Journalists and historians have portrayed Naval Commander Karl Boy-Ed as the alter ego of Franz von Papen – arrogant, militaristic, ruthless, unintelligent, and dishonest. Certainly, his work in the United States put the naval attaché into situations in which, by definition of his duties as chief of naval intelligence for the Western Hemisphere, he violated American laws and the diplomatic code of conduct. He followed orders of the Admiralty without regard to personal consequences for himself or his agents. His memoirs about the time in Washington indignantly titled Verschwörer? (Conspirator?) do not reveal an inkling of regret over his activities in the war or feeling for the victims of his schemes. Scores of his co-conspirators and supporters lost their reputations, livelihoods, and freedom. Boy-Ed simply moved on under the cloak of diplomatic immunity. However, to judge him solely through the eyes of the eventual victors would not do justice to this otherwise complex and sophisticated man, who grew up in a uniquely intellectual family, who liked to read and write, and who could not compensate the stresses of his wartime assignment.
Karl Boy-Ed saw the first light of day on September 14th 1872 in Lübeck, on the German Baltic seacoast as the oldest of three children. Karl’s father, Karl Johann Boy, was a merchant in town. Ida Ed, Karl’s mother was the daughter of the German parliamentarian, publisher, and newspaper editor Christoph Marquard Ed. Carl Johann Boy and his wife Ida Ed separated in 1878, and Ida subsequently moved to Berlin with her son. There she worked as a journalist and began writing novels. Ida’s estranged husband forced her and Karl to move back to Lübeck in 1880. She continued her career as a writer and published an amazing volume of seventy novels and essays. She supported the early career of Thomas Mann and corresponded regularly with his brother Heinrich, also a well-known literary figure. A major influence in the art and music scene in Lübeck, Ida supported the early careers of conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Hermann Abendroth. As a little boy, the future naval officer met and interacted with the frequent literary and musical visitors in the Boy-Ed household.
Karl joined the German navy at the age of nineteen. Rising through the ranks to become lieutenant commander, he served on dozens of naval assignments. He witnessed the American occupation of the Philippines in 1898. Shortly before the Boxer war, Kaiser Wilhelm’s brother, Prince Heinrich von Preussen, sent the navy lieutenant on a secret mission to assess the “value of the Chinese navy.” Boy-Ed considered his report a major accomplishment as a writer. In view of the hostilities that broke out with China a year later, Boy-Ed’s “research” certainly was timely. Boy-Ed served on the staff of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz between 1906 and 1909 and took over the Nachrichtenabteilung N (office of naval intelligence) from Paul von Hintze during this period. After three years in Berlin, Boy-Ed served as first officer on the SMS Deutschland and commander of the naval tender, Hela. By then promoted to lieutenant commander, he sailed on the SMS Preussen in 1911, the flagship of the second squadron.
His navy career took Boy-Ed to the United States as naval attaché responsible for the United States and Mexico in the beginning of 1912. He traveled to Jamaica, the Panama Canal Zone, and Mexico before he took over his assigned post in Washington D.C. in 1913. Well-read and intellectual, yet funny, smart, and cosmopolitan, he enjoyed a great deal of popularity and respect among American naval officials before the war.
The single Boy-Ed began dating the daughter of an Episcopal Bishop from Pennsylvania, Virginia Mackay Smith in 1914. The couple married in Germany in 1921.
Despite appearances, not all was well with the German navy officer. Boy-Ed suffered from phagomania, a constant desire to eat. The disorder required tremendous self-discipline in social circumstances. Another, more severe disorder he suffered was insomnia. Boy-Ed could not get a good night’s sleep. On the one hand the handicap increased his productivity dramatically, but on the other it wore on his health. The stresses of his New York assignment and, possibly, an unexpressed sense of regret for the consequences of his actions, took a heavy toll on him physically and mentally. He admitted in an autobiographic sketch that, as a result of his wartime assignment, his nerves suffered a permanent “crack.”
Naval Attaché Boy-Ed started clandestine operations immediately at the outbreak of the war.