David McCormack: Playboy, businessman, saviour, spy: Oskar Schindler’s lesser known career with German Military Intelligence 1936-40
Oskar Schindler’s name became known to millions following Liam Neeson’s brilliant 1993 on-screen performance as the larger-than-life character in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Whilst this beautifuly crafted film captured Schindler’s shrewd opportunism and supreme confidence, it did not satisfactorily explain his conversion from casual war profiteer to selfless hero.
This is entirely understandable, given that the film was based on Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark (1982), which only briefly touched upon some of his pre-Krakow activities. Those activities included his direct involvement in espionage and undercover operations carried out by German Military intelligence (Abwehr) between 1936 and 1940.
Given the nature of Schindler’s clandestine activities, it is hardly surprising that he remains a controversial and shadowy figure. According to Schindler’s own account, he joined Abwehr III Breslau in December 1936 after meeting the organisation’s chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris at a party. The unit to which he was attached principally dealt with code-breaking and radio monitoring.
Following reorganisation, his unit was redesignated as Abwehr II Breslau, tasked with carrying out espionage/counter-espionage and sabotage/counter-sabotage operations. During the fateful summer of 1938 which culminated in the Munich Crisis, he worked to provide Abwehr combat and sabotage teams with reliable maps and information on Czech troop movements and defences.
Schindler was a somewhat minor figure in Hitler’s plans to take over Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, his activities did not go unnoticed by the Czech authorities. He was arrested on charges of espionage on 18 July 1938, tried and subsequently imprisoned. However, he was released early under the terms of the Munich Agreement.
Through much of August 1939, Schindler played a more significant role in Hitler’s planned invasion of Poland. Operating with Action Commando Unit VIII around the Sillein border region in Slovakia, Schindler smuggled arms and men across the border into Poland in preparation for clandestine combat operations. Later, he participated in operations to secure the strategically important rail tunnel and tracks which ran through the Jablunkov Pass.
However, Hitler’s miscalculation regarding British and French guarantees to Poland led to the operation being hastily terminated as a result of his fear of provoking a general war. On 31 August, the carefully staged Gleiwitz Incident provided Hitler with his justification for attacking Poland. Schindler may well have had a role in procuring Polish uniforms for this SS orchestrated ruse de geurre designed to create the impression of Polish aggression along the German border. However, the evidence for his involvement is largely based on testimony from his estranged wife Emilie. As such, it needs to be treated with caution.
Following the occupation of Krakow by German forces in September 1939, Schindler moved to the city in the hope of resuming his business career. However, in reality, he never left Abwehr, as in 1940 he was sent on a mission to investigate difficulties affecting the flow of intelligence information from Turkey. It is also quite possible that his purchase of the Emalia factory was subsidised by his Abwehr controllers, who wished to use it as a front for their continued intelligence activities.
Working with Abwehr brought Schindler into close contact with some of the more unpleasant organs of the Nazi state. Consequently, he developed a distrust of the SS Security Service and the Secret Police, whose activities he regarded as beyond the pale. This distrust would later develop as a distaste for all aspects of Hitler’s terror state and would form the basis of the actions which led to him becoming the saviour of 1,100 Jews, who would certainly have perished without his intervention.