Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Strange Case of Dr. Lewis H. Marks

A conspicuous figure behind the scenes in Germany during World War I was Dr. Lewis H. Marks. More than just a regular research chemist doing business in Berlin, Marks was also a secret agent for the German government, spying on American reporters.

Lewis H. Marks. Press photo from 1933 when he became President of the Continental Distilling Corporation in Philadelphia. Authors collection.

Born in New Orleans in 1883, Lewis Marks studied medicine and came to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1907 where he became an assistant to the famous Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the man who discovered the cure for syphilis. Apart from selling serums to the German army during the First World War Marks also used his extensive contacts with the German government to assist American journalists, helping them with an interview or a permit to get to the front. This way he gained the trust of these American reporters who even made him an honorary member of their correspondents club at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. But they didn't know that Marks filed secret reports on their whereabouts and activities to some very high-placed German officials.

Film Propaganda

Apart from his dealings with American reporters Marks was also involved in propaganda for the Germans. He was instrumental in sending the first German war films to the United States and accompanied newsreel cameraman Ansel E. Wallace to the Eastern Front in January 1915. In fact, Marks' involvement with film propaganda continued throughout the war, as we discovered during a recent research trip to the Military Archives in Freiburg, Germany. Marks was in close contact with Major Hans von Haeften, the man who was the driving force behind the Bild- und Film Amt (BuFA) which was set up in the summer of 1916. This was the first attempt by the German government to coordinate and produce film propaganda. Though it did not really succeed in its aims to boost morale BuFA helped to lay the foundation for UFA and the thriving interwar German film industry.

Dr. Lewis H. Marks (third from left) and American correspondents at the Hotel Adlon, June 1915. Scene from Wilbur H. Durborough's war film On the Firing Line with the Germans (USA, 1915) 

Hans von Haeften had worked in military intelligence at General Headquarters for the Eastern Front and was very much interested in boosting official film propaganda. A report from the BuFA files at the Military Archives in Freiburg (RM/9901) refers to Von Haeften who was present at a meeting on July 29, 1916, saying: "Dr. Marks recently came to me in order to represent the interests of the American film companies. He said the Americans are not interested in sending cinematographers to Germany to make their own films. But they would like to see what movies are available and select the footage that is suitable for distribution in the United States."

Secret Report

Karl Boy-Ed (1872-1930)

We also came across Dr. Marks in a secret report by naval officer Captain Karl Boy-Ed. Here we have another fascinating figure in World War I history. As a naval attaché in the United States Boy-Ed had established a spy and sabotage ring until his undercover activities were disclosed. In December 1915 he was expelled from America and on his return to Germany Boy-Ed was put in charge of naval intelligence. Marks contacted Boy-Ed in 1916, and gave him confidential information on the American reporters. Boy-Ed's notes confirm Marks' secret activities, up to the point of suggesting which journalist could be bribed for any pro-German publicity and who couldn't be trusted. The report also mentions Von Haeften's propaganda activities and again shows that Dr. Marks knew him well.

Here is a copy of Boy-Ed's file on the American reporters, mentioning Lewis Marks as his undercover agent, including a translation into English.

Dr. Lewis Hart Marks died in Paoli, Pennsylvania, in 1958.

This website has a short biography on Dr. Marks.

Also, for more information on Marks and his secret dealings during World War I, check out our book American Cinematographers in the Great War.


  1. Dear Mr. van Dopperen
    I just bought your book through Amazon. I found it during a search about my Grandfather, a patent attorney who partnered with Dr. Marks to bring the patents for detergents from Henkel (one of my grandfather's clients) to Proctor and Gamble. Can we communicate privately? Thank you


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