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Karl Schulmeister – the forgotten spy who aided Napoleon’s triumphs

Posted in Espionage, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 18 May 2012

This edited article about Karl Schulmeister originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 707 published on 2 August 1975.

Austerlitz, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon triumphed at the Battle of Austerlitz after receiving invaluable information from Schulmeister and his informants in Vienna

All his life, Karl Schulmeister had wanted to work for the great Napoleon. Now, in the great hall at Strasbourg, where the Emperor had agreed to interview him, it seemed to Schulmeister that his big chance had come at last.

Napoleon addressed him curtly. “Where are your references?”

“Sire, I have no recommendations but my own.”

“You may go. We have no work for men without references.” Without another word, Napoleon rose and retired behind a screen, indicating that the interview was over.

But Schulmeister did not go. Instead, he made a few alterations to his dress and puckered up his face. In a moment the Emperor returned and, thinking that Schulmeister had gone and that here was a fresh recruit, demanded, “Who are you?”

“I am Karl Schulmeister,” replied the candidate. “You interviewed me a moment ago. Now that I have demonstrated my ability to change my personality completely, perhaps you could find me a job in your service.”

Napoleon, we are told, was thunderstruck by the deception which was so good he was completely fooled. At any rate, he immediately gave Schulmeister a job. And before the year was out the man with the double identity was Napoleon’s chief of police in Vienna.

One of his first assignments was to carry a letter from a French minister to a French spy in the Austrian army. Schulmeister decided to disguise himself as a German jewel-merchant, but once in the Austrian lines he was arrested and searched. When the letter was found on him he was sentenced to be shot at dawn the next day.

Six soldiers were guarding him, and when wine was brought for them to drink, Schulmeister doped each glass with opium, which he had hidden on him. As the guards fell into a stupor, he put on one of the Austrian uniforms. Then he went straight to the person to whom the letter was intended to be delivered, and recited it from memory. His mission accomplished, he got out of the Austrian camp and returned to the French lines.

On the day at Strasbourg, on which Napoleon had hired Schulmeister, the French Emperor had made one of the best decisions of his career. For Karl Schulmeister, he was later to admit, was worth a whole division of the French army to him. And as a double spy Schulmeister has had few, if any, equals for daring in the story of espionage.

The skill of acting, at which Schulmeister was so brilliant and which had got him his new job, was to save his life on many occasions during his spying career. At the Battle of Wagram, he was followed into a house where he had taken refuge by a group of Austrian soldiers on his trail. As the Austrians burst into the house they were confronted by a barber coming downstairs with soap, towels, razors and other barbering equipment in his hands.

“We are chasing a spy,” they shouted. “Have you seen him?”

“A man just ran upstairs,” replied the barber.

Like bloodhounds, the soldiers stormed up the stairs while Schulmeister, the barber, made a rapid getaway.

Another time, when he was surrounded by the Austrian police, he changed his guise and walked right through their cordon, bowing to right and left. The police allowed him to pass because he bore no resemblance to the man for whom they were looking.

On yet another occasion, he paid a million francs to an Austrian general so that he could take the general’s place at a council of war. The council was presided over by the Austrian Emperor who, like the other generals, failed to spot the intruder. And the entire proceedings of the Council were reported back by Schulmeister to Napoleon.

But the master spy’s greatest coup came when he presented himself to Marshal Mack, commander of the Austrian-Hungarian army, in Vienna.

“I am a Hungarian nobleman,” he told Mack. “I have been living in France for many years, and now the French have banished me because they suspect me of being an Austrian spy. I would like to avenge myself on them by really becoming an Austrian spy. Could you use my services?”

Mack, who was no fool but, at 53, an experienced commander, was impressed with the “nobleman.” He obtained a commission in the Austrian army for Schulmeister, made him a member of the best military clubs in Vienna, and then appointed him chief of intelligence on his personal staff.

Then Schulmeister pulled the trick that has made him the model for double agents for nearly two centuries.

One day he entered Marshal Mack’s office with a French newspaper in his hand. “We have just had news that the French are about to revolt against the tyrant Napoleon,” he declared. “As a result, most of the French army is being withdrawn from the Austrian border in order to deal with the expected uprising in France.”

Schulmeister spread out the French newspaper before the Marshal. “This was smuggled out of France. You will see from the reports in it that civil strife is spreading all over France. These reports confirm the information from our spies. France is about to be rent by civil war.”

A gleam came into Mack’s eyes. “Then this is the time to attack!” he exclaimed. “When the French are at their weakest.”

What Mack did not know was that the French newspaper was a fake, deliberately printed for this coup, and that his Director of Intelligence was a Napoleonic spy who expected that Mack’s reaction would be to attack, and who was about to send news of that attack to Napoleon.

Confidently, Mack advanced with 30,000 of his troops to Ulm, in south-west Germany, where he expected to find only the remnants of the withdrawn French army. Instead, he was surrounded by the pick of Napoleon’s Grand Army, much more powerful in men and arms than the Austrians, and, realising that he had marched into a trap, he was forced to surrender.

Schulmeister, who had travelled to Ulm with Mack’s Austrian soldiers, allowed himself to be taken prisoner by the French. Then, having reported to Napoleon, he contrived to make a “daring escape” and returned to Vienna, where he took up his job again as Director of Austrian Intelligence, still unsuspected of being a French spy.

From Vienna, Schulmeister kept up a continuous stream of information on Austrian movements to the French, which was certainly a contributory reason for the Austrians’ next overwhelming defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz. But a month before that conflict, the first rumours about Schulmeister’s loyalty were beginning to circulate in Vienna.

Suddenly, an order went out for his arrest and interrogation, but once again Schulmeister was miraculously saved by events. This time, the French general Murat swooped with his army on Vienna, and the threat to the Napoleonic spy chief vanished.

Later in the Austrian capital, he met a French officer who wrote about Schulmeister:

“I was curious to see this man, of whom I had heard a thousand marvellous tales. He inspired the Viennese with as much terror as an army corps. His physique is in keeping with his reputation. He has a bright eye, a piercing glance, his countenance is stern and resolute, his gestures are abrupt, and his voice is sonorous and strong. He is of middle height but very sturdy . . . of a full-blooded temperament. He has a perfect knowledge of Austrian affairs and his portraits of its leading personalities are masterly. On his brow there are deep scars, which prove that he has not run away from dangerous situations. He is generous too: he is bringing up two orphans whom he has adopted.”

Karl Louis Schulmeister was a clergyman’s son. He was born in Alsace and his first career was as a smuggler on the Rhine. Some years after that he became captain and adjutant to the French General Savary and, with only 13 hussars to aid him, he captured, in 1806, the Austrian town of Wismar.

Schulmeister became first a civil police chief, then a military police chief with the title of Commissary-General. After that he was promoted to Director of the French Secret Service, a position in which he made himself a fortune with the blessing of Napoleon.

Schulmeister served his master loyally. He was repeatedly in battle and once, at the Battle of Friedland, seriously injured by a shrapnel bullet. Indeed, he was “worth an army division”. Nevertheless, Napoleon refused to grant him the honour he coveted, the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration. He could have money and possessions as much as he liked, but to Napoleon the Legion of Honour was for gentlemen, and no one could call a spy a gentleman!

When Napoleon married the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, it was clear that his chief of spies, who had held the Austrians in his espionage grip for so long, might be an embarrassment to him. Sensibly, Schulmeister retired to live on his fortune, coming out again only to support his master during Napoleon’s final break for power – the “Hundred Days” before the Battle of Waterloo. For that last burst of loyalty, the retired spy was arrested by the Prussian police and seemed certain this time to hang. No firm reason has ever been advanced for his release. Probably, as usual, he paid a huge ransom for his freedom.

In his retirement, Schulmeister had returned to his first career of smuggling. Now, free again, he made the mistake of turning to something he knew nothing about, Stock Exchange speculating. Within a few years he had lost nearly all his money. His last years were spent selling tobacco from a street stall in Strasbourg. At his home in that city, he was surrounded by beautiful cats, the strange passion of an old and impoverished master spy.

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