If you look at a photograph of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, you will certainly recognize Stalin’s mustache. Maybe you can identify von Ribbentrop or Molotov. But you probably do not know the slender, serious man hovering in the background of most images of the signing, his eyes framed by round glasses. The man in the glasses has perhaps the strangest story of anyone in that room. He was a man of many masters, a German who loved Russia but served its enemies, first his own nation and then America: a man who shook hands with Stalin, but also Hitler and George Kennan. He was, according to the head of the Soviet secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, the most dangerous enemy of the NKVD. He was my great-great-grand-uncle.
His name was Gustav Hilger. At some point in my childhood, my German mother mentioned him: She thought he had been a diplomat, but her family never discussed him. “We weren’t told much about this great-uncle,” my grandma said. “I can’t say whether everything ran cleanly under Hitler’s government.” I was interested, so we began to investigate. He had served as translator for the Molotov-Ribbentrop negotiations and had worked for the German embassy in Moscow. After the war, as a valuable Russia expert, he came to America. He had authored a memoir, a history of German-Russian relations between the wars and his own role in shaping them. It was published in German in the 1950s, and my mother managed to find a copy. It was my birthday gift when I turned nineteen. I read the first chapter; then college intervened, and Hilger’s curious story fell by the wayside.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Germany’s troubled response, the story once again occupied my mind. It was strange to think that my distant relation had played a role in the train of fate and suffering that now, again, gave rise to war in Europe. Was my connection to Hilger a point of pride, or the sort of thing one had better not mention? How had Hilger navigated his contradictory loyalties, and what was his aim or his hope? Perhaps his career held some lesson for those like me, young people who hope to make some contribution to public service. We are bombarded by many causes, tasked with decisions of political prudence, the same kinds of worries that would surely afflict a man forced to choose between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.
So I returned to Hilger’s memoir. There are practically no English articles about him, but I found one useful report by Robert Wolfe, a senior archivist at the National Archives who specialized in captured German records. And there was another formidable German source. Jörn Happel, a professor of history at the Helmut-Schmidt-University in Hamburg, first began writing about Hilger for his doctoral thesis, which he eventually turned into a 500-page book, Der Ostexperte (The East Expert). That book was especially helpful to me, as was Dr. Happel himself, who is the definitive Hilger expert. Hilger’s granddaughter, Veronika Keller, generously took time out of her summer vacation to speak to me, recounting memories of her grandfather and his escape to the United States.
Hilger was born in Moscow in 1886 to German parents active in Russian manufacturing. He studied engineering, a logical choice in light of his background and the rapid industrialization of Russia at the turn of the century. To pursue his studies, he returned to Germany. As a young man, Hilger was torn between Russian and German influences. He later claimed that his time studying in Germany convinced him of his Germanic identity; but that claim was to be expected from a man who had become a Soviet expert in the service of the West, and Hilger’s career suggests a divided identity of far longer duration. Either way, he returned to Russia after completing his studies, turning down an offer to work in the United States.
Soon after his return, he met the great love of his life, Mary Hackenthal, the daughter of another German-Russian manufacturer. They had briefly met earlier, in 1906, when she was only 13 and he was 20. She didn’t like him then: she thought that he was ugly and that the name “Gustav” was ugly, too. But five years later, things were quite different. He tutored her after school, and they became good friends before falling in love. They married in 1912.
The First World War shook their life together. The Tsar’s secret service, the Okhrana, arrested Hilger as a suspicious foreigner. Mary managed to get the business card of the Moscow Police Chief. Armed with the card and a bribe, she obtained an audience with Alexander Martynov, head of the Okhrana in Moscow. Martynov naturally expected to see the police chief, not Mary. “When he saw my wife instead,” Hilger remembered, “he immediately took her for a terrorist who planned to take his life, and preemptively raised both his hands, which my wife answered with the same gesture.” Mutual trust thus established, she explained her purpose. Martynov noted that he could have Hilger shot–but instead exiled him to Totma, north of Moscow, where his wife was eventually allowed to join him. Their first child, Andreas, was born in this exile. Hilger acted as leader for other interned Germans; the Swedish government protected their interests, and Hilger served as a contact point for the Swedes.
The October Revolution created chaos for millions of German civilian and military prisoners (who at some point accounted for over one percent of Russia’s population). Hilger was permitted to leave internment and return to Moscow, where he was promptly hired by the German commission responsible for dealing with prisoners. He stayed there until the two countries ended official ties and expelled diplomats. Now in Berlin, Hilger met Moritz Schlesinger, a Jewish diplomat in the new Weimar Foreign office, who took note of Hilger’s connections and sent him back to Moscow to sort things out. Hilger did so with great speed and skill. Within a few years, he was, effectively, Germany’s ambassador to Russia.
Two catastrophes struck the young U.S.S.R. in 1921: a famine and an enormous outbreak of typhus. When the typhus epidemic began, Germany sent a medical support mission, which Hilger directed, while also coordinating other Western aid. Here Mary may have saved her husband’s life a second time: Hilger himself was infected and nearly died. Mary, in Germany at the time, hurried to Moscow and spent four months nursing her husband back to health.
Hilger’s activity helped lay the groundwork for the 1922 Rapallo agreement, which normalized the Russo-German relationship and restored diplomatic ties. Hilger was promptly offered a spot as a counselor in the new German delegation. (As something of a diplomatic “outsider,” he was never in the running for the position of ambassador.)
Hilger’s indispensability lay in his network of contacts, especially among the Bolsheviks. He maintained this network in part through great personal skill as a communicator, in part because of his activities from 1914 to 1922, and, in part, thanks to his political views. He wasn’t a communist—but he and Mary were certainly sympathetic to the revolution, having personally suffered under the Romanov dynasty. And Hilger’s personal politics certainly leaned left. He was good friends with Karl Radek, who worked for the Comintern (Communist International organization) as one of the most prominent advocates of German communism. These views created suspicion in the German foreign office, but Hilger was simply too valuable to let go.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hilger advocated closer ties between Russia and Germany, especially economic ones. He viewed these ties as a bulwark against the Western powers. Hilger loved both countries and felt at home in both, so his hope for good relations was personal as much as geostrategic. His brother Rudolf—my great-great-grandfather—felt a particular love for Russia: He used to say that the Russian soul was spacious, not small-minded like the German one. That sounds a little clichéd, but it may well be that Hilger felt the same way. At any rate, he seemed to have a personal fondness for Russia that few of his fellow diplomats shared, a fondness that both blinded him to the dangers of Hitler’s new Russlandpolitik, then led him into a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save his beloved home.
In May of 1939, Hilger accompanied Joachim von Ribbentrop on a visit to Hitler. Hilger did not expect to speak very much, but the Führer interrogated him intensely about conditions in the Soviet Union. “This Hilger is a half-Russian,” he remarked later. “But if he is right [about the Soviets’ domestic success], then I have no time to lose in preventing a further consolidation of power.” Talks on an agreement of some kind began three months later, talks that evolved into the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, complete with the secret protocols for the takeover of Poland. Stalin himself was heavily involved in the negotiation process. His personal knowledge and his skill in offering edits and revisions greatly impressed Hilger. The feeling was apparently mutual: Hilger and Stalin got along quite well, apparently cracking jokes at Lavrentiy Beria’s expense at the post-signing dinner.
Hilger was somewhat alarmed at the Polish partition, but not too much: He thought it would prevent war between the U.S.S.R. and Germany. Indeed, he was proud of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; his opinion on this point never wavered, Veronika Keller told me. But things changed quickly once he realized that Hitler had far grander designs. “My mother was with me in Moscow when I was a child (in 1941),” Veronika said. “Isika,” Hilger told her mother, “see to it that you return to Berlin, war will break out.” A Russo-German war meant the end of his dreams of Russo-German friendship, the end of his life’s work. And he knew how costly and difficult such a war could be.
So he did the diplomatically unthinkable: He tried to warn the Russians. Everyone in the German Embassy knew that Hilger had a “direct phone line to the Kremlin,” as Happel puts it, to be used only in emergencies. Hilger used it. He convinced Friedrich-Werner Graf von Schulenburg, Hitler’s last ambassador to Moscow, to join him. The two men met with Vladimir Dekanozov and Vladimir Pavlov three times. Dekanozov was the Russian ambassador to Germany, Pavlov head of the German division in the foreign office. Hilger and Schulenburg, torn between duty and judgement, did not offer clear plans, but hinted as strongly as possible at the impending attack. “Graf Schulenburg and I tried as hard as we could to clarify the seriousness of the situation to the Russians, and insisted that the Soviet government contact Berlin before anything happened,” Hilger wrote. But the Russians did not believe him. As good Soviets, they couldn’t imagine the possibility that German diplomats might go rogue and assumed that Schulenburg and Hilger were acting on instructions from Berlin. In line with official Soviet assessments of the German troop buildup, they saw the meetings as nothing more than a further intimidation tactic. Operation Barbarossa began a month later.
But the invasion cost Hilger far more than his home. He knew the risks of war, so both he and Mary wanted their son Andreas to avoid military service. As the son of a diplomat, Andreas should have been exempt. But Andreas’ wife wanted him to go, Veronika told me. He fell in the battle of Moscow in November of 1941. Hilger’s greatest diplomatic achievement had inadvertently killed his son, like so many other sons across Eastern Europe.
Hilger served throughout the war in the foreign office, where he tried to walk a fine line. He had contacts to the German resistance; but unlike his former boss, Graf Schulenburg, executed for his involvement in Operation Valkyrie, Hilger was unwilling to take the risk of open rebellion. He was at the very least fully aware of Hitler’s “final solution”; but here, too, he was no active advocate or participant. He was very much trying to keep his head down and make it through the war unscathed. He surrendered to the Allies, knowing that his knowledge might protect him.
It did: Initial interrogations immediately revealed the depth of Hilger’s Soviet expertise. A further point in Hilger’s favor was his network of pre-existing American contacts, most notably George Kennan, whom he met in pre-war Russia. The Americans spirited him away to Washington, though he was officially still wanted for “torture,” an allegation meant to placate the Soviets, who were simply not informed of his whereabouts.
But the Soviets had one source of leverage: Hilger’s family, still in Germany. The war had cost Hilger not only his son but also his son-in-law, Jo Schaab, Veronika’s father. In 1945, just after the war ended, Jo was at home. Only the seven-year-old Veronika witnessed what happened next. “He was chopping wood,” Veronika told me. “I was running around outside when [Soviet] soldiers appeared. Our sheepdog barked at them. One of the soldiers threw a stone at the dog and struck him on the snout. My father waved his axe at them, and the soldiers left. Then four of them returned and took him away. He tried to say something to me but couldn’t.” Veronika hoped for many years that her father would return, but he never did. He most likely died in Siberia.
That left only Mary, Hilger’s daughter Isika, and the grandchildren, Veronika and Angelika. The Russians detained both Mary and Isika. They wanted Mary to contact Hilger, telling him that he could return to East Germany and live with his family there while working for the Soviet-backed authorities. Mary was intrigued by the offer, but Gustav was worried. He asked the Americans to rescue his family from the Soviet zone. The U.S. agreed to an attempt, code-named “Operation Fireweed.” America sent one of Gustav’s distant cousins to contact Isika. He did, and Isika persuaded Mary to go along with the plan. Mary signed an agreement promising to convince her husband to return, thus getting the Soviets to release her.
Four days later, a taxi smuggled Mary, Isika, and her two children into Berlin. The women were flown out, while the girls were smuggled in a truck to the train station. “We were wrapped in rugs,” Veronika told me. An American officer watched over them on the way to Frankfurt. “My mother said I was very sensible and brave,” Veronika remembered. That day was her ninth birthday.
The family reunited in Frankfurt before traveling to the United States, where Hilger stayed for the next several years. Veronika remembers him as very busy. Whatever his charm in diplomatic settings, he wasn’t an accessible grandfather, and Mary was no different. Sometimes Hilger grew irritated when the children were too loud. “Must it be like that with the children, can’t they just read a good book?” he would ask. “He was very serious, very busy, you couldn’t cuddle with him,” Veronika remembered.
As I searched the CIA archives for information on Hilger’s time in Washington, I discovered another odd, personal connection. His last house was on Rhode Island Avenue—1614 Rhode Island Avenue, to be exact. That house has been torn down, replaced by CSIS and the University of California, D.C.—where I lived this summer while writing much of this article. It was strange and haunting to imagine Hilger walking along the same sidewalk, probably admiring the same trees, looking out onto the same street.
Hilger did not stay in America for long; Konrad Adenauer’s new foreign office lured him back to Germany in 1953. He worked there until his retirement a few years later, helping build up the Russia section. In 1960, at the age of seventy-two, his once-brilliant memory began to fail him, and he slipped into dementia. Mary took care of him, just as she had during his brush with death in the typhus epidemic. He died in 1965, and his faithful wife followed four years later.
I remain unsure who he really was. Hilger seems like the consummate expert and diplomat: smooth, serious, and colorless. Yet his signature accomplishment is an agreement that led to millions of deaths; he served one murderous regime, and it seems he flirted with, or at least tolerated, another. And he betrayed his official duty in a last-ditch effort to prevent war. It does not seem possible that a colorless man could do such things.
Perhaps it was simple: He was an ordinary man buffeted by circumstance. He was a man of great intellectual and diplomatic talents, but one who became a diplomat by accident. He gradually hatched an impossible dream of uniting his two homelands in friendship, a dream always doomed to failure. But he was driven primarily by two very normal concerns: his career and his family. He fought hard to retain his position in the German foreign service as a diplomatic outsider, and he returned to Germany from the U.S. mostly because the new government offered an excellent pension arrangement. And the one small point of emotion that shines through his memoirs is his love for Mary (even Veronika said they were perfectly matched, right down to their stern attitude toward their grandchildren).
So I don’t think Hilger offers a pattern for a career in public service, or even a good template for balancing a career and a conscience. Instead, I take him as a kind of warning: Here was a man caught between three nations and two dictators, one who tried to balance all of them and do some good while building a family. But he came up short, caught up in forces he failed to realize were utterly beyond his control. I think I feel a little sorry for him.
When it was time for Isika to return to Europe with her two daughters after a year in Washington, the three crossed on a ship of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the Marine Jumper. A tall African-American soldier kept watch over Veronika and Angelika. “When I first saw him, I was frightened,” Veronika told me. But the soldier came in softly, and gently tucked the girls in. Before the ship departed, Veronika later learned, her stern grandfather had taken the soldier aside. “Take good care of them,” he said. “There goes the most precious thing I have.”
Jonathan Meilaender is a JD and MA candidate at Georgetown Law and the Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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