- Hitler's Man in Havana: Heinz Lüning and Nazi Espionage in Latin America
Using recently declassified counterintelligence records from the FBI as well as other records from the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, Thomas Schoonover tells the story of Heinz Lüning, a German spy in Cuba charged with building a radio and transmitting information on Allied shipping in the Caribbean. Following brief Abwehr training in Hamburg, Lüning did nothing right on his arrival in Havana in September 1941. He failed to set up a spy network, failed to construct a radio, and his secret ink messages —which were read by British censors in Bermuda —led Cuban and US authorities to his Havana address where he was arrested in August 1942. Ten weeks of interrogations revealed that [End Page 311] Lüning had no part in German U-boat successes in the Caribbean. Regardless, he was publicly cast as a major spy, tried by Cuban authorities, and executed in November amidst fanfare in the press.
Schoonover's aim, aside from the comic narrative of Lüning himself, lies in contextualizing inter-Allied counterintelligence within the larger rubric of US-Latin American relations and the need for public successes during a dark period of the war, when German U-boats seemingly sank everything that floated. Lüning's captors created their own farce. Cuban police chief Manuel Benitez arrested Lüning prematurely to bolster his own reputation, then he told the press and allowed newspaper interviews of Lüning himself. He thus irritated US authorities, who wanted to observe Lüning secretly, and then keep his arrest quiet in order to bag whatever German intelligence contacts Lüning had in the western hemisphere. Once interrogation revealed Lüning as an ill-trained, apolitical, skirt-chasing incompetent who lacked the confidence of his own handlers, J. Edgar Hoover jumped on the bandwagon to crow about the neutralization of a major spy who had been instrumental in Germany's naval successes. Cuban President Fulgencio Batista meanwhile scored political points with Washington, which in turn needed a public success after nearly a year of bad war news.
Schoonover tells a good story, of interest to historians of German espionage, Allied counterintelligence, and inter-American relations. But more clarity on some key issues and more proof on others might have helped. There is, for instance, only a circumstantial case to be made for a connection between Lüning's execution and the price of Cuban sugar imports in 1943, or for the connection between Lüning's story and Graham Greene's 1958 novel, Our Man in Havana. More fundamentally, Schoonover is not entirely clear on the overall German espionage threat to Latin America. At times he asserts that it was a figment of Franklin D. Roosevelt's imagination and thus of little help to Germany's U-boat campaign or German geopolitical aims. Elsewhere he asserts that the Abwehr deliberately sent Lüning as a patsy to protect more competent operatives. The Germans indeed paid less attention to Latin America than to other parts of the world, but Nazi global rhetoric combined with ethnic German populations in Latin America combined with some truly dangerous German operatives made Berlin's activities there worth a close look. As for the Abwehr's motives in sending an incompetent to Havana, there is no proof either way. Perhaps Lüning was, as Schoonover suggests earlier in the book, another manifestation of German institutional unpreparedness to launch an intelligence campaign. If Lüning was indeed "Hitler's Man in Havana," he may reflect Hitler's own misreading of the importance of foreign military intelligence. [End Page 312]