Louis Kilzer has taken on one of the most intriguing puzzles of World War II in his gripping, well-researched book about treachery in the Third Reich. Most war historians suspected that Hitler had a traitor who was leaking internal secrets, but who was that person? In a carefully woven story, Kilzer unmasks the only one who could have been the world's most successful spy.
Russia's Red Army ran a highly sophisticated spy ring in Switzerland, orchestrated by Maria Poliakova, who was recruited early in life as a member of the intelligence service. Her code name was “Gisela” and the network she ran was known as “Gisela's family.” The spy ring had a number of sources from which to draw, ranging from the Army's high command to the German foreign office. But the most important spy of all was known as Werther. His information would ultimately help destroy the Third Reich.
After the conquest of France, Hitler moved the bulk of his troops to the Eastern Front. The intent was to destroy the Red Army of Russia and grab hold of Moscow. Only two things stood in his way: weather and Werther.
Of the two, Werther was by far the most deadly. When the Germans were bogged down around Stalingrad, Werther supplied Stalin with detailed information about the location of Hitler's panzers, where they were headed, and precisely how many troops were in reserve.
So detailed were Werther's reports to Moscow Center that it tried to “backcheck” his information. Stalin once insisted on knowing his identity. The spy network refused, which is one of the few times Stalin was rejected. It may be that the spy network didn't actually know who Werther was.
Werther acted with impunity, and it is difficult to understand why Hitler, with all his resources and his canny insight, didn't know of the traitor in his bosom. But as Kilzer notes, “For whatever reason, Hitler allowed the culture of treason to surround him until it destroyed him.” At one time or another, it appeared that everybody in high places conspired to destroy the little man with the funny mustache. One bomb went off at his East Prussian headquarters, but Hitler was unharmed. The plotters or some of them were quickly executed.
Certainly one branch of the conspiracy was the Abwehr the Army's own intelligence organization. Gen. Hans Oster, the number two man, almost openly talked of bringing Hitler down. My choice for Werther would have been Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, who headed the Abwehr. But the chronology doesn't fit. Hitler sacked him before Moscow Center got many of Werther's messages.
Kilzer, the author of Churchill's Deception, has done a bang-up job with his latest book. We now know who Werther was. Hitler's Traitor is guaranteed to keep the reader spellbound while the agent is unmasked.
Lloyd Armour is a retired newspaper editor in Nashville.
Solving the ultimate caper BookPage recently talked to Louis Kilzer, an investigative reporter with the Rocky Mountain News and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, about his search for the true identity of the spy in Hitler's inner circle.
BookPage: The obvious first question about Hitler's Traitor is whether you worked from back to front. That is, did you begin with a conviction that Martin Bormann was a traitor to Hitler or did you discover that along the way? Louis Kilzer: I had suspicions before I started the book, but I didn't know how strong of a case it would end up being. It turned out to be a pretty strong case.
BP: How and when did you first get interested in this project? LK: I did a book in 1994 [Churchill's Deception] about the Rudolf Hess mission that entailed research that occurred from 1991 onward. I went to the Soviet Union in May 1991, just three months before the Soviet Empire ended, to access KGB records. Then I did extensive research at the U.S. National Archives and developed a suspicion at that point that Bormann may have been involved in this ultimate caper.
BP: Did it surprise you that women played such an important role in this story? LK: That was fascinating. The people who first wrote about the Swiss spy ring were all men and they, of course, were credited by male historians with having run the ring. But when you look into the original OSS and CIA records, it becomes obvious that the key roles were played by women.
BP: How did your opinion of Bormann change while writing the book? LK: Bormann is a mystery figure. My view of him hardened. I did not know the extent to which he contributed to the Holocaust until I researched this book. He was, in fact, one of the prime movers of the Holocaust. Put that together with what he was doing in the spy ring, and it is very difficult to understand. I don't fully understand it to this day.
BP: If this information about Bormann had been discovered in the immediate aftermath of the war, what effect do you think it would have had? LK: I believe the Soviets would have been rather embarrassed. The Soviet Union had no interest…in letting that secret out because, for the Soviets, it was the Red Army that won the war and not a spy ring. That would take away from the prestige of the Red Army.