Karl Wolff

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For the folklorist of the South Tyrol, see Karl Felix Wolff.
Karl Wolff
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1969-171-29, Karl Wolff.jpg
SS-Gruppenführer Wolff in 1937
Birth name Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff
Nickname(s) Karele
Born (1900-05-13)13 May 1900
Darmstadt, Grand Duchy of Hesse, German Empire
Died 17 July 1984(1984-07-17) (aged 84)
Rosenheim, Bavaria, West Germany
Allegiance  German Empire (1917–18)
Weimar Republic Weimar Republic (1918–20)
 Nazi Germany (1933–45)
Years of service 1917-1920, 1933-1945
Rank SS-Obergruppenführer Collar Rank.svg Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS
Unit Flag Schutzstaffel.svg Schutzstaffel
Commands held HöSSPF Italien

World War I:

World War II:

Awards German Cross in Gold
Iron Cross
Golden Party Badge

Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff (13 May 1900 – 17 July 1984) was a high-ranking member of the Nazi SS, ultimately holding the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer and General of the Waffen-SS. He became Chief of Personal Staff to the Reichsführer (Heinrich Himmler) and SS Liaison Officer to Hitler until his replacement in 1943. He ended World War II as the Supreme Commander of all SS forces in Italy. After the war, Wolff was also a central witness as to the alleged plot to kidnap Pope Pius XII.

Early life[edit]

Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff was born in Darmstadt, Germany. His father was a district court judge, who called him "Karele", which stayed Karl's nickname until his death. Brought up agnostically, after the family spent two years in Schwerte, they returned to Darmstadt where Wolff was educated at the local Catholic school.

First World War[edit]

After Abitur, Wolff joined the Imperial German Army at age 16, during the First World War. He underwent four months of military training as an Fahnenjunker, then volunteered on 5 September 1917 to serve on the Western Front. Commissioned an officer the following year, he was awarded the Iron Cross second class for bravery. Wolff decided to make the army his career. After the Armistice, he joined the Hesse Infantry Regiment, and for actions during the war received the Iron Cross first class.

Inter war period[edit]

Wolff was demobilised in 1920 as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, which reduced the strength of the German Reichswehr. He became a banker, joining the Bethmann family bank in Frankfurt, where he underwent a two-year apprenticeship. In July 1922 Wolff was engaged to Frieda von Roemheld, whom he married the following year. They moved to Munich, where Wolff worked for Deutsche Bank. Due to raging inflation, however, he was unemployed two years later. He then joined the public relations firm "Ad-Expedition Walther von Danckelmann." On 1 July 1925 he started his own company, "Ad-Expedition Karl Wolff - von Roemheld".

Nazi Party and SS[edit]

The 1931 Deutsche Bank economic crisis (brought on by the Great Depression) convinced him that only the more radical parties were capable of resolving the economic and political dilemmas in Germany. For him the only option was the more extreme Right. Drawn by the ideal of a reborn Germany after this economic crisis, Wolff joined the NSDAP in July 1931. His membership number was 695,131. His SS membership number was 14,235.[1] Wolff still worked in his own public relations firm after training in the Reichsführer-SS school system. He served in a mustering squad in Munich, and later was commissioned as an SS-Sturmführer in February 1932.

Reinhard Heydrich (middle) with Heinrich Himmler (left), Karl Wolff (second from the right), and Hermann Esser (far right, back to camera) at the Obersalzberg, May 1939

In 1933, after the Nazi Party came to power, Wolff became a full-time political party member and was promoted to SS-Sturmhauptführer to serve as SS military liaison officer to the Army. On 8 March 1933 he became a member of the Reichstag. In June 1933 with the leap from volunteer to full member of the SS, the associated financial security allowed him to relinquish his previous profession and to sell his company. He was personally recruited by SS Commander Heinrich Himmler to head the office of the Reichsführer's Personal Staff. Wolff became Himmler's adjutant (Chief of Staff) on June 15, 1933. By 1937 he was an SS-Gruppenführer and considered third in command of the entire SS (after Himmler and Heydrich). He was a rival to Reinhard Heydrich. This competition was accentuated by Himmler.

However, at this point his friendship with the chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office) Heydrich was at its height, with whom he helped certain parties in conflict with Nazi party doctrine, including some Jews, to leave Germany.

Second World War[edit]

As was later revealed in the 1964 trial, during the early part of the Second World War Wolff was probably "Himmler's eyes and ears" in Hitler's headquarters. Here at the centre of power, he would undoubtedly be aware of all significant events or could easily have access to the relevant information. Apart from the information passing across his desk, Wolff received (as Chief of Personal Staff Reichsführer-SS) copies of all letters from SS officers, and his friends at this point included the organiser of "Operation Reinhard" Odilo Globocnik. His later denial of knowledge of Holocaust activities may be plausible only at the detailed level, but not of the extent of atrocities by the Nazi regime.

Himmler, Franz Ziereis and Wolff in KZ Mauthhausen (April 1941)

For example, as the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto resulted in rail transport bottlenecks, Wolff telephoned deputy Reich Minister of Transport (de) Dr. Albert Ganzenmüller. In a later letter dated 13 August 1942, Wolff thanked Ganzenmüller for his assistance:[2]

I notice with particular pleasure your report that for 14 days a train has been going daily with members of the chosen people to Treblinka...I've made contact with the participating agencies, so that a smooth implementation of the entire action is ensured.

After the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Wolff fell out of favour with Himmler. After making Wolff a full SS-Obergruppenführer, Himmler dismissed him in 1942. In 1943, Hitler assigned Wolff an SS adjutant to Benito Mussolini's Italian Government, personally granting him equivalent General's rank in the Waffen-SS.

When Italy surrendered to the Allies, from February to October 1943 Wolff became the Higher SS and Police Leader of Italy, and served as the Military Governor of northern Italy. By now, he had a beautiful blonde mistress, Ingeborg Countess Bernsdorff, a widow whose youngest son, Widukind, had been fathered by him. Although divorce was frowned upon for SS officers, Inge demanded that he divorce his wife of twenty years, Frieda von Roemheld, and marry her. Wolff had other motivations to marry Inge besides love. His wife was dark-haired and brown-eyed, and so were their children. He knew that it would be much better for his future in the Nazi hierarchy if he had a blonde wife[citation needed], who could give him blonde children. On 6 March 1943, his divorce from Frieda was finalised. He had gone over Himmler's head and obtained permission directly from Hitler. Thereafter on 9 March he married Ingeborg. They eventually separated in 1969, although they remained formally married, and Ingeborg took up residence in Switzerland.

As the Nazi Army retreated and Hitler dismissed various commanders, from 1943 to 1945, Wolff was the Supreme SS and Police Leader of the 'Italien' area.[3] By 1945 Wolff was acting military commander of Italy.

By now again in agreement with Himmler on the issue of futility of continuing the war, from February 1945 Wolff under Operation Sunrise took over command and management of intermediaries including Swiss-national Max Waibel (de), in order to make contact in Switzerland with the headquarters of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, under Allen W. Dulles. After initially meeting with Dulles in Lucerne on 8 March 1945, Wolff reluctantly negotiated the surrender of all German forces in Italy, ending the war in Italy six days before the war in Germany, on 2 May 1945.

Testimony concerning the plot to kidnap pope Pius XII[edit]

SS General Karl Wolff claimed while testifying at the Nuremberg trials that he had disobeyed an order from Hitler to kidnap the Pope and instead sneaked into the Vatican to warn the Pontiff.[4] Most other allegations of a plot to kidnap Pius XII are based on a claimed 1972 document written by Wolff that Avvenire d'Italia published in 1991 and on personal interviews with Wolff before his death in 1984. Wolff maintained that Hitler summoned Wolff to his office on 13 September 1943,[5][6] and that Hitler stated:

I have a special mission for you, Wolff. It will be your duty not to discuss it with anyone before I give you permission to do so. Only Reichsführer-SS (Himmler) knows about it. Do you understand? ... I want you and your troops to occupy Vatican City as soon as possible, secure its files and art treasures, and take the Pope and Curia to the north. I do not want him to fall into the hands of the Allies or to be under their political pressure and influence. The Vatican is already a nest of spies and a center of anti-National Socialist propaganda.[6]

A report in the Italian newspaper Avvenire in 2005[citation needed] suggested that Hitler ordered Wolff to kidnap Pope Pius XII, but in collaboration with Germany's Vatican diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker, Wolff refused. Wolff also removed important art treasures from Monte Cassino, and went ill on the day that the Allies entered Rome, leaving German forces immobilised. According to historian Peter Gumpel, Pope Pius XII told senior bishops that should he be arrested by the Nazis, his resignation would become effective immediately, paving the way for a successor, according to documents in the Vatican's Secret Archives.[7]

A report in the Italian newspaper Avvenire in 2005[citation needed] suggested that Hitler ordered Wolff to kidnap Pope Pius XII, but in collaboration with Germany's Vatican diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker, Wolff refused. Wolff also removed important art treasures from Monte Cassino, and went ill on the day that the Allies entered Rome, leaving German forces immobilized. According to historian Peter Gumpel, Pope Pius XII told senior bishops that should he be arrested by the Nazis, his resignation would become effective immediately, paving the way for a successor, according to documents in the Vatican's Secret Archives.[7]

On June 16, 2009 Diego Vanzi wrote in Avvenire (article reprint: http://www.totustuus.it/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2730 that while Karl Wolff's testimony was considered unreliable, Avvenire had been able to locate the then 72-year-old son of Wessel Freytag von Loringhoven, Niki. Niki Freytag von Loringhoven told the paper that the information about the plot to kidnap and kill Pope Pius XII was delivered to the Italians by his father, Erwin von Lahousen and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris who flew to Venice on July 29, 1943 on the order signed by the chief of the Supreme Command of Wehrmacht, General Wilhelm Keitel (hanged at Nuremberg on October 16, 1946), four days after Benito Mussolini had been arrested on July 25, 1943 on King Victor Emmanuel III's orders. They stayed at the Hotel Danieli. Their official purpose was to meet with Italy’s head of counter-espionage, General Cesare Amé to evaluate the state of the Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy (dubbed "Pact of Steel" by Mussolini, in lieu of the originally proposed "Pact of Blood"). The article cites Col. von Lahousen's service diary entry under that date as saying "07/29/43: flight to Venice with the Head of Service (Canaris) and Col. Freytag for a meeting with Gen. Amé, head of Italian counterintelligence." and then, "31/07/43: Back from service trip to Venice." It states that all three Germans had left the Reichssicherheitsamt, Gestapo headquarters in Berlin with the information that Hitler was intent on having Pope Pius XII and King Emmanuel III kidnapped and killed in retaliation on the Italians for the imprisonment of Mussolini. Colonel Erwin von Lahousen testified in his deposition at the Nuremberg Trials on Feb. 1, 1946 (Warnreise Testimony 1330-1430) Freytag von Loringhoven was greatly disturbed upon hearing of Hitler's plan and said that Italians should be forewarned, this being the primary purpose of the flight to Venice. Amé remained in office only for another few weeks (until 18 August '43) but he passed the information he had received and eventually it reached Ernst von Weizsäcker, Third Reich ambassador to the Holy See who started making inquiries, first with Field Marshal Kesselring, then with Kappler in Rome, with Wolf in Milan, in Berlin. All questioned said they were unaware of such plan, but since no longer secret, it had to be abandoned. Hitler, growing suspicious of the Abwehr, and of Canaris at its helm, eventually fired him and abolished the agency on 18 February 1944, strengthening Heinrich Himmler's control over the military. Canaris was cashiered and given the empty title of Chief of the Office of Commercial and Economic Warfare, then arrested on 23 July 1944, in the aftermath of the July 20 Plot against Hitler and executed on 9 April 1945, in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, along with Oster, his deputy. Wessel Freytag von Loringhoven committed suicide at Mauerwald in East Prussia on 26 July 1944, learning he was to be arrested by the Gestapo for his participation in the July 20 Plot. Of the three who met with Gen. Amé on July 29–30, 1943 only Lahousen survived the war. Having been sent to the Eastern front, he escaped notice and after the war he voluntarily testified against Hermann Göring and 21 other defendants at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1945–1946. Lahousen was the first witness for the prosecution, as the sole survivor of the 'Abwehr resistance'.

Later life[edit]

Arrested on 13 May 1945 he was imprisoned in Schöneberg. During the Nuremberg trials, Wolff was allowed to escape prosecution by providing evidence against his fellow Nazis, and was then transferred in January 1947 to the British prison facility in Minden.

Although released in 1947, he had been indicted by the post-war German government as part of the denazification process. Detained under house arrest, after a German trial Wolff was sentenced in November 1948 to five years' imprisonment due to his membership of the SS. Seven months later his sentence was reduced to four years and he was released. Wolff worked after his discharge as a representative for the ad department of a magazine and took his family to his new residence in Starnberg. Until his rearrest in 1962, it is alleged that Wolff worked for the CIA,[8] while continuing to successfully build his reformed public relations firm.

In 1962 during the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, evidence showed that Wolff had organised the deportation of Italian Jews in 1944. Wolff was again tried in West Germany and in 1964 was convicted of deporting 300,000 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp, the deportation of Italian Jews to Auschwitz, and the massacre of Italian Partisans in Belarus [clarification needed]. Sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment in Straubing, Wolff served only part of his sentence and was released in 1969 due to ill health, with his full civil rights restored in 1971.

Wolff has been a controversial figure because many believe he was far more privy to the internal workings of the SS and its extermination activities than he acknowledged. He claimed to have known nothing about the Nazi extermination camps, even though he was a senior general in the SS. In reality, Wolff was a part of Himmler's entourage during several of his visits to the concentration camps, as documented by photos from the Bundesarchiv.

After his release, Wolff was quiet for a while and retired in Austria. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wolff returned to public life, frequently lecturing on the internal workings of the SS and his relationship with Himmler. This resulted in him appearing in television documentaries including The World At War, saying that he witnessed an execution of twenty or thirty partisan prisoners in Minsk in 1941 with Himmler, going so far as to describe the splatter of brains on Himmler's coat.[9]

During this period, Wolff also became involved with former Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann and Stuttgart militaria dealer Konrad Kujau, for whom he in part authenticated the later discredited Hitler Diaries.

Asked to attend the trial of Messrs Heidemann and Kujau, Wolff declined; he was still in bad health and on 17 July 1984, he died in a hospital in Rosenheim. His death brought his name up again in all major German newspapers, where he was described as "one of the most enigmatic figures of the Nazi regime". He was buried in the cemetery at Prien am Chiemsee on the 21 July 1984.

In the preface to the biography of Wolff, Claus Sybill writes that he could be described as a classic case study for the Nazi representative of the upper bourgeoisie: "Wolff himself is and remains (...) the idealist, always wanted the good. And because he himself had never conceived or planned something evil, though there were still so many crimes happening around him - he almost never noticed anything like this."

Wolff was portrayed by Vasily Lanovoy in the Soviet TV series Seventeen Moments of Spring in a major plot line concerning Sunrise Crossword and meeting with Dulles. In the 1991 mini-series Selling Hitler, based on the Hitler Diaries case, he was played by John Paul. He was also portrayed by Walter Gotell in the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black, as "General Max Helm".

Summary of SS career[edit]

Dates of rank

During several interviews in the 1970s, Wolff claimed that in April 1945 he had been granted a personal promotion by Adolf Hitler to the rank of SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer. During the filming of the World at War series, Wolff further showed to producers a display case showing the tri-pip collar insignia and shoulder boards of an SS-Colonel General. This late war promotion, however, is not annotated in Wolff's SS service record nor has any supporting documentation ever been produced affirming Wolff's claim. Furthermore, photographs from the time of his capture in Italy by the Allies clearly show a lesser rank insignia worn on his SS uniform. For this reason, most historical texts indicate the highest rank Wolff ever held was that of Obergruppenführer.


Foreign Awards

Other service

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Biondi, Robert, ed., SS Officers List: SS-Standartenführer to SS-Oberstgruppenführer (As of 30 January 1942), Schiffer Military History Publishing, 2000, p. 8
  2. ^ Gerald Riedlinger: The Final Solution, Berlin 1956, p. 288 ( "correspondence between the Under Secretary in the Ministry of Transport Theodor Müller and Ganz Himmler Field adjutant, SS-Ober Gruppenführer Karl Wolff; process IV, p. 2184f), quoted in: The yellow star. The persecution of Jews in Europe from 1933 to 1945 (Gerhard Schoen Berner), Hamburg 1960, p. 78
  3. ^ Yerger, p 23, 24
  4. ^ John Hooper. 2005, January 17. "Hitler plot to kidnap the pope revealed". The Guardian.
  5. ^ Marchione, Margherita,Did Pope Pius XII Help the Jews?, p. 9, Pave the Way Foundation
  6. ^ a b Kurzman, 2007, pp. ix, 12. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "kix" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  7. ^ Squires, Nick (2009-04-21). "Vatican planned to move to Portugal if Nazis captured wartime Pope". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-01-18. 
  8. ^ "View topic - Karl Wolf / his fate after the 2.WW ?". Feldgrau.net. Retrieved 2013-01-18. 
  9. ^ I can remember a shooting of twenty or thirty people. I can see from my diary that this must have been on 17 August 1941. The manager of an SS estate had previously been shot north of Minsk. Subsequently, Operations Unit B under Nebe arrested two women and a number of men, some in uniform and others in civilian clothing. In my opinion, they were partisans. As far as I remember, they included Jews, too - two or three of them. The people captured by the Nebe Operations Unit were brought before a field court martial. They were sentenced to death. I do not know who sat in the court martial. Himmler himself was present at the executions. Obergruppenfuehrer Wolff and I were also present. He had accompanied Himmler from Baranovichi to Minsk. Himmler was very pale during the executions. I think that watching it made him feel sick." Nizkor. Eichmann Trial transcript. [1]
  10. ^ December 9, 1944


External links[edit]