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Alan Turing

5 scholars who fought the Nazis with their brains 

Image: Alan Turing | Public Domain

Jason Bell is the author of Cracking the Nazi Code, the true story of the first anti-Nazi MI6 agent, Winthrop Bell (no relation), and associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Brunswick. In this guest article, Jason explains how the battle against Hitler was won with brains in addition to brawn.

1. Winthrop Bell

British-Canadian Winthrop Bell was a brilliant philosophy professor at Harvard in the 1920s and the first Anglophone specialist in the German phenomenological movement. But Dr. Bell had a secret identity. He was MI6 agent 'A12', the earliest spy to fight the Nazis.

In 1919 Berlin, a dangerous city teeming with assassins and pitched battles between extremist warlords, A12 began sabotaging the Nazis’ master plan. Months before Adolf Hitler joined the movement, Bell was assigned to gather intel on the political and military situation in Berlin. Britain was otherwise relatively blind.

After interviewing prominent and ordinary people undercover as a Reuters reporter, he sent intel to MI6 detailing a militaristic antisemitic group. They were actively plotting a war of revenge, even while the Versailles peace negotiations were ongoing.

Bell fought the anti-Nazi campaign virtually single-handedly for decades. He was finally joined by millions of fellow soldiers in 1939. However, A12’s crucial role in history remained hidden until the publication of my new book, Cracking the Nazi Code, because his papers were only recently declassified.

The phenomenology Bell had learned in Göttingen before World War I taught a rigorous method to faithfully describe reality. He later used the method in his spy work. It let him destroy complicated deceptions to become the first to reveal the inmost hidden plot of National Socialism: Hitler’s plan for the Holocaust.

Bell alerted his intelligence sources in spring 1939. He also wrote to several newspaper editors, but his warnings were scoffed at. Things changed after Hitler invaded Poland, World War II began and the dictator’s madness became clearer.

Finally, Bell had his chance to warn the public. The influential Canadian newsweekly Saturday Night printed his stories under bold headlines in November and December 1939. ‘Exterminate Non-Germans, Dogma of Mein Kampf’ and ‘Hitler’s Extermination Policy Is Worldwide.’

Phenomenology proved its relevance beyond the academy. It was years before the next known intel warnings of Nazi plans for racial extermination in 1941 and press warnings in 1942.

2. John Cecil Masterman

Dr. John Cecil Masterman read modern history at Oxford and was an expert in Germany. He headed the Double Cross operation for MI5, using Nazi spies captured on British soil to feed false D-Day intel back to their unwitting handlers in Germany.

The Allied operation was successful. Hitler decided, based on his British spy network, to defend Pas de Calais, rather than Normandy. If not for Masterman’s academic expertise in the Prussian way of thinking, the Allied operation could have failed, and history may have turned out rather worse.

3. Francis Deàk

When Dr. Francis Deàk wasn’t working for the O.S.S, the U.S State Department and The Pond (the predecessor organisation of the CIA), he taught law at Columbia, Rutgers and the Carnegie International Institute.

He was also the diplomatic lynchpin in one of the most daring and consequential intelligence missions undertaken in World War II, 'Operation Sparrow'. A risky mission to deceive Hitler and draw his troops from the coast of France just before D-Day, Sparrow parachuted three crack American soldiers into Nazi-allied Hungary.

The scheme depended on the capture of the three soldiers, who believed they were part of an actual military mission and knew nothing of their true role as decoys. Their lives hinged on a legal theory: captured espionage agents could be shot, whereas soldiers would likely be imprisoned.

Deàk’s scheme worked. The steely American soldiers were convinced they were invading Hungary, and as America’s special forces, they looked the part. The Nazis sent the three to Colditz prison. They survived the war.

Meanwhile, Hitler was fooled and sent two divisions to counter the imaginary threat. The Führer’s mistake left the Nazis without a single fully operational armoured division to defend Normandy. Deàk’s Operation Sparrow undoubtedly contributed to the Allied victory.

4. Alan Turing

Dr. Alan Turing read mathematics at Manchester. Before World War II, he entered the academic fray between rationalism and the common sense schools of mathematical philosophy. He concluded that there was a correlation between exact computation on one side and common sense on the other. It was a fine theory, but could it destroy the Nazis?

During WWII, Turing’s computer, Bombe, used a rationalistic mechanism to cycle through encryption possibilities of the Nazis’ Enigma Code. But there were an astronomical number of paths.

Purely rationalist decryption required too much time to be operationally useful. Thus, Turing and his Bletchley team added common sense philosophy, guessing at the placement of phrases, like ‘Heil Hitler!’, that Nazi messages contained. It sped up rationalism’s work and let decryptions become operationally relevant.

Turing had no inkling at first that his pre-war theoretical synthesis would have a battlefield application. But it soon changed the course of history.

5. Josiah Royce

Dr. Josiah Royce taught philosophy at Harvard and died in 1916. But how could he influence World War II decades later? Because ideas can be stronger than death.

In the early 20th century, Royce argued for a new mode of playing competitive political games. In the old militarism, it seemed war was a zero-sum game, one side’s gain was the other’s loss.

But Royce realized it was a negative-sum game, where both lost. He wrote of the ‘dangerous dyad’ of a resentful defeated nation, yearning for revenge, next to a temporarily comfortable victor. In the long run, it worked out well for neither.

The winning strategy was mutually profitable trade in the spirit of chivalry. Royce called the positive-sum game ‘loyalty to loyalty’.

His master’s student, Winthrop Bell, pitched the winning game to influential statesmen after World War I and II. It provided the intellectual foundations for the Marshall Plan, the post-war reconstruction of Europe that finally defeated the Nazis in a way the Versailles Treaty couldn’t. It gave democratic Germany hope, and concrete support to destroy the still-powerful post-war Nazi extremists.