Karl Wolff: Peacemaker, Mass Murderer, or Both?

The SS normal was eager to finish the battle in Europe. However did he ever really perceive and acknowledge his complicity within the Third Reich?

DURING WORLD WAR II, direct contact between Nazi and Allied leaders was vanishingly uncommon. Two significantly dramatic exceptions occurred simply earlier than turning factors within the battle, each aimed toward brokering a peace settlement. Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess made the best-known such contact, a 12 months and a half into the preventing. The second, coming close to the battle’s finish and much much less remembered, was the work of an SS normal named Karl Wolff, who invoked Hess, and left a bunch of troubling—and still-unsettled—questions in his wake.

In Could 1941, as Germany was making ready to invade Russia, Hess secretly strapped himself right into a Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter-bomber, flew quick and low underneath the radar from Germany to Scotland, and parachuted very close to his goal, the property of the Duke of Hamilton. His plan was for the duke—whom Hess claimed to have met on the 1936 Olympics—to place him in contact with the king, who in flip would prepare peace between Britain and Germany, permitting Hitler to deal with the East.

Nobody appreciated Hess’s honest however delusional gesture. The duke claimed he didn’t bear in mind assembly Hess. Even when they did meet, hardly anybody in England, the duke and king included, was keen to make peace with Hitler—who himself was unwilling to let anybody else make international coverage. When instructed about Hess’s enterprise, Hitler let loose a cry of shock and rage, and got here near dwelling as much as his repute as a “Teppich-fresser”—a madman who gnawed on carpets. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was initially nonplussed—Was this actually the Deputy Führer? Was he performing on his personal?—ordered Hess locked up. Considerably sympathetic to Hess for making an attempt to make peace, the prime minister directed that he spend the remainder of the battle in isolation however relative consolation; Hess went from the Tower of London to a fortified mansion within the countryside after which to a hospital in Wales, the place he spent three years.

Wolff’s flip at peacemaking got here within the final weeks of the battle. Since late 1943 he had been the senior SS commander in Italy—primarily the Reich’s chief enforcer in that theater. His title was fearsome: SS-Obergruppenführer and Normal of the Waffen SS, Highest SS and Police Chief and Army Plenipotentiary of the German Armed Forces. He didn’t have as a lot army energy as his Wehrmacht counterpart, who commanded greater than three quarters of one million troopers, sailors, and airmen—however he embodied Nazi political energy.

Wolff had a wide range of forces underneath his command. To combat partisans behind the entrance strains, he relied on some 160,000 troops, together with international “volunteers.” This irregular battle was not as brutal as that on the Jap Entrance, however was marked by occasional excesses. Wolff additionally commanded some 65,000 Germans who have been a part of the police equipment that searched out and arrested the Reich’s enemies, together with operating prisons and a handful of labor and focus camps.

By February 1945, the Allies had pushed the Wehrmacht about four-fifths of the best way up the Italian boot. The Germans have been holding—simply barely—south of Bologna in northern Italy. Elsewhere the image was far worse for the Germans. Their final nice offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, had failed, grinding to a halt properly wanting its aims and severely depleting Hitler’s few remaining reserves. Allied forces have been now advancing relentlessly from the west, on their strategy to breach the Rhine in early March. Within the east, the Russians had two enormous daggers pointed on the coronary heart of the Reich—one from throughout the River Oder, solely about 50 miles from Berlin.

Wolff had some expertise as a really junior military officer throughout World Struggle I however was not knowledgeable soldier. Nonetheless, he grasped that it was only a matter of time earlier than the Allies would win. Additional resistance would serve no function, leading to useless lack of life and property. In his phrases, he was prepared as early as mid-1944 “to do no matter was in [his] energy” to finish the battle “ought to an honorable alternative current itself.” When he noticed that chance, he determined to behave: late in February 1945 Wolff authorised a proposal by two officers underneath his command, Colonel Eugen Dollmann and Captain Guido Zimmer, each of whom wore the black uniform of the SS however had a gentle spot for Italy and its tradition. Directed at Swiss army intelligence by means of intermediaries, they requested the Swiss—who, being impartial, may speak to either side—to increase peace feelers to the Western Allies on their behalf.

The Swiss knew who to show to: Allen W. Dulles, head of the Workplace of Strategic Providers (OSS) base within the Swiss capital, Bern. The 52-year-old one-time diplomat was a Wall Avenue lawyer on prolonged go away from one of many nice white-shoe regulation corporations, Sullivan & Cromwell, the place his older brother, John Foster, was a senior associate. Dulles was discovering intelligence work much more attention-grabbing than the profitable however dreary observe of company regulation; he really loved the joys of working on Hitler’s doorstep surrounded by enemy territory for a lot of the battle. Apart from, he was good at his job, cultivating productive relationships with everybody from Swiss bureaucrats to German walk-ins—one in every of whom, a midlevel official named Fritz Kolbe, carried briefcases bulging with secret paperwork and have become one of many Allies’ Most worthy German spies. 

Allen W. Dulles, head of the OSS’s office in Bern, Switzerland, became the point man for Wolff’s effort and demanded he release prominent POW Ferruccio Parri (below). Dulles later became director of the CIA; Parri went on to head Italy’s postwar government. (Bettmann Getty Images)


Dulles reacted to Wolff’s initiative by sending intermediaries to fulfill Zimmer and Dollmann on Swiss soil, the place the 2 sides probed one another’s positions. To show Wolff was critical, Dulles demanded that he launch a senior member of the Italian resistance named Ferruccio Parri, one in every of Wolff’s most distinguished prisoners and a high-value bargaining chip. Dulles was stunned by the fast, unconditional turnaround: by March 8, Parri and one different former prisoner appeared on the Swiss border—adopted by Wolff himself. He needed to see Dulles.

THROUGH A SWISS INTERMEDIARY Wolff forwarded what amounted to his peacemaking credentials. On prime was his calling card—very like a enterprise card immediately, bearing his official title. Connected was a protracted checklist of names of references, together with Hess and Pope Pius XII, marked with quick notes. Wolff included Hess presumably as a result of the Allies may ask him about Wolff; the 2 males had identified one another in Berlin when Wolff had been a member of Hitler’s internal circle. And Wolff, though not Catholic, had had an viewers with the pope in Could 1944 to debate the prospects for peace. Wolff famous that on the pope’s request, he had launched an Italian prisoner, and that the pope “stands by to intercede, if desired, at any time.” Complementing the references have been letters recording cases of Wolff’s clemency and his function in defending priceless artwork. He claimed a whole bunch of irreplaceable Italian work from the world-famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence had been moved to security on his orders.

The Individuals weren’t solely certain what to make of Wolff. OSS information in Washington contained little greater than a paragraph or two of details about him: born in 1900 close to Frankfurt, service in a paramilitary corps after World Struggle I, member of Reichsführer SS Himmler’s private employees, common customer to Hitler’s headquarters. (These final particulars have been a significant understatement: Wolff was at Himmler’s facet from 1933 to 1943, rising to move his private employees in addition to to function his liaison to the Führer.) One file gave Wolff’s tackle in Berlin as Prinz Albrechstrasse 8, which was really the headquarters of the SS, a mix of workplace area for executives and cellblock for prisoners being interrogated and tortured. There was point out of his reasonably profitable work in promoting between the wars.

Dulles’s assistant, the well-connected German American Gero von Schulze-Gaevernitz, had heard of Wolff. The 2 even had some mutual acquaintances, and Gaevernitz knew that Wolff had interceded on behalf of a Catholic thinker the Gestapo had threatened in 1939.

Dulles determined to see for himself what Wolff was like, and organized to fulfill him shortly after he offered himself that March 8, at an residence Dulles stored in Zurich for what he known as “conferences of the touchiest nature.” It was situated on the finish of a quiet avenue and appeared out on Lake Zurich. Dulles set the stage for the late-night assembly by beginning a hearth within the hearth, his concept being that crackling flames helped guests loosen up. Since American officers have been uncomfortable shaking arms with Nazis, Dulles simply nodded in greeting when Wolff arrived however provided his visitor, who appeared sick comfortable, a glass of scotch. He famous that Wolff was “a good-looking man and properly conscious of it”: Nordic, well-built, with graying darkish blond hair, pleasing options, and—particularly for a Nazi—good manners. He had blue eyes and spoke Excessive German and not using a regional accent, in contrast to Hitler, who by no means shed the Bavarian twang he’d picked up as a toddler and didn’t fear overmuch about his manners.

Wolff relaxed sufficient to inform Dulles what he may and couldn’t do. Germany had misplaced the battle, and the one smart plan of action was to give up. He needed the very best for his nation, and was ready to behave on his personal to give up the forces underneath his command. However the outcome could be much better if he, Wolff, may persuade the Wehrmacht commander in Italy, Subject Marshal Albert Kesselring, to give up the a whole bunch of 1000’s of troops underneath his command as properly. Wolff had a superb relationship with Kesselring and, as long as nobody betrayed his plans to Hitler, he simply would possibly succeed. Wolff didn’t ask for any type of particular remedy for himself.

Dulles reported his favorable impressions to Washington, particularly that Wolff represented a “extra reasonable aspect in [the] Waffen SS, with a mix of Romanticism”—an obvious reference to the Teutonic never-never land that Wolff believed in. This was the place the lads have been cultured Aryans like himself, the ladies fertile like his two wives, the kids with folkish names like his sons Widukind and Thorisman. The 44-year-old normal was, Dulles summed up, “most likely essentially the most dynamic character in North Italy and strongest after Kesselring.” Dulles was wanting to proceed, as was OSS Director William J. Donovan. Others in Washington have been guardedly optimistic—as long as Wolff understood that the one doable phrases have been unconditional give up.

General Heinrich von Vietinghoff (above) was Wolff’s Wehrmacht counterpart in Italy after Hitler transferred Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (below). (Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-313-1019-14 Photo Gutjahr)

(Heinrich Hoffmann/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

THE BASIC IDEA—a neighborhood give up in northern Italy—was simple. However the satan was within the particulars, and there was one complication after one other. Wolff had repeatedly mentioned the matter with the multi-talented Kesselring, a Luftwaffe normal equally at house commanding air forces and floor troops. However simply when Kesselring appeared on the purpose of yielding to Wolff’s arguments, Hitler transferred Kesselring to a different command. Wolff needed to as a substitute work on his successor, Normal Heinrich von Vietinghoff—a extra conventional military officer who was uncomfortable with the concept.

The regional pleasant army command, Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ), needed to kind its personal impressions of Wolff, and dispatched two of its most senior officers: the British Main Normal Terence Airey, chargeable for intelligence, and the American Main Normal Lyman Lemnitzer, the assistant chief of employees at AFHQ. They met with Wolff in Switzerland on March 19.

Someway Hitler and Himmler obtained wind of Wolff’s actions, with out studying their full extent, and summoned him to Berlin for not one however two rounds of consultations. Wolff survived the hair-raising journeys because of his good relationship with Hitler and his fast wits. He did take one precaution, which affords a clue as to what he anticipated, though not explicitly requested, from Dulles. Making ready a notice to be delivered to the American in case Hitler or Himmler ordered his arrest, or if he died for every other cause, he requested that “Mr. Dulles… rehabilitate my identify, publicizing my true, humane intentions; to make identified that I acted not out of egotism…, however solely out of the conviction and hope of saving, so far as doable, the German folks.” He additionally requested, “if that is doable,” that Dulles shield his two households, which means his first and second wives and their kids.

Wolff had a comfortable place in upper echelons of the Nazi Party and the SS: attending a 1936 film premiere with SS bigwigs Heinrich Himmler (center) and Reinhard Heydrich (right), and studying a map with Hitler (below), circa 1940. (AKG-Images)

(Bundesarchiv Bild B 1945 BILD-051671A-0041 Photo O. Ang)

CHURCHILL AND American president Franklin D. Roosevelt have been each briefed about Operation Dawn, as Dulles had labeled the give up negotiations. Churchill paid extra consideration to the matter than Roosevelt, who was severely sick by that point. When Churchill insisted that the Soviets be told, Stalin exploded in paranoid rage, accusing the British and Individuals of maneuvering behind his again. (Nonsense, in fact, since that they had simply instructed him what they have been as much as.) Roosevelt’s loss of life on April 12 was one more main complication, one which led Wolff to handwrite a letter of condolence to Dulles—the one one from an SS normal officer to a senior American official. The prose was stiff, however the message was considerate: “…the passing of the President with whom you have been so shut should have been painful to you in equal measure as a person and a member of the federal government.” (Dulles was not really near Roosevelt however he was identified in Switzerland as his private consultant.)

By April 20—coincidentally Hitler’s birthday—there had been so many issues that the British and American chiefs of employees ordered Dulles to interrupt the hyperlink to Wolff and let their armies get on with the battle. They have been bored with ready for the Germans in Italy to agree amongst themselves, and they didn’t need any extra arguments with Stalin. In addition they knew that their army place in Italy was rising stronger by the day.

Regardless of the obstacles, Wolff stayed the course, persevering with to work on Vietinghoff. When Vietinghoff lastly—and reluctantly— agreed to go together with the give up, Wolff renewed his supply to the Allies. A couple of days later Italian partisans surrounded Wolff and some of his males at a villa in northern Italy. The partisans appeared intent on capturing or killing him, which might have ended Operation Dawn. A tense standoff ensued. Dulles sanctioned a multinational rescue crew—two carloads of Swiss officers, OSS males, and even two SS border guards—who drove by means of the encompassing cordon and freed the SS normal. When Wolff occurred to come across Dulles’s man Gaevernitz at a border crossing, Wolff fervently thanked him and insisted on shaking arms. One report has Wolff continuing to hug Gaevernitz—which, if true, would have been one other one-off occasion.

For the reason that Germans had agreed amongst themselves to proceed with the regional give up, Washington and London, at Dulles’s and AFHQ’s urging, withdrew their opposition to accepting Wolff’s supply. Two plenipotentiaries—one for Wolff and the SS, one for Vietinghoff and the Wehrmacht—made their strategy to AFHQ at Caserta, Italy, to signal an instrument of give up on April 29. It was the day earlier than Hitler’s loss of life by suicide at his bunker in Berlin, which Soviet troops have been about to overrun.

A plenipotentiary for the Wehrmacht and another for the SS (above, center and right) assemble in Caserta, Italy, to sign the surrender documents. Another plus from Wolff: hundreds of Italian paintings were kept out of German hands, avoiding the fate of those below. (Mondadori via Getty Images)

(Pictures from HistoryNet/Bridgeman Images)

The instrument supplied for the ceasefire to happen on Could 2, which turned out to be a number of days earlier than the final give up on Could 8. This meant that the capitulation in Italy was not as momentous because it might need been a month or two earlier, however it did stop six days of bloodshed, and uncovered Germany’s southern flank, hastening the ultimate collapse. It additionally enabled the Western Allies to occupy the town of Trieste, preempting the communist forces of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, then advancing from the southeast, from increasing their sphere of management. Not least, the give up saved the good work from the Uffizi and different art work—secreted within the mountains of Italy on Wolff’s orders—from being destroyed or shipped to Germany.

Throughout and after the give up, Wolff remained at his headquarters in a splendid Renaissance palace within the northern Italian city of Bolzano. The Wehrmacht arrange close by in a much less grand however safer advanced of caves constructed right into a mountainside. Like Vietinghoff, Wolff remained accountable for his forces whereas the give up was being carried out—a not unusual phenomenon since transfers of energy on such an unlimited scale couldn’t occur in a single day. Throughout this era, which lasted some 10 days, the environment for Wolff was like that of a well-deserved trip after the intense stress of the previous months. The preventing had stopped, Hitler and Himmler may not threaten anybody, and Wolff was capable of ship for his household. The springtime climate within the mountains was superb, and the ample shares of meals and wine made for good dwelling. Gaevernitz even dropped by on Could 9, and seems in a photograph that appears to depict a relaxed, joyful gathering of pals.

Dulles’s assistant, Gero von Schulze-Gaevernitz (second from left), thanks German of officers for their cooperation during the surrender. Vietinghoff is at center, Wolff at right. (OSS Archives/National Archives)

A sea change got here on Could 13—Wolff’s forty fifth birthday. The SS officers donned their costume uniforms—Wolff favored a chic off-white tunic that appeared far much less threatening than the usual black SS outfit—and opened many bottles of champagne for them- selves and Vietinghoff’s employees. Then, unexpectedly, U.S. Military vehicles rumbled as much as the palace. MPs in white helmets arrested Wolff and his entourage—a part of a routine roundup of Germans in uniform. They even took Wolff’s spouse and their kids to a rudimentary camp, which distressed Wolff tremendously. He would come to see it as the primary of many instances when the Individuals let him down.

WOLFF NOW BEGAN a novel interval of confinement. Following Himmler’s loss of life by suicide on Could 23, Wolff grew to become one of many senior-most surviving members of the SS. However he had additionally organized the give up in Italy, and was on pleasant phrases with Individuals like Gaevernitz and, to a extra restricted extent, Dulles. Nobody was certain what to do with him. Ought to he stand trial as a battle legal—or function a witness? Wolff was keen to do both. He made himself out there for countless interrogations, and later claimed that he needed “to vindicate the respectable a part of the SS”—which means that he needed to counter the argument that the SS was a legal group, an more and more untenable proposition because the damning proof mounted.

The Individuals determined that he was mentally unstable and opted for a 3rd various, locking him up in two psychological hospitals in Germany for a number of months in 1946. Phrase got here that Wolff believed that Jewish demons have been after him; within the absence of any medical information, nonetheless, all claims of psychological instability are onerous to substantiate. Wolff later defined that the Individuals interpreted his supply to defend the SS as “suicidal mania” and implied that they simply needed him out of circulation for a number of months.

When he emerged from confinement, supposedly sound in thoughts and physique, Wolff nonetheless didn’t match into any class and started to be handled extra like a prisoner of battle. The Individuals shifted him to British custody and, in 1949, he went by means of “denazification” within the British zone of occupation. Supposed to purge Germany of Nazi affect, denazification was a quasi-judicial course of instituted by the Allies however principally run by German laymen who gathered proof and presided over hearings.

The fees towards Wolff associated extra to his standing as a senior SS officer than to any particular battle crimes or the crimes towards humanity related to the SS; there was nonetheless little proof towards him.

There was a great deal of mitigating testimony, nonetheless. Generals Lemnitzer and Airey submitted affidavits describing Wolff’s function in Operation Dawn, as did Allen Dulles. Dulles’s one-page affidavit affirmed the info, concluding in lawyerly style that “Normal Wolff’s motion…materially contributed to bringing in regards to the finish of the battle in Italy….” Gaevernitz appeared in individual and enthusiastically defended him. The presiding decide was favorably impressed, crediting Wolff with time served and declaring that he would stroll out of the courtroom together with his honor “clear and unstained”—which he did, beaming, nearly as elegant in a tan civilian go well with as he had been in a Nazi uniform.

By 1955, the former SS general was living the good life, with a comfortable home in the Bavarian town of Starnberg and a career as an advertising executive. (Ueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy)

Wolff spent the subsequent 13 years as a free man in West Germany, returning to promoting and turning into a affluent govt. In 1961, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer who organized a lot of the Holocaust, generated renewed curiosity in Nazi battle crimes and led German authorities to take one other take a look at Wolff’s case. Particular person paperwork had by now risen to the floor of the ocean of captured Nazi information displaying that he had identified of particular crimes and had urged German rail officers to make railcars out there for the transportation of some 300,000 Polish Jews to Belzec and Treblinka, two of the primary loss of life camps.

Tried by a German courtroom in 1964 for his function within the Holocaust, the growing old Obergruppenführer had no finish of explanations and excuses, chief amongst them that he was unaware of the Holocaust itself till March 1945. Given his place at Himmler’s facet, this declare strained—and nonetheless strains—credulity, regardless of Wolff’s insistence that it was doable to be a good SS officer. Erich von dem Bach- Zelewski, Wolff’s former SS comrade and pal who oversaw mass killings within the East throughout the battle, testified that it was extremely unlikely that Wolff didn’t know of the murderous “remaining resolution”—particularly after Wolff visited him in 1942 at an SS hospital the place von dem Bach was recovering from a nervous breakdown that his SS doctor attributed to his function in “the shootings of Jews, in addition to [his] different troublesome experiences within the east.”

This time Wolff didn’t attraction the decide, who sentenced him to fifteen years in jail. Regardless that he didn’t acknowledge his guilt, he was a mannequin prisoner and loved privileges that the Third Reich seldom granted to its detainees: furloughs to go to household and indefinite sick go away after he suffered a coronary heart assault in 1971.

At his 1964 war crimes trial, Wolff, then 64, was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The judge called him “Himmler’s bureaucrat of death.” (Keystone Press/Alamy)

WHERE, THEN, SHOULD HISTORY place Wolff? Was he just like the delusional Rudolf Hess? Stored secluded throughout the battle in England, however prosecuted at Nuremberg postwar as a member of the Nazi elite, Hess claimed amnesia and sulked within the dock. Discovered responsible of crimes towards peace and conspiracy—two of the extra normal prices levied—he spent the remainder of his life in Berlin’s Spandau Jail. Or was Wolff extra just like the calculating Himmler, who dedicated a spread of battle crimes and crimes towards humanity? Or, lastly, was Wolff principally a conservative German patriot who hooked up himself to a charismatic chief who deceived his followers and led the nation right into a ruinous battle?

Wolff stays onerous to categorize. However we are able to slim the vary significantly. Wolff’s personal narrative—that of the conservative patriot—is simple to reject. The Nazi program was, from begin to end, not a conservative however a radical phenomenon, with its over-the-top racism and expansionist drive. Wolff by no means claimed to have been unaware of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. He might not have proposed or deliberate the Holocaust. However, given his place within the SS—essentially the most zealous instrument of Hitler’s insurance policies—he was at the very least complicit. Furthermore, he didn’t complain about Hitler’s wars of aggression—particularly towards Bolshevism— as a lot as about the truth that Hitler misplaced them. Then again, it was to his credit score that he acted on his personal to protect life and property when he realized that the battle was misplaced.

All instructed, then, Wolff is most like Hess. Whereas the match isn’t excellent, they have been each Nazi true believers who needed to make peace with the west, particularly Britain and america. The distinction was that Wolff was higher at it, and—like a superb promoting govt—much better at selling his picture.

A twist within the story got here after Wolff’s daughter Helga transformed to Islam in 1961 and adjusted her identify to Fatima. She defined that she was searching for a strategy to come to phrases along with her household’s fraught historical past, and went on to turn out to be one in every of Germany’s main Islamic public figures. In print, in individual, and on the air, she shared her new worldview with the nice manners that she had discovered from her father. In 1984, Wolff reportedly adopted her lead and professed the Muslim religion. When he died a number of weeks later at age 84, Fatima recited graveside Muslim prayers. However unanswered questions stay: Did he lastly perceive and acknowledge his function within the Third Reich? Was he, like Fatima, making an attempt to maneuver past his previous? The piece of rough-hewn rock over his grave is neither Christian nor Muslim, and tells us little. The easy plaque together with his identify and delivery and loss of life dates offers his title as “Normal, Retired,” as if Wolff needed to be remembered as an officer who served his nation as a substitute of the Nazi killing machine he really served. ✯

 This text was printed within the December 2021 situation of World Struggle II.


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