Berlin was at its most pleasant in early spring. The snows of winter were gone and a riotous profusion of flowers lined the paths of the Rosengarten. Strollers paused to stare at the imposing marble statue of Empress Auguste Viktoria.
Not far away the bridle paths of the Tiergarten wound through stately copses of oak and hemlock. Officers of the German General Staff were out for their morning ride, cantering past with the rhythmic click of shod hooves on packed earth. The silver spikes on the crown of their helmets glinted beneath a warm May sun.
North of the Tiergarten was the stone monolith that served as headquarters for the General Staff. The building occupied a square block on the Bendlerstrasse, broad marble steps fronting the busy thoroughfare. Guards posted at the doors stood resplendent in blue uniforms trimmed with gold, rifles grounded by their jackboots. Their eyes were fixed straight ahead.
Colonel Franz von Kleist hurried up the steps. The breast of his tunic was bedecked with an array of medals, among them the Iron Cross with clusters. The guards snapped to attention, their rifles at present arms, and he returned their salute as he pushed through the doors. A wide rotunda, flanked on either side by sweeping staircases, swirled with officers and enlisted men. Germany was at war and everyone seemed in a rush.
On the second floor, von Kleist moved along a corridor toward the center of the building. He was posted to the Abwehr, the German secret intelligence service, and he’d been summoned to a meeting at Wehrmacht headquarters. He entered a large anteroom, where the adjutant, a young major, quickly ushered him through a set of floor-to-ceiling double doors. The inner office was lavishly appointed, with thick carpeting, lush leather furniture, and a massive walnut desk. The Imperial flag hung draped from a standard anchored to the floor.
The officer behind the desk was Field Marshal Heinrich von Luettwitz. A portly man with a leonine shock of gray hair, he was Chief of Staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the Supreme Command of the German Imperial Armed Forces. Another man, leaner and with a hint of arrogance in his attitude, rose from one of the leather chairs. He was General Alexis Baron von Fritsch, chief of the Abwehr. Von Kleist was directly under his command.
“There you are, Franz,” he said, motioning to a chair. “We were just talking about you.”
Von Kleist marched to the desk. He clicked his heels, nodding first to von Luettwitz, then to von Fritsch. “Field Marshal. Herr General,” he said, rigid at attention. “How may I be of service?”
“Sit down, Colonel,” von Luettwitz ordered. “We have asked you here to discuss a rather delicate matter.”
“And one of the utmost secrecy,” von Fritsch added. “Nothing discussed here today will go outside this room.”
“Yes, sir.” Von Kleist removed his helmet and seated himself. “I understand.”
Von Leuttwitz and von Fritsch were of the aristocracy east of the Elbe River, the very core of German military power. Their titles had been bestowed on their forebears centuries ago by Frederick the Great, the ancient King of Prussia. Von Kleist was himself Prussian, descended from generations of military leaders who had served the Reich from the Napoleonic Wars to the present day. They served now at the pleasure of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany.
“We are concerned,” Field Marshal von Luettwitz said, “that the United States might be drawn into the war. The sinking of the Lusitania was an unfortunate incident.”
General von Fritsch nodded. “One we may regret beyond anything we might have imagined.”
Three days ago, on May 7, 1915, the Lusitania had been sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. The British liner, torpedoed amidships, went down with over a thousand passengers aboard, almost two hundred of whom were Americans. The incident had created a fury of outrage in the United States, and raised the specter of America entering the war. Great Britain and France were urging President Woodrow Wilson to mobilize his army.
“Let us be realists,” von Luettwitz said gruffly. “Nothing is as we planned on the Western Front. A stalemate does not win a war.”
“All too true,” von Fritsch agreed. “The industrial might of the United States could easily tip the balance. We cannot afford such a risk.”
Von Luettwitz sighed heavily. “Everything seemed so simple a year ago. I tell you frankly, gentlemen, I thought the Continent would be ours by now.”
Colonel von Kleist shared the opinion. Looking back, he had fully expected the German army to rout the Allied forces. The World War, for all practical purposes, began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist in June 1914. On July 28, after failed peace negotiations, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
Germany, which was aligned with Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, declared war on Britain and France on August 3. The following day, Britain, France and Russia, universally known as the Allies, declared war on Germany. On the morning of August 4, Germany invaded Belgium, and shortly afterward swept into France. The British Expeditionary Force sailed for the Continent.
By the spring of 1915, the armies of Europe were mired down in static warfare. On the Western Front, a line of trenches 475 miles long ran from neutral Switzerland to the North Sea. On the Eastern Front, the Tsar’s forces had been pushed back beyond Poland, but the Russian army was by no means defeated. The bloodletting on both fronts was staggering, with nearly a million men killed and wounded in just nine months. The year ahead would almost certainly separate victor from vanquished.
“In any event,” von Luettwitz said at length, “the Kaiser is adamant on one point. America must not be drawn into the war.”
General von Fritsch steepled his fingers. “That is why we asked you here today,” he said, nodding to von Kleist. “The Abwehr has been assigned the mission of resolving the situation. You will be placed in command of a special operation.”
“Herr General!” von Kleist sat straighter, his eyes suddenly alert. “I am a soldier and I live to serve the Reich. What is it you wish me to do?”
“Something rather extraordinary,” the Field Marshal interjected with ominous calm. “The Kaiser has ordered that we start a war between Mexico and the United States.”
Von Kleist’s expression betrayed nothing. He was a tall, saturnine man, quick and intelligent, with the effortless confidence of those rarely afflicted by doubt. Three years ago, at age thirty, he had been selected for the War Academy, a school for officers destined to attain the highest rank. After graduation, he had been posted to the Abwehr, and promoted twice since the war began. He was the youngest colonel on the General Staff.
“I am honored by such an assignment,” he said now. “How do you wish me to proceed?”
“With dispatch,” von Luettwitz told him. “Our objective is to shift the focus of America to its own national security. A war with Mexico should do quite nicely.”
Von Fritsch permitted himself a wry smile. “There is nothing that so commands attention as a threat to one’s sovereignty. The United States must be made to look inward—and away from Europe.”
“And the resources, Herr General?” von Kleist asked. “How are we to fund this war?”
“You will have unlimited resources at your disposal. The Kaiser had ordered the Reich treasury to provide whatever funds are necessary.”
“So there you have it,” Field Marshal von Luettwitz said. “Devise a plan of action and prepare it for our review. Shall we say in three days?”
“Jawohl!” von Kleist snapped to attention. “We will bring Götterdämmerung to America.”
General von Fritsch smiled. “Precisely.”
The train ground to a halt before the Madrid station house. Colonel Franz von Kleist and Captain Otto Mueller, dressed in civilian clothes, stepped off the lead passenger coach onto the platform. They were met by the cultural attaché of the German Embassy, who arranged for a porter to collect their luggage. A car was waiting at curbside outside the depot.
The date was May 20, six days after von Kleist’s plan had been approved by the General Staff. He and Mueller had traveled incognito, under forged passports, by ship to Lisbon and then by train into Spain. Arrangements with the German Embassy had been made by Abwehr cryptographers through encoded telegram. No one in Madrid knew the nature of their mission.
Otto Mueller was one of the wiliest intelligence officers in the Abwehr. He was twenty-seven, of average height and build, his guile belied by eyes as light as cornflowers. Until recently he had operated a network of undercover agents behind French lines on the Western Front. The intelligence gathered had been invaluable to the war effort, and he’d been awarded the Iron Cross. Von Kleist had personally selected him to spearhead the military campaign in Mexico.
The embassy attaché, who doubled as the local Abwehr agent, was all too aware of von Kleist’s identity. In an effort to make conversation, he elaborated on points of interest as they drove. Madrid was the capital of Spain, a center of commerce and industry situated along the banks of the Manzanares River. They passed the royal palace, located on the site of an ancient Moorish fortress, which had fallen to Castilian conquerors in 1083. Farther along, on Paseodel Prado, they went by the Prado Museum, which housed priceless masterpieces of Spanish, Flemish and Venetian art.
King Alfonso XIII, the current ruler of Spain, had elected to maintain neutrality for his country during the war. Major cities, such as Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s principal port on the Balearic Sea, quickly became hotbeds of intrigue and espionage for intelligence agents throughout Europe. The embassy aide remarked that foreign agents from England and France were particularly active, enlisting local operatives to conduct surveillance and gather information. Madrid was, for all practical purposes, a city of spies.
At the embassy, von Kleist paid a courtesy call on the Ambassador, Ludwig Brudermann. A man of circumspection, the Ambassador made small talk and evidenced no interest in the presence of an Abwehr official. Afterward, von Kleist and Mueller retired to their rooms, refreshing themselves from the long train journey. Early that evening, with the embassy attaché as their guide, they motored off toward the center of the city. The attaché purposely took a circuitous route, turning and doubling back on narrow, cobblestone streets. Von Kleist finally satisfied himself that they were not being followed.
Shortly before eight o’clock they drove toward the western district of the city. A few minutes later they passed Ciudad Universitaria and turned into one of the more exclusive residential enclaves of Madrid. On a hillside culde-sac, the attaché pulled into the courtyard of a large, two-story home, clearly influenced by traditional Spanish architecture. The attaché remained in the car, and von Kleist and Mueller were met at the door by a manservant who bowed them into a tiled vestibule. Their appointment, arranged through the embassy, was with Victoriano Huerta.
The manservant ushered them into a library paneled in dark walnut. The slate-tiled floor was almost hidden by a buttery Andalusian rug and oil paintings in gilt frames decorated the walls. Huerta rose from a tall wingback chair and walked forward to greet them with an outstretched hand. He was a man of blunt edges, with dark features, a full mustache, and quick, penetrating eyes. He spoke no German, and they spoke no Spanish, so they resorted to a language all three of them detested. They conversed in English.
“General Huerta,” von Kleist said, clasping his hand. “We appreciate you meeting with us in private.”
“A pleasure, Colonel,” Huerta replied with cautious warmth. “Welcome to my home.”
“Allow me to introduce my colleague, Captain Otto Mueller.”
Mueller clicked his heels, exchanging a handshake, and Huerta motioned them to chairs. Once they were seated, the manservant served brandy from a crystal decanter on a marble-topped sideboard, and then left the room. When the door closed, Huerta lifted his glass in a polite toast. His eyes were inquisitive, and guarded.
“I confess you have me intrigued,” he said. “Ambassador Brudermann was somewhat vague about the purpose of your visit.”
“One soldier to another—?” von Kleist hesitated.
“Of course,” Huerta said. “There is no need for ceremony among men-at-arms. Please speak frankly.”
“General, our purpose is at once simple and complex. We wish to return you to power in Mexico.”
“At the very least, such a venture would be ambitious to the extreme. I often fear for my life here in Spain.”
Mexico was in the midst of bloody revolution. Porfirio Diaz came to power in 1876, establishing himself as dictator, and ruled for almost a quarter century. Francisco Madero, nobleman and idealist, organized a revolt and ousted Diaz in 1910. Madero’s military leaders were Victoriano Huerta, Emiliano Zapata, and former bandit Doroteo Arango, otherwise known as Pancho Villa. Huerta then organized a coup d’état, assassinating Madero, and seized power in 1913.
Venustiano Carranza, governor of the state of Coahuila, immediately enlisted the support of Zapata and Villa, and waged war on Huerta. After a year of civil strife, Huerta fled Mexico in 1914 and took refuge in Spain. Carranza deferred national elections, assuming dictatorial powers, and quickly found himself at war with Villa and Zapata. The Mexican Revolution, now in its fifth year, continued unabated in pitched battles across a ravaged land. Villa and Zapata were more determined than ever to bring freedom to their countrymen.
Huerta had been in exile almost a year. To return to his native land, and exact retribution on his enemies, was his most fervent dream. He looked at von Kleist.
“Why would Germany be interested in my future? I assume there is advantage to be gained in some manner.”
“A strategic advantage,” von Kleist admitted. “The Kaiser prefers that America not become involved in a European war. Our goal is to keep President Wilson preoccupied with matters at home.”
“I see,” Huerta said thoughtfully. “How does that involve my return to Mexico?”
“We wish to create a diversion along the border of Mexico and the United States. One that will turn the eyes of America toward the Rio Grande River—rather than Europe.”
“How do you propose to create this diversion?”
“Through your influence,” von Kleist said with a cordial smile. “We understand you still have loyalists in Mexico, officers and men who served under your command. We would ask them to provoke an incident of sufficient magnitude to unsettle security on the border.”
Huerta held his gaze. “Colonel, an incident of such magnitude could result in more than a diversion. Mexico hardly needs a war with the United States.”
Von Kleist was a shrewd manipulator of men and events, and he possessed a marvelous talent for duplicity. In large degree, he believed every lie he told. He spread his hands in a bland gesture.
“General, you have my oath as an officer and a gentleman that we intend nothing so drastic as a war. A series of raids across the border—let us say, guerrilla raids—should suffice to preoccupy the Americans.”
There was a moment of weighing and deliberation. Huerta accepted no man’s word, but he fed on his own ambition. He finally nodded in agreement.
“If I assist you—” he paused to underscore the thought—“how does that further my cause?”
“Quite easily,” von Kleist said with bogus conviction. “The raids I speak of will destabilize the situation for Venustiano Carranza. The opportunity then exists for you to unite your forces and at last become the savior of Mexico.” He shrugged, as though the point was obvious. “Divide and conquer, the oldest of military maxims.”
“You neglected to mention Villa and Zapata.”
“What are they without the leadership of Carranza? They are peasants leading a rabble army.”
“Yes, you are right!” Huerta barked with a quick triumphant nod. “Divide and conquer even as they fight among themselves. I will return stronger than ever.”
“General, I truly believe it was ordained, your destiny.”
Von Kleist went on to explain salient details of the operation. Captain Otto Mueller would travel to Mexico and organize Huerta’s loyalists into a cohesive force. Germany would underwrite all costs of the border raids, and supply the rebels with arms and munitions. The end result would be an army of liberation, awaiting Huerta’s return.
“To our success!” Huerta said, raising his brandy glass in a toast. “You are indeed a man of vision, Colonel. I salute you.”
Von Kleist tipped his glass with a modest smile, inwardly delighted by his performance. He employed his limited Spanish to seal their pact.