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Book Review: The Spy in Hitler’s Inner Circle

By HistoryNet Staff
10/27/2016 • Military History Book Reviews

The Spy in Hitler’s Inner Circle: Hans-Thilo Schmidt and the Intelligence That Decoded Enigma, by Paul Paillole, Casemate Publishers, Havertown, Pa., 2016, $32.95

In The Spy in Hitler’s Inner Circle Paul Paillole, an experienced French officer who served in the Deuxième Bureau (Second Bureau of the General Staff) before and during World War II, profiles Hans-Thilo Schmidt, a German cipher clerk who sold key information to the French intelligence service from 1931 to 1943. Schmidt (code name Asche/H.E.) passed numerous secret plans and projects of the Third Reich to the French, including information received by the agent’s unsuspecting older brother, General Rudolf Schmidt.

Perhaps Schmidt’s most important contribution was intelligence that helped Allied cryptanalysts crack the German Enigma machine’s myriad code combinations. The Deuxième Bureau shared that information with the Polish secret service, which in turn passed it to the Polish General Staff’s Cipher Bureau. As Paillole notes, it was that bureau’s technicians and mathematicians who broke Enigma. After the collapse of Poland and France, the data passed to Bletchley Park, England, where physicist Alan Turing modified it. Once unlocked, Enigma provided vital intelligence affecting the outcomes of the Battle of Britain and the Allied landings in Normandy. If the 1944 German offensive in the Ardennes proved an exception, it was largely because the Germans maintained total communications silence for days before their stunning attack.

For Paillole, Schmidt was as significant as Richard Sorge, the Soviet agent whose intelligence from Japan on Oct. 15, 1941, confirmed Japan would not attack the Soviet Union, thus allowing the Russians to rush Siberian garrison troops westward in time to participate in the Battle of Moscow. While making such a comparison, however, it must be noted Sorge was motivated by ideology, whereas Schmidt, of Prussian aristocratic origin, committed treason against the Reich strictly for money.

Schmidt seemingly dismissed the possibility the French agent to whom he passed his information, Rodolphe Lemoine (code name Rex, and actually of German origin), would betray him to the Abwehr, German military intelligence. Fortunately for the Allies, even then the Germans didn’t realize the Allies already knew the secrets of Enigma. The Spy in Hitler’s Inner Circle should appeal both to World War II scholars and especially to enthusiasts of the belle époque of espionage.

—Thomas Zacharis

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