Bern Incident

– Yuriy Rubtsov –

The USSR achieved victory over Nazi Germany together with coalition allies [despite the intrigues of the latter]. This fact is irrefutable.

By the end of 1942, when the Stalingrad battle was in full swing, the London station of Soviet Foreign Intelligence reported about a conversation that took place between British Ambassador to the United States Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, and Under Secretary of State Benjamin Sumner Welles. The latter said that if Germany fell in 1943 or 1944, then the Red Army would advance far to the west and this would negatively influence American public opinion and change the plans for European reconstruction.

To slow down the Red Army's advance to Europe, Anglo-American allies were constantly involved in unseemly actions like trying to hold separate talks with the Nazis. Allen Dulles was recruited to work at the Office of Strategic Services. He held secret negotiations in Bern, Switzerland, with SS General Karl Wolff to have all German and fascist armies surrender in northern Italy, or, even in the West in general. The talks were codenamed Operation Sunrise. The General did not act on his own, as many believed. He represented the Reich leadership. On February 6, [1945] he was told by Hitler personally to establish contacts with Western nations to talk about prospects for an armistice on the Western front. The operation was under the control of Heinrich Himmler. By holding these talks Germany wanted to kill three birds with one stone. It wanted to split the anti-Hitler coalition, and even join the West in a would-be war against the USSR. It also had the goals of putting an end to the advance of the Allied nations at the Western Front and to use this opportunity to relocate forces from the West to the East to strengthen its defenses against the USSR.

Holding separate talks was forbidden by accords concluded between the USSR, the United States and Great Britain. For instance, the Twenty-Year Mutual Assistance Agreement Between the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was signed on May 26, 1942. Article II said, "The high contracting parties undertake not to enter into any negotiations with the Hitlerite Government or any other government in Germany that does not clearly renounce all aggression intentions, and not to negotiate or conclude, except by mutual consent, any armistice or peace treaty with Germany or any other State associated with her in acts of aggression in Europe."

It was not only a matter of tearing up agreements. The Anglo-American allies did not exclude the possibility of using German prisoners of war against the Soviet Union. In this case the military potential of forces opposing the USSR would have substantially increased.

On March 8,[1945] Dulles and Wolff met at a secret place in Zurich. The high-positioned SS General offered the following conditions: the Anglo-American command stops the advance in Italy, a cease-fire follows, and then German forces evacuate the front. Dulles agreed that the conditions were right to initiate contact. Subsequently, on 15 and 19 March, Wolff conducted further secret negotiations on the surrender with American general Lyman Lemnitzer and British general Terence Airey.

Wolff reported to Berlin on the possibility of a split in the ranks of the allies. He was told to make the talks drag on as long as possible. Thus Germany managed to delay the start of Allied advance in Italy and bring reinforcements (the 6th SS Tank Army) to the Eastern Front and launch a counteroffensive near Lake Balaton in Hungary in March 1945.

The talks were top secret. Nonetheless the Anglo-Americans allowed for a leak, informing the USSR about the contact with the representative of Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, the commander of German forces in Italy, to discuss the conditions of capitulation. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, asked for Soviet participation in the talks. The request was refused. The contacts with Wolff continued. The Soviet leadership was informed about the process from reliable sources, for instance, Kim Philby, part of Cambridge Five and head of MI6 at the time. Moscow undertook a demarche.

On March 22, Molotov said that he did not think the whole incident was a mere misunderstanding. The Soviet government believed it was something worse. On April 3, Josef Stalin received a message from Franklin Roosevelt who denied the very fact of any contacts. Stalin's telegram was terse and straightforward. He wrote that, "You assure that no contacts are taking place. Perhaps, you were not fully informed. My military colleagues have no doubt the talks did take place. An agreement is reached. German commander Field Marshall Kesselring agreed to open the front and let Anglo-American forces pass. In return, Anglo-Americans promised to ease the conditions of armistice. I believe my colleagues are nearer to the truth. Otherwise, it's impossible to explain why a representative of Soviet command was not allowed to take part in the talks in Bern. I understand the separate talks in Switzerland may bring some positive results because Anglo-American forces have an opportunity to advance deep into Germany without meeting any resistance from Germans. Then why hide this fact from Russians? Now Germans stop combat actions on the Western front but continue to fight Russia -- an ally of Great Britain and the United States. This situation cannot serve the interests of strengthening confidence between our countries."

In reply, Roosevelt tried to convince Stalin that no talks took place in Switzerland. He even made a supposition that Stalin used "German sources" that tried to make the allies split and thus evade the responsibility for the crimes committed. According to him, if that was the goal of Wolff, then he accomplished the mission. Winston Churchill also denied the fact of holding talks in Switzerland on the capitulation of German forces led by Kesselring.

The head of the Soviet government sent to Roosevelt another message where he expressed in straightforward and simple terms his views on what the relationship between the allies should be like. "We, Russians, believe that the enemy faces the inevitable capitulation and any meeting on discussing the terms of surrender must include the representatives of other allies. I believe this point of view is right. It excludes any mutual suspicions and prevents the enemy from giving rise to the feeling of mistrust."

On April 12, 1945 just a few hours before his death, Roosevelt wrote a last message to Stalin expressing gratitude for making precise the Soviet point of view in relation to the incident in Bern that became a thing of the past without doing any good.

But there was some good. As a result of the Soviet demarche, the Allied forces renewed their attacks in Italy on April 9. The talks with Wolff terminated. Dulles was informed that as a result of Soviet objections, the proposal on capitulation could not be discussed unilaterally by the Anglo-Americans.

The Bern incident greatly damaged the relations between the allies, creating the possibility of a serious split between the Soviet Union on the one side and Great Britain and the United States of America on the other side. Some historians call Operation Sunrise the first episode of the Cold War.

(Strategic Culture Foundation, April 29, 2015. Slightly edited for grammar by TML.)

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 4 - May 8, 2022

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