NATO's secret Nazi armies
How the CIA and MI6 created Operation Gladio, a Cold War terror network riddled with Nazis. Part one of a new series.
Last month NATO’s Twitter account posted a photo of a Ukrainian soldier and saluted her “bravery and resilience.” But as many online commentators quickly noticed, the soldier’s body armour bore the mark of the Black Sun — a Nazi symbol.
NATO deleted the tweet, later telling Newsweek that it hadn’t noticed “a symbol that we could not verify as official.” I’ve written before about the problem of Ukrainian Nazis and how deeply embedded they are in the state.
But the phenomenon of NATO recruitment of Nazis has deep historic roots — roots which stretch back right to the end of World War II.
At the dawn of the first Cold War, the CIA and MI6 set about establishing a vast network of secret terror armies throughout Western Europe. Its footsoldiers were usually members of the far-right — fascists, Nazi collaborators, extremist monarchists and outright Nazis.
This network was soon subsumed, coordinated through a NATO body which at one stage took the rather unsubtle moniker of, the “Clandestine Planning Committee.”
Each country’s secret army went by different (often obscure) names, but the Italian branch was called “Gladio” (a reference to the double-edged short sword used by Gladiators during the Roman Empire). In 1990, Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti revealed the existence of this secret army to parliament. The network as a whole therefore came to be known as Operation Gladio.
Journalist Philip Willan estimates that in Italy alone, between 1969 and 1987, 356 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in “the most protracted and traumatic terrorist onslaught” in Western Europe outside of Britain and Spain.1
This was the so-called “Strategy of Tension” — largely carried out by armed fascist groups in collusion with and protected by the secret state.
As well as Willan’s book (published in 1991 and republished in 2002), two of the other best sources on Gladio are:
A three part 1992 documentary in the BBC’s Timewatch strand titled Gladio. It was made by American filmmaker Allan Francovich. The series includes a dizzying array of interviews with first-hand participants in the secret army — from fascist terrorists and military intelligence spooks all the way up to senior CIA officers. The BBC has neglected the film. I can’t find it available through any authorised outlet, but pirated copies are available online (I will embed a YouTube copy in a second (open) post to follow this article).
Daniele Ganser’s book NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe (London: Routledge, 2004). A Swiss historian, Ganser’s command of several different European languages, combined with his brilliant research skills made him almost uniquely suited to write this book. While Willan’s book focuses on Italy, Ganser’s gives a masterful overview of the European terror network. Many of the book’s revelations had not been previously reported in English.
As Ganser’s book shows, the operations of these secret terror armies stretched from Britain in the west as far as Turkey in the east.
In France, where the French Communist Party had been kept out of government despite winning the 1945 election, the secret army was called Plan Bleu, and was used to help keep the Communists out of power for good.2
The right-wing dictatorship of António Salazar meant that Portugal was a major Gladio base. It had a branch of the network called the “Aginter Press,” which was not in fact a publisher but trained terrorists for assassination operations targeting liberation struggles in Portugal’s African colonies.3
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The top echelons of the West German military, intelligence and political elite were absolutely riddled with senior Nazis from Hitler’s regime.
SS and Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie (directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of resistance fighters and Jewish people) was recruited by the US military’s Counter Intelligence Corps in 1947, hidden from the war crimes tribunal and spirited out of the country.
Barbie was instrumental in establishing the West German part of the Gladio network — the Bund Deutscher Jugend (League of German Youth) and its covert Technischer Dienst (Technical Service). It was exposed and supposedly banned as early as 1952 after a death list of Communist and Socialist politicians (including then current government officials) to be “liquidized” in the event of a supposed Soviet invasion came to light.4
Files released by the German government only in 2014 revealed that around about the same time the BDJ/TD was discovered, another Gladio-style secret Nazi army was established by the West Germany government. Euphemistically described as either the “Insurance Company” or the Schnez-Truppe, the secret Nazi army was the brainchild of former Nazi colonel Albert Schnez. It kept extensive intelligence on the West German left.
Most of the details of Gladio’s operations remain obscure and highly secretive to this day. But Italian, Belgian and Swiss inquires in the 1990s did manage to get some details about these terror campaigns out into the open.
We know that Gladio cells perpetrated “false flag” terror attacks — mostly indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, but sometimes even on police and military targets. These were then deliberately framed as the work of the left.
The motives were two-fold:
To discredit European Communist Parties and the wider left, including socialist parties who worked in “popular front” style governments.
To impose chaos and disorder on the general population, leaving a gap which the deep-state security apparatus and the hard-right could step into — even to the point of planned military coups.
Speaking in the 1992 BBC series, former Italian fascist and renegade Gladio agent Vincenzo Vinciguerra explained the thinking.