Dumb as Rocks: How California Caught a WWI German Spymaster

History really does repeat. Just this week a story broke of a man arrested near San Francisco who was plotting domestic terror attacks, inspired by “America First” speeches of Trump.

Napa resident Ian Benjamin Rogers, 44, was taken into custody by federal agents earlier this month following a tip that he was in possession of several illegal weapons. As KTVU reported, Napa County sheriff’s deputies served a warrant at Rogers’s business, British Auto Repair of Napa, on January 15, and found a cache of over 50 firearms, including illegal assault rifles and automatic weapons, as well as five homemade pipe bombs, 15,000 rounds of ammunition, and several pounds of gun powder.

For me this is a story straight out of 1916 San Francisco. And I’m sure most people have no idea what I’m talking about because who really studies history anymore?

People laugh at the story because it reports a “white privilege card” but that literally is a chapter out of prohibition (KKK pushed a ban on alcohol to criminalize being black, while distributing privilege cards so whites still could drink). I’m not making this up, I swear.

But just so you see the real problem with having a historian’s eye, look at this proud tattoo displayed by the alleged terrorist in 2021 on Facebook:

Now look at this stamp from 1969 very publicly explaining such a tattoo represents 20 years following 1919 Weimar Germany (e.g. rise of Nazism).

Let’s go back now to the first years of WWI, before America joined the Allies to fight Germany yet Germany was relentlessly attacking America. And let’s also review again how these same years became years of an “America First” (KKK) platform to relentlessly attack Americans, conceived by a notoriously racist and anti-democratic President Woodrow Wilson.

In a nutshell, after 1914 German terrorists were literally exploding bombs all over America in what was described as a “holocaust” at the time.

Did you ever hear about these events in school?

Wilson not only failed to react appropriately in 1914 to the situation (he was elected in 1912). After America went to war with Germany in 1917 (immediately stopping the growing German terror campaigns against Americans) Wilson had a direct hand in resurrecting the KKK.

Today we can perhaps even think of this shift as one from foreign to domestic attacks (like from Russians attacking Americans pre-2016 and Trump attacking Americans after). It was a continuation of terror campaigns against Americans sanctioned by the U.S. President himself!

I know you never heard about that in school, yet you should have.

The story usually told in schools is that America entered WWI in April 1917 due to the aftermath from a May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania (e.g. threat of unrestricted submarine attacks), or it was a reaction to a January 1917 Zimmerman Telegram being intercepted (e.g. revealing German attempts to get Mexico to invade the U.S.).

Both of those make a lot of sense when you look at the records. Germany was using subs to destroy ships, and Germany was trying to invade America and destroy it.

However, there’s another angle lingering in the archives that seems to get not very much attention, and that’s a very big problem especially today when people do not understand where threats really come from.

Failing to look at this more closely means people today will be wonder where white insecurity terrorists get their motivation, who they could be targeting, or whether this is something new and will last a while.

The terrorists are motivated by hate for non-whites, they target non-whites, and it’s as old as America itself. What we’re seeing is just another repeat cycle of the same white insecurity domestic terrorism, brought to the surface by an “America First” President in 2016 like it was 1916 all over again.

Germany had started running clandestine terrorist operations throughout the U.S from at least the very beginning of WWI in 1914, if not earlier. They organized information gathering as well as very violent terrorist activities (widespread mutiny and terrorism was heavily pushed by German spies operating in America, Caribbean, Canada, India to undermine Britain’s ability to fight with Germany).

A book called Secret Wars and Secret Polices in the Americas 1842-1929 frames it like this:

Secret Wars and Secret Policies in the Americas, 1842-1929, Friedrich E. Schuler, 2011, Page 139

Some of the terrorism plots against America (very similar to what we hear in the news lately) included bombing downtown San Francisco, bombing the US Capitol, spreading anthrax in NYC and even assassinating J.P. Morgan.

President Wilson’s official War Message to Congress in 1917 only waxes poetic about this third angle of… terrorism.

One of the things that has served to convince us that the Prussian autocracy was not and could never be our friend is that from the very outset of the present war it has filled our unsuspecting communities and even our offices of government with spies and set criminal intrigues everywhere afoot against our national unity of counsel, our peace within and without our industries and our commerce. Indeed it is now evident that its spies were here even before the war began…

Wilson both admits here that they knew spies were present since the onset of war, while also reveals nothing has been done about it because he uses the framing of unsuspecting and “now evident” as if some kind of surprise.

Take note that up to the point of America declaring war, German agents were not actively disabled (although lots of evidence seems to show they were infiltrated and federal agents at least collaborated with locals on criminal prosecutions).

Presumably Wilson worried that in exposing the threat, he’d lead his country to war sooner. That’s plausible if you give Wilson a lot of benefit of the doubt and ignore the fact that once the German terrorists were shut down, Wilson restarted the KKK to continue terrorism under a different name.

In effect, the failure of Wilson to react meant German spy activities and terrorism mostly were mishandled by local police who worried about “leftist” domestic groups than foreign interference (masquerading as “leftist” groups to feed Wilson’s agenda of ignoring terrorism that killed Americans when it suited his agenda).

Perhaps the most famous case is listed on the FBI site as the “Black Tom 1916 Bombing” July 30 in NYC.

Thousands of windows shattered in lower Manhattan and Jersey City. Shrapnel pock-marked the Statue of Liberty. Three men and a baby were killed by the explosive energy that erupted from this act of sabotage. The culprits? German agents who were determined to prevent American munitions shippers from supplying its English enemy during the First World War. Never mind that the U.S. was officially neutral in the conflict at this point.

Local police were absolutely sure this had to be domestic in nature and even arrested Americans, yet years later it would be proven to be all the work of German terrorists.

…federal authorities could not trace the fire to the pots, and reports ultimately concluded that the blasts must have been accidental—even though several suspicious factory explosions in the United States, mostly around New York, pointed toward German spies and saboteurs. As Chad Millman points out in his book, The Detonators, there was a certain naivete at the time—President Woodrow Wilson could not bring himself to believe that Germans might be responsible for such destruction.

I have trouble believing Wilson was so naive, especially given his own words saying spies were present from 1914.

Also Americans generally at the time were for siding with the Allies against Germany but Wilson kept saying the country had to remain neutral, and let German spies carry out terrorism around the world.

Wilson in effect ended up giving Germans both time and cover to attack Americans relentlessly. Nearly 40 American ships with military supplies were sabotaged with bombs while en route to Allied forces (none went to Germany because Britain had blockaded it).

Journalist Howard Blum, who wrote a book called Dark Invasion about these events, has described it like this:

Ships are blowing up at sea, or catching fire, factories are blowing up. Are these accidents? Are these industrial sabotage? No one really suspected a spy network.

Blum goes on to call Germans the first terrorist cell in America, which is obviously very historically ignorant (KKK terrorism obviously predated this by over four decades). But he’s also wrong about the spy network being suspected.

In fact a book called The German Secret Service in America published in 1918 says quite plainly that the United Stated suspected spies early in the war because of intercepted German circulars. November 18, 1914 for example, the German Naval Headquarters said it was globally mobilizing…

…agents who are overseas and all destroying agents in ports where vessels carrying war material are loaded in England, France, Canada, the United States and Russia. It is indispensable by the intermediary of the third person having no relation with the official representatives of Germany to recruit progressively agents to organize explosions on ships sailing to enemy countries in order to cause delays and confusion in the loading, the departure and the unloading of these ships. With this end in view we particularly recommend to your attention the deckhands, among whom are to be found a great many anarchists and escaped criminals.

Further evidence is given in the same book that the Councillor General of the German Army sent a circular, intercepted by French secret service in Sweden, with even more targeted language.

Inclosed [sic] is the circular of November 22, 1914, for information and execution upon United States territory. We draw your attention to the possibility of recruiting destroying agents among the anarchist labor organization.

Perhaps one could argue the Germans went towards clandestine attacks to actively prevent “neutral” aid reaching the Allies, and also to avoid pushing America into siding even more with the Allies.

Blum’s book contemplates how the Germans thought blowing up things in America would be a distraction from wanting to enter a war.

It’s a strange theory given that by the summer of 1915 America was being described in The German Secret Service book as a “holocaust” of sabotage and explosions killing Americans and destroying properties.

Scarcely a week went by during the autumn without an explosion and fire which wiped out from one to a dozen lives, and from one hundred thousand to a million dollars. […] It is no mere metaphor to say that during 1915 and 1916 the smoke of German explosions in factories in the United States was spreading across the sun, casting a deepening shadow of war over America.

And the same book gives vivid details of double-agents who took down German spies in San Francisco in 1915.

Each incident raised havoc in its immediate vicinity. Each represents a carefully worked-out plan involving a group of destroying agents… the affidavit of Johannes Henrikus Van Koolbergen, dated San Francisco, August 27, 1915 may serve to show typical methods of operation…. Von Bincken explained he was a German army officer, on secret service, and employed directly by Franz Bopp, the German consul in San Francisco. […] On the window-sill of 303 Piccadilly Apartment sat a flower pot with a tri-colored band around its rim. If the red was turned outwards… come right upstairs. If he saw the blue, he was to loiter discreetly about until the red was turned; if the white area showed he was to return another day.

Van Koolbergen was to be paid $3,000 to travel to Canada and blow up a train, bridge or tunnel between Revelstoke and Vancouver. Instead he contacted the British secret service and undermined the whole German operation.

The logic of these terror cells being developed in a neutral country and President Wilson ignoring all the evidence of domestic terrorism is a topic worth exploring more on its own. I’ll leave it for now to focus instead on one of the more interesting counter-intelligence operations that went down on the West Coast.

For a little more background, a man named Franz von Papen was a military attaché for the German Embassy in DC, who played as a popular American socialite even after WWI started in 1914.

It was abruptly in 1915 when the American government ordered Papen to return to Germany. A careless mistake had suddenly unraveled Papen’s actual activities.

He had been buying all the gunpowder in America and hiding it in warehouses to prevent Allies from getting it shipped to them and (perhaps even more likely) to bomb America.

Papen also had created a string of shell companies to ghost anyone in Britain trying to acquire military equipment — his operations would take orders and gather information with no intention of ever delivering anything to anybody.

Much of this all this came crashing down in 1915 because Papen’s paymaster stepped off an elevated train in NYC forgetting his briefcase. An American agent tailing the paymaster immediately grabbed it (don’t forget Wilson claimed ignorance and surprise at these spies that were being monitored by his government) and a major number of Papen-led intelligence operations for Germany were done and dusted.

Super dumb. And America probably should have jailed him for life, but then they probably would have had to admit that Germans were running amok and be bombing America for the next two years.

That might sound extreme because it’s a bit of hindsight. On the other hand Franz Von Rintelen, another German spy leader, was convicted in 1917 and 1918 on Sherman Anti-Trust law violations, fraudulent passport, and destruction of merchant ships, which sent him to a decade in Federal prison.

Meanwhile Papen flew the coup and in January 1933 was the guy who personally convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor of Germany (with Papen as Vice-Chancellor) because Papen argued he would keep Hitler in check.

So dumb.

Wilson should have far more publicly shut down Papen and stopped the Germany spying right then and there. I suppose some would argue that would have pushed America into war against Germany, but would that really have been so bad given the “holocaust” of bombing campaigns?

Ok, now on to the West Coast. It was July 22, 1916 (still a year before Wilson would declare Germany an enemy, but just eight days before the Black Tom explosion in NYC) that a massive explosion rocked downtown San Francisco and killed 10 people.

Perhaps as foreshadowing to the Black Tom investigation, instead of going after the German spy network law enforcement took it upon themselves to gin up spotty evidence and false charges to imprison an American.

It became known as the Preparedness Day bombing, because the bomb exploded during a huge parade staged to show that the U.S. was prepared to enter World War I. Juries convicted two labor union organizers, Tom Mooney, 33, and Warren Billings, 22, of the crime, although, as it turned out, the convictions were based on perjured testimony and doctored evidence. The real bombers were never caught. Investigations later showed that Mooney and Billings had been framed by San Francisco District Attorney Charles Fickert, who was acting on behalf of the city’s business establishment, anxious to strike a blow at labor unions and what they saw as dangerous leftists and anarchists.

Since the federal government hadn’t yet declared war on Germany, and wouldn’t admit it was monitoring German spies spreading through the country and committing acts of domestic terrorism… the story turns to local police investigations.

There are so many interesting details to the California police tracking and capturing a German spy through 1917, it’s hard to know where to begin. I suppose more than anything the following one stands out:

Schulenberg carried a precious gems book, and made horseback trips into the mountains. Yet when Agent 18 questioned him, Schulenberg’s responses showed he knew nothing of mining. His “Handbook of Precious Stones,” found in the possession of other German spies, was used as a code book.

That’s why I say this story is… dumb as rocks. Glad you’ve made it this far.

But seriously, while reports say the German spy was using a code book (similar to those earlier captured by Russians and British) they don’t mention whether police were able to crack Schlenberg’s plots and communications.

His first three targets were the Santa Cruz wharf, the new Davenport potash plant, and a county bridge while a Monterey troop train crossed it carrying communications experts. Then he planned to blow up docks in San Diego, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and British Columbia, and kill his nemeses…

The Santa Cruz wharf, a far cry from its present tourism format, had just been opened in 1914 and was a massive attraction for West Coast commerce and military interests making it a prominent target.

It was within this context during the first weeks of 1917 that Santa Cruz, California police (an hour south of San Francisco) reported they were onto something notable.

In a downtown spot where a peanut stand had been setup, German speakers were loitering, posing as hobos and union activists for cover. As much as the news reports tell us the Preparedness Day bombing six months earlier in SF was falsely pinned on non-Germans, police in this case were singing a different tune.

Word was sent to San Francisco of Germans gathering, likely spies, and a request was made for an undercover agent. Quickly “Agent 18” a native German speaker was deployed and made fast friends with… the literal peanut gallery.

Wilson didn’t push any federal laws against espionage into place until June 15 (following US entry into WWI on April 6) so we’re talking about local police being creative in the first months of 1917 acting like they could infiltrate a foreign spy ring.

It was a very different story by July 1917. Not only had war been declared (mentioning spies), and an espionage act passed for counter-intelligence, but another massive explosion happened July 9th. This time the bomb exploded in a shipyard north of San Francisco.

United States District Attorney J. W. Preston of San Francisco made the following statement to the press: ‘I have been awake to the danger for some time of spies at work in San Francisco. I contend that every citizen should be on guard constantly against them . . . It is hard for the American public to realize that there are agents of the German government in their midst; but it is a fact that there has been and is an amazing display of intrigue at the expense of the law and hospitality of the United States.

Here again we have this contradiction of people saying they knew all along there were spies from Germany, yet officially Wilson did little about it and then acted like it was a shock to find out Germany was spying.

I hope this is useful to someone and people will soon perhaps stop saying they are shocked to find out in 2021 Russia has been spying in America and instigating violence, and also perhaps stop saying they are shocked to see a rise of white insecurity domestic terrorism as a result of “America First” given what happens every time it is in the White House.

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from flyingpenguin authored by Davi Ottenheimer. Read the original post at: