Karl Wolff

For the folklorist of the South Tyrol, see Karl Felix Wolff.
Karl Wolff

SS-Gruppenführer Wolff in 1937
Birth name Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff
Born (1900-05-13)13 May 1900
Darmstadt, Grand Duchy of Hesse, German Empire
Died 17 July 1984(1984-07-17) (aged 84)
Rosenheim, Bavaria, West Germany
Allegiance  German Empire (1917–18)
Weimar Republic Weimar Republic (1918–20)
 Nazi Germany (1933–45)
Years of service 1917–1920, 1933–1945
Rank Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS
Unit Schutzstaffel
Commands held HöSSPF Italien

World War I:

World War II:

Awards German Cross in Gold
Iron Cross
Golden Party Badge

Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff (13 May 1900 – 17 July 1984) was a high-ranking member of the Nazi SS, ultimately holding the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer in the Waffen-SS. He became Chief of Personal Staff Reichsführer-SS (Heinrich Himmler) and SS Liaison Officer to Hitler until his replacement in 1943. He ended World War II as the Supreme Commander of all SS forces in Italy. After the war, Wolff was also a central witness as to the alleged plot to kidnap Pope Pius XII. In 1964, Wolff was convicted of war crimes in West Germany; he was released in 1969.

Early life and career

Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff was born the son of a wealthy district court magistrate in Darmstadt, Germany on 13 May 1900.[1] Later, Wolff joined the Imperial German Army and served with distinction on the Western Front during World War I. He was awarded both the Iron Cross second class and first class.[2]

After the war, Wolff was forced to leave the army after the reduction of the German armed forces following the terms imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Despite being mustered from official military service, Wolff joined the Hessian Freikorps where he served from December 1918 to May 1920.[3] He joined the Bethmann bank in Frankfurt. In 1923 Wolff married Frieda von Roemheld. They moved to Munich, where Wolff worked for Deutsche Bank and then a public relations firm. In 1925 he started his own public relations company which he operated in Munich until 1933.[1]

Nazi Party and SS

Left to right: Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Karl Wolff, Hermann Esser at the Berghof, May 1939

Wolff joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party) in July 1931 with card number 695,131. His SS membership number was 14,235.[4] He was commissioned as an SS-Sturmführer in February 1932.

In 1933, after the Nazi Party obtained national power, Wolff became a full-time party member and quickly rose through the ranks.[2] He served briefly as an aide to Franz Ritter von Epp, the head of the Nazi Party's Military-Political Office. He then came to the attention of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler who in June 1933, appointed Wolff his adjutant and made him chief of the office of his Personal Staff.[2] Himmler also appointed Wolff the SS Liaison Officer to Hitler.[5] As Himmler's principle adjutant and close associate, Wolff managed Himmler's affairs with the SS, the Nazi Party, state agencies and personnel.[6] In 1936, Wolff left the Protestant Church.[7] On 30 January 1937, he was promoted to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer (major general).[3] In 1939 he was also appointed as Generalleutnant der SS-Verfügungstruppe apparently for administrative reasons to allow him to issue orders to armed-SS units in the name of Himmler. In 1944, Wolff's armed-SS rank was upgraded to General der Waffen-SS.

World War II

As was later revealed in the 1964 trial, during the early part of the Second World War Wolff was "Himmler's eyes and ears" in Hitler's headquarters. He would have been aware of significant events or could easily have access to the relevant information. Apart from the information passing across his desk, Wolff received (as Chief of Personal Staff Reichsführer-SS) copies of all letters from SS officers, and his friends at this point included the organiser of "Operation Reinhard" Odilo Globocnik. His later denial of knowledge of Holocaust activities may be plausible only at the detailed level, but not of the extent of atrocities by the Nazi regime.

Himmler, Franz Ziereis and Wolff at Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp (April 1941)

For example, as the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto resulted in rail transport bottlenecks, Wolff telephoned deputy Reich Minister of Transport Dr. Albert Ganzenmüller. In a later letter dated 13 August 1942, Wolff thanked Ganzenmüller for his assistance:[8]

I notice with particular pleasure your report that for 14 days a train has been going daily with members of the chosen people to Treblinka ... I've made contact with the participating agencies, so that a smooth implementation of the entire action is ensured.

In August 1941, Himmler and Wolff attended the shooting of Jews at Minsk which had been organised by Arthur Nebe who was in command of Einsatzgruppe B, a mobile killing unit.[9] Nauseated and shaken by the experience, Himmler decided that alternate methods of killing should be found.[10] On Himmler's orders, by spring 1942 the camp at Auschwitz had been greatly expanded, including the addition of gas chambers, where victims were killed using the pesticide Zyklon B.[11]

After the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in June 1942, Wolff fell out of favour with Himmler. After making Wolff a full SS-Obergruppenführer, Himmler dismissed him in 1942.[2] By now, Wolff had a mistress, Ingeborg Countess Bernsdorff, a widow whose youngest son, Widukind, had been fathered by him. Frieda Wolff complained to Himmler after Wolff requested a divorce. Himmler refused his permission.[2] Wolff went over Himmler's head to obtain permission from Hitler for a divorce. On 6 March 1943, Wolff's divorce was finalised, and thereafter he married Bernsdorff. They separated in 1969, although they remained formally married.

In April 1943, Wolff was relieved of his duties as liaison officer to Hitler in part due to his absence for two months while suffering from pyelitis and renal calculus (kidney stones), which required surgery.[12] Himmler announced he would temporarily take over Wolff's duties.[13] A new replacement as liaison officer to Hitler's HQ did not occur until the appointment of Hermann Fegelein, who assumed the duty in January, 1944.[13][14]

Thereafter in 1943, Hitler assigned Wolff as SS adjutant to Benito Mussolini's Italian Government, personally granting him equivalent General's rank in the Waffen-SS. By the time that Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Wolff was the Higher SS and Police Leader of Italy, and the Military Governor of northern Italy.[15] As the Germany Army retreated and Hitler dismissed various commanders, from 1943 to 1945, Wolff was the Supreme SS and Police Leader of the 'Italien' area.[16] On 9 December 1944, he was awarded the German Cross in Gold for using Italian units, with secondary German units to destroy partisans in areas "contaminated" by them; and for the "maintenance of war production in the Italian territory".[17] During this period he approved the project of the Marnate's Bunker, close to the German command of Olgiate Olona.[18] By 1945 Wolff was acting military commander of Italy.

In 1945, Wolff under Operation Sunrise took over command and management of intermediaries including Swiss-national Max Waibel, in order to make contact in Switzerland with the headquarters of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, under Allen W. Dulles as to surrendering the German forces in and around Italy.[19] After initially meeting with Dulles in Lucerne on 8 March 1945, Wolff negotiated the surrender of all German forces in Italy, ending the war there on 29 April, before the war ended in Germany on 2 May 1945.[19] Wolff's capitulation of Italy to the Allies upset Admiral Karl Dönitz who had otherwise planned a staged series of surrenders designed to give the troops and refugees more time to make their way west.[20]

Alleged plot to kidnap Pope Pius XII

Wolff claimed while testifying at the Nuremberg Trials that he had disobeyed an order from Hitler to kidnap the Pope and instead sneaked into the Vatican to warn the Pontiff.[21] Most other allegations of a plot to kidnap Pius XII are based on a claimed 1972 document written by Wolff that Avvenire d'Italia published in 1991 and on personal interviews with Wolff before his death in 1984. Wolff maintained that Hitler summoned Wolff to his office on September 13, 1943,[22][23] and gave the directive to "occupy Vatican City, secure its files and art treasures, and take the Pope and Curia to the north". Hitler allegedly did not want the Pope to "fall into the hands of the Allies" and described the Vatican as "a nest of spies and a center of anti-National Socialist propaganda".[24]

Wolff's reliability has been questioned by Holocaust historians. Holocaust denier David Irving's use of Wolff as a source was one of the issues in Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt.[25] Dan Kurzman and István Deák, a professor of history at Columbia University, debated the reliability of Wolff's testimony regarding the plot to kidnap Pius XII in a series of letters to the editor in The New York Review of Books,[26][27] where Deák had previously reviewed A Special Mission.[28] Deák noted Kurzman's "credulity" and that the latter "uncritically accepts the validity of controversial documents and unquestioningly believes in the statements made to him by his principal German interlocutor, the former SS General Karl Wolff". He further criticized the book's "modest documentation" containing "a great number of vague or inaccurate references".[28] In response, Kurzman said that the others he interviewed corroborate Wolff's account.[29]

Trials and conviction

Arrested on 13 May 1945 he was imprisoned in Schöneberg. During the Nuremberg trials, Wolff was allowed to escape prosecution by providing evidence against his fellow Nazis, and was then transferred in January 1947 to the British prison facility in Minden.

Although released in 1947, he had been indicted by the post-war German government as part of the denazification process. Detained under house arrest, after a German trial Wolff was sentenced in November 1948 to five years' imprisonment due to his membership of the SS. Seven months later his sentence was reduced to four years. After his release, Wolff worked as an executive for an advertising agency.[30] He took up residence with his family in Starnberg. Until his rearrest in 1962, it is alleged that Wolff worked for the CIA, while continuing to successfully build his reformed public relations firm.

In 1962 during the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, evidence showed that Wolff had organised the deportation of Italian Jews in 1944. Wolff was again tried in West Germany and in 1964 was convicted of deporting 300,000 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp, the deportation of Italian Jews to Auschwitz, and the massacre of partisans and civilians in Belarus. Sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment in Straubing, Wolff served only part of his sentence and was released in 1969 due to ill health, with his full civil rights restored in 1971. He claimed to have known nothing about the Nazi extermination camps, even though he was a senior general in the SS. In reality, Wolff was a part of Himmler's entourage during several of his visits to the concentration camps, as documented by photos from the Bundesarchiv.

Later life

After his release, Wolff retired in Austria. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wolff returned to public life, frequently lecturing on the internal workings of the SS and his relationship with Himmler. This resulted in him appearing in television documentaries including The World At War, saying that he witnessed an execution of twenty or thirty prisoners in Minsk in 1941 with Himmler, going so far as to describe the splatter of brains on Himmler's coat.[lower-alpha 1]

During this period, Wolff also became involved with former Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann and a militaria dealer Konrad Kujau, for whom he in part authenticated the later discredited Hitler Diaries. Asked to attend the trial of Heidemann and Kujau, Wolff declined; on 17 July 1984, he died in a hospital in Rosenheim. He was buried in the cemetery at Prien am Chiemsee on 21 July 1984.


Wolff was portrayed by Vasily Lanovoy in the Soviet TV series Seventeen Moments of Spring in a major plot line concerning Sunrise Crossword and meeting with Dulles. In the 1991 mini-series Selling Hitler, based on the Hitler Diaries case, he was played by John Paul. He was also portrayed by Walter Gotell in the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black, as "General Max Helm".

Summary of SS career

Dates of rank

The earliest official photographs of Wolff wearing an SS uniform are from the summer of 1934, shortly after the Night of the Long Knives, when he was photographed wearing the black SS uniform of a Standartenführer walking beside Himmler. An earlier private photograph, which has since been presumed lost or destroyed, was taken in early 1933 reportedly showing Wolff wearing an early pattern brown storm trooper style SS shirt as a Sturmhauptführer. The photograph was taken by a family member as documentation for a legal dispute in which Wolff, on his way to a parade commemorating Hitler's assumption to the office of Chancellor, had punched a store owner in the face over a dispute regarding alterations to Wolff's uniform[31]

During several interviews in the 1970s, Wolff claimed that in April 1945 he had been granted a personal promotion by Adolf Hitler to the rank of SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer. During the filming of the World at War series, Wolff further showed to producers a display case showing the tri-pip collar insignia and shoulder boards of an SS-Colonel General. This late war promotion, however, is not annotated in Wolff's SS service record nor has any supporting documentation ever been produced affirming Wolff's claim. Furthermore, photographs from the time of his capture in Italy by the Allies clearly show a lesser rank insignia worn on his SS uniform. For this reason, most historical texts indicate the highest rank Wolff ever held was that of Obergruppenführer.


Foreign Awards

Other service

See also


  1. I can remember a shooting of twenty or thirty people. I can see from my diary that this must have been on 17 August 1941. The manager of an SS estate had previously been shot north of Minsk. Subsequently, Operations Unit B under Nebe arrested two women and a number of men, some in uniform and others in civilian clothing. In my opinion, they were partisans. As far as I remember, they included Jews, too - two or three of them. The people captured by the Nebe Operations Unit were brought before a field court martial. They were sentenced to death. I do not know who sat in the court martial. Himmler himself was present at the executions. Obergruppenfuehrer Wolff and I were also present. He had accompanied Himmler from Baranovichi to Minsk. Himmler was very pale during the executions. I think that watching it made him feel sick." Nizkor. Eichmann Trial transcript.


  1. 1 2 Wistrich 2001, p. 280.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Hamilton 1984, p. 363.
  3. 1 2 Zentner & Bedürftig 1991, p. 1055.
  4. Biondi 2000, p. 8.
  5. Weale 2012, p. 406.
  6. Koehl 2004, p. 126.
  7. Lang 2013, p. 36.
  8. Reitlinger 1989, p. 288, "correspondence between the Under Secretary in the Ministry of Transport Theodor Müller and Ganz Himmler Field adjutant, SS-Ober Gruppenführer Karl Wolff; process IV, p. 2184f), quoted in: The yellow star. The persecution of Jews in Europe from 1933 to 1945 (Gerhard Schoen Berner), Hamburg 1960, p. 78.
  9. Weale 2012, p. 319.
  10. Weale 2012, p. 320.
  11. Evans 2008, pp. 295, 299–300.
  12. Lang 2013, pp. 206–209.
  13. 1 2 Lang 2013, p. 208.
  14. Miller 2006, p. 313.
  15. Weale 2012, p. 388.
  16. Yerger 1997, pp. 23, 24.
  17. 1 2 3 4 Lang 2013, p. 257.
  18. Goglio, Giuseppe. "MARNATE - Aperto al pubblico il bunker di via Lazzaretto". settenews. Retrieved 24 November 2016.
  19. 1 2 Weale 2012, p. 405.
  20. Kitchen 1995, p. 294.
  21. John Hooper. 2005, January 17. "Hitler plot to kidnap the pope revealed". The Guardian.
  22. Marchione, Margherita,Did Pope Pius XII Help the Jews?, p. 9, Pave the Way Foundation
  23. Kurzman, 2007, pp. ix, 12.
  24. Kurzman, 2007, p. 12.
  25. Holocaust Denial on Trial. 2009. "Use of an unreliable source: the testimony of Karl Wolff". Emory University.
  26. New York Review of Books. 2008, September 25. "'Hitler's Secret Plot'". Vol. 55. No. 14.
  27. New York Review of Books. 2008, November 20. "Can We Believe General Karl Wolff?". Vol. 55. No. 18.
  28. 1 2 István Deák. 2008, June 12. "Did Hitler Plan to Kidnap the Pope?" Vol. 55. No. 10.
  29. Kurzman, 2007, pp. x-xi.
  30. Hamilton 1984, p. 364.
  31. Lang, J., Top Nazi SS General Karl Wolff: The Man Between Hitler and Himmler, Enigma Books, New York, NY (June 2005)


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