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Traitor's Gate - Michael Ridpath

Fact or Fiction?

Much of Traitor's Gate is based on historical fact, but not all of it. This page attempts to make clear where I have drawn the line between fact and fiction. Please do not read on unless you have read the book itself. There is a companion web page Sources, which discusses the books I read in researching the novel.

The characters
Conrad de Lancey
Theo von Hertenberg
Anneliese
The Conspiracy
Chamberlain and Appeasement
Churchill
Nazi persecution
Captain Foley
   
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The characters The major characters, i.e. Conrad, Theo, Anneliese and Klaus, are fictitious. So too are Conrad's family (including Joachim), Veronica, Sophie and Warren. Foley is real as is his dog. All of the other army and Abwehr officers are real, as are most of the Gestapo with the exception of Fischer, and the British politicians, civil servants and diplomats.
   
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Conrad de Lancey Although Conrad is a character of my own invention, he performs some of the roles of Ian Colvin. In 1938 Colvin was a 26-year-old correspondent for the News Chronicle based in Berlin. His father was a prominent journalist and Colvin seems to have had good contacts in Britain. He was introduced to Ewald von Kleist by Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a young German lawyer, and they met at the Casino Club. Colvin arranged von Kleist's visit to England, and carried a message from Churchill to the conspirators back to Germany.
   
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Theo von Hertenberg Once again, a character of my own invention, but he shares the characteristics of a number of real Germans. Adam von Trott zu Stolz was the first German Rhodes Scholar at Oxford after the First World War. He arrived there in 1931, when the university was dominated by left-wing politics in which he took part. He had tremendous charisma and made a deep impression on many of his contemporaries. He returned to Germany in 1933 where he was confused by the demands of loyalty to his country and dislike of Hitler; eventually he became involved with the conspirators. He was executed after the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler.

Stamp and postmarkFabian von Schlabrendorff was a German lawyer who joined the army as a reservist and then the Abwehr. He had been an ardent anti-Nazi since his student days. He married into the Bismarck family: his marriage to Luitgarde von Bismarck took place in Pomerania in the summer of 1939 and forms the basis of the wedding in the book. He was one of many conspirators who were part of the von Kleist extended family.

Hans-Bernd Gisevius was a former lawyer and Gestapo officer who became active in planning the coup. Although not formally in the Abwehr, he worked closely with Colonel Oster. Many of the planning tasks undertaken by Theo in the book were in fact carried out by Gisevius.

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Anneliese Anneliese is fictional, although there was a Doctor Serelman who was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1935 after giving his blood in a transfusion to an Aryan patient, thereby saving the Aryan's life.
   
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The Conspiracy Propaganda posterWhile some officers, notably Colonel Oster, had harboured a desire to remove Hitler for several years, the idea gathered momentum during 1938. Amazingly, the coordinating centre of the conspiracy was the Abwehr, the German secret service. During 1938 its chief, Admiral Canaris, went from a position of sceptic to active opponent, and he provided the cover for Oster to organize the coup. The Abwehr continued to be the centre of opposition to Hitler during the war, until Canaris was removed from his post in 1944.

Within the army, it was the removal of General von Fritsch in March 1938 which prodded many officers towards action. This was a fascinating episode and one which I dealt with at length in the first draft of the book, but subsequently had to cut since it wasn't strictly relevant to the story. The bare bones remain: the blackmailer Schmidt saw an officer with a male prostitute and claimed it was General von Fritsch, when it was actually a Captain Frisch. The Gestapo built up the prosecution case against von Fritsch and tried to prevent von Fritsch's defence team finding out the truth. When the case collapsed, Heydrich thought that the army would move against the SS and the Gestapo. It didn't.

The greatest difficulty Oster faced was in finding a leader for his coup. Although most generals seemed to be sympathetic to the idea, none would take an active positive role, apart from von Witzleben, who was too junior. Von Fritsch could have done, but his spirit was broken. General von Brauchitsch was compromised by a personal loan from Hitler and raised dithering to an art form. General Beck nearly took control, but resigned from his post at the last moment. Although his successor General Halder appeared enthusiastic, he was not thought entirely reliable by all the other conspirators. It was always the relatively junior Colonel Oster who was driving things.

Ewald von Kleist's trip to London really took place, and he met Lord Lothian, Vansittart and Churchill. His pleas for support from the British government were followed by others, notably from Theo Kordt, a diplomat in Germany's embassy in London, and a Colonel Böhm-Tettelbach.

The plans for the coup are based on surviving accounts, with Gisevius's role being taken by Theo. There really was a raiding party under the command of Captain Heinz ready to storm the Chancellery, and Oster, Gisevius and Heinz had decided that Heinz should shoot Hitler in the confusion. Of course, once Hitler had agreed to the Munich conference, the raiding party was stood down.

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Chamberlain and Appeasement I find the role of Chamberlain fascinating in all of this. There is no doubt in my mind that he knew about the proposed coup and although initially dismissive, took it increasingly seriously (although there is doubt in the minds of some historians, see the sources web page). Yet he still refused to support Czechoslovakia even though it would probably lead to Hitler's overthrow. Why?

Chamberlain is often portrayed as a weak ditherer, who stumbled into appeasement because he didn't have the courage to stand up to Hitler. My view is that he had a clear vision of what needed to be done and he followed this with energy and decisiveness. His aim was to preserve peace, and he felt the best way to achieve this was to win a pledge from Hitler not to start a war. This policy was wrong headed and based on a naïve understanding of foreign policy and of Hitler, but it was a policy that Chamberlain was determined to follow in the face of any opposition from his own government, from the French, from the Czechs or indeed from Hitler himself. This was what Plan Z was all about. This was why he argued so tirelessly against Halifax and other Cabinet ministers who lost faith in Hitler as September wore on, and why he never gave up trying to get Hitler to the negotiating table. A coup would have ruined this strategy.

Sir Nevile Henderson was an appalling ambassador. He didn't agree with the Nazi policies, but he badly misjudged Hitler and the Nazi regime. He misinformed an already badly informed Chamberlain of the true situation in Germany.

Lord Halifax is interesting. Although he agreed with and helped pursue a policy of appeasement during 1937 and 1938, he did so only while he thought it was the best means to secure peace. But a policy of appeasement presupposed that Hitler was trustworthy. As September wore on, Halifax began to realize that he was not. The key moment was the night of 24 September. Halifax went to bed an appeaser and woke up determined to stand up to Hitler. His overnight change of opinion had a dramatic effect on Cabinet and on Chamberlain: only Halifax had the respect and authority to swing the Cabinet against the Prime Minister. Halifax ascribed this change of heart to being kept awake worrying all night. I ascribe it to a midnight visit from General Beck.

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Churchill Churchill always seems to have a walk-on role in books like this, doesn't he? But I think he deserves it. It was he who proved the most receptive to Ewald von Kleist's visit to England, and he who pressed Halifax and Chamberlain to stand up to Hitler. He also had time to speak to anyone, old or young. His papers refer to conversations with Ian Colvin. Conrad's interview is loosely based on a visit to Churchill by Guy Burgess, then a young producer for the BBC and a fledgling Soviet spy.
   
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Nazi persecution Star of DavidThe Nazi party was based on anti-Semitism, but the persecution of Jews evolved over several stages. Although it became increasingly difficult to live as a Jew in Germany during the 1930s, it was still possible. Indeed some of the Jews who emigrated during 1933 and 1934 returned to Germany a year or two later. Until 1930, Germany was one of the most hospitable countries for Jews in Europe. Many of its most prominent citizens were Jewish, and considered themselves Germans first and Jews second. There were thousands of Germans with some Jewish blood who were caught up in the anti-Semitic laws, of whom quite a few were practising Christians.

Until 1938 the concentration camps were full, not of Jews, but of socialists, communists, trade unionists, subversives, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals. During my research I realized that it is a little unfair to accuse all Germans of not standing up to the Nazi regime. Many thousands did, with great courage. They lost their jobs and ended up in concentration camps.

The concentration camps only began to fill up with Jews in 1938. From the time of Anschluss with Austria in March 1938, anti-Semitic attacks intensified in Germany, culminating in Kristallnacht in November of that year, two months after the end of the book.

I had a slight problem deciding which concentration camp Anneliese should be sent to. Ravensbrück, the notorious women's camp was not built until 1939. Before then women were imprisoned in an old castle named Lichtenberg, which soon became overcrowded. The influx of Jewish women into concentration camps during the summer of 1938 overwhelmed the system, which is why Ravensbrück was built. Although the main camp of Sachsenhausen was for men only, there is some scant evidence that there were also women prisoners held there from time to time, and so it seems plausible, indeed likely, to me that there would be a female sub-camp in the Sachsenhausen complex at this time.

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Captain Foley Captain Foley took his obligations under the Official Secrets Act very seriously, which is one of the reasons that he died in obscurity. But he was well known amongst many Jewish families, especially in Israel. In 1959 a grove of 2,200 pine trees was planted outside Jerusalem to commemorate him, each one paid for by someone he had saved from the concentration camps. His efforts are described in Michael Smith's biography Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews. And he saved these lives despite the efforts of the British government to make sure that as few Jews were granted visas as possible.

He was assisted in this by Wilfrid Israel, and extraordinary Anglo-German Jew who owned the Berlin department store N Israel. Israel escaped to England before the war, but in 1943 he was shot down on a flight from Lisbon to London together with the actor Leslie Howard and Alfred Chenfalls who looked a lot like Churchill. Ian Colvin wrote a book describing this last flight.

Of course Chief Passport Control Officer was only supposed to be Foley's cover job. His main role was a head of the British Special Intelligence Service in Berlin. The idea of using the British Passport Control Offices of European capitals as a means of hiding British spies was dreamed up after the First World War. It had advantages for the bureaucrats; it made it easier to fudge the secret service budget, and it meant that although the spies were attached to embassies they did not have full diplomatic immunity and hence would not embarrass the Foreign Office if they were caught. However it also made it simple for a host government to discover the identity of the British spies operating in their country; all they had to do was go into the local British Passport Control Office and ask for a visa.

Foley had some intelligence successes in Berlin. "Johnny X" revealed a Soviet spy ring in Britain, and Foley developed useful sources of information on the German nuclear research programme and the air force. He occasionally recruited spies through helping their Jewish friends to escape the country.

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