Allen Dulles and No. 23 Herrengasse, Bern, Switzerland, 1942-1945

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

Seventy-years ago, on November 9, 1942, forty-nine year old Allen W. Dulles arrived in Bern, Switzerland to head up the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operations in Switzerland.  Dulles was lucky to be in Switzerland.  His train passed from Vichy France into Switzerland only minutes before the Germans closed the border.  The Germans had taken this action the same day Allied troops landed in North Africa.

Although OSS Director William Donovan wanted Dulles to work in the OSS London Office, Dulles preferred Switzerland, the only neutral country with a common land frontier with Germany and the best point from which to observe what was going on, not only in Germany, but also in Italy and France.  Donovan agreed and Dulles was attached to the American Legation as a Special Assistant to the Minister. “My real tasks,” Dulles wrote, “however, were to gather information about the Nazi and Fascist enemy and quietly render such support and encouragement as I could to the resistance forces working against the Nazis and Fascists in the areas adjacent to Switzerland which were under the rule of Hitler or Mussolini.”

Allen W. Dulles

The Allen W. Dulles who arrived in Bern did not look like a spy—he appeared more like a diplomat or professor.  Mary Bancroft, in her Autobiography of a Spy, upon first meeting him in December 1942, described him as “a man with a ruddy complexion, a small, graying moustache, and keen blue eyes behind rimless spectacles; he was wearing a tweed jacket and gray flannel trousers.”  After finding out what Dulles was doing in Switzerland, She wrote “I still had difficulty believing that this cheery, extroverted man was actually engaged in intelligence work.”

On November 10 the American Legation wrote the Division of Foreign Affairs, Swiss Federal Political Department, that Dulles had arrived on November 9, and that he was assigned to the Legation as “Special Assistant to the American Minister.” The Legation also noted that Dulles was staying in Hotel Bellevue-Palace.  On December 2 the Legation informed the Swiss authorities that Dulles had taken up residence at No. 23 Herrengasse (both documents located in the records of the American Legation, Bern, General Records, 1942, Decimal 121, Record Group 84).  Once Dulles moved into the rented flat, he placed an inconspicuous sign outside his door: “Allen W. Dulles, Special Assistant to the American Minister.”

23 Herrengasse

Herrengasse, in the picturesque, medieval section of Bern, near its cathedral, was an arcaded and cobblestoned street ran along the ridge high above the river Aare.  It was near where he had lived and worked twenty-four years before in the last months of World War I.   “Between my apartment and the river below,” Dulles would later write, “grew vineyards which afforded an ideal covered approach for visitors who did not wish to be seen entering my front door on the Herrengasse. From the terrace above I had an inspiring view of the whole stretch of the Bernese Alps.”  The house at 23 Herrengasse was the last house of a row of adjoining townhouses built in the fourteenth century by the Bernese city government to house dignitaries. The street itself ended there in a cul-de-sac, and the land fell sharply away beyond a low wall down to the vineyard terraces that slopped down to the Aare, which made a horseshoe bend around the ancient city walls.  

For those who might come to Dulles’s front door in the evening, he wanted to give them some measure of anonymity. So he pulled some strings and had the streetlight opposite his front door turned off for the duration of the war, but most clandestine guests came and went by the back door.  That Dulles was able to pull the strings probably related to the fact that he had only been in Bern for a few weeks when one of its most respected and widely read newspapers, learning of his entry into Switzerland, published an article describing him as “’the personal representative of President Roosevelt’” with a “’special duty’” assignment.

During World War II Dulles conducted much of his intelligence-gathering business at his home.  Because of the constant stream of visitors there was no real secret about Dulles being an intelligence operative or his home was being used for intelligence work.  A circumspect concern for Swiss sensibilities dictated however that he at least seek a headquarters that could claim diplomatic immunity so he established an office at No. 24 Duforstrasse with Gerald Mayer, whose Office of War Information propaganda operation had taken office space on the first floor of the building.

The general knowledge that Dulles was America’s spymaster in Switzerland resulted in him being constantly bombarded by visitors, including refugees, exiles, spies, secret-service agents, diplomats of countries which were either neutral or German satellites, German officials working in Switzerland, and Anti-Nazis.  Many such visitors were legitimate.  But many were not.  According to Hans Bernd Gisevius, Abwehr chief in Switzerland, serving under the cover as Vice-Consul in the German Consulate General in Zurich, who worked with him, Dulles was particularly troubled by the flourishing guild of professional spies, the traders in espionage materials, who would visit German agents in the morning, the British secret service in the afternoon, and the Dulles office on the Herrengasse in the evening, offering to each their carefully prepared and sensational reports.  Dulles listened to most of those who came.  He must have thought back to the time when he had passed up an opportunity to meet with Lenin during his World War I diplomatic service in Bern.

In the summer of 1945 Dulles left his residence at No. 23 Herrengasse, where he had acquired a vast amount of useful intelligence for the Allies during the war, and would take up a position as head of the OSS in Germany. In 1953 he would become Director of Central Intelligence, i.e., head of the Central Intelligence Agency, serving in that position until 1961.