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Obituary: Otto John

It was something of an international sensation when Otto John turned up on 11 August 1954 in East Berlin.

He had gone missing on 20 July while attending a commemoration of the anti-Hitler July plot of 1944. Good-looking, well-built, smartly tailored, charming and blond, John, then 45 years old, looked like a 1930s film actor. He was in fact the head of West Germany's internal security organ, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz or BfV.) At a press conference held in East Berlin John attacked West Germany, warning that the Nazis were again in the ascendancy.

His outpourings were a bitter blow to Konrad Adenauer's government in Bonn, at a time when many abroad were still suspicious of the rapidly developing West German state. However, they were very useful to the Soviets, less sure of themselves after the death of Stalin in 1953 and hoping to gather together anti-Adenauer "national" conservatives to opt for a more pro-Soviet solution to the division of Germany. In December 1955, John reappeared in the West claiming he had escaped. He also claimed he had been drugged by the West Berlin medical practitioner Wolfgang Wohlgemuth and taken to East Berlin against his will. He had spoken at the press conference because he feared for his safety. John's version of events was not believed and he was tried for treason and sentenced, in December 1956, to four years' imprisonment.

Born in Marburg in 1909, the son of a minor civil servant, Otto John studied law in Berlin in the 1920s. His talent and an ability to make contacts with the right people led to his appointment as a leading legal adviser to the German airline Lufthansa in 1937.

Although a ladies' man, John did not marry until 1949, when he married a singer seven years his senior. Thus he was free in the Nazi era to pursue his risky political interests. John and his brother Hans John, also a lawyer, who worked in the Air Ministry, were involved in the anti-Nazi military resistance before the Second World War. Otto used his position at Lufthansa to fly to neutral Spain and Portugal to sound out the Western Allies on their attitude to an anti-Hitler government. He was certainly a brave man who risked his life on any number of occasions relaying the messages from the plotters to the Western powers. When the putsch against Hitler finally took place, on 20 July 1944, Otto John managed to leave the headquarters of the plotters in Bendler Strasse, Berlin, just before the revolt collapsed. Four days later he got to neutral Spain on a Lufthansa flight - his brother was not so lucky.

Later, under the name of Oskar Jurgens, John worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service. He was flown from Lisbon to Britain where, unknown to John, his controller, Kim Philby, was working for the Soviet Union. Philby, following Soviet instructions, had no interest in the German resistance's succeeding.

John helped the British interrogating German officers at the Bridgend prison camp. In 1949, he assisted the British in the controversial prosecution of Field Marshal von Manstein. This placed him on the blacklist of the surviving Wehrmacht officers, including General Reinhard Gehlen. In the same year the new President of the Federal Republic (West Germany), Professor Theodor Heuss, urged John to help in rebuilding his shattered country by working for the new state.

With British influence being brought in play, John was appointed President of the BfV in 1950. Gehlen was already installed as an American protege in charge of collecting external intelligence material, especially in the Soviet bloc. Gehlen was a professional, having worked as head of the German army's intelligence service on the East front. John was an amateur who wanted to avoid his office becoming a kind of secret police, let alone another Gestapo.

John soon had a reputation for being a dilettante and a drunk. It could not have been easy for him - Adenauer turned a blind eye to dossiers on many former Nazis who were recruited to construct the new state and its economy. Many in Germany at that time regarded the July plotters as traitors who had stabbed the fighting troops in the back, although later they were to be regarded as heroes who had saved the honour of Germany.

After his release from prison, John chose to live in Austria for the remaining years of his life, all the time protesting his innocence. On five occasions he sought to get German courts to clear his name. His last attempt was in 1995. He failed and, officially at any rate, died a traitor. The full truth we are never likely to know. Neither the statements of former KGB officers nor the opening of the East German archives have revealed the full story.

David Childs

Otto John, secret agent: born Marburg an der Lahn, Germany 1909; married 1949; died Innsbruck, Austria 26 March 1997.