The CASSIA Spy Ring in World War II Austria
A History of the OSS’s Maier-Messner Group
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2017, 240 pages
Book Review published on: February 9, 2018
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s first intelligence agency, operated from June 1942 to September 1945. The OSS is unique among the world’s intelligence services, having much of its wartime records long open to historians and scholars through the U.S. National Archives. Yet, even after decades of scrutiny, C. Turner demonstrates in The CASSIA Spy Ring in World War II Austria: A History of the OSS’s Maier-Messner Group that there is still much unmined material capable of revealing insights into the OSS legacy. Turner’s well-researched work draws upon a number of underexploited primary sources, including German and Austrian records, to provide a riveting account of an OSS operation gone wrong. Turner’s study reminds us that the level of professional competence found in the modern U.S. intelligence community did not emerge overnight, and it is founded on some hard-learned lessons.
In his introduction, Turner laments that “fiction has done a better job at telling traditional spy stories,” and that the bulk of literature on the OSS “tips in favor of derring-do.”1 Rather than add to the pile of books emphasizing special operations, Turner casts his gaze on the “OSS’s attempts at less spectacular but equally important work—handling the spies who took staggering risks to smuggle intelligence out of the Third Reich.”2 He rises to his own challenge and gives us a scholarly work that reads like a spy novel rather than an academic study.
Turner succeeds in livening up the “less spectacular” aspects of the intelligence business by highlighting the human element behind CASSIA, the OSS codename for a homegrown Austrian resistance group operating in Vienna. In successive chapters focusing on specific individuals, he analyzes each of the key persons in CASSIA’s story by laying bare their motivations, fears, and strength of character in detail. Heinrich Maier, for example, is a Catholic priest driven to conspiracy by his repugnance to Adolf Hitler’s regime. His coconspirator, Franz Josef Messner, is a prominent industrialist who enjoyed Berlin’s trust for his attempt to secure German access to Brazilian rubber supplies. Both despised Nazism but still wrestled with the ethical dilemmas involved in organizing a resistance. As they contemplated the likely consequences of their plots for themselves and others, “Maier confided in Messner, men of conscience would be required to do difficult, unpopular things, but such things would be necessary to spare innocent lives.”3 Close examination of the key participants (as well as the agents who betrayed them) reminds us that in an age where intelligence operations typically bring to mind computers and satellites, intelligence ultimately involves real flesh-and-blood human beings making difficult choices.
Eventually, Maier and Messner turn for help to the OSS, a relatively new organization still developing its tradecraft. Staffed largely by volunteers and amateur spies, quality varied among OSS stations. Turner contrasts the practices of OSS-Istanbul—highlighting its failure to compartmentalize its operations and protect its sources—against the quiet skepticism and competence of Allen Dulles’s operations in Switzerland. He minces no words but concludes that “some readers may think this work’s criticisms of OSS-Istanbul are unduly harsh. I would only offer that, when intelligence officers make mistakes that lead to the deaths of six loyal agents, strong criticism is not only warranted, it is also obligatory.”4
Turner does not exempt CASSIA from criticism but more-or-less gives the group a pass as inexperienced civilians who, despite little to no training, managed to achieve some major accomplishments before being compromised by an OSS-Istanbul mole. For example, he analyzes the British bomber attack on the German rocket complex at Peenemünde in August 1943, acknowledging that there is some debate over the significance of CASSIA’s reporting in support of the strike. Turner argues persuasively that CASSIA’s timely provision to the OSS of crucial intelligence was “one of the group’s biggest intelligence coups,” and that CASSIA “contributed to turning parts of this remote top-secret facility into smoldering piles of splinters.”5
Turner concludes with some broad lessons learned regarding the nature of the intelligence profession. For example, the tragic fate of CASSIA demonstrates that “exercising moral courage in a bureaucracy can be more difficult than being valorous on a battlefield.”6 In the end, Turner has provided us a solid case study of an early intelligence operation, one where the missteps of inexperienced officers and agents combined to teach us that intelligence fieldwork is “the wrong job for those who derive comfort from the predictable and the unambiguous.”7
Book Review written by: Kevin Rousseau, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
- C. Turner, The CASSIA Spy Ring in World War II Austria: A History of the OSS’s Maier-Messner Group (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017), 2.
- Ibid., 20.
- Ibid., 184.
- Ibid., 36–37.
- Ibid., 149.