Salon Kitty: The WWII Spy Ring Based in a Brothel

Left: Reinhard Heydrich in 1940. Right: SD personnel during a łapanka (random arrest) in occupied Poland. Photo Credit Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0 de
Left: Reinhard Heydrich in 1940. Right: SD personnel during a łapanka (random arrest) in occupied Poland. Photo Credit Bundesarchiv - CC BY-SA 3.0 de

During the peak of the Nazi regime, the Sicherheitsdienst was the Third Reich’s version of the CIA. Founded in 1932, the first leader of the group was Reinhard Heydrich. His goal was to ensure every person under Nazi rule was being watched at all times.

After the war, the Sicherheitsdienst was ruled a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials. The group oversaw a few interesting (if twisted) projects during WWII. One of the less offensive of those was Salon Kitty, a project overseen by both Heydrich and his colleague, Schellenberg.

Heydrich and Schellenberg

Heydrich was a high-ranking Nazi during the war and was one of the main leaders of the Holocaust. He was well known for being very serious and never altering his appearance, as well as for being extremely paranoid about those around him. He thought many of the other German officials were not trustworthy. Those German officials that he did keep close were always picked due to their unfailing loyalty.

Unfortunately for Walter Schellenberg, he was not among those people who were seen to be unfailingly loyal. In fact, Heydrich greatly disliked and distrusted him because of his ambition although it certainly did not stop Schellenberg from rising through the ranks. He became the head of foreign intelligence during the war. He was also quite a hit with the ladies. His lover was none other than Coco Chanel. At one point he tried to use her to strike a deal between Nazi Germany and Britain, separate from the other Allies. It did not work out, obviously.

A young Heydrich, in 1922;
A young Heydrich, in 1922;

Kitty Schmidt

Salon Kitty was named after Kitty Schmidt, the madame of the establishment, whose real name was Katharina Zammit. She had been running the salon since its creation in a wealthy part of Berlin. It was known for hosting only the most high-class German dignitaries and those within the Nazi Party, along with the occasional equally high-status foreigner.

Kitty herself was not overly fond of the Nazi Party. From 1933 when the regime began its control of the country, she had been sending money to Britain with the refugees who were making their way there from Germany. She attempted to flee in 1939. However, the Sicherheitsdienst arrested her at the Dutch border. She was taken to the Gestapo headquarters, where Schellenberg told her she had two options. She could either help him with his work in counter-intelligence or she could go to a concentration camp.

She agreed to help, but it was not entirely clear from the beginning how she would do so. The Salon Kitty project was Heydrich’s plan. While it had been discussed that the Nazis would infiltrate the brothel, he decided that, instead, they would completely take it over and use it for their espionage projects.

On Heydrich’s orders, the building’s entire basement was renovated into a Nazi office. There, five Nazis worked throughout business hours listening in on conversations being transmitted in real time from the bedrooms above. They transcribed everything they heard.

Heydrich also afforded some incredibly luxurious and expansive renovations to the upper floors, to attract more prominent customers. He wanted every visitor to have a lavish experience, and hopefully reveal any secrets which he was sure they had. He did not trust any of the top German officials that frequented the establishment.

Not Just Any Women

Heydrich also needed to hire some top-notch prostitutes. He set his department to the task of finding those young women, making them swear to secrecy. He had high standards for them; they had to be smart, beautiful, speak multiple languages, love men and love the Nazis.

The vice squad arrested lots of Berlin’s prostitutes and then weeded through them to find the best. Additionally, a few women from good families were used on the project. They were wealthy and married, and often respected members of society.

At Salon Kitty, they were taught to be able to recognize different kinds of military uniforms on sight, and how to elicit secrets from unsuspecting men. They gave a report after each client they saw but had no idea they were being listened to and recorded.

Kitty, though, was not let in on many of the details. The Nazis told her the 20 handpicked girls were part of her staff, but that they would only be allowed to see certain clients. If a customer came in and said they were from Rothenburg, they were to see those ladies only.

Kitty Schmidt (left) and her daughter in 1922;
Kitty Schmidt (left) and her daughter in 1922;

Salon Kitty’s fame spread within the upper-tier Nazis as the best place to go for the most high-quality prostitutes in Berlin. Heydrich’s plan worked pretty much how he wanted, and 25,000 conversations were recorded for analyzing. Most of them were lost after the war.

Some very notable guests visited, and the requests and secrets were a little juicy at times. Mussolini’s son-in-law stopped by, with some harsh words about Hitler, which he revealed during his session.

One Sicherheitsdienst general demanded all 20 girls for himself for an entire night but did not disclose anything of value. Heydrich visited on occasion, but was not recorded when he did. A British secret agent became a regular and wiretapped some of the microphones, enabling British intelligence to listen in on some of the conversations.

Salon Kitty’s Future

In the summer of 1942, Salon Kitty was destroyed during an air raid and had to relocate. A short time later the Sicherheitsdienst decided to remove themselves from the project and abandon their efforts, as customers were decreasing. Kitty was told to keep quiet or she would be punished.

Kitty was very secretive about the events that had transpired there. She died in 1954, never having revealed the identities of those 20 special girls. The brothel continued to be run by Kitty’s children for several more decades.

Lincoln Riddle

Lincoln Riddle is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE