America’s Man in Berlin: The German Diplomat Who Spied For The Allies
Fritz Kolbe stood transfixed with sheer terror.
It was October 4, 1944, and he was standing in the mailroom of the Nazi Foreign Ministry in Berlin, watching a young clerk rifle through his packages. Parcels bound via diplomatic pouch for the German legation in Bern, Switzerland had never been searched before, but this clerk was new. He was zealous and suspicious and inspected all the contents of Kolbe’s pouch: shirts, trousers, socks — and the coat.
If the clerk found the roll of film containing images of stolen government documents hidden in Kolbe’s coat pocket, the jig would be up, and Kolbe the German diplomat would be arrested as Kolbe the American spy. He slipped his hand inside his pocket and grasped his pistol, preparing to shoot himself rather than let the Gestapo take him alive.
Distraction from a colleague who entered the room just then diverted the clerk’s attention away from his work, whereupon he broke off his search and packed Kolbe’s parcel up to be shipped out on the next day’s train. Shaking at the knees with fright at the close call, the man immediately tottered back to his office, locked himself in and helped himself to a double cognac.
Short, stocky and balding, like the caricature of the stereotypical bureaucrat, this bland-looking son of a saddle maker was unknown during his lifetime and would never became a household name in the storied annals of espionage. Nonetheless, he was, in the words of former CIA director Richard Helms, “without any doubt…one of the greatest, if not the greatest, source of ‘human intelligence’ information in the Second World War,” as well as the Allies’ first intelligence source to penetrate an organization of the Nazi government.
Fritz Kolbe hated the Nazis. He had been taught as a boy to reject what his father considered the Germans’ greatest weakness: a blind unquestioning obedience to authority. “Always do good,” the elder Kolbe often said, “And never fear the future.”
Once the new Nazi regime came to power in 1933, Kolbe’s stubborn non-conformism and reckless outspokenness inevitably clashed with the ways of the new Nazi regime. In 1935, a remark by Kolbe that he thought Mussolini a “pig” drew a stern rebuke from a local party leader. Party leaders frequently noted his absence at Hitler’s birthday celebrations and his associations with Jews. When investigators were sent to interrogate him about his political views, he escaped trouble by playing dumb, yet it took still another threat in 1939 from a superior to finally convince him of the wisdom of caution. From this point, Kolbe cloaked his true feelings about the regime behind a facade of likeable eccentricity.
As the 1930s wore on, Kolbe’s refusal to join the Nazi Party finally began costing him promotions and choice foreign assignments. Nonetheless, his reputation for speed, precision, discretion and hard work secured him an important assignment in Berlin in late 1940 as personal assistant to Karl Ritter, the Nazi Foreign Ministry’s liaison with the high command of the German armed forces.
The job required him to review and summarize incoming cables from diplomatic posts abroad and to monitor the foreign press, soon making Kolbe one of the best-informed officials in the Foreign Ministry. Through his work, an aghast Kolbe soon learned about the horrific atrocities being perpetrated against Jews and citizens of occupied European countries by the Nazi regime.
This tormented his conscience. How could he stay loyal to a Germany guilty of such bloody crimes against humanity, much less avoid complicity in them while remaining in his current position? By early fall, 1941, Kolbe had decided he could not do so any longer, and was planning to flee to Switzerland, but another regime opponent convinced him to stay and fight Nazism with the means at his disposal instead.
Back in 1935, a friend and fellow anti-Nazi, Ernst Kochertaler, had challenged Kolbe: “Are you ready for suffering, exploits, sacrifice?” In 1941, the answer was now clear. If Kolbe wanted to help halt Nazi criminality, he would have to wage war on Germany by spying for Germany’s enemies.
As Kolbe well knew, Switzerland’s neutral status and strategic location in between France, Germany and Italy made it a target-rich environment for spy networks of both sides and an excellent place for making contact with Allied authorities. He tried for months to secure a diplomatic courier assignment to Switzerland, and finally, in August 1943, Kolbe received orders to take Foreign Ministry files to the German legation in Bern.
Once in the city, the would-be spy tapped his old friend Ernst Kochertaler, who now lived in Switzerland, to carefully and discreetly approach Allied intelligence as his intermediary. On August 17, Kochertaler showed up unannounced at the British legation in Bern and demanded to see the head of the legation. After a short conversation with one British legation official, Kochertaler got passed on to the legation’s military attaché, Colonel Henry Cartwright. Kochertaler’s appeal utterly failed to impress Cartwright. He refused to reveal Kolbe’s name, and he had nothing to offer that would prove his bona fides except a memorandum that supposedly originated with the Nazi Foreign Office, so the wary Cartwright consequently turned Kochertaler down.
Kochertaler didn’t give up, though. For a second try, he decided to use a well-connected intermediary of his own, Swiss banker Dr. Paul Dreyfuss, to get a foot in the door at the American legation.
Later that day, Cartwright happened to cross paths out on the street with Allen Dulles, the head of mission in Bern for the U.S. wartime spy agency, the Office for Strategic Services (OSS). “He had had a call from a cove whose name had ‘tal’ in it, he did not remember the exact spelling, and that undoubtedly the fellow would turn up at our shop in due course, and we should be on the lookout for him,” Dulles later reported to his OSS superiors.
Early the next morning, Dreyfuss called Dulles’ colleague, propaganda specialist Gerald Mayer. This successfully opened the door for Kochertaler, who offered a meeting with his unnamed German diplomat friend and a sheaf of German Foreign Office cables from Berlin as an incentive.
At midnight on August 19, 1943, Kolbe and Kochertaler assembled in an apartment in Bern to meet with Mayer and a fourth man who introduced himself as Mayer’s “assistant,” Mr. “Douglas.”
“Douglas” (who was actually Allen Dulles) frequently received offers like the one from this mysterious, “devoted anti-Nazi prepared to work for the Allies.” The skeptical and wary British had quickly dismissed Kolbe’s first appeal as a Nazi trap. Dulles, by contrast, never turned down a request for a meeting as a matter of principle.
Kolbe wasted no time in dropping his first bombshell. From inside his coat, he took a large envelope that had been sealed in red wax stamped with a swastika, now broken open. From it, he took out a large stack of documents and laid them on the table.
A moment of stunned silence ensued. Here were reports on such things as notes on a conversation between Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop and the Japanese ambassador in Berlin, tungsten deliveries by Spain to Germany, the existence of a clandestine, German-operated radio transmitter in Ireland. Kolbe even provided the men with a hand-drawn map of the location of the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia near Rastenburg.
Dulles was impressed, but many questions remained, especially about Kolbe’s motivations. To the Americans’ surprise, Kolbe refused payment for his work. “It is not only one’s right but one’s duty to fight such a government…My wish is to shorten the war. And at the end of the war, Nazism, fascism and all the other isms of the totalitarian states should end. We will need American help against the Russians tomorrow in our and their interests, but we must help them now.”
The meeting lasted until three in the morning. With assurances of future meetings, Fritz Kolbe headed back to Berlin the next day.
Immediately, analysts at the OSS’ counterespionage department (X-2) and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) in London set to work vetting the reliability and value of this new intelligence asset, now code-named George Wood. London was extremely skeptical of Kolbe. On the other hand, within a few months, Dulles felt confident enough to assert, “I now firmly believe in the good faith of Wood, and I am ready to stake my reputation on the fact that these documents are genuine.”
Through him, the Americans learned of such things as the location of the factory making the new German Me262 jet fighter and information on the new German rocket weapons, the V-1 and V-2. There were reports on the anti-Nazi coup d’etat attempt of July 20, 1944, German reinforcement of Atlantic Wall fortifications on the French coast in anticipation of the Allied invasion and lists of Japanese bases in the Far East.
Especially valuable were reports of growing opposition to the Nazi regime inside Germany, the gloomy state of mind among German leaders and the crumbling relations among Axis nations, especially Hungary and Rumania, all signs of the disintegration of Axis power.
In recognition of the incredible value of Kolbe’s intelligence, a series of summaries designated “Boston” began reaching the highest levels of American government by January 1944, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. One of the first Boston intercepts FDR received that month carried an alarming revelation of a major security breach at the British embassy in Ankara, Turkey carried out by an Axis spy named Cicero.
Cicero, the code name for Elyesa Bazna, the Kosovar Albanian valet to the British ambassador Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, had been selling to the Germans secrets stolen from the ambassador’s safe for two months. Kolbe could not provide Cicero’s identity, but the resulting investigation of embassy staff by the alerted British put enough fear of imminent discovery in Bazna that he left the embassy in March 1944 with 300,000 pounds sterling in pay, ending his espionage career.
The constant risk of discovery with classified Reich documents on his person by the Nazi authorities terrorized the nervous and high-strung Kolbe himself, who frequently suffered violent stomach cramps and sweated profusely in stressful situations, especially at the customs inspection station on the German side of the border with Switzerland.
The constant rain of Allied bombs on Germany proved another source of danger and stress for Kolbe. The night before his second trip to Bern in October, 1943, Kolbe almost got hit by a bomb in a British air raid on Berlin. Had an air-raid warden not stopped him to check his papers, Kolbe would have walked straight under the bomb’s point of impact. En route to Bern the next day, Kolbe’s train was strafed by a British Mosquito fighter-bomber, and then halted when the bomber blew up the track ahead.
Starting in 1944, Kolbe increasingly began to rely on sending intelligence through coded messages forwarded by like-minded friends with greater freedom of movement between Berlin and Bern, or through letters sent via diplomatic pouch to Walter Schuepp (Ernst Kochertaler’s brother-in-law) in Bern.
He hid some outgoing messages, for instance, in the lining of clothing or in the sole of a shoe. Returning messages from the Americans came back hidden in packages of coffee, cigars or cigarettes.
One appreciative message from Bern to Kolbe came written on a postcard showing a wintry mountain scene, mailed from the ski resort of Parsenn, near Davos. “I managed to make three ski jumps (we got your three messages),” it declared. “As you know, I am not a beginner (we deciphered your last message). The weather is fine (the information was useful).”
Kolbe’s final wartime mission for the OSS came on his last trip to Bern in April 1945 as the Nazi regime was entering its final death throes. The OSS wanted Kolbe to go to the German Legation to warn the German envoy Otto Koecher to stop destroying consular records thought to contain war crimes evidence.
“You have to choose between Hitler and Germany. The whole world has its eyes on you,” Kolbe told Koecher, but an enraged Koecher, furious with what he considered Kolbe’s treason, threw him out. Koecher would later hang himself at the Allied internment camp at Ludwigsburg, for which other former Foreign Ministry employees would come to blame the “traitor” Fritz Kolbe, a misfortune that would permanently destroy his reputation and career.
“Fritz Kolbe is a brave man of high principles and a sincere believer in what [America] stands for. He deserves well of us,” Dulles wrote in 1948. Unfortunately, few agreed with Dulles’ statement, and the strong disapproval of his countrymen plus American indifference would make it difficult for him to start life over again after the war’s end.
Kolbe found himself blacklisted by former Nazis in the new West German Foreign Ministry in retaliation for what they perceived to be his treason against Germany and his betrayal of Otto Koecher. He never worked for Germany’s Foreign Ministry ever again, surviving on decently-paying but unrewarding odd jobs until his death in Bern in 1971.
Despite what it cost him, though, Fritz Kolbe never regretted his wartime activities. In 1965, he wrote in a letter to Ernst Kochertaler, “My aim was to help my poor nation end the war sooner and to cut short the suffering of the people in the camps…I [made] the Americans see that there were people in Germany who were resisting the regime without asking for anything in return.”