David Kahn is the author of ※The Codebreakers.§
D a v i d K a h n
350 West 42nd Street
THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE AUTHOR OF THE SECRET FRONT
By David Kahn
I interviewed Wilhelm Höttl in his office in the Schloss Ramgut in the school he founded in Bad Aussee, Austria, from 8:30 to 9:45 a.m. on 15 September 1973. The room had large arched windows that looked onto woods. Höttl told me that it had been the workroom of the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal (※Der Rosenkavalier,§ ※Die Frau ohne Schatten§). I asked him mainly some questions about the technicalities of his work 每 how he obtained his agents, what they contributed to the German war effort, and so on. But none of what I asked him was as rich or detailed as the information I obtained by looking at his Nazi party records, his Nuremberg interrogation, and his American Counter Intelligence Corps file. All have served this report.
Wilhelm Höttl was born in Vienna, Austria, on 19 March 1915 as the fourth child and second son of Hans Höttl, a civil servant, then 39, and Maria Höttl, n谷e Renner. He attended a Realgymnasium 每 a type of high school that taught modern languages and sciences and was less prestigious than the humanistisches Gymnasium, which taught Latin and Greek. An activist, he worked to bring together the nationalist and Catholic groups within the main student organization. This brought him into contact with the corresponding Catholic groups in southeast Europe, and his interest in the area took root. He joined the Hitler Youth when he was 16 and the Nazi Studentenbund two years later; on 1 February 1934, almost 19, he became an active member of the SS (Number 309,510) in its school unit and on 1 March 1934 he joined the Nazi party (Number 6,309,616). When Austria in effect outlawed the Nazi party in June, Höttl continued to work for the now-illegal SD, the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service), the intelligence branch of the SS. He was living with his parents and helping support them, since his father had been out of work for four years (the Depression was worldwide). At 22, he got his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in history, German, and geography. He taught in a kind of adult education school and then worked as a letter writer in a business. On 12 March 1938, Höttl, a member of the SD, was probably among the hundreds of thousands cheering wildly as German troops goosestepped through Vienna to incorporate Austria into the Reich 每 the Anschluss. He continued with the SD, reviewing persons wanting to work for it on probation, but politically he concentrated on matters of the Catholic Church, the Freemasons, and the Jews. Later that year, he became the Vienna SD unit＊s Specialist South, dealing with southeast Europe.
In July 1938, he asked the SS for permission to marry 每 needed under its rules because he was not yet 26. The future bride was Elfriede Zelinger, three years older than he, a Ph.D., a teacher, and a member of the Nazi party since 1932. The request entailed a lot of paperwork. Among other things, Höttl was told to get a report from a dentist, if possible with documents, that his teeth were ※vollig in Ordnung,§ as well as an exact report, if possible with medical documents, of the accidental death at 37 of his fianc谷e＊s grandfather on her mother＊s side. He filled out a form saying that he learned to walk at 12 months and to talk at the same age. He said he swims, skis, does gymnastics. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 154 pounds. He had gray eyes and brown hair. His carriage and walk were erect 每 not, according to items that could be checked on the form, indolent or markedly bad. His skull was long and its circumference 22 3/4 inches His eye-pupil reaction was prompt. A supervisor, asked whether the future bride was suitable as the wife of an SS-member, answered, ※Completely.§ She, in turn, asked whether Höttl was fond of children or not, said he was. Was he comradely or bossy? Comradely. Thrifty or a spendthrift? Thrifty. A homebody or flighty, fond of finery? A homebody. Finally, after he signed a statement that ※I declare, under oath, that I, as well as my wife, Dr. Elfriede Zelinger, are of Aryan descent,§ he was allowed to marry her.
On 26 September 1939, a few weeks after the war started, the party SD, with its foreign and domestic branches, was joined with the government detectives agency and the Gestapo into the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Administration), headed by the notorious Reinhard Heydrich. The SD＊s foreign branch became the RSHA＊s Department VI. The Vienna province created its own Department VI station and put Höttl in charge. He expanded his definition of ※south§ to include the Vatican, and in 1939, perhaps utilizing his earlier Catholic youth activities, he sent Prince Rohan, a pan-European propagandist, as VI Vienna＊s emissary to the Vatican. Rohan proposed an information exchange to the vicar general of the Jesuits that would help push the Communists from Europe. The vicar general agreed, showing Rohan some detailed Jesuit reports on Red agents in Latin America. But Pope Pius XII turned it down, saying he did not want to cooperate with the SD. This failure did not stop Höttl, who, in the spring of 1941, added to his Vienna post the new job of Specialist South for all of Department VI. About this time, his Nazi personnel report called his attitude ※calm and sure,§ his general character ※modest, serious,§ his grasp of life ※idealistic [with] good judgment ability,§ his Nazi weltanschauung ※blameless.§ He spoke well and possessed all the preconditions for further development. He seemed on his way up.
But on 8 October 1941, as he was going to a monthly meeting in Berlin, he was told that he had been suspended. He was thunderstruck. He didn＊t know why and spent the next four months failing to learn the reason. In January, 1942, unable to get his job back, feeling shamed, he volunteered for the Waffen-SS, the military arm of the SS. Before he could be inducted, he broke his leg while skiing. It didn＊t matter, however, because on 10 February he was ordered to the Adolf Hitler division of the Waffen-SS as a war correspondent. Later he was transferred to another Waffen-SS division, the Prinz Eugen, named for the celebrated Austrian 18th-century commander. Both were on the eastern front. Finally, in July, while Höttl was on leave in Berlin, charges were filed against him. He learned that officials of VI Vienna complained that he operated in too independent a fashion and that his political attitude (meaning his Naziism) was unclear and inadequate, as proved by his using non-Nazis in his work.
New charges were laid; old ones were expanded. Hundreds of pages were written pro and con. An SD leader accused him of trying to get back land for a noble Polish relative of one of his agents, Countess Palffy. He deliberately misled the SD commander in Warsaw by saying that Palffy didn＊t know she was working for the Reich when in fact she did. He lied to an SS superior by saying that he had written to an SS official in Warsaw once, whereas in fact he had written three times. He exceeded his authority in four cases: the Palffy matter, granting permission for a Catholic parson to go to The Hague, submitting a new personnel budget list for Vienna＊s Desk VI without permission, and failing to notify the Vienna SD regional leader of messages he was sending to RSHA VI headquarters. He persisted in maintaining relations with Prof. Dr. von Borodajkewycz, despite being told to drop him. He employed a certain Schlie in personal and business matters though he had been told not to. The Vienna SD inspector thought that Höttl was unsuited for the SD. The Vienna SD leader, though alleging that Höttl＊s offenses reached back to 1940, said he did not believe that the charges sufficed to expel Höttl from the SD. Instead he should be removed from his ※illegal activity§ in Department VI and sent to a post outside of Vienna and placed under strict supervision. But it was not over yet. Another SD superior said that, while Höttl showed great organizational ability and uncommon zeal and energy and had built up a ramified agent net that produced a great quantity of reports, he displayed an excessive drive to independent work, endangered the unity of the post, used questionable workers, and held an unclear political philosophy. He bolstered his arguments with 12 pages of detail. Höttl fought back, explaining that he had to act independently because of the nature of his work and that he had been a good Nazi since student days.
The matter dragged on for months. Instead of working to get information about the enemy that would help their Fuhrer fight his war, the officials of the SD spent thousands of hours on this astonishingly petty matter. At its heart lay only jealousy and personality. It ended after Walter Schellenberg, the head of Department VI, declared him ※indispensable,§ yanked him out of his war correspondent job, and ordered that he be sent to headquarters ※to take over an essential duty.§ The envious bureaucrats had to dismiss the charges against him; at best, they had him placed temporarily on probation.
Höttl returned to his secret work. He was posted for a while as an advisor to the German ambassador to Hungary 每 his enemies had urged his expulsion from Vienna. Back in Vienna, he focused on Italy and particularly on the Vatican, where his contacts enabled him to compare notes with the pope＊s German counselor. By 1943, he had taken charge of most of the Vienna VI desks. He reactivated his own net of agents 每 24 main informants in Southeast Europe -- and built up another extensive net, including in Italy, which he kept separate from the other and from the general VI net. His contacts included a soap manufacturer named Schicht and a director of the Danube Steamship Company named Seeliger 每 though one wonders what insights into Allied policy these men could provide. He obtained most of his valuable information from a corps of Hungarian cryptanalysts, the inheritors of the great World War I tradition of Austro-Hungarian codebreaking. This group read nearly all Turkish codes, which proved extremely valuable because the ambassador in Moscow of that then neutral country was extremely well informed. It broke nearly all Greek, most French, and some American codes, particularly those of the American ambassador to Switzerland, Leland Harrison, who, curiously enough, had dealt with American codebreaking in World War I and later. This signals intelligence helped make Höttl＊s unit the strongest in all of VI and, after Heydrich was assassinated in 1942 in Czechoslovakia, helped give him the useful right of direct access to the new RSHA chief, the ox-like Ernst Kaltenbrunner.
Germany thought it could win the economic struggle by undermining Britain＊s currency with fake pound notes. Höttl helped direct this greatest forgery of all time (whose counterfeits served to ※pay§ cicero in Turkey, the great spy of the war). The plan didn＊t succeed, but it made a good story, which Höttl later told in his book Hitler＊s Paper Weapon. When it became clear that Germany was going to lose the war, Höttl became an intermediary between high Nazi officials and the main American secret service representative on the continent. This was Allen Dulles, the representative of the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, in Bern, Switzerland (and future director of central intelligence). On 28 February 1945, Dulles wired Washington that an Austrian industrialist, Fritz Weston, just arrived in Bern, had been told by his acquaintance Höttl that Kaltenbrunner and Himmler wanted to contact the Allies to end the war. In March, Höttl came to Bern and met with Dulles, who cabled on 24 March, after Höttl＊s second visit, that he was convinced that Höttl was the ※righthand man of Kaltenbrunner.§ Later, Höttl 每 who had now been honored with a codename of his own, alpberg 每 told Dulles that the Alpine redoubt, which the Allies feared, was ※rapidly becoming reality with mountain troops being increasingly concentrated there.§ In fact, it never existed. Dulles said Höttl＊s ※record as SD man and collaborator Kaltenbrunner is of course bad and information supplied by him is to be viewed with caution, but I believe he desires to save his skin and therefore may be useful.§ On 29 April, Höttl is said to have contacted Luftwaffe General Albert (※Smiling Al§) Kesselring, commander of German troops in the Southern (mainly Italy) Front and other top generals, concerning a capitulation. But the unconditional surrender of 8 May preëmpted those plans.
The trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg followed. Many Germans and Austrians were interrogated to get evidence of wrongdoing or to see whether they should be charged as well. Among them was Höttl, first questioned on 10 December 1946. To be a prisoner was a big comedown for a young man who had been used to bossing people around, dealing with the mighty, handling state secrets, and thinking he held war and peace in his hands. His questioner, Mr. Wartenberg, speaking in German, never called him ※Dr. Höttl§ or even ※Herr Höttl,§ which would have been customary in Austria and Germany, but addressed him contemptuously as ※Höttl.§ At first, Höttl told him that he could not remember either his Nazi party number nor his SS number 每 akin to an American＊s not remembering his social security number, only worse. When Höttl didn＊t reply to a question, Wartenberg asked if he was hard of hearing, to which Höttl had to reply ※nein.§ Wartenberg told Höttl that ※I can＊t stand it when you lie and I have the documents right here.§ When he asked him about a meeting with Heydrich, Höttl said he could have remembered some details a year ago. Wartenberg gave him two minutes to think about it. ※Oh, I＊ve thought of something,§ Höttl soon replied 每 and admitted that he last saw Eichmann, in charge of killing Jews, in Bad Aussee, where Höttl, who had been trapped there by the traffic jam of retreating German troops, was living. (Eichmann＊s telling him once that 4 million Jews died in concentration camps and another 2 million in other ways remains, it is said, the only authentic basis for the figure of 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.) When asked what criminal acts his office committed, he said, ※To my knowledge, definitely none. There are limits even in the secret service.§ He denied that he gave Eichmann false papers to escape with, though Wartenberg said he had a sworn statement that Höttl had done it. Höttl said that the high school society to which he had belonged merely sought to change the opinions of fraternity members, who were very Nazi, ※to a more Christian way of thinking.§ In the fifth and last of his interrogations, he said that he joined the Nazi party to influence the post-Anschluss government to be more moderate. One may believe these statements or not, as one wishes.
But he was never charged with any crimes, though the SS was adjudged a criminal organization, and he was released. Soon the Cold War gave him a new opportunity. He became an informant for the American Counter Intelligence Corps. After he was dropped 1 December 1949, he decided to write the present book under the pseudonym of Walter Hagen 每 the names of his two sons. (A story that a friend, Dr. Toni Boehme, wrote it for him seems unlikely.) It was first published in Austria in 1950.
After a couple of opening chapters and a closing one on what he called the ※German secret service,§ though he served with Nazi party 每 not governmental -- intelligence, the book dealt with its activities in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Italy. In the foreword, the publisher said, rightly enough, that Hottl＊s position, ※though not responsible enough to deal with the major course of events, gave him a view of the great field of secret intelligence activity.§ On the other hand, his statement that ※the author＊s goal is exclusively the setting down of a contribution for future historical expositions§ may not win universal concurrence.
The book made money. In addition to the Austrian edition, it was published in German in Switzerland and Germany and in various translations in London, New York, Paris, Madrid, and Rome. The foreign-language editions were almost halved from the original 515 pages. (He sent a copy to Allen Dulles, who seems not to have acknowledged it.) It exaggerated his role 每 as what memoir does not? 每 and was dismissed by the editor of Dulles＊s wartime reports as ※self-serving.§ Authors who might have the need to mention him, had he been as important as he claims, ignore him. Walter Schellenberg snubbed it in his memoirs, as did the two main biographers of the shadowy German military espionage chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
But the book perhaps brought him again to the attention of the Americans. For them he was said to have set up a half-military, half-intelligence organization mainly of former Wehrmacht and SS soldiers. He was paid several thousand dollars a month. He wore canary-yellow leather coats and hand-painted neckties. But it ended at noon on 25 March 1953, when the CIC arrested him. They said he had spied for the Soviet Union with two U.S. Army officers, Captain Kurt Ponger and Lieutenant Otto Verber, both former Austrian Communists and naturalized American citizens. In addition to the 20,000 pages seized at his home was a false passport with his picture. He was interrogated with a lie detector. ※The interrogators are convinced that Höttl is lying about or concealing some piece of information which to Höttl is extremely important＃. He showed sensitivity in the polygraph examination to all questions pertaining to the concealment or destruction of documents,§ their report said, adding, however, that ※the strongest response was made to a question in which we absolutely know that he was not lying.§ (So much for the value of the lie detector.) In the end, ※It was not possible for the interrogators to determine whether Höttl is a witting Soviet agent.§ The case was dropped; Höttl was released near the end of April.
He had by then spent a year founding a high school in Aussee, his adopted hometown. None had ever existed there, students going to high schools in neighboring communities. It opened with 11 students in the fall of 1952; by the school year of 1955-56, it had grown to 151. He constructed new buildings. His students completed in athletics, one of the becoming the Austrian champion in jumping. In 1995, the Austrian province of Styria, which later elected the neo-Nazi Jörg Haider its chief executive, gave him a gold medal. Höttl later wrote Einsatz f邦r das Reich (Mission for the Reich), in which he added material not included in The Secret Front: on Eichmann, on the nonexistent Alpine redoubt, his work for the Americans, his school, more on the southeastern European countries during the war and on the counterfeiting. It was never translated.Höttl died 27 July 1999 in the hospital in Bad Aussee. He owes his notoriety to his books and his willingness to talk to students of intelligence of the Third Reich. History accurately remembers him as a minor aide in the most evil inelligence service in the world.
Copyright © 2008 David Kahn. All rights reserved.