Karl Otten (1889 -1963)

While Otten started off as an active socialist in Germany, he is included here because, while continuing to see himself as organising left-wing opposition to the Nazis, he informed on many left wing refugees in the UK. His files were only recently opened and now provide us with much interesting material!

Originally an anarchist, Otten was imprisoned in August 1914 for trying to incite troops to rebel through distributing anti-war leaflets. He later joined the Central Soldiers Council and the Spartacus League. The Germans informed the British secret service about these activities before he even came to the UK. In 1933, he fled to Paris and then to Spain where he is said to have worked for the Comintern, supposedly becoming its principal agent at the beginning of the Civil War.

By May 1938, by now in the UK, he had gathered around him a tiny group of about six left-wing but unaligned German anti-Nazis (the Karl Otten group or ‘Primrose League’), nominally under the umbrella of the LEX group. (The LEX group was under SOE; their – largely unsuccessful l- aim was to distribute propaganda in Germany.) The Primrose League’s goal was to smuggle military information out of Germany into France and thence to Britain. One member of the short-lived group was Lehmann-Russbuedt who still had contacts in Germany and followed the Nazi’s military plans closely. Indeed, Otten met at and temporarily moved into his flat. (See separate biography) Another was Hans Wolffsohn, a well informed expert on military technology and former war pilot. Otten appears to have obtained some limited information eg on airports, but, according to a letter from July, 1939 from Major Vivian (vice-chief of SIS or MI6 and the first head of its counterespionage unit who kept a close eye on Otten), Otten was sometimes reproduced already published material and was not always a reliable source.1

In a cryptic letter addressed to Charles Williams, SIS, (Otten’s pseudonym), from SCHR(?), dated 12 April 1939, it mentions sabotage and goes on to say that everything in ‘Leuna’ depends on the waterworks (presumably code). ‘If the water work is dealt with, everything else can go hang.’ The sender knew what they were talking about: the Leuna works was one of the biggest chemical industrial complexes and producer of synthetic oil in Germany and became a key target for Allied bombing. Oil was crucial for the German war effort and the bombing raids are seen as contributing significantly to Germany’s defeat.2

Otten was of keen interest to MI5 who followed his every move and intercepted his correspondence, believing, amongst much else, that he was working for Czech intelligence. (That at least was the opinion of the spy in chief, Claud Sykes, who had succeeded in persuading Otten that the close attention he paid him was a result of friendship. Sykes, a writer of fictional books on aviation and a translator, the perfect cover, ended up working for MI5.) It seems Lehmann-Russbueldt did have contacts with the Czech legation, whom he provided with military information, which Karl Groehl had given him and which Groehl largely acquired from agents he met in France or Switzerland (see separate biography).3 Leaving aside the underlying issue of socialists collaborating with MI5 etc, it is worth noting that Czechoslovakia, if not already invaded, was soon likely to be, yet the British secret service etc saw providing them with information on the German military as a potential threat to British security.

The Primrose League quickly collapsed, not least because of a serious falling out between Otten and Lehmann-Russbueldt but also because of the understandable fear of at least one other participant that his involvement could damage his chances of being allowed British naturalisation.4 (For many of the exiles who did not plan on returning to Germany, the need to obtain the right to stay in the UK was pressing and anxiety provoking.)

MI5’s attitude to Otten was ambiguous: while they consistently spied on him, in this world of shadows and make-believe, Otten continued to work for the Foreign Office with responsibility for anti-Nazi propaganda under Department EH (Electra House), a secret part of the Foreign Office, later SOE. Unlike almost all the ‘leftie’ refugees, he does not appear to have been interned: no doubt, one of his rewards. There is a letter addressed to Liddell, head of counter-intelligence for MI5, dated April 1939, from VV ( presumably Major V. Vivian) stating the there are only four ‘alien refugees’ likely to be useful for ‘propaganda purposes’, one of whom, the memo stated was Otten, who needed to be considered for ’exemption’ (presumably from internment).5 What this missive betrays is MI5’s inability to appreciate how willing most of the anti-Nazi refugees would have been to participate in anti-Nazi propaganda.6)

Otten informed systematically on other anti-Nazi refugees, in particular on members of the Free German League of Culture, and was –unusually- paid for doing so by British intelligence.7 His ardent spying was fuelled by what had become an avid anti-Communism. Like others, he pinpointed the Kuczinkis as prime suspects, whom he believed were receiving Moscow gold (though his MI5 handler seemed dubious about this). In one extraordinary – and revealingly paranoid- reporting back, the informant stated that Otten had told him that Prof Kuczinsky, Jurgen’s left-wing anti-Nazi non-Communist prestigious economist father, was ‘spreading defeatism by running down everything British and praising everything Russian…He thought the war should be stopped at once’, signed B5).8 Who really thought this is unclear. Otten was also attributed with making an anti-Semitic speech in Hampstead which was ‘was packed with Jews’.9 Otten was not above suggesting to his handlers that his comrades’ were Gestapo as well as ‘GPU spies’ (the USSR’s secret police), Otto Katz amongst others.10

Otten, a writer, from early in his life, in a way which was rarely the case in the UK, understood his literary work to be an expression of political commitment. But Otten’s literary career did not flourish in the UK. His novels were not always accepted for publication, although he kept on writing. One consequence of MI5’s suspicions of him was that the BBC rejected one of his plays though he had others put on. After a gradual diminution in sight, he finally went blind in 1944 which limited his usefulness for MI5.

He became a naturalised British citizen in 1947 and continued to work as a publisher. In the end, he died in Switzerland.

Otten saw betraying anti-Nazi refugees to MI5 as somehow helping stop the Nazis, though some of the refugees he fingered could consequently have been thrown out by the UK government and ended up back in Nazi Germany. Certainly he exacerbated the refugees’ sense of insecurity and fear. What the records also reveal is how profoundly the State distrusted most of these anti-Nazi refugees or even saw them as their primary enemy.

1 NS , 1184, KV, 112-1. One internal memo from March 1939 states that Otten has been trying to persuade everybody that Hitler was dead and being impersonated by a double!

2 152B, KV 112-1. A background note: In the 1920s, Leuna works were a centre for the KAPD and the General Workers Union to which half of the 20,000 workforce belonged. Peter Utzelmann who had participated in the sailors uprising, joined and left the KPD for the KAPD coordinated the strike committee during the March Action in March 1921.

3Dove, R, ‘Flying and Spying: Claud W Sykes, M15 and the ‘Carl Otten Group’ in eds A.Grenville and A. Reiter, Political exile or exile politics in Britain after 1933, 194. Ironically, Groehl sent his information to Otten by post which MI5 intercepted and is now publically available!

4 Brinson and Dove,67, 75

5 NA KV11/21, 165B. (Although not relevant here, what much of this correspondence in the NA reveals is how much MI5 etc were gathering information about the balance of forces in Europe.

6 In an extraordinary unsigned ‘secret’ official letter, it states: ‘In the case of the Jews and the extreme left organisations, a feeling of revenge is the leading motive for their activities and they are quite as unscrupulous in their methods of combating the present regime and inducing others to participate in the struggle, as the Nazis have been in dealing with them’ (KV2/1121)

7 Brinson and Dove, 168

8 NA 223A, KV2/1122. Anti-Semitic attitudes were not uncommon. In a later document in the same file, there is a letter, unfortunately without a clear signature to MI5, praising a business man ‘ though a Jew, ‘

9 NA 229a, KV2/1122

10 This is not beyond the realms of possibility. Katz, a Czech, was an influential and uncritical agent for the Comintern, including in the UK, which he regularly visited, also apparently, spying (and maybe more) on Munzenberg before replacing him. He is suspected of involvement in Trotsky’s murder., He was hanged as a result of the Slansky trial