[this article is largely a translation of the German Wikipedia entry on Gustav Hilger]
Gustav Hilger (born September 11, 1886 in Moscow; † July 27, 1965 in Munich) is best known as an employee of the German embassy in Moscow until the beginning of the Russian campaign in World War II and as an adviser on Russian policy to the Foreign Office during the war and to the German and US governments of the 1950s and 1960s. Hilger worked under the CIA aliases Stephen H. Holcomb and Arthur T. Latter. Joseph Stalin allegedly said of Hilger: “German heads of state and German ambassadors to Moscow came and went - but Gustav Hilger remained.”
Early years (1886 to 1923)
Hilger was born in Moscow in 1886 as the son of the German businessman Otto Hilger (1857-1945) and Luise Julie Rabeneck (1860-1924), where he spent most of his life. Hilger first came to Germany on a visit in 1904.
After his education as civil engineer in Darmstadt from 1903 to 1908, where he received an engineering diploma, Hilger was hired by fittings manufacturer Friedrich Hack Thal (Thal F. Hack & Co.) in 1910 as the company's representative in Moscow. In 1912 he married Marie Hackenthal (1893–1969), the daughter of his employer. The marriage resulted in the son Andreas (b. 1913), who died in World War II, and a daughter (b. 1916).
During the First World War, from August 1914 to December 1917, he was interned as an enemy foreigner by the Tsarist government in Vologda. After the official end of the German-Russian War in March 1918, he was active in the German Main Commission for Prisoners of War and Civilian Prisoners from April. Until the resumption of diplomatic relations between Germany and Russia in December 1922, Hilger was head of the prisoner-of-war welfare office in Moscow (representative of the Reich Central Office for prisoners of war and civilian prisoners, also authorized representative of the Reich for the repatriation of German prisoners of war and civil internees) an important link between Berlin and Moscow. In this capacity, Hilger worked in cooperation with the Red Cross and the Nansenhilfe (Nansen help organization) to organize the return of German nationals from Russia to Germany.
In 1922 Hilger came into close contact with German foreign policy as the contact person of Chancellor Joseph Wirth (1921-1922), whom he advised on the question of the expansion of the German-Soviet Trade Agreement of May 6, 1921.
Diplomat in Moscow (1923 to 1941)
In 1923, after diplomatic relations had been established between the German Reich and the Soviet Union, he was brought to the German embassy in Moscow. There he served as a civil servant under four ambassadors (Brockdorff-Rantzau, Herbert von Dirksen, Rudolf Nadolny and von der Schulenburg) until 1941 and rose to the rank of legation councilor. In the interwar period, Hilger, who regarded Germany as his fatherland and Russia as his homeland, played an intermediary role in German-Soviet relations during the interwar period. He was a supporter of the Rapallo course, i.e. of a rapprochement between the two countries.
In October 1924, involuntarily, Hilger became the focus of a German-Russian affair that could easily have marked the end of his career (Kindermann-Wolscht Affair). The Kindermann-Wolscht Affair unfolded around three travelers who started a trip to the Soviet Union in October 1924, and were arrested in Moscow the same month. In the indictment of June 1925, the accused Karl Kindermann, Theodor Wolscht and Maxim Napolinowitsch were charged with espionage against the Soviet Union and attempted murder of high Soviet leaders. The trial against the three men was closely related to the Cheka trial held almost simultaneously in Leipzig and took place against the background of difficult German-Russian negotiations. Gustav Hilger had been directly involved in the trial, since his business card was found on the suspect Kindermann, whom Hilger had given the card in October 1924 during a train journey together. He could not be accused of or proved to have done anything else than that. The accusations against Hilger were finally deemed as unfounded after lengthy diplomatic negotiations, and thus no longer weighing on German-Soviet relations.
From 1917 to 1941, Hilger experienced the explosive political events in the Soviet capital up close. For example the emergence of the Soviet system, the death of Lenin, the rise and fall of Trotsky, the triumph of Joseph Stalin, etc. The acquaintance with George Kennan and Charles Bohlen, two young employees at the American embassy in Moscow, was to be significant for Hilger's future, with whom he became close friends in the years before 1941.
Because of his excellent knowledge of Russian, Hilger was often used as an interpreter for political negotiations and discussions between German diplomats and representatives of the Soviet government. As one of the foremost experts on Soviet economic relations (especially of industry, finance and trade), Hilger played a decisive role in formulating the German-Soviet Credit Agreement of August 19, 1939.
On August 23, 1939, Hilger took part in the signing of the non-aggression treaty (Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) in Moscow. As a link between the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and the German Ambassador Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg on the one hand, and the Soviet state leader Josef Stalin and his foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov on the other hand, he, together with his Soviet counterpart Vladimir Pavlov, had translated the statements of both sides from German into Russian and vice versa. His job was primarily reading the Russian version of the contract text one last time before the German representatives made their signatures.
Molotov and Hitler with Gustav Hilger interpreting. Reich Chancellery, November 12, 1940.
Gustav Hilger (second from right) during the visit of the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov in Berlin on November 14, 1940. Also in the picture: Molotov (2nd from left) and Joachim von Ribbentrop (far right).
Because of the potential and reserves of the Soviet Union, Hilger was convinced that a war against the Soviet Union would end in disaster. Therefore, in May 1941, he wished that the Soviet Union would initiate peace talks.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union started on June 22, 1941, an exchange took place in Turkey of Soviet diplomats and their entourage in the German territories and their German counterparts in Russia, among them Hilger. Hilger then moved to Germany and soon became a high ranking Nazi bureaucrat.
Eastern expert in the war years (1941 to 1945)
In July 1941, Hilger joined the office of Joachim von Ribbentrop, where he became the chief political advisor for Eastern affairs (“Russia expert”). During the war against the Soviet Union, he acted in this capacity, among other things, as a liaison between the Foreign Office and the responsible authorities of the SS.
Of the eleven so-called “Einsatzgruppen reports” that circulated for coordination purposes in the higher levels of the SS and the corresponding regular ministries, Hilger received at least five. Even more damningly, as a representative of the Foreign Office, he was directly involved up from 1943 in coordinating the deportation of 1.4 million Italian Jews.
In 1942, Hilger coordinated the transfer of Hungarian officers who were involved in the murder of Serbs and Jews to the German Reich. The action took place on instructions from Hitler, who wanted to show that the Reich cared about those who had campaigned for Germany.
As an expert on Eastern issues, Hilger was particularly noticeable for his support for the formation of the anti-Bolshevik Russian Liberation Army (Vlasov Army), which consisted for a large part of Russian prisoners of war. In this context he took part in the founding of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (KONR) in Prague in 1944. In connection with the establishment of the Vlasov Army, Hilger came into close contact with Reinhard Gehlen and his Foreign Armies East department, for whom Hilger interrogated captured Russian officers.
Hilger’s repeated recommendation that the war in the East could only be won politically, but not militarily, Adolf Hitler did not accept. In line with his racist ideology, Hitler rejected the idea that one has to appear as a liberator to the Soviet population in order to deceit them into defecting en masse to the German side and to fight against the Soviet system.
In the early 1960s, Hilger’s activities during World War II sparked discussions in how far Hilger was involved in Nazi war crimes. Jörn Happel answers this question in his Hilger biography as follows:
Hilger knew about the murders of the Jews of Europe. He must also have had information about the consequences of the deportations for the people. According to the files, however, he did not directly commission murders by signing deportation orders or, like other diplomats, actively participate in the killing through close cooperation with the SS. Hilger only held out at his post. The historians Conze, Frei, Hayes and Zimmermann described this attitude of numerous German diplomats as a “perverted form of the fulfillment of duties, which ensured the continued existence of most German occupation administrations until the end of the war and encouraged the persecution and murder of the local population, including millions of Jews, to the end.”
From the Gehlen Organization to the CIA
Gustav Hilger spent the last weeks of the war together with other employees of the Foreign Office in Fuschl near Salzburg, while his family continued to live on an estate in Molchow. Knowing that the Soviet secret service was looking for him, he surrendered to the US armed forces on May 19, 1945, in Salzburg. Due to the close cooperation between Hans-Heinrich Herwarth von Bittenfeld and the American Charles W. Thayer, who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, Hilger received preferential treatment from the Americans, who needed him as an expert on Eastern Europe and Russia.
Hilger was first interned in a POW camp in Seckenheim near Mannheim, where he was also subjected to the first interrogations - conveniently by an old friend from Moscow's days, De Witt Clinton Poole, who headed the Department of State Interrogation Mission to Germany. The Americans were so impressed by Hilger's statements about the Soviet Union and Soviet politics that they did not want to forego his continued participation in their service. He was flown to the USA in secret and under a false name in October 1945. Until June 1946 he lived in Fort Hunt near Washington DC. One of his old acquaintances, whom he met there: Reinhard Gehlen.
Hilger wrote numerous analyzes of the Soviet Union and character assessments of leading Russian politicians in Fort Hunt. As an advisor to the CIA and the State Department, Gustav Hilger exerted influence on the makers of American foreign policy until his death, particularly through his friendship with George F. Kennan and Charles Bohlen. Hilger positioned himself as a non-political expert and advanced to become an important Eastern expert in the Cold War. According to the historian Jörn Happel, who wrote a biography of Hilger:
Having lived in the USA from autumn 1945, Hilger no longer had to justify himself for participating in the Second World War. His knowledge of the Soviet Union legitimized a new life - again as an expert. The US was officially looking for Hilger on charges of “torture.” This was a common charge for potential war criminals who had been active in German authorities in the administration of crimes against humanity - as distinct from the actual murderers. Seen in this way, Hilger remained a fugitive until his death; the search for him was officially never stopped.
But his past did not interest anyone in Washington. Hilger never appeared in the trial of the main war criminals in Nuremberg. Although respective requests were made a number of times, he was never summoned. In the course of the trial, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe said verbatim: “I believe the witness (Hilger) is in the United States and there is a report that he is too ill to travel.” Hilger was probably already staying in Silver Spring, where he lived for a few years.
Reinhard Gehlen, who had been brought to Fort Hunt on August 21, 1945, together with members of his General Staff, made Hilger part of his staff there. In June 1946 the Gehlen group was officially released from captivity, and Hilger returned to Europe with them. The men were flown to Frankfurt from Le Havre. Gehlen and several of his confidants moved to Camp King near Oberursel, Hilger and others moved to Kransberg Castle near Usingen. “On July 15, 1946, the Gehlen Organization (Operation Rusty) started to operate in Hesse. Hilger was still officially interned in the USA - nobody was allowed to know anything about his stay in Germany.”
Gustav Hilger played a double game. He worked for the Gehlen organization, for which he interrogated deserted officers of the Soviet army, among other things. But he was also an informant for the CIA and informed them about people who were hired by Gehlen and their areas of responsibility. The Americans were also aware that Hilger, in turn, provided Gehlen with information that originated from his diverse contacts with Americans.
On May 28, 1947, the Soviets demanded Gustav Hilger’s extradition. The Americans refused, claiming that Hilger was missing. They still wanted to get him out of danger and considered his repatriation to the USA. However, Hilger did not want to get involved because his family was still in Molchow in the Soviet zone of occupation. The importance the US government attached to Hilger is evident from Operation Fireweed. In a cloak-and-dagger operation, American intelligence agents succeeded in bringing Hilger’s wife Mary, daughter Isika and her two daughters to West Berlin and from there to the American-occupied zone. Operation Fireweed was a risky undertaking, since Hilger’s relatives were under constant surveillance by the Soviet secret police and were, in turn, put under pressure to persuade Hilger to move to the Soviet zone.
On October 16, 1947, Mary Hilger and her daughter Isika were flown from Berlin to Frankfurt. Isika’s two daughters followed shortly after, traveling on an American military train. On October 18, the whole family met in Oberursel and then moved into the von Opel family's hunting lodge near Neu-Anspach in the Taunus (aka the “Blue House”). The family spent Christmas there before moving to the Pullach compound, as Veronika Keller, Hilger’s granddaughter, remembered.
The hunting lodge of the Opel family close to Oberursel, aka the "Blue House."
Since there was still the danger that the Soviets might try to get hold of Hilger, for him the option of returning to the USA came back to the fore. On the mediation of his old friend George F. Kennan, Hilger and family were brought to the USA in October 1948 by the CIA. As an adviser on Eastern issues, he worked for the Office for Policy Coordination (OPC), the CIA and the Eastern Department of the State Department. He produced material on the Soviet Union, conducted systematic research and worked as an analyst. In order to shield his person from the public, he was first given the code name Stephen H. Holcomb and later Arthur T. Latter. With regard to Germany, he came to the opinion that for the Federal Republic of Germany an independent policy of factual cooperation with the Soviet Union was no longer possible, that it could only assert itself on the basis of a collaboration with the Western powers. A disarmed, neutralized Germany would lead the Soviet Union to make it its vassal state through a kind of popular front government.
Worked in the Federal Foreign Ministry and retired (1953–1965)
In May 1951, with assistance from the CIA, Mary and Gustav Hilger were granted permanent residency in the United States. Hilger continued to work for the CIA, but was also a kind of party ambassador for Konrad Adenauer in Washington, DC. During this time his book The Incompatible Allies was written, which later appeared in German under the title Wir und der Kremlin, in which Hilger presented himself as an apolitical WWII expert.
When after a revision of the occupation statute Germany was allowed to re-establish a Foreign Office on March 15, 1951, many diplomats from the Nazi era quickly found leading positions there, including many friends and acquaintances of Gustav Hilger. One of them was Peter Pfeiffer, who in 1952 had become head of the personnel and administration department of the new office. The first attempt to persuade Hilger to return to Germany and to work in the Foreign Office came from Pfeiffer. Another advocate for Hilger’s return was Walter Hallstein, for whom Hilger worked as a consultant in the summer of 1953 with special permission from the US government. He then returned to the USA once more, before Hilger officially became an employee in the service of the Foreign Office in Germany on October 1, 1953. Shortly before his departure from the US, Hilger accepted an invitation to the private home of CIA director Allen Dulles, who obliged Hilger to continue working with American intelligence. As the transcript of a CIA agent shows, Hilger readily agreed to this request.
One of the deciding factors for his return to Germany was that the Adenauer government found a generous arrangement for Hilger’s pension entitlements by recognizing that he would have worked in the foreign service uninterruptedly from 1923 onwards. From 1953 to 1956 Hilger then worked as an embassy counselor (advisor for Eastern affairs) in the Foreign Office in Bonn. In 1957 he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit for his work.
In the 1950s and 1960s he published several books on the Soviet Union, on Stalin, as well as on the most expedient policy towards the “East” to be taken in the future.
Evaluation by contemporaries and posterity
When assessing Hilger as a person, a distinction is often made between his (value-neutral) technical skills as a diplomat on the one hand - which are almost without exception rated as excellent - and the moral quality of his actual actions. On Hilger's moral guilt in connection with the war of extermination of the German armed forces in Eastern Europe, as well as on his involvement in the persecution of Jews and other groups, the judgments vary. According to Wolfe: “It is … beyond dispute that Hilger criminally assisted in the genocide of Italy's jews.”
About the decision of the US government to employ Hilger despite his questionable past, Wolfe wrote: “His employment during the Cold War seems a rare case where the value of the intelligence he supplied appeared to the US government to outweigh his war criminal service to the Third Reich.” George Kennan defended the recruitment of a former Nazi functionary as an intelligence source with the words: “He was one of the few outstanding experts on Soviet economy and […] politics, [who] had long practical experience in analyzing and estimating Soviet operations on a day-to-day basis.”
American and British government agencies learned around 1945 that Stalin allegedly said of Hilger: “German heads of State and German Ambassadors to Moscow came and went - but Gustav Hilger remained.”
- Diplomatic and Economic Relations Between Germany and the USSR, 1922 to 1941, October 1946. Study for the US Foreign Ministry.
- Wir und der Kreml. Deutsch-sowjetische Beziehungen 1918–1941. Erinnerungen eines deutschen Diplomaten. Frankfurt a. M. 1955.
- The Incompatible Allies. A Memoir-History of German-Soviet Relations 1918–1941. Translation: Alfred G. Meyer. New York, 1953.
- Probleme deutscher Ostpolitik, 1957.
- Stalin. Aufstieg der UdSSR zur Weltmacht. Göttingen, 1959. (translated into English, Dutch and Spanish)
- Winfried Baumgart, “Hilger, Gustav.” In: Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB). Volume 9, (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1972), p. 143 f., http://www.deutsche-biographie.de/pnd118704826.html.
- Thomas, Evan. The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA (Simon and Schuster, 1996).
- Jörn Happel, Der Ost-Experte: Gustav Hilger – Diplomat im Zeitalter der Extreme (Berlin: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2017).
- Kevin Conley Ruffner, Eagle and Swastika. CIA and Nazi War Criminals and Collaborators (Washington: CIA History Staff, 2003).
- Robert Wolfe, “Gustav Hilger. From Hitler's Foreign Office to CIA Consultant,” Project on Government Secrecy, Federation of American Scientists. Historians View Newly Released CIA Records. http://fas.org/sgp//eprint/wolfe.pdf. See also: https://fas.org/sgp/news/secrecy/2006/06/060706.html.