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 geared toward brokering a peace settlement. Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess made the best-known such contact, a yr and a half into the combating. 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 number of troubling—and still-unsettled—questions in his wake.
In Might 1941, as Germany was getting ready to invade Russia, Hess secretly strapped himself right into a Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter-bomber, flew quick and low beneath 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 keep 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 overseas coverage. When advised about Hess’s enterprise, Hitler let loose a cry of shock and rage, and got here near residing 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 appearing on his personal?—ordered Hess locked up. Considerably sympathetic to Hess for attempting 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 Common of the Waffen SS, Highest SS and Police Chief and Army Plenipotentiary of the German Armed Forces. He didn’t have as a lot navy energy as his Wehrmacht counterpart, who commanded greater than three quarters of 1,000,000 troopers, sailors, and airmen—however he embodied Nazi political energy.
Wolff had a wide range of forces beneath his command. To combat partisans behind the entrance strains, he relied on some 160,000 troops, together with overseas “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 had 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 had 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 nicely in need of its aims and significantly depleting Hitler’s few remaining reserves. Allied forces had been now advancing relentlessly from the west, on their technique 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 Battle I however was not an expert soldier. Nonetheless, he grasped that it was only a matter of time earlier than the Allies would win. Additional resistance would serve no goal, 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 accepted a proposal by two officers beneath his command, Colonel Eugen Dollmann and Captain Guido Zimmer, each of whom wore the black uniform of the SS however had a comfortable spot for Italy and its tradition. Directed at Swiss navy intelligence via 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 Companies (OSS) base within the Swiss capital, Bern. The 52-year-old one-time diplomat was a Wall Avenue lawyer on prolonged depart from one of many nice white-shoe regulation corporations, Sullivan & Cromwell, the place his older brother, John Foster, was a senior accomplice. Dulles was discovering intelligence work much more fascinating than the profitable however dreary apply of company regulation; he truly loved the joys of working on Hitler’s doorstep surrounded by enemy territory for a lot of the battle. In addition to, he was good at his job, cultivating productive relationships with everybody from Swiss bureaucrats to German walk-ins—one in all whom, a midlevel official named Fritz Kolbe, carried briefcases bulging with secret paperwork and have become one of many Allies’ most precious German spies.
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 severe, Dulles demanded that he launch a senior member of the Italian resistance named Ferruccio Parri, one in all 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 wished 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 at present, bearing his official title. Connected was a protracted listing of names of references, together with Hess and Pope Pius XII, marked with brief 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 Might 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 had been letters recording situations 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 completely positive 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 Battle I, member of Reichsführer SS Himmler’s private employees, common customer to Hitler’s headquarters. (These final particulars had been a significant understatement: Wolff was at Himmler’s facet from 1933 to 1943, rising to go his private employees in addition to to function his liaison to the Führer.) One file gave Wolff’s deal with in Berlin as Prinz Albrechstrasse 8, which was truly the headquarters of the SS, a mix of workplace house 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 saved in Zurich for what he referred to 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 fire, his principle being that crackling flames helped guests chill out. Since American officers had been uncomfortable shaking arms with Nazis, Dulles simply nodded in greeting when Wolff arrived however supplied his visitor, who appeared sick relaxed, a glass of scotch. He famous that Wolff was “a good-looking man and nicely 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, not like 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 wished the very best for his nation, and was ready to behave on his personal to give up the forces beneath his command. However the end result can be much better if he, Wolff, may persuade the Wehrmacht commander in Italy, Area Marshal Albert Kesselring, to give up the a whole bunch of 1000’s of troops beneath his command as nicely. Wolff had a great relationship with Kesselring and, as long as nobody betrayed his plans to Hitler, he simply may succeed. Wolff didn’t ask for any sort of particular therapy for himself.
Dulles reported his favorable impressions to Washington, particularly that Wolff represented a “extra reasonable ingredient 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 boys had 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 persona in North Italy and strongest after Kesselring.” Dulles was desperate to proceed, as was OSS Director William J. Donovan. Others in Washington had been guardedly optimistic—as long as Wolff understood that the one attainable phrases had been unconditional give up.
THE BASIC IDEA—an area give up in northern Italy—was easy. 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 an alternative work on his successor, Common Heinrich von Vietinghoff—a extra conventional military officer who was uncomfortable with the concept.
The regional pleasant navy command, Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ), wished to kind its personal impressions of Wolff, and dispatched two of its most senior officers: the British Main Common Terence Airey, chargeable for intelligence, and the American Main Common Lyman Lemnitzer, the assistant chief of employees at AFHQ. They met with Wolff in Switzerland on March 19.
In some way 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 due to 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. Getting ready a word to be delivered to the American in case Hitler or Himmler ordered his arrest, or if he died for another motive, he requested that “Mr. Dulles… rehabilitate my title, 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 attainable, the German folks.” He additionally requested, “if that is attainable,” that Dulles defend his two households, that means his first and second wives and their youngsters.
CHURCHILL AND American president Franklin D. Roosevelt had 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 significantly sick by that point. When Churchill insisted that the Soviets learn, Stalin exploded in paranoid rage, accusing the British and Individuals of maneuvering behind his again. (Nonsense, after all, since that they had simply advised him what they had been as much as.) Roosevelt’s demise on April 12 was yet 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 had 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 truly near Roosevelt however he was identified in Switzerland as his private consultant.)
By April 20—coincidentally Hitler’s birthday—there had been so many problems 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 had been uninterested in ready for the Germans in Italy to agree amongst themselves, and they didn’t need any extra arguments with Stalin. Additionally they knew that their navy 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. Just a few 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 workforce—two carloads of Swiss officers, OSS males, and even two SS border guards—who drove via 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.
Because the 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 technique to AFHQ at Caserta, Italy, to signal an instrument of give up on April 29. It was the day earlier than Hitler’s demise by suicide at his bunker in Berlin, which Soviet troops had been about to overrun.
The instrument supplied for the ceasefire to happen on Might 2, which turned out to be a number of days earlier than the overall give up on Might 8. This meant that the capitulation in Italy was not as momentous because it may need been a month or two earlier, but it surely did forestall six days of bloodshed, and uncovered Germany’s southern flank, hastening the ultimate collapse. It additionally enabled the Western Allies to occupy 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 paintings—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 complicated of caves constructed right into a mountainside. Like Vietinghoff, Wolff remained in control of his forces whereas the give up was being applied—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 ambiance for Wolff was like that of a well-deserved trip after the intense stress of the previous months. The combating had stopped, Hitler and Himmler may now not threaten anybody, and Wolff was in a position to ship for his household. The springtime climate within the mountains was wonderful, and the ample shares of meals and wine made for good residing. Gaevernitz even dropped by on Might 9, and seems in a photograph that appears to depict a relaxed, completely happy gathering of associates.
A sea change got here on Might 13—Wolff’s forty fifth birthday. The SS officers donned their gown uniforms—Wolff favored a sublime 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 youngsters to a rudimentary camp, which distressed Wolff significantly. He would come to see it as the primary of many instances when the Individuals let him down.
WOLFF NOW BEGAN a singular interval of confinement. Following Himmler’s demise by suicide on Might 23, Wolff turned 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 positive 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 accessible for limitless interrogations, and later claimed that he wished “to vindicate the first rate a part of the SS”—that means that he wished 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 different, 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 had been after him; within the absence of any medical information, nevertheless, all claims of psychological instability are laborious to substantiate. Wolff later defined that the Individuals interpreted his supply to defend the SS as “suicidal mania” and implied that they simply wished 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 via “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 largely run by German laymen who gathered proof and presided over hearings.
The costs in opposition to Wolff associated extra to his standing as a senior SS officer than to any particular battle crimes or the crimes in opposition to humanity related to the SS; there was nonetheless little proof in opposition to him.
There was a great deal of mitigating testimony, nevertheless. Generals Lemnitzer and Airey submitted affidavits describing Wolff’s function in Operation Dawn, as did Allen Dulles. Dulles’s one-page affidavit affirmed the information, concluding in lawyerly trend that “Common Wolff’s motion…materially contributed to bringing concerning the finish of the battle in Italy….” Gaevernitz appeared in particular person and enthusiastically defended him. The presiding choose 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 swimsuit as he had been in a Nazi uniform.
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 have 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 accessible for the transportation of some 300,000 Polish Jews to Belzec and Treblinka, two of the primary demise camps.
Tried by a German court docket in 1964 for his function within the Holocaust, the ageing 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 attainable 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 through the battle, testified that it was extremely unlikely that Wolff didn’t know of the murderous “last 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 choose, who sentenced him to fifteen years in jail. Despite the fact 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 depart after he suffered a coronary heart assault in 1971.
WHERE, THEN, SHOULD HISTORY place Wolff? Was he just like the delusional Rudolf Hess? Stored secluded through 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 in opposition to 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 in opposition to humanity? Or, lastly, was Wolff largely a conservative German patriot who connected himself to a charismatic chief who deceived his followers and led the nation right into a ruinous battle?
Wolff stays laborious to categorize. However we will slender 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 could 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 in opposition to 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 advised, then, Wolff is most like Hess. Whereas the match shouldn’t be good, they had been each Nazi true believers who wished to make peace with the west, particularly Britain and america. The distinction was that Wolff was higher at it, and—like a great 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 altered her title to Fatima. She defined that she was in search of a technique to come to phrases along with her household’s fraught historical past, and went on to turn into one in all Germany’s main Islamic public figures. In print, in particular person, and on the air, she shared her new worldview with the great 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, attempting 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 title and start and demise dates provides his title as “Common, Retired,” as if Wolff wished to be remembered as an officer who served his nation as an alternative of the Nazi killing machine he truly served. ✯
This text was revealed within the December 2021 concern of World Battle II.