On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland, and World War II began. The United States immediately became security conscious. German nationals living here came under increasing FBI scrutiny. One such German, suspected of being a Nazi agent, was thirty-year-old Adam von Trott zu SoIz, who arrived in New York City by boat in late September. In early November he came to Washington, D.C., where he checked into the Mayflower Hotel.
As a young FBI agent assigned to the Washington field office, I received instructions to discover whether von Trott was engaged in any type of subversive activity. This involved physical surveillance and other investigative techniques. With other agents I proceeded to tail von Trott all over Washington—to the German Embassy, to the State Department, to Capitol Hill, to the National Press Club building, and even to the Washington Monument and Mount Vernon. We also followed him to Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he attended a convention of a peace organization.
One day, while I was conducting a “tight tail,” von Trott stopped suddenly about two blocks from the German Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue and looked around as if to get his bearings. When I came close he asked me—with a knowing smile on his face—how to get to the embassy. I told him it was straight ahead.
Von Trott returned to New York City early in December. Our investigation produced no evidence indicating that he had engaged in subversive activity while in Washington. In short he was clean—for the very good reason that he was a dedicated anti-Nazi and an avowed enemy of Adolf Hitler, a fact that I learned only long after the war.
Von Trott was the son of a Prussian minister of education. His maternal grandmother was American and a descendant of John Jay. Von Trott studied at three German universities, earned a law degree, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and later served in a succession of public and private legal posts in Germany.
With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, von Trott foresaw the catastrophe into which Hitler would drag Germany. He became a member of the key anti-Nazi resistance group composed of old-line aristocrats, German army officers, public officials, clergymen, and young intellectuals called the Kreisau Circle, named for Kreisau, the estate of the principal organizer, Count Helmuth von Moltke.
During the 1930s and early 1940s von Trott traveled abroad extensively and made many friends and contacts in high places, especially in England and in Sweden and the United States. He was thereby able to act as liaison between the German resistance and sympathizers in other countries.
Luck finally ran out on von Trott in the summer of 1944. In the blood bath that followed the attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, almost five thousand Germans were rounded up by the Gestapo and executed summarily. Von Trott was one of them. He was hanged on August 26, 1944.