Newsweek

Israel’s Secret War Against Hitler’s Scientists

Years after the Holocaust, the Mossad learned that Egypt was working with German scientists on weapons of mass destruction. Here’s how the intel agency responded.
Years after the Holocaust, the Mossad learned that Egypt was working with German scientists on weapons of mass destruction.
FE_Mossad_01 Source: Photo Illustration by Gluekit

Since World War II, Israel has used assassinations and targeted killings on more people than any other country in the Western world. In many cases, its leaders have determined that in killing a designated target—and protecting its national security—it is moral and legal to endanger the lives of innocent civilians. Harming such people, they believe, is a necessary evil. 

Israel’s reliance on assassination as a military tool did not happen by chance. It stems from the roots of the Zionist movement, from the trauma of the Holocaust and from the sense among Israelis that the country is perpetually in danger of annihilation. And that no one would come to its aid.

Because Israel is such a small country, because the Arab states have long talked of and attempted to destroy it, and because of the perpetual menace of terrorism, the nation has developed a highly effective military and, arguably, the best intelligence community in the world. It has also developed the most robust, streamlined assassination machine in history.

The following reveals some of the early successes and failures of that machine.

FE_Mossad_03_659233393 Gamal Abdel Nasser, then Egyptian president, makes a speech at the Abu Zaabal steelworks near Cairo, on May 1, 1970. Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty

On the morning of July 21, 1962, Israelis woke up to their worst nightmare: Egypt’s newspapers reported the successful test launch of four surface-to-surface missiles. Two days later, the Egyptian military paraded the missiles through Cairo. Some 300 foreign diplomats watched the spectacle, as did President Gamal Abdel Nasser. He proudly declared that the military was now capable of hitting any point “south of Beirut.” The implication was clear: Israel was in Nasser’s crosshairs.

The next day, a broadcast delivered in Hebrew from Egypt-based radio station “The Voice of Thunder From Cairo” was more explicit. “These missiles are intended to open the gates of freedom for the Arabs,” the anchorman boasted, “to retake the homeland that was stolen as part of imperialist and Zionist plots.”

A few weeks later, Israelis learned that a team of German scientists had played an integral role in developing these missiles. World War II had ended 17 years earlier, and suddenly the traumas of the Holocaust, suffused as they were with images of German scientists in Wehrmacht uniforms, gave way to a new and different existential threat: weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Israel’s new great enemy, Nasser, whom Israelis regarded as the Adolf Hitler of the Middle East. “Former German Nazis are now helping Nasser in his anti-Israeli genocide projects” was how the Jewish press described the news. And the Mossad, to say nothing of its political and military leaders, had been caught unaware, learning of Egypt’s missile project mere days before the test launch. It was a devastating reminder of the little country’s vulnerability.

The German scientists developing the Egyptian missiles weren’t obscure technicians. They were some of the Nazi regime’s most senior engineers, men who’d worked during the war at the research base at Peenemünde, a peninsula on the Baltic coast where the Third Reich’s most advanced weaponry was developed.

“I felt helpless,” said Asher Ben-Natan, the director general of the Defense Ministry, “as if the sky were falling on our heads. [David] Ben-Gurion [Israel’s first prime minister] spoke again and again of the nightmare that kept him awake at night—that he had brought the surviving Jews of Europe to the state of Israel, only for them here, in their own country, to undergo a second Holocaust.”

The Mossad, which was created shortly after the formation of Israel in 1948 to monitor and protect the country against external threats, conducted a top-secret inquiry into the affair in 1982. It described Egypt’s 1962 announcement of the missile project as “one of the most important and traumatic events in the history of the Israeli intelligence community.”

Mossad chief Isser Harel placed the entire agency on high alert. An atmosphere of crisis swept through every corridor of the intelligence service. The agency’s operatives immediately began breaking into Egyptian diplomatic embassies and consulates in several European capitals to photograph documents. They were also able to recruit a Swiss employee at the Zurich office of EgyptAir—a company that occasionally served as cover for Nasser’s intelligence agencies. The Swiss employee allowed Mossad operatives to take the mailbags at night, twice a week, to a safe house. The operatives opened their contents and photocopied them, then experts resealed them, leaving no sign they’d been tampered with, before returning the mailbags to the airline office. Soon, the Mossad had a preliminary understanding of what Cairo was planning.

The Egyptian project had been initiated by two internationally known scientists, Eugen Sänger

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