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In the 1930s, Salon Kitty was a high-class brothel at 11 Giesebrechtstrasse in Charlottenburg, a wealthy district of Berlin. Its usual clientele included German dignitaries and foreign diplomats. Its owner and madame was Kitty Schmidt.
The idea to use Salon Kitty for espionage purposes came from Reinhard Heydrich, but SD chief Walter Schellenberg did most of the work. Instead of infiltrating the brothel, Schellenberg decided to take it over.
Kitty Schmidt had been sending money to British banks with fleeing refugees ever since the Nazis took power in Germany. When she eventually decided to leave the country on June 28, 1939, SD agents arrested her at the Dutch border and took her to Gestapo HQ. There Schellenberg made her an offer: either cooperate with the Nazis or be sent to a concentration camp.
The SD closed the brothel for repairs and refurbished it with numerous concealed microphones; wires from the microphones led to a cellar and from there to a room equipped with five monitoring desks and recording turntables. The idea was to entertain prominent guests with wine and women, so they would disclose secrets or talk about their real opinions.
Berlin's vice squad (the Sittenpolizei) arrested dozens of Berlin prostitutes and selected 20 as potential agents to work at Salon Kitty. They were put through seven weeks of rigorous indoctrination and training. Among other things, they were trained to recognize military uniforms, and to glean secrets from innocuous conversation. They were not told about the microphones but had to make a report after every encounter.
In March 1940, Schmidt was told to continue as if nothing had happened, except that now she had a special book of twenty additional girls she should show only to certain clients. If a customer used the phrase "I come from Rothenburg", she was instructed to show him the book, allow him make his decision and call for the girl he had selected. The girl would spend the night with the guest and depart later.
Salon Kitty became even more popular when selected guests in the military and diplomatic corps were told the "secret codeword" and monitors made thousands of recordings. One of the customers was Count Galeazzo Ciano, Foreign Minister of Italy, whose forthright opinions about the Führer were not particularly positive. Another one, SS commander Sepp Dietrich, wanted all the 20 girls for an all-night orgy but he revealed no secrets. Additionally, Goebbels had been marked as a client by some. He, apparently, enjoyed the 'lesbian displays' that were otherwise considered anti-social acts outside of that context. Reinhard Heydrich also made a number of "inspection tours" although the microphones were turned off on those occasions.
However, British agent Roger Wilson, under his cover identity of Romanian press secretary Ljubo Kolchev, noticed when the wires were rerouted to another listening position. He became a regular customer of Salon Kitty, with a regular girl, and later arranged a wiretap to three cables. Now British intelligence heard some of the same conversations the SS did. Wilson was later captured and sent to a POW camp.
As the war progressed, the clientele of Salon Kitty decreased. In July 1942 a bomb demolished the building the brothel was in and Salon Kitty had to move to the ground floor of the same building. Within the year SD abandoned the project and handed Salon back to Schmidt - with the threat that she would keep silent or face retaliation. The 20 girls stayed with her. Kitty Schmidt did not talk about the matter even after the war. She died in 1954.
Revelation and subsequent retelling
The story first came to light in Walter Schellenberg's memoirs, published in Germany in 1956. Peter Norden later expanded on the story in his 1970 book, Salon Kitty. This book became the basis for the highly controversial 1976 film, Salon Kitty, directed by Tinto Brass and starring Helmut Berger as Walter Schellenberg (renamed Helmut Wallenberg) and Ingrid Thulin as Kitty Schmidt (renamed Kitty Kellermann.)
The 1981 BBC comedy drama Private Schulz, about a German fraudster and petty criminal's unwilling World War II service in the SS, prominently features the Salon. In the first episode, Schultz has been given the job of manning a listening post in the brothel's basement and recording the conversations picked up by the hidden microphones.
- Schellenberg, Walter (1956). The Schellenberg Memoirs, translated by Louis Hagen. André Deutsch. Reissued as The Labyrinth: Memoirs Of Walter Schellenberg, Hitler's Chief Of Counterintelligence. Da Capo Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0306809279.
- Norden, Peter (1970). Salon Kitty. Südwest-Verlag München. Published in English as Salon Kitty: A True Story, translation by John Maxwell Brownjohn