This was fiendishly one-sided neutrality, to their way of thinking. Von Papen and his fellows dove into a covert war with considerable relish, although there was the danger (a real one, as it turned out) that German efforts to hamper aid to the Allies might backfire, and alienate the U.S. out of neutrality and into open war against Germany.
They did not lack potential recruits and allies, as was pointed out by the author, by the early 20th century, one in ten Americans had been born in Germany or had a German-born parent. There were five hundred German-language newspapers in circulation across the United States, and whole districts, counties and parts of cities who were proudly, patriotically German in language and culture. A small number of individuals chose loyalty to their country of origin rather than that of residence and eagerly took up the cause of covert war. Among them was an Ivy League professor who had murdered his first wife by poison, and who would eventually try to blow up the US Capitol building and assassinate John P. Morgan (much in the public eye for his wealth and support of the British war effort). There was a second-generation German-American doctor who propagated a dangerous virus intended to be spread among horses in holding corrals waiting shipment to Europe. There were also any number of resident German aliens, including the security superintendent of a subsidiary of the Hamburg-America Line, an elderly chemist and president of an agricultural chemical company and thousands of German Army reservists – all caught by the outbreak of war. In various port cities there were also the crews of interned German ships, prevented from returning home, although generally left at liberty. The German agents also found ready allies among Irish-Americans working on the docks, whose resentment against Great Britain remained unabated.
Captain von Papen and his comrades had no shortage of recruits, or even just those who would look the other way. A wave of state-sponsored and funded sabotage soon began – mysterious explosions and fires at sea on board ships carrying essential material to England, France and Germany. Matched against this covert offensive was a New York police captain, Thomas “Tom” Tunney, who was officially the head of the nascent NYPD’s bomb squad. He was a dedicated and single-minded professional, trusted by his superiors. Tunney had some experience in running undercover operations, most notably against a violent group of ethnic Italian anarchists. Now he was up against something even more sinister – violence funded by a foreign nation and led by ostensibly diplomatic personnel. Wisely, the first thing he did was to recruit three second-generation German-American police officers, fresh from the police academy, all fluent in German and comfortable in both cultures, all highly patriotic. The book plays out the resulting cat-and-mouse game rather like the best kind of espionage novel, weaving together various published accounts. Eventually the largest part of the sabotage effort unraveled, although some elements – such the use of the glanders virus as a bioweapon was not identified as such until much later. I had not heard of this kind of shenanigans going on in the U. S. when WWI started, but it certainly makes clear that the sinking of the Lusitania and interception of the Zimmerman telegram were just the culmination of a long series of hostile activities.
No wonder that American public needed little additional encouragement to see Imperial Germany as a foe by 1917. A few years ago at a book talk about the Adelsverein Trilogy in Beeville, an elderly gentleman of German descent told me that his parents made a decision sometime in the early 1920s to begin speaking English instead of their native German at home, with the result that he only had a smattering of the language, whereas his older brother remained completely fluent. Other elderly German-Americans have since told me the same. In a way, this book makes clear what likely led to that decision to loosen the ties which bound them to the country they had come from. The only criticism I would make is that I wish the author had included a final chapter, wrapping up what happened to the various participants. Since this was a very novel-like account, I did want to know what happened to the major as well as the minor characters in later years, and to know if any of various mysteries referred to had ever been resolved.
I have this book in an advanced reader’s edition through Amazon Vine – it is supposed to go on sale in February, but it is ready for pre-release orders on Amazon, where there are already reviews posted.