CHAPTER 1 Portal on the Reich
At movie houses across America in 1942, newsreels depicted maps of Europe that showed territory occupied by Germany and its allies. Stretching across the screen, from the English Channel to the Soviet Union, the Nazi reach and terror seemed unstoppable. One small pocket, though, was carefully illustrated to show an area that did not belong to the Germans. Pointing through the projector’s flickering light, parents might have noted to their children that the missing piece of the Third Reich was Switzerland, that country of soaring peaks, fields of cows, and alpine meadows, just as they may have seen in Shirley Temple’s 1937 movie Heidi.
What few American parents knew was that Switzerland was home to a thriving community of spies. Secret agents—German, Hungarian, Japanese, British, American, Italian, Chinese, Polish, and Soviet—had been drawn to the country for years for its long-standing policy of neutrality and its geographic position at the heart of Europe. By day, secret agents plotted one
another’s political destruction. By night, at the Hotel Bellevue Palace, they laughed and drank at tables within easy earshot of each other. At the golf course, intelligence agents politely allowed their faster counterparts from enemy nations to play through. At fragrant bakeries, they patiently stood in the same lines for the morning’s croissants.
Where so many spies congregated, so did their camp followers, scoundrels hoping to make a quick franc peddling information of suspect quality, resistance fighters, and women willing to trade their bodies to advance their cause. Everyone, or so it seemed, was a double agent trying to keep all the stories straight.
On a chilly Sunday in January 1943, an American with the physique of a lifelong tennis player strode through the quiet streets of the nation’s financial capital, Zurich. Allen Dulles, a portrait of confidence, had been in Switzerland only a couple of months in the employ of the US government. To anyone who would ask, he would say he served as a special assistant to the American head of mission, Leland Harrison. The claim made sense for someone like him, a suitable way for a former diplomat to do his part for the war effort. Yet aiding the American minister was not the reason he had come to Switzerland. William Donovan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the fledgling American intelligence service, had assigned him to get a Swiss station up and running to spy on Nazi Germany.
At age forty-nine, Dulles was one of those rare individuals whose vintage only improved with the years. His hair, though slightly thinning, was still sufficient for a respectable part, and his mustache was full. A Wall Street lawyer and a member of a family that ranked among America’s ruling class—two relatives had served as secretaries of state—he projected a worldliness that was unusual for an American. Maybe it was the blue eyes that twinkled behind round rimless glasses or the disarming pipe perched between his teeth, but Dulles could, when he wished, assume an engaging personality that made others take an instant liking.
Dulles was in Zurich to meet a man he had been warned to avoid, a German named Hans Bernd Gisevius. Like Dulles, Gisevius lived in Switzerland under false pretenses. Officially he carried the title of vice consul
attached to the German mission in Zurich. Espionage circles knew that he was really an agent of the Abwehr, the intelligence arm of the German military. As a newcomer, Dulles was an obvious target for Germans like Gisevius who feasted on inexperienced spies. Yet exactly because he was new to town and eager to establish an intelligence network as quickly as possible, Dulles had kept an open mind. “
Our countries were at war. A meeting between us was hardly according to protocol,” Dulles later wrote. Checking with what few contacts he had been able to develop, Dulles concluded that if he kept his guard up, meeting the German spy was worth the risk.
Greeting Gisevius at an undisclosed location, Dulles was confronted with a solidly built, handsome man who was more than a little imposing. Standing some six feet four inches, he was known to his friends as “Der Lange” or “
the tall one.” At first blush, Gisevius exuded the air of an academic. With his round thick glasses, he had the look of a “
learned professor of Latin or Greek.” Yet he had spent virtually his entire career in German security and police services, including the Prussian Gestapo, and he bore the imprints of the profession. His manner was stiff, formal, and guarded, and he frequently came across as arrogant. One who knew him well attributed a “brutal” aspect to his appearance.
Gisevius had come to Dulles with a clear agenda. He explained that there were many brave souls in Germany who wanted to rid their country of Adolf Hitler and were ready to take action. All they needed was help from the Americans, which they hoped Dulles could arrange. They could kill or depose the Führer, but Gisevius and his friends needed to know whether Washington would negotiate a peace treaty with a new German government.
Overthrowing their Fascist dictator without such assurances, he said, could lead to revolution and chaos.
Dulles dismissed Gisevius that night without any record that he offered the slightest encouragement. Gisevius would soon travel to Berlin to join fellow conspirators in a bold plot, while Dulles dove into what he considered more important projects.
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Though Dulles didn’t take Gisevius seriously that evening, much of what the German said rang true. Allied intelligence services knew there were pockets of resistance within Germany. In company canteens, noisy local beer halls, and even closed-door meeting rooms at the German army headquarters in Berlin, groups of men and women had gathered to plot against Hitler since the first of the eerie torchlight parades in 1933 that signaled the Nazis’ rise to power. Their motivations were varied—religious leaders detested the Führer’s merciless attacks on Jews; politicians, especially those on the left, hated his attitude toward the Communists; and army officers were terrified he would ruin the Wehrmacht. All feared that Hitler was leading their beloved country to ruin.
Some resistance members had been making their way to the West to issue warnings. In the late 1930s, several had traveled to Switzerland to open lines of communication with the British government. Others had turned to contacts in the British aristocracy. One, a Munich lawyer, Josef Müller, made contact with the British using Pope Pius XII as an intermediary. Still another, the German politician Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, had turned to Jakob Wallenberg, a member of the Swedish banking family, to reach out to Western capitals.
Yet Dulles had reason to be wary about Gisevius. In November 1939, the Abwehr had captured two British spies near the Dutch town of Venlo, after German agents had similarly approached them to work together. Although it was unlikely the Germans would try to kidnap Dulles himself—the Swiss took a dim view of such lawlessness—it was possible, even likely, that Gisevius’s purpose was to worm his way into Dulles’s confidence to gain information that could be used to break American codes or discover the identity of Allied agents.
Another reason for caution was the nature of Dulles’s assignment. His superiors had made it clear before he left Washington that he was to lead psychological campaigns to demoralize the German people and troops, to learn what he could about Nazi secret weapons, and to deliver order of battle intelligence such as enemy troop strengths. Dulles also hoped to work with members of resistance movements, and he had access to money to help fund their operations. But engaging in high-level political negotiations exceeded his brief.