Early life and career
Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff was born the son of a wealthy district court magistrate in Darmstadt, Germany, on May 13, 1900. During World War I he graduated from school in 1917, volunteered to join the Imperial German Army (Leibgarde-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 115) and served on the Western Front. He rose to the rank of lieutenant and was awarded both the Iron Cross second class and first class.
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. Wolff was in the paramilitary Freikorps from December 1918 to May 1920. He started a two-year apprenticeship at the Bethmann Bank in Frankfurt and married Frieda von Römheld in 1923. The couple moved to Munich, where Wolff worked for Deutsche Bank. In June 1924, he was laid off and joined a public relations firm. In 1925, he started his own public relations company which he operated in Munich until 1933.
Nazi Party and SS
From March 1933, after the Nazi Party had obtained national power, Wolff served as an adjutant to Franz Ritter von Epp, then governor of Bavaria. Here he came to the attention of the head of the SS Heinrich Himmler who appointed Wolff his personal adjutant in June 1933. In 1936 Wolff became a member of the Reichstag. The same year Himmler named him chief of Personal Staff Reichsführer-SS to coordinate all contact and correspondence within the SS at both party and state levels.
By managing Himmler’s affairs with the SS, the Nazi Party, state agencies and personnel, the eloquent and well-mannered Wolff rose to become one of the key figures in Himmler’s power regime. In addition, Wolff oversaw the economic investments made by the SS, was responsible for saving funds among Himmler’s circle of friends and for connections to the SS organizations Ahnenerbe and Lebensborn. In 1939 he retroactively became head of the Main Office and SS liaison officer to Hitler. On January 30, 1937, he was promoted to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer (major general).
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 Himmler’s Personal Staff) copies of all letters from SS officers, and his friends at this point included Odilo Globocnik, the organizer of Operation Reinhard. 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.
Incriminating letters show that Wolff was involved in the Holocaust. On September 8, 1939, shortly after the invasion of Poland, Wolff wrote to the Gestapo office in Frankfurt (Oder) and ordered the immediate “arrest of all male Jews of Polish nationality and their family members” and the confiscation of any wealth.
In August 1941, Himmler and Wolff attended the shooting of Jews at Minsk which had been organized by Arthur Nebe who was in command of Einsatzgruppe B, a mobile killing unit. Nauseated and shaken by the experience, Himmler decided that alternate methods of killing should be found. On Himmler’s orders, by the spring of 1942 the camp at Auschwitz had been greatly expanded, including the addition of gas chambers, where victims were killed using the pesticide Zyklon B.
In 1942, Wolff oversaw the deportation transports during “Grossaktion Warschau,” the mass extermination of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. When rail transport bottlenecks occurred, Wolff communicated repeatedly with Reich Railway Director Albert Ganzenmüller. In a letter sent from the Führer Headquarters, dated August 13, 1942, and referring to transports of Jews to Treblinka extermination camp, Wolff thanked Ganzenmüller for his assistance:
After the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in June 1942, Wolff developed a strong rivalry with other SS leaders, particularly with Heydrich’s successor at the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), Ernst Kaltenbrunner and with Walter Schellenberg of the foreign intelligence service in the RSHA. His position was weakened by his frequent absence from Berlin, in part due to his suffering from pyelitis and renal calculus (kidney stones), which required surgery.
Wolff fell out of favor with Himmler and was dismissed as his chief of staff. In April 1943, he was relieved of his duties as liaison officer to Hitler. Himmler announced he would temporarily take over Wolff’s duties. 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. Wolff had particularly angered Himmler by his divorce and remarriage in March 1943. Himmler, who believed the family to be the nucleus of the SS, had denied Wolff a permission to divorce, but Wolff had turned directly to Hitler. Himmler still appears to have considered Wolff a loyal member of the SS, for in September 1943 Wolff was transferred to Italy as Supreme SS and Police Leader.
In that position, Wolff shared responsibility for standard police functions such as security, maintenance of prisons, supervision of concentration camps and forced labor camps as well as the deportation of forced laborers with Wilhelm Harster, who was the Commander in Chief of the Security Police. When Wolff became Plenipotentiary General of the German Wehrmacht in July 1944, he also became responsible for anti-partisan warfare in occupied Italy.
By now Wolff commanded the police and the entire rear army in Italy. So far Wolff’s involvement in war crimes in Italy remains largely unclear, partially because source material on the degree to which SS units participated in Nazi security warfare is lacking. Although it seems as if U.S. investigators were in possession of incriminating material in 1945 that indicated Wolff’s approval of the executions that became known as the Ardeatine massacre, this evidence was deemed not sufficient for criminal charges.
On December 9, 1944, Wolff was awarded the German Cross in Gold for using Italian units, with secondary German units to destroy partisans and for the “maintenance of war production in the Italian territory.” During this period, he approved the project of the Marnate’s Bunker, close to the German command of Olgiate Olona. By 1945, Wolff was acting military commander of Italy.
In 1945, Wolff under Operation Sunrise took over command and management of intermediaries, including the Swiss national Max Waibel, to make contact in Switzerland with the headquarters of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, under Allen W. Dulles as to the surrender of German forces in and around Italy. After initially meeting with Dulles in Lucerne on March 8, 1945, Wolff negotiated the surrender of all German forces in Italy, ending the war there on April 29, before the war ended in Germany on May 2, 1945. 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.
Trials and Conviction
Arrested on May 13, 1945, Wolff was imprisoned in Schöneberg. During the Nuremberg trials, Wolff was allowed to escape prosecution in exchange for the early capitulation in Italy, and by appearing as a witness for the prosecution at trial. 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 four years of imprisonment. After his release, Wolff worked as an executive for an advertising agency and moved his family to Starnberg.
In 1962, during the trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, evidence showed that Wolff had organized 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 Treblinka, which led to their murder. Sentenced to fifteen years, Wolff served only part of his sentence and was released in 1971.
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 partisan prisoners in Minsk in 1941 with Himmler.
In the early 1970s, Wolff promoted the theory of an alleged plot to kidnap Pope Pius XII. Most other allegations of such a plot are based on a 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 on September 13, 1943, Hitler 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.”
Wolff’s reliability has been questioned by Holocaust historians, such as István Deák, a professor of history at Columbia University. Reviewing A Special Mission by Dan Kurzman, a promoter of the theory, 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.”
In the late 1970s, Wolff also became involved with Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann. Together with Heidemann, he travelled through South America, where he helped to locate, among others, Klaus Barbie and Walter Rauff, with whom Heidemann conducted interviews for a series of articles. Wolff served as a consultant for the alleged Hitler Diaries, and was deeply shattered when they turned out to be forgeries by Konrad Kujau. Asked to attend the trial of Heidemann and Kujau, Wolff declined.
Wolf died on July 17, 1984, in a hospital in Rosenheim.
Source: “Karl Wolff,” Wikipedia.
Photo: Wolff portrait - Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-171-29 / Friedrich Franz Bauer / CC-BY-SA 3. licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.
Wolf at Mauthausen - Bundesarchiv, Bild 192-139 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.