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The Tribunite who Tried to Kill Hitler

During the Second World War, Jewish socialist Hilda Monte was forced into exile by the Nazi government — but the connections she made in Britain helped her to become one of the resistance’s most formidable operatives.

On 17 April 1945, Hilda Monte’s luck ran out. In unclear circumstances on the frontier between Nazi Germany and neutral Liechtenstein, the lifelong socialist and resistance fighter was mortally wounded in the final few weeks of war in Europe.

Yet despite her apparent aptitude for hiding details about her life in order to remain an anonymous militant in the anti-fascist struggle, Monte wove a fascinating thirty-one years of life, which today highlights the forgotten stories of the many unknown Germans who went as far as to physically fight the Nazi regime  — but also of a largely unknown effort by a founder of Tribune, her one-time publisher, to fund an attempt on Hitler’s life.

Young Resistance

Born Hilde Meisel in 1914 to a Jewish family in Vienna, Monte’s parents relocated to Berlin, where they had previously lived, in 1915. It was in the combustible environment of 1920s Berlin that she became politicised, joining her sister Margot in the Schwarze Haufen (Black Company), a Jewish socialist ramblers youth movement which took its name from a rebel group in the sixteenth-century German peasant revolts.

It was here that Margot met Max Fürst, whom she soon married; she then worked as secretary to his friend Hans Litten, the lawyer who notoriously dared to cross-examine Hitler for three hours in a 1931 court case  — and who ended his life a decade later in Dachau concentration camp.

Meisel had been on the left of German social democracy since 1928. Moving to England a year later, she became an informal student of Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. From there, she seems to have worked for some time in the German mining heartlands of the Ruhr before joining the editorial staff of Der Funke (The Spark), the paper of the Internationale Sozialistische Kampfbund (ISK), a socialist split from the SPD that called in vain for left-wing unity against Nazism.

After the Nazis suppressed Der Funke in February 1933, Hilde then took responsibilities organising illegal groups, briefly moving to Cologne to do what she described as ‘frontier service’ work  — helping smuggle hunted labour movement figures and finances out to nearby Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland, while smuggling banned literature into Nazi Germany. Upon her return to Berlin, she set up underground socialist propaganda organisations, organising mass opposition to the August 1934 plebiscite which confirmed Hitler as the Fuhrer.

After moving to Paris to join the editorial board of the Sozialistische Warte (Socialist Outlook) newspaper, Meisel still continued regular trips into Germany, helping facilitate underground trade union groups and sending ‘propaganda and other material’ into the country, until moving to England in 1936. However, operations were getting increasingly difficult. Mass arrests had hit the ISK hard in 1937 and 1938, leading Monte to return to Germany to presumably complete necessary tasks herself for several months.

It was during this period that the drums of war beat ever louder; in this moment of great intensity, Meisel broke with the ISK over its perceived lack of militancy. In that same desperate year, Monte entered into a marriage of convenience to John Olday, a gay German artist who had fought in the 1918–19 Spartacist Uprising and whose half-Scottish heritage gifted him  — and her  — the relative safety of a British passport.

Fighting War

It is also likely that this was the year she first met with George Strauss. Strauss, the Labour MP for Lambeth North and future Cabinet minister under Harold Wilson, was a young, wealthy, and idealistic left-winger who, after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, helped finance, establish, and organise Tribune in order to  — in the words of its January 1937 first issue  — ‘advocate a vigorous socialism and demand active resistance to fascism at home and abroad’.

In 1946, in an uncharacteristic revelation to the Sunday Times, Strauss admitted that in the late thirties he had funded a mysterious firm called Union Time Ltd. While formally a press agency, the organisation was in reality a front for various German emigres working across various professional fields to encourage anti-Nazi opinion in Britain and combat Nazi propaganda in general. It was Union Time Ltd which had camouflaged, among many others, the activities of Meisel, who approached them with plans to assassinate Hitler  — and in doing so, hopefully averting the imminent outbreak of war.

The details on the exact events are, like many aspects of Meisel’s life, unclear. It seems that after returning to London from a period organising underground cells in Germany, she approached Strauss asking for money to murder Hitler. Strauss sent her to the City of London to meet Werner Knop, a financial journalist connected to Union Time Ltd. In a 1946 Saturday Evening Post article regarding the affair, Knop wrote that Strauss visited him on May Day 1939 to ask if he would meet an ‘unusual visitor’ with an ‘unusual proposition’. He was then introduced to Meisel, who described her plans.

After recognising the ‘compelling quality’ of Meisel, as well as her ‘cold matter-of-factness’, Knop granted her the necessary financial support. On a trip to Cologne, Monte was given part of her expenses for the trip, with another part of it to be collected by a trusted person. This figure had been told to shadow her during her stay in Germany in case she was an agent provocateur or a fantasist; the contact reported that she had vanished within thirty minutes of collecting the money, causing Knop to reflect that they had ‘at least negative proof that she was an old hand in the tricks of the underground trade.’ Monte had given notice to Knop that on 18 July her group would conduct a ‘demonstration attack’  — on that day, nine people on the Nazi-chartered Strength Through Joy were killed in a boiler room explosion.

At this same time, she wasn’t the only radical British citizen out in Cologne on orders. The committed young anarchist Albert Meltzer was also sent to the city by German anarchist exiles, with orders to pass on clandestine documents to comrades there  — the hope being that Meltzer’s British citizenship would protect him from any potential security intrusions. Though at the time he thought the documents were ‘related to emigration’, he was later told by the anarchist Willy Fritzenkotter they were for ‘the escape of [a] planned attacker’ in the assassination attempt which never happened. He had met Meisel with Fritzenkotter, remembering her ‘unusual’ backing from Strauss.

History tells that whatever happened with Meisel and her contacts, her organised attempt on Hitler’s life never happened. But two months later, on 8 November 1939, a time bomb engineered by Georg Elser detonated at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, killing eight people and injuring sixty-two  — and missing Hitler by just seven minutes.

There is open speculation over whether Meisel was directly linked to the Elser bomb; her husband, John Olday, certainly thought so. Her longstanding ISK comrade Fritz Eberhard was more open-minded, however; while he believed it ‘highly unlikely’ she had anything directly to do with it, he stated the possibility that she had ‘made a financial transfer to the assassin Elser as part of her Union Time work’, particularly since it was clear that Elser’s attempt on the Fuhrer’s life was a long-term, planned venture.

The Onset of War

Following her split with ISK and the Western failure to halt fascism before it threw the world into war, Meisel lived with the Austrian artist Hannes Hammerschmidt and his wife Tess in the town of Sleights, by the North Yorkshire moors. She changed her underground codename to Hilda Monte and began writing regularly in English for Tribune, Victor Gollancz’s Left News, and co-authored a book, How to Conquer Hitler, with Eberhard. She became a popular Workers’ Educational Association lecturer, and also found work as an advisor to the International Committee of Labour’s governing National Executive Committee.

Run by William Gillies, the International Committee was involved in rescuing senior German social democrats and was strongly backed by Labour’s minister for economic warfare Hugh Dalton and Dick Crossman, the propaganda chief and head of Dalton’s ‘German bureau’. Being brought into the Ministry of Economic Warfare, Meisel started working with Walter Auerbach, a German official of the International Transport-Workers Federation (ITF) broadcasting to Germany from Crossman’s left-wing radio station, SER (Transmitter of the European Revolution).

In the Ministry, Monte worked within the Central European Joint Committee. As the Ministry was the parent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was formed by Churchill to ‘set occupied Europe ablaze’ by sabotage, assassination, and dirty tricks, the multilingual underground veteran Meisel found a niche role, and was flown to Lisbon in 1941, where she acted as the courier of international telegrams using the codes of both SOE and the ITF.

Though it seems she was scheduled to go into Switzerland and unoccupied France to build links with German, Italian, and Spanish anti-fascist refugees, these plans seem to have run into a wall, and Monte remained in Lisbon until June 1941. There, she met Peter Leopold, a German exile living in Marseille, who took over from her, while she herself established a distribution service for German anti-Nazi literature.

In London and neutral Sweden, exiled ITF leaders were working out how to smuggle information, cash, and fugitives on barges, ships, and trains in and out of Nazi Germany, with connections far more established and professional than the British secret service. Although the deliberate post-war destruction of SOE files makes this hard to ascertain, it is more than possible that this is how Monte got back to London from her foreign missions time after time.

Once back in England, she continued her propaganda, using the first-hand knowledge of her resistance contacts in her appeals to German people. In a 1943 BBC radio broadcast, she made one of the earliest references to the Holocaust in the Western world:

What is happening today in Poland, the cold-blooded extermination of the Jewish people, this is being done in your name, in the name of the German people. Show evidence of your solidarity to these people, even if it requires courage  — especially if it requires courage.

In 1942 Victor Gollancz published Help Germany to Revolt, another book co-written with Eberhard, in which they told the reader that

We feel that you and some of your comrades in the Labour Party are beginning to realise that an immense responsibility falls today on these last vestiges of European Socialism which exist in Britain. The suppressed masses on the continent look to the British Labour Movement for guidance and assistance in the fight for their liberation and the establishment, after this war, of a European Commonwealth … and there is only one way of laying that basis: the way of a German revolution.

Setting Europe Ablaze

Monte went back behind the lines again in September 1944 as agent ‘Crocus’ of the United States Office of Strategic Services, organised by ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan  — who had recruited droves of hardened anti-fascists, International Brigade veterans, and assorted radicals into its ranks. Monte and Anna Beyer became agents in the Faust Project and were trained near London in summer 1944 to act as undercover agents inside Nazi Germany.

After being flown by an RAF Lysander and landing by moonlight in a meadow near Lake Geneva, the French Resistance took Monte and Beyer by lorry to a disused railway tunnel. There they met a British army officer who took them into the lakeside frontier town of Thonon-les-Bains, where they waited four weeks for a connection. The Swiss socialist René Bertholet, who had worked with Monte on Der Funke and had been imprisoned in Nazi Germany, had also become an SOE agent, and had arranged the cover job  — at a garage in Montauban  — for SOE’s most successful agent, Tony Brooks.

Brooks had been dropped into occupied France at the age of 20, where resistance fighters sent him by bicycle and train to a café in Toulouse. There he recognised Bertholet  — not as his SOE contact, but as a pre-war friend of his family in Switzerland. With the assistance of railwaymen belonging to the illegal CGT union, Brooks and Bertholet organised rail sabotage between Toulouse, Marseille, Lyon, and the Swiss border. And soon enough, it was Bertholet who took Monte and Beyer into Switzerland, where Monte was handed new papers and assigned as a courier to Jupp Kappius, a German socialist who was parachuted into Germany by the RAF in late 1944 for a campaign of sabotage.

With the exception of a tersely written CV discovered in war archives, it is clear that Monte was acutely conscious of leaving little traces of her activities behind. We know that she found herself in Austria on 16 April 1945, as the Red Army launched its final attack on Berlin. After a mission to the Austrian resistance group ‘05’, and with papers identifying her as Eva Schneider (allegedly a clerk with a home address in bombed-out Berlin), she was walking through the dense forest of Rappenwald, close to the frontier with Liechtenstein, with a gun and nearly 3,000 Reichmarks in her rucksack.

At 3.45 AM, she encountered a border patrol; after telling the part-time officials she was delivering two letters to Switzerland for Joseph Goebbels (to presumably justify her handling of a pistol), she persuaded the patrol to detach a single guard to escort her to the Hauptzollamt at Tisis. At a point on the border just 150 metres from Liechtenstein territory, Monte bolted for Switzerland. The Austrian guard shot her once, which hit her in the right thigh, but the bullet hit an artery, and she bled to death. Allied forces took months to inform her parents, who were then refugees in Cairo, and Austrian records would not reveal her fate until 1947.

When Victor Gollancz published her novel Where Freedom Perished after the war’s end, the leading Tribunite Jennie Lee penned the introduction. Writing of the ‘pity and the waste’ of Monte’s death she also heralded the ‘hazardous work’ that had characterised her whole adult life, writing that ‘she knew’ how her capture would mean ‘imprisonment, torture, and death’; ‘Hilda Monte again and again walked alone across the frontier’.

But when Hilda Monte died, it was Raymond Postgate of Tribune, her comrade and editor, who broke the news of her death in the 29 June 1945 edition. Describing her life, he suggested that it make the Tory parliamentary candidate and prominent fascist sympathiser Eleonora Tennant ‘pause’ in her campaign against the presence of Jewish refugees. While ‘no medals and no titles are awarded to her kind’ by this country’s ruling class, Postgate wrote, ‘British Socialists will honour her name and remember this woman, who gave her life in the service of our cause.’