Operation Teutonic Sword

09 March 2017

Area Studies | History | War and Conflict

In the Cold War battle for hearts and minds there was documentary film making. In this struggle a small British distributor of left-wing films tried to play its part by showing documentaries made in socialist countries as a counterpoint to Western interpretations of those places behind the iron curtain as menacing and dangerous. Its motto was ‘See the other side of the world’. These were films that often shone a light back on the West and its own misdemeanours. Many of the films it distributed came from East Germany – home of some skilled documentary makers – and one these films in particular led to a legal and political kerfuffle that raised questions of libel, censorship and even diplomatic relations in Cold War Britain.

The British distributor was called Plato Films – run by a man by the name of Stanley Forman – and in 1958 the East German film studio DEFA had just sent them a documentary called Operation Teutonic Sword. The documentary was part of a series called ‘The Archives Testify’, a group of films that investigated the pasts of high-ranking officials in West Germany and their crimes during the time of the Third Reich. This time, DEFA had chosen a particularly prominent subject rather than the mayor of a holiday island whom had been the subject of their first investigation. Operation Teutonic Sword directly attacked the commander of NATO’s European land forces, Hans Speidel, by investigating his activities in Nazi times. But among accusations of brutal reprisal executions of Jews and resistance fighters in occupied France was another exposé. 

The documentary claimed that in 1934, Hans Speidel, serving as a secret agent while posing as the military attaché in the German embassy in Paris had organised the assassination of Alexander I, King of Yugoslavia and the French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou on the orders of Herman Goering. The pair were gunned down in their cavalcade just after Alexander arrived in Marseilles on a diplomatic visit. The traditional explanation is that the assassin, Vlado "the Chauffeur" Chernozemski, was carrying out the act for a pro-Macedonian organisation. After he fired his fatal shots he was sabred by police at the scene and beaten to death by the crowd: his side of the story was never established.

This documentary suggests an alternative motivation other than Balkan nationalism: that Yugoslavia was a key part of Nazi expansion aims and that Barthou was working on creating a pan-European alliance that was to bring Yugoslavia into the fold. Hence the Nazi antipathy towards the pair. The documentary purports to show documents from Goering to Speidel ordering the assassination and Speidel’s subsequent confirmation that all was in motion. The film details the plan before showing shocking footage of the aftermath of the killings.

It was this, rather than the accusation that he ordered executions and exterminations, to which NATO general Speidel objected and he and his lawyers moved fast to prevent the circulation of the film. He brought a libel case against Plato Films. East Germany committed to pay Plato’s legal costs but Forman was nonetheless alarmed enough at a negative outcome to sign his house over to his wife and set up a new company, ETV (Education & Television Films), to which he moved all Plato’s film assets. In the event, and after years, the case went all the way to the House of Lords though Speidel ultimately settled out of court and accepted that the film not be shown in cinematic circulation. In the event the documentary evidence of Goering and Speidel’s correspondence shown on camera was not deemed admissible hence the case could not be proved.

The case of Operation Teutonic Sword is an amazing view directly into the Cold War era and the ideological struggle that went on for decades via, among other communications media, film. The film itself, if its accusations are true, is a fascinating account of the shortcomings of West Germany and the West in that figures who should have been disgraced for their former actions have not faced justice and are indeed thriving. It also created UK legal history and precedent in how libel could be defined and what counted as evidence. The British reaction is also interesting in that it appears there was encouragement by the Foreign Office to suppress the circulation of The Archives Testify series – obviously not wanting to offend their West German and NATO allies. So the standards of free expression in the West are also brought into question though doubtless the British government would  have claimed that the accusations could not be sufficiently substantiated.

Operation Teutonic Sword is a classic bit of Cold War history, socialist film making, propaganda and legal history. It is the most notorious and mythical film in the Plato/ETV archive and left-film circles – even though hardly anyone's ever seen it. Since the 1950s it has lain suppressed and unwatched in the Plato Films, ETV then British Film Institute National Archive until its digitisation and publication by Adam Matthew in Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda.

With thanks to Alan Burton for his knowledge of the case.

Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda is a collection of documentaries, newsreels and features that reveals the world as seen by Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, East European, British and Latin American film makers. This project makes available Stanley Forman's ETV/Plato Films archive which is held at the BFI National Film Archive.

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About the Author

Felix Barnes

Felix Barnes

I have been an editor at Adam Matthew since September 2013. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with some fascinating collections including Global Commodities, the Foreign Office Files for China, American History, 1493-1945, Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters, Socialism on Film and J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America.