[...] The origins of the 'Venlo Affair' have always remained something of a mystery. The extreme secrecy surrounding the
Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) ensures that the British documents relating to the incident remain closed,
1 while on the German side neither Himmler nor Heydrich appears to have recorded their object
in mounting the operation. Despite British censorship of the relevant material it seems reasonably clear
that British contacts with the 'German Opposition' were part of a general strategy of encouraging dissension
within the Reich.
From the German side Himmler's aims in disguising his agents as discontented officers are obscure. It has
been argued that he hoped to learn something about British contacts with the genuine Opposition or that he was
merely engineering an excuse for the projected invasion of Holland. The essence of the affair, the
discussion of British peace terms, has been consistently ignored. Yet it is clear, both from the
memoirs of Payne Best and Schellenberg and from the evidence presented to a Dutch Committee of Inquiry,
that Himmler's men were chiefly interested in sounding out the British on their attitude towards a compromise peace.
Himmler's contacts with Britain during this period paralleled a series of similar German peace feelers from Goering,
von Papen and the military Opposition itself. All were designed to avert Hitler's winter offensive in the West,
which it was feared would be an act of national suicide, benefiting only Russia. Goering hoped to elicit British
terms which would persuade Hitler to abandon the offensive and conclude a negotiated peace. That Himmler was
involved in similar activities should cause no surprise in the light of his subsequent record. It is the intention
of this article to argue, therefore, that the original German interest in the Venlo discussions sprang from a desire
to ascertain British peace terms - only events at the beginning of November, in particular Hitler's increasing
intolerance of peace sentiment and the Burgerbräu bomb, transformed the operation into a coup at British
and Dutch expense.
A bizarre series of events led to the establishment of contact between the British SIS and the German SD.
The Venlo operation was originally based upon British hopes that the war could be won without military 'holocausts'
by undermining the German home front and encouraging an internal collapse. Chamberlain believed that the Allies
should establish a firm defensive position and let the blockade do its work on German morale. A demand for
peace and the collapse of the Nazi regime might follow. 2
The Prime Minister was anxious to promote this process by waging war on Hitler's domestic position. His public
statements emphasized that Britain's quarrel was with the regime and not with the German people. As early as
1 September 1939 he remarked in a broadcast, 'We have no quarrel with the German people, except that they allow
themselves to be governed by a Nazi Government. As long as that Government exists ... there will be no peace in
Europe.' 3 Chamberlain drew a similar distinction between the German people and their regime in a speech
to the Commons on 12 October. He informed the House that Britain desired a just peace and did not wish to destroy
the German people. The obstacle to a settlement was Hitler, who could not be trusted to keep his word. Unless the
German Government could give 'convincing proof of their desire for peace by definite acts' the war must therefore
continue. 4 The whole speech was clearly designed to strengthen opposition to the regime.
The German people were being informed that if they disposed of Hitler, Britain would be prepared to
negotiate a just European settlement.
The British were particularly anxious to encourage a split between Hitler and his Army as part of this offensive
against the German home front, since only the Army possessed the physical power to topple the existing regime. It had
been known in London since 1938 that a military Opposition existed in Germany. 5 In August and September 1939
there were rumours of continued discontent with Hitler's foreign policy amongst the generals. Goerdeler informed
a British diplomat in Stockholm on 28 August 1939 that the Army was opposed to war and similar information was
received by Henderson just before he left Berlin. 6 British Intelligence reports also indicated a certain
unease within the General Staff. 7 The Foreign Office noted:
The independence of the Generals can perhaps be overrated, though they do seem to have been acting
as a brake recently. They are very likely the only alternative to Hitler but we have not yet heard that
assumption of control by them is imminent. 8
Rumours persisted after the outbreak of war. It was said, for example, that General Fritsch had been
assassinated by the Gestapo because he led an Opposition group within the Army. 9 Halifax informed the
cabinet on 11 September that a military Opposition continued to exist. According to a secret source
'very valuable results might be secured' if Britain made 'a direct appeal to the German Army along certain lines'.
10 The Government displayed a continued interest in the position of the German General Staff
throughout October 1939. On 23 October Halifax informed his colleagues that 'it was clear that considerable
internal conflict was proceeding at the present time in Germany. Discontent was being expressed both by a
group of Generals and also by the public. 11 On 27 October he explained the reasons for the
'acute disagreement' between Hitler and the Army. The generals were anxious about Russian gains in the
Baltic as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact and wished to conclude a compromise peace which would free
Germany to defend its interests in the East. 12
Although by no means convinced that a German military junta would ultimately represent any less of a
threat to British interests than Hitler, the Government was anxious to widen the disagreement between the
Führer and his generals. It was agreed that the primary British war aim must be the removal of Hitler.
Even Vansittart, the most extreme anti-German in the Foreign Office, remarked that 'for the present we need
to separate the German Army and the Nazi Party ... and we should at least do nothing to lump or drive them
together until we have got them both where we want them'. 13 British policy, therefore, was to
encourage the divisions in Germany 'and then see what happens'. 14 It was against this background
that the SIS was instructed in September 1939 to investigate rumours of discontent among the generals and to
ascertain whether internal dissension in Germany 'might create conditions favourable to a quick end to the war'.
15 This order came directly from the Prime Minister and knowledge of the operation was carefully
restricted to a small group consisting of Chamberlain. Halifax and the head of the Intelligence Service,
Admiral Sinclair. [...]
The reasons behind the German decision to provide an 'officer' for Best remain a matter of speculation and debate.
According to some accounts, Himmler and Heydrich hoped to exploit the opportunity offered by Fischer to find out
if the British knew anything about a genuine conspiracy against Hitler. 31 According to others they
wished to penetrate British Intelligence and to provide Hitler with an excuse for the invasion of Holland by
uncovering evidence of Anglo-Dutch collusion. 32 The first possibility can be dismissed. There is
no evidence that the SD knew anything about the genuine military conspiracy which existed at this time. Besides,
opening spurious peace negotiations with the British would have been a strange method of hunting down potential
conspirators even if Himmler knew in a general sense about discontent within the Army. As an excuse for the invasion
of Holland the whole affair seems unnecessarily elaborate. The Germans themselves argued that the operation was viewed
in this light only after the event. 33
By treating Venlo as a pure intelligence operation, previous
writers have omitted consideration of a third and perhaps more rewarding approach. If the affair is placed in a
political context it can be argued that Himmler wished to exploit an opportunity to ascertain British peace terms.
Two of the main protagonists, Schellenberg and Knochen, certainly believed that they were engaged in genuine peace
Himmler's reputation for 'extremism' in foreign policy has perhaps precluded examination of this third
possibility yet it would be a mistake to write him off as a simple 'extremist' except where Russia was
concerned. Although he was in the forefront of those urging war during the Munich crisis, the deterioration
of relations with Britain after Munich seems to have disturbed Himmler.
In the period after November 1938 he began to oppose Ribbentrop and Goebbels and to align himself with Goering
on foreign policy issues. This realignment of forces was first precipitated by the Kristallnacht pogrom. Himmler,
like Goering, resented Goebbels's instigation of an outburst which interfered with the orderly expropriation of
the Jews, destroyed property, and threatened to create an international coalition against Germany. He complained
that Goebbels had sponsored the pogrom 'at a time when the situation as regards foreign policy was at its worst'.
While Ribbentrop supported the Propaganda Minister, Himmler allied with Goering in an attempt to curb Goebbels's
influence and to repair the damage caused to the German international position. 35
The first fruits of this new alignment were evident in an attempt to improve relations with Britain in December 1938.
Prince Hohenlohe, a Sudeten aristocrat and a member of 'The Friends of the Reichsführer SS', arrived in Britain
with the suggestion that one of Hirnmler's deputies should visit London. The names of Heydrich and Stückhardt were
put forward. According to Hohenlohe, Himmler was anxious to improve Anglo-German relations and there would be great
competition among his lieutenants for the honour of an invitation to Britain. 36 Although nothing came
of this approach because of the seizure of Prague, it is evidence of a shift by Himmler away from the policy of
reckless expansionism urged by Ribbentrop, towards the line of accommodation with Britain advocated by Goering.
There is some evidence that Himmler continued to pursue this course in 1939. According to Lipski, the Polish
minister in Berlin, Himmler supported Goering's efforts to bring the Polish crisis to a peaceful conclusion. 37
This did not prevent Himmler from lending his full support to the German attack once Hitler had reached a final
decision, but he continued to blame Ribbentrop for what he regarded as an unnecessary war with Britain. 38
Himmler was particularly unhappy about the diplomatic price paid for the successful Polish war, the Nazi-Soviet pact.
The pact granted Russia a sphere of influence in the Baltic states and Himmler had to preside over the evacuation of
the German communities with whom he sympathized in the area. 39 Hitler and Ribbentrop were unconcerned
about this contraction of German influence in the East. 40 Himmler found the new situation less easy
to accept. When he visited Rome in December 1939 the Italians found him 'anti-Russian and somewhat discouraged'.
41 According to Kersten, Himmler remarked in January 1940 that the true German mission lay in the East.
The war with Britain was a quarrel between brothers which could be settled with 'common sense on both sides'.
A united Germanic bloc of Britain and Germany could guarantee world domination by the white races. British peace
overtures, therefore, should not be rejected. 42 Interest in a compromise peace on the part of the SS,
which would free Germany to deal with Russia, was also in evidence on other occasions.
On 16 October 1939 Hassell learned that Stückhardt and Höhne, of the SS High Command, shared the views
of the Opposition about the desirability of peace 'and were already considering whether Ribbentrop should be
thrown to the wolves. The formation of a new cabinet was under consideration there.' Hassell was sceptical about
this information but it was authentic. 43 Höhne had encouraged Prince Hohenlohe to circulate
memoranda in favour of peace to Goering and Hitler, arguing that only Bolshevism would benefit from war between
Britain and Germany. Hitler had dismissed these documents as 'defeatist scribblings', but Goering encouraged
Hohenlohe to contact British friends and discuss peace terms. 44 These meetings seem to have enjoyed
the tacit support of Hohenlohe's friends at SS Headquarters. In talks held with Group Captain Christie, an
unofficial British emissary, at Lausanne in October 1939, Hohenlohe was confident that the SS could be won over
in favour of a compromise peace. Christie was assured that the Gestapo was 'for peace' and feared Bolshevism.
How much Himmler knew about this particular feeler is unclear. It seems plain, however, that he shared the
general feeling of unease about the war and the Nazi-Soviet pact expressed at SS Headquarters. The Venlo intrigue
must be viewed in this political context. It was not a simple intelligence operation. It was designed to
probe the possibility of a compromise peace which would free Germany to face the threat of Bolshevism in the
According to Schellenberg, a firm agreement emerged in the course of the afternoon. Germany would restore
Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In return for a British pledge to conclude peace on this basis, the Opposition
would agree to remove Hitler within a specific time limit. Halifax approved these terms that evening after Stevens
had referred them to the Foreign Office and there was some talk of a further meeting in London to finalize the
Schellenberg, however, is an untrustworthy source on the Hague meeting. He both distorts his own position
regarding the removal of Hitler and exaggerates British commitment to definite peace terms. According to Best,
the Germans wished to retain Hitler as a figurehead in a reconstituted government. Under interrogation he
informed the Gestapo that as far as he knew 'Adolf Hitler was to remain in power'. 62 According to
Knochen the German object throughout the negotiations was to convince the British that Hitler must stay. 63
This is confirmed by a statement of the German terms in the Chamberlain Papers. According to this document
Hitler was to remain 'constitutional head of the German Government' and Goering at least was to have a role
in the new regime. The object of the reconstituted government would be peace and co-operation with 'all
civilized countries' on the basis of a 'pan European policy'. 64 Schellenberg, therefore, was
aiming at a peace settlement which would involve the removal of Ribbentrop and the creation of a European
alliance against Russia. The references to co-operation with civilized countries' and a 'pan European' policy
clearly imply the exclusion of Russia from the new concert of Europe and the construction of a united anti-Bolshevik front.
As for the British response to this German offer, Best recalled that he was not authorized to make a firm
statement and gave only 'a carefully worded and rather non committal reply' to Schellenberg. 65 This is
confirmed by a note in the Chamberlain Papers written by Cadogan. According to Cadogan, Best was instructed to
emphasize that the 'first requisite' for peace 'was the restoration of confidence which had been destroyed by Hitler
and the Nazi regime. ... The prime necessity, therefore, was to change the regime and the spirit behind it. ...
Any new Government in Germany must be able to inspire confidence if discussions were to be possible.' 66
Schellenberg, therefore, received the same reply as Goering's emissary Dahlerus in October 1939 - Hitler must be
removed in advance of peace negotiations.
By insisting on a change of regime in advance of discussing terms
the British hoped to stimulate dissension in Germany without committing themselves too far. If the SIS had
only secured authority to pursue the affair on this rather vague basis, Best was nonetheless jubilant and
considered peace a definite possibility. Ironically, at a party for the Germans in his house after the
discussions, he informed Fischer that he could take much of the credit for this happy development. 67[...]
Chamberlain was persuaded by the Hague discussions that the SIS had uncovered a genuine military conspiracy
which might take action against the regime. On 5 November, in a letter to his sister, he remarked
I have a 'hunch' that the war will be over before the spring. It won't be by defeat in the field but by the
German realisation that they can't win and that it isn't worth their while to go on getting thinner and poorer
when they might have instant relief and perhaps not have to give up anything they really care about. 69
The Prime Minister clearly imagined that his strategy of economic blockade and attrition of the German home
front was about to produce dramatic results. Cadogan and Halifax were also optimistic about the prospects of the
Venlo operation although more cautious than Chamberlain about predicting the sudden collapse of the Nazi regime.
Cadogan noted in his diary on 31 October that 'something' was 'going on in Germany' and felt that Britain must keep
the generals 'on the hook'. 70 Halifax informed the French ambassador on 7 November that
Britain was in contact with 'German military elements. ... anxious to get rid of the Nazi regime'. It was
'just possible' that the German approach 'might stand for something substantial'. Halifax underlined the
importance he attached to the affair by asking Corbin to maintain total secrecy. He should 'neither write
of it or speak of it at present to M. Daladier'. Chamberlain would provide the French leader with full details
on his next visit to Paris. 71
By this point the SIS operation was yielding such important results that knowledge of its existence could no
longer be confined to Chamberlain, Halifax, Cadogan, and the head of the Intelligence Service. On 1 November
the war cabinet was informed about the affair for the first time. It did not take the news as calmly as Corbin
and was unsympathetic to Chamberlain's desire to keep the generals 'on the hook'. Churchill in particular argued
strongly against further contacts with the Germans. A leading advocate of fighting the war by military rather
than political means, he opposed any hint of a settlement which might leave German military power intact and
perhaps suspected that Chamberlain was again flirting with appeasement.
In the light of this reaction Halifax
was inclined to have second thoughts about further exchanges with the 'generals' and the Prime Minister was
'frightened' by the opposition of his colleagues. Cadogan, however, encouraged them to persevere, arguing
that first reaction in the cabinet 'was bound to be unfavourable ... [Halifax] must not listen too much
to Winston on the subject of "beating Germany". We must try every means of helping G[ermany] to beat herself.'
The SIS operation, therefore, continued. Over the new radio link with Germany the British pressed for a meeting
with the leading 'general'. They also seem to have asked for some definite commitment to remove Hitler on the part
of the 'conspirators'. 73 Chamberlain and Halifax hoped to secure themselves from further opposition
in the cabinet by telling their colleagues the 'minimum' about these exchanges. 74 The Burgerbräu
bomb of 8 November 1939 confirmed the impression that matters were coming to a head in Germany. Harvey, Halifax's
private secretary, noted on 9 November:
Fresh feelers are being put out to us all the time from Germany - This time from some generals who say they
are prepared to take over the regime. Bomb outrages in Munich last night. Hitler narrowly escaped. Is this
the work of the generals? 75[...]
The British were at first puzzled by the kidnapping and reluctant to concede that Best and Stevens were
the victims of a Gestapo plot. Wishful thinking about a German military conspiracy continued in London. On
12 November, Cadogan noted that the predicted invasion of the Netherlands had not taken place and speculated
that the 'generals' were exercising a 'restraining influence'. British refusal to admit defeat in the Venlo
affair was encouraged by Schellenberg, who remained in radio contact with London.
Cadogan remarked on 15 November that the 'generals' were 'still alive' and as late as 18 November Halifax and Chamberlain were
discussing their reply to some question asked by the 'conspirators'.
The truth about the Venlo operation was only revealed
on 22 November when Schellenberg radioed an abusive message from Berlin, informing the British that they had been duped by
the SD. 87 Cadogan noted, 'About 7 got radio from Berlin showing that Gestapo have taken over (if they
did not always have) our communications with the "Generals". So that's over.'
The government held the Intelligence Service to blame for the whole débâcle, perhaps unfairly
since wishful thinking about a German internal collapse was not restricted to Best, Stevens and their immediate
superiors. Chamberlain himself had initiated and encouraged the entire operation. Nevertheless, as Farago remarks,
the affair had 'exposed the inadequacy' of the SIS and the 'incompetence of key personnel', and a government enquiry
into the operations of the Intelligence branch was set up under the chairmanship of Hankey. 94
The 'Venlo Incident' had repercussions on British foreign policy since it affected the British response
to all subsequent approaches from Germany. The talks with Schellenberg marked the peak of British enthusiasm
for clandestine contacts with the German Opposition. Indeed the Venlo operation was the only British attempt
actively to seek out German dissidents rather than passively awaiting an approach from the Opposition. The peace
feelers from genuine conspirators which followed Venlo were treated with extreme caution by London lest they prove
to be further Gestapo fabrications. [...]
Despite the Thirty Year Rule the file on the Venlo Affair in the Public Record Office remains closed for one hundred years. Certain documents in both the Halifax Papers (F0800) and in the Chamberlain Papers held by Birmingham University Library have, however, escaped this irrational censorship.
Keith Feiling, Life of Neville Chamberlain (London 1947), 426, 418.
Keith Feiling, Life of Neville Chamberlain (London 1947), 415.
House of Commons Debates, Vol. 352, cols. 563-8.
J.W. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power (New York, 1967), 406-24.
Minister in Stockholm to Halifax, 28 August 1939, C1278/15/1. F0371/22981. Henderson to Halifax, 2 September 1939, C1279/15/18 F0371/22981 Public Record Office, London.
Foreign Office minute, 28 August 1939, C1278/15/18 F0371/22981.
Clive to Halifax, 25 September 1939, C15013/13/18 F0371/22960.
War Cabinet, 11 September 1939, CAB65/1/12(39), Public Record Office London.
War Cabinet, 23 October 1939, CAB65/3/57(39).
War Cabinet, 27 October 1939, CAB65/3/62(3(9).
Minute by Vansittart, 12 October 1939, C16104/15/18 F0371/22985.
Minute by Kirkpatrick, 15 November 1939, C19636/15/18 F0371/22987.
Captain S. Payne Best, The Venlo Incident (London 1950), 7.
W.L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (London, 1967). L. Farago, Burn after Reading (New York, 1961). Brissaud, op. cit.
J.W. Wheeler-Bennett, The Nemesis of Power (New York, 1967), 406-24
This seems to be supported by the fact that the evidence of Anglo-Dutch collusion, the fact that Klop was a Dutch officer, was uncovered only as a result of the Venlo operation and surprised the German participants. See Payne Best, op. cit., 19. Hitler first mentioned the possibility of using Klop's involvement as an excuse for invading Holland at a military conference on 23 November 1939. See Documents on German Foreign Policy, Series D, Vol. VIII, 445.
Testimony of Helmut Knochen, Enquêtecommissie Regeringsbeled 1940-1945, Vol. 2-B (The Hague, 1949), 81
H. Höhne, The Order of the Death's Head (New York, 1971), 388-9.
Minute by Ashton-Gwatkin, 19 November 1938, C14535/42/18 F0371/21659. Mallet to Ogilvie-Forbes, 22 December 1938, C15086/42/18 F0371/21659.
D. Dilks (ed.), The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan 1938-1945 (London, 1971), 228-9.
Testimony of Helmut Knochen, Enquêtecommissie Regeringsbeled 1940-1945, Vol. 2-B (The Hague, 1949), 81
D. Dilks (ed.), The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan 1938-1945 (London, 1971), 320.
J. Harvey (ed.), The Diplomatic Diaries of Oliver Harvey (London, 1970), 327-8.
According to Farago it was an extremely sarcastic message and was signed 'The Gestapo'. See The Game of Foxes, 128. Farago gives no source for this information.
D. Dilks (ed.), The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan 1938-1945 (London, 1971), 231-2.
A. Hoch, 'Das Attentat auf Hitler im Burgerbräukeller', Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 17 (1969), 413.
Farago, Burn after Reading, op. cit., 48. S. Roskill, Hankey (London, 1974) Vol. Ill, 447.
Quelle: Callum MacDonald, The Venlo Affair, European Studies Review Vol. 8 (1978) No. 4, London 1978; [Kommentare] und
Callum A. MacDonald (* 1947 1997) war Professor an der School of Comparative American Studies
der University of Warwick, England. Er wurde u.a. bekannt durch seine Bücher 'Korea: The War Before Vietnam' und
'The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich'.