A document extracted from the archives of the adviser to General de Gaulle shows how, during the war in Algeria, a German engineer found himself in the crosshairs of the external services.
Halfway through the summer of 1958, in the utmost secrecy of a Gaullist power that had just finished its desert crossing thanks to theAlgiers coup on 13 May, France did not intend to neglect any means, even the most illegal ones, to wage a war that would last for four years. While some French forces resorted to torture on Algerian soil, the last government of the Fourth Republic, led by General de Gaulle, ordered clandestine operations in the rest of the world against those who threatened their interests in Algeria. Targeted assassinations, attacks, warnings in the form of assaults, these practices were commonplace - "hundreds of them", said Constantin Melnik, intelligence services coordinator from 1959 to 1962.
Considering itself as acting legitimately even when it was in total breach of international or domestic law, the French State, whether in 1958 or in 2015, under the presidency of François Hollande, has always reserved this freedom, thus marking the limits of the control of the use of force, including in the biggest democracies. Raising a taboo subject, Mr. Hollande even confirmed it orally in several publications, at the end of 2016. But there was no written record of these decisions, at least until the discovery of a single document in the archives of Jacques Foccart, the man of the secret services and Gaullism's dirty work, also known as the father of "la Françafrique", French Africa.
Jacques Foccart in 1968. Photo STF/AFP
Dated the 1st of August 1958 and annotated by Foccart, this document not only delivers the details of a death sentence "of a German subject, (…) whose action is very detrimental to French interests in Algeria" but also gives the identities of the target and all those who have concurred with the green light given to his physical elimination. The reading of this piece provides, finally, knowledge of the authorisation process which involved the highest authorities of the country and raises, even sixty years later, the question of a State's responsibility.
"Deal with him inconspicuously by means of undetectable poison"
Le Monde reconstructed the history of this man and the reasons which led France to want to kill him. This dive into the past reveals an unknown episode of the Algerian war: the action of a German-speaking network supporting the FLN, which organised the desertion of more than 4,000 legionnaires, viaTétouan, in Morocco. It also raises the veil of a secret war between France and West Germany (FRG), against the background of the end of the French colonial empire, while in broad daylight these two countries joined forces to build a peaceful Europe after two deadly world conflicts.
Entitled "Record relating to the designation of an objective", the note is addressed directly by the action service of the Sdece (External Documentation and Counter-Espionage Service) to Jacques Foccart, who was, in Matignon, the technical advisor to General de Gaulle - President of the Council for six months before bringing France into the FifthRepublic and setting up in the Elysee. "Schulz-Lesum, a German individual, residing at Tétouan, says the note, is the head of a French legionnaires desertion organisation. (…) Following a reconnaissance mission, a commercial contact was established with Schulz-Lesum*. This contact maintained by correspondence should allow us to attract the subject to a favourable location in Morocco and to deal with him discreetly by undetectable toxic substance with a delayed effect. »
The "record relating to the designation of an objective", annotated by Jacques Foccart, which ordered the elimination of the German engineer Wilhelm Schulze-Lessum. DR
"Received on 3 August, 1958, expressed agreement in principle,” wrote, first of all, Jacques Foccart. In a second step, in the same blue ink, he adds, "Admiral Cabanier's agreement on 4 August, forwarded immediately to Colonel Roussillat", before adding his signature, identifiable on many other official documents. We note that the Minister of Defence does not appear to be involved in the decision. The document mentions that it was the Army Chief of Staff, Paul Ely, who requested the elimination from the Sdece. Admiral Cabanier was none other than the Chief of the Defence Staff attached to General de Gaulle as President of the Council. Colonel Robert Roussillat was then the head of the action department of the Sdece, charged with implementing this decision.
Desertions by legionnaires
According to the Austrian historian Fritz Keller, who was one of the few to mention his name in his work on the FLN aid networks, the target, Wilhelm Schulz-Lesum*, was born in 1896. According to the Sdece, he was then "in Tétouan, for many years". As a trained engineer and officially responsible for an import-export company, he was actually acting on behalf of the West German authorities. His contacts with the Bonn diplomacy in Morocco and Spain are proven and frequent.
His role was at the heart of a report transmitted on 31 October 1957, by the Chief of the Renseignementsgénéraux (RG) - a branch of the French police dealing with political security in Oranto General Salan, commanding the 10th military region. Largely fed by information from the RG of Sidi Bel Abbès, the location of the headquarters of the Legion, this inquiry was sent, in copy, to the head of the Sdece. "It turns out that the pharmacy set up to promote the desertion of German legionnaires does indeed exist. It is responsible for a certain unidentified Schulz-Lesum, engineer in Tétouan, representative of the German Embassy in Madrid, holder of numerous honorary decorations from the Federal Republic of Bonn", it is specifiedthere.
In 1957, the French claimed that the named Schulz-Lesum* was in charge of receiving the deserting legionnaires in Tetouan and directing them to Madrid via Ceuta and Algeciras. To do this, he provided them with transport tickets and a certificate of identity against the undertaking to repay the full repatriation costs. "It appears that contacts were detected between German legionnaires and emissaries of the FLN in Saïda[Algeria]. These contacts would be made in this city inside the Café des Sports", continues the report of the Sidi Bel Abbès RG.
"Revolutionary with extraordinary prestige"
The repatriation service for deserting legionnaires was set up in October 1956 by the National Council for the Algerian Revolution (CNRA), and its installation in Tetouan was entrusted to Abdelhafid Boussouf, alias "Si Mabrouk", former head of the wilaya (administrative district) V, perceived by the Sdece as a "Revolutionary with extraordinary prestige, closer to the fighters of the Maquis than to the bourgeois wing of the Front". In 1953-1954, the Legion comprised 55 % Germans, down to 35 % between 1956 and 1962, according to historian Mathilde von Bulow, author of a book on West Germany at the time of the Cold War and the Algerian War. A good third was under 21 years of age, and many were under 18 years of age.
The goal for the FLN was to structure a growing desertion phenomenon. On 23 August, 1955, General Lorillot, predecessor of Salan to the command of the 10th military region, wrote to the Minister of Defence to inform him of "the significant increase in desertions in the units of the Foreign Legion". But he wanted to be reassuring. In his view, this would only be due to "the end of active operations in Indochina", as well as "the scantiness of pay in North Africa compared to wages in the Far East" and "to the situation of half-rest (...) conducive to attempts to run away". Nevertheless, he considered it necessary to "closely follow internal security issues".
Anxiety was growing rapidly. On 22 October, 1956, the interception of the plane carrying five FLN leaders allowed the French to find on one of the leaders, Mohamed Boudiaf, an extract of an interrogation carried out by the Spanish authorities on a German legionnaire deserter aged 23 years old, Ludwig Trapp. It contained valuable information about the organisation and internal security of the Legion, its locations in Algeria. On 14 December 1956, the Minister resident in Algeria assured the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that "Spanish interference in the rebellion in North Africa is undeniable".
On the same 14 December 1956, the legionary Manfried Kober, of the 5th company of the 1st foreign infantry regiment, thus joined in the Maquis a unit of the FLN with twenty comrades, with arms and equipment. They were taken care of for twenty-one days, before being transported to the Moroccan South, in Spanish territory. They then made the journey by boat to Ifni-Tétouan. Schulz-Lesum took them to Tangiers, then Madrid by plane. Kober was welcomed to the Spanish capital by the German Consul, who gave him a sum of money, a passport and a plane ticket.
In Berlin, Kober was received by a pillar of this repatriation branch, a member of the "Nordafrikanischer Club",a certain Lindemann, who asked him to reimburse the 600 marks, the price of his return to the country. The Jours de France weekly newspaper, in July 1957, mentioned the existence of this German network in Berlin. Headed by Hans-Peter Rullman, a convert to Islam and member of a movement for the reunification of Germany sponsored by the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) of Chancellor Adenauer, he engaged in the purchase and delivery of weapons for the "Algerian resistance". But his main activity remained the organisation of the desertion of the German legionnaires in North Africa.
Mr. Lindemann, who claimed to have 3,200 desertions to his credit, even claimed to have sent emissaries who, once introduced into the Legion, indoctrinated youngrecruits and incited them to desert. Numerous solidarity networks were also set up in Germany, in student, Catholic, Protestant, Communist, Trotskyist and trade union circles. Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, representative of the SPD (Social Democratic Party), was the political figure of this support movement. Adenauer, who did not want to allow any benefit for the SPD opposition party, left the matter alone, persuadedthat one day Algeria would be independent.
Tétouan, transit centre
The FLN entrusted Abdelkader Chanegriha with the coordination of four special brigades, responsible for crossing the border. Two main exfiltration routes were taken to Nador by the German deserters, to the south, then to the west, along the El Aricha, Berguent, Oujda route, on foot, then from Nador to Tétouan by taxi. A second pharmacy existed in Mascara, the route of the legionnaires being then Dublineau, Tlemcen, Oujda, then from Nador to Tétouan. "In Nador, they would be duly noted by the civil governor of this centre and then directed to Tétouan where Schulz-Lesum would take charge of their passage to Germany", concludes the report of the Sidi Bel Abbès RG. The Tétouan transit centre for deserting legionnaires was established in the district of Malaga, a hundred meters from the Le Victoria cinema.
The Nador base, located at the eastern end of the former Spanish Morocco, almost 100 kilometres from the Algerian-Moroccan border, was the rebel headquarters of the Liberation Committee of the Arab Maghreb, but also the hub of arms trafficking and regrouping of Algerians and Moroccans fighting in the Maquis of Algeria. "There are workshops in Nador where specialists (sometimes legionnaires) produce grenades and mines", said the military intelligence. A factory for the manufacture of grenades and mines had recently been installed at Tétouan, at the junction of the old and new Ceuta road, under the direction of two German engineers. »
Contacted in Algeria by Le Monde, Mohammed Lemkami, former member of the FLN intelligence, remembered the activities of these Tétouan Germans, notably Winfried Müller, who became an officer of the National Liberation Army (NLA) under the name Si Mustapha Müller, and whose name alone would remain in the history of the repatriation of legionnaires. After graduating in 1954, Lemkami became a teacher in his native village of Khemis, 45 kilometres from Tlemcen. A little helper of the FLN, he gradually took part in missions conveying arms to the Algerian-Moroccan border and escorting the heads of the NLA before integratingthe Ministry of Armament and General Liaisons (MALG, the intelligence service of the FLN), created in 1957 by Boussouf.
"They were effective"
"Contacts with the legionnaires were made inside the country and were initiated by the FLN, he remembered. Sometimes, in a single day, a dozen of them deserted, sometimes no one. Some of the legionnaires came with their weapons. They gave us information about the activities of the Legion, which was the most feared in the French army. They were taken across the border and led to a farm in Tétouan. This is where Si Mustapha Müller's network took over to repatriate them. They were effective, as there were many Germans and Austrians in the Legion.”
Mohammed Lemkami also worked in MALG counter-espionage. "In 1957, two men of the Sdece were intercepted at the Moroccan border, he recalled. They pretended to be deserting legionnaires. If they did not answer our questions, they would die, so they gave us all they knew about the Sdece in Morocco and Algeria. They gave us the names of the Moroccans and the Algerians who worked for them. "Intelligence is a priority of the FLN. On 29 August 1958, the Sdece reported that a legionnaire explosives expert who had participated in the laying of mines and the electrified network in the Port-Say region "would have deserted and would have given all the plans of the network".
Wilhelm Schulz-Lesum was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit in 1957 by the German President Theodor Heuss. On 2 April, 1958, the Austrian president also honoured him for his role in the return of Austrian legionnaires, which he negotiated with the Austrian ambassador in Madrid. On 7 February 1957, the Sdece informed the President of "the Austrian position [which] may be influenced by the anti-colonialist spirit of certain socialist sectors. In those circumstances, provision should be made either for the abstention of Austria or for alignment with the attitude of the United States". Karl Blecha, future Austrian Minister of the Interior, then president of the Socialist Students Union, visited North Africa in 1958 to meet members of the FLN.
Reimar Holzinger, an Austrian socialist born in 1921, met Si Mustapha Müller in 1955, became his alter ego and dealt with the exfiltration of Austrian deserters. He also supported the Hungarians who joined the Legion after the events of 1956 in Budapest. Bruno Kreisky, then Austrian Foreign Minister, supported the Algerian government in exile and the Holzinger network. "When an Austrian deserted, the repatriation service contacted the Austrian Embassy in Madrid, which was responsible for organising the transfer from Barcelona to Genoa and from there to Austria", Holzinger told the historian Fritz Keller.
It is in this context that the action service of the Sdece would try to implement the order to eliminate Wilhelm Schulz-Lesum. To camouflage this type of operation, France having already been criticised within the UN for its Algerian policy, the Sdece made believe that a mysterious group called La Main Rouge (The Red Hand) operated autonomously and lead, alone, actions against the active support to the FLN. Since a large number of operations were perpetrated in West Germany, it was also a question of not challenging the German ally. According to an elder of the 11th parachutist regiment, armed branch of the Sdece, the approach operation mentioned in the Foccart note to Schulz-Lesum was the specialty of a group of agents of the Sdece led by Jean-Pierre Lenoir, expert in the tracking of traffickers of weapons and very active in Spain.
The role played by the Red Hand hardly deceived the German authorities, who were playing a double game. In their Histoire des services secrets allemands(History of the German Secret Service, Nouveau monde, 2009), Michael Mueller and Erich Schmidt-Eenboom indicated that the BND,the German equivalent of the Sdece, had an office at the headquarters of the French services in Paris, and that it lent a helping hand to the networks supporting the FLN, including on German soil.
When Germany equipped the FLN
But in the late 1950s, to attract the favours of Arab countries just out of the colonial yoke, the FRG also sent its BND agents to train the security services of Syria, Sudan and Egypt, countries where German intelligence communicatedwith the FLN and its provisional government. The FRG considered the repatriation of German legionaries favourably, considering that their presence in this French colonial force was an attack on its sovereignty and its image. In 1958, an experienced BND agent, Richard Christmann, himself a former legionnaire, went to Sidi Bel Abbès to report on the activities of the network.
The threats of the Sdece were not without effect. The BND seems to have warned Wilhelm Schulz-Lesum of the danger. When the fatal sentence was pronounced against him, on 4 August, 1958, in the secret of Foccart's office, the man was already leaving for Madrid. On 4 June, 1958, the Sdece noted that the deserters were now welcomed in Tétouan by another German, Otto Berger, who was also a consular agent of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Tétouan, land of spies and regional observation point in the heart of the French colonial empire being weakened, was then of interest to all foreign secret services. According to the historian Kader Benamara, who worked with Mr. Keller on the Austrian solidarity networks in favour of the FLN, "Si Mustapha Müller had been contacted by the CIA to know the role of the Communist Party in the Algerian rebellion". The FLN was, according to French military intelligence, equipped with " portable equipment of American manufacture" supplied by Germany.
The same Müller had, during the Second World War, deserted the Wehrmacht to join the Red Army, in which he played a brief role as a Communist propagandist for the German soldiers. Excluded from a school of communist cadres, in 1950, for "Titoist Deviation" he tried in vain to enter the Foreign Legion on 2 February, 1951, in Landau, Germany, then arrived in Paris in 1953, where he became Chief of Protocol of aSouth American diplomat whose wife never knew that under her bed were hidden stashes of grenades intended for the FLN's friends. Spotted by the French services, he fled to Morocco in 1956, where he soon established close relations with the consular and diplomatic representatives of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The Soviets, close allies of the FLN, were also present in Tétouan and did not lose contact with Müller. A telegram of 26 May 1959 from the Consulate General of France of Tétouan to his ministry in Paris indicated, laconically, that a "Russian commercial service has rented offices through Mr. Garcia Rivera, seller of agricultural products". Müller's head was priced at 50,000 marks, but he was less easy to reach than Schulz-Lesum. He escaped an explosive hidden in a book sent from Cairo awaiting him at the Tétouan position. Four bodyguards followed him at all times and dogs protected his house in Tétouan, agents of La Main Rouge.
Like many of the operations ordered in the Sdece at that time, finally aborted or abandoned, the one aimed at Wilhelm Schulz-Lesum appears not to have been completed. After searching in Algeria, Morocco, Germany and Austria, Le Monde finally picked up his trail again, in June 1965, in Madrid, where the engineer of 69 years had re-engaged with his first centres of interest. On 1st June 1965, he had there deposited a technical patent on a fire extinguisher. He had returned to a normal life. The French vengeance had been forgotten.
Three years earlier, on 15 September 1962, Si Mustapha Müller announced the end of the activities of the repatriation service of deserting legionnaires "in regard to the restoration of Algeria's independence and taking into account the Franco-Algerian Évian Accords". Among the 4,111 deserting legionnaires repatriated by the network were 2,783 Germans, 489 Spaniards, 447 Italians, 137 Hungarians, 87 Yugoslavs, 41 Belgians, 35 Swiss, 31 Austrians, 16 Scandinavians, 19 Dutch, 7 Luxembourgers, 3 Greeks, 9 British, 2 Americans, 3 Latin Americans, 1 Korean and 1 Bulgarian.
Wilhelm Schulz-Lesum became one of the anonymous actors of a forgotten collective adventure, which was summarised in April 1961 by the American newspaper in Frankfurt The Overseas Weekly under an evocative title: "The service that stole an entire brigade from the Foreign Legion without firing a gun".
* His name was Wilhelm Schulze-Lessum [Tlaxcala’s Note]