The AP reports that Baku has become a den of intrigue, “like Casablanca in World War II”, except this time the cast includes Iran, Israel and America. Now it’s true there are spies in Baku.
Most experts agree there are many Mossad agents in Azerbaijan working for Israel. “The Iranians act in the open, they want everyone to know that they are here,” Dr. Arastun Orujl, director of the east-West Research Center in Baku told Britain’s Times newspaper. “The Israelis are more subtle, like the Americans. But in the end everyone knows they are here, too.”
But it is less certain that Casablanca was every really a center of espionage during the Second World War. The movie itself claims only that the North African city was refugee way-station. Many of us can recite the opening lines of the film classic by heart:
“With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But, not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up – Paris to Marseilles… across the Mediterranean to Oran… then by train, or auto, or foot across the rim of Africa, to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon; and from Lisbon, to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca… and wait… and wait… and wait.”
But in reality they waited in Lisbon. Casablanca’s status as a limbo for refugees was a Warner Brothers invention. Ronald Weber, author of the Lisbon Route, claims that the vast majority of refugees came overland to Lisbon direct. “As well as offering freedom from war, Lisbon provided spies, smugglers, relief workers, military figures, and adventurers with an avenue into the conflict and its opportunities. Ronald Weber traces the engaging stories of many of these colorful transients as they took pleasure in the city’s charm and benign climate, its ample food and drink, its gambling casino and Atlantic beaches. Yet an ever-present shadow behind the gaiety was the fragile nature of Portuguese neutrality, which at any moment the Axis or Allies might choose to end”.
Portugal played both sides of the fence in World War 2. “Several American reports called Lisbon ‘The Capital of Espionage'”.
However, the PVDE (Portuguese secret police) always maintained a neutral stance towards foreign espionage activity, as long as no one intervened in Portuguese internal policies. Writers such as Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond) were based there, while other prominent people such as the Duke of Windsor and the Spanish Royal Family were exiled in Estoril. German spies attempted to buy information on trans-Atlantic shipping to help their submarines fight the Battle of the Atlantic. The Spaniard Juan Pujol Garcia, better known as Codename Garbo, passed on misinformation to the Germans, hoping it would hasten the end of the Franco regime, he was recruited by the British as a double agent while in Lisbon. Conversely, William Colepaugh, an American traitor, was recruited as an agent by the Germans while his ship was in port in Lisbon – he was subsequently landed by U-boat U-1230 in Maine before being captured.”
But the imagery of “Casablanca” is now such a part of our cultural legacy that it has become in a strange fashion, the correct simile for Baku. Perhaps somewhere in Azerbaijan, two men are talking, half-self consciously as Rick and Captain Renault.
Spy One: “I came here because it is the New Casablanca”.
Spy Two: “You were misinformed”.
Spy One: “I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”