The Dastardly Past: Counterfeiting Pound Notes.
On or around September 18, 1939, someone in the upper echelons of the Nazi regime proposed the plan that eventually became Operation Bernhard—the large-scale counterfeiting of five-, ten-, and twenty-pound British notes in order to destabilize England’s economy. SS officer Bernhard Kruger ran the operation using as many as 130 professional counterfeiters and skilled Jewish craftsmen incarcerated at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. These individuals both created bills of the highest quality and “seasoned” them, making them look like money that had circulated for a while, producing them in industrial quantities. Scholars estimate that the amount of counterfeit currency approached $150 million pounds. Germany passed the fake notes throughout the Empire—the first came to light in West Africa.
The use of counterfeiting currency as a method of warfare had been practiced at least since counterfeited coinage in ancient Greece; it occurred in many European wars as well as the Civil War in the United States. England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer repeatedly, and confidentially, asked to withdraw the old bills in favor of newly designed “forgery-proof” bills, but England only began to take action toward the close of the war.
The Dastardly Past: Sean Connery.
August 25, 1930 saw the arrival in this world of Sean Connery–international actor of mystery, suspense, and espionage and the quintessential James Bond. Really, what more needs to be said?
The Dastardly Past: William Wallace.
On August 23, 1305, William Wallace, the Scottish chief and freedom fighter who led the War of Scottish Independence, was executed using several of the most gruesome methods every devised by Medieval minds. The catalogue of tortures inflicted upon him at the hands of the English can be read on the webpage of the Society of William Wallace. I’d list them here, but I’m eating my lunch.
The Dastardly Past: Mata Hari.
On August 7, 1876, a baby girl called Margaretha Geertruida Zelle entered the world in the Netherlands. Forty years later she would be executed as a German spy in France under the name of Mata Hari. The details of her life read like something from the tabloids including, as they did, an affluent childhood, a bankrupt father, a wicked step-mother, a mail-order husband who turned alcoholic and abusive, a sojurn in the Dutch East Indies, bouts with syphilis that would claim the lives of her two children, work with a dance troupe, a circus, and as an artist’s model, and much more. Openly promiscuous, she wound up an exotic dancer and “courtesan,” who mingled in high society and slept with Europe’s important politicians and high-ranking military officers. The ease and frequency with which she crossed national borders made her an ideal candidate for espionage in World War I. Whether Mata Hari actually passed along information or was merely set up by those wanting to rid themselves of her, her name has become synonymous with femmes fatale since her death by firing squad in 1917.
The Dastardly Past: Mein Kampf.
July 18, 1925 marks the publication of the first volume of Mein Kampf, a semi-autobiographical book by Adolph Hitler that addresses his political ideology, at great length. He wrote it in 1924 in Landsberg Prison (Bavaria) while serving time for treason after his failed Beer Hall Putsch. During his rise to power, copies of the book sold so successfully that he had accumulated a tax debt equivalent in 2015 dollars to $1.5 million. Conveniently, this obligation was waived as soon as he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Throughout the duration of the Third Reich, Hitler decreed that the German government give complimentary copies of Mein Kampf to all newlyweds and all serving soldiers—with the royalties from government expenditures on these books going straight into his own pockets. The magnitude of evil he unleashed on the world tends to obscure the fact that, in addition to achieving almost total European domination, Adolph Hitler also became a very wealthy man.
The Dastardly Past: the Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat.
On July 13, 1793, the French scientist-turned-radical-revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat took a bath. This was a common occurrence due to an uncomfortable skin condition from which he suffered—modern doctors suspect dermatitis herpitiformis. Soaking with various salts and minerals allowed Marat to alleviate his symptoms temporarily. Nevertheless, on this day while in his bath, he granted an audience to a woman named Charlotte Corday who claimed to have urgent business. They spoke for several minutes before she produced a knife and stabbed him in the chest. He bled out within seconds. Corday, a royalist, was arrested and quickly executed. Over the last two centuries, various artists and writers have immortalized this episode, and Marat’s bathtub is currently exhibited in a Parisian wax museum, the Musée Grévin.
The Dastardly Past: Background to Danger (1943).
On July 3, 1943, Warner Bros. released espionage thriller Background to Danger, starring George Raft, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. Critics agreed that it was an above-average World War II adventure. Eric Ambler’s novel Uncommon Danger provided the basis for the script, which was another of the Warner screenplays to which William Faulkner contributed during his time as a contract writer in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.