The Mysterious Messenger & the Final Solution
It has been known for a long time that the first authentic information about Hitler’s decision to destroy European Jewry came from a German industrialist who visited Switzerland in July 1942. But the identity of the industrialist has remained a mystery. What follows is a report of my attempt to trace who he was, what made him act as he did, and what became of him subsequently.
One day in July 1942, Benjamin Sagalowitz, the press officer of the Swiss Jewish communities headquartered in Zurich, received an urgent phone call from an acquaintance. Sagalowitz—Benno to his friends—was a man of wide cultural interests, a Social Democrat and a Zionist. He was born in Vitebsk in White Russia, but had come to Switzerland with his family as a young boy just before World War I. His older brother, Vladimir, was a well-known painter and cartoonist. He had many contacts, among them his caller who told him on that day that a German industrialist Sagalowitz had vaguely known in the past was in town, with information of great importance. They then met. The industrialist, a frequent visitor to Switzerland even in wartime, knew from an unimpeachable source that Hitler had decided to have all European Jews exterminated by means of poison gas by the end of the year. Churchill or Roosevelt, preferably both, should be informed immediately.
We cannot be certain that Sagalowitz fully believed the story. He knew the industrialist to be a man of honor and a sworn enemy of the Nazi regime, but he could still be mistaken, as there were a great many rumors in wartime. On the other hand, there were strong indications of anti-Jewish massacres on an unprecedented scale in Nazi-dominated Europe. The news, just received, of the deportation of Jews from Western Europe to Poland certainly pointed in the same direction. During the month of July, notwithstanding the wartime censorship, some Swiss newspapers had reported that the Jews in Europe were facing certain death. Sagalowitz decided that whether the information was true or half true, no time was to be lost in transmitting it. He got in touch with Gerhart Riegner in Geneva.
Riegner, aged thirty at the time, was the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland, the main listening post for events in Nazi-occupied Europe. He had studied law in his native Berlin, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Geneva, and had acquired contacts in all these places during his student days. He was not, however, the only person Sagalowitz could have spoken to. There was also Richard Lichtheim, Riegner’s senior by many years, who reported from Geneva to the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem. But it was Riegner who had a direct connection with Rabbi Stephen Wise in New York, who in turn had entry to the White House. In the circumstances, the decision to contact Riegner rather than Lichtheim must have seemed self-evident to Sagalowitz.
What happened next has been related more than once. Having received the news from Sagalowitz, Riegner waited for about a week, trying to obtain more information about the reliability of the source. He was helped by his old teacher at the Institute des Hautes Etudes in Geneva, Paul Guggenheim (Guggi). His usual American contact in Geneva, U.S. Consul Paul C. Squire, happened to be away and so on August 8, Riegner went to see the Vice Consul, Howard Elting, Jr., and handed him a document which began as follows:
Received alarming report that in Fuehrer’s headquarters plan discussed and under consideration according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany numbering 3½-4 million should after deportation and concentration in East be exterminated at one blow to resolve once and for all Jewish question in Europe.
Elting sent the message to Ambassador Leland Harrison in Berne, who transmitted it to the State Department with a note that this was apparently a wild rumor inspired by Jewish fears. Reaction in Washington was even more negative, and it was decided not to convey the message to Rabbi Wise for whom it had been intended. But Riegner had taken the precaution of sending a copy through the British embassy to the London office of the World Jewish Congress. The Foreigh Office in London was also unhappy about the telegram, regarding it as grossly exaggerated and in any case not helpful to the war effort. But after some initial hesitation it was handed over to the World Jewish Congress, and thus Rabbi Wise in New York got it finally on August 28, 1942.
Wise was asked by the State Department not to make the message public; there was no certainty that it was correct. After all, Riegner had said in his cable, “We transmit information with all necessary reservation as exactitude cannot [be] confirmed.” Rabbi Wise and the other Jewish leaders accepted this. It took three more months to establish that the Riegner cable was correct, and indeed had not gone far enough. Hitler’s plan was not just “under consideration,” it was already being carried out.
I am not the only one to have been intrigued by the question of the identity of the industrialist who brought Sagalowitz the news. Riegner, who gave his word not to divulge the man’s name, has been asked about the matter countless times but has steadfastly refused to respond. The other two who had known the man’s identity, Sagalowitz and Ambassador Harrison, are dead. Actually, Harrison had never met the industrialist, but upon his insistence Riegner had given him the name in a closed envelope. The OSS (Office of Strategic Services) had also been informed. Riegner himself did not meet the industrialist until February 1945, according to Sagalowitz.
My search among Harrison’s papers in Washington produced no results. As for the relevant OSS files, if they still exist they have not been declassified. Some of Sagalowitz’s papers are kept in the archives of the Swiss Jewish communities in Zurich which I visited recently. Again the search proved fruitless; Sagalowitz’s private correspondence was not there. I then got in touch with Howard Elting, Jr., the Vice Consul whom Riegner had first contacted upon receiving the horrible news. He is now retired in California. He assured me that he had never known the name. One of Sagalowitz’s friends, a man once actively involved in Swiss politics, was most interested in my search but he could be of no help either.
Why did the industrialist insist on anonymity even after the war? He had performed, after all, a humanitarian service at great personal danger. (“He risked his skin for us,” Riegner wrote in one of his letters to me.) It was not his fault that his initiative had not resulted in the rescue of many Jews. Either he must have been a man of rare modesty, or other factors were involved. When Riegner had first tried to establish whether his source, whose identity he still did not know, could be trusted, he had been assured by Sagalowitz that the industrialist had supplied important (and reliable) information to the Allies on at least two previous occasions. He had told them that Russia would be attacked in 1941, and he also knew early on about some impending changes in the German high command. Where could Sagalowitz himself have come by such knowledge concerning the reliability of the industrialist? Obviously, only from a secret service; but, I reasoned, any such organization would be unlikely to endanger a valuable source just to provide a recommendation. (In this I was wrong.)
I then found out that Riegner’s famous cable had been published in America in a Jewish weekly, together with all the other details he knew—that the industrialist was the head of a big enterprise employing some 30,000 workers and that he had given important help to the Allies by, among other things, informing them about Operation Barbarossa (Congress Weekly, December 4, 1942). This, too, seemed altogether incredible. Surely Riegner would not have made these details known if they were true. They would have been more than sufficient for the Gestapo to trace this traitor to Nazi Germany. Thus it came to seem that the description of the “industrialist” must have been a cover.
At this stage friends drew my attention to the introduction to the Hebrew edition of Arthur D. Morse’s While Six Million Died, in which one Artur Sommer is mentioned as the individual who had passed on the information. This name had already been suggested by Dr. Pazner (Posner), who was connected during the war with the Jewish Agency in Switzerland, but Riegner had denied in a letter to me that Sommer had anything to do with the affair. Yet surely there must have been some connection, the name could not have been plucked out of thin air.
I followed this lead without great hope, but with surprising results. Sommer had been on the outer fringe of the Stefan George Circle, an exclusive group of admirers of that highly esoteric German poet and translator, a circle which included quite a few Jews and also some anti-Semites. Born in Krotoschin, in the Polish-German borderland in 1889, Sommer studied languages and literature in Berlin and served with distinction as an officer in World War I. A tall man of powerful physique and with a booming voice, he was a first-rate commander. But like many of his contemporaries he did not easily find his way back to civilian life after the war. He decided to continue his studies in a very different field, economics, and since he was a thorough man and easily sidetracked, this took him some fifteen years. He became fascinated by the works of Friedrich List (d. 1847), the most original of the German economic thinkers of his time, a prophet of industrialization and a critic of laissez-faire liberalism.
Sommer decided to devote his life to this neglected genius; he was instrumental in founding a List Society (which still exists) and discovered some unknown manuscripts of the master in Paris archives. Through his interest in List he came into touch with Edgar Salin, another devotee of the George Circle. Salin, a figure better known than Sommer in German intellectual history, was born into a Frankfurt Jewish family in 1892. He was professor first in Heidelberg and then in 1927 in Basel. Sommer decided to complete his dissertation in Basel under Salin’s direction; in the process the two became close friends. In 1931, Sommer moved to London to continue his studies, and two years later, still in London, for reasons not altogether clear, he joined the Nazi party. (It ought to be mentioned in passing that other young members of the George Circle such as Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, who tried to kill Hitler in 1944, were also very much attracted by the Nazis in the beginning.)
When Sommer returned to Germany in 1933 he was asked to participate in storm-trooper activities. What he saw he did not like, and described his impressions in a letter to a friend. The letter was intercepted. Sommer was arrested and spent several months in a concentration camp. After his release he worked as a librarian since he could no longer hope for an academic career and there was always the danger of renewed arrest. He figured correctly that he would be safest in the army, and (what with his World War I record) was immediately accepted. Attached to the general staff, he became a lieutenant colonel and served as one of the liaison officers with the Abwehr, the military intelligence.
In view of his training as an economist, Sommer was appointed a member of the German trade delegation to Switzerland, which met periodically to review the commercial treaty between the two countries. Beginning in September 1940, he frequently visited Switzerland and came to see Salin. In February 1941, he told his friend that negotiations with Russia were not going well. In September or October 1941, Sommer sent Salin pictures showing Nazi atrocities in Eastern Europe, with the request that he pass them on to the Papal Nuncio in Berne, Monsignor Bernardini. This the professor did. The Vatican, needless to say, made no use of this material.1
In 1942 Salin found in his mailbox a letter from Sommer to the effect that extermination camps had been prepared in Eastern Europe to kill all European Jews and also most Soviet prisoners of war by poison gas. Sommer requested that the information be directly relayed to Churchill and Roosevelt and also suggested that the British Broadcasting Corporation transmit daily warnings. Salin did not know how to reach Churchill, but he got in touch with Thomas McKittrick, the American president of the Bank for International Settlement which was located in Basel. McKittrick was in close contact with Ambassador Leland Harrison, who, in turn was in a position to convey messages to the White House. Salin did not know but may have suspected that McKittrick also had private channels for getting information to Washington. He was a well-informed man, there were German employees in his bank, and leading members of the German opposition, such as Adam Trott zu Solz, visited him occasionally. From time to time he was debriefed by Washington. There is an interesting long report about his impressions and views in the files of the OSS. According to McKittrick, Sommer’s message was passed on to Washington. I have not been able to find a copy; it may have disappeared, it may not have been sent. There was in any case no response.
Sommer also tried to get a few Jewish acquaintances out of Germany in the middle of the war; among them was the aged mother of the medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz. This happened the day after the flight of General Giraud from a German prisoner-of-war camp. All border guards were on special alert; approaching the Swiss border, the old lady fell into a hole, and was apprehended. Miraculously she survived the war in Theresienstadt. Sommer, just as miraculously, came to no harm in the various extensive purges of the Abwehr during the last year of the war. After the Nazi defeat he resumed his academic career, this time with greater success. He was offered a teaching position in Heidelberg and continued to publish on List; his lectures were well attended, and since he was an excellent teacher he was asked to continue as guest lecturer even after having reached retirement age. He died in 1965, aged seventy-six.
Artur Sommer had been one of the early warners but clearly not the one I had been looking for. There still was the possibility that the “industrialist” was not an industrialist at all but a Swiss diplomat or businessman, or perhaps a leading member of one of the international organizations based in Switzerland, or even a German diplomat. I turned my attention to these various categories.
It was unlikely that a Swiss citizen would have heard about a secret decision in Hitler’s headquarters, but the possibility could not be ruled out—a German friend or business associate might have told him. German officials were not as discreet as is usually believed. Thus, the head of the press section in the propaganda ministry had drunkenly announced at a party at the Bulgarian embassy in April 1941 that he would soon go to the Crimea as Gauleiter. He did eventually go to the Crimea, but as a private in the army, and were it not for Goebbels’s intervention he would have been shot. If even a state secret of such magnitude could not be kept, small wonder that news of the Final Solution was quite widespread.
Key officials in the German foreign ministry were told what was going on. Ten progress reports, replete with statistics about the activities of the Einsatzgruppen in killing Jews, were published during the last few months of 1941. Each referred to so many Jews killed that in the end no one knew how many had actually been murdered. A junior official, Fritz Gebhardt von Hahn, was appointed to provide a statistical summary. He calculated that about 70,000 to 80,000 had been liquidated by each “killer unit.” Since there were several such units in each of the four major Einsatzgruppen, Hahn’s figures were actually in excess of the gruesome reality. These reports were sent to various desks in the political division and were initialed by twenty-two different people. They were seen by more, and the number of those orally informed was probably in the hundreds. But while the fact that there had been massacres on an unprecedented scale was widely known, the fact that there was an order by Hitler to destroy all of European Jewry was a top secret (Geheime Reichssache) and was known only to a very few officials in July 1942.
Were German diplomats in Switzerland aware of such an order, and would they have passed the news on? This seems just barely possible. Some German diplomats in Switzerland were quite critical of the Nazi regime. But they were located in Geneva rather than in Berne or Zurich, and Sagalowitz had apparently no contact with them. Nor was he in close touch with the representative of the Vatican in Switzerland, Monsignor Bernardini, who showed more sympathy to the Jews in their misfortune than did the Curia in Rome or the Nuncio in Berlin, who was little more than a pliant tool in the hands of the Nazis. Bernardini had excellent sources of information about events in Nazi-occupied Europe, especially among the exiled Poles who still had a legation in Berne. But Sagalowitz was not among Bernardini’s close acquaintances.
Until recently there has been no access to the files of the International Red Cross, and as far as I have been able to ascertain the IRC had no direct firsthand evidence concerning these matters. It had no permanent representation in Eastern Europe, its activities were strictly circumscribed. In Germany it had to operate through the German Red Cross, but this was an unlikely source of information since those in charge of it, leading SS physicians, were hardly the kind of people to confide in the Swiss visitors. Still, the delegates of the IRC and its executives were not totally uninformed. They did travel, and some of them had excellent contacts high up in the German army and in German officialdom.
A key figure here was Carl Burckhardt, the “foreign minister” of the IRC, who hailed from a patrician Basel family. He had made a reputation for himself as a diplomat and historian, and a friend of literature and the arts. In October 1942, he told American diplomats that he too had heard about Hitler’s order. On November 7, he saw Paul Squire, the U.S. Consul in Geneva, and assured him that while he had not actually seen the order, he could confirm “privately and not for publication” that Hitler had signed an order in 1941 that before the end of 1942 Germany must be free of Jews. He had received this piece of information independently from two very well informed Germans, one a German foreign ministry official, the other someone inside the war ministry. Squire asked whether the word extermination was used; Burckhardt replied that the text said judenfrei—free of Jews—but since there was no place to send the Jews, and since the territory must be cleared, it was obvious what the result would be.
Burckhardt, then, could have been my source, but in this case the information would not have come by way of Sagalowitz, who hardly knew him personally. Burckhardt’s contact was through Professor Guggenheim.
There was yet another international organization in Geneva, smaller and less well known than the International Red Cross, and this was the World Council of Churches headed by Visser’t Hooft. Visser’t Hooft was a churchman and a Dutch patriot, and did what he could to help his country and its allies during the war. He himself could not travel in Nazi-occupied Europe but some of his closest collaborators did, among them Nils Ehrenstroem, a Swede, and Hans Schoenfeld, a German who had close contacts with the resistance. Visser’t Hooft knew early on about the fate of the Jews. In October 1941, he received extremely alarming reports about the mass deportations:
I must confess [he later wrote in his memoirs] that it took several months before the information received entered fully into my consciousness. That moment occurred when I heard a young Swiss businessman tell what he had seen with his own eyes during a business trip to Russia. He had been invited by German officers to be present at one of the mass killings of Jews. He told us in the most straightforward and realistic way how group after group of Jewish men, women, and children was forced to lie down in the mass graves and was then machine-gunned to death. . . . From that moment onward I had no longer any excuse for shutting my mind to information which could find no place in my view of the world and humanity.
Visser’t Hooft also received direct and indirect information from dissident elements within the German Protestant Church. One of them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who came to visit him from time to time in the guise of an agent of the Abwehr (a so-called V man). Admiral Canaris himself, the head of military intelligence, helped to smuggle a small group of Jewish friends to Switzerland during the war, in collaboration with the church. (These men and their families, to be sure, had converted to Protestantism, but they would have been sent to Auschwitz anyway.) The role of the World Council of Churches in these and other activities remains to be explored. It certainly was one of the channels of information, although probably not the one to Sagalowitz.
Sagalowitz was a writer and journalist. Perhaps the source had been another journalist? I received letters from two of my Swiss acquaintances, both now in retirement, who during the war had been in key positions at leading newspapers. One of them said he doubted he could help me but did remember having been visited in July 1942 by Ernst Lemmer, a newspaperman from Berlin who had discussed with him the fate of the Jews. The second letter also referred to Lemmer. By accident I discovered that the Swiss political police had also had its eye on Lemmer as a source of information and, possibly, disinformation.
Ernst Lemmer was not just a newspaperman from Berlin; he had played a role of some importance in German politics before 1933. As a very young man he had been one of the founding members of the Liberal Democratic party, and later, in 1924, he became the youngest member of the Reichstag. He was not a great speaker or charismatic leader but a man of charm and some organizational ability. He was also secretary general of the (non-socialist) German trade-union movement.
When Hitler came to power there was an extensive purge of politicians of the Weimar Republic but miraculously Lemmer was allowed to become a correspondent, not of course for German newspapers but for the foreign press. As an ex-liberal he was eminently suited to stress the moderate character and the positive achievements of Nazism. Lemmer worked for a Hungarian German-language daily, for Le Soir of Brussels (after the occupation of Belgium), and for some Swiss newspapers. His writings in these years, despite the absence of blatant propaganda, make for embarrassing reading; he had obviously made his peace with the regime, although he did not admire it.
The editor of a Swiss newspaper who visited Berlin in February 1941 told me recently that Lemmer had informed him that Yugoslavia and Greece would soon be occupied by German troops. This would be followed by the invasion of Africa, which would be completed by May. The Soviet Union would be invaded in June, and it would collapse in six weeks. “Dear friend,” Lemmer told his Swiss guest, “a German victory is unfortunately inevitable. . . .” When the Swiss editor retorted that England and America were still undefeated, Lemmer said that England hardly counted, and the Americans, being good businessmen, would surely realize the point of coming to terms with the Germans. Lemmer played a complicated double game. On the one hand, he would glorify German victories in Russia, on the other hand, he was often quite outspokenly critical of the Nazi regime in conversations with foreign visitors. I have it on the authority of a traveling companion of his that during a tour conducted by the ministry of propaganda to the Eastern front in late 1941, at an advanced hour and in a state of some drunkenness, Lemmer sang the Internationale in a loud voice, accompanying himself on the piano, much to the consternation of the attending Nazi dignitaries.
Lemmer had been one of the first to inform journalists and other acquaintances abroad about the Final Solution. He regularly spent his summer holidays in Switzerland during the war. In July 1942, he met several public figures in Zurich and told them about gas chambers, stationary and mobile, in which Jews were killed. Lemmer found it incomprehensible that the Allies kept silent and that no attempt was made to arouse world opinion. A leading Swiss journalist who heard Lemmer in July 1942 later summarized his impressions for me as follows:
He doubtless had the intention to inform me but was probably also guided by other motives. There was an overall strategy behind these approaches, namely, to provoke the Allies to become more strongly committed on behalf of the Jews despite the fact that they were powerless to do anything for them. German propaganda would have exploited this to the maximum: “British and American soldiers are fighting and dying to save the Jews!” The Nazis always believed that if only they could use the Jewish question as a bone of contention they would be able to undermine the fighting spirit of the British and American soldiers. Some German circles wanted to keep the Final Solution secret, while others on the contrary were interested for a number of devious reasons in informing the Allies.
Thus far my Swiss informant. Whether his interpretation is correct or not, it is certainly understandable that Lemmer was received in Switzerland with a great deal of suspicion. He was known, after all, as part of the German propaganda machine. As to his real motives there can be only speculation. He may have been genuinely shocked by the murder of the Jews; perhaps he knew that he was being used by his employers but reasoned that their own calculations were wrong and that it was essential to bring the Final Solution to the notice of neutrals and Allies alike, whatever the consequences.
This was not to be my only encounter with Lemmer in my investigations. As I tried to find out when the Hungarian government had first learned of the Final Solution, the experts told me that the earliest information was passed on by Sztojay, the Hungarian Ambassdador to Berlin (and a rabid anti-Semite) who told it to Gyorgi Ottlik, a visiting Hungarian parliamentarian, in August or September 1942. After his return to Budapest, Ottlik wrote a memorandum which he handed to the foreign ministry. According to Ottlik, Sztojay was all in favor of at least a token deportation of Jews to Poland, and while he did not define the Final Solution, he did not conceal its meaning either.
The Ottlik report left a number of unanswered questions. I was told that it was not Sztojay’s habit to use precise language in such delicate matters as the extermination of Jews; more important yet, Ottlik was not particularly close to the politics of the Berlin Ambassador. Ottlik had resigned in 1935 from the semi-official Budapesti Hirlap precisely because he resented the pro-German, pro-Italian line of the new Gombos government, of which Sztojay was a leading supporter. But this had been seven years earlier, and meanwhile Ottlik, a cautious pro-Westerner, had become editor-in-chief of the Pester Lloyd. The representative in Berlin of this German-language daily was none other than Ernst Lemmer. If Lemmer talked about the Final Solution to Swiss colleagues with whom he was not very intimate, it is likely that he talked about it with his own boss—four weeks after his return from Zurich.2
Lemmer resumed his political career after the war; he had never been a member of the Nazi party and he had, after all, a democratic past. One of the founders of the Christian Democratic party in the Eastern zone, he became its deputy chairman in 1947. Initially his relations with the Soviet authorities were not at all bad, but in the wake of the purge of 1948 he was deposed from the leadership of his party. He became the head of the Christian Democratic party in the regional West Berlin parliament, and from 1956 to 1965 served in the Bonn federal government as minister for communications and later for all-German questions. Before his death in 1970 he published an autobiography in which he referred neither to his warnings about the Final Solution—perhaps he had forgotten about them—nor to his activities in behalf of the Pester Lloyd. He did say, however, that it had been Nazi policy to use the media to sow distrust and dissension among the Allies. “Hitler’s enemies, after all, behaved in the same way.” Lemmer also wrote that neutral correspondents and even those from satellite countries were not taken in by such manipulations. Opportunist, resister, survivor—it is not easy to say with any certainty what Lemmer really believed at any given time. It was a case not at all untypical of the dangerous times in which he lived.
Now I knew that the warnings had come in 1942 from more than one source. But it had also emerged that neither Sommer nor Lemmer was the “industrialist” who had informed Sagalowitz and through him Riegner. It occurred to me that the industrialist must have needed a visa to go to Switzerland—but the files of the Swiss legation in Berlin had been destroyed. The Swiss were most helpful; I was, I believe, one of the first foreigners to be given the run of their state archives in Berne. But I was also told that the records of the border police no longer existed, the political police had opened some files about visitors but not others. Since I did not even know for whom I was looking I could not ask a more specific question, and I am not sure whether I would have been helped on an issue of such delicacy.
What other leads existed? There was a German Chamber of Commerce in Switzerland and it published reports and a periodical which showed that many hundreds of German firms had dealings with Switzerland during the war. Furthermore, there were mixed German-Swiss firms; some of the biggest enterprises had branches in Germany and vice versa. There was Bosch, the great electrical concern; some of its directors had been in contact with the German resistance, and had also been to Switzerland. There was the AEG and the aluminum combine, the Metallgesellschaft, the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nuernberg, and many others. I made a few inquiries in business circles and found them not always helpful; my investigation (they obviously feared) was likely to result in publicity of dubious value.
I then tried to find out more about the representatives of international Jewish institutions active at the time in Geneva and Zurich; perhaps one of them had known about the mystery man. Richard Lichtheim and Dr. Silberschein, who had been in charge of relations with Poland, were no longer alive. Dr. Pazner (Posner), as I have already mentioned, who had been in Geneva during the war and now lives in Jerusalem, at one time believed that Sommer had conveyed the information. I located a Nathan Schwalb in Switzerland; he had kept in touch with Jewish youth organizations all over occupied Europe during the war, and his correspondence of those years is thought to be a most important historical source. Unfortunately it is not yet accessible to historians. One day in New York I told the head of a Jewish institution about my search. He put me in touch with his father-in-law in Miami, Dr. Julius Kuehl. Dr. Kuehl had come to Switzerland from Poland to study economics in the late 1920’s and had married a local girl. During the war he was assistant to Alexander Lados, the Polish diplomatic envoy in Berne, and he also played ping-pong with Monsignor Bernardini. I talked to him at length and learned some details which were useful to my work in general, but about the industrialist he knew nothing.
I then retraced my steps. According to both Riegner and Sagalowitz, the German industrialist had provided information about Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union—Operation Barbarossa. Thanks to the painstaking research of Burton Whaley we now know that Stalin had warnings about the impending attack from at least eighty sources (and probably many more of which we will never know) but disregarded all of them. This most suspicious of political leaders detected imaginary dangers everywhere; facing real danger he was quite obtuse.
Had the industrialist been in touch with British or American intelligence? I thought British more probable; the OSS did not even exist in early 1941. (There was a third and a fourth possibility but they did not occur to me until much later.) The SIS (Special Intelligence Service) was the British agency most likely to have been involved; the names of its representatives in wartime Switzerland are known but they have not so far published their memoirs. A mass of British documents on World War II has been released during the last year or two and is now available in the Public Record Office at Kew. It is housed in a spacious place, but the relevant material is not easy to locate. Sensitive information has been carefully weeded out; some will be released only after the year 2000, some will probably never be accessible or has been destroyed. True, even the most conscientious censors are likely to commit an oversight from time to time. I have benefited from a few, but there have not been very many.
Another significant source of information is the first volume of the official history of British intelligence in World War II published last year; it goes up to June 1941. (The second volume, for my purposes of even greater interest, seems to have been postponed because someone in the British cabinet office has raised objections to the publication of certain material.) Volume one reports that an SIS operative in Geneva had indeed received a warning in March 1941 that the invasion of the Soviet Union would take place on or about May 20. This was close enough—the invasion in fact took place on June 21, but only because Hitler’s timetable had been upset. But the history does not mention names, certainly not names hitherto unknown, and there is no way of finding out who in Geneva provided this interesting information.
I did not expect to find much of importance for the purpose of my study in the National Archives in Washington. But by mere chance I came across a memorandum written by L.H. (Leland Harrison), the American Ambassador in Berne, one of the three (or four) people who had known the identity of the industrialist. The memorandum dealt with one Sam Woods, Consul General in Zurich. The memo, probably written for the benefit of Allen Dulles, said that Woods had been visited by a German citizen, one Schweizer (a cover name, Woods had forgotten his real name). Schweizer called on Woods ostensibly to discuss a patent but really to find out why a commercial attaché (for such was Woods’s function) should have the rank of a Consul General.
Schweizer had been an air-force officer in World War I and was married to a Swiss woman. He came to see Woods again, and again his questions seemed somewhat unusual. Schweizer’s boss, a Dr. Gerdes, head of the Pinch factory in Berlin (“not a member of the Nazi party, married to a Russian lady”), also happened to be in Zurich at the time. The Pinch factory (Woods wrote) was working on a counter to the submarine detector. Woods had also been visited by Hans Herjquist from Hamburg, Baroness Rothkirchen, a Mr. Kurzhals, and others. They all wanted to know the reasons for his appointment to Zurich.
Consul General Woods was clearly a popular man, but even so his many contacts with German citizens in the middle of the war seemed extraordinary. But as I soon discovered, Sam Edison Woods was an unusual case. He was fifty at the time, a native of Starrville, Texas, the son of a lumberman and mill operator. He had been educated in small colleges in Indiana, Wisconsin, and for a year at MIT, served in the aviation section of the Marine Corps in World War I, and then worked (as a civilian) for the U.S. army in Czechoslovakia. He also constructed and supervised playgrounds for the Czech government. Then he returned to the U.S. as supervisor of rehabilitation for the Mississippi Department of Education. In 1929 he joined the State Department and was made assistant grade commissioner and later commercial attaché in Czechoslovakia. He left Prague in 1937 and for the next four years was commercial attaché in Berlin. He traveled a great deal, for he also served as supervisor of the foreign establishments of the Department of Commerce.
I asked three of Sam Woods’s contemporaries at the Berlin embassy, George Kennan and Jacob Beam (both future Ambassadors to Moscow) and Francis Cunningham, what they remembered of him. He certainly was not an intellectual, Kennan said, which if anything was an understatement. If he knew any German, he did not know much. Others told me that he created the impression of having not the slightest interest in politics. Yet the backwoodsman from Texas was the most successful U.S. intelligence collector during World War II.
One contact whom Woods used to meet in a darkened Berlin cinema gave him detailed information about the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion—the invasion of Great Britain—and about the preparation of the attack against the Soviet Union. The material included a copy of Hitler’s “Directive Twenty One,” the details of the strategic plans for Operation Barbarossa. This was passed on to Washington where Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State, called it “the most important document that has arrived in the Department of State, certainly since the war began.” (Long was to play an unfortunate role suppressing information from Riegner and others about the Holocaust.) The document was taken by Cordell Hull to President Roosevelt after Hermann Bruening, the former German Chancellor, had vouched for its authenticity. The British were informed and eventually also Stalin—who did not, of course, believe it, regarding it as just another Anglo-American fabrication to stir up bad blood between him and the Germans.
Woods was acting on his own initiative; there was no U.S. intelligence service at the time, and the chargé d’affaires did not encourage political reporting. Even Woods’s closest colleagues were not aware of his activities. One of his main informants was Herwarth von Bittenfeld, a young diplomat who had joined the army in 1939, and was to serve his country after the war as Ambassador to Britain.3 There were others, such as Dr. Erwin Respondek, a figure about whom much less is known. All I could find out about him is that he was born in 1894, studied economics, became an expert on European trade and reparations worked for a while in the foreign ministry and for a short while represented the Catholic Center party in the Reichstag. In 1940 he was employed by the German mint and thus was told early on about the need to print occupation money for Russia.
When, after Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war, the U.S. embassy was closed down, Woods and his diplomatic colleagues were detained for several months in Bad Nauheim, a German spa. After the diplomats had been exchanged via Lisbon, Woods was reassigned to Zurich and almost immediately resumed his contacts with German acquaintances. Astonishing messages arrived at the State Department. He was the first to report the magnetic bomb and the trailer-transport airplane, and in May 1943 he informed the State Department “about a German process—it seems now more than an experiment—to use uranium powder in connection with split atoms in a compound explosive of alleged incredible violence. Woods is reporting on it and following it as closely as he is able” (Long, War Diary for May 19, 1943). This was the first time the State Department heard about uranium from any source, and it “looked askance” at the report, just as it had the year before on the report about the Jews. General Strong of military intelligence, who was called in for consultation, was “immediately and seriously interested,” however. Vannevar Bush was also consulted, and Woods was sent a top-priority cable to find out as much as he could.
What happened next is not entirely clear to this day. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Woods supplied information which led to the destruction of the “heavy-water plant at Peenemuende” by the RAF, thus preventing Germany from continuing its researches into atomic science and halting the German atomic-bomb project. But the German bomb had been given low priority by Hitler in any case, and while Peenemuende was a key plant for missiles, it had nothing to do with atomic research. Information about Peenemuende had come from various sources such as a Danish engineer and the famous “Oslo report,” which was conveyed to the Allies from a source still unknown. Sam Woods may have been one of these sources but even this is not certain.
The exceptional consul did play a leading role in getting several hundred U.S. airmen out of Switzerland. They were interned in a camp near Lucerne, and would call him by twos and threes from a nearby phone booth, announcing themselves as alumni of Washington University. Woods would drive to Lucerne, go to a church, take a seat in the rear, pray, cough, drop a handkerchief as a sign of identification, walk out, and the pilots would follow him. He would then drive them to Zurich in his car, put them up in his apartment or a private hospital rented for this purpose. Then they would be supplied with forged papers and leave Switzerland. This was in 1944 and it can be taken for granted that the Swiss police were looking the other way.
As I went over the extraordinary career of Sam Woods it emerged that members of the U.S. embassy in Berlin had had contacts with the German Jewish community to the very end. But German Jews did not know about the Final Solution at the time. How much did those at the embassy know? The diplomats (to cite George Kennan) assumed that those who were deported were facing conditions of confinement which a great many of them could not be expected to survive. They did not know that they faced deliberate wholesale murder. But there was also information about massacres affecting hundreds of thousands. U.S. correspondents in Berlin, such as Fred Oechsner, head of the United Press bureau, were taken to the Russian front by the German army; from Oechsner’s dispatches from Odessa a picture of mass murder emerges. It is unlikely that Oechsner would have failed to inform his colleagues after his return to Berlin. Nor was he the only source. W. Russell (who knew Woods well) mentions that he received photographs of groups of Jews about to be executed, forced to dig their own graves. After Pearl Harbor, Oechsner went to Washington and joined OSS. (One of his first recruits was a young newspaperman named Richard Helms, who had worked under him for United Press in Berlin.)
The story of Sam Woods, who died in Munich in 1953, has not been written and perhaps never will be, because the consul did not believe in making notes or leaving records. More information about his astonishing contacts will undoubtedly surface in time, and this may also shed light on what he knew about the fate of the Jews. That he knew earlier than most seems beyond reasonable doubt: but whether he and his superiors attributed importance to the news is a different question altogether.
The preoccupation with Sam Woods seemed to be of no help in my search for the “industrialist.” But this case demonstrated again how much information had been collected and passed along not by professional agents but by freelance volunteers who did not belong to any organization. If so, it seemed possible that the story of the industrialist was not a cover, that he really existed, but that neither his colleagues nor perhaps even his family knew about his secret activities. And was it not also possible that the identification which Riegner had conveyed to his superiors in America and which they had mistakenly published somehow escaped the attention of the Gestapo, which was after all far from omniscient? But this would mean that it would be all the more difficult to identify him, simply because he had confided in no one but his few contacts abroad, of whom all but one were no longer alive.
One item in Riegner’s account had bothered me from the beginning. The industrialist was said to have employed 30,000 workers in his factory. This was not impossible. There were a few enterprises of that magnitude in Germany: Siemens, AEG, Bosch, and some metal and chemical factories. But it was unlikely that the owner or chief manager of one of these would visit Switzerland several times a year. How could such frequent trips be justified? Switzerland did not supply essential raw materials to Germany, nor was there much export trade from Germany. The enterprise, rather, would have had to be smaller; the emphasis on the thousands of workers employed meant that the name of the factory was not a household word.
In what kind of industry was the chief executive likely to hear state secrets? Hardly in a firm producing soup extracts, sewing machines, or even pharmaceuticals. More likely in heavy industry (but there was not much of that in Switzerland), perhaps in chemicals or precision instruments. But this was no more than speculation. Anyone with friends in high places might have been told the news by July 1942, and some in fact did hear by accident. There was the case of Guenther Prey, another industrialist, who discovered by chance in Danzig in early 1942 that Jews were being killed by gassing.4 In short, it could have been almost anyone. And if, as it seemed, he had kept silent after the war, I would probably never find him.
Then it occurred to me that there had been yet another man, whom I had forgotten: the original go-between with Sagalowitz. Who was he and why had he kept silent? Switzerland is a small country. The unknown man in the middle was a Swiss citizen, and if the industrialist had provided important information before, chances are that he had informed the Swiss authorities. Or had he perhaps been acting on their behalf in the first place? Equally, it would have been Sagalowitz’s duty to inform Swiss intelligence about his contacts with foreigners; this was, after all, the proper thing for a loyal citizen to do in 1942.
But this reasoning did not get me far; the Swiss are no more in the habit of revealing their secrets than are other nations. But there are always leaks, and in the course of my search I came across a little book which seemed at first unpromising.
The author, Sergeant Mueller, was a noncommissioned officer in Swiss army intelligence who had been in business in Berlin up to 1940. He had many contacts with Germans but soon quarrelled with his superiors, who begrudged him his success. Twenty years after the war, Sergeant Mueller published his recollections, mentioning many of his sources without, however, identifying them by name. But among these descriptions of German visitors to wartime Switzerland it was not difficult to recognize some of those I had already encountered on previous occasions. Certain embellishments and exaggerations apart, the book seemed authentic. It seemed likely that Sergeant Mueller had been in touch with my industrialist.
Before proceeding with my investigations I tried to find out more about Sergeant Mueller, who had signed his reports “Qn.” How reliable was he? I was aware by now that in this murky world, facts were seldom straightforward, and answers usually raised new questions. It did not take long to find out that “Qn” had been a reliable source indeed, only that his name was not Mueller, but Dr. Johann Conrad Meyer, the economic correspondent of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Berlin from 1936 up to the time the Nazis asked him to leave, in March 1940. He had taken a degree in public law from Leipzig University in 1931 with a dissertation on the legal position of Basel in the Swiss confederation in the Middle Ages. But subsequently his interest shifted to more topical concerns; he became a journalist and still later an economic consultant.
Dr. Meyer died in the late 60’s. The book of his reminiscences had been written by an acquaintance, Kurt Emmenegger, also of Zurich. Should one make a search among his papers? Emmenegger had his doubts, for Meyer had not been in the habit of putting on paper the names of his sources. But there was an even weightier reason; after Meyer’s death the Swiss police had seized his files and removed them to Berne. Then I received a piece of information which, while very intriguing, confused the whole issue even further. Dr. Meyer had signed his reports not “Qn” but “Sx,” and this, I was told, stood for SIMEX, a somewhat unusual name which sounded more like a firm than an individual. It was indeed the name of a corporation, albeit a spurious one, the bogus enterprise established by the Rote Kapelle (“Red Orchestra”) during the war in Paris and Brussels as a cover for its activities.
The Rote Kapelle did not engage in music but was the most important Soviet spy ring in Europe during World War II. Dr. Meyer, I was told, had confirmed in conversation that some of his informants had also been in contact with the Rote Kapelle. Meyer himself, I learned from another source, had been in touch with Alexander Rado and Otto Puender, who had been running the Soviet intelligence network in Switzerland during the war.
These were interesting new perspectives, but there was now the danger that I would get lost in the byways of international intelligence networks. More than once I did in fact get lost, believing that I had at long last located my industrialist only to realize that I had followed a false trail. I tried to imagine the kind of man who would accept the great risk of passing on such dangerous information in wartime. Obviously, he had to have been a man of firm beliefs, deeply convinced of the evil character of the Nazi regime, repelled by its inhuman actions. Would he have made a secret of his convictions? Possibly, but there was no certainty. I thought of him as a man who had seen a great deal of the world, and was in a position to compare, but also a person unlikely to attract attention, someone about whom even his closest collaborators, when faced with the evidence would say: “Old S. could never have done it. . . . True, he made a critical remark from time to time, but didn’t we all?”
How had he heard about Hitler’s decision? There were many possibilities. At the first and second Final Solution conferences (January and March 1942) representatives not only of the SS but also of the Four Year Plan Office, some of them quite lowly, had participated. Perhaps one of them was a friend or an acquaintance. Equally, it could have been someone high up in the railway office; by July 1942 many had been told, because major preparations were involved in the organizing of the Final Solution. The information could have come from a colleague charged with the management of industry in the occupied territories in the East. Perhaps the industrialist had himself recently visited Poland or perhaps a relative or friend serving in the army had told him what he had seen in the East, as many did at the time. Or perhaps the information came from inside the Berlin bureaucracy.
In my search I had found at least a half-dozen Germans who had come to Switzerland in the summer of 1942 and talked to friends and acquaintances about the fate of the Jews. Of the total, Sommer got his information from the Abwehr, Lemmer from the ministry of propaganda and also through other channels. But they had not been the ones who passsed the news on to Sagalowitz and Riegner. Nor had the information come from the Schoellers, a clan of industrialists whose name had come up frequently in my investigations.
The case of the Schoellers is intriguing. Their ancestor had been a pioneer of the industrial revolution in the Rhineland; by the 1920’s, the family interests had spread to East Germany and comprised paper and carpets as well as sugar. Ewald Schoeller, among other things, was made honorary chief administrator of Meyer Kaufman, once the largest Jewish textile factory, which had been “Aryanized.” Ewald frequently came to Switzerland to meet with the Swiss branch of the family. Leo Schoeller, who ran the carpet factory in the Rhineland, had been born in Zurich and for a while even acted as Swiss Consul General. Though they did not contact Sagalowitz, I have been assured on excellent authority that one of them did pass on important information to Jewish friends in Zurich throughout the war and was in touch with Dr. Meyer—“Qn.”
Such contacts were by no means uncommon. This led me to another family of German nationality, the von Selves. Walther von Selve also came from a family of industrialists of long standing; their metal works in Altena in Westphalia were among the leading in the field. Walther, born in 1876, was a racer of cars, motorcycles, and speedboats well before the turn of the century, and for two years traveled around the world. In 1911, he became general manager of the family business, which by then included also the Swiss metal works in Thun, not far from Berne. The year before, in 1910, he had married Else Wieland, the daughter of Philip Wieland and Lydia Sulzer. These facts are of some importance: both Wieland and Sulzer are names well-known in the German (and Swiss) metal industry.
Lydia von Selve’s father, Philip Wieland, an Ulm industrialist, was active in politics. Following the liberal tradition of Southwest Germany he joined the German Liberal (later Democratic, still later State) party and represented it in the Reichstag from 1919 to 1930. This was a Left-of-Center party; its enemies called it the “Jew party.” Philip Wieland, who died in Thun in 1948, and many Jewish friends and acquaintances. Lydia von Selve, his daughter, also had pronounced democratic sympathies, and it is possible that it was with one of the members of this family that the message which reached Sagalowitz originated. They commuted between Altena and Thun, and since their factory produced ammunition during the war they had connections with military and political circles.5 Old Philip Wieland was a member of the board of the central German bank, and his son-in-law Walther was on the board of several concerns specializing in the production of arms and explosives. Again I have it on good authority that they did not make a secret of what they saw and heard in Germany.
But there were other leads yet. In the course of my search an “Ascona connection” obtruded time and again. Ascona, the beautiful resort next to Lugano, was in those days smaller and less famous than now, but some very prominent German industrialists had taken residence there well before the war. One was Carl Ferdinand von Stumm, who belonged to a dynasty which was among the most influential in German heavy industry. Von Stumm senior had been a right-wing conservative; his son Carl Ferdinand, who had studied in Oxford and Geneva, and served as a diplomat in various capitals, was of more liberal persuasion.
Even more intriguing is the case of Edmund Stinnes, another Ascona resident. His father had been Germany’s wealthiest and most important industrialist up to the time of his death in 1924. After that the Stinnes empire, divided among the sons, declined in importance. Edmund, the eldest son and the intellectual in the family, devoted relatively little time to his industrial interests but he still continued to be a director of the Vienna Montan Union and other enterprises. Here too the family connections are of interest. Edmund Stinnes was married to Margiana von Schulze-Gaevernitz, the daughter of one of the leading professors of political economy of the day. Her brother Gero went to America and became head of the Atlantic and Pacific Investment Trust in New York; during the war Gero lived in Ascona and when he was not there he acted as Allen Dulles’s right-hand man in Berne. Edmund Stinnes himself was probably not my man—from 1942 to the end of the war he was teaching at Haverford College in Pennsylvania—but a business friend of one of the members of the Ascona-Lugano German colony may have been.
Finally, one connection which bears further exploration concerns a family which represented the leading international fat and oil trust in Germany. This family had factories all over Germany, Austria, the “Protectorate,” Switzerland, and Eastern Europe, and some of its members, too, were inveterate travelers.
Much evidence points in the direction of one or another of these people. But it cannot be proved beyond a doubt for, to the best of my knowledge, all the potential informants are now dead, and none confided in me.
Even though my search proved finally inconclusive, had I not undertaken it I would have missed much that was of importance in the transmission of the news about the Final Solution. My search showed above all that knowledge of Hitler’s “secret” decision was more widespread than I had thought. If Sagalowitz heard the terrible news from one source, others had it from different contacts. Like Abraham, I went out “not knowing whither I went,” and by a circuitous route I arrived in uncharted territory, full of surprises.
1 I am following, more or less, Salin's account written after the war. Salin died in Basel in 1974. He may not have known everything about his friend Sommer, who apparently forgot to tell him that he remained a member of the Nazi party after the “misunderstanding” of 1933. But this is of no great importance in the present context.
2 Following my investigation into Ottlik I learned that this was by no means the first time that official Budapest had been told about the fate of the Jews. The earliest information arrived, in fact, six weeks after the Wannsee Conference (in March 1942). But this is another story.
3 Von Bittenfeld had joined the diplomatic service in 1927. He served as Second Secretary in Moscow in 1939 and kept the Americans regularly informed about the progress of the Nazi-Soviet rapprochement in spring and summer of that year. According to Charles Bohlen, who was his main contact in the U.S. embassy, Von Bittenfeld (“Johnny”) was one-quarter Jewish and an early member of the anti-Hitler resistance (“A Source in the Nazi Embassy,” in C. Bohlen, Witness to History, 1973).
4 This is mentioned in Louis de Jong's magisterial study, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de tweede Wereidoorlog, Vol. 7, Part 1, Hague, 1976.
5 There was also an interesting political connection with Siemens, the great German electricity corporation, which remains to be explored. Siemens had factories in Switzerland; they employed 2,000 involuntary Jewish workers in 1942.