Scribbling: Thomas D. Schoonover

Photo courtesy of Ya-Bing
The Unwavering Night Watch, courtesy of Ya-Bing

Thomas D. Schoonover, professor emeritus in history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, will share his impressive research into the Nazi spy story of Heinz August Lüning, discussing how he separated fact from fiction from this story that inspired Graham Greene’s 1958 book, Our Man in Havana. He took a moment to answer some questions about his research and the book; you can meet and discuss Shoonover’s work at noon tomorrow at the International Spy Museum. The event is free and open to the public.

At the beginning of World War II, Heinz August Lüning, posing as a Jewish refugee, was sent to Cuba to spy for the Third Reich. Lüning’s assignment was to collect information about the United States and its allies and report back to the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. His Caribbean post was an important vantage point for observing shipping patterns and ship deployments, but things went badly wrong for the bumbling Lüning who was ultimately captured and executed for espionage.

Why was Nazi Germany interested in Cuba?

The Germans knew that the U.S. and British trade and military vessels drew upon the resources of the Caribbean-Isthmian region and South America. Spies or a spy network in Cuba would offer the Germans a means to watch Allied military and commercial traffic and uncover information about military-related activity. For example, it was no secret that the Dutch refineries off Dutch Guiana were major producers of aviation fuel.

Is it fair to say the Allies profited more from Heinz Lüning’s capture than the Germans from his espionage?

Certainly, the Germans only received modest amounts of low-level intelligence from Lüning; but the Allies also gained little information from him because he did not know about other spies. The Allies gained a useful psychological boost from his capture, but then wasted thousands of FBI-SIS (Special Intelligence Service; the U.S. intelligence service in Latin America with J. Edgar Hoover at its head) man-hours chasing a fiction of their imagination. So in sum, the Allied gains were also very limited; and chasing a rainbow allowed real German espionage agents to have greater success. The Germans gained, thus, more from his capture than when he was free.

Graham Greene and Ernest Hemmingway, FBI agents versus Nazi Spies…why was the story of Heinz Lüning forgotten until now?

The activity of the German spy received some attention in several short pieces or books in the postwar years. Other than some printed personal recollections (contemporary journalists and participants) and over a hundred newspaper and magazine pieces in the U.S. and Cuba, there were no documentary records because the U.S. and British governments both closed the files. Both governments still keep much of the material classified. I filed various FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests between 2001 and 2005 in order to see most of the material (roughly 70%)-some items were denied me in total and other items were redacted, at times quite strongly. Without access to the material in Lüning’s 4,000 page file there was not much of a story to tell. Incidentally, the British still hold some of their material classified-specifically the files on Lüning. The file of Lüning’s trial in Havana went lost at least 3 decades ago.

Worse spying performance in Cuba; Germany’s or Graham Greene’s fictional British agents?

Heinz Lüning performed well below the level of Greene’s spy, James Wormold. Lüning had only brief training and no commitment to the Nazi war effort, but did not function very well in his duties. Wormold had even less training and no commitment, but he was a more effective and efficient producer of imagined information (he invented the agents and the information).

Perhaps the worst performance was the SIS and its domestic brother, the FBI. These two agencies had hundreds of trained professionals who, with British help, did ultimately capture Lüning, but then spent three and a half years looking for the non-existing network that Lüning allegedly had.

Meet the author and discuss his newest book at the Spy Museum’s free lunchtime author debreifing, this Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. You can reach the Museum at 202.393.7798.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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One thought on “Scribbling: Thomas D. Schoonover

  1. It’s interesting to note the influence the Nazis had on Pre-WWII Hollywood. The Nazi counselor general in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, was able to influence any negative connotations toward Germany in movies being made at the time. In fact, I detail in my book, HOLLYWOOD AGENT PROVOCATEUR, the Nazi party’s attempt to blackmail studio personnel into performing acts of espionage.

    Mitch Haynes