This article was originally published in Jacobin
The third season of the TV show Babylon Berlin features a character named Marie-Louise Seegers, who is the daughter of the fictional Major General Seegers, head of the German Army in the early 1930s. Unsurprisingly, Marie-Louise spends much of her life in the circles of right-wing elites. But there is a twist: she is a dedicated communist and uses this proximity to the ruling class to steal secret documents from her father, which she passes on to left-wing newspapers.
This sounds as implausible as much else in Babylon Berlin. But the character is based on a historical figure whose life was even stranger. Kurt von Hammerstein was the head of Germany’s Supreme Army Command from 1930 to 1934. His daughter Marie Luise was a Marxist who worked for the intelligence service of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). As the historian Ralf Hoffrogge has observed, her story has been told in multiple novels — but poorly, as an ingenue manipulated by older male communists.
Marie Luise von Hammerstein, called “Butzi” by her family, was an independent revolutionary. She had a short and passionate affair with her fellow law student Werner Scholem, but by that point, Scholem’s ultraleft politics and opposition to Joseph Stalin had led to his expulsion from the leadership of the KPD. Marie Luise developed her connections to the M-Apparat, short for the Military-Political Apparatus (one of many names for the red spy service), entirely independent of any of her romantic entanglements.
Last year, a retired professor in Canada published a German-language biography of Hammerstein’s three eldest daughters. Gottfried Paasche is no neutral researcher: he is the grandson of Kurt von Hammerstein, the son of the general’s second daughter, Maria Therese. Relying on both family archives and private conversations with his relatives, Paasche has produced a narrative whose significance is greater than that of merely uncovering family secrets.
The family had not one but two daring spies. In 1929, while pilfering a letter from her father’s desk, Marie Luise was observed by her ten-year-old brother. This document soon appeared in the Communist daily Die Rote Fahne. Her brother ratted her out. While a family friend, the general Kurt von Schleicher, kept her out of trouble, Marie Luise’s cover was blown.
It was her little sister Helga, starting at just seventeen, who continued the work. It was Helga who famously, in early 1933, stole the transcript of a secret speech that Adolf Hitler held in front of Germany’s generals. In the speech — which Communist spies promptly forwarded to Moscow — Hitler made clear his aggressive aims against the Soviet Union.
An Aristocratic Family
Lots of German history is condensed in the story of this minor aristocratic house. Two sons of Kurt von Hammerstein were involved in the plot against Hitler on July 20, 1944. Two daughters were communists. Their grandfather, Kurt’s father-in-law, was Walther von Lüttwitz, a far-right general who led a coup attempt against the Weimar Republic in 1920. At the Hammerstein’s family dinners, the entire political spectrum was represented.
The conservative Prussian general allowed his children a great deal of freedom: “they are free Republicans,” he told friends who expressed concern about their leaning. The three girls moved between landed estates and boarding schools, but they were all drawn to the anti-bourgeois youth movement known as the Wandervogel — an affiliation that was unusual for girls and almost unheard of for scions of the nobility.
They strayed far from their home in Berlin’s wealthy West and started hanging out in the deep red workers’ district Neukölln. At the Karl Marx School, founded by reformist educators, they joined the Socialist School Students’ League. Butzi was even arrested during the illegal demonstrations of May 1, 1929 — Berlin’s “Bloody May Day.”
When Marie Luise and a friend applied to join the KPD, it raised alarms in the Karl Liebknecht House. These two young women lived in an apartment inside the Bendlerblock, the German military headquarters, alongside the country’s top officer — who could imagine a better source? The two were promptly recruited by the M-Apparat and instructed to avoid any other connections to Communists. Their handler was the young Jewish spymaster Leo Roth, who took a leading role in Soviet espionage in Nazi Germany — and soon became Helga’s boyfriend.
A Not Very Red General
In the 1920s, Kurt von Hammerstein was sometimes called “the red general.” Not that he harbored sympathies for socialism — but he was involved in the secret cooperation between the German Wehrmacht and the Red Army and developed a friendly respect for the Soviets. In Germany’s officer corps, anything to the left of Genghis Khan was considered “red.” Above all, Hammerstein was realistic about the military balance of power: “I am not going to wage war against the Russians,” he emphasized. When Hitler came to power, Hammerstein felt a deep unease.
Conservatives and liberals often remember him as an anti-fascist or a resistance fighter. In reality, though, Hammerstein helped pave the way for fascism. During the revolution of 1918/19, Hammerstein was sent to Berlin to establish “peace and order.” In less euphemistic terms, his troops massacred thousands of revolutionary workers. He helped set up the protofascist paramilitaries, the Freikorps, who later regrouped in the Nazi party. Hammerstein was not on the far right — when his father-in-law Lüttwitz tried to establish a military dictatorship in 1920 alongside Wolfgang Kapp, Hammerstein refused to go along. He wanted a conservative republic led by aristocrats and seemed close to that goal when the general Paul von Hindenburg was elected Reich president in 1925. Hindenburg was godfather to one of Hammstein’s sons.
In early 1933, Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor. Like many Prussian officers, Hammerstein was distrustful of the upstart corporal. He considered organizing a military coup to detain the Führer, but ultimately lacked resolve. He resigned his post one year into Hitler’s chancellorship, and his “resistance” was limited to critical discussions in his salon.
In mid-1934, when his friend Schleicher was murdered by the SS, Hammerstein was shocked that the Nazis would murder a “gentlemen.” That was a “red line” for him. It had not been a red line, however, when his soldateska executed Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and so many others socialists. One of his daughters pointed out the contradiction, asking about Luxemburg, “Wasn’t she a human being to him?”
Hammerstein had played a leading role in the half-counterrevolution of 1918 — but when that led to the full counterrevolution of 1933, he and many other aristocrats balked at the consequences of their policies.
A Family Chronicle
The strength and weakness of this book is the personal sympathy and deep psychological insight into all the different family members. Sometimes it seems overly sympathetic to deeply reactionary aristocrats. We learn, for example, that the mass murder of early 1919 was a “burden” to the commanding general, who needed time in a sanatorium to recover. In Germany today, bloodthirsty generals who turned away from Hitler at the last possible second are hailed as “resistance fighters” (see Tom Cruise in Valkyrie). Hammerstein’s daughters, however, show the kind of courage required for actual resistance.
The Gestapo followed Marie Luise for years, having discovered the secret files about her espionage from 1929. Paradoxically, the repeated interrogations of Marie Luise distracted police attention from the actual spy, her little sister Helga. With the help of Roth, who had gone underground, Helga became a master of conspiracy. Multiple family members were arrested in the final months of the war; by 1943, Kurt von Hammerstein had died of cancer.
After 1945, Marie Luise could finally come out of the red closet — more than fifteen years after first approaching the party, she joined the Munich branch of the KPD. After a stint with her family in West Berlin, she moved to the Eastern half of the city, the Soviet Sector, as she wanted to raise her children in a country without Nazi teachers and judges. She worked as a lawyer in the German Democratic Republic and dropped the aristocratic “von” from her name, becoming Marie Luise Hammerstein. When she wrote a report about her spy work several decades later, she got a medal and a pension as an anti-fascist resistance fighter.
Helga, in contrast, lived in West Berlin, married to a famous landscape architect (another former Neukölln Communist). She remained silent until the end of her life. In 1936, she had said goodbye to her beloved Leo Roth at a Zurich train station. As the months went by without word from him, she feared the worst. But it took decades until she could be certain of his fate. Roth was arrested in the purges and shot in 1937. He was twenty-seven years old. Helga had not just lost her great love — she was unable to share her pain with anyone.
Paasche’s book focuses on his mother, the second Hammerstein daughter. Maria Theresa shared her sisters’ distaste for their social milieu and their deep hatred of fascism, but she never became a communist. She sought utopias first in Zionism, visiting Jewish friends in a kibbutz in Palestine, and then in anthroposophy, the right-wing esoteric cult founded by Rudolf Steiner. Unable to stand the atmosphere in Nazi Germany, she moved with her husband to Japan, naively hoping to find there a peaceful and more tolerant country. After the war, they moved to the United States and never returned to Germany.
A Legacy of Spies
The great tragedy of Germany’s Communist spies was that their sacrifice was completely wasted. Red agents in various countries provided accurate and timely warnings about fascist plans to attack the Soviet Union in 1941. But Stalin, relying on his pact with Hitler, ignored them all. The KPD’s M-Apparat was liquidated in the second half of the 1930s.
An out-of-print book tells the story of Communist intelligence services in Weimar Germany. This fascinating volume was compiled by the in-house historians of the East German Ministry for State Security (MfS or Stasi), who saw the M-Apparat as their predecessor. In the Stasi’s paranoid atmosphere, their historical research remained classified. They only put out a book in 1997, and it contains short biographies of hundreds of Communist spies. Many of them had an easy time avoiding the Gestapo, moving in and out of Nazi Germany under false identities. But they were detained and murdered by their own superiors: as historian Hermann Weber has shown, Stalin was deadlier for leading German Communists than Hitler was.
The story of Hammerstein’s daughters is an illustration of why people joined the Communist spy service. Many of them betrayed their class because passing on information was the best option they saw to fight fascism. In the fourth season of Babylon Berlin, not yet available on Netflix, Marie-Louise Seegers is shown as the fiancé of the right-wing conspirator Colonel Wendt. Reimagined as a manic pixie dream girl, she is shown moving between Communist spies and counterrevolutionary brigands; in the spirit of a soap opera, her loyalties are never clear. The history book is better than the movie. The Hammerstein daughters led lives driven by clear principles, like many other red spies.