Bern, spring 1943
The quiet city of Bern, capital of the Swiss Confederation, seemed barely touched by the events in Europe and the rest of the world, but it was impossible to guess from mere appearances how the city was swarming with activity. Fake diplomats were putting together embryonic counteralliances, and professional spies of all nationalities and all political persuasions had set up their headquarters there. Bern was the privileged place for thwarting the enemy’s stratagems, trying to foresee the ends and the means of the opposing camp, and exchanging false rumors for true secrets.
Switzerland was not only a nest of spies, but also, thanks to its status as a neutral country in the heart of Europe and at the gates of the Reich, the best extraterritorial platform that could be imagined. This had been even truer since November 1942. With the occupation of the southern zone by the Germans, France had been closed off to the Allies. Switzerland had become the only base for observation in the heart of Europe, planted like a triangle between Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and occupied France.
A mysterious figure had been living since November 1942 in a handsome old house in Bern, located not far from the cathedral, at Herrengasse 23. He could often be seen walking rapidly, the pockets of his coat full of hastily folded newspapers, between the railroad station and his downtown house. He liked the neighborhood, with its medieval fountains with multicolored sculptures, its sidewalks beneath arcades, and its ancient paving stones. From the windows of his large apartment on the ground floor of a building that had four stories, he had a magnificent view of the mountains of the Bern Oberland.
In the morning, to get to his office on Dufourstrasse, in the embassy district, he crossed the Kirchenfeld bridge over the Aare (a metal bridge forty meters above the river). At noon, he had lunch at the Theater Café, where the waiters seemed to know him very well. He could very often be seen at the Hôtel Bellevue, where foreign diplomats met Swiss politicians for dinner. Most of the time he went on foot. But sometimes he could be seen in the back seat of a Citroën driven by a personal chauffeur, and smoking a pipe. He was a tall man, with a mustache, who wore glasses with rather thick lenses that made him look like a college professor. He dressed in corduroy, flannel, or tweed. He usually wore a bow tie. Elegant without being stiff, he had a habit of wearing his hat toward the back of his head, which gave him an air of studied negligence. Some people thought he was English. In fact, he was an American.
Allen Welsh Dulles was officially the special assistant for legal affairs of the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland. The son of a Presbyterian minister, a member of the East Coast establishment, this 1914 Princeton graduate knew Europe remarkably well. In 1917 and 1918 he already was an attaché at the American embassy in Bern charged with gathering intelligence about Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkans. He then spent a few months behind the scenes at Versailles during the treaty negotiations, with other young diplomats who had recently graduated (most of them from Princeton), whom President Wilson liked to have around him. Dulles felt all the more at ease in these surroundings because Robert Lansing, the secretary of state, was his uncle, and because his grandfather, General John W. Foster, had held that post a few decades earlier. During the negotiations, and in the years following the restoration of peace, the young Allen W. Dulles had traveled extensively through France and Germany devastated by the war. He was convinced that a solid alliance between the United States and Germany would make it possible to create a solid rampart against the spread of Bolshevism.
Although he had given up a diplomatic career to become a Wall Street lawyer, Allen Dulles had continued to be of service to the State Department. In 1933, in the course of a diplomatic mission to Germany, he had met Hitler in person. Although he felt nothing but disgust for the Nazis, Dulles was a friend to Germany.
In November 1942, Dulles was back in Bern. At the last moment, he had crossed through France from Spain, just when the German troops were seizing the southern zone. He had been able to reach Switzerland only through the providential assistance of a not overly scrupulous French customs agent who had not informed the Gestapo of his passage. Once there, Dulles had not attempted in the slightest to conceal his arrival or especially hidden the nature of his work. In the Swiss press, an article presented him as the “personal representative of President Roosevelt,” charged with a “special duty.” From then on everyone knew that Mr. Dulles was a key figure in American espionage in continental Europe. In fact, he had been appointed by the Office of Strategic Services, the American intelligence organization that had just been established by President Roosevelt in June. Oddly, the publicity around his name did not trouble him in the least, whereas it irritated some of his English counterparts, who were a little suspicious of this “dilettante” intruding on their preserve.
Dulles’s notoriety and his natural charm, but also the rather substantial financial resources he had at his disposal, meant that large numbers of people came to see him. Everyone who had information to offer (or to sell) came to knock at his door. Every night, after curfew, shadows slipped furtively beneath the arcades leading to his house, and left through the back garden, which sloped steeply toward the River Aare, hidden from prying eyes. Among these night visitors were double agents, manipulators, charlatans. Over a drink, Dulles listened to them more or less attentively. He usually put people at ease by seating them before a fire, and let them talk while he stirred the embers and smoked his pipe. “The Swiss knew very well that their country was the scene of all manner of intrigues; agents of the secret service, spies, revolutionaries and agitators infested the hotels of the principal towns”: this description of the country in 1914 by Somerset Maugham in Ashenden applied to Bern in 1943. Dulles had enough confidence in his own instincts to be able to sort out the true from the false.
His mission was to gather all the intelligence possible about occupied Europe, particularly about Germany, but also relating to France, Italy, and other countries allied to the Reich. Among other things, he had been asked to “establish and maintain contacts with underground anti-Nazi movements in Germany.” Dulles personally would have liked to provide active assistance to those movements, but he could not because of a lack of political support in Washington.
The British were of course his privileged interlocutors, even though some old intelligence veterans complained about his casual manner. He was considered an eccentric, but they recognized his talent. The French agents of the Deuxième Bureau in Bern were all prepared to work for him since the Vichy regime, in November 1942, had lost its last illusions about its sovereignty. The French agreed to be financed by the OSS in Bern, which helped them send intelligence to the authorities of Free France, now based in Algiers. Within a very short time, Dulles thus had an excellent observation network at his disposal in occupied France. The Poles also offered him their services: Dulles soon made the acquaintance of Halina Szymanska, the widow of a Polish officer based in Bern, who was the mistress of Admiral Canaris, chief of military intelligence (Abwehr). Not infrequently, when Admiral Canaris wanted to “let slip” a piece of intelligence intended for the Allies, he confided a secret to Mme. Szymanska (for example, in June 1941, Hitler’s imminent invasion of Russia). Several diplomats from Axis countries stationed in Bern, wishing to establish relations with the Allies, also became preferred sources. Baron Bakach-Bessenyey, the Hungarian envoy, was notably among them.
Things were more difficult with the Swiss. The authorities in Bern were intent on maintaining equal distance from all the countries involved in the conflict. But the reality was entirely different: the majority of the population sympathized with the Allies. Dulles soon had his own network of trusted men inside the Swiss intelligence service, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Masson.
At all times, one had to be wary of the Germans. Among the countless networks of informers present in the country, those working for Germany were particularly effective and well established on the ground thanks to the existence of a large German community. German newspapers had numerous correspondents in Bern. And there were Swiss Germanophile circles, particularly in the army. For years, this small world had been receiving active support from the German legation. In addition, the German consulates in Switzerland were more often than not headed by men from the Abwehr or the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, foreign intelligence services).
Hitler had given up the idea of invading Switzerland in 1940. He needed a solid economic and financial conduit bordering Germany, and Switzerland provided Germany, in exchange for gold, the currency it needed to procure raw materials indispensable for the war. Nevertheless, Hitler judged that, sooner or later, Switzerland would become a part of the “Greater Reich.” Rumors of a plan of attack constantly came to the ears of the authorities in Bern. The threat grew as the new strategic context became clear in late 1942 and early 1943, marked by the advance of Allied forces in North Africa and the weakening of Italy. Was Germany not going to “swallow” Switzerland in order to strengthen its southern flank? Living with the perpetual threat of invasion, the authorities of the Swiss Confederation were in a state of maximum alert. From time to time they expelled one foreign diplomat or another when his activities seemed to exceed the terms of his mission. All citizens of countries involved in the conflict were subject to strict surveillance. The Allied intelligence services were more tolerated than their German counterparts, but neutrality was not to be trifled with in light of the knowledge that Berlin needed only a pretext to invade Switzerland. The entire country lived in fear of a fifth column.
Allen Dulles thus found that his work was naturally handicapped. Nevertheless, his address book was filled every day with new names, and his scanty knowledge of German did not prevent him from communicating with all kinds of people: anti-Nazi exiles from all milieus (political, cultural, union), diplomats and intelligence agents of all nationalities—including Chinese—lawyers, bankers, industrialists, publishers, journalists, churchmen, and even German bargemen authorized to travel on the Rhine between Germany and Switzerland. He met fairly frequently with Carl Gustav Jung in Zurich, who presented his analysis of the psychology of the Nazi leaders and of the “collective unconscious” of the Germans.
Allen Dulles had very good informants in Geneva. One of his most interesting contacts was the Dutchman Willem A. Visser’t Hooft, general secretary of the Ecumenical Council of Churches. He was also well acquainted with William Rappard, former rector of the University of Geneva, who had also represented Switzerland at the League of Nations. Through one or another of his friends, he entered into contact with Adam von Trott zu Solz in January 1943. This young and brilliant German diplomat, an eminent member of the Kreisau Circle, wished to obtain American aid for the underground opposition movements in Germany. “Support us or we will be tempted to turn to the Soviets,” was the substance of his message in a conversation on Swiss territory with one of Dulles’s close collaborators. Allen Dulles had instructions to promise nothing to anyone, especially since the policy defined by Churchill and Roosevelt was the “unconditional surrender” of Germany (a formulation that Dulles personally considered a “catastrophe” because it stifled any impulse toward resistance in Germany). The German diplomat thus left empty-handed.
At about the same time (mid-January 1943), Dulles was visited by Prince Maximilien Egon Hohenlohe von Langenberg, one of his old acquaintances from the time of the First World War. Prince Hohenlohe was a German aristocrat with roots in Sudetenland, who divided his time among Germany, Spain, and Mexico—where his wife, a Spanish marquise, owned large estates. He himself had a passport from Liechtenstein, a neutral country like Switzerland, which enabled him to travel almost everywhere in the world. He was in contact with very high officials throughout Europe (the Aga Khan was among his friends), but especially in Berlin, and notably with Heinrich Himmler. “Help the SS; they are the only ones who can protect Germany against communism and maintain order in the country,” Hohenlohe had told Dulles. The prince encouraged a simple solution: elimination of Hitler, a seizure of power by the SS, a separate peace with the West, and a united front of Western democracies against the Russians. No one knows precisely what Dulles answered, but it seems that the American spymaster left all doors open in order to maintain contact for the future.
It was not easy for Dulles to communicate with Washington, particularly with complete security. Since the end of the unoccupied zone in France, Switzerland had literally been cut off from the rest of the world. Diplomatic mail was suspended. All connections with the outside had to be by telegraph or telephone. Telephones were of course tapped, and nothing confidential could be said over that channel. For telegraphy, a very secure system of encryption had to be used because the only lines available were those of the Swiss postal and telecommunications service. As a result, this work required two full-time employees out of the small OSS Bern crew, which numbered only about fifteen. Dulles and his colleagues were not exceedingly cautious. As a method of encryption, they used simple transpositions of letters, a technique as old as the hills that consisted of changing the order of letters by constructing more or less sophisticated anagrams.
In the spring of 1943, Allen Dulles learned that the Germans had succeeded in deciphering a series of dispatches that he had sent from Bern to Washington. That day, he had used—for convenience—the coding system of the State Department, normally used by the American legation in Bern. This method was even less secure than that of the OSS. This technical failure might have been very costly to the Americans if the leak had concerned sensitive information.
From that day onward, Dulles was encouraged to strengthen the security of his communications. He multiplied encryption keys by using systems with double or triple transpositions. This did not save his system from remaining rather rudimentary in comparison to the complexity of the German Enigma code.
The man who had informed Dulles of the leak was a German. Six feet five inches tall, myopic (the lenses of his glasses were as thick as bottles), his appearance was not very prepossessing. “He looks like a Latin teacher,” thought Dulles when he met him for the first time during the first few weeks of 1943. This was Hans-Bernd Gisevius, vice-consul of the Reich in Zurich, but above all member of the Abwehr, the military intelligence service. After carrying out a long and very meticulous investigation of this obscure figure, Dulles had agreed to enter into contact with him.
Gisevius had long been a friend of Hjalmar Schacht, former economics minister of the Reich. He was also close to Admiral Canaris and to General Oster, the mysterious heads of the Abwehr. Finally, he said that he had close contacts with the Protestant circles opposed to the regime. Gisevius had a Nazi past and had even been a member of the Gestapo in 1933 and 1934. Having gradually become an opponent of the regime, he had a mission to make contact with the Allies for the purpose of obtaining support for the plots that were being hatched against Hitler. The English were suspicious of him and had refused to take him seriously. But by revealing to the Americans a technical secret of great importance, Gisevius had given them a token of his good faith. He soon became known as “Tiny,” as a joke on his great height. He became “512” in the internal nomenclature of the OSS.
Dulles and Gisevius met fairly often, at night after curfew, in Bern or Zurich. Gisevius was (along with a few others) one of the first to reveal to Dulles the existence of long-range German missiles designed to be fired on London. In February 1943, he explained that these rockets were being built “somewhere in Pomerania.” In June, Dulles learned from another source that this “somewhere” was in fact Peenemünde, a Baltic Sea resort. The information provided by Gisevius was hence of the highest quality. Thanks to him, Dulles was also able to transmit to Washington precise details about the state of mind of the German population and the balance of power inside the Nazi regime. Gradually, the head of the American secret services in Switzerland was beginning to become a serious competitor of his British colleagues.
In Washington, however, Dulles did not have an excellent reputation. In late April 1943, the head of American intelligence in Switzerland received the following telegram from his superiors in the OSS:
It has been requested of us to inform you that “all news from Bern these days is being discounted 100% by the War Department.” It is suggested that Switzerland is an ideal location for plants, tendentious intelligence and peace feelers but no details are given. As our duty requires we have passed on the above information. However, we restate our satisfaction that you are the one through whom our Swiss reports come and we believe in your ability to distinguish good intelligence from bad with utmost confidence.