Heroes and Villains

 Thomas Boghardt, SPY Historian

It is tempting to label historical figures either as heroes or villains. But when you are dealing with intelligence history, you’ll find a lot more shades of gray than charcoal black and ivory white.

A good example for the moral ambiguity spies and intelligence agencies operate in, is the British double-cross system in World War II. Whenever British counter-intelligence caught a Nazi spy, they would try and turn, rather than arrest and execute them. In this endeavor, the Brits virtually always succeeded. And you can’t really blame the spies for turning coat—after all, who would want an Iron Cross if the price was a British bullet? Thus, the British gradually extended control over the entire German spy system in the United Kingdom. Throughout the war, they used it masterly to feed disinformation to the Abwehr (German intelligence) who were convinced their agents in Britain were doing a sterling job.

But where lay the true loyalties of these double agents? Some were evidently beacons of moral rectitude. Juan Pujol (codename GARBO) was a genuine anti-fascist who joined the Abwehr with the sole intention of subsequently spying for British intelligence—a hero, if you like. When it comes to other double agents, though, I am not so sure. Take, for instance, Eddie Chapman, a small-time British crook and notorious skirt chaser, jailed for theft in Jersey when the Germans overran the tiny Channel island in 1940. Recruited as a spy by the Abwehr and sent on a clandestine mission to Britain, Chapman quickly revealed himself to British authorities, becoming a classic double-agent. Perhaps tellingly, the British codenamed him ZIGZAG. 

I’ve never been quite able to figure out where Chapman’s true loyalties were. Officially, his heart had always been with the British, and he was feted as one their ace agents after the war. Yet he developed a genuine friendship with his German handler and even visited him after the war, presumably to talk about the good old times.  The Germans awarded him an Iron Cross. Is it conceivable that the Nazis would have proclaimed Chapman one of THEIR ace agents, had they won the war? And would that make him a hero or a villain?



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