Stephan Talty's Agent Garbo sheds light on an amateur spy who saved the world.The U.S. Army/Flickr
Stephan Talty's latest book is like a case study in how elegantly the Second World War scales down. Narrowing the focus seems only to reveal more about the war, and armored divisions and vainglorious generals soon appear incidental to the greater actions of common people in terrible times. There are some names uncertain to appear on a national census roster, much less in the footnotes of history. But in Agent Garbo, Talty pencils in one such name: Juan Pujol, a chicken farmer in Barcelona, who acted not for headlines or personal glory, but to make in some modest way a "contribution toward the good of humanity."
His life has been reconstructed by Talty though interviews, declassified documents, and files from state archives. During the Spanish Civil War, Juan Pujol refused to take up arms, unwilling to spill the blood of fellow Spaniards. This refusal proved an early introduction to espionage, as he spent much of the war incognito or out of sight. He was a deserter, and was eventually caught and imprisoned. When he escaped, he hatched a plan to abscond to France. Ironically, it involved enlisting in the same Republican military he'd just been imprisoned for avoiding. This time, however, he lied about his age (claiming to be too old) and lied about his politics (claiming to be a radical). Once in uniform and on the front lines, he made a mad, successful dash for the Nationalist lines. He never fired a shot in the war.
By the time Franco consolidated his control of a unified Spain, Juan Pujol knew how to lie. He knew how to hide. He knew how to flee and connive and take measure of the men he encountered. He saw firsthand the cruelties of both the communists and the fascists. He had faced death and survived. In other words, he realized there was more to him than he thought possible. And when a conflict more terrible than civil war began to brew, the former deserter felt the call for service. In his own words when reflecting on Hitler: "I had the idea that this man was a demon, a man who could completely destroy humanity." The only question was how the poultry salesman might best serve the effort. As it turned out, the very skills that kept him out of one war would make him a decisive force in another.
He became a spy. Not in the submit-a-résumé-and-wait kind of way, but rather, he simply decided that he was a spy and that was that. He approached MI5, the British intelligence agency, with a plan. He was quickly turned away, as he had nothing to offer them. ("I must confess that my plans were fairly confused," he recounted.) The next best thing, in his view, was to con his way to Berlin. He met with the Abwehr, Germany's intelligence arm. As Talty describes it, "Pujol was excited by nervous. Going to the British embassy and playing mysterious was dangerous enough, but the Abwehr in Madrid represented an entirely new level of the game."