Monday, November 26, 2012

Walter Schellenberg: SS Spymaster Genius or Total Putz

There is something about SS Spymaster Walter Schellenberg that sets him apart from most of the other Nazi bigwigs. He's a lot like Albert Speer in that what's at stake isn't so much what he was, as much as what we need to see him as. Speer is often seen as "the nice Nazi," Schellenberg is a little different from that. Nobody needs to see him as "nice," but there is still this tendency to perceive him as different from all the other evil, knee-jerk, cardboard character Nazi baddies. Unlike all the others, Schellenberg is almost someone we can relate to.

Anyone who reads spy/intrigue/thriller fiction set in Nazi Germany during World War II probably will have encountered Walter Schellenberg at least a dozen times. In whatever particular story you're reading, he's the SS spy chief, whom the protagonist meets just after the first or second plot twist. He's the SS general who is not an evil Nazi ogre, nor is he the smooth, worldly and cultured Nazi who turns out to be utterly twisted. No, Schellenberg is the apparently rational, highly competent, non-fanatic spymaster who has a unique proposition for the protagonist which usually involves him working together with a German opposite number with whom he has much in common, and might ultimately consider a friend until the final reel, when he kills him, or doesn't because it turns out he's actually Jewish or something else in keeping with the genre. 

Whatever the case, Schellenberg is the one hoping to cut a deal, because, unlike all the other die-hard fanatics, he actually grasped the ugly reality of the situation Germany had put itself into. And in this sense alone, the Walter Schellenberg of popular literature did resemble the Walter Schellenberg of reality.  He was the SS Spy Chief who was desperately trying to engineer a peace deal between Nazi Germany and the West. He'd probably had some low-level discussions going on via intermediaries as early as 1942 in places like Lisbon. But in the Spring of 1945, the writing was on the wall for anyone who wasn't totally deluded. At this point, Schellenberg had much higher level discussions going on with the Western Allies in Stockholm. They weren't actual peace negotiations as much as they were an ongoing prelude to peace talks, and they were permanently snagged on one big point.  The Allied representatives made it clear to Schellenberg that there couldn't be any real discussions unless Hitler was removed from office. He could be deposed, assassinated, arrested, or merely persuaded to step down. But until that happened, there could be nothing.

It was a reasonable precondition to peace discussions. The problem was, that Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler, the man Schellenberg hoped would be an acceptable alternative to Hitler, was a hopeless waffler. As much as Himmler believed he ought to be the man who'd lead Nazi Germany into a Grand Alliance with the West against Russia, he couldn't quite bring himself to actually confront Hitler or move against him. It is also at this point where the whole mythology of SS General Walter Schellenberg, the cooly competent spymaster, collapses into slapstick comedy.

Schellenberg wasn't particularly different from the horde of ambitious young men who found their way into the Nazi Party and then the SS in the period immediately following Hitler's ascendency to power in 1933. He'd gone to university first studying medicine, then switching to law. Presumably Schellenberg became a Nazi not out of any grand conviction, but because that was where the opportunity was. He joined the SS and found his way into the counter-intelligence branch of the SD, the SS's burgeoning security apparatus, which was already a confusing mass of departments and sections all vying against each other for power. Luckily for Schellenberg, he was able to attach himself to another rising star, Reinhardt Heydrich.

But what really insured his rise above all the competition was one supremely ballsy feat, which he pulled off early in the war. He got through to some top-level British intelligence officials operating in then still-neutral Holland and created for them the impression that there was a group of discontented German Army officers who might be convinced to depose the Fuhrer. A number of meetings took place and everything seemed to be going positively as far as the Brits were concerned. Another meeting was arranged, this time at the tables outside a cafe in Venlo, a Dutch town, just across the German border. The two British officers were there along with a Dutch colleague. This time one of the disaffected Wehrmacht officers was actually an SS Major named Schellenberg. The trap was sprung, a gunfight ensued and the next thing anyone knew, the Dutch agent was shot dead, and the two British officers had been whisked across the border and into German imprisonment. Not long after that, Schellenberg was made head of SS foreign intelligence.

But despite all the hype, Schellenberg's performance as a spymaster wasn't actually anything great. Most of what he knew about the spy business came from all the cheap, pulpy spy novels he'd read. It wasn't entirely his fault. As much as Germany might have had a long history as a police state, when it came to foreign intelligence, all their continual regime changing meant they were perpetually stuck re-inventing the wheel.  By comparison, Britain's foreign intelligence apparatus went back all the way to Queen Elizabeth I with probably very little in the way of interruption. The closest thing Germany had to a real intelligence service was the Abwehr, but since their chief, Admiral Canaris, was actively involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, he wasn't terribly inclined to serve as much of a mentor to Schellenberg. With nothing but proto-James Bond novels for guidance, Schellenberg built his version of a spy service with more emphasis on honey traps and flashy gadgets than on an actual foundation of spycraft. To show off his incredible amateurishness, Schellenberg's great pride was his desk, which he had equipped with hidden guns aimed out the front which he could fire with the touch of a button.

There is an old saying about people rising to their level of incompetence. For Schellenberg, it came in the aftermath of the failed, July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler. Having been discovered among the conspirators, Canaris was arrested, and eventually executed, and the Abwehr and all the other German foreign intelligence agencies were rolled up, combined and put under Schellenberg's control.

With all the information he now had access to, Schellenberg ought to have seen the writing on the wall and correctly concluded that Germany's situation was now hopeless and that the only possible course of action was unconditional surrender. But Schellenberg was an incorrigible optimist, not a good quality for an intelligence officer. Despite everything, he remained convinced not only that the West would be willing to effect a separate peace with Germany and join with them against the Soviets, but possibly, most ridiculous of all, Schellenberg believed they would accept Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler as an ally and partner in a new Grand Alliance. Even though Schellenberg was himself quite aware of  Himmler's role carrying out the wholescale murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and others, he still assumed Eisenhower and the other Western leaders would blithely overlook it all in the interests of defeating the Soviets.

But perhaps, craziest of all was believing that his boss, Heinrich Himmler, was capable of standing up to Hitler, let alone moving against him. The fact was that, despite his cold efficiency and utter remorselessness in carrying out Hitler's orders, Himmler was completely incapable of acting on his own. With Himmler, as with many of the top Nazis, there was an odd sort of anti-darwinism in play.  He became one of the most powerful men in Europe largely because he never once made any decisions on his own.

The Nazis believed in the Law of the Jungle and to them, the "Fuhrer-Prinzip" was an extension of this natural law. They accepted its harshness, and though they would never discuss it, there was an implicit understanding that even a supremely great leader like Adolf Hitler would ultimately get replaced, the same way any lion-king would have to give way to a younger, more powerful successor.  Hitler might have initially led Germany to many great victories, but now the victories had all turned to disaster and he'd shown he was incapable of doing anything to stop it.  Being the one with the most power, it was now Himmler's time to step to the fore and take over. But even if Himmler did have the power, he didn't have the will.

It went on like this until late April, 1945, when the Red Army was just hours from closing the ring on Berlin. Only then did Himmler make his move. On the last commercial flight into Berlin from Stockholm, Schellenberg brought down their longtime intermediary, Count Folke Bernadotte, the head of the Swedish Red Cross, along with Norbert Masur, from the World Jewish Congress. After promising to Masur that no more Jews would be harmed or moved, Himmler extended his hand to Masur, declaring that he was now taking charge and that it was time for the SS and the Jews to "bury the hatchet."   Masur did as he was asked, and soon after that they returned to Stockholm.  Bernadotte immediately sent word to Western intelligence that Himmler would be taking over from Hitler and that negotiations could now finally begin.

With Hitler stuck in Berlin, all but dead, and the war all but over, Himmler and Schellenberg settled down in Luebeck, a small city in northern Germany, and while they waited for Eisenhower to get back with them, they began happily planning their role in what would soon be a new world order. In a way, it must have been a wonderful time. Each day saw visits from former Nazi bigwigs that had managed to get out of Berlin, now angling for top jobs in Himmler's administration. Schellenberg had convinced Himmler that it was just a matter of time before he would be accepted by Eisenhower as a key new ally. Himmler liked the way that sounded. It all seemed so nice, that Schellenberg probably was believing it himself.

The problem was, Himmler kept his coup a secret and Hitler only learned about it a week later, when word of it got publicly announced at the United Nations conference in San Francisco. Hitler, who at that point was already on the verge of blowing his brains out, held off just long enough to denounce the treachery of the man he'd always called his "Faithful Heinrich," and strip him of all offices, ranks and party membership. To stick the knife deeper, Hitler then named Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, head of the Navy, as his successor, and having done that, went ahead and committed suicide.

Thus began Heinrich Himmler's steep decline and fall. That night Doenitz took the unprecenteded step of ordering Himmler to his headquarters in Ploen, in Northern Germany, where he bluntly informed him that he, not Himmler, was the new head of state, and even if they did not know at that moment whether Hitler was dead or alive, Himmler would be following Doenitz' orders.  Himmler was shocked, but even so, recovered quickly enough to ask the Grand Admiral to make him the "Second Man" in his government.  Doenitz coldly responded that this would not be the case, since, as he explained, he planned on setting up a government that was less overtly political in nature.  The real reason was that Doenitz, as a soldier, could not countenance Himmler's duplicity. He'd witnessed it first hand,  having had to visit the Reichsfuhrer's headquarters twice earlier that day. Doenitz also didn't bother raising the question of Hitler's firing of Himmler, figuring he'd cross that bridge later.

The next day, at the behest of Schellenberg, Himmler returned to Doenitz' headquarters in a last desperate attempt to wheedle a post in the new administration. This time Schellenberg went with him, along with the current Finance Minister, Schwerin von Krosigk. Von Krosigk had been a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford thirty-five years earlier and even though he had not been in England or anywhere abroad since, they touted him as a foreign affairs expert. Over lunch, Doenitz rejected Himmler's entreaties, though he did make Schwerin von Krosigk his foreign minister.  A couple days later Himmler received official notification that he had been removed from all offices. By then he had gone from one of the most powerful men in Europe into a kind of living ghost. For the next three weeks he drifted about. His empire evaporated around him until it was just a small handful of followers.  Schellenberg, it appears, was not among them.

Schellenberg also became a ghost, although of a much different sort. While the history books do tell us that Doenitz made Schwerin von Krosigk his Foreign Minister at the same time that he told Himmler to take a hike, they leave out Schellenberg, who was also at the meeting. Officially, nothing happened. Nothing in the official records of the Doenitz Government indicates he was given any kind of post. But one extremely controversial writer, forensic doctor and historian Hugh Thomas, alleges that Schellenberg was then provided with a diplomatic passport, the first issued by the Doenitz regime. He then traveled to Stockholm where he met again with Bernadotte and it was further alleged, British Intelligence officers, including Anthony Blunt, who, years later, was revealed to be a Soviet mole.

It's not known when it finally dawned on Schellenberg that the talks he'd been having with Allied representatives and intermediaries were not going to actually come to anything. One of the last images he presents in his memoir, The Labyrinth, was of leaving Stockholm and arriving in Copenhagen, where the Danes, mistaking him for one of the liberators, greeted his car with joyousness. If he ever reported back to Doenitz, who'd set up his short-lived government at the naval academy in Flensburg on the Danish border, no one knows. But if he did, he didn't stick around very long.

What had probably happened during his lunchtime meeting with Doenitz, was that Schellenberg painted a version of the same optimistic picture he'd been painting for Himmler. He probably insisted that the Western Allies would be agreeable to a peace deal, especially since the negotiations, which were already underway, were going so well. Of course these were the same negotiations, which, Himmler had insisted only the day before, were nothing but a piece of Allied disinformation. Once it became clear to Doenitz that the peace talks actually did exist and that they were making solid progress, he probably gave Schellenberg permission to go back to Stockholm and continue them. Doenitz was the first to admit, he knew nothing whatsoever about international politics. Since Schellenberg had been the Reich's top foreign intelligence official, he assumed he must know what he was talking about.

Of course the actual fact was, despite everybody's claims to the contrary and otherwise, the peacetalks had never actually started. The Western Allies weren't interested in discussing anything with the Germans other than an unconditonal surrender, which is what Doenitz ultimately found out when he sent delegations, first to British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery in Luneburg, then to Eisenhower in Rheims and finally to the Russians in Berlin. He probably had little interest in hearing what Germany's spymaster had to say after that.

When Doenitz's pathetic little government finally got arrested and rolled up on May 23, 1945, Schellenberg was in Denmark. It wasn't until sometime in June that he finally got tracked down and taken into custody. It was the British that took him prisoner and, interestingly, they would not let the Americans talk to him for a long time, which has led some to suspect that British discussions with the the SS leadership were far more extensive than the British have ever acknowledged.  The one American intelligence officer who did interview Schellenberg was a onetime Hollywood actor named Horace L. Hahn.

Schellenberg's postwar career wasn't much to speak of. He cooperated with Allied prosecutors and testified against various top Nazis at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials and was himself sentenced to six years imprisonment.  He was let out early for health reasons.  He managed to write his memoirs, which were extremely interesting without being overly frank or confessional. It has been continually in print over the years. He died in 1952, soon after completing it.  He had contracted some mysterious liver ailment, which many suspected might have been the result of an exotic poison which he'd been given. Although he was only 42 when he died, by all accounts he looked like a very old man.

But what died was only Schellenberg the man. As long as Nazi Germany continues as a subject for spy fiction and thrillers, Schellenberg the fictional spymaster and worthy enemy will probably outlive us all.

Walter Schellenberg is also a major character in my novel Germania (first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).


  1. I read Schellenberg's memoir about 1957, a fascinating look into the Third Reich. Other sources reveal that the disunity among the top Nazis was huge, so I suspect Schellenberg had good reason to prepare his desk for, say, an Afternoon of the Long Knives. Himmler strikes me as a guy who wanted to keep all his options open, an unworkable strategy when events are moving that swiftly. I believe he knew of Valkyrie, but withheld it from Hitler. Schellenberg's description of him is memorable "...with eyes like a basilisk." I think I have to read Germania...

  2. Hi, J Guenther, I felt a strong need to write this contrrian assessment of Schellenberg. I think people (writers like myself) have a lot invested in the idea of him being extremely competent. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. He had no background in the business before getting the post. Whatever the case, he was hitched to Himmler. It is a very interesting idea that Himmler might have known about Valkyrie. I don't have an opinion either way, but I wished I'd thought of it! I hope you give Germania a try. The e-book version is cheap. There are hardback copies out there that don't cost much either. Cheers.

  3. Speaking of staff vacancies at the end of the war, I remember reading (where I am sorry to say, I can't remember) an anecdote about the short-lived Doenitz regime and Joachim Ribbentrop (I get the impression that the "von" was not legitimate and was self-supplied) Doenitz informed Ribbentrop that his services (such as they were) as Foreign Minister were no longer required. Ribbentrop objected but was informed that the decision was final. However Doenitz asked Ribbentrop to suggest a qualified successor for the post. Ribbentrop assured him that he'd think about it very carefully and supply Doenitz with such a recommendation later that day.

    Sometime later Doernitz recieved a phone call from the former foreign minister who said that after careful consideration of all potential successors,he could, in good conscience recommend only one person qualified for the job. That person would be himself, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

    I don't have a source for this story.It doesn't seem unlikely, though. There is nothing funny about the wretched Third Reich and it's contemptible leadership, but this story does have a certain morbid value.