Stay-Behind Army

Planning for the Future

Imagine that you are a senior government minister in a country bordered by or otherwise proximal to a hostile power that has made no secret of its desire to occupy or at least exert control over its neighbors. You know that should a conflict break out, your country is doomed by its woefully inadequate defense forces. You, your staff, and your colleagues accept conflict and conquest as an inevitability and although a conventional defense by your regular army (small as it might be) is the first and most natural strategy, you know it won't be enough. You coordinate with the military to develop a contingency plan to fight the forthcoming occupation and the Prime Minister approves the creation of what is termed a stay-behind army.

Stay-behind armies are comprised of decentralized cells of resistance fighters sanctioned and supplied by governments concerned about the possibility of their territory being conquered and occupied by a foreign power. Theoretically, upon the defeat of the conventional armed forces and the occupation of the country by an aggressor, the cells of the stay-behind army would be activated, arming themselves with weapons that had previously been seeded throughout the country in secret caches. These cells would then carry out active resistance against the occupier with the eventual goal of ejecting him from the land. In the twentieth century, stay-behind armies were a little known but highly significant part of the European political landscape. Not surprisingly, there were two events (for lack of a better word) that informed the creation and presence of stay-behind armies in Europe: World War II and the Cold War. Although the idea of a stay-behind army seems far-sighted, in reality, the concept frequently caused more problems than it solved.


It's difficult to come up with one single precursor to the idea of the stay-behind army. It's important to note that although resistance armies (i.e. those that spontaneously arise after an occupation or conquest) have been around forever, the point of differentiation is that stay-behind armies are conceived of and raised before an occupation. One potential example of a stay-behind army before the World War II-era (although not very long before it) would have been the Freikorps in Weimar Germany. The Freikorps were a series of paramilitary groups made up of various reactionary elements of German society after the First World War. The Freikorps were a collective loose cannon since they openly detested the Socialist government of the country. However, both sides came to an understanding based on the maxim that states "the enemy of my enemy is my friend:" both the government and the Freikorps feared a Communist revolution. It did not help that Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia were actively agitating for a worker's uprising in Germany. The Heer (German army) started coopting the Freikorps and left weapons dumps all across the country ostensibly to prepare for a communist takeover of Germany.

In truth, however, that's not what the Freikorps and its sponsors were really doing. In the military and in the aristocracy, the Weimar government was seen as basically communist itself and there was a belief that it was responsible in some way for Germany's loss of the war. What they were really planning, of course, was their own conservative revolution. This would become a common feature of stay-behind armies -- namely that they would wind up following their own paths and attempting to enact their own agendas, no matter how inconsistent these might be with their original goals.

Eastern Terror

There were multiple stay-behind armies in Europe during the Second World War. They were most active along the Eastern Front, where most of the European war's action took place after the fall of France. Ukraine had come into being as an independent state after the end of World War I but certain of its citizens understood its precarious situation and its strategic value to the great powers that surrounded it. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was formed in 1929 with the purpose of maintaining Ukraine's sovereignty. The OUN was not an organ of the government, but retained an air of officiality due to the support it enjoyed amongst a pretty decent percentage of the population. Once the war began and Ukraine was forcibly reintegrated into the USSR, the OUN activated its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (abbreviated as UPA in Ukrainian). The UPA fought against the German Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, the Soviet Red Army, and even the Polish Home Army. Eventually, the UPA controlled basically all of Western Ukraine outside of the larger cities. In a particularly ugly instance, however, the UPA engaged in acts of terrorism and arguably attempted genocide against Poles living in Ukrainian territory, bringing it into conflict with the Home Army who retaliated by massacring thousands of Ukrainians.

As the course of the war turned against the Germans, the UPA's focus turned to the Soviets. The struggle between the insurgents and the Soviets would continue on after the War and on into the 1950s. By the late 1940s, though, the UPA was suffering badly from a lack of centralized command and infiltration by the NKVD. The UPA at this point moved beyond its originally stated goal and began behaving more like a terrorist organization, assassinating prominent Poles, Russians, and even Ukrainians (whom they considered traitorous). The UPA eventually fell into a state of disrepair and ceased to be a significant force in combatting the Soviet occupation of the country.

Teutonic Lycanthropy

By 1943, it was apparent to all serious observers that Germany was not going to be in a position to win the war. The following year, the D-Day operation took place and Germany's position in the West was rapidly falling apart. Toward the end of 1944, Allied forces were taking over administrative duties in parts of Germany itself. In early 1945, German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels declared ominously and somewhat cryptically "God has given up the defense of the people; Satan has taken command." Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS, had realized shortly after the D-Day landing that it was likely that the Allies would soon overrun parts of Germany proper and that the Wehrmacht would be too busy in the East to mount an effective defense in some areas. Himmler called a meeting with (among others) Otto Skorzeny, the SS commando who had led a daring mountaintop raid into Italy to rescue Benito Mussolini from his captors the previous year, and Artur Axmann, the head of the Hitler Youth. In the meeting, Himmler tasked Skorzeny with training Axmann's inexperienced boys in survivalism, guerrilla warfare, and rudimentary explosives handling. These Hitler Youth groups were designed to be autonomous and self-sufficient cells under the command of SS officers behind enemy lines. The units were to be known as Werwolfen - literally, Werewolves.

Goebbels remarked in a broadcast on Radio Werewolf:

We Werewolves consider it our supreme duty to kill, to kill and to kill, employing every cunning and wile in the darkness of the night, crawling and groping through towns and villages, like wolves, noiselessly, mysteriously.

In 1945, in the ancient city of Aachen, the town's newly-installed anti-Nazi mayor was assassinated. At the scene was found a wolf angle rune, which looks something like this:

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Most of the various types of insignia from the Third Reich were runic in nature and versions of the wolf angle had been used for various organizations. The implication, of course, was that the Werewolves had carried out the hit. In reality, it seems more likely that an SS assassination squad actually killed the man, but his death did much to spread the myth of the Werewolves. Goebbels praised the killing of "collaborators" and made it seem as though he was in direct control of the Werewolves (a task which actually devolved onto an otherwise insignificant SS officer). The Allies (including Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower) were initially concerned about the Werewolves not so much because of the threat they themselves posed, but rather because they feared that it indicated a desire by the high command (Adolf Hitler specifically) to fight until the very bitter end. A rumor began to spread that Hitler and his staff were going to abandon Berlin and move their headquarters to Bavaria, the traditional stomping ground of the NSDAP. There, they believed, the Werewolves and the remaining regular army forces would group together and make an apocalyptic final stand against the Allies, dragging out the war for possibly another year. Even when captured German officers laughed off this notion to their captors, the Allies still brought up contingency plans to prepare for a Bavarian campaign. In any event, we all know that didn't happen, and the war was over in 1945. The Werewolves, however, continued to engage in acts of terrorism as late as perhaps 1947, though of course there were no major operations as the organization (such as it was) dwindled and fell apart through desertion, imprisonment, and death.

I Silently Serve Freedom

Following the end of World War II, it was apparent to most military and government officials that the next conflict would be ideological in nature and would pit the West on one side against the Soviets on the other. As Stalinism swept through Eastern Europe, there was a very real fear that Western Europe -- and specifically Italy -- was next. When NATO was formed in 1949, one of the first orders of business was the construction of stay-behind armies across the entire continent. Italy was the main focus of the operation, which became known as Gladio - the modern Italian word for the double-edged sword that gladiators used in ancient Rome. Italy was seen as the focal point of the operation due to the fact that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was the most powerful in any country in Western Europe. The PCI was in contact with the Soviets and was to some degree subsidized by them. The Soviets believed (or at least NATO thought the Soviets believed) that Italy was the best chance for spearheading a communist takeover of the West, which would follow a rollup of the continent: advancing south from East Germany into Italy, the Russians would turn north into France and then east into the Low Countries and West Germany, capturing the industrial heart of the continent (note that Italy, France, West Germany, and the Benelux countries were the founders of the European Coal and Steel Commission, which was the precursor of the modern European Union) and leaving Western-allied countries like Spain and Greece cutoff from friendly forces.

To prevent this, NATO began recruiting and supplying secret armies all across Europe. These stay-behind armies were, for the most part, comprised of the same people whom the Allies had fought in the previous war. Gladio operatives in Italy were primarily ex- and neo-fascists who were all too happy to prepare for the coming struggle against Bolshevism. Unlike the other stay-behind armies (which usually adopted plain and bureaucratic-sounding names), the Italians actually named their organization after the operation and adopted as their motto the phrase "silendo liberatem servo" - meaning "I silently serve freedom." From the very beginning, it was obvious that Gladio was going to rapidly mutate into something other than that which it was originally set up to be. It was subsidized to a large degree by the American Central Intelligence Agency and worked in collusion with the espionage network set up former Wehrmacht intelligence commander Reinhard Gehlen, who had shrewdly foreseen the coming of the Cold War before World War II was even over, and had his men bury tons of their archival information about the Soviets in metal drums in Austria. Gehlen used this as a bargaining chip to secure freedom for himself and his men from the Americans and set about infiltrating the various Eastern Bloc nations.

Eventually, it became clear that no Soviet invasion was coming. Theoretically, Gladio would stand down. This was not to be the case. The organization thus changed its raison d'être from resisting a potential Soviet occupation to dislodging the PCI's power and to overthrow a possible PCI-led government. To this end, Gladio adopted the strategia della tensione - literally, the strategy of tension. This was a tactic designed to keep the Italian public fearful of a communist takeover. To this end, Gladio began carrying out false flag operations; for those unfamiliar with the term, a false flag operation is an act committed by one person or group and then made to look like it was committed by another. The aforementioned Ukrainian Insurgent Army had false flag operations conducted against it by the NKVD, whose operatives dressed in UPA uniforms and killed Ukrainian civilians. Gladio's false flag operations were blamed on the Brigada Rosse (the Red Brigades), a militant communist group in Italy at the time. These included bombings and killings and even an aborted coup d'état. In 1978, the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was abducted and killed by BR operatives, although conspiracy theories state that this too was a false flag operation by Gladio. Regardless of who actually perpetrated the murder, it resulted in the dissolution of the grand coalition between the PCI and the Italian Christian Democrats, which had been one of the group's stated goals. The existence of Gladio came to general public knowledge in 1990 and it resulted in a spree of parliamentary investigations all across Europe.

In France, the anti-communist stay-behind organizations had turned their attention to Algeria and in 1961 attempted to overthrow the government and establish their own dictatorship in the colony. When this failed, the remnants of the group took to engaging in acts of casual terrorism to prevent any sort of peace being established in Algeria that left the French colonists (colons) in any sort of disadvantageous position. Needless to say, that didn't really work out very well either. Eventually the leaders of the group were tried (some in absentia) but eventually all received some sort of amnesty.

In what was then West Germany, the stay-behind organization was called Kibitz-15. It was run by the aforementioned Gehlen Organization and was responsible for putting weapons dumps all across the country. Unlike other stay-behinds, Kibitz-15 didn't try to overthrow the government or conduct false flag terrorist operations. On the contrary, it sought to have as low a profile as possible to mask its real intentions: the smuggling of former SS officers and NSDAP officials out of Germany and to safety in Spain or South America. The undiscovered Werewolves who remained loyal to the original mission were used as agents by Kibitz-15 and the Gehlen Org to provide safehouses and protection to those former Nazis who were concerned about possibly being tried for war crimes. Both the American CIA and the Soviet KGB (through double agents in the Gehlen Org and their counterparts in the East German Stasi intelligence service) knew about this, but turned a blind eye to it. Indeed, the United States frequently facilitated the fleeing of ex-Nazis for the purpose of coopting them through Operation Paperclip. Otto Skorzeny, who moved to Spain after escaping from a POW camp in 1948, set up ODESSA, the Organization of Former SS Officers, and worked with Kibitz-15 to achieve its goal (at which it was quite successful).

In ostensibly neutral Switzerland, a stay-behind army was formed during World War II as a precaution against a potential German invasion (which at one time was on the books but was later discarded). After the war, the original plan was modified to reflect growing concerns about a Soviet invasion. The army was given the name Projekt-26 and shuffled away in the Swiss bureaucracy to prevent discovery. It was so secretive that by the 1960s, nobody in government was aware of its existence and it ceased to have any supervision. Since Switzerland wasn't a part of NATO, Projekt-26 was managed largely by MI6, the British secret service. Projekt-26 members were trained in England and Switzerland by British intelligence operatives and even took part in actions against the Irish Republican Army as a sort of final test. Projekt-26 was relatively benign when compared to its other counterparts, though it had connections with the Italian Gladio. It is claimed but not proven that Projekt-26 was designed to be activated in the case of a legal (i.e. parliamentary) communist takeover of Switzerland.

There are many other examples of stay-behind armies; indeed, they operated in basically all Western European countries as well as Greece and Turkey (the latter of which was subject to a coup in 1970 organized by the managers of the stay-behind army). The revelations in the 1990s about the existence of various stay-behind armies has caused a reevaluation of the way counterintelligence operations are perceived and carried out in Europe, specifically with relations between European intelligence services and the American CIA. I'm not sure if we'll ever know the full story about these secret armies and their agendas, but the fact remains that these people really did believe they were doing something great and important for their countries. Even today, it can be argued that certain segments of the Iraqi insurgency are stay-behinds in the sense that there are still Ba'ath Party loyalists out there fighting. What is obvious from the excesses of Gladio, however, is that sometimes an army without a purpose can be just as dangerous as an army with a purpose.