He was Hitler’s loyal acolyte, with the blood of millions on his hands. She was an upper-class free spirit with a son by a Jewish businessman. It is almost unfathomable how a woman like Baroness Anja Manfredi, with many Jews and sophisticates among her friends, became involved with a racist oaf like Heinrich Himmler. Until you know that after they met, supposedly by chance, the SS-Reichsfuhrer agreed to protect her imperilled boy in return for her services as a spy. This unlikely, bizarre, but entirely true tale – of Himmler’s ‘other’ mistress and her brief and disastrous espionage career – is the previously little-known subject of my latest book.
Perhaps the relationship has rarely been written about, until now, because Himmler’s marital infidelity was not unusual among the Nazi leadership. For instance, Reinhard Heydrich was a notorious womaniser and user (and abuser) of prostitutes; Martin Bormann had a mistress who he brazenly moved into the family home; while Goebbels openly cheated on his wife with a beautiful Czech actress. Even Hitler found time to indulge his roving eye. Yet Himmler’s dalliance with Anja Manfredi was different. He was already married and had fathered one child with his former secretary when he met Anja, so the fact that he cheated again is hardly surprising.
But crucially, The Baroness: Unmasking Himmler’s Most Secret Agent reveals how, after Himmler betrayed his Fuhrer by making deals to free prisoners in the final months of the war, he considered escaping not with his wife or established mistress, but with Anja, to live on non-existent estates she claimed to own. In other words, she was a significant person in her own right who may well have been stringing Himmler along for partly financial reasons. Comparing Anja to the other two women, it’s possible to see why he chose the former.
As a young man, Himmler was needy and extremely socially awkward. He had aspirations to marry his Teutonic ideal, but ended up wed to a rather stern and bitter woman seven years his senior named Margarete Boden. Margerete was a committed antisemite whose main concern about the Nazi persecution of the Jews was the amount of work it placed in her husband’s in-tray.
A nurse by profession, when she set about leaving the private clinic of which she was a partner in 1928, after marrying Himmler, she agreed to a 12,000 marks payout from its Jewish director. “A Jew is always a Jew!” she wrote, unhappy about the settlement. Although they endured an unhappy marriage, the Himmlers had a daughter named Gudrun, who would later become a post-war champion of the Nazi cause and run an organization for veteran Fascists called Silent Help.
While Heinrich and Margarete were an ideological match, she was in poor health – and a figure of fun for the other Nazi wives, who never failed to notice her fuller figure and dour comportment. Perhaps partly for this reason, in 1940 Himmler took up with his secretary eleven years his junior – also a fervent Nazi. Nicknamed Bunny, Hedwig Potthast started working as Himmler’s private secretary in 1936, aged twenty-three, after working her way up through the ranks of the Gestapo press department in Berlin. She had a degree in English and was friendly, outgoing and loved sports, including gymnastics and rowing – a direct contrast with Himmler’s older and physically ailing wife.
The pair confessed their love for one another two years later, before finally consummating their relationship in 1940. Hedwig quit her job in early 1941 and the next year she gave birth to a son, Helge. Hedwig, whose parents had disowned her, eventually moved to a property in the Alpine resort of Berchtesgaden. There she happily kept a chair with a seat made from a human pelvis and human legs and feet, and showed off copies of Mein Kampf bound with the skin of former Dachau inmates.
As Himmler began to ponder his post war future, from early 1943, it was clear that neither Margarete nor Hedwig would be suitable to help him launder a reputation that by then bordered on the Satanic. Anja Manfredi, with her international connections in the worlds of aristocracy, showbiz and the media, could not have been more different. Born Anja Bergroth in Helsinki, Finland, in 1901, her mother came from the noble Bonsdorff family, while her father was the city’s chief prosecutor and a powerful freemason. An aunt on her mother’s side was the celebrated Finnish writer and nationalist Maila Talvio. Anja moved to Hamburg in the early 1920s, where she found work as a journalist and married one of the country’s most successful antiquarian booksellers, Hans Gotz, giving birth to their only son, Aldo, in 1926.
Gotz came from a family of Jews who converted to Christianity well before the rise of Nazism, but who were nevertheless persecuted, with at least two members of the family dying in captivity during the course of the war. But by that point, Anja had split from Hans and moved to Rome with her son, where she married a member of the Italian nobility, Baron Filippo Manfredi, a close friend of Enzo Ferrari. Alive to the fact that Aldo faced a bleak future in a Europe under the Nazi yoke, the pair bribed officials to produce a fake blood test and birth certificate, showing that he was both ‘Aryan’ and the Baron’s son.
The full Aryanisation paperwork needed only to be signed off by the German embassy in Rome, but officials dragged their feet, placing Aldo in ever increasing danger. It was then that a most unlikely turn of events took place.
While visiting Berchtesgaden in early 1943, Anja Manfredi supposedly fainted in a restaurant where Himmler happened to be dining. He rushed over to render assistance and offered the use of his official car to take her home. Exactly what took place between the pair over the following days and weeks is still shrouded in mystery, but from that moment on Himmler ordered his spy chiefs in Italy to employ Anja and pay her hundreds of thousands of lire. Gossips in the SS had no doubt that the relationship went far beyond platonic, but they quibbled with Himmler about Anja’s role in Italy. Anja was, as one jackbooted lackey put it, an audacious “swindler” who was paid huge sums of money for few results. While Margarete and Hedwig both knew of each other, neither apparently had knowledge of Anja. She was, in the end, Himmler’s last marital secret, one he took with him to his ignominious grave.
John Lucas is a journalist and the author of three other books focusing on historical true crimes. The Baroness: Unmasking Himmler’s Most Secret Agent is out now.
Aspects of History issue 8 is out now.