056 Elsbeth Schragmueller and what we do not know about the war
Little army of spies achieves small successes
It is Sunday 18 July 1915. It is the 56th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
German generals August von Mackensen and Max von Gallwitz make new conquests in the Polish regions.
There is heavy fighting around the fortified town of Ivangorod 160 kilometres from St Petersburg.
In the Second Battle of the Isonzo the Austrians first lose Monte San Michele and regain it again from the Italians a day later.
After the conquest of Nasiriyah on the Turks, the British in Mesopotamia decide to advance to the town of Kut al-Imara, the next stop before Baghdad.
Bulgaria declares itself neutral again, after Tsar Ferdinand I has received the German ambassador of Constantinople in Sofia.
In a reaction to news about German excesses in Belgium, American ex-president Theodore Roosevelt considers his neutral fellow countrymen accomplices.
The employers to a large extent bow to the wage demands of the striking miners in Wales as a result of the intervention of Lloyd George.
With German-Turkish support the Senussi, an order of Sufis, attack Italian garrisons in what is now called Lybia.
And in Antwerp, outside everybody’s visual field, a German spy school is run by the mysterious Elsbeth Schragmüller.
Fräulein Doktor’s story is as exciting as it is tragic. She is Germany’s most secret agent, who scared the French so much as Mademoiselle Docteur. As a young woman she gave birth to a dead baby. She is turned out into the street by her parents. Then she throws herself into the arms of a cavalry captain, who leads a double life as a spy. But her lover dies and she herself gets addicted to drugs, which does not prevent her from building a career as a German secret agent in the First World War. She seduces allied officers and between the sheets she extracts strategic information from them.
Meanwhile Fräulein Doktor also recruits other spies for the Germans and brings the enemy’s secret agents down. She pretends to be an art history student and experiences exciting adventures in the Balkans, Belgium and France. In Paris she manages to penetrate the office of the French counter-intelligence as a cleaning lady. Again from Barcelona she conducts a secret operation on the western front under the guise of the Red Cross. But then war is over and Fräulein Doktor cannot handle the defeat. She dies anonymously in a Swiss sanatorium, addicted and exhausted.
There you are, the story in a nutshell. The reality is completely different, not to say a lot more boring. Fräulein Doktor indeed existed, but to begin with, her name was not Annemarie Lesser, as writer Hans Rudolph Berndorff in 1929 fantasized in his book, which formed the basis for a play and five films. Elsbeth Schragmüller was her real name. She was not exposed to real danger. She was not made for carnal love and for drugs she was much too conscientious.
What made Elsbeth Schragmüller special was the high position she occupied as a woman within the Kriegsnachrichtenstelle Antwerpen, which was taken for a mysterious spy school. It was in that office that Miss Schragmüller fanatically and painstakingly moulded her students into moles. She must have been good at her job, though the implications of her results remain cloudy.
Schragmüller comes from a distinguished family and belongs to the first generation of women who graduated from university. When war breaks out she wants to do more than just bring water to the boys who are leaving for the front by train. She goes to Brussels on her own and there succeeds in reaching military governor Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Via him she gets a mysterious job. She impresses and is taken higher and higher in the hierarchy of intelligence.
A year before the war she had got a doctoral degree in political science, which is why she was addressed in Antwerp as ‘Fräulein Doktor’. This title was above all functional, for nobody needed to know her true identity, but it also contributed to the myth of the femme fatale. German agents, who had been found out, talked to the French about conversations with a young woman who had introduced herself to them as ‘Fräulein Doktor’. Then rumours appeared in the French newspapers about an enigmatic beauty on the banks of the river Schelde. ‘The blonde siren of Antwerp’, ‘the red tigress’, ‘la grande patronnesse’, no holds of the imagination were barred.
Spy madness is a phenomenon of the First World War anyway. The enemy is among us! With hidden hand this treacherous warrior in the dark spreads death and destruction! In the years preceding the war the English had already been caught up in espionage literature. In the 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands for example, the Germans secretly prepare an invasion of England from the German Wadden Islands. The book, which is regarded as the first modern thriller, becomes incredibly popular. This is why it not only represents widespread paranoia among the British, but also a historic diverging of opinions.
Together with the Prussians they had defeated Napoleon. Now the Germans were the arch enemy, determined to repeat what William the Conqueror had succeeded in doing a very long time ago in the year 1066: invade England. A salient detail is that Erskine Childers, writer of The Riddle of the Sands, would die before a firing squad in 1922 because of his activitities as an Irish nationalist during the Civil War in Eire. This was to the satisfaction of Winston Churchill, who thought nobody had brought more damage to the Irish people than Childers, the man that had actually made clear to the English that they should fear the Germans.
Despite the widespread fascination for spies, the First World War seemed to have come too early for 007. Espionage in the Great War was rather the work of pathetic amateurs than of skillful intelligence officers, though of course it is true that we know less of the top notch spies than of the nincompoops.
In any case Mata Hari was one of those who did not stand a chance. As agent H21 she is said to have been taken care of by Elsbeth Schragmüller. Fräulein Doktor will not have had much confidence in the coquettish and extremely naive nudie of Dutch descent. And it would have been not very likely that Schragmüller shed a tear when the French executed Mata Hari in 1917.
Much earlier in the war Karl Lody had been treated in the same way by the British. In November 1914 Lody had the questionable honour to be the first man in 150 years who was executed within the walls of the Tower of London. He had almost openly applied for his death sentence. As a tourist, cycling around Edinburgh, carrying an American passport, Lody asked the local Scots everything under the sun. His letters, addressed to a contact in Sweden, were effortlessly intercepted by the British.
Lody had no understanding of invisible ink and encrypted codes. The letter in which he enthusiastically wrote that trains filled with Russians were going to the south of England was allowed to pass. The British were all too eager to leave such a fantastic wrong track. The Russian auxiliary troops were absolute nonsense that was circulating among the British people. In Carlisle they supposedly asked for vodka, and in Durham they were said to have put a rouble in a gas meter. One of the most fantastic stories was that the snow from back home still stuck on the boots of the Russians when they landed in Scotland. Man is gullible in times of war.
Already before the Great War the German spy network had surfaced in England. When Wilhelm II visited London in 1911, an old navy officer from the imperial entourage remarkably often popped into a third-rate barber’s shop. It was therefore relatively easy for the British counter intelligence to identify the German under cover agents. On 4 August 1914, the first day of the war, it had been a matter of rounding them up. Then the important task lay ahead of Lody to fill the intelligence gap for the Vaterland. It did not really agree with him.
After Lody nine more German spies would be executed in the Tower of London, among whom the Dutchmen Janssen and Roos. In May 1915 they had crossed the Channel as so-called cigar dealers, but they were found out on the other side pretty quickly. They appeared to know a lot more about ships than about cigars.
Far away from the front the lone warrior was all too often in the dark. Obviously the war was not influenced substantially by secret information from individuals. There were occasional successes. Marthe Richard was a French spy who among other things succeeded in eliminating a submarine by sleeping with a German navy attaché.
Louise de Bettignies, a lady from a French aristocratic family, is also worth mentioning. She was recruited by the British and from Lille, in the north of France, became the hub of an imposing espionage network. On various occasions she herself crossed the lines to the Netherlands and even England to report on the enemy. When the Germans caught her in October 1915, they decided to keep her alive. Earlier that month the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell had given the Germans an appalling press. And yet Louise de Bettignies would not survive the war. In September 1918 she died in a German prison of typhoid fever and pneumonia.
None of the spies from the First World War could in any way be compared to a master traitor like Alfred Redl. Widely praised, this former head of the Austro-Hungarian counter intelligence was identified as a double agent in May 1913. Immediately after his exposure the Austrian authorities gave him the chance to shoot himself through the mouth. A blunder, for in this way it remained unclear how big the exact damage was that Redl had inflicted on the Dual Monarchy.
Or was the smell of the cesspool too terrible to have it emptied competely by Redl? Himself blackmailed by the Russians because of a homosexual relationship, Redl in his turn must have succeeded in blackmailing the head of the Russian secret service. Whatever the case, it is likely that the Austrian misfortunes in the beginning of the war can be attributed to a large extent to Redl. Thanks to Redl the Russians had been completely informed of the Austrian strategy.
If being a spy can be called a profession, it took long before working conditions would come into view. In 1907 the Hague Convention provided judicial protection. From now on spies that had been taken prisoner had a right to a fair trial. This did not lead to an abundance of mercy in the First World War. In 1917 the Germans shot 52 Belgians for espionage in the town of Ghent alone.
After the war Elsbeth Schragmüller remains unmarried. Living at home with her father and mother she continues her academic career, but this is broken off again for no apparent reasons. In 1929 she accounts for her wartime activities. In an article in the publication ‘Was wir vom Weltkrieg nicht wissen’ (What we do not know about the world war), she reveals that she is the woman about whom so much nonsense is in circulation. Without going into detail Fräulein Doktor relates of the ‘intellectual delight’ that went hand in hand with the debriefing of secret agents in the interrogating room. ‘We asked ourselves political, economic and military questions. You should never forget for a second with whom you were talking.’
After the publication of the book she also gives lectures about her wartime experiences. In a newspaper article from 1931 it is reported that the slender, tall, blonde woman is a war invalid. It remains unclear, however, how she got these injuries. According to the German writer Hanne Hieber, who did research into Fräulein Doktor, there is not even a photograph of Elsbeth Schragmüller, apart from a family portrait from her childhood years.
A brother of hers is one of the victims in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, Hitler’s ruthless liquidation of numerous political enemies. The Fraülein who never became a Frau on the side of a husband dies in her house in Munich in 1940, probably as the result of tuberculosis.
Would she have returned to her old craft in the Second World War? Who knows. It will always be difficult to ascertain what moved this mystifying woman ideologically. And of course also the grave of Elsbeth Schragmüller remains silent.
For the moment this was the last episode of The First World War in 261 Weeks.
Tom Tacken (special thanks to Peter Veltman for translating 56 stories from Dutch into English)