Lothar Witzke

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Lothar Witzke
BornMay 15, 1895[1]
DiedJanuary 6, 1962
Resting placeFriedhof Hamburg-Ohlsdorf 0030 [1]
Criminal chargeEspionage
Criminal penaltyDeath (commuted to life imprisonment)
Criminal statusPardoned (1923)
Military career
Allegiance German Empire
Service/branch Imperial German Navy, Abwehr
Years of servicec.1912-
Battles/warsFirst World War
AwardsIron Cross (first and second class)

Lothar Witzke (born May 15, 1895, died January 6, 1962) was a German naval officer who became a spy and saboteur on active service in the United States and Mexico during the First World War.

Arrested in 1918, he was sentenced to death, but his life was saved by the Armistice of 11 November 1918. In 1923 he was pardoned and released. During the Second World War he served in the Abwehr and after the war became a German Party member of the Hamburg Parliament.[2]

Naval career[edit]

Born in Kreis Koschmin, in the Province of Posen, Witzke was educated at Posen Academy and then entered the German Naval Academy as a seventeen-year-old cadet. By the beginning of the First World War he was a lieutenant[3] 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 Witzke escaped; and under an assumed name he succeeded in reaching San Francisco in May 1916 as a seaman on board the SS Calusa. In California he reported to Franz von Bopp, the German Consul General, 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 Bopp's other agents. So cleverly did they cover their tracks that they were never even suspected during the period of US neutrality.

In addition to their work on the West Coast, Witzke and Jahnke made frequent trips east on sabotage missions. After Bopp was arrested, they gradually shifted their operations to the industrial Eastern seaboard. Double agents of the U.S. Military Intelligence Corps connected Witzke to the munitions explosion of March 1917 at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco.[4] Later, Witzke himself implied that he had taken part in the massive Black Tom explosion in New York harbor on July 30, 1916,[5] which killed seven people and was heard as far away as Philadelphia.


Witzke was arrested at the Mexican border at 10 a.m. on February 1, 1918, near Nogales, Arizona. 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,[6] who worked with Herbert Yardley[7] at the fledgling MI-8 and identified the bearer to the "Imperial Consular Authorities of the Republic of Mexico".[8] Witzke was convicted by a court martial at Fort 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. On his 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. However, with the Armistice of 11 November 1918 putting an effective end to the war, the death sentence was not carried out.

On May 27, 1920, President Wilson commuted Witzke's death sentence to life imprisonment,[9] and he was transferred to Leavenworth Prison. Meanwhile, German officials were exerting great pressure for his release. On April 30, 1923, the German Ambassador asked for Witzke's 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 that Witzke had heroically prevented a disaster by entering a prison boiler room after an explosion. On that basis, Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge, released on September 26, 1923, and deported to Berlin.

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

He later joined the Abwehr and after the Second World War was living in Hamburg.[10] After the creation of West Germany, Witzke was elected to a state parliament, or Landtag.[2] He was a German Party member of the Hamburg Parliament from 1949 to 1952.[11]

Other people[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Gravestones: Friedhof Hamburg-Ohlsdorf 0030". grabsteine.genealogy.net.
  2. ^ a b c George O. Kent, Historians and Archivists: Essays in Modern German History and Archival Policy (George Mason University Press, 1991), p. 41
  3. ^ https://www.usnews.com/usnews/culture/articles/011210/archive_019821_2.htm
  4. ^ Priscilla Mary Roberts, World War One, page 1606
  5. ^ "The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice — Central Intelligence Agency". www.cia.gov.
  6. ^ "The Reader of Gentleman's Mail", pgs 42 - 44, David Kahn, 2006
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-06-25. Retrieved 2009-09-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ The Reader of Gentleman's Mail, David Kahn, 2006
  9. ^ http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/paperchase/2004/08/august-16-this-day-at-law-first-german.htm
  10. ^ West, Nigel (24 December 2013). "Historical Dictionary of World War I Intelligence". Scarecrow Press – via Google Books.
  11. ^ Reinhard R. Doerries, Diplomaten und Agenten: Nachrichtendienste in der Geschichte der Deutsch-amerikanischen Beziehungen (Universitätsverlag Winter, 2001), p. 30


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