Karl Wolff (13 May 1900 – 17 July 1984) was a high-ranking member of the Nazi SS who held the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer in the Waffen-SS. He became Chief of Personal Staff Reichsführer-SS (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. In 1964, Wolff was convicted of war crimes in West Germany; he was released in 1969.
Early life and career
Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff was born the son of a wealthy district court magistrate in Darmstadt, Germany on 13 May 1900. He graduated from school in 1917, volunteered to join the Imperial German Army and served on the Western Front during World War I. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant in the Guards and was awarded both the Iron Cross second class and first class.
After the war, Wolff was forced to leave the army after the reduction of the German armed forces following the terms imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. In December 1918 Wolff joined a Hessian Freikorps, in which he served until May 1920. He started a two year apprenticeship at the Bethmann bank in Frankfurt and married Frieda von Römheld in 1923. The couple moved to Munich, where Wolff worked for Deutsche Bank. In June 1924 he was laid off and joined a public relations firm. Wolff may also have studied law, but never took any state exams. In 1925 he started his own public relations company which he operated in Munich until 1933.
Nazi Party and SS
Wolff joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party) with card number 695,131 and the SS in October 1931. His SS membership number was 14,235 and he was commissioned as an SS-Sturmführer in February 1932.
From March 1933, after the Nazi Party had obtained national power, Wolff served as an adjutant to Franz Ritter von Epp, then governor (Statthalter) of Bavaria. Here he came to the attention of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler who in June 1933, appointed Wolff his personal adjutant. In 1936 Wolff became a member of the Reichstag. The same year Himmler named him chief of Personal Staff Reichsführer-SS for the Reichsführer-SS to coordinate all contact and correspondence within the SS at both party and state levels. By managing Himmler's affairs with the SS, the Nazi Party, state agencies and personnel, the eloquent and well mannered Wolff rose to become one of the key figures in Himmler's power regime. In addition Wolff oversaw the economic investments made by the SS, was responsible for saving funds among Himmler's circle of friends and for connections to the SS organizations Ahnenerbe and Lebensborn. In 1939 he retroactively became head of the Main Office and SS liaison officer to Hitler. In 1936, Wolff left the Protestant Church. On 30 January 1937, he was promoted to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer (major general). In 1939 he was also appointed as Generalleutnant der SS-Verfügungstruppe apparently for administrative reasons to allow him to issue orders to armed-SS units in the name of Himmler.
World War II
As was later revealed in the 1964 trial, during the early part of the Second World War Wolff was "Himmler's eyes and ears" in Hitler's headquarters. He would have been aware of 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.
Incriminating letters show that Wolff was involved in the Holocaust. On 8 September 1939, shortly after the invasion of Poland, Wolff wrote to the Gestapo office in Frankfurt (Oder) and ordered the immeadiate "arrest of all male Jews of Polish nationality and their family members" and the confiscation of any wealth. In 1942 Wolff oversaw the deportation transports during "Grossaktion Warschau", the mass extermination of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. When rail transport bottlenecks occurred, Wolff communicated repeatedly with Reich Railway Director Albert Ganzenmüller. In a letter sent from the Führer Headquarters, dated 13 August 1942 and referring to transports of Jews to Treblinka extermination camp, Wolff thanked Ganzenmüller for his assistance:
I note with particular pleasure from your communication that a train with 5,000 members of the chosen people has been running daily for 14 days and that we are accordingly in a position to continue with this population movement at an accelerated pace. I have taken the initiative to seek out the offices involved, so that a smooth implementation of the named measures appears to be guaranteed. I thank you once again for the effort and at the same time wish to ask you to continue monitoring these things. With best wishes and Heil Hitler, yours sincerely W.— Karl Wolff to Albert Ganzenmüller, 13 August 1942,
In August 1941, Himmler and Wolff attended the shooting of Jews at Minsk which had been organised by Arthur Nebe who was in command of Einsatzgruppe B, a mobile killing unit. Nauseated and shaken by the experience, Himmler decided that alternate methods of killing should be found. On Himmler's orders, by spring 1942 the camp at Auschwitz had been greatly expanded, including the addition of gas chambers, where victims were killed using the pesticide Zyklon B.
After the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in June 1942, Wolff developed a strong rivalry with other SS leaders, particularly with Heydrich's successor at the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), Ernst Kaltenbrunner and with Walter Schellenberg of the foreign intelligence service in the RSHA. His position was weakened by his frequent absence from Berlin, in part due to his suffering from pyelitis and renal calculus (kidney stones), which required surgery. Wolff fell out of favour with Himmler and was dismissed as his chief of staff. In April 1943, he was relieved of his duties as liaison officer to Hitler. Himmler announced he would temporarily take over Wolff's duties. A new replacement as liaison officer to Hitler's HQ did not occur until the appointment of Hermann Fegelein, who assumed the duty in January, 1944. Wolff had particularly angered Himmler by his divorce and remarriage in March 1943. Himmler, who believed the family to be the nucleus of the SS, had denied Wolff a permission to divorce, but Wolff had turned directly to Hitler. Himmler still appears to have considered Wolff a loyal member of the SS, for in September 1943 Wolff was transferred to Italy as Supreme SS and Police Leader.
In that position Wolff shared responsibility for standard police functions like security, maintenance of prisons, supervision of concentration camps and forced labor camps as well as the deportation of forced laborers with Wilhelm Harster, who was the Commander in Chief of the Security Police. When Wolff became Plenipotentiary General of the German Wehrmacht in July 1944, he also became responsible for antipartisan warfare in occupied Italy. By now Wolff commanded the police and the entire rear army in Italy. So far Wolff's involvement in war crimes in Italy remains largely unclear, partially because source material on the degree to which SS units participated in antipartisan warfare is lacking. Although it seems as if U.S. investigators were in possession of incriminating material in 1945, that indicated Wolff's approval of the executions that became known as the Ardeatine massacre, this evidence was deemed not sufficient for criminal charges. On 9 December 1944, Wolff was awarded the German Cross in Gold for using Italian units, with secondary German units to destroy partisans and for the "maintenance of war production in the Italian territory". During this period he approved the project of the Marnate's Bunker, close to the German command of Olgiate Olona. By 1945 Wolff was acting military commander of Italy.
In 1945, Wolff under Operation Sunrise took over command and management of intermediaries including Swiss-national Max Waibel, in order to make contact in Switzerland with the headquarters of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, under Allen W. Dulles as to surrendering the German forces in and around Italy. After initially meeting with Dulles in Lucerne on 8 March 1945, Wolff negotiated the surrender of all German forces in Italy, ending the war there on 29 April, before the war ended in Germany on 2 May 1945. Wolff's capitulation of Italy to the Allies upset Admiral Karl Dönitz who had otherwise planned a staged series of surrenders designed to give the troops and refugees more time to make their way west.
Alleged plot to kidnap Pope Pius XII
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. 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 September 13, 1943, and gave the directive to "occupy Vatican City, secure its files and art treasures, and take the Pope and Curia to the north". Hitler allegedly did not want the Pope to "fall into the hands of the Allies" and described the Vatican as "a nest of spies and a center of anti-National Socialist propaganda". Wolff's reliability has been questioned by Holocaust historians. Holocaust denier David Irving's use of Wolff as a source was one of the issues in Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt. Dan Kurzman and István Deák, a professor of history at Columbia University, debated the reliability of Wolff's testimony regarding the plot to kidnap Pius XII in a series of letters to the editor in The New York Review of Books, where Deák had previously reviewed A Special Mission. Deák noted Kurzman's "credulity" and that the latter "uncritically accepts the validity of controversial documents and unquestioningly believes in the statements made to him by his principal German interlocutor, the former SS General Karl Wolff". He further criticized the book's "modest documentation" containing "a great number of vague or inaccurate references". In response, Kurzman said that the others he interviewed corroborate Wolff's account.
Trials and conviction
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. After his release, Wolff worked as an executive for an advertising agency. He took up residence with his family in Starnberg. Until his rearrest in 1962, it is alleged that Wolff worked for the CIA, 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 civilians in Belarus. 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. 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 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 prisoners in Minsk in 1941 with Himmler, going so far as to describe the splatter of brains on Himmler's coat.
In the late 1970s Wolff also became involved with Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann. Together with Heidemann he travelled through South America, where he helped to locate, among others, Klaus Barbie and Walter Rauff, with whom Heidemann conducted interviews for a series of articles. Wolff served as a consultant for the alleged Hitler Diaries, and was deeply shattered when they turned out to be forgeries by Konrad Kujau. Asked to attend the trial of Heidemann and Kujau, Wolff declined; on 17 July 1984, he died in a hospital in Rosenheim. He was buried in the cemetery at Prien am Chiemsee on 21 July 1984.
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
Karl Wolff served in the SS for fourteen years and was the senior most SS officer to hold front line combat service in World War I. He was early on tapped by Heinirch Himmler for rapid promotion, and had risen from the rank of private to brigadier general in just four years. Although he spent the majority of his career as Himmler's adjutant in a staff position, during the last years of the war Wolff was thrust into an active operational military role when he became the commander of all SS forces in Italy.