Today’s post is not what I thought it was going to be. I didn’t change topics, but my thoughts about the topic have changed. I thought I was going to write about an historical mystery being solved. But history is not static. Actual historical facts may not change, but what we know and understand about facts is always open to interpretation. For example, Joe crashing his car into a tree at 10:07 may be a fact, but it’s not the whole story. Was the road icy, was Joe drinking, was he swerving to avoid a small child, was he suicidal, did he have a heart attack? The crash is a fact, but the interpretation is where it gets interesting and where history can change.
When I was at university I wrote a research paper titled “Mexico As A Center of German Subversion During World War I”. Really, I swear, it’s fascinating stuff. It’s all about how Germany was using their intelligence network, otherwise known as spies, as saboteurs. The United States was nominally neutral from the start of the war in 1914 until we entered the war in 1917. I say “nominally” because we were sending munitions and other aid to the Allies. Germany wanted to block that aid.
Mexico was also neutral, and since they were in the middle of a revolution and changing leadership frequently, they were a little too busy to be worried about Europe. Along with blowing up munitions so they wouldn’t reach the Allies, Germany also tried to cause problems in the already strained relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. Ultimately Germany hoped to keep the U.S. so busy dealing with problems with Mexico that we didn’t have the time or money to worry about what was happening in Europe.
When I chose this research topic, I had read a journal article about one of the German saboteurs, Kurt Jahnke. He was a man of mystery, as any good spy should be. There are some facts about his life that are mostly believed to be true. There is also some wildly speculative stuff that we may never know the truth about.
In a nutshell, he was probably born in 1888, enlisted in the German Navy and worked in China for the International Customs Service. He came to the U.S. in 1909, may or may not have become a naturalized citizen, enlisted in the Marine Corps, and was discharged for medical reasons, possibly malaria, after about a year. He operated a shipping and smuggling business out of San Francisco. After the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, he moved his headquarters from the U.S. to Mexico.
There was speculation, but no proof, about his involvement in many attacks within the U.S. In July 1916 there was an explosion at Black Tom Island, destroying thirteen warehouses and sixteen piers and killing seven people. Exploding nearly two million pounds of munitions, this is considered the most successful sabotage operation of the war.
When I wrote this paper, this shadowy figure’s end was unknown, although all records seemed to end in 1945. It was generally assumed he died then, although nobody seemed to know how or why.
Then a couple of years after I wrote that paper I read a newspaper article about a historian, Dr. Russell Van Wyk, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Because of a working relationship and friendship with a former KGB Vice General, Van Wyk was allowed access to Soviet records about Jahnke. Turns out the Soviets had captured Jahnke and his wife in Germany in 1945 and interrogated, tortured and executed them.
Jahnke admitted to sinking 14 American steamers, provoking dock strikes, and infecting horses and mules with anthrax. He also apparently solved the mystery of the sinking of the USS San Diego in July 1918. He claimed his agents placed explosives in the boiler room, but many still believe the original explanation that the ship hit a mine placed by a German submarine.
All of which brings me to the point of this post. Because history is not just about facts, Jahnke is still a man of mystery. Did he really die in 1945, or was it in 1951? Did he admit all these things to the Russians because he was being tortured? Did he take “credit” for things he didn’t do because he wanted the glory? Is there any truth to the rumor that Jahnke was a double, triple or quadruple agent? If so, can anything he said, or the records from any country, be believed? In the world of espionage, will we ever have answers?
Questions like these that make the study of history both interesting and annoying. What do you think? Do you believe we’ll ever know the whole, true story? Do you think it matters if we never learn anything more?