How a Chance Discovery at a Used Bookshop Led to an Astounding Tale of Intrigue

Published: 12 February 2024

By Bill Mills
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

Agent of the Iron Cross cover framed

“Do you trust him?” asked Altendorf.

“I think I can,” Witzke replied, eying the doctor.  “But if he can’t be trusted, then he’s dead.  I am going to use him in such  way that he will always be watched by our men.  In case he would like to do something wrong he will find himself dead before he will do anything.”

When I transcribed these words spoken by WWI German saboteur-assassin Lothar Witzke about a suspected double agent – taken directly from a document at the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland – into the draft for Agent of  the Iron Cross, I was still amazed at the chance discovery that had led me to this latest literary endeavor.

For years I have been fascinated by the espionage operations that took place during the First World War.  After reading everything that I could locate on the subject, I began collecting original documents, photographs, and period books related to WWI espionage so that I could learn even more.  In time, inspired by the many “forgotten stories” of early twentieth century espionage, I decided to put my History degree to work and began writing my own non-fiction books on the subject, producing three volumes about covert operations.  My intent has always been the same: to “break new ground” and tell a story that has never been shared before in detail, and to rely entirely on documented sources, inventing nothing, yet still relate events in a you-are-there narrative style that makes the reader feel like a participant in the story.

Three years ago I was engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, searching through old books at a used book shop, when I made a significant find.  They were unremarkable at first glance: a bound set of four heavy legal volumes in tan and green covers, each carrying the same lackluster title: “MIXED CLAIMS COMMISSION, UNITED STATES AND GERMANY, LEHIGH VALLEY RAILROAD COMPANY, CLAIMANTS EXHIBITS”.  But instantly I knew that I had struck gold.  The Mixed Claims Commission was established by the U.S. and German governments after World War I to adjudicate damage claims of private individuals and companies resulting from the war, in particular, for the destructive acts that occurred during American neutrality.  The exhibits in these books related to the biggest damage claims of all  – the sabotage by German agents of the munitions depot at  Black Tom Island in New York Bay, and the Canadian Car & Foundry artillery ammunition manufacturing plant at Kingsland, New Jersey.

Within these musty  volumes were hundreds of pages of original court testimony, affidavits, and photostatic images that would have taken weeks to research and photocopy at the National Archives, and much of the information related to Lothar Witzke, a German agent that I had long wanted to write about.   I quickly paid the bookstore $75 for the set and was on my way.

After collecting additional research from archives, libraries, and foundations across the country I would have all the material that I needed to write: Agent of the Iron Cross: The Race to Capture German Saboteur-Assassin Lothar Witzke During World War I, the story of Witzke’s mission to terrorize America.

The “Witzke Affair” was an outgrowth of the desperate circumstances in which Germany found herself in early 1918.  After almost four years of conflict, the population was war-weary, starving, and on the verge of social collapse, but the German triumph over Russia had released forty-six army divisions for service on the Western Front.  If this temporary advantage in manpower over the British and French armies could be exploited before American troops arrived in number, Germany could still win the war.

To divert the United States’ attention from Europe and keep American troops at home, the German High Command planned an attack against the U.S. southern border from Mexico with a mixed force of German reservists and Mexican conscripts.  Several clandestine training camps were established in Mexico to support the effort.  As a prelude to the invasion, 22-year-old former naval cadet Lothar Witzke was to lead a terror campaign that would destabilize the enemy home front and help to create an even greater sense of disorder and chaos.

Lothar Witzke en route to the U.S. Border in 1918.

The prior year had already been traumatic in the United States.  During 1917, terrible race riots occurred in East St. Louis, Illinois, and Chester, Pennsylvania, in which hundreds of black citizens had been killed and homes destroyed.  A nationwide government crackdown on a radical labor union had created unrest within the labor movement.  The German espionage establishment in Mexico City, planned to use the unsettling conditions to their own advantage.  Witzke’s assignment was to cross into the United States and organize the destruction of American defense plants, foment strikes in critical industries, and incite a violent racial insurrection.  He was to begin the campaign of terror by murdering a U.S. Army intelligence officer in cold blood.

Kurt Jahnke, the ruthless head of German intelligence in Mexico, was certain that he had selected the right person for the assignment.  In prior years, Jahnke and Witzke had been a devastating sabotage team, responsible for destroying 2,000,000 pounds of ammunition and explosives at the Black Tom munitions depot in New Jersey, ruining the boilers of the largest cargo ship afloat, the S.S. Minnesota, and blowing up a huge powder magazine at the U.S. Naval Station on Mare Island, among other acts of depredation.

On January 16th Witzke and several confederates departed Mexico City for the U.S. border to set the plan into motion.  After crossing 1500 miles of rugged Mexican territory, encountering bandits and other hazards along the way, Witzke reached Nogales, Arizona.  But unknown to the saboteur-assassin, the German espionage network in Mexico had been penetrated by U.S. Army military intelligence.  Witzke was captured in Nogales by Byron Butcher, the same man he had been sent to kill.

Tried by a military court-martial, Lothar Witzke became the only enemy agent sentenced to death in the United States during World War 1.  In 1920 his sentence would be commuted by President Wilson to life imprisonment, and three years later Witzke was pardoned by President Coolidge and deported on the understanding that he would never return to this country.

There are a number of lessons that can be learned from the 1918 Witzke mission to terrorize the United States.  The greatest lesson is the need to ensure that the civil rights of all Americans remain protected, not only in our support for the Constitution and in the interest of fairness and equality, but to ensure that societal weaknesses are not used by our enemies to divide Americans, as the Germans hoped to do during the Witzke operation.  The truth of this can be seen today in the many attempts by foreign governments to manipulate social media.

Another lesson from Agent of the Iron Cross is the startling amount of destruction that can result when only a few hostile agents enter the Unites States, and the importance of maintaining homeland security and constant vigilance to ensure the good character and peaceful intent of those crossing our borders.

Although World War I was a time without electronic computers, cell phones, portable radios, or surveillance satellites, the technical sophistication of these long-ago secret agents was remarkable.   From tiny glass tube incendiaries that could be concealed in a pencil for sabotage, to elaborate cover identities, ingenious ciphers, and skillful methods of moving money to pay agents, the spies of the Great War could teach much to present-day intelligence planners.   Writing Agent of the Iron Cross: The Race to Capture German Saboteur-Assassin Lothar Witzke During World War I provided another great opportunity to expand my knowledge of WWI espionage history.

And it all began with a trip to a bookstore!

Author/historian Bill Mills writes about twentieth-century clandestine operations and intelligence history. Mills holds a BA in History and is best known for true accounts of forgotten episodes and individuals from the shadowy world of espionage.

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