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SS hero Otto Skorzeny a suitable role-model for advertising? Ask Dave Trott

Dave Trott, renowned creative director of the “Hello Tosh, Gotta Toshiba” era, has lost none of his ability to surprise and shock.

The other day, Stephen Foster, at MAA, had the audacity to suggest that small quoted marketing services aggregators, like Media Square, never amount to much because they can’t exploit scale: only the big boys, such as WPP and Omnicom, really know what they are doing.

It so happens Dave works for Media Square: his ad agency Chick Smith Trott (now CSTTG) was acquired by the self-same at the beginning of last year. Dave, being Dave, took highly creative exception to Stephen’s thesis, which he rebutted with a fascinating (historical) parable demonstrating the power of original ideas over force of numbers.

Dave’s story is persuasively told, although I am not sure he was wise in his choice of protagonist. But I’ll leave you to decide on that.

Its improbable hero is one Otto Skorzeny.

Who? Well, for those who aren’t military buffs, here are a few background facts. Born in Vienna, 1908, Skorzeny was (on his mother’s side) the scion of a professional military family serving the Austro-Hungarian empire. Everything about him marked him out for martial glory: his powerful build; his commanding, charismatic, personality; his extraordinary personal courage – witness the deep facial scar acquired in one of 13 duels fought as a student; and finally, and most importantly, his completely unconventional approach to military tactics. Everything that is, except a theatre in which to exercise these gifts. After 1918 Austria was an embittered rump state, castrated by the Versailles Treaty: it had no place for soldiers.

Then along came Adolf Hitler and World War II. What a golden opportunity for the still young Skorzeny. To say the least, he did not disappoint – ending the war as one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the Third Reich. Skorzeny’s precocious speciality was commando warfare – what today would be called special forces operations. And in these he so excelled that he can easily bear comparison with David Stirling, founder of the SAS, or Orde Wingate, leader of the Chindits.

Let’s take two examples of the man in action (those selected by Dave, as a matter of fact). In September 1943 Skorzeny and a few hand-picked German commandos daringly snatched the former Italian dictator Mussolini from under the very noses of his now-Allied captors. Mussolini was apparently impregnably guarded in a mountain fastness approachable by a single cable car. Skorzeny’s flash of military genius? While everyone else was thinking land defence, he attacked from the air by glider.

Example 2: Operation Greif, December 1944. Skorzeny trained and led a unit of 2,000 German special forces whose mission was to operate behind the lines in the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last big offensive. Controversially, Skorzeny’s forces were drilled in American English and acquired American uniforms, American weapons and Jeeps for the occasion, marking them out for execution as spies if captured. The aim was not to kill as many GIs as possible, but to sow confusion in the enemy ranks. It seems a few commandos were, at great personal risk, to allow themselves to be captured – in order to disseminate under interrogation the entirely false rumour that their real mission was the assassination of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower.

In the event, the operation was botched, though not by Skorzeny. Only three dozen or so of his unit were able to carry out their original mission, of whom up to 18 were shot by the Americans after drumhead trials. Never mind, the rumour got through. Eisenhower did indeed have to spend that Christmas closeted in his distant HQ – hampered by absurd security precautions just when the Allies were under maximum pressure. Operation Greif very much shows Skorzeny’s ruthless creativity at work, levelling impossible odds by means of a clever ruse. As do other  – ultimately unsuccessful – operations credited to his name: the aborted assassination attempt on the Allied Big Three, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, at Tehran in December 1943; and the attempted but failed assassination of Yugoslav partisan leader General Tito in May 1944. Which, if nothing else, underline the ambitious scope of Skorzeny’s thinking.

Here’s a clip taken from the German news archive. It depicts Skorzeny in triumphant Errol Flynn mode immediately after the rescue of Mussolini, and well illustrates the kind of hero Dave would like Skorzeny to be. Sorry about the lack of a translation, but you should be able to follow the storyline easily enough. Skorzeny is the one in the getaway Fieseler Storch, standing just behind “Der Duce”:

The trouble is, I’ve forgotten something here, and so has Dave. Skorzeny was not just a brilliant professional soldier reluctantly doing his bit for Adolf and the Third Reich under compulsion of his military oath (as von Manstein, Guderian and many other Wehrmacht generals subsequently claimed to have done). Skorzeny was an obersturmbannführer (lieutenant-colonel) in the fanatically Himmlerian Waffen SS  and a deeply committed Nazi.

He joined the Austrian Nazi party indecently early in 1932 and in 1938 enthusiastically assisted Hitler’s overthrow of Austria’s legitimate government, in what was euphemistically called Anschluss (Union). Much later, in 1944, he was one of the first to pitch up in Berlin after the failure of von Stauffenberg’s July Plot, to help prop up Hitler’s momentarily tottering regime. Even with the war lost and Hitler dead, Skorzeny remained wedded to the cause of helping high-ranking Nazis by means of the ODESSA network, which he himself had taken a lead role in creating. He finished his days under the benign jurisdiction of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, advising the Egyptians on how to hit back at the Israelis, and the Greek military junta on how to repress their own people. Other clients included the South African government and, topically enough, Colonel Gadaffi.

So, at the end of all this, I’m not quite sure what Dave is trying to tell us. Other than something slightly unconvincing about his theory of “predatory intelligence”.

Yes, Skorzeny was a brilliant creative thinker in his way; but then, Hitler – as Bernie Ecclestone recently reminded us – was a brilliant road-builder. The trouble, in both cases, is the facts have been over-selected, making the insight almost worthless. Context is everything.

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