Fictional spies make for good stories. Real spies are tougher to write about. For one thing, the documentary sources are mostly secret for a long time. Writers have to conjecture some parts of the story. For another thing, they are human, rather than super-human. Real spies act for a range of motives and with a range of skillfulness. Still, the inherent interest to readers of the “secret world” of spies maintains an audience for real spy stories.
The Second World War offers rich ground. A great struggle between Good and Evil overlapped with other ideological struggles between Capitalism and Communism, and Nationalism and Internationalism. They took root during a great economic crisis that caused many people to doubt the viability of democracy while imagining authoritarianism to be the “wave of the future.” It was a “total war” in which armed forces were joined by industry, technology, science, propaganda, and espionage as important weapons of war. Finally, the war set the United States solidly on the path away from isolationism and toward its troubled role as “the greatest power on Earth.”
In the late Thirties, all countries recognized the potential power of the United States. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union targeted the United States for espionage. Germany efforts misfired badly. German military intelligence, the Abwehr, began reasonably enough. They reached beyond the usual military attaches to build an infrastructure among the crews of the merchant and passenger ships that regularly called at American ports. They targeted German-Americans by appealing to racial solidarity and nationalism. They sought people with direct access to technical information. The “trade craft” of the agents turned out to be a weak spot. One German-American agent tried to obtain 35 blank passports by pretending to be the Secretary of State. Arrested in February 1938, he soon told what he knew. This led the Federal Bureau of Investigation, newly tasked with domestic counter-espionage, to jury-rig an investigation. Leon Turrou soon identified 18 suspected German agents. Used to chasing bank robbers rather than foreign spies, let most of them slip between the FBI’s fingers. The rest were convicted in an October 1938 trial. The bad publicity from the case made J. Edgar Hoover determined that things would go better next time.
It did. In early 1940 the FBI turned a very reluctant German agent, William Sebold. He put them on the trail of a large German network headed by Fritz Duquesne. After carefully building cases, the FBI arrested 33 people at the end of June 1941. All were swiftly convicted. Again, the newspapers splashed the news around, but this time it pleased Hoover.
The Duquesne case wrecked Abwehr operations in the United States. Still, pressed hard by American entry into the war in December 1941, the Abwehr sent off eight saboteurs by submarine. They landed on the American coast in June 1942. Almost immediately, two of them defected and betrayed the others to the FBI. All were arrested, tried by a special military tribunal, and sentenced to death. The two defectors were granted clemency: 30 years in prison for one and life for the other. FBI Director Hoover suppressed all mention of the defectors in explaining the case to the public.
Finally, in late November 1944, two more German agents landed from a submarine off the coast of Maine. The two were mismatched: an experienced German agent and an unstable American renegade. The renegade didn’t stick with spying for Germany any longer than he had with anything else. He soon bolted with much of the cash, burned through a lot of it on wine, women, and song, and then turned himself in. The German soon fell into the hands of the FBI. Both were sentenced to death, but the sentences were commuted to prison terms. That ended German efforts to spy on the United States.
The Abwehr had a good sense of what information it wanted and what targets it wanted to sabotage. It just lacked the human means to achieve these ends. The quality of people available to the Abwehr plagued their operations. Spying required both commitment to the cause and the time needed to work into a useful position. The first operation foundered on the stupidity of an agent; the rest suffered defections before they had scarcely begun. Apparently, in New Deal America, neither National Socialism nor German ancestry provided much motivation to run great risks. Few of the German agents had any natural talent: they weren’t habitually circumspect, or suspicious, or stolid, or even careful. Often they became spies because the Germans first twisted their arms, then sent them abroad with no way of keeping an eye on their recruits. The failures of the weak links then brought disaster for the handful of able German agents.
The wartime cases did much to unjustifiably burnish the reputation of the Counter-Intelligence Division of the FBI. The role of the defections in catching the spies got erased in the press coverage. Instead, the FBI celebrated the determined gum-shoe work of its agents.
Moreover, several of the cases led to movies that distorted the realities. “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (dir. Anatole Litvak, 1939) purported to tell the story of Leon Turrou’s 1938 investigation. Warner Brothers made it as a wake-up call to Americans about the Nazi danger, but it failed at the box office. “They Came to Blow Up America (dir. Edward Ludwig, 1943) tells a thoroughly fanciful story of the eight saboteurs of 1942. Again, the FBI is all over the plot foem the beginning. “The House on 92nd Street” (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1945) retold the story of the Duquesne spy rung—with the full support of the FBI. Finally, the story of the final two saboteurs appeared—again much refashioned—in the West German film “Spy for Germany” (dir. Werner Klingler, 1956). Understandably, this one did not glorify the FBI.
The lesson here might be that a foreign enemy wishing to spy in the United States would require better quality human assets and professional case-officers on the ground.
 OK, I read John Le Carre novels. What about it?
 Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, The Nazi Spy Ring in America: Hitler’s Agents, the FBI, and the Case that Stirred a Nation (2020).
 See: Peter Duffy, Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring (2014).
 On Duquesne, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Joubert_Duquesne#Second_World_War_%E2%80%93_Duquesne_Spy_Ring I’m not sure that I actually believe his story.
 At a point way up in the Gulf of Maine. The nearest town had a population of only 750 people. The two men from “Away” were soon noticed.
 In this, if not in motivation, they resemble most members of European Resistance movements.
 In contrast, German counter-intelligence operations in the occupied countries worked to devastating effect. In large part, this is because they were in a position to keep a close watch on the agents they recruited from among the conquered peoples.
 Several members of the Duquesne network had obtained valuable intelligence on American air power.
 On the other hand, it appears in a brief scene in “Operation Mincemeat” (dir. John Madden, 2021).