Editors’ note: This essay is part of the series Socio-Cultural Anthropology under Hitler: Four Case Studies from Vienna

In the archives of the Steyl Missionary Order in Rome I found a small blue notebook with the inscription Œuvre Caritative Pontificale. It belonged to Father Wilhelm Schmidt, the founder of the Vienna School of Ethnology. It proves that during his exile in Switzerland (1938–1954) the Austrian ethnologist was in close contact with military intelligence services and that, with the help of the Vatican, he supported Wehrmacht deserters interned in Swiss camps. Finally, he subversively used this Vatican money for intelligence operations against the Nazi state.[1]

Vatican money for Wehrmacht deserters

During his time in Swiss exile, Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954) was a full professor of ethnology and linguistic studies at the University of Fribourg. His first contact with the Swiss military intelligence service (MIS) can be traced to early 1943. His liaison was Hans Ulrich von Segesser von Brunegg, an employee of “message unit 1” (Nachrichtenstelle 1, N.S. 1), which had been based undercover in Lucerne’s Hotel Schweizerhof since the beginning of the war.[2] Von Segesser and Schmidt knew each other through their collaboration at the left-wing Catholic journal Die Entscheidung, whose editorial office was located in the Palais Segesser in Lucerne. Schmidt had already published in this journal before his exile in 1938.[3] The Swiss MIS was thus well connected with Catholic circles.

Figure 1. Father Wilhelm Schmidt, Fribourg, Switzerland 1947 © Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire Fribourg. Fonds Benedikt Rast

On January 4, 1943, Schmidt received an inquiry from N.S. 1 to contact the Wehrmacht deserter Walter Ferber (1907–1996).[4] Schmidt and Ferber knew each other from the Study Group of Catholic Sociologists in Vienna. Walter Ferber, a journalist from Germany, had spent more than four years in the Dachau concentration camp where, he reported, “in the last year” (1942) “well over 1,000, almost 1,500 Polish clergy starved to death.”[5] Ferber had previously submitted his report also to the Swiss Nunciature, which then forwarded it to the Vatican Secretariat of State.[6] Schmidt was extremely helpful to Ferber. His letter addressed to Pope Pius XII arranged for Schmidt to receive 12,840 Swiss francs for “charitable purposes” through the Vatican Secretariat of State, ultimately intended for assistance for Ferber. This aid, however, was delivered undercover, out of consideration for the Swiss authorities and so as not to jeopardize state neutrality. Ferber’s release from police custody, which led him to internment and labor camps, was not possible at first. It was finally achieved in August 1943 with the help of Schmidt and the Swiss MIS. Subsequently, Ferber received a monthly allowance via Schmidt from the papal treasury. In addition to this financial help, Schmidt arranged for Ferber to be housed in the diocesan seminary in Fribourg until the end of the war.[7]

Schmidt’s blue notebook (see Figs. 2 and 3) lists all the expenditure in detail, providing precise information about for whom and for what purpose the papal money was disbursed. Besides Ferber, another beneficiary of the papal funds was the Viennese medical student Wilhelm Bruckner (1919–1972).[8] As a member of the clandestine Austrian Front Militia, he had fled after a long odyssey to Switzerland in 1941, where he set up an Austrian resistance group together with Wehrmacht deserters. There was intensive contact between Schmidt and Bruckner. More than fifty letters by Bruckner addressed to Schmidt are available, from November 1943 to 1950. In April 1944, Bruckner was authorized by the Swiss MIS to recruit ten Wehrmacht deserters for his organization from the Swiss internment camps.[9]

Figure 3. Schmidt’s notebook with expenditures from November 5, 1943 to February 27, 1944: The largest financial support was given to Walter Ferber and Wilhelm Bruckner © AG SVD, Rome

Bruckner reached an agreement with the Swiss MIS to transmit information from Nazi Germany to Switzerland.[10] In return, the Swiss MIS agreed to help Bruckner “cross the border illegally into Austria and Germany.”[11] He subsequently received Swiss identity papers that allowed him to cross without hindrance. From the Swiss side, “no payment or other benefit was associated with this activity.”[12] This situation explains the role Schmidt played for Bruckner: it was he who raised the travel money for Bruckner’s trips in Switzerland, which in turn came from the Vatican aid funds.

Schmidt, the British SOE, and the “Patria”

In the autumn of 1944, Schmidt established the link between Bruckner’s intelligence group and the British wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE), opening up new military opportunities. The SOE intelligence service had been operating in Switzerland since 1941 under the direction of John McCaffery, a former lecturer in English language and literature at the University of Genoa.[13] McCaffery, who was also fluent in German,[14] operated officially as deputy press attaché at the British Embassy in Bern. In accordance with the Moscow Declaration of November 1, 1943, the Allies guaranteed Austria’s independence, but at the same time demanded a contribution from Austria.[15] What the British special operations group in Switzerland apparently lacked was an influential Austrian resistance group ready to conduct military operations in Austria. Contact was made with Father Wilhelm Schmidt through the South Tyrolean Salesian Priest, Father Anton Gögele. McCaffery recorded the content of the conversation in detail in his memoirs:

“After cultivating his acquaintance for some time, and greatly appreciating it, I took him [Schmidt] too into my confidence and lamented the inability to get in touch with robust Austrian youth. When he had overcome his surprise at the true nature of my work, he was doubtful whether it was right for a priest to play any part in it; but I dissipated his scruples by showing him the rigid directives that went out with first consignment of our materials, and by telling him I wanted nothing more from him than the name of a respectable, young and ardent anti-Nazi. After a week or ten days he furnished me with such a name, [an] extraordinary young man, an Austrian emigré named Buchler [sic] to whom we gave the pseudonym of Black.”[16]

According to this account, Schmidt was initially skeptical about the SOE. As an asylum seeker, he was strictly forbidden from engaging in political work. It was only through McCaffery’s persuasion that Schmidt agreed to cooperate. As SOE chief in Bern, McCaffery was responsible for military material procurement and also for managing the aliases of recruited agents. A new SOE employee, H. I. Matthey, was appointed in mid-September 1944 to handle operational matters in the German and Austrian sections. On September 19, 1944, only a few days after Matthey was hired, Bruckner was transferred to him.[17] Schmidt’s recommendation proved to be an unexpected stroke of luck for the SOE. Matthey was so enthusiastic about Bruckner and the effectiveness of his intelligence group that, after the war ended, he appended a separate dossier to his report extolling Bruckner’s military accomplishments. Matthey’s History of Black’s activities ends with the impressive words: “there was at least one Austrian who got within measurable distance of effectively resisting the Nazis.”[18]

On October 1, 1944, Bruckner and three other deserters founded the Austrian military association Patria in Zurich.[19] The 75-year-old Schmidt did not become a member of the Patria, but in his notebook he commented: “October 1, 1944 trip Zurich 50 Swiss francs.”[20] Since he was probably present on the founding day, and in view of his financial services, he may be described as a silent observer. The SOE files show that the Patria was militarily equipped by SOE right from the beginning. In September and October 1944, McCaffery ordered light submachine guns, ammunition, blank service books and uniforms of the Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht, explosives, and fuses. It also seemed sensible to him to add a book on “wireless work” in German to the order list.[21] The Patria members, disguised in Wehrmacht uniforms but also in civilian clothes, traveled illegally to occupied Austria, where they pursued sabotage activities under Bruckner’s instructions. Illegal entry and exit to and from Switzerland continued to be handled by the Swiss MIS, which received military and political information from the Patria in return.[22] As generous as this support may have been, it was still largely limited to logistics and working materials, and cash was provided by the SOE only in modest amounts. The SOE had limited its military material budget for the Patria to ten men.[23] Thus, Schmidt’s role was to pay for anything extra out of his Vatican funds. On October 9, 1944, he paid 200 Swiss francs to “Bruckner and friends.”[24] This proves that Schmidt also supported the Patria from the beginning with Vatican funds.

The role of the House of Habsburg

The Vatican funding pot gradually began to empty. To ensure that the resistance activities could continue, Schmidt also requested 15,000–20,000 Swiss francs from Otto (von) Habsburg on November 26, 1944.[25] Otto von Habsburg (1912–2011), erstwhile Crown Prince as eldest son of the last emperor of Austria, had lived in the United States from 1940 to 1944, where he collaborated with the exiled Austrian ethnologist Robert (von) Heine-Geldern (1885–1968) on the establishment of an independent Austrian government-in-exile.[26] Schmidt’s letter remained unanswered, and there is no evidence of payments in this regard. However, Schmidt’s initiative brought about the meeting between Bruckner and Otto’s younger brother Karl Ludwig (1918–2007) in early 1945, presumably in Western Austria.[27]

Patria’s close relationship to the House of Habsburg inevitably led to a conflict with the SOE. Their support of a resistance organization that advocated a possible restoration of the Austrian imperial house could potentially have violated the Moscow Declaration.[28] Britain found a pragmatic compromise by officially recognizing the Patria militarily but not politically. On March 15, 1945, H. I. Matthey, who was also vested with the powers of a British vice-consul, signed the following declaration:

“We recognize the ‘Patria’ as an independent Austrian military organization and support it militarily to the extent that it provides military assistance for the expulsion of the Nazis from Austria. Politically it is not supported and it does not see itself working for goals which are not identical with its own.”[29]

In the last months of the war, the Patria continued to establish connections with existing resistance organizations in South Tyrol.[30] A willingness to participate actively in the resistance against National Socialism was relatively high among the South Tyrolean population. Several groups operated in the Adige, Val Senales, and Passiria valleys.[31] Among these partisans were such prominent figures as Kurt Schuschnigg (1926–2018), the son of the Austrian chancellor of the same name (1934–1938), who came from South Tyrol.[32] Schuschnigg was cut off from his partisan group in South Tyrol and had to flee to Switzerland, where he was accepted by Wilhelm Schmidt’s “aid committee.”[33] Schuschnigg received 100 Swiss francs from the papal relief fund.[34] In his memoirs he describes quite impressively that his escape to Switzerland had been organized by the SOE.[35]

Ultimately, the wartime goal of the Patria, namely to win South Tyrol for Austria, was not achieved. After the end of the war, the Patria was in debt, which was largely paid off from the papal treasury.[36] Bruckner then asked Schmidt to take over “the office of a general curate” within the Patria.[37] Schmidt’s fatherly pastoral role was thus acknowledged in an appreciative manner. Bruckner even designed Schmidt’s own letterhead for this purpose, which bore the name “Patria,” the Austrian shield and the double-headed monarchy’s eagle. Schmidt accepted this honorary title with good grace.

Schmidt’s influential social role as a donor and spiritual mentor of a resistance group fighting for Austria’s independence has so far gone unnoticed. Whether Pope Pius XII and his curia cardinals knew about the actual purpose of the Vatican money is a question that must remain open.

Return to series introduction and other essays

[1] This abridged essay is largely based on the fifth part of a paper published in Russian, “The Vienna School of Ethnology and the Vatican 1923–1945,” in Антропологии/Anthropologies, forthcoming. For the full version see Peter Rohrbacher, “Pater Wilhelm Schmidt im Schweizer Exil: Interaktionen mit Wehrmachtsdeserteuren und Nachrichtendiensten, 1943–1945,” in Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938–1945): Institutionen, Biographien und Praktiken in Netzwerken (Phil.-hist. Kl., Sitzungsberichte 913; Veröffentlichungen zur Sozialanthropologie 27/3), eds. Andre Gingrich and Peter Rohrbacher (Vienna: Verlag der OeAW, 2021), 1611–1642.

[2] Magnus Koch, Fahnenfluchten. Deserteure der Wehrmacht im Zweiten Weltkrieg – Lebenswege und Entscheidungen (Paderborn–Wien: Schöningh, 2008), 49.

[3] Wilhelm Schmidt, “Die katholische Universität in Salzburg,” in Entscheidung. Eidgenössisches Werkblatt 1, 12 (March 15, 1937), 71.

[4] Archivum Generale Societas Verbi Divini (AG SVD), Rome, Papers of Father Wilhelm Schmidt (FWS) 06; Segesser to Schmidt, January 4, 1943.

[5] AG SVD, Papers of FWS 02; Ferber to Schmidt, no date [January 1943].

[6] Rafael Ferber, “Pius XII. und die Geistlichen im KZ Dachau,” in Schweizerische Kirchenzeitung 190, 3 (February 10, 2022), 52–54.

[7] Rohrbacher 2021, 1624. In 1943, Walter Ferber anonymously published a short report about the medical human experiments on prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp for the Luftwaffe and the U-boat fleet with high fatality rates; see Walter Ferber, “Aus einem deutschen Konzentrationslager,” Apologetische Blätter (April 20, 1943), 95–96. In 1945, Ferber wrote his book under the pseudonym Walter Feuerbach: 55 Monate Dachau: Ein Tatsachenbericht (Luzern: Rex-Verlag, 1945).

[8] The most detailed work on Bruckner is by Gerald Steinacher, Südtirol und die Geheimdienste 1943–1945 (Innsbrucker Forschungen zur Zeitgeschichte 15) (Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2000).

[9] Steinacher, Südtirol und die Geheimdienste, 89.

[10] Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW), Vienna 22.779; Bruckner to the Magistrate’s District Office of the 15th District, Vienna, Section for Victim Welfare, Vienna, February 10, 1949.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bundesarchiv Bern (BAR), E4001 (C) Dossier 1491; Bruckner to Brig. Col. Ernst Eugster, February 20, 1950.

[13] Malcolm Tudor, SOE in Italy 1940–1945: The Real Story (Newtown: Emilia Publishing, 2011), 16.

[14] “‘My father was Scottish and my mother German,'” cf. Kurt von Schuschnigg, Der lange Weg nach Hause: Der Sohn des Bundeskanzlers erinnert sich (Wien: Amalthea, 2008), 264.

[15] Günther Bischof, “Die Moskauer Erklärung vom 1. November 1943: ‘Magna Charta’ der Zweiten Republik,” in “Österreich ist frei!” Der Österreichische Staatsvertrag 1955, eds. Stefan Karner and Gottfried Stangler, Beitragsband zur Ausstellung auf Schloss Schallaburg 2005 (Katalog des Niederösterreichischen Landesmuseums, Neue Folge 457) (Horn–Wien: Berger, 2005), 22–23.

[16] Imperial War Museum (IWM), London, Papers of John McCaffery 05 / 77 / 1; John McCaffery, No pipes or drums, no date, 168; underlined in original. I thank Peter Pirker for the archival materials from the IWM, The National Archives (TNA Kew-London) and BAR (Bern).

[17] TNA HS 7 / 146; H. I. Matthey, History of Black’s activities, August 30, 1945.

[18] TNA HS 7 / 146; cf. Steinacher 2000, 81.

[19] DÖW 22.779; Bruckner to the Magistrate’s District Office of the 15th District, Vienna, Section for Victim Welfare, Vienna, February 10, 1949; cf. Steinacher 2000, 86.

[20] AG SVD Papers of FWS 06; Schmidt’s notebook.

[21] IWM Papers of John McCaffery 05 / 77 / 1; Decoded messages, October 1944; cf. Peter Pirker, Subversion deutscher Herrschaft: Der britische Kriegsgeheimdienst SOE und Österreich (Zeitgeschichte im Kontext 6) (Göttingen: V&R Unipress, Vienna University Press, 2012), 405.

[22] DÖW 22.779; Bruckner to the Magistrate’s District Office of the 15th District, Section for Victim Welfare, Vienna, February, 10, 1949.

[23] The “Patria” members are listed in Peter Pirker, “Most difficult to tackle”: Intelligence, Exil und Widerstand am Beispiel der Austrian Section von SOE (Dissertation, University of Vienna, 2009), 815–816; and Steinacher, Südtirol und die Geheimdienste, 314–350.

[24] AG SVD Papers of FWS 06; Schmidt’s notebook.

[25] AG SVD Papers of FWS 03; Schmidt to Otto (von) Habsburg, November 26, 1944.

[26] Verena Neller, “Robert Heine-Gelderns Exilzeit in den USA 1938–1949,” in Völkerkunde zur NS-Zeit aus Wien (1938–1945), eds. Andre Ginrich and Peter Rohrbacher (Vienna: Verlag der OeAW, 2021), 1529–1552.

[27] AG SVD Papers of FWS 03; Schmidt to Otto (von) Habsburg, no date [early 1945].

[28] Bischof 2005, 23.

[29] DÖW 5.633; H. I. Matthey, Basel, confirmation, March 15, 1945 (underlined in original, author’s translation); cf. Steinacher 2000, 95.

[30] For a detailed discussion see Steinacher, Südtirol und die Geheimdienste, 77–80.

[31] AG SVD Papers of FWS 01; Bruckner to federal president of Austria Theodor Körner, November 18, 1951. Bruckner subsumed the “Andreas Hofer-Bund” to the “Patria,” which does not correspond to the historical facts, cf. Steinacher, Südtirol und die Geheimdienste, 77–80.

[32] Steinacher, Südtirol und die Geheimdienste, 124; Schmidt 1949, 241.

[33] Cf. AG SVD Papers of FWS 01; Karl Hannig to Schmidt, November 18, 1944.

[34] Cf. AG SVD Papers of FWS 06; Schmidt, notebook: “for the young Schuschnigg 100 Swiss francs” (für den jungen Schuschnigg 100 SFr), May 8, 1945.

[35] Schuschnigg, Der lange Weg nach Hause, 261–285.

[36] AG SVD Papers of FWS 06; Schmidt, notebook: “Debt Patria 300 Swiss francs” (Schulden Patria 300 SFr), August 31, 1945. The other half was possibly paid by H. I. Matthey.

[37] AG SVD Papers of FWS 05; Bruckner to Schmidt, August 1, 1945.

Peter Rohrbacher: contributions / peter.rohrbacher@oeaw.ac.at