Lothar Witzke

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Lothar Witzke (1895 in Posen – after 1923) was a German spy and saboteur active in the United States and Mexico during World War I.

Naval career[edit]

Born in Posen (now Poznań), Witzke was educated at Posen Academy then entered the German Naval Academy as a seventeen-year-old cadet. By the beginning of the war he was a lieutenant[1] in the Imperial German Navy on the light cruiser SMS Dresden. After many months of excitement, during which the Dresden played havoc with Allied shipping and hid from British warships, she was eventually caught and sunk. Witzke's leg was broken in the action. Together with other survivors of the crew he was interned in Valparaíso, Chile.

Sabotage activities[edit]

Early in 1916 he escaped; and as a seaman, under an assumed name, he succeeded in reaching San Francisco in May 1916 on board the SS Calusa. There he reported to German Consul General von Bopp, who put him in touch with another saboteur, Kurt Jahnke, based in Mexico City. At this time the American authorities knew nothing of Jahnke's and Witzke's surreptitious activities. Both showed special aptitude for secret service work and were of a caliber far superior to von Bopp's other agents. So cleverly did they cover their tracks that they were never even suspected during the neutrality period.

In addition to their work on the West Coast, they made frequent trips east on sabotage missions. After von Bopp's arrest, they gradually shifted their operations to the industrial Eastern Seaboard. Witzke was connected to the March 1917 munitions explosion at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco by double agents of the U.S. Military Intelligence Corps.[2] Later, Witzke himself implied that he had taken part in the massive Black Tom explosion in New York harbor on July 30, 1916,[3] which killed seven and was heard as far away as Philadelphia.


He was arrested at 10 a.m. on February 1, 1918, in Nogales, Arizona at the Mexican border. He claimed to be a Russian-American, "Pablo Waberski", returning to San Francisco. A 424-letter cryptogram was found sewn into the left upper sleeve of his jacket. Several months later this cryptogram was broken by John Matthews Manly[4] who worked with Herbert Yardley[5] at the fledgling MI-8 and identified the bearer to the "Imperial Consular Authorities of the Republic of Mexico".[6] He was convicted by a court martial at Ft. Sam Houston and sentenced to death. Twice he attempted to escape and once got out, but he was caught the same day emerging from a Mexican shack. Upon return, a razor blade was found in his cell, and since suicide was feared, his top clothes were removed. On November 2, 1918 his sentence was approved by the Department Commander.

On May 27, 1920, President Wilson commuted his sentence to life imprisonment,[7] and Witzke went to Leavenworth Prison. Meanwhile German officials were exerting every possible pressure for his release. On April 30, 1923, the German Ambassador asked for his release on the grounds that other countries, including Germany, had released all prisoners of war including spies. At the same time a prison report showed Witzke had heroically prevented a disaster by entering a prison boiler room after an explosion. On that basis Witzke was released on September 26, 1923, pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge, and deported to Berlin.

Upon his return to Germany, Naval Lieutenant Witzke was decorated with the Iron Cross, First and Second Class.

According to one source he eventually joined the Abwehr and survived World War II in Hamburg.[8]

Other people[edit]



  • The Reader of Gentleman's Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking, David Kahn, Yale University Press, 2006 (ISBN 978-0300098464)