Read Part I
Joe Schmidt was born in Cologne, Germany in 1911. He had left in the mid 1920’s to come to Alberta where he found work on farms, eventually obtaining a homestead near Cold Lake in 1933.
He was energetic and enterprising. He made his money variously as a mink rancher, trucker, fisher, hunter, trapper and seller of fence posts made from trees he’d cut himself, clearing the land. He did well, and by the late 1930’s he included managing the Cold Lake operation of an Edmonton Fish Packing company on his list of jobs.
He managed 6 employees and drove delivery all the way to southern Alberta and even into the US.
He was the kind who never talked politics. The people interviewed for the paper remembered him as smart, and well spoken. He came off as educated and as an interesting conversationalist. “People remember Schmidt as neat, clean, friendly, pleasant, law abiding, scrupulously honest and never abusive- a man who minded his own business, paid his bills, and kept his word.”
He was well liked and socialized regularly at the local “beer parlour.” In colourful early 20th century language, the local schoolteacher remembered Joe as a “hail and well met fellow.” Joe went to the community dances where he would act as a bouncer if anyone ever got rowdy. It was there that he met a woman, also from Germany, and married her. In 1935 he had “[taken] out Canadian citizenship papers.” To all appearances he seemed to be putting down roots. Few people knew yet of his political convictions, or how deeply he held them.
The first surprise I got after referring to They Came to Kill was when I read what Rachlis had to say about how Schmidt “…had farmed, fished and trapped by himself in Alberta, Canada, and supplemented his income by selling wood alcohol to local Indians.” A piece of information that was definitely not included in the newspaper articles.
Going back to the articles, the brother of the store keep in Cold Lake who got to know Schmidt well in the late 1930’s described him as a “good man.” Who knows if he knew Joe was peddling methanol, a substance known for its toxicity and in demand because the Canadian government had made it illegal to sell consumable alcohol to First Nations. This racist law, even with the best of “unexamined good intentions,” only exacerbated the disastrous effects of colonization. The Federal prohibition was repealed in 1985, a year after the articles had been published.
Back in 1936, however, the Canadian government had made it illegal for an “Indian” to be in possession of any intoxicant, even in their own home. Joe Schmidt exploited the demand caused by prohibition of the sale of alcohol by supplying the Cree and other people with an extremely toxic version; causing blindness, coma, and even death.
But when it came to recalling Joe Schmidt for the Edmonton Journal, if anyone knew, they weren’t telling. The brother and the store keep, who did admit to knowing of Joe’s politics before they became public knowledge, are quiet, and if the author of the articles in 1984 did actually use the Rachlis book as a source, he was quiet too. Instead, the man they remembered for the article (despite his Nazism) was a paragon of citizenship, almost epicly suited for life on the North West frontier of Canada.
The accounts of him paint a “near legendary” portrait. He would perform feats of impressive strength, such as lifting the front ends of mud stuck vehicles from ruts in the unpaved roads. He would bend heavy pieces of metal with nothing but his huge hands. He could drive any sort of vehicle with the sort of skill that made people think he must’ve been a pilot, “for the way he could avoid accidents.” He was a good boater, a good shot, and mechanically gifted- he’d fashion tools of his own design from spare parts. The Schmidt remembered for the articles was the kind of guy who could do it all, and do it very, very well. These qualities, combined with his energy and enterprising nature, he evoked the admiration of his community.
At over six feet tall, and near 200 lbs he was as memorable as he was imposing. Described as having “sandy- blond hair, freckles, ruddy complexion, [and] light blue-grey eyes” he was also “broad shouldered, raw- boned, husky and of ram rod straight military bearing.” One interviewee called him “very handsome.” But he was a man with two faces.
As time went on, and tensions in Europe once again erupted into war, things began to change. The articles in the Journal do recount the first hint of a dark side to Joe the residents of Cold Lake had of him. One day some locals were openly critical of Hitler and Nazism within earshot of Joe. What happened next was unexpected to say the least. Joe flew into a white hot rage. “I had never seen that man mad before. I was scared…”
It must have been wild. This man, so competent at bashing out a living on the fringes of settler inhabited territory, suddenly had no control over his own emotions. A physically powerful man, he struck fear into those who had just moments before idolized him. With fury, Joe publicly declared his Nazism, and loyalty to Hitler, threatening violence against any who dared talk about it. Things would never be the same.
By 1940 the situation was becoming untenable. With the realities of war Joe’s politics could not be ignored, he had guaranteed that with his outburst. The state was enacting repression of suspected and known Nazi sympathisers, Joe’s homestead was seized and he was required to report regularly to RCMP as an “enemy alien.” While once again targeting a group of people based on ethnicity, this time Germans, in Joe’s case the term “enemy” was not inappropriate.
Eventually the inevitable happened. Schmidt’s situation went critical, and he was arrested in an Edmonton beer parlour in October of 1940. This came just after Joe finished a delivery of fish for a Cold Lake business competitor of his. Being interviewed some 43 years after the events, Schmidt’s business competitor testified to the reporter that he felt because Joe had made the delivery (prior to actually being arrested, mind you, and therefore prior to his subsequent get away) it was a proof of his honesty, because he could have sold the fish and kept the money…
Sgt. Bert Pertham of the Edmonton Police made the arrest. He described Joe as a “cool and quiet customer” who was “shrewd looking and acted like he could be very tough.” Arrested for “committing an indecent act,” Joe effected his escape in between court sessions and disappeared. First to Cold Lake, where he abandoned his wife and the two children they had together. From there he fled to Germany via the U.S., Mexico and possibly Argentina.
At the time, no one in Cold Lake knew for sure that Joe had returned to Germany. Nothing would be heard of him for two years, until one afternoon in the summer of 1942 when that newsreel bulletin played at the local theatre. Rachlis’ book book helps fill in Joe’s story from where he left off in Cold Lake much of which is echoed in the articles.
Operation Pastorious was a product of Nazi Germany’s Military Intelligence service known as the “Abwehr.” Under the watchful eye of Colonel (later General) Erwin von Lahousen
Pastorius was conceived to give Hitler the means to strike first after his declaration of war on the United States. Colonel Lahousen led a section known as Abwehr II. This section was dedicated to formalizing sabotage into a military discipline. There had already been successes from the use of sabotage in the war against the Soviet Union,
“Once an entire platoon in Russian uniforms, supplied with proper military paybooks and even letters from home, drove Red Army vehicles hundreds of miles behind the Russian front on a sabotage mission which made a major German advance possible.”
(They Came to Kill)
Tactics like were used throughout the war by the infamous “Brandenburg Division.” They would be famously echoed during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ towards the end of the war in the Nazi’s last, failed, offensive in the west. The successes of the early sabotage program were was assumed to be replicable against the western allies in 1942 on the North American continent. Rachlis describes aspects of Operation Pastorius’ development of this way,
“With its laboratory and its school, all Abwehr II lacked for a proper start on the new assignment was a plan and the men to carry it out. German Military Intelligence knew with a fair degree of accuracy the location and importance of American factories, railroad lines, waterways and power installations; its experts could map a program which would keep the most ambitious saboteur busy for many months. As for manpower, it was available among the thousands of repatriated Germans who had returned from years of residence in the United States. Many had the proper requisites -they spoke English and had a wide knowledge of the country- and in a number of instances were indebted to Germany for their return passage. Nor would finding them be difficult. All returning Germans had to fill out forms which eventually reached the files of a variety of agencies, among them the Nazi Party’s Ausland Institut.”
The Nazi’s had already infiltrated the American armaments industry with spies. The Pastorius operatives had a different objective. This group intended to take advantage of German mastery of the Atlantic to convey from Germany, by u-boat, teams of militarily trained saboteurs. The first landings would be two teams of four, whose purpose would be to unleash a campain of industrial sabotage and terrorism.
excerpt from part III of Joe Schmidt.
…while training in Germany Schmidt had not only been an apt pupil, but he had shown initiative in suggesting tactics and targets. Schmidt put forward a plan to return to Alberta alone and begin a campaign of wild fires …
read part III.
“Cold Lake’s ‘Nazi Spy’ was just plain Joe,” etc, by Bob Gilmour.
Edmonton Journal March 23, 1984
from the Clipping File at City of Edmonton Archives