Mike Burke was the head of CIA operations in Germany during the Cold War. A few years later he was hired by CBS to buy and sell ideas and programming in Europe for a new organization, CBS Europe, a front useful to both CBS and the CIA. For the network, the European arm would have a valid commercial purpose; but for American intelligence purposes, a number of its business contacts were former members of the German intelligence ring.
Because of the Cold War, German ex-Nazis and Americans were gathering intelligence on the Soviet Union at the same time. The German spies in the Soviet bloc were under the command of Wehrmacht Major General Reinhard Gehlen. Their outfit was known as the Gehlenapparat. They were supposed to report to the CIA, but the operatives did not work only for the United States.
It was a strange deal our government made. The German spies worked primarily for the West German government, not for the Americans. Although the United States provided the funds, the reports always went first to the Chancellor of Germany—at the time Konrad Adenauer, who had been Gehlen’s previous boss. The staff was composed of many men who had served or been in the Nazi party. It was an uncomfortable ideological partnership.
It was also important to the Americans that the German film industry be reconstituted. The Nazis had taken over the production of the German newsreels and fictional films. To fill the postwar distribution vacuum, Washington secretly refinanced a film corporation in Munich, Constantin Film AG. It was necessary for CBS to maintain commercial relations with Constantin as a market for CBS re-runs. It was also a fine cover story for Burke who wore two hats.
High in the echelons of Constantin Film AG was Klaus Hardt. When I told Mike I needed a distributor for the two films I had made in France, he called Hardt and asked him to see me. I sent my two films ahead and made a date with the purchasing head of Constantin in Munich.
On an April day, I met Otto Kramer, the chief of the organization. Although he greeted me in excellent English, as soon as the business discussions started he spoke only German. Klaus Hardt was the interpreter.
“Mr. Wolff, we have no interest in your film on the war in Europe. However, we would agree to distribute a German version of Kamikaze.”
(Two months later the Japanese had no interest in Kamikaze but showed much interest in Caucasians killing each other in Europe.)
“We will give you the standard deal for distribution. But we will do something you will not find with other distributors. We will give you an honest ticket count. We will not fudge our books. You will get a fair accounting.”
I was delighted. But Kramer continued: “In Germany it is necessary that the producer buy the accompanying short subject. I have such a short subject on the habits of caterpillars. It was made by my shatz”.
Klaus translated: “Shatz means mistress. And it will cost you ten thousand American dollars.”
I didn’t have ten thousand dollars.
Klaus saw my face. So did Otto Kramer. But he was adamant. “After you give Constantin the ten thousand we will make a version in German without cost to you.”
Then Hardt said something in German I did not understand. But his tone was one I never used to a boss or a commanding officer. I think he was chagrined by the immorality of underwriting the shatz’s film.
A pause. Kramer said nothing. But Klaus did.
“Mr. Kramer misspoke. Later, he will take the first ten thousand from the initial gross receipts. You needn’t pay now. After that you will share and the accounting will be accurate.”
The tone of the rebuke made it clear to me that Klaus had worked for Burke in the CIA-Gehlen Organization. Klaus was also wearing two hats.
I agreed to the terms. After a genial goodbye to Kramer, Hardt and I left for a cup of coffee. On the way to the bar I noticed he limped. He saw that I noticed.
“I had frostbite in the war and lost four toes on one foot.”
“I just escaped a bad frostbite,” I said. “I still have an unusable left big toe.”
“Where were you?” he asked.
“The Ardennes. Near a small town, Marche.”
Without hesitation he added, “We were stopped just short of Marche”.
I had a flash of memory. This German and this American might have been shooting at each other.
Klaus Hardt had just saved me ten thousand dollars. On the other hand the 116th Panzer grenadiers were an SS division whose officers may have killed American prisoners in the Bulge. And with Klaus’ excellent English and his sharp retort to Kramer, he could not have been just another German draftee. He was officer material.
Which Klaus Hardt? He might have become my first German friend. But not so long as I remembered crawling in the snow on December 24, 1944, and the discovery of the corpses on Christmas Day. Three Germans frozen into comma form and Hyman Lipsky, sliced longitudinally near the chicken coop.
It was turbulent; a booming, buzzing confusion. Yet the past— fear and hatred—overrode the reasonable, the affable, the offer of friendship. My mind surrendered to my reflexes.
“Thank you Klaus. I appreciate your help with Otto Kramer. But I think I’ll go directly to the airport. “
“I’ll get you a taxi. Give my regards to Mike Burke.”
I never talked to Burke about the meeting. I never talked to Klaus again, although he called me once when I was back in Paris. Years later I tried to track him down, but Burke was dead and the new, independent Constantin had no record of Hardt.
General-Major Reinhard Gehlen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhard_Gehlen