World War I Historical Fiction – German Spies in the Americas

Sophie Schiller and I share a passion for the stories and history of WWI. Sophie is on the blog today with some intriguing background about German spies and their intention to destroy the Panama Canal. I’ve had the privilege of reading a beta version of The Unlikely Spy and I know that readers will be fascinated with the story and the characters Sophie has created. Over to you, Sophie.


Sabotage, timed bombs, fomenting strikes, burning sugar cane fields, planting propaganda, poisoning cattle, sabotaging canals, what’s a writer not to love?

The subject of WWI in the Western Hemisphere has fascinated me for the last fifteen years. This is a topic that is relatively ignored or discounted, yet it holds such intriguing, relatively unknown facts and interesting real-life characters.

When you ask people what pushed the United States into World War I, they will usually say, “The sinking of the Lusitania.” But it wasn’t the case since that happened in 1915 and the U.S. didn’t declare war on Germany until April of 1917. What, then, was the straw that broke the camel’s back that forced President Wilson to appear before Congress on April 2, 1917 and call for a declaration of war against Germany?

It was the Zimmerman Telegram.

The encrypted Zimmerman Telegram which the British managed to crack (Jan 1917)

The Zimmerman Telegram was a turning point for the United States because it was the proverbial final straw after suffering years of horrendous sabotage that included sinking ships at sea, destroying munitions plants and chemical plants, fomenting strikes, planting propaganda, a foiled plot to destroy the Welland Canal, and the bombing of Black Tom Island in New York harbor, which caused $20 million in damages, killed several people, and destroyed millions of pounds of ammunition. Most of these activities were sponsored either by the German Ambassador in Washington, DC, Count Johann von Bernstorff, or the German Consul in San Francisco, Franz Bopp, with money that came from the highest echelons in Germany.

What did the Zimmerman Telegram say?

Essentially, the Zimmerman Telegram was an encrypted message from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Minister in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, which offered to return to the Mexicans that territory they had lost to the United States if they joined in the German war effort. The message was seized by the British and decrypted in January of 1917. Then, on February 24, they presented the information to the U.S. Government in an effort to capitalize on growing anti-German sentiment in the United States.

The American press published news of the Zimmerman Telegram on March 1, which riled up even more anti-German sentiment among the public. Then, on April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress formally declared war on Germany and its allies.

My story, The Unlikely Spy, takes place in the months prior to this declaration of war, when German saboteurs in Mexico were planning their greatest sabotage operation of all: to bomb the Panama Canal, thus putting it out of commission. Using whatever information we know today, I pieced together a story of how a young widow (Emma Christensen) is recruited by a U.S. Intelligence Officer to spy on the Hamburg-America Line in St. Thomas to crush the German smuggling network. By chance, she’s recruited by the Germans to smuggle dynamite into Panama using her neutral Danish citizenship as a cover. But when she’s in the field, her cover is blown and she’s thrown into peril when the agent who was supposed to be protecting her is murdered, and now she must use her wits and daring to stop the attack.

Many Hamburg-America Line ships were actively helping the Kaiser in his war effort during WWI.

Many of the characters in my story are real people (or the fictionalized version of real people). And some of the famous German characters are either referred to throughout or dramatized, such as Kaiser Wilhelm II and Count von Bernstorff, the German Minister to the United States who was bankrolling most of the sabotage operations.

WWI propaganda poster warning of German spies.

After Count von Bernstorff was expelled from the United States, most of the sabotage activities were transferred to Heinrich von Eckhardt, the German Minister in Mexico City. In order to inflict maximum damage on Britain’s neutral Allies, he needed a troop of well-trained saboteurs at his beck and call, men who could recruit other mercenaries and saboteurs to conduct sabotage operations against valuable targets, such as the Tampico Oil Fields, where Britain obtained much of their petroleum, the Kingsland munitions factory in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and the Welland Canal. And of course, the Panama Canal was always on their radar, this vital link between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. Some of the most famous saboteurs of this period were Kurt Jahnke, the German-born naturalized U.S. citizen and former Marine who was a seasoned veteran of the espionage business by the time my novel opens. There was also Lothar Witzke, with whom Jahnke had pulled off the Black Tom terminal explosion and a similar attack at the Navy Yard on Mare Island in California. Jahnke escaped to Mexico City in 1917 where he appointed himself chief of what remained of Germany’s secret service. In November of 1917, Jahnke received his long-awaited marching orders from the Fatherland and he, in turn, laid out a very ambitious plan that included the bombing of the Panama Canal as well as various industrial and military targets in the Western United States. For these jobs, Jahnke chose the one man who he could depend on to pull it off—his former partner, Witzke.

An officer of the Imperial German Navy, Lothar Witzke was captured by the British and interned in Chile, but eventually escaped and made his way to San Francisco where he joined up with Germany’s most prolific sabotage team under the leadership of Consul General Franz Bopp. It was under Bopp’s direction that Witzke orchestrated the greatest singular act of destruction: blowing up the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s Black Tom Island terminal on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. After this success, Witzke was Jahnke’s number one choice for the bombing of the Panama Canal as well as joining forces with the IWW for large-scale bombing campaigns. The 22-year-old daredevil was finally captured in Nogales, Texas in 1918 and faced a military court at Fort Sam Houston, where he served as his own defense under the pretext he was a bandit, not a saboteur. While in jail, Witzke attempted to smuggle out a coded message that was confiscated and sent to the Military Intelligence Division’s MI-8 Cryptographic Bureau in Washington, D.C. for translation. In spite of the fact that no evidence was introduced that tied him to the Black Tom bombing, Witzke was found guilty and sentenced to death, but was later pardoned and released.

A gallery of WWI German spies. (From top left, clockwise) Wilhelm von Brinken, the WWI German spy turned Hollywood actor, Franz von Bopp, the Consul General in San Francisco who plotted numerous acts of sabotage, Kurt Jahnke, the German spy who carried out numerous acts of sabotage, Dr. Paul Altendorf, the Austrian born counterespionage agent who worked for the Americans while posing as a German secret service agent, and Lothar Witzke, the German Imperial Naval sailor turned sabotage mastermind.

The Zimmermann Telegram had such an impact on American opinion that, according to David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, “No other single cryptanalysis has had such enormous consequences.” He further stated that, “never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message.”

In June, 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Espionage Act after two years of bloody, costly sabotage by German and Carrancista Mexican agents in the United States. The Act threatened fines and imprisonment for disclosing national defense information, interfering with military recruiting, and refusing to perform military duty. The law also authorized Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson to remove seditious material from the U.S. mail. Most German intelligence operatives in the United States relocated to Mexico and other points South, but about 900 people were imprisoned during the next several months, many of them anti-war activists and politicians. 

No other country during the Great War came close to the United States in the amount of material destroyed through acts of sabotage. The Unlikely Spy is about one such operation, and how one unlikely lady became paramount in the struggle to bring down a ring of spies.

The Unlikely Spy by Sophie Schiller ~ 1917. Emma Christensen is a young widow who returns to the Danish West Indies to reclaim the life she left behind. When she discovers her husband has disinherited her in favor of his young heir—an illegitimate son—she turns to the one thing she knows, gambling, and soon finds herself deeply in debt.

Emma is approached by Cornelius Smith, a representative of an American shipping company, who offers an alternative: infiltrate the suspicious Hamburg-American Line and spy on its nefarious leader, Julius Luckner, to gain valuable business intelligence for his firm.

It doesn’t take long for Emma to realize that both Smith and Luckner are not as they seem. Close to the Allies but even closer to the enemy, Emma bravely engages in missions that could blow her cover at any moment. But how far will she go to help the Allies? A gripping and suspenseful World War I spy thriller from an accomplished thriller and historical adventure writer.

Many thanks, Sophie. I wonder what sort of espionage is going on right now that authors will write about in the future? Best wishes for the success of The Unlikely Spy.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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4 Responses

  1. Indeed it does sound like a fascinating story. Look forward to reading it. Espionage is always a subject with tension. Nowadays, from what we’ve seen on TV etc., it looks as though it has largely switched to the internet. (P.S. I wonder who’s looking in on us! .-))

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