In 1959, a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, was one of the places desecrated with Nazi imagery.

Editor’s Note: Michael Weiss is a national security analyst for CNN and author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.”

Story highlights

Michael Weiss argues that Putin's influence operation on the US electorate, modeled after Soviet false flag operations, required a willing audience in America

A secret campaign in 1959 offers an instructive example, he writes

CNN  — 

It started with a synagogue in Cologne.

On Christmas Eve 1959, two men drew swastikas on the wall of the house of worship, along with the phrase, “Germans Demand That Jews Get Out.” Within days, Jews began receiving menacing anonymous phone calls, as Jewish grave sites and Jewish-owned shops were desecrated in over twenty towns and cities in West Germany.

Michael Weiss

From there, the desecrations went “viral,” to use the sufficiently creepy contemporary term for an old-fashioned phenomenon. By New Year’s, the fallen symbol of the Third Reich had sprung up in New York, London, Paris, Stockholm, Oslo, Milan, Copenhagen, Perth, Athens, Buenos Aires, and Bogota. The summer home of Denmark’s king was graffitied. A Jewish MP in Britain was threatened with murder.

Coming just fourteen years after the liberation of the camps, the reaction to such recrudescent race hatred was swift and furious. One British peer vowed to wage a personal investigation in West Germany to determine for himself the extent of the “rising tide of Nazism” in its former epicenter. Honorable West Germans were appalled and self-critical in a manner bordering on masochistic.

The American press reopened wounds that were not quite healed yet, even with the balm of so much Marshall aid. “Bonn Unable to Eliminate Nazi Poison,” ran one headline in the New York Herald Tribune, as the poet Carl Sandburg let his anti-fascist fervor get the better of his liberal judgment. Anyone caught daubing Hitler’s symbol, he said, should be executed.

The campaign of anti-Semitism even took an economic toll, as German employees were sacked from British-owned companies, some of which also canceled contracts with West German partners. A reconstructed postwar nation that had only just acceded to NATO four years earlier was thus faced with the humiliating question from the founding members of the alliance: Was German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s Federal Republic de-Nazified enough to be granted such a strategic privilege?

“Between Christmas Eve 1959 and mid-February 1960,” the American journalist John Barron later recounted, “West German authorities recorded 833 separate anti-Jewish acts. Then the epidemic ceased almost as suddenly as and mysteriously as it had begun. Police arrested and interrogated 234 people. Analyzing their motives, the government concluded that 24% acted out of ‘subconscious Nazi motives;’ 8% were inspired by extreme rightist or leftist beliefs; 48% were drunks or thugs; 15% were children; and 5% were mentally deranged.”

Case, then, seemingly closed – but for a few oddities diagnosed in Patient Zero of this epidemic. The two men who had inaugurated the spree of defacements in Cologne had belonged to a minuscule West German neo-Nazi party but, as Barron noted, the authorities discovered “that they frequently made trips to East Germany and one had a Communist Party badge hidden behind his coat lapel.”

In a separate incident, the 22-year-old treasurer of a different fascist organization was arrested and admitted to the police that he was an East German agent whose mission was to infiltrate far-right groups in West Germany and whip up anti-Semitic sentiment. All of which fed the suspicion in Bonn that the simultaneity of these hate crimes hinted at something more than grim coincidence.

It would take a few more years, when defectors from the GDR stole across the Berlin Wall, for the true provenance of the “swastika graffiti operation” to become known.

An operation is exactly what it was, too, cooked up by General Ivan Ivanovich Agayants, who headed Department D of the First Chief Directorate of the Soviet KGB. The “D” stood for Dezinformatsiya, or disinformation, and Agayants, an austere ethnic Armenian, was very good at his job. During his tenure, he oversaw the forgery of documents alleging that the CIA planned to assassinate Indonesian President Sukarno and eliminate Turkish military officials and political actors in the interest of the then-ruling center-right Justice Party.

The 58-year-old provocation may have been a tactical success, but it was a strategic failure: West Germany stayed in NATO and remained an intact liberal democracy immune from the restoration of Hitlerism well into reunification with its eastern neighbor. But the swastika graffiti campaign remains a vivid case study of a poisonous weapon used for decades, not only by the Soviets, but also by their heir, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, in trying to influence western nations, including the course of American democracy.

To hear some pundits tell it, Donald Trump’s election to the presidency was itself a triumph of Russian espionage based purely on the Moscow-linked proliferation of “fake news” and dubiously purchased advertisements on social media.

Yet this ignores the subtlety of such influence operations, which, as in any con, rely on the willingness of their targets to be duped or cajoled or simply nudged further in the same dangerous direction they were already heading. The Russians were only as effective as the gullible or tendentious Americans they influenced. The same was actually true of Agayants’ dark arts in 1959.

Making the West look weak

Agayants had observed that the immediate reaction to the initial bout of anti-Semitism in 1959 was revulsion and embarrassment, which only made West Germany look weak and defensive. If just a few Nazi symbols and slogans prompted international scorn and boycotts, not to mention Western acts of prostration, imagine what a whole contagion of them might do in US-aligned nations around the globe?

Agayants even established a stage-crafted pogrom to test his anthropological hypothesis. He selected a village 50 miles outside of Moscow and dispatched a team of KGB agents there. “One night,” wrote Barron in his book, “KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents,” “they smeared swastikas, kicked over tombstones, and painted anti-Jewish slogans, then escaped undetected. KGB agents stationed in the village to gauge the public reaction reported that most people were disturbed or frightened by the swastikas. But appearance of the Nazi insignia also awakened latent anti-Semitism among a few Russians and inspired them to commit a variety of anti-Jewish acts on their own. Some weeks after this trial run in the Soviet village, the KGB began the operation, relying upon East Germans in West Germany and its own agents in other parts of the world.”

Agayants’ men acted as stokers rather than inventors of social pathologies, and so plausible deniability was built right into the heart of their deception. Who could possibly mistake the return of Judeophobia in Central Europe for a false flag perpetrated by Moscow Center? And how false was it if, as Agayants realized, one lit match could start a conflagration so easily?

Planting in fertile soil

Disinformation as practiced by the Soviet and now Russian security services works best when the lie it peddles contains an element of verisimilitude or the germ of verifiable fact, however cleverly cocooned in falsehoods. William Blake put the matter better than Yuri Andropov ever could have when he wrote, “A Truth that’s told with bad intent/ Beats all the Lies you can invent.”

Outlandish conspiracy theories – the CIA created AIDS to destroy inner-city black communities and also assassinated JFK – may become fringe urban myths or Oliver Stone biopics. Smarter efforts to undermine the West are rooted in smarter understandings of the West and its social and political pressure points. It is always easier to co-opt than to create anew. And because lingering or resurgent neo-Nazism was a problem in West Germany in 1959, even if not to the extent exaggerated by Agayants, the swastika graffiti operation succeeded in two ways.

First, it undermined and subverted an enemy nation, as intended. Second, it “helped East Germany legitimize itself as a peace loving, antifascist state,” as Anton Shekhovtsov, a Vienna-based scholar of European fascism, argues in his timely and exhaustively researched new book, “Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir.”