Was Dave Trott right to pick Otto Skorzeny of the SS as an example of a creative thinker?

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 suggested here that small quoted marketing services aggregators, such as 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 1908, Skorzeny was the scion of a professional military family serving the Austro-Hungarian empire. Everything about him marked him out for martial glory: 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 a 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 young Skorzeny. To say the least, he did not disappoint – ending the war as one of the most decorated soldiers in the Third Reich. Skorzeny’s precocious speciality was commando warfare – what today we would call 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.

To choose but 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 managed to snatch the former Italian dictator Mussolini from under the noses of his now-Allied captors. Mussolini was massively guarded by rings of armour in a mountain fastness approachable only by funicular railway. Skorzeny’s genius? While everyone else was thinking land defence, he attacked from the air by glider.

Ever the self-publicist, Otto took a camera crew along (he’s the one beaming over Il Duce’s shoulder on the plane).

Example two: Operation Greif, December 1944. Skorzeny trained and led a unit of 2,000 German special forces to operate behind the lines in the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last big offensive. The controversial aspect of this operation was that Skorzeny’s forces all spoke fluent American English and acquired American uniforms, American weapons and Jeeps for the occasion, marking them out for summary execution if captured. The aim was not to kill as many GIs as possible, but to sow confusion in the enemy ranks. Allegedly, a few commandos allowed themselves to be captured, in order to disseminate under interrogation the entirely false rumour that their real mission was the assassination of the Allied Supreme Commander, General Eisenhower.

In the event, the operation was botched, though not by Skorzeny. Only two dozen or so of his unit were able to carry out their original mission, of whom four were summarily shot by the Allies. Never mind, Eisenhower did indeed have to spend that Christmas in Paris, 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 assassination of the Allied Big Three, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, in Tehran during December 1943; and the attempted assassination of Yugoslav partisan leader General Tito in May 1944. Which, if nothing else, underlines the ambitious scope of Skorzeny’s thinking.

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). Skorzeny was an obersturmbannführer (lieutenant-colonel) in the fanatically Himmlerian Waffen SS when these acts of derring-do were being carried out; and a committed Nazi long before and after.

He joined the Austrian Nazi party indecently early in 1931 and in 1938 enthusiastically assisted Hitler’s overthrow of Austria’s legitimate government, in what is euphemistically called Anschluss (Union). Later, one of the first to arrive on the scene in Berlin after the failure of von Stauffenberg’s July Plot (1944), he actively helped bolster Hitler’s rickety 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 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. 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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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.