A Real-world Heroine
Hollywood legend Greta Garbo, is one of the most celebrated actresses ever to grace the silver screen. Twice, she played spies in feature films; in the 1928 film, The Mysterious Lady, Garbo played Tania Fedorovna, a Russian spy charged with stealing secrets from the Austrians, and three years later, she portrayed the tragic title character in, Mata Hari.
But her involvement in the shadowy world of spies went beyond celluloid, seeing her serve the Allied cause from her native Sweden throughout World War Two.
The nature of her espionage activities, and the secretive manner in which she conducted her private life in general, ensured that Garbo's contribution to the war effort received little fanfare.
But over the years since her death in 1990, the truth of her involvement in spycraft has slowly been revealed. As a result, a woman who had long ago cemented for herself a legacy as a screen heroine has emerged as a real-world heroine as well.
Born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden in 1905, she assumed the more exotic surname Garbo as a stage name when she began acting in films in 1922. It wasn't long before the young woman became one of the most respected and famous actresses in the world. And yet, despite her fame, she was intensely private and insular, only rarely conducting interviews or making public appearances.
Garbo was so reluctant to step forth into the public eye that during World War Two, she refused to join other Hollywood stars in taking part in war- bond drives or shows designed to entertain the troops, for which she was widely criticized in the media. Some even wondered aloud whether Garbo supported the Nazi cause.
If the press had known her true involvement in the conflict, they would have never doubted where her sympathies lay. This involvement began in December of 1939 when she wrote a $5,000 check to the Finnish Relief Fund for children orphaned during the Winter War with Russia.
Typical of Garbo, the donation was made under a strict condition of anonymity. According to author Charles Higham, who examined thousands of declassified US government files, it was around this time that the actress became involved with the British Secret Service and began her espionage career.
Film director Alexander Korda, a middleman who recruited many celebrities to the war effort, may have been responsible for getting Garbo in touch with the British Secret Service and beginning her career with MI6. Certainly by late 1939, Garbo had become associated with the Canadian self-made millionaire and spymaster William Stephenson "" code-named Intrepid "" who helped set up a special office coordinating activities between British intelligence agencies and their counterparts in the United States.
Stephenson was known for using prominent entertainment figures as covers, and recognizing that Garbo's celebrity carried great weight in Sweden, almost immediately put her to use in a scheme of great importance to Great Britain and the Allied cause.
Neutral Sweden, a hotbed of espionage activity, was blanketed by deep snow in January of 1940 when Garbo and Stephenson arrived by steamship. To most casual observers, it would have looked like Garbo was simply returning home to visit friends and family. Eyebrows in the Nazi intelligence community wouldn't have been raised. Stephenson, likewise, had a serviceable cover story: He owned an airplane factory and movie studio in Sweden. In truth, both were in Stockholm as secret agents on behest of the British government.
Germany lacked domestic sources of iron ore and the war had limited her ability to purchase it elsewhere. The only available option free of interference from the Royal Navy was Sweden, and consequently, the Nazi war-machine grew heavily dependent upon exports from the Scandinavian nation. Winston Churchill, who at this time was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, determined that it was in Britain's strategic interests to interrupt the flow of iron ore from Sweden to Germany, and was willing to use any method "" diplomatic or military "" to achieve it.
This is where Garbo entered the picture. Because of her status as a film star and a national icon, she was able to provide Stephenson and his men with introductions to high-ranking members of Swedish society and governance, including King Gustav V, which was useful for facilitating backdoor diplomacy.
At the same time, she proved helpful in carrying secret messages and, through her circle of friends and acquaintances, was able to gather human intelligence regarding the intentions of the Swedish government and the identities of German agents in Stockholm. There can be no doubt that Garbo's standing within Sweden was of immense value to Britain's secretive diplomatic efforts to stop or slow the flow of iron ore to Nazi Germany.
At the time, atomic research was in its infancy, but already scientists had grasped the devastating possibilities of an atomic bomb and both Britain and Germany had nascent A-bomb programs. One of the leading physicists in the world and a pioneer of nuclear research was Neils Bohr (1885-1962), a Dane.
Bohr had received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 for making fundamental contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum physics, and now he was experimenting at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen in matters, thought by British intelligence, to be related to atomic energy. The British were concerned, lest he fall into German hands, so it was Stephenson's task to escort Bohr, by force if necessary, out of the country and into British custody.
The plan was far along when suddenly, on 9 April 1940, German troops invaded Denmark as a prelude to the attack and occupation of Norway. The Danes were in a hopeless position. Their tiny country and equally tiny army was incapable of fending off the full might of Hitler's panzer-led Wehrmacht. In a matter of hours, the nation was overrun and Stephenson's plan to escort Bohr to Britain was effectively dead. It would be revived again in 1943, when British intelligence learned that Niels Bohr was to be arrested by German police and forced to work on the German atomic bomb project under his former assistant, Werner Heisenberg.
Escorted by British agents, Bohr escaped from Denmark, quietly slipping out of the country and into Sweden, before moving on to Britain. Later, the scientist went to America and worked on the Manhattan Project. Though the details of her involvement are unknown, Garbo is credited with playing an instrumental role in getting Bohr out of Denmark.
Even with Bohr safely out of German clutches, Garbo's value to the British did not diminish. She continued to supply intelligence regarding Swedish government intentions and the identities of Nazi agents in Sweden. She continued to serve in this capacity until the end of WWII in 1945.
After the war, Garbo quietly retreated into an insular world away from both the bright lights of Hollywood and the cloak-and-dagger excitement of espionage. She never spoke of her wartime activities, taking the secrets with her when she died in 1990. Even when fragmentary evidence of her brief career as a secret agent began to surface, she remained cagey and elusive, even with her family.
So while the world may never know the full extent of Greta Garbo's involvement in the shadowy world of espionage, its certain she played a valuable part in Allied victory over Hitler's Germany. It was a role every bit as dramatic as anything she played on screen during her illustrious acting career.
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