Jakob Leonhard was officially a Nazi spy. Unofficially, he worked for Switzerland. Illustration by Marco Heer.
Jakob Leonhard was officially a Nazi spy. Unofficially, he worked for Switzerland. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Double agent Leo

Jakob Leonhard spied for the Nazis. When they realised that the information he was feeding them had been rubber-stamped by Switzerland, his life hung by a thread.

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim is a book and film author and exhibition organiser. He is principally concerned with research into topics of modern and contemporary history and lives in Basel.

The months of imprisonment gave Jakob Leonhard no peace, and no insight either. It must have preyed on his mind, because in his memoirs he notes: ‘I was itching to show that a “Spanienfahrer” (a person who volunteered to fight in Spain) need not be a bad Swiss citizen – on the contrary!’ But how was he to go about proving that, now that he had been barred from the army and war had broken out? Leonhard seemed prepared to grasp any opportunity that presented itself, even if it was just another wild goose chase with an uncertain outcome. In 1941, his chance finally came. ‘Handsome Emil’, an old workmate who had moved to Germany and had since made a career there as a staunch Nazi, got in touch with him – under mysterious circumstances. Emil had a secret mission. He was looking to recruit agents to beef up Germany’s spy network in Switzerland. Slighted by his homeland and lacking any real direction, Leonhard seemed to Emil a likely candidate. And so, in a cosy summer evening chat over free-flowing wine and schnapps, the two men came to an agreement, despite Leonhard’s initial reservations about committing treason.  Soon after, Leonhard had a visa for Germany and 500 francs in his hands.

Entry to the SS

Early in 1942 his ‘pact with the devil’ took Leonhard to Strasbourg, where he was expected at the luxurious Graf Zeppelin hotel; he was supplied with ‘a large quantity of money and food ration cards’. From there his journey, in the company of a certain Dr Martin – his ‘handler’ – continued to Stuttgart, where in the presence of higher ranks the terms of his engagement, including his activities, remuneration and swearing-in to the SS, were agreed. Leonhard’s conclusion: ‘I was thus under German military law. My entry to the SS could have no other meaning.’ Equipped with orders and Basel cover addresses, Jakob Leonhard set off on the return journey to Switzerland. As was usual at the time, after entering the country he was taken to a military office to report on his trip to Germany. Leonhard, who was eager to prove himself to Switzerland, seized the opportunity with both hands and revealed his ‘mission’ to the captain in attendance.
The Swiss border in 1943.
The Swiss border in 1943. Keystone
On that same day, it was agreed with him in Zurich that he was henceforth to work as an informant for the intelligence service, observing and assembling information on German espionage activities in Switzerland. Jakob Leonhard was now a double agent. ‘I felt happier and more cheerful than I had for a long time. It had not been easy having to stand on the sidelines all these years, while Switzerland was in danger. Now, once again, I had a duty to carry out a perilous but crucially important task.’ From then on, Leonhard trod a careful line between his Swiss handler and the orders that he was required to pass on, initially via a dead drop, and soon also through his go-between, Emil Bernauer – a German railways employee based at Basel’s Badischer Bahnhof. In Stuttgart his work was highly regarded, and people had no idea that the military secrets passed on by agent Leo were rubber-stamped in Zurich. His assignment also included tailing the German spies who were in other Swiss lines in Switzerland. The clever Leo quickly had his tentacles into every corner of the agent network. He found ways and means to discreetly keep his covert Swiss side up to date. It was a delicate balancing act – in the system of mutual distrust among the German agents, he had to be prepared to be ‘hung out to dry’ himself at any moment.
The spies’ rendezvous: the Badischer Bahnof in Basel.
The spies’ rendezvous: the Badischer Bahnof in Basel. Swiss National Museum
In September 1943 his German go-between Emil Bernauer and Bernauer’s line were arrested in Basel. Leonhard was summoned to Strasbourg to report. He managed to refute an initial suspicion that it was he who had ‘blown the whistle’. But his loyalty was now suspect. His next trip across the border in January 1944 proved to be his doom. As usual, his arrival was celebrated in the ‘inner circle of the Gestapo with wine and oysters from Paris’. ‘But in the middle of the night’ – he writes – ‘they set upon me like beasts. I was bleeding from my mouth and nose; my face was swollen and misshapen. I couldn’t move a limb.’ Leonhard was dragged off to the Gestapo in Strasbourg. ‘You are charged with betraying us. We have unaccountably lost our best people in Switzerland – and you are still on the loose. How do you explain that?’ Then, recalls the double agent, ‘four SS men, strapping, brutal lads in riding breeches and heavy boots, came into the room. I was driven to Kehl at breakneck speed. The official welcome took place in cell 29. When the prison guard heard that I was Swiss, he laid into me with a roar: Filthy Swiss scum! Jew dog! Goddamned communist crook!’ The ordeal was never-ending. ‘An honest-to-God gorilla with huge hairy paws, the like of which I’d never seen in my life, set about pummelling me with his feet and fists. You won’t be the first foreigner we’ve beaten to death here, just as you deserve!’ In the days that followed, Leonhard was repeatedly hauled in for questioning. ‘My face and body were swollen. I was racked by excruciating pain. My undergarments were a single red rag after this procedure.’
Picture of Jakob Leonhard shortly after his return to Switzerland, 1945.
Picture of Jakob Leonhard shortly after his return to Switzerland, 1945. by courtesy

Sentenced to death by beheading

On 22 August 1944, Leonhard was brought before the judges of the People’s Court. The trial was brief. His ‘defence counsel’ remained silent. The verdict was a foregone conclusion: death by beheading – to be carried out immediately!  Leonhard tried to buy some time. On two occasions he slashed his wrists and was found half-dead in his cell, and from then on he was put in a strait-jacket ‘for his own safety’. ‘In the cell, my hands and feet were tied to rings set into the floor, so that I was sitting there like a fakir in the middle of the room. The food I was given was a filthy wastewater broth. The guard just dumped it into my cell; I had to lick it up off the dirty, blood-encrusted floor… For a full week I had to relieve myself where I sat. “Courage, Swissman!”, I heard a fellow prisoner say one day. Chin up! Metz has fallen – the Americans are coming!  This news made me go half-crazy. I dreamed of Camels, corned beef and luxury biscuits…’
In August 1944, the trial of ‘travelling salesman’ Jakob Leonhard took place in Zweibrücken.
In August 1944, the trial of ‘travelling salesman’ Jakob Leonhard took place in Zweibrücken. Swiss Federal Archives
Every day, Leonhard overheard other prisoners being ‘liquidated’. His own life hung by a thread. We discover from a note dated 9 November 1944, from the Foreign Office in Berlin to the Swiss Legation, why his death sentence was not carried out. Evidently Bern had interceded for Leonhard several weeks earlier, presumably as part of a planned exchange of agents in which the German side must have had an interest, because his death sentence would be lifted within a matter of days. The double agent was valuable ‘collateral’.
German letter to the Swiss Legation, November 1944.
German letter to the Swiss Legation, November 1944. Swiss Federal Archives
This is where Jakob Leonhard began his arduous journey through a Germany in the process of disintegrating. He was on the move for two weeks, with no protection from air raids, until he finally reached Lake Constance. ‘In Bregenz, I experienced for one last time the bestiality and unbridled despotism of the Nazi German prison guards. Even at this late stage, with their battle lost, there was no hint of resignation to be felt among this “professional group”. On my bundle of stinking straw – just a few kilometres from the border – I wondered for the thousandth time how this cursed story was going to end.’ After several more harrowing days in Bregenz, agent Leo was fetched from his cell and taken to an office in the prison building. ‘I believe you are Herr Leonhard,’ he was greeted in Swiss-German. ‘You know that you are free? Come with me. My car is outside. I’ll drive you to the border.’
In 1945 Jakob Leonhard published a book of his memoirs from his time as a spy.
In 1945 Jakob Leonhard published a book of his memoirs from his time as a spy. by courtesy
Jakob Leonhard published his experiences under the title Als Gestapo-Agent im Dienste der Schweizer Gegenspionage (My life as a Gestapo agent in the service of Swiss counter-espionage). In the immediate post-war period there was enormous interest in real-life stories from the ‘Reich’, and the book was a bestseller. His honour was also restored – his humiliating military status was reversed by decision of the Federal Council. Six months later, the General Staff authorised the payment to him of ‘compensation of 6,000 Swiss francs for his imprisonment in Germany’. Without the help of secret diplomacy, Jakob Leonhard would have paid with his life for his game of va banque. The fact that he still refused to settle down and quietly carry on with his life, wrangling with the federal government for a higher level of compensation, suggests that even in peacetime, Leo lived a double life, which is only possible if you have more than one truth.
The Eidgenössische Militärdepartement (Federal Military Department) recommended to the Federal Council that compensation be paid.
The Eidgenössische Militärdepartement (Federal Military Department) recommended to the Federal Council that compensation be paid. Swiss Federal Archives
Postscript: Leonhard’s go-between at the Badischer Bahnhof, the German Emil Bernauer, was sentenced to 20 years in prison with subsequent expulsion from the country. His ‘most diligent informant’, a Swiss man called Samuel Plüss, was brought before a military court and sentenced to death by firing squad for treason. The sentence was carried out. By the way, agent Leo was snitched on by Bernauer’s wife. In 1943 she went to the Gestapo in Strasbourg and incriminated him as payback for allegedly denouncing her husband. In 1945 Alma Gysin was sentenced in Basel to one year in prison on that account. Despite her Swiss origins, after serving her sentence she still had to spend 12 years in exile before she was able to return to her home town.
Before embarking on his ‘career’ as a double agent, Jakob Leonhard was a fraud and a trickster. He passed himself off as an anti-fascist fighter and claimed to have fought on the frontlines in the Spanish Civil War. For that he was jailed in Switzerland. Read the first part of the story here.

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