Career in Industry
Schulte was born in Duesseldorf into a conservative, upper-middle-class family. By 1925 he had become the chief executive officer of a large and diverse corporation that had interlocking ties to Polish, Swiss, and American firms. Based in Breslau, the corporation was the largest zinc producer in Europe. Because of the importance of zinc in the German war economy, in 1933 the Nazi regime helped the firm to expand, thereby helping Germany become less dependent on imports.
Schulte, as one of the country's top industrial leaders, had frequent contact with high German government and military officials, as well as other industrialists who had access to important information. In addition, his deputy, Otto Fitzner, had joined the Nazi Party even before Hitler's accession to power and rapidly rose in party ranks because he was both politically reliable and technically competent. Fitzner was soon appointed to a wide range of high-level governmental and advisory posts and became a close friend of Karl Hanke, the Nazi Party district leader. Fitzner remained on the payroll of Schulte's firm and inadvertently became an invaluable source of sensitive information. Schulte was independent and strong-willed, and felt that the Nazis were leading the nation toward a disastrous war and self-destruction.
Passing Information to the Allies
Once the war broke out, Schulte decided to pass on information to the Allies in the hope that it might hasten Hitler's defeat. Traveling frequently from Germany to Switzerland, Schulte regularly served as an informant for Swiss and Polish intelligence services, which had contact with the British and American intelligence services. Yet Schulte's most famous contribution had little to do with the conduct of the war.
In late July 1942, Schulte told his business associate in Zurich, Isidor Koppelmann, that he had obtained information that the Nazi regime intended to murder all the Jews in Europe, possibly through the use of prussic acid (the poison gas which was actually used at the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center). Schulte wanted to pass the information to leading Jewish organizations in the United States and to the Allied governments, which he hoped could forestall the massacre.
Koppelmann contacted Benjamin Sagalowitz, who ran an information bureau for the Jewish communities of Switzerland. Sagalowitz quickly reached Gerhart Riegner, representative of the World Jewish Congress. On August 8, 1942, Riegner presented his report to the British and American legations in Geneva. Since private cable traffic from Switzerland was not possible, Riegner requested that the information be forward through diplomatic channels to the respective governments and to Rabbi Stephen Wise, the president of the World Jewish Congress based in New York. The resulting cables got through only with difficulty and some delay.
Riegner only later learned of Schulte's identity. Only on one occasion did he violate Schulte's request for anonymity. In October 1942, the United States legation chief in Switzerland, Leland Harrison, insisted that he had to have the name of the source of the information in order to tell officials in Washington, DC, that the report was reliable. Riegner reluctantly gave him Schulte's name in an appendix to his summary concerning the persecution of the Jews in Europe.
Schulte continued his travels from Germany to Switzerland, bringing with him important military and economic intelligence. With Allen Dulles' arrival in November 1942, the United States established an Office of Strategic Services (the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency) presence in Switzerland. Schulte and Dulles established contact in May 1943. At their very first meeting Dulles asked Schulte to prepare a paper outlining present-day conditions in Germany and make recommendations regarding the postwar reconstruction of Germany. Other contacts followed during which Schulte provided invaluable information.
In early December 1943 Schulte learned from friends in German military intelligence that he had become the subject of a Gestapo (German secret state police) investigation and that his arrest might be imminent. He fled to Switzerland. Schulte remained in Zurich for the rest of the war, working with Dulles and a small group of anti-Germans to gather and analyze intelligence data.
After the war Schulte briefly went to work for the US military occupation authorities in Berlin in anticipation of being offered a major role in Germany's reconstruction. When a position did not materialize, despite strong support by Dulles and commendations from various countries for his efforts during the war, Schulte resigned and returned to Switzerland where he remained until his death in January 1966.
The source of the information for the famous Riegner telegram remained a little-known secret until unearthed by historians in the 1980s.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What risks did Schulte face as he delivered this information?
- What pressures and motivations affected Schulte as he considered working with the Allies?
- Trace what happened to Schulte’s information delivered via the Reigner telegram. How and when did it reach British and American authorities, as well as the American public?