Who Was the “Mysterious Messenger”?
On July 28, 1942, a prominent and well-connected German industralist met with a Swiss citizen in Zurich. The industrialist revealed that Hitler’s headquarters was considering a plan to concentrate all Jews from Germany and German-occupied territories in the East in the fall of that year, and to exterminate them through the use of prussic acid. Altogether, the Nazis would kill some three-and-one-half to four million Jews in this operation.
Certain details of the information were inaccurate or obsolete. The plan was not under consideration; it had already begun. The undertaking was so vast that it could only occur over many months. Nonetheless, the industrialist had uncovered one of the greatest secrets in Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” of the Jewish question was to kill all the Jews of Europe by means of gas chambers.
The alarmed Swiss referred the industrialist to Benjamin Sagalowitz, the press officer of the Jewish religious communities of Zurich. The industrialist then urged Sagalowitz to inform Churchill and Roosevelt immediately. In his conversations with Sagalowitz, and later with Gerhart Riegner, the Swiss representative of the World Jewish Congress, the industrialist asked that his name be kept a secret when they passed his intelligence to Western governments. Since the industrialist was heading back to Germany, extreme caution was required to keep his identity from the Gestapo and the Abwehr (German military intelligence).
As Arthur Morse (While Six Million Died) and Walter Laqueur (The Terrible Secret) have already disclosed, Sagalowitz and Riegner were forced to reveal the industrialist’s name only once; in October 1942, the American minister to Switzerland, Leland Harrison, demanded to know his identity. Because Harrison’s cooperation was essential in forcing a reaction from Washington to the Final Solution, Riegner put the name in a sealed envelope and gave it to Harrison, who shared the name only with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Bern. He did not leave the envelope either in the records of the legation or among his personal papers.
Despite the best efforts of several scholars, particularly Walter Laqueur (“The Mysterious Messenger and the Final Solution,” COMMENTARY, March 1980), this wartime secret has been preserved since 1942. The industrialist himself has died, as has Sagalowitz. In recent years the only person who knew the industrialist’s name was Riegner, and—as he told us when we began our investigation of this matter—he still felt bound by his promise of confidentiality. In Riegner’s words, “It was the only thing that he ever asked from us.”
After many months of searching through the labyrinth of documents at the National Archives, we were confident that we had unearthed the industrialist’s identity and with it, one of the great untold espionage episodes of World War II. (Since then, another scholar, Monty N. Penkower of Touro College, working independently from other sources, has also identified the German industrialist, but without mention of the broader intelligence activities in which he was engaged.)
Eduard Reinhold Karl Schulte was born on January 4, 1891, in Düsseldorf. He obtained a doctorate of law and went into the booming field of banking and industry in the years before World War I. He had lost a leg in an accident (and was fitted with an artificial one), which kept him out of the conflict, but he served his country by working in the War Office for Raw Materials as a specialist in oils and fats. Later, he worked in various high executive positions in the soap industry. In 1925 he became managing director of Georg von Giesche’s Erben, the largest zinc producer in Germany and a major producer of lead, coal, and sulfur as well. He soon accumulated positions on the boards of other large corporations. He married Clara Luise Minna Ebert, eight years his senior, and fathered two sons. A tall, distinguished-looking man, he was described by an American official in 1945 as being honest, intelligent, and very energetic.
Schulte is not known to have participated actively in the tumultuous politics of the Weimar Republic, but his general outlook corresponded to the position of the German Democratic party, whose fortunes faded as the Nazis gained strength. A believer in the market system, he was at the same time a convinced democrat, a combination that was uncommon in Weimar Germany. When Hitler took power in January 1933, Schulte must have realized that very bad times lay ahead. His company acquired a Swiss subsidiary, which gave him a reason to travel to Switzerland frequently.
Schulte’s desire to bring peace and democracy to Germany drove this anti-Nazi industrialist to work with the Allies during the war. The crimes of the Gestapo and the SS Schulte attributed ultimately to Hitler. Unlike many anti-Nazis, however, he placed little faith in the ability and will of the German army to overthrow the Nazi regime. In July 1942, he warned that nothing of sense should be expected from the officers, and a year later he still saw no sign of any break in their support for the regime. Moreover, Schulte wanted to do more than destroy Nazism. The only means to a lasting peace, he argued, was a decisive Allied military victory and the complete destruction of the military caste that had long plagued Germany. With no illusions about the capacity of the German army to overthrow the Third Reich or to sustain democracy, Schulte cast his lot with the only forces capable of achieving those goals.
Thus, after the German conquest of Poland, Schulte—having at some point established high-level Polish and French contacts as well as good relations with someone in the German Foreign Office and with a number of high-ranking army officers—began passing intelligence information to representatives of the Polish Special Intelligence Service and the French Service of Information in Bern. The Poles sent the material on to the staff of the Polish commander in chief, by then in London. Schulte’s information on German foreign policy and military strategy was of top quality. In May 1941, for example, Schulte reported that German preparations for an invasion of the Soviet Union would be completed by the end of the month. The invasion followed on June 22. In January 1942, he transmitted the operational plans of the German armies in Russia, predicting their thrust toward the Caucasus. Schulte also described in detail internal frictions that were pitting Hitler and the Nazi party against the German general staff. The Poles naturally gave such material to the British, who passed some of it on to the United States. Schulte’s name, of course, was never used in the documents and telegrams to the United States; in one document the source was said to be a director of an important German industrial concern.
The report about the Final Solution, which Schulte had received from someone in Hitler’s headquarters, obviously could not be left to ordinary channels. Schulte had been astute enough to recognize that Jewish officials in Switzerland would take whatever steps necessary to bring the Final Solution to the attention of Allied leaders. His message went from Sagalowitz to Gerhart Riegner in Geneva. Sagalowitz knew that Riegner could reach Rabbi Stephen Wise, the head of the American Jewish Congress, in New York. It would then be up to Wise to go to Franklin Roosevelt, a pilgrimage he had made several times before.
Riegner was a young German Jew who had recognized the dangers of Nazism even before 1933 and left Germany shortly after Hitler took power. He went to Geneva, where he studied law under a trio of distinguished scholars at the Graduate Institute of International Studies: Hans Kelsen, William Rappard, and Paul Guggenheim. When Stephen Wise and Nahum Goldmann organized the World Jewish Congress in 1936 and were looking for a Swiss representative with a background in international law, the scholars recommended Riegner. Working alongside his senior colleague Richard Lichtheim, Riegner threw himself zealously into the dual task of defending Jewry and combating Nazism.
Riegner was the right man to receive the report of the Final Solution, since his personal experience with fanatical Nazi anti-Semitism made the intelligence credible, as it would prove not to be to many others. But he still needed to know more about Schulte before he could have confidence in the accuracy of the information, which was bound to be questioned. Riegner found out that the industrialist had twice before provided key intelligence information to the Allies and that he was also a power in the business world, a “captain of industry” whose firm employed some 30,000 persons. He also obtained a copy of the industrialist’s general comments about conditions in Germany. On the basis of all this, Riegner concluded that the report of mass extermination was accurate. It complemented information he had received from other sources about the brutality of the deportations. He then consulted his teacher, Paul Guggenheim, of Geneva’s Graduate Institute. Guggenheim was skeptical, and persuaded Riegner to tell Wise that the information was unverified. But he also assisted Riegner by giving him a letter of introduction to the American consul in Geneva, Paul C. Squire. As it turned out, Squire was away on vacation, so the agitated Riegner turned the information over to Vice Consul Howard Elting on August 8, 1942.
Elting told Riegner that the information seemed fantastic, but Riegner pointed out that reports from Paris, Holland, Berlin, Vienna, and Prague had all confirmed the fact that large numbers of Jews were being brutally deported. Riegner then requested that the Allied governments be informed, that they make every effort to obtain confirmation or denial, and that the message also be sent to Rabbi Wise in New York. On the same day Riegner asked the British consulate to transmit the message to Sidney Silverman, a Labor member of the House of Commons who was the British representative of the World Jewish Congress. Riegner feared that Washington might not send the telegram to Wise, but believed that the British Foreign Office would not dare to suppress a telegram to a member of Parliament.
Although he too was skeptical of the revelation, Elting dutifully wrote up a memo of his conversation with Riegner. In it he described Riegner as a serious and balanced individual who would not have come forward with the information if he had not believed it. Elting recommended that the legation send Riegner’s message to Washington, and legation officials complied. But in an accompanying dispatch, Ambassador Harrison apparently questioned the accuracy of the information. The State Department summarized the report and passed a copy to the OSS. The summary described the Riegner message as a “wild rumor inspired by Jewish fears.”
In mid-September Schulte supplied Sagalowitz or Riegner with two coded letters written by a Swiss Jew living in Warsaw. On the surface, they appeared to be a set of innocent family messages that no German censor could object to. The first letter read in part:
I spoke to Mr. Jäger. He told me that he will invite all the relatives of the family Achenu, with the exception of Miss Eisenzweig, from Warsaw to the countryside dwelling Kewer. I am alone here. I feel lonely. As to the citrus fruit I hope that I shall receive them in time. . . . Uncle Gerusch works also in Warsaw; he is a very capable worker. His friend Miso works with him. Please pray for me.
The key nouns, as Riegner explained to Squire, and Squire related to Harrison, actually were: Jäger=Germans, Achenu=our brethren, Eisenzweig=iron workers, Kewer=tomb, Gerusch= deportation, and Miso=death. The Jews of Warsaw, except for the iron workers, were being deported to their death. This was Schulte’s best effort to provide confirmation of the Final Solution. Riegner, of course, gave the information to the American consulate in Geneva.
Adolf Hitler, as Arthur Morse has noted, helped to resolve American doubts about the Final Solution through a passage in his speech of September 30, given in the Berlin Sport Stadium, which was broadcast on radio and reported in the press.
In my speech of September 1, 1939 I . . . [warned that] if Jewry should plot another world war in order to exterminate the Aryan peoples of Europe, it would not be the Aryan peoples which would be exterminated, but Jewry. . . . I shall be right also in that prophecy.
On October 22 Harrison met with Riegner and Richard Lichtheim, the other World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland. Riegner gave the American minister a summary of the reports on Nazi killings of the Jews and pointed out that these actions were in accord with Hitler’s threats. Aware that the State Department was still only partially convinced, Harrison wanted more proof. The only thing Riegner had not disclosed was his source on the Final Solution report: Schulte. It was at that point that Riegner handed Harrison the sealed envelope containing Schulte’s name and position. It was Riegner’s desperate attempt to persuade Washington of the reality of the Final Solution. So abiding was Riegner’s faith in Roosevelt that when he ran into Paul Squire on October 25, Riegner asked if the American Consulate could supply him with a portrait of the President to hang in the offices of the World Jewish Congress. Squire gladly complied, and the portrait went up immediately in order to show, as Riegner wrote, “[Our] great admiration [for] one of the most comprehensive friends of our people.”
With German forces stretching from the Atlantic to the Volga, from the northern tip of Norway to the desert wastes around El Alamein in North Africa, no power on earth could stop the Nazi death mills in Poland at that point. But the best chance for countermeasures of some kind lay in Washington. Yet Washington engaged in a token response, at best, to the report which Eduard Schulte had transmitted via Jewish sources in Switzerland. The information that millions of Jews had been or were about to be exterminated by poison gas in specially constructed death chambers horrified some American officials; others ignored it. The military defeat of Hitler’s armies, not the rescue of his victims, had to remain top priority, and most government officials regarded the rescue of Jewish refugees as a humanitarian effort that the country could not afford in the midst of a war for the survival of Western civilization. American policy-makers remained consistent in their refusal to treat the Jews’ plight as unique. Eduard Schulte’s hope of ending the Holocaust before the conclusion of the war remained unfulfilled.
Having transmitted his intelligence on the Final Solution to the West via a Jewish listening post in Switzerland, Schulte returned to his chief occupation of assisting the Allies to defeat Hitler. During his May 1943 visit to Bern, Schulte—from a private Swiss office—dictated a letter to Allen Dulles, chief of the OSS mission in Bern. The secretary failed to destroy the carbon paper, and it was stolen by a typist in the office whose lover was an SS man stationed in Zurich. By the time the pair realized the significance of the information and contacted Gestapo authorities, Schulte had returned to Upper Silesia. But someone in Zurich had got wind of the leak and warned Schulte just in time. With his valid Swiss visa he fled to Basel, where the Swiss granted him sanctuary on December 5, 1943. Four weeks later Schulte’s wife also managed to escape to Switzerland, and the two lived in Zurich for the remainder of the war. Both of Schulte’s sons survived the war as well. The Russians had taken one son prisoner at Stalingrad; the other, a lieutenant in a German tank division, was wounded five times but remained on the Eastern front to protect himself from the Gestapo. In March 1945, he deserted to Switzerland. Safe, albeit in exile, Eduard Schulte occupied himself working on a memorandum on postwar economic plans for Germany, which was later given to Allen Dulles.
At the end of the war, Schulte received certificates of service and appreciation from representatives of Great Britain, France, the non-Communist Polish government, and the U.S. The British award, signed by Field Marshal Montgomery, simply described Schulte as “a volunteer in the service of the United Nations for the great cause of freedom.” The American document, a letter from Allen Dulles, stated that Schulte had “rendered most valuable services to the cause of the United Nations motivated solely by his hatred of the Nazi system and his desire to see it overthrown as thoroughly and speedily as possible.” Schulte, the letter continued, had “uniformly stood for the ideals and principles of liberty and democracy.”
Gerhart Riegner and Benjamin Sagalowitz paid homage to Schulte by making known the story of how this courageous industrialist had informed them of the Final Solution even as they kept their pledge to him that they would preserve his anonymity. We have worked to reveal his identity with the same purpose in mind. Eventually, Schulte will be honored on Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous, the long boulevard of evergreen carob trees which the state of Israel has planted to honor the memory of those “righteous Gentiles” who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. At that time his heirs will receive a medal with the talmudic inscription, “Whoever saves a single soul, it is as if he had saved the whole world.” Schulte tried to save millions of Jews by alerting the world to their peril. That the message largely fell on deaf ears in Washington in no way detracts from the honor due the messenger.