Imperial Germany’s Mysterious Fraülein Doktor
Some years ago, I was tossing around the idea of a Whatever Happened To?-type book that would tell the stories of people who were famous, or infamous, for One Big Thing, but whose lives afterwards remain generally unknown to anyone but specialists.
I went so far as to write a few chapters of AfterLives, as I called it. One of them was on what happened to Fletcher Christian and the mutineers of HMS Bounty after they landed on Pitcairn Island (a great Lord of the Flies-style story, by the way). Another investigated Benedict Arnold’s doings in the decades after his betrayal.
Now I’m thinking about the sequel to this non-existent (so far!) book: What Did They Do? It would focus on people who are super-famous, whose very names are bywords, yet many of us are a little hazy as to what exactly they did that made them so famous.
One of its subjects would have to be Mata Hari. I think most people might hazily recall that she was a German spy during World War One (or Great War, as I correctly persist in calling it), but as for her background, achievements, and activities . . . dunno [shrugs shoulders].
It was while looking into Mata Hari that I discovered the almost invisible spy who happened to be Imperial Germany’s only female intelligence officer. Indeed, this Elsbeth Schragmüller actually trained Mata Hari (or did the best she could) in tradecraft. Hers is an interesting story, so let’s get into it.
Annemarie and Elsbeth
The first thing you need to know about Schragmüller is that while no fewer than four movies have been made about her not one of them bears even the slightest resemblance to reality.
Granted, three of them were part of the interwar spy-genre fad—think of Greta Garbo in 1932’s Mata Hari and Marlene Dietrich as Agent X-27 in 1931’s Dishonored—and so can be allowed some dramatic license, but these particular flicks didn’t even get her name right.
Only 1934’s Stamboul Quest, written by Herman Mankiewicz, directed by Sam Wood (soon to do Marx Brothers movies), and starring Myrna Loy (about to rule the screen in The Thin Man), is worth watching. Two of the others were filmed simultaneously in French and English in 1937 and used different directors and mostly different casts for the exact same movie. No idea why and not really worth finding out.
The fourth was an English-language Yugoslavian-Italian co-production with the German title of Fräulein Doktor, produced by Dino Di Laurentiis and released through Paramount in 1968, which is as good as it sounds. There would even have been a fifth had the Nazis, believing that spy films undermined the Volk’s morals, not stopped Leni Riefenstahl from directing her own version.
All these movies emerged from a single Ur-book, the journalist Hans Berndorff’s schlock-hacky Spionage!—granted, it’s a fantastic title; wish I’d used it for the name of this newsletter—published in Germany in 1929 and in New York a year later.
In a chapter, “The ‘Lady Doctor’ in the War,” Berndorff (later an SS officer) revealed to the world the astounding wartime adventures of “Annemarie Lesser,” a beautiful German spy who, devastated by the loss of her dashing cavalry-officer paramour, later succumbed to cocaine and morphine addiction and ended up in a Swiss sanitorium, where “on nights when the mountain wind wails around the house … she suddenly begins to shriek aloud.”
Now, that particular chapter’s a little over thirty pages long, but I’ve found it impossible to discern a single accurate fact in it. Like many of the more sensationalistic spy “historians” of our own time, Berndorff confected the whole thing for the sake of a romantic tale.
In other words, it’s complete fiction—except that he based the idea of a “Lady Doctor” spy on an obscure, 18-page article written by the real “Lady Doctor” spy, Elsbeth Schragmüller, shortly before his book appeared.
She was not the alluring, vampish femme fatale-cum-morphine-addict imagined by Berndorff, but, according to a 1930s newspaper, a “super slim, fine, and very reserved blonde with a girl-like voice and earnest objectivity” who walked with a limp. She never married, nor had any children, and the only verified photograph of her that exists was taken when she was a young girl.
Elsbeth the Spy
Tough as nails and smart as hell, though. Born into an upper-middle-class family in 1887, Elsbeth fought to be educated at a time when women weren’t expected to be.
She learnt perfect French and good English from her grandmother before entering Albert-Ludwig-University of Freiburg as one of the first women admitted. By 1913 she had been awarded a doctorate in Political Economy, but a university post was out of the question.
She instead worked for an organization that trained young women to enter the workforce, but the outbreak of war in July 1914 fired her patriotic enthusiasm and she volunteered for service, any service, to help the troops. There was nothing for her, and Schragmüller cursed, as she wrote, “my fate that had placed me into this world as a woman, and I was angry . . . that I had studied Political Economy and not Medicine,” which would have garnered her a job in a military hospital.
But she picked herself up and booked a room at the same hotel in Brussels where Field Marshal Baron von der Goltz, the newly appointed military governor of occupied Belgium, had his headquarters. She then laid in wait in the lobby to buttonhole him about a position. Impressed that she’d gotten as far as Belgium under her own steam in the middle of an invasion, the field marshal passed her on to the army’s Kriegsnachrichtenstelle (War Intelligence Office), where she was assigned the task of reading intercepted letters from Belgian soldiers to their families.
Elsbeth soon proved to have a discerning eye. The soldiers often carelessly mentioned their regiments and their destinations, or dropped titbits about their commanders’ plans, or spoke of low morale and ammunition shortages. That sort of stuff was gold for a keen intelligence analyst like Schragmüller.
In early 1915, after the unit had moved to Antwerp, she was promoted to head Section France. Her primary task was to acquire military intelligence by recruiting agents, training them, supplying them with false papers, and sending them across the line. She may have despatched some 400 agents over the course of the War.
Her talents were remarkable. Colonel Walter Nicolai, the chief of Abteilung IIIb (Military Intelligence), was an ultra-reactionary officer of the school that was so old they had to knock it down to build the old school, but even he had to admit that the most effective person Berlin had was “an extraordinary well-educated woman [who] knew best about handling agents, even the trickiest and slyest ones.”
She alone was worth two divisions, he said.
Schragmüller’s expertise in running agents far exceeded anyone else’s in Section France, or any Section, come to think of it. She compiled a shrewd guide to the use of traveling and local agents, deserter agents from the French Army, working- and upper-class agents, as well as the best way of debriefing one’s best-placed sources.
For the latter, don’t start by shaking them down for their information. No, begin by amicably discussing the great political, economic, and military questions of the day, advised Schragmüller. Hear them out, listen to their views, make ‘em think they’re smart. Above all, empathize with them by understanding their problems and identifying their psychological needs. That makes them much easier to manipulate.
Be, or at least pretend to be, their friend, in other words, but don’t ever trust them. Do “not for one second allow yourself to forget who you [are] talking to,” she cautioned. Because the enemy was always trying to infiltrate doubles and spies tend to exaggerate their own importance, “you [have] to scrutinize their reports as closely as the reports of the lower-ranking agents.”
Schragmüller was interested not in French troop movements—she thought that sort of thing below her—but in the greater strategic issues of the economic war effort and national morale. She wanted to know whether France’s colonies were still enthusiastically sending volunteers, if civilians were complaining about shortages and if young men were evading conscription. Critically important, given that Germany was encouraging the Bolsheviks to cause trouble in Russia, was “listening to working men’s talk in the armament factories; if they were inclined to sabotage; if subversive internationalist ideology was at work; if there were ways to undermine the morale of the enemy” in the hopes of sparking another French Revolution.
She soon acquired a reputation among the Allies as a Slinky Seductress, against whose Feminine Wiles no man was safe. The French newspapers let their imaginations run wild when they described the mysterious, anonymous spymistress as la sirène blonde, le tigre rouge, and la grande patronne. She smoked Russian cigars, lasciviously caressed her Browning pistol, carried a riding crop, and coquettishly “show[ed] her calves crossing her legs.”
None of these things was true, obviously. The only fact about her that anyone was really sure of was that she would introduce herself to prospective agents as Mademoiselle Docteur.
That name was all Mata Hari knew of Schragmüller when they met in the spring of 1916. The exotic Javanese dancer was actually Margaretha Zelle, born in the Netherlands in 1876, and she was open, according to Schragmüller, to working for the Germans to pay off her debts.
Colonel Nicolai asked Schragmüller to arrange an initial meeting in Cologne between him and the prospective spy, codenamed H21. Schragmüller was then assigned to train H21 in tradecraft and, as she said, “carry out an additional screening with regard to her suitability for intelligence service, especially concerning her abilities . . . to establish personal relationships and to move in society circles.”
It did not go so well. For two weeks Schragmüller lived with Mata Hari and then reported her findings to Nicolai:
“The behavior of Mata Hari at the hotel, at lunch, and at the theatre is that of a ‘Grande Dame,’ although her eccentric personality and her exquisite elegance attract general attention. It is an effort for her to [heed] the restrictions of her freedom of movement which have to be imposed for her new role. She is unable to stick to prescribed regulations.”
In short, Schragmüller warned that “this demi-mondaine will only bring us trouble,” even if others in German Intelligence were cock-a-hoop over their new asset.
The Mademoiselle Docteur was soon proved correct. When H21’s letters from France began arriving they contained nothing of any intelligence value but always demanded more money in exchange for her tittle-tattle about the sex lives of various politicians.
Soon afterwards, in February 1917, Mata Hari was caught by the French authorities and executed by firing squad on October 15, aged 41. Her espionage activities, claimed the prosecutors, had led to the deaths of some 50,000 Allied servicemen—a ludicrous exaggeration, but one inspired by the need to scapegoat someone for the near-collapse of the French Army that year owing to the failure of the Nivelle Offensive, war exhaustion, and widespread mutiny in the ranks.
Schragmüller’s fate was less violent but still rather depressing. After the War, she returned to Germany and embarked on an unspectacular academic career in Political Economy. The publication of her brief memoir, followed by Berndorff’s bizarre Spionage! revelations, caused a bit of a stir and in the early 1930s she gave a few public lectures on her intelligence activities. The only (brief) descriptions we have of her appearance date from that time.
While the terrible German inflation of the 1920s had wiped out any savings Schragmüller may have had, she also never made any money from either the Berndorff book or from any of the movies. The 1930s would prove another hard decade for her, but not only financially.
In May 1934, her father died, followed by her brother—a rather unpleasant SA man—a month later when he was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives.
It was a long, slow descent after that. Elsbeth Schragmüller would die, aged 52 and alone and forgotten, in Munich on February 24, 1940, at 3pm. Her grave has since disappeared, leaving her as much a mystery in death as in life.
Further Reading: K.J. Campbell, “Colonel Walter Nicolai: A Mysterious but Effective Spy,” American Intelligence Journal, 27 (2009), 1, pp. 83-89; H. Hieber, “‘Mademoiselle Docteur’: The Life and Service of Imperial Germany’s Only Female Intelligence Officer,” Journal of Intelligence History, 5 (2005), 2, pp. 91-108; W. Klinert, “A Spy’s Paradise?: German Espionage in the Netherlands, 1914-1918,” Journal of Intelligence History, 12 (2013), 1, pp. 21-35; W. Nicolai, Geheime Mächte: Internationale Spionage und ihre Bekämpfung im Weltkrieg und heute (Leipzig: Meyer, 1923); L. Richter, “Military and Civil Intelligence Services in Germany from World War One to the End of the Weimar Republic,” in H. Bungert, J.G. Heitmann, and M. Wala (eds.), Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century (Frank Cass: London, 2003), pp. 1-16; E. Schragmüller, “Aus dem deutschen Nachrichtendienst,” in F. Felger (ed.), Was wir vom Weltkrieg nicht wissen (Berlin: Wilhelm Andermann, 1929), pp. 138-55; M. Walle, “Fräulein Doktor Elsbeth Schragmüller,” Guerres Mondiales et Conflits Contemporains, 232 (2008), 4, pp. 47-58.