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Erich Vermehren, also known as Erich Vermeeren de Saventhem or Eric Maria de Saventhem, (December 23, 1919-April 28, 2005) was an ardent anti-Nazi and is best known as the German agent of the Abwehr, the German intelligence organization, whose well-publicized defection to the British in early 1944 led directly to the abolition of the Abwehr.

Contents

Early life

Vermehren was born in Lübeck to a family of lawyers whose known opposition to the Nazi regime was such that they were considered politically unreliable. Erich's repeated refusal to join the Hitler Youth marked him as unfit to "represent German youth", and he was prevented from taking up a coveted Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University; his passport was revoked, making it impossible for him to travel outside of Germany.

Vermehren converted to Roman Catholicism in 1939 (shortly after his elder sister Isa[1]), when he met the Countess Elisabeth von Plettenberg, whom he married in October 1941.[2]

As an Abwehr agent

Despite the Vermehren's unwillingness to openly resist the Nazi regime, they inevitably found themselves in various anti-Nazi circles, several of which centred on Adam von Trott zu Solz[3], a cousin of Vermehren. Finally it came to a point that they felt their lives were at risk while they remained in Germany. Erich, who was excluded from military service due to a childhood injury, managed to get himself assigned to the Abwehr with the help of von Trott and Paul Leverkuehn, the Abwehr station chief in Istanbul.

At that time (late in 1943), the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, was making peace overtures with the Americans with the help of Franz von Papen, the German ambassador to Turkey, who was coincidentally a cousin of Elisabeth Vermehren, and had been asked to meet then-Archbishop Francis Spellman. Family relations in Germany being what they were, as now, in the foreign service that it ensured Erich's assignment to Istanbul as a junior-grade agent. To give him the necessary qualification, he was given two weeks' training in secret inks.

While Vermehren was posted in Istanbul, he was, however, unable to bring his wife along, as she was detained by the Gestapo as a "hostage". Then, returning to Berlin on leave, Erich and his wife agreed that they defect to the British and for that to be possible, Elisabeth should accompany him to Istanbul. For this purpose, she managed to procure an official assignment from the Foreign Office with regard to Archbishop Spellman's visit to Turkey.

On the train from Berlin to the Turkish capital they experienced a temporary setback when it was discovered that a high-ranking officer of the Gestapo had taken the compartment in the sleeping car next to the Vermehrens. Sure enough, at the border crossing in Bulgaria, Elisabeth was arrested by Gestapo agents and taken to the German embassy in Sofia, while Erich was permitted to continue alone to Istanbul. Fortunately, the Abwehr station chief in Sofia, together with the ambassador, who was a close family friend of the Vermehrens, managed to sneak her on board a diplomatic courier plane that landed in Sofia to pick up the diplomatic bag en route to Istanbul.

Defection

Meanwhile, Erich had made overtures to the British Secret Intelligence Service, through its counter-espionage representative Nicholas Elliot. Apparently the British had a file on him because when Vermehren and Elliot first met, Elliot cheerfully greeted him saying, "Erich Vermehren? Why, I believe you were coming up to Oxford."

Just as Elisabeth was reunited with her husband, they received word that a friend from the Foreign Office, Otto Carl Kiep, had been arrested on January 12, 1944, in connection with his attendance at the Frau Solf Tea Party. The pair were summoned to Berlin by the Gestapo to answer questions in connection with the case. Knowing what was in store for them, they refused, and made final arrangements with the British for their defection in early February. In the hope that their families would be protected from reprisals due to Sippenhaft (detention for the crimes of a family member) as a result of their defection, their defection was initially set up as a kidnapping by the British. The Vermehrens were smuggled to England via İzmir, Aleppo, Cairo, Gibraltar, and finally London.

Although it was agreed that the defection should remain a secret, British propaganda understandably broke the news knowing that would cause havoc among Germany's various intelligence services, especially since the invasion of Western Europe was just around the corner. The news was the talk of Berlin, and Hitler was incensed. Although the Vermehrens did not bring along anything of intelligence value, it was mistakenly believed that they absconded with the Abwehr's secret codes. For Hitler, it was the last straw against the Abwehr and Canaris. On February 18, 1944, the Abwehr was abolished and its intelligence functions were taken over by the RSHA, under the jurisdiction of Heinrich Himmler.

The couple's families were not spared either, for numerous members of them were arrested. A few days after their defection Erich's parents, his elder brother Michael and sister Isa — a minor film actress and cabaret singer — as well as Elisabeth's youngest sister Gisela were interned in various concentration camps until the end of the war. Miraculously, all of them survived.

In England

The Vermehrens meanwhile were given accommodation in the South Kensington flat of the mother of Kim Philby, where they provided him with lists of personalities of the Catholic underground in Germany. However, it was unsurprising that when the British tried to link up with them at war's end, they found that most of them were liquidated.

They also tried to persuade the British Foreign Office to allow leading members of the German opposition to help in rebuilding the country as the government was in support of the Morgenthau Plan, but to no avail. They then asked their status as "Guests of the Foreign Office" be annulled and be left to their own devices. Despite the scarcity of jobs Elisabeth soon found employment as an assistant teacher in Worth Priory, a preparatory school run by the Benedictine Order while Erich founded a small export company. The early success (which went away too soon) of the company enabled them to settle for a while near the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Brompton Road, but it was five years before Erich was able to find a decent job with a firm of brokers with Lloyd's of London. It was during their stay in England that they changed their surname to Vermehren de Saventhem for genealogical reasons. Henceforth they were known as Eric and Elisabeth de Saventhem.

Later years

After many years in the UK, the de Saventhems settled in Zürich in the 1960s with Eric managing the firm's Swiss subsidiary until he was promoted as Director for Europe in 1964. Because of this they lived in Paris for two years before moving back to Switzerland in 1966. In the meantime they became active in the Catholic Traditionalist Movement in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, with Eric becoming one of the founding members of the Una Voce movement, becoming its first president.

The couple decided to move back to Germany in view of Elisabeth's failing health, and she died there in 2000. Eric himself died in Bonn in 2005 at the age of 85.

Main source

Bassett, Richard. "A Lion of the Faith". Obituary of Erich Vermehren de Saventhem in The Independent, 3 May 2005.

References and notes

  1. ^ Isa Vermehren. German wikipedia. (Isa was expelled from her school in 1933 after refusing to salute the Nazi flag.)
  2. ^ The Plettenbergs are one of Germany's traditional Catholic families. They were also opposed to Hitler, and had clandestinely distributed the banned anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge in 1937. As a result of this, Elisabeth's parents were imprisoned by the Gestapo, but she was able to effect their release after three weeks. In addition, she herself was repeatedly brought in for questioning for her subversive activities.
  3. ^ Coincidently, Adam von Trott zu Solz was Germay's 1931 Rhodes scholar.

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