Many German citizens fled Germany in the 1930s to escape persecution or discrimination. Some among them got jobs in the industry, or other potentially sensitive positions. Albert Einstein obtained refugee status in 1933, and has been cited as having some kind of influence that eventually lead to the Manhattan Project.

QUESTION: Did some German spies mix among the refugees in order to infiltrate key positions in the USA or other countries?

According to my prior research, the Duquesne Spy Ring did not contain any people who came as refugees (double-check needed), but maybe other rings did?

Opinions were apparently divided, with Wikipedia saying the following (citing Lanouette & Silard 1992, pp. 238–242):

[...] the director of the Manhattan Project, Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, Jr., moved to dismiss Szilard, who was still a German citizen, but the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, refused to do so.

  • Until the war started, there were no major restrictions on Germans travelling abroad, and many did for business reasons etc. So probably less hassle to pose as one of those rather than as a refugee.
    – Ne Mo
    Nov 15, 2015 at 16:59
  • The grand old man of nuclear physics was Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealander, whose team at Cambridge discovered the neutron in 1932. After Europe was occupied in 1940 important physicists fled to Britain e.g the Dane, Nils Boehr, and various from France. Included among them was the German refugee Klaus Fuchs. The USA in 1942 was invited by Churchill to send a team to Cambridge to take a look. The Americans were flabbergasted with how advanced they were and were deeply concerned, not only a) that the Germans could be similarly advanced, and b) of the cosmopolitan nature of the Cambridge team.
    – WS2
    Nov 15, 2015 at 17:28
  • For that reason the decision was taken to lift the whole project first to Canada then to the USA, where the Los Alamos project was set up under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a one-time student of Rutherford. It was felt that it got the research away from any possible German interference but when the war was over America's original fears about the loyalty of some members e.g. Klaus Fuchs was justified.
    – WS2
    Nov 15, 2015 at 17:31
  • 1
    It is laughable to tout Leo Szilard (one of the authors of the Einstein letter) as a German spy. Groves was irritated by Leo's behavior. Nov 15, 2015 at 18:04
  • Many Communists also fled Germany and even during the war German soldiers fled and joined the Soviet army under General Seidlidz. The post war east Germany government was made up with returned from Russia Germans. Not everyone wanted to flee to the USA. Nov 19, 2015 at 8:10

2 Answers 2


There were many people fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, a lot of them Jewish. Mostly these people were welcomed by Britain. However what greatly complicated their assimilation into British society was that a lot of them were German speakers. Passports did not record people's religion, merely their nationality. So for official purposes, fleeing Jews from Vienna, were recorded as Austrians, and considered German. Often they had to explain to neighbours and others that they were Jewish and hence refugees. Equally among Czech or Polish refugees there may well have been people who were sympathetic to Hitler. Generally so far as the public were concerned anyone speaking German was suspect.

After war broke out parliament gave the government powers under the Defence of the Realm Act, to intern aliens. Anyone who was not British, (in practice mostly Germans, Austrians and Italians) was forced to register with the police. Their cases were considered and depending on what sort of threat each appeared to pose, they were categorised. The lowest category were free to live among the population and merely report at intervals to a police station. They were generally not allowed to live near the coast. However the highest category were put in internment camps for the duration of the war. To begin with, due to the pressures of events, all this was quite crudely done. Some Jews found themselves in internment camps where they were living cheek-by-jowl with Nazis. People who were seen as a risk were sent to such camps as the one on the Isle of Man, out of harm's way.

There is a considerable literature on this subject, but I am not really expert enough to point you to it.


I think you are right that a closer look at the makeup of the 33-member Duquesne Nazi Spy Ring might be instructive here.

While every member of the ring had pre-existing ties to foreign countries*, not one of them came to the USA as a refugee from Germany. Several in fact didn't come from Germany at all. The ringleader was South African.

There were in fact several people of Jewish extraction who were convicted of spying on the USA during this period. However, what they tended to have in common was that they were not themselves refugees but rather descendants of refugees, and they spied for the Soviets (their enemies), not for the Nazis.

There was at least one Nazi spy caught in England posing as a refugee from an occupied country, Willem Ter Braak. Presumably several more spies caught early on in their (often comically bad) infiltration attempts were planning on doing the same thing. Of particular interest would be Jose Walberg, Karl Meier, and two other Dutchmen (whose names I couldn't dig up), who again were comically incompetent, but had forged Dutch refugee papers on them. This spooked the British enough that they detained and started screening all Dutch refugees.

There was another set of refugee Nazi spies in England who, as per the pattern in the USA, were not refugees from Germany, but rather from the USSR (their enemies). Presumably they acquired their love of Nazism from their hatred of the Bolsheviks. Examples of this class are Marina Lee and Vera Von Schalburg

* - The exception here is one Kansas native who was the ringleaders girlfriend, and was convicted basically of not reporting on him.

I think if one is to take a lesson from all this, its that refugees themselves don't tend to be a danger, outside of spying for the enemies of the regime they fled. However, the existence of a refugee community does provide a tempting bit of cover for those who might try to sneak in through other means. The really big danger (such as it is) seems to be in your second-generation citizens.

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