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.

Early life[edit | edit source]

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German youth", and he was prevented from taking up a coveted Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University; his passport was revoked, making it impossible for him to travel outside of Germany.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[edit | edit source]

Despite the Vermehrens' unwillingness openly to resist the Nazi regime, they inevitably found themselves in various anti-Nazi circles, several of which centred on his cousin Adam von Trott zu Solz.[3] Finally it came to a point that they felt both their lives were at risk while they remained in Germany. He was excluded from military service due to a childhood injury, but managed to get himself assigned to the Abwehr late in 1943 with the help of von Trott and Paul Leverkuehn, the Abwehr station chief in Istanbul.

At that time, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, was making peace overtures with the Americans with the help of the German ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen, who had been asked[by whom?] to meet Archbishop (later also Cardinal) Francis Spellman. Von Papen was a cousin of Elisabeth Vermehren, and the Germany foreign service's attention to family ties led to her husband's assignment to Istanbul as a junior-grade agent after two weeks' training in secret inks. She, however, was detained by the Gestapo as a hostage.

When he returned to Berlin on leave, the couple agreed they would defect to the British; so that she could accompany him to Istanbul, she procured an official assignment from the Foreign Office in connection with the Archbishop's visit to Turkey. On the train from Berlin to the Turkish capital they discovered that a high-ranking officer of the Gestapo had taken the compartment in the sleeping car next to them; at a border crossing in Bulgaria,[vague] he was permitted to continue to Istanbul but she was arrested by Gestapo agents and taken to the German embassy in Sofia. There, the ambassador was a close family friend who managed in cooperation with the Abwehr station chief to sneak her on board a diplomatic courier plane that landed to pick up the diplomatic bag en route to Istanbul.

Defection[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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[edit | edit source]

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, being 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[edit | edit source]

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

References and notes[edit | edit source]

  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. Coincidentally, von Trott had been Germany's 1931 Rhodes scholar.

External links[edit | edit source]

de:Erich Vermehren

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