Fräulein Doktor or Mademoiselle Docteur was the codename for a female spy who acted on behalf of the German military high command during the First World War. Her real name was Elsbeth (Elisabeth) Schragmüller. She was born in 1887 into an affluent family, which afforded her a good education. Schragmüller was one of the first generation of German women to obtain a university degree. She graduated with a PhD in Political Science from the university of Freiburg in 1913.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Elsbeth, like many other Germans, was keen to contribute to the German war effort. The war saw an unprecedented mobilisation of civilians amongst all the belligerents. Elsbeth received permission to travel to German occupied Belgium where she worked for the German general government in Brussels evaluating letters confiscated from Belgian soldiers.
Her work garnered her the attention of the German military high command and she received training at Abteilung IIIb, the main German intelligence service during the war. The head of Abteilung IIIb, Walter Nicolai, promoted Schragmüller to head the French section of the German intelligence bureau in Antwerp. The bureau was responsible for collecting information and recruiting agents working against France and Great Britain. Schragmüller also managed espionage academies at Antwerp, Baden-Baden and Lorrach.
Although there were several female spies that operated during the First World War, one of them was the infamous Mata Hari who was reporting to Schragmüller, a woman in a leading role in the secret service was a rarity. Schragmüller’s codename emerged from her status as an unmarried woman (Fräulein meaning Miss in German) and her academic accolades. At the end of the war, Elsbeth had reached the rank of a first lieutenant and had also been awarded the Iron Cross (1st class) for her services.
Until 1945, Elsbeth Schragmüller’s real identity was not uncovered by the Allies and several wild stories were created surrounding the mysterious Fräulein Doktor. Those stories painted her as either mad or addicted to morphine driven by an unhappy love to a German officer. They also formed the basis for a novel and several films.
After the First World War, Elsbeth was able, owing to the fact that her espionage activity had remained uncovered, to take up her academic career at the university of Freiburg. She was the first female assistant chair at the university, working with economist Karl Diehl and writing several academic papers. Schragmüller’s academic career, however, inexplicably ended suddenly and she moved to Munich with her parents where she died in 1940 at the age of 52.