Agent Garbo: The Spy Who Hoaxed the Germans

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Filed under: The History of Pranks

The Man Who Won Normandy
by D. B. Grady
The Atlantic
July 6, 2012

Stephan Talty’s Agent Garbo sheds light on an amateur spy who saved the world.

Stephan Talty’s latest book is like a case study in how elegantly the Second World War scales down. Narrowing the focus seems only to reveal more about the war, and armored divisions and vainglorious generals soon appear incidental to the greater actions of common people in terrible times. There are some names uncertain to appear on a national census roster, much less in the footnotes of history. But in Agent Garbo, Talty pencils in one such name: Juan Pujol, a chicken farmer in Barcelona, who acted not for headlines or personal glory, but to make in some modest way a “contribution toward the good of humanity.”

His life has been reconstructed by Talty though interviews, declassified documents, and files from state archives. During the Spanish Civil War, Juan Pujol refused to take up arms, unwilling to spill the blood of fellow Spaniards. This refusal proved an early introduction to espionage, as he spent much of the war incognito or out of sight. He was a deserter, and was eventually caught and imprisoned. When he escaped, he hatched a plan to abscond to France. Ironically, it involved enlisting in the same Republican military he’d just been imprisoned for avoiding. This time, however, he lied about his age (claiming to be too old) and lied about his politics (claiming to be a radical). Once in uniform and on the front lines, he made a mad, successful dash for the Nationalist lines. He never fired a shot in the war.

By the time Franco consolidated his control of a unified Spain, Juan Pujol knew how to lie. He knew how to hide. He knew how to flee and connive and take measure of the men he encountered. He saw firsthand the cruelties of both the communists and the fascists. He had faced death and survived. In other words, he realized there was more to him than he thought possible. And when a conflict more terrible than civil war began to brew, the former deserter felt the call for service. In his own words when reflecting on Hitler: “I had the idea that this man was a demon, a man who could completely destroy humanity.” The only question was how the poultry salesman might best serve the effort. As it turned out, the very skills that kept him out of one war would make him a decisive force in another.

He became a spy. Not in the submit-a-résumé-and-wait kind of way, but rather, he simply decided that he was a spy and that was that. He approached MI5, the British intelligence agency, with a plan. He was quickly turned away, as he had nothing to offer them. (“I must confess that my plans were fairly confused,” he recounted.) The next best thing, in his view, was to con his way to Berlin. He met with the Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence arm. As Talty describes it, “Pujol was excited by nervous. Going to the British embassy and playing mysterious was dangerous enough, but the Abwehr in Madrid represented an entirely new level of the game.”

But he played it well, and by the time Hitler conquered Holland and Belgium, Pujol was a fully accepted member of German intelligence. This meant he finally had something to offer the British, and hopefully join their ranks. The problem, of course, was that he was a fully accepted member of German intelligence. His next challenge was convincing MI5 that he really was on their side. Eventually, and against the better judgement of many British officers, he succeeded.

Agent Garbo, which was Pujol’s code name, established himself as one of the most important double agents in history. He received decorations from both sides of the war — he was given an Iron Cross from Germany, and was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. He was the key player in convincing the Nazis that Normandy was a diversion, and that the real battle was going to be fought in Calais. Hitler ultimately diverted his forces, the Allied forces won the beach, and we know what happened afterward. It’s no stretch to say that Juan Pujol helped save the world. And if it’s any indication of character, he didn’t leverage this for financial gain or political power. Just the opposite, in fact. To protect his family from retribution by residual Nazi elements, he faked his own death and escaped to South America.

Books of this sort often get mired in the complexities of war and tradecraft, forcing the reader to plod through lessons on machtpolitik before getting on with the story. But Talty’s ardent, almost jaunty prose never bothers to tell the reader that “this is the homework part.” In that respect, the book is evocative of Evan Thomas’s magnificent The Very Best Men. The pace never flags, and the book presses ever forward down a path of historical marvels and astonishing facts. The effect is like a master class that’s accessible to anyone, and Agent Garbo often reads as though it were written in a single, perfect draft.

Juan Pujol is deserving of this biography, which captures not only his humanity, but also his humanism. Stephan Talty has delivered a beautiful report of every impossible day of Pujol’s life, and Agent Garbo is a confirmation of Donne’s devotional, that “when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.”

More about Agent Garbo:

  • Diane Rehm interviews author Stephan Talty