Erich Vermehren file photo [32777]

Erich Vermehren

Given NameErich
Born23 Dec 1919
Died28 Apr 2005
CountryGermany, United Kingdom


ww2dbaseBorn 23 Dec 1919, Erich Maria Vermehren was the youngest of three children born to lawyer Kurt Vermehren and his wife, Petra. They lived in the city of L├╝beck on the banks of River Trave in northern Germany. Members of the German aristocracy, the family was disinclined to favor Adolf Hitler and the Nazi government. Vermehren's cousin, Adam von Trott zu Solz, openly opposed Hitler from the start and was ultimately hanged for his part in the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate the F├╝hrer. When Erich Vermehren reached college age, he was offered a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in England, but Hitler himself removed his name from the list because of Vermehren's refusal to have joined the Hitler Youth.

ww2dbaseIn 1939, Vermehren's sister, Isa, introduced him to the Countess Elisabeth von Plettenberg. The Plettenbergs were a family from Westphalia who were prominent in the Catholic church, as were many in the Westphalian nobility. They were also part of the Catholic resistance who opposed Hitler's rise. In 1937, members of Elisabeth's family helped to secretly circulate Pope Pius XI's encyclical Mit brennender Sorge that was very critical of Naziism in general and what the Pope called their "war of extermination" in particular. Elisabeth's parents were briefly imprisoned by the gestapo as a result and Elisabeth herself was questioned several times about her various "subversive" activities.

ww2dbaseIsa Vermehren, and then Erich Vermehren himself, each converted to Catholicism. Erich and the Countess Elisabeth von Plettenberg were married in Oct 1941 at Hovestadt Castle, the Plettenberg family seat. The newlyweds found themselves in a country embroiled in war and dominated by what they saw as a fanatical Nazi government; but their resistance to the Nazis remained more subdued than some of their relatives.

ww2dbaseNevertheless, by 1943 the Vermehrens came to believe their best option was to leave Germany. Vermehren's cousin, Adam von Trott zu Solz, helped Erich gain an appointment in the Abwehr, the German Intelligence Service. The head of that service was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris who was, during this time, admitting many anti-Nazis (and even some Jews) into the ranks of the Abwehr. A relative of Elisabeth von Plettenberg was Franz von Papen, a Prussian nobleman, a life-long conservative German diplomat, a former Chancellor of Germany in the Weimar Republic, and Vice-Chancellor (briefly) after Hitler became Chancellor. By the time Erich Vermehren was appointed to the Abwehr, von Papen was the German ambassador to Turkey and arrangements were made for Vermehren to be assigned to Istanbul. Elisabeth, on the other hand, was not allowed to leave Germany.

ww2dbaseOnce in Turkey, Vermehren made overtures to the British intelligence service and was put in contact with MI6 agent Nicholas Elliott. On leave back to Germany, Vermehren secured permission for his wife to travel with him back to Istanbul, ostensibly on church business in connection with an upcoming visit to Turkey by an archbishop. Traveling by train, Elisabeth was detained at the Bulgarian border and sent to the German embassy in Sofia while Erich travelled on alone. The German ambassador in Sofia, however, arranged for a diplomatic airplane flying from Berlin to Istanbul to stop at Sofia and pick up Elisabeth.

ww2dbaseNo sooner had Elisabeth arrived in Istanbul than the Vermehrens were ordered back to Germany following the collapse of the Kreisau Circle of aristocratic anti-Nazi dissidents. Instead, Vermehren finalized arrangements with Britain's Nicholas Elliott for the couple's defection. To protect family members in Germany, Vermehren insisted that their defection be staged as a kidnapping. Once in Britain, the Vermehrens lived under assumed names at the upscale London home of Dora Philby, the mother of Elliott's close friend and fellow-MI6 agent, Kim Philby. Kim Philby befriended Vermehren and obtained from him detailed information about the Abwehr network throughout the German-held territories and also of the Catholic underground in Germany.

ww2dbaseDespite the successful kidnapping ruse, British Intelligence publicized the event a month afterward describing it as a voluntary defection by Vermehren and made exaggerated claims about how many German secrets Vermehren brought with him. The British hope was to create chaos and mistrust within the German intelligence community precisely during the runup to the Allied invasion of Europe. It worked too, because in the aftermath of the collapse of the Kreisau Circle and Vermehren's defection, Admiral Canaris was removed as head of the Abwehr and all German intelligence was cast into disarray as it reorganized under Heinrich Himmler and the SS. Vermehren's parents, brother, and sister were arrested and spent the remainder of the war in Ravensbr├╝ck and Sachsenhausen concentration camps.

ww2dbaseOnce the war was over, Vermehren lobbied his new British friends to allow leading members of the Catholic underground in Germany to have a place in rebuilding their country. When the British tried to contact these people, they learned most of them had been hunted down and killed by the Soviets. While the members of the Catholic underground in Germany were completely opposed to the fascism of the Nazis, they held an equal distain for the communism of the Soviets. As would become clear well over a decade later, Kim Philby of Britain's MI6 had been a Soviet penetration agent since 1934 and had provided the Soviets with all of the names provided by Vermehren.

ww2dbaseErich and Elisabeth Vermehren remained in England after the war and Elisabeth took a job as a teacher in a Catholic preparatory school and Erich with Lloyd's of London. During this period, they changed their name to Vermeeren de Saventhem based on the Flemish origins of the Vermehren family. They moved to Z├╝rich, Switzerland in the early 1960s and while there, Vermehren was promoted to Lloyd's of London's Director for Europe. The Vermehrens remained very active in the Catholic church and particularly with the Traditionalist Movement following the Second Vatican Council. Erich Vermehren was one of the founding members of the church's Una Voce movement and was its first president. In his dealings with the church, he had close dealings with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich and later Pope Benedict XVI (interestingly, one of Cardinal Ratzinger's early role models was Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich who had been among the authors of the anti-Nazi Papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge that Elisabeth Vermehren had helped distribute in 1937). The Vermehrens moved between Paris and Z├╝rich before returning to Germany as Elisabeth's health declined. Elizabeth Vermeeren de Saventhem passed away in 2000 in Cologne, Germany at the age of 89. Erich Vermeeren de Saventhem passed away in Bonn, Germany on 28 Apr 2005 at the age of 85.

Richard Bassett: Erich Vermehren Obituary (The Independent)
International Una Voce Federation
National Archives of the United Kingdom
The Record of Parliament of the United Kingdom
Archives of The Holy See
Warfare History Network
Latin Mass Society

Last Major Revision: Sep 2023

Erich Vermehren Interactive Map


Erich Vermehren and the Countess Elisabeth von Plettenberg in 1940, perhaps their engagement photo.Erich Vermehren late in life, circa 1990s.

Erich Vermehren Timeline

23 Dec 1919 Erich Vermehren was born into the German aristocracy in L├╝beck, Germany.
8 Feb 1944 In Istanbul, Turkey, British MI6 agent Nicholas Elliott staged the kidnapping of German Abwehr officer Erich Vermehren (British code name: Precious) and his wife Elisabeth as a cover for their defection to the United Kingdom.
28 Apr 2005 Erich Vermehren passed away in Bonn, Germany.

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Erich Vermehren and the Countess Elisabeth von Plettenberg in 1940, perhaps their engagement photo.
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