The designated head of the Secret War Council and the person officially assigned to purchase essential supplies in America arrived from Copenhagen on August 26th. The neutral Scandinavian America Line steamer SS Oskar II tied up at its New York pier two days after Count Bernstorff and Dernburg set foot on North American soil. Born on the 12th of February 1874 in Magdeburg, Germany, Heinrich Friedrich Albert came from a well-to-do household. His father, Friedrich, owned a private bank. Albert studied law after graduating high school with a baccalaureate. He passed his bar exam in 1901. His career took him through various jobs as a legal assistant in the Department of Interior. He rose through the ranks as an administrator specialized on economic questions, especially the role of cartels in the German economy. He married Ida Hausen in 1905 with whom he had three children. Although often called Dr. Albert, he probably never pursued any doctoral studies.
Albert received the rank and title of Geheimer Oberregierungsrat (Privy Chancellor) in 1911. Albert’s responsibilities reflected his preoccupation with details and bureaucratic process but he also had managerial qualities. His talent for details, combined with fluency in English, secured him a managerial role in setting up Germany’s exhibitions in the St. Louis and Brussels world fairs in 1904 and 1910, respectively. His responsibilities for the German exhibits brought the young lawyer in contact with officials from many realms of the Prussian economic and political power structure. Most notably, Albert worked directly under Clemens von Delbrück, who became Secretary of the Interior and Vice-Chancellor in 1909. Their working relationship was close enough that the Secretary actually expressed to Albert’s wife in 1915 that he “missed him.” Albert Ballin, the director of HAPAG also noticed Heinrich Albert and took a liking to this uncomplicated, meticulous, hardworking, yet decisive and results-oriented manager. Ballin invited Albert on a relaxing cruise through the Mediterranean in 1911, fully paid for by HAPAG.
The courtship worked. Albert signed on with HAPAG on April 1st 1914,. HAPAG director Arndt von Holtzendorff appointed the German lawyer to become the private assistant to Director Dr. Otto Ecker for an annual salary of six thousand German Marks (approximately $30,140 in today’s value before the war with deteriorating value thereafter). Ecker was slated to join HAPAG directors Albert Polis and Dr. Karl Buenz in New York that year. The contract ran for two years with the option of being extended. Albert had become a protégé of HAPAG director Albert Ballin.
No records have survived confirming the suspicion that between 1904 and 1914 Albert also worked undercover as a spy for Germany. However, it is very likely that certain members of the team including the German administrator who assembled the St. Louis exhibits in 1904 had been German agents entrusted with gathering and reporting intelligence. Albert seemed to transition seamlessly from a successful government career, in which he rose to privy counselor, to moving into the private sector with HAPAG, and then back to working for the German government in the United States. Despite the lack of archival evidence (which is not unusual with respect to intelligence officers), Albert’s career indicates that his true occupation was indeed in the intelligence sector. The various career moves were nothing but cover jobs for various intelligence missions. Certainly, one of the main responsibilities of his war assignment in New York was to establish command and control over secret service activities in the United States. Despite the British propaganda ridiculing German agents’ skills in the U.S. during the war, which several scholars picked up unchallenged, it is unlikely that the German government would have entrusted this important function in New York to an amateur without any previous experience.
Albert did not fit the stereotypical, overbearing, and brusque Prussian militarist, the likes of Franz von Papen, whom the American papers took greatest pleasure in mocking during the war. He also differed significantly from the suave, aristocratic, and arrogantly cultured version of the Prussian diplomat, the likes of Count Bernstorff and Prince Hatzfeld. The New York Sun reporter John Price Jones described the privy councilor in his 1917 book on the German Secret Service in America:
He was a tall, slender man, wonderfully supple-looking in spite of the conventional frock coat and the dignified dress of a European business man [sic]. His clear, blue eyes, his smooth face, thoughtful and refined, his blonde hair, and his regular features suggested a man of thirty-eight, or even younger, though you would look for a middle-aged or older man as selected for a position requiring so many nice decisions. When you entered his room – and few persons gained admission – he would rise and bow low and most courteously. He spoke in a soft, melodious voice, was deliberate in the choice of his words and encouraged conversation rather than made it.
While he sketched Albert so aptly the reporter missed one important feature that characterized many a spymaster: He was also non-descript. No one noticed Albert. He was of average build, his dress fit the surroundings, his looks were average, and nothing about this man caused anyone but another secret agent to take note of him. One other characteristic would have endeared him to his nemesis at the Bureau of Investigation, Chief A. Bruce Bielaski: Frugality. When he returned to Germany and accounted for his expenditures and activities in the United States, he credited the Central Purchasing Agency “the difference of $1,177.86 […] with reservation of a later decision as to whether this surplus from the funds of the daily allowances belongs to me personally.” He had not used a sizable portion of his $20 daily expense allowance.