Allen Dulles’s most audacious intervention on behalf of a major Nazi war criminal took place in the waning days of the war. The story of the relationship between Dulles and SS general Karl Wolff—Himmler’s former chief of staff and commander of Nazi security forces in Italy—is a long and tangled one. But perhaps it’s best to begin at a particularly dire moment for Wolff, in the still-dark early morning hours of April 26, 1945, less than two weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
That morning, soon after arriving at the SS command post in Cernobbio, a quaint town nestled in the foothills of the Italian Alps on the shores of Lake Como, Wolff was surrounded by a well-armed unit of Italian partisans. The partisans had established positions around the entire SS compound, a luxurious estate that had been seized by the Nazis from the Locatelli family, a wealthy dynasty of cheese manufacturers. With only a handful of SS soldiers standing guard outside his villa, Wolff had no way to break through the siege and his capture seemed imminent. As chief of all SS and Gestapo units in Italy, Wolff was well known to the Italian resistance, who blamed him for the reprisal killings of many civilians in response to partisan attacks on Nazi targets, as well as for the torture and murder of numerous resistance fighters. If he fell into the partisans’ hands, the SS commander was not likely to be treated charitably.
At age forty-four, the tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed Wolff carried himself with the supreme self-confidence of a man who had long been paraded around by the Nazi high command as an ideal Aryan specimen. A former advertising executive, Wolff understood the power of imagery. His climb through the Nazi Party ranks had been paved by his Hessian bearing, his imperial, hawk-nosed profile, and the erect figure he cut in his SS dress uniform. Himmler, the former chicken farmer, drew confidence from Wolff’s suave presence and fondly called him “Wolffie.” The SS chief made Wolff his principal liaison to Hitler’s headquarters, where he also quickly became a favorite.
Hitler enjoyed showing off Wolff at his dinner parties and made sure that the SS-Obergruppenführer was by his side during the war’s tense overture, when German forces invaded Poland and Hitler prepared to join his troops at the front. “To my great and, I openly admit, joyful surprise, I was ordered to the innermost Führer headquarters,” Wolff proudly recalled as an old man. “Hitler wanted to have me nearby, because he knew that he could rely on me completely. He had known me for a long time, and rather well.”
But in April 1945, encircled by his enemies at the Villa Locatelli, Wolff was far from these glory days. The desperation of his situation was underlined the following day when Benito Mussolini, Italy’s once all-powerful Duce, whose status had been reduced to that of Wolff’s ward, was captured by partisans at a roadblock on the northern tip of Lake Como while fleeing with his dwindling entourage for Switzerland. Taken to the crumbling but still grand city hall in the nearby lakeside village of Dongo, Mussolini was assured he would be treated mercifully. “Don’t worry,” the mayor told him, “you will be all right.”
A horde of partisans and curious townspeople crowded into the mayor’s office, to fire questions at the man who had ruled Italy for over two decades. Mussolini answered each question thoughtfully. In the final months of his life, he had grown increasingly reflective and resigned to his fate. He spent more time reading—his tastes ranged from Dostoyevsky and Hemingway to Plato and Nietzsche—than dealing with governmental affairs. “I am crucified by my destiny,” Mussolini had told a visiting Italian army chaplain in his final days.
When his captors asked him why he had allowed the Germans to exact harsh retributions on the Italian people, Mussolini mournfully explained that it was beyond his power. “My hands were tied. There was very little possibility of opposing General [Albert] Kesselring [field commander of the German armed forces in Italy] and General Wolff in what they did. Again and again in conversations with General Wolff, I mentioned that stories of people being tortured and other brutal deeds had come to my ears. One day Wolff replied that it was the only means of extracting the truth, and even the dead spoke the truth in his torture chambers.”
In the end, Mussolini found no mercy. He and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, who insisted on sharing his fate, were machine-gunned and their bodies were put on display in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. Mussolini’s body was subjected to particular abuse by the large, frantic crowd in the square; one woman fired five shots into Il Duce’s head—one for each of her five dead sons. The bodies were then strung up by their feet from the overhanging girders of a garage roof, where they were subjected to further indignities. When he heard about Mussolini’s grotesque finale, Hitler—who, near the end, had told the Duce that he was “perhaps the only friend I have in the world”—ordered that his own body be burned after he killed himself.
General Wolff knew that he, too, faced a merciless end if he fell captive at Villa Locatelli. But unlike Mussolini, the SS commander had a very dedicated and powerful friend in the enemy camp.
At eleven in the morning on April 26, Allen Dulles received an urgent phone call in his Bern office from Max Waibel, his contact in Swiss intelligence. Waibel reported that Karl Wolff was surrounded by partisans at Villa Locatelli and “there was a great danger they might storm the villa and kill Wolff.”
The SS general was the key to Dulles’s greatest wartime ambition: securing a separate peace with Nazi forces in Italy before the Soviet army could push into Austria and southward toward Trieste. With the Communists playing a dominant role in the Italian resistance, Dulles knew that blocking the advance of the Red Army into northern Italy was critical if Italy was to be prevented from falling into the Soviet orbit after the war. Dulles and his intelligence colleagues had been secretly meeting with Wolff and his SS aides since late February, trying to work out a separate surrender of German forces in Italy that would save the Nazi officers’ necks and win the OSS spymaster the glory that had eluded him throughout the war.
The negotiations for Operation Sunrise, as Dulles optimistically christened his covert peace project, were a highly delicate dance. Exposure could spell disaster for both men. According to Wolff, during their diplomatic courtship, Dulles identified himself as a “special representative” and “a personal friend” of President Roosevelt—neither of which was true. In fact, by negotiating with the SS general, Dulles was clearly violating FDR’s emphatic policy of unconditional surrender. Just days before Wolff was trapped at Villa Locatelli, Dulles had been expressly forbidden by Washington from continuing his contacts with Wolff.
Meanwhile, the SS commander’s secret diplomatic efforts both dovetailed and competed with the numerous other Nazi peace initiatives coming Dulles’s way, including that of his boss, Heinrich Himmler, who was also shrewd enough to realize that the German war effort was doomed and he along with it, unless he managed to cut his own deal. Even the Führer himself was toying with the idea of how he might save the Reich by splitting the Allies and winning a favorable peace settlement. In his backroom dealing with Dulles, Wolff at times found himself an emissary of the Nazi high command and at other times a traitorous agent working at cross-purposes to save his own skin.
But with Wolff now surrounded by Italian resistance fighters at Villa Locatelli, his end seemed near—and with it, all the painstaking and duplicitous efforts undertaken by the two men over the previous two months on behalf of Operation Sunrise. Dulles had too much at stake to let his happen. Alerted to Wolff’s predicament, he flew into action, mounting a rescue party to cross the border and reach the villa before it was too late.
Dulles knew that risking brave men to save a Nazi war criminal’s life—in the interests of his own unsanctioned peace mission—was an act of brazen insubordination that could cost him his intelligence career. So, to give himself cover, Dulles arranged for his loyal subordinate, Gero von Schulze-Gaevernitz, to oversee the rescue.
Dulles later related the story with typical bonhomie—but, as was often the case, his glib delivery masked a darker tale. “I told Gaevernitz that under the strict orders I had received, I could not get in touch with Wolff. . . . Gaevernitz listened silently for a moment. Then he said that since the whole [Operation Sunrise] affair seemed to have come to an end, he would like to go on a little trip for a few days. I noticed a twinkle in his eye, and as he told me later, he noticed one in mine. I realized, of course, what he was going to do, and that he intended to do it on his own responsibility.”
When it came to saving Wolff, Gaevernitz shared his boss’s zeal. Gaevernitz was the handsome scion of an illustrious European family and a relative of the Stinnes family, whose fortune had helped finance Hitler’s political rise. The Gaevernitzes had broken from the Nazis early on, and Dulles helped funnel their money to safe havens outside of Germany, as he did for many wealthy Germans, including those who remained loyal to the Nazi regime, before and during the war. Dulles and Gaevernitz were also tied together by their political views—they both believed that “moderate” members of Hitler’s regime must be salvaged from the war’s wreckage and incorporated into postwar plans for Germany. By the extremely generous standards of Dulles and Gaevernitz, even Karl Wolff qualified as one such redeemable Nazi.
After being dispatched by Dulles, Gaevernitz, accompanied by the Swiss secret agent Waibel, jumped on an Italy-bound train, arriving at the Swiss border town of Chiasso late that evening. There they met one of Dulles’s top agents, Don Jones, a man well known to the Italian resistance fighters in the border area as “Scotti.” Gaevernitz thought that Scotti, a man who risked his life each day fighting SS soldiers, would balk at the idea of saving the general who commanded them. But Scotti gamely agreed to lead the mission.
And so, as midnight approached, a convoy of three cars set off toward the western shore of Lake Como. One vehicle carried OSS agent Scotti and three Swiss intelligence operatives, the second was filled with Italian partisans, and the third conveyed two SS officials Dulles had recruited to ease the convoy’s passage through German-controlled areas. It was one of the most bizarre missions in wartime Europe: a joint U.S.-German rescue effort organized for the benefit of a high-ranking Nazi general.
As the convoy crawled through the dark toward the lake, partisans opened fire on the cars. Scotti bravely jumped out of his vehicle and stood in the headlights, praying that the resistance soldiers would recognize him and stop shooting. Fortunately, one did. There was more gunfire and even a grenade attack as they continued their journey, but finally, the odd rescue team arrived at the Villa Locatelli. After talking their way past the partisans’ blockade as well as the SS guard, they entered the villa and found General Wolff in full SS uniform, as if he had been expecting them all along. He offered the rescue party some of the vintage Scotch he kept for special occasions, volunteering that the whiskey had been expropriated from the British by Rommel during the North African campaign.
It was after two in the morning when the caravan arrived safely back in Chiasso with their special passenger, who had changed into civilian clothes for the journey and was slumped low in the backseat of the middle car. Gaevernitz was anxiously awaiting the rescue team’s return in the dingy railroad station café. He had no intention of greeting Wolff in public. But when the SS general heard that Dulles’s aide was there, he bounded over to him and shook his hand. “I will never forget what you have done for me,” Wolff declared.
Dulles and Gaevernitz would learn that the SS man had a strange sense of gratitude. In the coming years, Wolff would become a millstone around their necks.
Later that morning, an exhausted Gaevernitz, who had not been out of his clothes all that night, took a train to his family’s lovely villa in Ascona, on Lake Maggiore, so he could enjoy a long sleep. At the railway station in Locarno, where he stopped for breakfast, he listened to the 7:00 a.m. radio broadcast, which was filled with news of Mussolini’s capture and other dramatic bulletins from the Lake Como area. Gaevernitz kept expecting to hear news of General Wolff’s rescue by a U.S.-led team of commandos; he was determined that his boss’s name must be kept out of the story.
“It would have made a lovely headline in the papers,” Gaevernitz later mused in his diary. “‘German S.S. General Rescued From Italian Patriots by American Consul’!!! Poor Allen!! I really felt I had to spare him this [embarrassment].”
It took Wolff several more days of high-stakes diplomacy before his maneuvers finally resulted in the surrender of German forces on the Italian front on May 2, 1945. By then, Hitler was dead, the German military machine had all but collapsed, and it was just six days before the capitulation of all Axis forces in Europe. In the end, Operation Sunrise saved few lives and had little impact on the course of the war. It did succeed, however, in creating a new set of international tensions that some historians would identify as the first icy fissures of the Cold War.
The Dulles-Wolff maneuvers aggravated Stalin’s paranoid disposition. While he was still alive, Roosevelt, whom Stalin genuinely liked and trusted, was able to reassure the Soviet leader that the United States had no intention of betraying an alliance forged in blood. But after FDR’s death, Stalin’s fears of a stab in the back at Caserta—where the surrender on the Italian front was signed by German and American military commanders—only grew more intense. His suspicions were not unfounded. After the separate peace was declared at Caserta, some German divisions in Italy were told not to lay down their arms but to get ready to begin battling the Red Army alongside the Americans and British.
Even Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, who would become a dedicated Cold Warrior, took a dim view of Operation Sunrise and tried unsuccessfully to shut it down. Truman later wrote in his memoir that Dulles’s unauthorized diplomacy stirred up a tempest of trouble for him during his first days as president.
Operation Sunrise would become Allen Dulles’s creation myth, the legend that loomed over his entire intelligence career. For the rest of his life, the spymaster would energetically work the publicity machinery on “the secret surrender,” generating magazine articles and more than one book and attempting to turn the tale into a Hollywood thriller. It was, according to the story that Dulles assiduously spun throughout the rest of his life, a feat of daring personal diplomacy. Time magazine—which, under the ownership of his close friend Henry Luce, could always be counted on to give Dulles good press—trumpeted Operation Sunrise as “one of the most stunning triumphs in the history of secret wartime diplomacy.” The reality, however, was far from triumphant.
Karl Wolff was Allen Dulles’s kind of Nazi. Like Hitler and Himmler, Dulles admired Wolff’s gentlemanly comportment and found him “extremely good-looking.” He struck Dulles as a man with the right sort of pedigree, the type of trustworthy fellow with whom he could do business.
Wolff liked to present himself as a high-level administrator who was unsullied by the more inhumane operations of his government. He was not one of the Nazi Party’s vulgar anti-Semites, he would later insist. He took pride in rescuing the occasional prominent Jewish prisoner from the Gestapo dungeons—a banker, a tennis celebrity, for instance. Eichmann sneeringly referred to Wolff as one of the “dandy officers of the SS, who wore white gloves and didn’t want to know anything about what’s going on.”
Wolff was a financially savvy fixer, a man whom the Nazi hierarchy could rely on to get things done. After serving with distinction as a young army officer on the western front during World War I, Wolff originally pursued a career in banking, before going into advertising. But his ambitions in both fields were thwarted by Germany’s postwar economic crash. His decision to join Hitler’s rapidly growing enterprise, where he rose quickly through the ranks, was more of a professional decision than an ideological one. There were unlimited opportunities in the Nazi movement for a polished blond warrior like Wolff.
His business background gave Wolff cachet in the SS, where such skills were in short supply. It was Wolff who was put in charge of Himmler’s important “circle of friends,” a select group of some three dozen German industrialists and bankers who supplied the SS with a stream of slush money. “Himmler was no businessman and I took care of banking matters for him,” Wolff later recalled. In return for their generosity, the corporate donors were given special access to pools of slave labor. They were also invited to attend high-level government meetings and special Nazi Party ceremonies. It was said that Wolff took such good care of the wealthy contributors at the 1933 Nuremberg rally that they were pampered more than the Führer himself. On other occasions, the privileged circle of friends was even taken on private tours of the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, escorted by Himmler and Wolff. Presumably the SS shut down the camps’ crematoria during the distinguished guests’ visits to spare them the unpleasant stench.
In pursuing the Sunrise peace pact, Dulles and Wolff harbored similar political motives. Both viewed the Soviet army’s advance into Western Europe as a catastrophe. But they also shared business interests. Throughout the war, Dulles had used his OSS command post in Switzerland to look out for Sullivan and Cromwell business clients in Europe. Stopping the war before these clients’ manufacturing and power plants in industrial northern Italy were destroyed was a priority for both men.
Under the terms of Operation Sunrise, Wolff specifically agreed not to blow up the region’s many hydroelectric plants, which generated power from the water roaring down from the Alps. Most of these installations were owned by a multinational holding company called Italian Superpower Corporation. Incorporated in Delaware in 1928, Italian Superpower’s board was evenly divided between American and Italian utility executives, and by the following year the power company was swallowed by a bigger, J. P. Morgan–financed cartel. The ties between Italian Superpower and Dulles’s financial circle were reinforced when, toward the end of the war, the spymaster’s good friend—New York banker James Russell Forgan—took over as his OSS boss in London. Forgan was one of Italian Superpower’s directors.
Dulles concluded that Wolff was, in effect, a member of his international club—a man with similar views, connections, and willingness to do business. Neither man was particularly interested in the clash of ideas or human tragedies associated with the war. They were fixed on the calculus of power; each understood the other’s intense ambition. Operation Sunrise was for both of them a bold, high-wire career move.
After he decided that Wolff was a dependable partner, Dulles went to great lengths to rehabilitate the SS commander’s image. In his reports back to OSS headquarters, he framed Wolff in the best possible light: he was a “moderate” and “probably the most dynamic [German] personality in North Italy.” Although some U.S. and British intelligence officials suspected that Wolff was serving as an agent of Hitler and Himmler and trying to drive a wedge between the Allies, Dulles insisted that the German general was acting heroically and selflessly to bring peace to Italy and to spare its land, people, and art treasures from a final, scorched-earth conflagration.
Dulles knew from the beginning that working with Wolff was an extremely risky proposition—not just because of the Allies’ strict prohibition against a separate peace deal but because Himmler’s right-hand man was certain to be placed high on the list of Nazi war criminals. Even many years later, when the evidence against Wolff had grown to utterly damning proportions, the old spy refused to pass judgment on him. “The conclusions [about Wolff] must be left to history,” wrote Dulles in his carefully calibrated Operation Sunrise memoir. He was delaying a judgment that, for many, had long since been obvious.
When Wolff was later confronted with the obscenity of the Nazi leadership’s war crimes, he would inevitably plead ignorance, claiming he occupied such a lofty perch in the Reich’s clouds that he did not learn about the death camps until the final days of the war. When this tactic failed, he would claim that he had been powerless to stop the mass slaughter, or he would fall back on legalisms and other technical evasions. But the stains on Wolff were not so easily erased.
Karl Wolff, who would go down in history as “one of the unknown giants of Hitler’s Reich,” was content to operate in the shadows. While little known by the public, however, he played a prominent administrative role in Hitler’s lethal assembly line. He was, asTime magazine later branded him, the “Bureaucrat of Death.”
The Nuremberg trials would firmly establish the principle that administrators of murder—not just the actual executioners—could be found guilty of war crimes. Although he was not a central cog in the daily operations of the Holocaust like Adolf Eichmann, Wolff, as Himmler’s top troubleshooter, frequently intervened to ensure the smooth efficiency of the extermination process.
During the Nuremberg trials, a highly incriminating letter written by Wolff would emerge that made it clear how important his intervention could be in keeping the trains rolling to the death camps. In July 1942, after the trains hauling Polish Jews to the Treblinka gas chambers were temporarily halted because of the German military’s demand for railcars, Wolff appealed to a Nazi transportation official for help. After the rail shortage was successfully resolved, Wolff sent off a heartfelt letter of thanks.
“I was especially pleased,” Wolff wrote the transportation minister in a chillingly bureaucratic note, “to receive the information that, for the last 14 days, a train has been leaving daily for Treblinka with 5,000 members of the chosen people, and that in this way we are in a position to carry out this population movement at an accelerated tempo.”
Wolff also played a key administrative role in a series of medical experiments on human subjects at the notorious Dachau camp from 1942 through 1943. The research was conducted by Luftwaffe doctors who were intent on increasing the survival rates of German pilots, and was strongly supported by Himmler, who fancied himself a man of science. In the first round of experiments, human guinea pigs culled by the SS from Dachau’s ranks of the damned were forced inside special low-oxygen chambers to determine how long Luftwaffe pilots could fly at high altitudes before passing out. Inside the chambers, victims gasped for air, frantically cried out, and finally collapsed. It was up to the Luftwaffe doctor in charge of the experiments, a sadist named Siegmund Rascher, whether the victims would be revived in time or allowed to die. Rascher oversaw about 150 such high-altitude experiments, of which at least half resulted in death.
A subsequent round of medical experiments at Dachau was aimed at finding the best ways to revive German aviators who were rescued after crashing into the frigid North Sea. Camp inmates were forced to stand naked in freezing weather for up to fourteen hours. Others were submerged in tanks of iced water for three hours at a time. The subjects of the initial freezing experiments all died. But then the doctors added a new twist to their experiments. They “rewarmed” their victim in a hot bath and then revived him further with “animal heat” provided by four female Gypsies. The victim, after being nearly frozen to death, suddenly found his naked body warmly embraced by four women who brought him back to life.
Wolff should have been sitting in the dock at Nuremberg as part of the first round of defendants. But it was the cruder and less-connected executioner Ernst Kaltenbrunner who would hang for the sins of the SS. Nor was Wolff in the dock the following year, when the Doctors’ Trial began, though he would be singled out by prosecutors as one of the principal “masterminds” behind the Dachau experiments. Throughout the Nuremberg proceedings and the legal challenges that confronted him in later years, Wolff was watched over by his twin guardian angels—Dulles and Gero von Schulze-Gaevernitz. They made sure that the sword of justice never came down with its full might on SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Wolff. Among the few lives saved by the Operation Sunrise peace gambit, as it turned out, was that of Wolff himself and those of the SS officers who conspired with him.
On May 13, 1945, shortly after the Operation Sunrise surrender, Karl Wolff celebrated his forty-fifth birthday at the villa of the Dukes of Pistoia in Bolzano, the royal estate he had requisitioned as his final SS command post. Before his lunch party began, Wolff relaxed on the villa’s terrace with his SS aide and Sunrise partner Eugen Dollmann, who had served as the interpreter for Hitler and Himmler in Italy. “It’s really rather pleasant here, Eugenio,” remarked the SS-Obergruppenführer, using his affectionate name for the Italy-besotted Dollmann as the two men gazed at Wolff’s children and Dollmann’s Alsatian hound gamboling in the rose garden. But Dollmann, who could hear American tanks rumbling nearby, could not let himself enjoy their idyll. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your last birthday in sunny Italy, Herr General,” he remarked. Dollmann’s grave mood brought a burst of laughter from Wolff. “My dear Eugenio! You’re not going to get the wind up in these lovely surroundings? And on my birthday too!”
Shortly afterward, Wolff’s wife, Ingeborg, a tall, blond beauty and former countess, who had left her aging, aristocratic husband for her perfect Aryan match, came onto the terrace and announced that lunch was ready.
Dollmann’s instincts, as usual, proved correct. As Wolff and his guests—staff officers of the Wehrmacht in dress uniform—sipped champagne in the villa’s flower-adorned entrance hall, they suddenly heard the growl of tanks outside. “The Americans,” Wolff said in a deflated voice, as he looked out the windows. Soldiers in the white helmets of military policemen burst through the doors, carrying machine guns and herding Wolff’s children in front of them. One of their officers, chewing a wad of gum, unceremoniously approached the SS commander and announced that he was under arrest.
Wolff was aghast, protesting indignantly that Allen Dulles, the president’s personal representative in Switzerland, had promised him “honorable treatment.” But the military police officer was unimpressed. “Put your things in a small case,” he snapped at Wolff, still working his Wrigley’s. “Go on, get a move on.”
As the Obergruppenführer bid farewell to his wife and children outside the villa, a mob of Italians gathered to also send the SS officers on their way, pelting Wolff and Dollmann with rocks and rotten eggs as the MPs stood by laughing. The two Nazi VIPs were then stuffed inside an American jeep and whisked away—first to a gloomy Bolzano dungeon and then, more hospitably, to Cinecittà, the sprawling film studio in Rome that the Allies had transformed into a POW camp.
Wolff began invoking the name of Allen Dulles to anyone who would listen as soon as he was behind bars. The question of whether Dulles had promised Wolff immunity from war crimes prosecution in return for his Sunrise collaboration would nag the intelligence chief for many years. Dulles would repeatedly insist that Wolff had never asked for such protection and he had never offered it. According to Dulles, the SS commander had maintained all along that he was no war criminal and “he was willing to stand on his record.”
In truth, Wolff’s growing confidence as he successfully dodged prosecution over the following years derived from the fact that Dulles had indeed offered him immunity. Two of the Swiss intermediaries involved in the Sunrise negotiations would later confirm that such an arrangement had been made. Dulles’s negotiating team went so far as to promise Wolff that he and other “decent” and “idealistic” members of the Nazi high command would be allowed to participate in the leadership of postwar Germany. Wolff was even given to believe that he might be awarded the minister of education post.
Dulles threw his cloak of protection over Wolff from the very start. The SS general spent the first days of his confinement as a privileged guest of the U.S. military. He had been warned by Gaevernitz that he might have to spend some time behind bars, to deflect any criticism of preferential treatment. But Wolff enjoyed VIP treatment, receiving better food than other prisoners and even being allowed to wear his full uniform, complete with sidearm. In August, he was transferred to a small U.S.-run POW camp near Gmunden, Austria—a lakeside resort known for its health spas, featuring pinecone and salt-bath treatments. According to a highly embarrassing article that ran in the New York Herald Tribune, Wolff enjoyed a pleasant summer idyll on the lake, where he was reunited with his family and even asked for his yacht to be delivered to him.
That summer was the period of greatest jeopardy for Wolff, as the Nuremberg prosecutors selected their first list of defendants and the world outcry for justice was at its peak, on the heels of the appalling revelations about the Final Solution. Justice Robert Jackson and the Allied legal staff considered Wolff to be a primary target, circulating a list that named him one of the “major war criminals.” With Hitler and Himmler both dead, Wolff was among the highest Nazi officials to survive the war, clearly outranking most of the defendants who were subsequently put on trial at Nuremberg.
Determined to keep Wolff out of the defendants’ dock, however, Dulles went so far as to bury incriminating evidence, including one particularly damning OSS report that blamed the Nazi general not only for the “wholesale slaughter of populations” and “the collective reprisals” against Italian civilians, but also for the torture and murder of OSS agents in his Bolzano SS headquarters. The feelings against Wolff were running understandably high in some OSS quarters, where the SS general was suspected of personally interrogating American intelligence officers. But Dulles betrayed his own men, blocking the OSS report on Wolff from ever reaching the Nuremberg staff. Instead, it was Dulles’s portrait of Wolff as a “moderate” and a “gentleman” that was sent to the Nuremberg legal team, along with a recommendation that he not be prosecuted for SS crimes.
Dulles succeeded in keeping Wolff off the Nuremberg defendants list. The general would appear at the trial only as a witness, testifying on behalf of his fellow war criminal Hermann Goering. But as Nuremberg prosecutors prepared for new rounds of trials, and as war crimes tribunals were organized in Italy and other countries that had fallen under the boot of Nazi occupation, Wolff still found himself behind bars. Realizing that the SS general was still not safe from prosecution, Dulles arranged for Wolff to be diagnosed with a nervous disorder, and in spring 1946 he was transferred to a psychiatric institution in Augsburg, Austria.
Wolff knew that Dulles had engineered his psychiatric diagnosis to shield him from prosecution, but he also suspected that it was a way “to prevent me [from] talking.” The general knew that he continued to have great leverage over Dulles: if he revealed the immunity deal that the two men had worked out, the spymaster’s career would be jeopardized. Wolff was also privy to another Sunrise dirty secret: the extent to which the separate peace pact was a cold betrayal of the United States’ and Britain’s wartime Soviet allies. In fact, Dulles was so concerned about what Wolff might be telling his interrogators behind bars that he began to have his conversations secretly taped.
As Wolff’s imprisonment stretched on, he grew increasingly frustrated and began talking more freely about the “mutual understanding” that he and Dulles had struck and about the way he had been double-crossed. Wolff’s increasingly vocal behavior was not lost on Dulles and the other American and British authorities involved in the Sunrise deal. At one point, his jailers quietly offered him an open door to his freedom. But Wolff did not want the life of a rat on the run, hiding out in Argentina or Chile. He was determined to hold the Sunrise cabal to their deal; he wanted to be fully exonerated and allowed to regain a prominent position in the new Germany.
In February 1947, Wolff played his trump card, writing a letter to President Truman in which he boldly revealed the terms of the Operation Sunrise agreement. Wolff informed Truman that, in return for his cooperation on the secret surrender, “I received from Mr. Dulles and his secretary, Mr. Gaevernitz, an explicit promise” of freedom for himself and his fellow “meritorious” SS collaborators on the Sunrise deal. It was now time, Wolff informed Truman, for the United States to honor the bargain made by Dulles.
The German POW followed up his letter to Truman with an equally emphatic note to Dulles, in which he managed to strike a tone at once courtly and threatening. Wolff insisted that Dulles must come to his aid, and that of his “entire [Sunrise] squadron,” to win their “honorable release from captivity.” His direct appeal to Dulles, wrote Wolff, “is not only my right but my knightly duty”; by negotiating secretly with the U.S. spymaster, Wolff reminded him, he had “saved your honor and reputation . . . at the risk of our lives.”
Wolff stirred the pot further by sending a similar letter to Major General Lyman Lemnitzer, who had worked closely with Dulles as the U.S. Army’s point man on the Sunrise negotiations. Lemnitzer shared Dulles’s strong anti-Soviet sentiments, and he had colluded with the OSS official to keep the secret talks with Wolff going forward, even after President Roosevelt and the Allied command thought they had pulled the plug on Sunrise. After the German surrender, the ambitious Lemnitzer had also worked with Dulles to promote Sunrise in the press as an espionage triumph. When Wolff’s letter reached Lemnitzer, he was stationed at the Pentagon, where he had been appointed to a prestigious position with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lemnitzer would ultimately rise to become the Army chief of staff under President Kennedy, where once again his career would be fatefully linked with that of Dulles.
As soon as Lemnitzer received the letter from Wolff, who appealed to him “as one general to another” to make sure the Sunrise deal was honored, Lemnitzer smelled trouble. As with his letter to Dulles, Wolff’s appeal to Lemnitzer melded obsequious German courtesy with a flash of steel. Wolff signed off with a clear warning, telling Lemnitzer that he was hoping to resolve the situation “as a comrade” before he was forced to air his grievances “publicly.” Lemnitzer fired off a letter to Dulles, who was in Switzerland at the time, telling him that he was “anxious to discuss this matter with you” as soon as Dulles returned home.
Thus began a series of carefully worded letters and private discussions between the two most prominent Americans who were associated with the Sunrise deal. Dulles, who was savvy enough to never put his agreement with Wolff in writing, warned Lemnitzer to be “very careful” in communicating with Wolff. “He has proved to be a clever, tricky and wily customer,” Dulles cautioned Lemnitzer. The spymaster appeared to have a certain amount of professional respect for the way the Nazi military man had played him.
The circumspect communications between Dulles and Lemnitzer led to a flurry of behind-the-scenes efforts on Wolff’s behalf. The last thing anyone wanted was a “sensational trial,” as Dulles put it, where Wolff would undoubtedly spill the entire Sunrise story.
In March 1948, Wolff was transferred to a detention center in Hamburg, and instead of being tried for war crimes, he was put through a much less threatening “denazification” hearing in a German court. Dulles supplied Wolff’s defense team with a glowing affidavit that was read aloud in the courtroom and concluded, “In my opinion, General Wolff’s action . . . materially contributed to bringing about the end of the war in Italy.” The ever-loyal Gaevernitz showed up as a character witness, testifying for over an hour about Wolff’s Sunrise heroism and insisting, falsely, that the SS general had never “demanded any special treatment after the war.”
The German court was impressed by the defendant’s influential friends. Found guilty of the relatively minor charge of “being a member of the SS with knowledge of its criminal acts,” Wolff received a four-year sentence. Through Dulles’s lobbying efforts, the sentence was reduced to time already served, and in June 1949, Wolff walked out of the men’s prison at Hamburg-Bergedorf a free man. Gaevernitz and other Sunrise intermediaries were there to celebrate the war criminal’s release. “It seemed like old times and we missed you greatly,” he wrote Dulles.
One of the first actions taken by the newly liberated Wolff was to, once again, demand special treatment. He insisted that the U.S. government owed him at least $45,000 for an itemized list of clothing and family belongings that he claimed were looted by U.S. military police from his SS palace in Bolzano after his arrest. The demand for reparations by Himmler’s former right-hand man was, at last, even too much for Dulles. “Between you and me,” an exasperated Dulles wrote the following year to his Swiss intelligence comrade Max Waibel, “KW doesn’t realize what a lucky man he is not to be spending the rest of his days in jail, and his wisest policy would be to keep fairly quiet about the loss of a bit of underwear, etc. He might easily have lost more than his shirt.”
Wolff’s journey now came full circle, as the middle-aged SS veteran returned to the advertising field he had abandoned two decades earlier for a career with Hitler. Landing a job as an advertising sales manager with a weekly magazine in Cologne—courtesy yet again of Dulles, who had helped pave the return to civilian life by ensuring he was not subjected to an employment ban—Wolff quickly proved to be a man on his way up. With the “circle of friends” he had made as Himmler’s banker, Wolff found it easy to establish contacts with the advertising departments of the leading German companies. As his sales soared, so did his commissions. By 1953, he was prosperous enough to buy a manor for his family on Lake Starnberg in southern Bavaria, complete with a dock and bathhouse.
Wolff’s success emboldened him. He began talking more openly about his past to friends and even journalists. He revealed that ten days before Hitler’s suicide in a Berlin bunker, the Führer had promoted him to the rank of senior general of the Waffen-SS, the military wing of Himmler’s empire.
The general wanted it both ways: he wanted to be seen as one of the clean and honorable Germans, but his pride also had him crowing about his grand and loyal service to Hitler’s Reich. Wolff’s ambivalence was highlighted again when he told a newsletter published by an SS veterans club that Hitler had known about and “completely approved” of his Operation Sunrise machinations, presumably as a tactic for buying time and splitting the Allies. Wolff, regarded with disdain by his former SS colleagues for his role in Sunrise, might have been trying to ingratiate himself with his old Nazi brethren. But it was a dubious claim. Eugen Dollmann undoubtedly came closer to the truth when he wrote in his memoir that a fading Hitler—pumped full of drugs during their final meeting in the bunker—gave Wolff “a vague sort of permission to maintain the contact he had established with the Americans.”
In the mid-1950s, the increasingly self-assured Wolff, convinced that Germany needed his leadership, became politically active again. In 1953, he took a lead role in establishing the Reichsreferat, a neofascist party, and in 1956, he began organizing an association of former SS officers. The old ideas came slithering out once more: the demonization of non-Germanic races and the Bolshevist menace, the glorification of power.
Karl Wolff was eager to return to center stage, and who better to help his quest than his powerful American patron? Wolff had stayed in touch with Dulles through the U.S. occupational authorities stationed in Germany, passing him notes and books related to Operation Sunrise that he thought the spymaster might find interesting. After his release from prison, Wolff had developed a side business with U.S. intelligence agencies, selling information to a notorious espionage freebooter named John “Frenchy” Grombach, who had served in Army intelligence. Grombach gathered information from a far-flung network of SS old boys and other ex-Nazis in Europe, peddling it to the CIA, State Department, and corporate clients. But Wolff knew that his best connection in the American intelligence world was Allen Dulles himself, who by 1953 had become chief of the CIA.
On May 20, 1958, Wolff marched confidently into the U.S. embassy in Bonn and asked to see two CIA officers he knew. Informed that those agents were no longer in Bonn, Wolff was escorted into the office of the CIA station chief. As usual, Wolff thoroughly charmed his host, who later reported that he “was most polite, almost ingratiating for a former General.” Wolff, the station chief added, was “sporting a tan which looked as though it had been acquired south of the Alps and exuded prosperity.” Wolff informed his CIA host that he wanted to visit the United States. He wanted to see his daughter, who was married to an American, and his son, who was also residing there. He did not mention the other person he wanted to see, but it was obvious to the station chief. Everyone in the agency’s upper ranks knew about the CIA director’s long and intricate history with Wolff.
Chatting with the Bonn station chief, Wolff soon got to the point. He wanted assurances that he would have no trouble securing a visa for his visit to the United States. Informed about his old wartime collaborator’s wishes, Dulles pulled strings on his behalf in Washington. But the two men were never to be reunited in America. Karl Wolff’s name still stirred too much unease in the bowels of Washington’s bureaucracy. Some foreign service functionaries began asking awkward questions about the general’s wartime activities. There were some specters from the past, realized Dulles, that were best left in the past, to be conjured only in one’s smoothly crafted memoirs.