Otto John

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Otto John, 1954

Otto John (born March 19, 1909 in Marburg , Germany ; † March 26, 1997 in Innsbruck , Austria ) was a German lawyer , resistance fighter of July 20, 1944 and from 1950 to 1954 the first President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the Federal Republic of Germany . In view of this outstanding position in the West German intelligence service , his appearance in the GDR in July 1954 caused one of the greatest political scandalsin the early history of the Federal Republic of Germany .


John grew up in Wiesbaden and was there, like his younger brother Hans, a student at the Staatliche Realgymnasium , where he graduated from high school in 1929. He studied law in Frankfurt am Main . In 1934, John's first state examination took place at the Frankfurt Higher Regional Court ; He started his legal clerkship and in the same year was given the dissertation The legal remedy for safeguarding the rights of third parties in enforcement proceedings with his teacher Hans-Otto de Boor, who had moved to Marburg , from the local law and political science faculty (Gelnhausen: Kalbfleisch, 1935, 54 p .) PhD. From 1937 to 1944 he worked as an employee of the syndic at Lufthansa , his superior as in-house counsel in the legal department was Klaus Bonhoeffer , the brother of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer . Through Klaus Bonhoeffer, John got in contact with the resistance against National Socialism before the war and took part in the preparations for the assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944 . After the failure of his brother mitbeteiligter was Hans John arrested by Roland Freisler on February 2, 1945 sentenced to death and on 23 April 1945 by an SS killed with command shot in the neck while his own on 24 July 1944 on Madrid and Lisbon , the Successful escape to Great Britain . After an initial internment, he worked there from November 1944 under Sefton Delmer at the Foreign Office's propaganda station " Soldatensender Calais " . In England, John married the singer and singing teacher Lucie Mainzer, who had emigrated from Germany, the daughter of the Jewish doctor and writer Ferdinand Mainzer, a friend of Theodor Heuss from Berlin. Heuss was known to John through his brother Ludwig. He had been a war comrade of Mainzer's and had been friends with Klaus Bonhoeffer. After the war, John acted as a screener in British POW camps and a. as a witness for the indictment at the Nuremberg trials and at the trial of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein in Hamburg .

In 1950 John was after several unsuccessful applications, including the Foreign Office , the mediation Jakob emperor of Federal President Heuss to President of the newly established Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Cologne appointed; after the approval of the three powers and with the hesitant approval of Federal Chancellor Adenauer . So Otto John became one of the few people from the ranks of the resistance and former emigrants who could achieve a high position in the administration of the young Federal Republic. John disappeared in West Berlin on July 20, 1954 under circumstances that had remained unexplained for decades . He claimed that he was forced to stay in the GDR and fled back to West Berlin on December 12, 1955. The federal court sentenced John on 22 December 1956 for treason to four years' imprisonment . After his release, he lived with his wife in seclusion in Igls in Austria . Until his death in 1997, John fought unsuccessfully in five retrial for his rehabilitation . It was only achieved posthumously in 2009 on the basis of new files found through a legal study, but has not yet been formally carried out by the Federal Court of Justice.

The Otto John case

Otto John (front center) in East Berlin with Hermann Henselmann , the city's chief architect, and Erich Correns from the National Front (August 5, 1954, Stalinallee, building exhibition at the German Sports Hall Berlin)
Otto John (2nd from left) in a subsequent meeting with Henselmann, Correns and Wilhelm Girnus (not in the picture), Secretary of the Committee for German Unity, in the East Berlin Café Warsaw (1954)

On July 20, 1954, the Federal Government's first public commemoration ceremony for the members of the July 20, 1944 resistance group took place in the Bendler Block , in which Otto John also took part. On the evening of the same day, John drove to East Berlin with Wolfgang Wohlgemuth . Wohlgemuth was a doctor whom John had met during the Nazi era. According to later information from four secret service employees, he was working - presumably without John's knowledge - for the Soviet secret service KGB . According to his own statement, John was drugged by Wohlgemuth and taken to the east by him and KGB agent Max Wonsig in the car. However, in 1958, Wohlgemuth was acquitted of the charge of treason for lack of evidence. [BGH of 18.12.58 Az. 9 St E 3/58]. In a work by Klaus Schaefer published in 2009, the latter tries to prove that John was the victim of a kidnapping - as he himself claimed after John's return to the Federal Republic of Germany and as was initially disseminated by Federal Interior Minister Gerhard Schröder . Other researchers are of the opinion that John's transfer to the GDR was voluntary, according to his statement on July 23 and 28 on Radio DDR and at a press conference on August 11.

In this context, the historian Erik Gieseking wrote in 2005:

“What happened on the evening of July 20, 1954 can only be clearly clarified when new sources are available. The statements about the events are extremely contradicting; the spectrum ranges from escape to kidnapping, abortive act or trap to John's own declaration that he was kidnapped and held under duress in the east. In this case the question still arises as to whether John's detention was based on a spontaneous decision by the Eastern secret services or whether it was actually a long-planned trap. "

John himself justified his transfer to the GDR. B. at the press conference in East Berlin with the criticism of Federal Chancellor Adenauer, whose policy of remilitarization and ties to the West endanger the goal of German unity, as follows:

"After careful consideration I decided to go to the GDR and stay here because I see the best opportunities here to work for reunification and against the threat of a new war."

He also denounced the growing influence of former National Socialists in the Federal Republic; in particular he named Federal Minister of Expellees Theodor Oberländer and Reinhard Gehlen , the President of the Federal Intelligence Service and former head of the " Foreign Armies East Department " of the Wehrmacht . For his part, Gehlen, who had an “aversion to anti-Hitler emigrants” (Der Spiegel), commented “Once a traitor, always a traitor!”, Thus establishing a connection with John's participation in the resistance against National Socialism.

John's appearance in the GDR delayed the handover of the CIA-financed organization Gehlen to the federal government, which had already been prepared . The American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles feared public opposition if Reinhard Gehlen, a secret service chief who, like John, had previously worked for the Allies, were appointed again.

John was interrogated several times by KGB officers in Moscow from August 24 to December 12, 1954 , but this was not very productive for the Soviet Union. Copies of the protocols of these interrogations were then given to the Ministry for State Security of the GDR. After these interrogations in Moscow, the GDR provided him with two comfortable apartments and an office, and John took up political activity - under constant surveillance - during which he repeated the aforementioned allegations against the Federal Republic of Germany in many lectures and publications.

On December 12, 1955, John, with the help of the Danish journalist Henrik Bonde-Henriksen , fled from East to West Berlin, where he was arrested on December 22nd. In the Federal Republic he was charged with treason accused - which surprised him apparently - and the 3rd Criminal Division of the Federal Court in Karlsruhe on 22 December 1956 to four years in prison convicted. As John later emphasized again and again, the verdict was already fixed before the trial and was a retaliation for July 20, 1944, because the responsible investigating judge at the BGH , Kurt Weber , was a staunch Nazi. Karl Richard Albert Wittig , one of the main witnesses in the proceedings, fled to the GDR at the end of February 1962 after a preliminary investigation into perjury had been initiated against him . In 1958, Der Spiegel dealt with the judgment of the Federal Court of Justice under the title Political Justice - Sold cheaply and criticized in detail the “difficult to understand evidence assessment” and the “dry arguments” of the circumstantial judgment.

On July 15, 1958, John was pardoned by Federal President Theodor Heuss and, after serving two-thirds of the sentence, including his pre-trial detention and suspension of the remaining sentence, on condition of a two-year probation, released from prison on July 28, 1958. He then moved with his wife Lucie, a singing teacher, to Innsbruck -Igls, where he lived in parts of the former Hohenburg Fortress, which he renovated with the support of his friend Louis Ferdinand von Prussia (1907-1994).

After his release, John tried in vain for his rehabilitation until the end of his life by showing that he had been deported to the eastern sector after administration of an anesthetic , with the participation of the doctor Wolfgang Wohlgemuth. His appearances in front of the world press were made to deceive the environment, which later enabled him to escape. Prominent politicians such as Herbert Wehner , Willy Brandt and Franz Josef Strauss advocated a restart of the process. His former boss at the Calais soldier broadcaster, Sefton Delmer, dedicated chapters 60 and 62 to John in the second part of his memoir Die Deutschen und ich , published in 1962 , in which he presented John as a martyr, who was among the leading politicians and officials as a survivor of the resistance against Hitler that time had become a “whipping boy” and “first victim of the Fourth Reich ”.

The "John case" triggered a serious domestic political crisis in what was then the Federal Republic of Germany, centered on Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his Interior Minister Gerhard Schröder . For the first time in the post-war period, a. a. discusses the extent to which there is continuity between the former Gestapo and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).

With effect from May 1, 1986, Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker granted John a maintenance contribution by grace, for which the Federal Ministry of the Interior set an initial monthly payment of DM 4,236.43. This corresponded to 41 percent of the former salary of the President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (salary group B 8 of the Federal Salary Regulations ) after a pensionable service period of 13 years (Section 14 (1 ) old version of the Civil Service Pension Act ). Thus John was given for the future obviously the supply, which would have allowed him permanently if he as a political appointee in the non-active status had been displaced, instead of losing the legal force of the criminal judgment his officials rights.

Based on files from the Ministry for State Security of the GDR, which Bernd Stöver presented and commented on in 1999, we now know with great certainty that John apparently did not deliberately contribute to the disclosure of official secrets and internal information:

“Some of the pieces of information John gave probably weren't new to State Security or the KGB. But even if individual details were considered insignificant, together with the results of other interrogations or otherwise acquired knowledge, they probably gained relevance. It was not for nothing that the MfS, like other secret services, kept almost all processes for decades. But John did more. Many of his statements with names allowed contacts to be made, offered clues as to how contact with people was possible, and they highlighted personal weaknesses and political attitudes of agents. Whether John was aware of this fact is difficult to say. In any case, he did not go into it in his memoirs and other statements after his return. "

The political scientist Hartmut Jäckel comes to the following conclusion on the basis of the Stasi documents that are now available:

“There are significant indications: Otto John, the holder of the secret, voluntarily went to East Berlin for talks on July 20, 1954. Inwardly moved by a naive and patriotic impetus to help German unification on on his own, he did not expect that his return to the western part of Berlin could be postponed. When he became aware of this, he may have believed that he could correct a gross mistake with an even grosser one. "

However, in his more than 600-page study from 2005, Gieseking came to the following conclusion:

“Based on the existing legal judgment of the Federal Court of Justice of 1956, there can be no doubt that John's guilt has been legally proven. But by evaluating the facts, one can come to different views. So far there is no conclusive evidence that John voluntarily went to East Berlin and that he became a traitor there. All statements to this effect are based on circumstantial evidence or witness statements. The court took into account statements from people who wanted to hear from John or from third parties that the transfer was voluntary, and this during John's stay in the GDR. "

The new sources missing in the above account by Gieseking were developed by the lawyer Schaefer. He was able to rely on Otto John's estate in the Imperial War Museum in London and Duxford, on the files of the executor in Innsbruck, on files found by the owner of the Hohenburg in the attic in 2007, on classified information in the Federal Archives in Koblenz and on until 2016 Support files in the BfV and interviews with contemporary witnesses. Schaefer came to the following conclusion in 2009:

“The current legal situation is assessed to the effect that, based on the new findings in connection with the reassessment of earlier evidence, it can be assumed that Otto John would have to be acquitted by the BGH at the request of the public prosecutor if the proceedings were to be restarted. The public prosecutor's office for a retrial is possible and seems necessary in order to posthumously establish the innocence of someone wrongly convicted in 1956. "


  • I came home twice. From conspirator to protector of the constitution. Econ-Verlag, Düsseldorf and Vienna 1969.
  • Wrong and too late. July 20, 1944. Epilogue. Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main 1989, ISBN 3-548-33108-4 .
  • I chose Germany. Berlin 1954. Published by the Committee for German Unity (GDR).


  • Bernd Stöver : Refuge GDR. Spies and other emigrants. Beck, Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-406-59100-6 , passim, esp. Pp. 164-184.
  • Klaus Schaefer: The trial against Otto John. At the same time a contribution to the judicial history of the early Federal Republic of Germany (Scientific articles from the Tectum Verlag: Law, Volume 32). Marburg 2009, ISBN 978-3-8288-2086-9 .
  • Mark Fenemore: Victim of kidnapping or an unfortunate defector? The strange case of Otto John . In: Cold War History , Vol. 20, 2020, Issue 2.
  • Erik Gieseking: The Otto John case. Kidnapping or voluntary transfer to the GDR? (Subsidia Academica: Series A, Modern and Recent History; Volume 6). Europaforum Verlag, Lauf an der Pegnitz 2005, ISBN 3-931070-39-5 .
  • Helmut Roewer , Stefan Schäfer, Matthias Uhl: Lexicon of the secret services in the 20th century . Herbig Verlag, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-7766-2317-9 .
  • Thomas Ramge : The big political scandals. Another story of the Federal Republic. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt a. M. 2003, ISBN 3-593-37069-7 .
  • Bernd Stöver: The Otto John case. New documents on the statements of the German intelligence chief to the MfS and KGB. In: Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 47 (1999), pp. 103-136 ( PDF ).
  • George Bailey, Sergei A. Kondrashov , David E. Murphy: The Invisible Front. The war of the secret services in divided Berlin . Propylaeen, Berlin 1997, ISBN 3-549-05603-6 , pp. 233-255.
  • Hendrik van Bergh : Cologne 4713 - History and stories of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution . Naumann, Würzburg 1981, ISBN 3-88567-010-0 , p. 59-143 (Chapter II. The John Era).
  • Benjamin Carter Hett , Michael Wala: Otto John. Patriot or traitor: A German biography , Rowohlt, Hamburg 2019, ISBN 978-3-498-03030-8 .

Web links

Commons : Otto John  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. It concerns Peter Deriabin , Heinz Felfe , Valentin Falin and the MfS officer Franz Kramer, compare Bernd Stöver, p. 106 u. DIE ZEIT, 32/1986 ; Thomas Ramge, The Great Political Scandals: Another History of the Federal Republic , Frankfurt, 2003, p. 40ff. u. Focus , 28/1995 .

Individual evidence

  1. August Schnell et al., The high school graduates from the Realgymnasium, in: 100 Jahre Staatliches Gymnasium und Realgymnasium Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden 1951, p. 167 ff., 177
  2. a b Defector or kidnapping victim? On July 23, 1954, BfV President Otto John announced his transfer to the GDR. In: German Spy Museum. July 23, 2020, accessed on July 27, 2020 (German).
  3. Explanations by Ernst Wolfgang Becker , Martin Vogt , Wolfram Werner (eds.): Theodor Heuss. The federal president. Letters 1949–1954 . De Gruyter, Berlin, Boston 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-023236-3 , p. 567.
  4. Bernd Stöver, p. 108 m. Note 28
  5. cf. Kaveh Nassirin , The Martyrdom of Otto John , Hamburger Abendblatt v. October 10, 1995.
  6. Ed Stuhler: Front Change - The Case of Otto John. 2. The Ministry of the Interior announces: The President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Dr. Otto John, held a discussion in the democratic sector of Berlin on July 20, 1954 with responsible personalities of the German Democratic Republic. In: July 20, 2004, accessed February 9, 2019 .
  7. Fire brigade and trout. In: April 22, 1964. Retrieved February 9, 2019 .
  8. Erik Gieseking: The case of Otto John. Kidnapping or voluntary transfer to the GDR? (Subsidia Academica: Series A, Modern and Recent History; Volume 6). Lauf an der Pegnitz 2005, p. 126 f.
  9. ^ Hermann Zolling and Heinz Höhne : Pullach intern. The history of the Federal Intelligence Service . Der Spiegel 13/1971, March 22, 1971
  10. Thomas Wolf: The emergence of the BND. Construction, financing, control . Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-96289-022-3 , pp. 316-325 .
  11. ^ Disappearance of the President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. In: Federal Archives .
  12. cf. B. Stöver, 119; O. John, I came home twice , p. 331 ff.
  13. a b Fire brigade and trout . In: Der Spiegel . No. 41 , 1964 ( online ).
  14. Sold cheaply . In: Der Spiegel . No. 34 , 1958, pp. 18 ( online ).
  15. ^ Letter from the Federal Minister of Justice of July 15, 1958 - 4253 E - 81/11/58, quoted from Klaus Schaefer, The Trial against Otto John . Marburg 2009, p. 305
  16. ^ Klaus Schaefer, The Trial against Otto John . Marburg 2009, p. 305
  17. cf. John's last interview, Kaveh Nassirin, Das Martyrium des Otto John , Hamburger Abendblatt v. October 10, 1995.
  18. Sefton Delmer : The Germans and I. Nannen, Hamburg 1962.
  19. ^ Frank Bachner: The Otto John affair . In: Der Tagesspiegel Online . July 14, 2014, ISSN  1865-2263 ( [accessed May 27, 2018]).
  20. Notice of August 13, 1986 - Z 4 - 002 208 II / Dr. John, quoted from Klaus Schaefer, The Trial against Otto John . Marburg 2009, p. 313
  21. Bernd Stöver: The case of Otto John. New documents on the statements of the German intelligence chief to the Mfs and KGB . In: Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte . 47/1999, pp. 103-136, here p. 116.
  22. Hartmut Jäckel: The Secret of Doctor John . In: The time . No. 28/2004
  23. Erik Gieseking: The case of Otto John. Kidnapping or voluntary transfer to the GDR? (Subsidia Academica: Series A, Modern and Recent History; Volume 6). Lauf an der Pegnitz 2005, p. 561.
  24. ^ Schaefer: The trial against Otto John. 2009, p. 361.