Denn die einen sind im DunkelnUnd die andern sind im Licht.Und man siehet die im LichteDie im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.Some are out there in the darkness,Others out there in the light.If they’re in the light we see them,In the dark they’re out of sight.Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera
In September 2001, the German weekly Der Spiegel published an article about Fritz Kolbe, whom it described as an “anonymous hero” of the Second World War. He was profiled as an example of those Germans who opposed Nazism and who “fought with no internal or external help, driven solely by the stirrings of their conscience.” Fritz Kolbe was an unknown minor official in the foreign ministry of the Nazi period, so one wonders how the two authors of the article, Alex Frohn and Hans-Michael Kloth, had discovered him. The answer lay in the archives of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA, just opened by the United States government in June 2000. These documents, which had been inaccessible for more than fifty years, had just been declassified in accordance with a law passed under the Clinton presidency in 1998, the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. They included 1,600 German diplomatic cables classified “top secret” that had been delivered to the Americans by Fritz Kolbe, alias “George Wood,” between 1943 and 1945.
To read these documents is to understand why Kolbe was described by Allied leaders in 1945 as the “prize intelligence source of the war.” In his memoirs, published in April 2003, Richard Helms, former director of the CIA, pays tribute to him by emphasizing that “Kolbe’s information is now recognized as the very best produced by any Allied agent in World War II.”
As Der Spiegel noted with surprise in September 2001, no one in his own country knew Fritz Kolbe’s name. This man, who had taken enormous risks to fight Nazism, had completely disappeared from German memory after 1945. German public opinion never recognized the merits of this “traitor,” even though the “traitor” had chosen the camp of democracy and freedom. To be sure, the official history of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) extols the virtues of a few illustrious opposition figures, such as Count Stauffenberg, originator of the failed assassination attempt against Hitler in July 1944. But it has no room for all those who, like Fritz Kolbe, demonstrated by their actions that everyone might have done something against Nazism. As George Steiner has said, “the great ‘no’s’ to barbarism came from those so-called simple people.” The article in Der Spiegel portrayed Fritz Kolbe as an ordinary German, the equivalent of Dutilleul, the hero of Marcel Aymé’s Passe-Muraille. However, if all the Reich’s minor officials had, like him, attempted the impossible, Hitler doubtless would not have been in power for long.
In the second week of January 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was personally informed by General William J. Donovan, the head of the OSS, of the existence of a pro-American German spy in the heart of the Reich. “We have secured through secret intelligence channels a series of what purport to be authentic reports, transmitted by various German diplomatic, consular, military, and intelligence sources to their headquarters. The source and material are being checked as to probable authenticity both here and in London. We shall submit later a considered opinion on this point. It is possible that contact with this source furnishes the first important penetration into a responsible German agency.” General Donovan’s memorandum was dated January 10, 1944.
“First important penetration” behind the scenes of the Nazi regime: The announcement was calculated to give the White House great satisfaction. Since the United States had entered the war against Germany and Japan in December 1941, Washington had been trying to make up for lost time in the field of intelligence. The British secret services were far in advance of their American colleagues, who had in no way foreseen the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, an event that had been a wake-up call hastening the establishment of the OSS a few months later.
General Donovan had been given a free hand to construct a worldwide intelligence network, but he had no spies in either Germany or Japan. Of course, a few Germans spoke to Americans when they traveled abroad, but this was sporadic. There was no secret agent in Berlin or Tokyo: the risks of capture were too great, the prospects for success too slender. The principal source of available intelligence on the Axis powers was the decoding of intercepted enemy telegraph or telephone communications. This procedure could not replace the quality of human intelligence, which was extraordinarily difficult to obtain.
The ideal spy had perhaps just been unearthed in Berlin: No one could be more useful than a well-informed German official, close to the center of power and decision making, and inclined to transmit his knowledge on a regular basis. For all of these reasons, his subordinates felt that the president of the United States should be personally informed of the existence of a German agent working at the German Foreign Ministry. In his January 10, 1944 memo, the head of the OSS informed Roosevelt that these documents would thenceforth be classified under the title of “Boston series”—a name that, like most used by the OSS, was probably chosen at random—and distributed to a very small number of people at the head of the government.
Attached to General Donovan’s memorandum were fourteen very brief notes developed on the basis of elements supplied by the enigmatic spy, notes that contained a certain number of greatly significant facts. One German diplomatic dispatch dated October 6, 1943 explained that the head of the Gestapo in Italy, SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, had ordered the deportation of the Jewish community of Rome to the north with a view to “liquidating” it. A message from Ernst von Weizsäcker (ambassador to the Vatican since the spring of 1943), dated December 13, 1943, reported a conversation with Pope Pius XII, who expressed the wish that Germany “would hold out on the Russian front” and hoped that peace was near “or else communism would be the only winner.” Still in Italy, Marshal Keitel (in the name of the führer) had given the order to execute without trial Italian officers who went over to the enemy (12 September 1943).
The most invaluable intelligence in Donovan’s memo had to do with the Reich’s communication channels. Berlin had installed a clandestine transmission post in Dublin. The German ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen, had a “mole” in the British embassy in Ankara. And most important, the Germans had an informer in the entourage of the vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace! Everything had to be done to plug the holes and prevent further leaks. The Germans might already be aware of the Allies’ plan to land in France.
Roosevelt probably never learned the identity of the author of these revelations. Even the code name of the mysterious informer in Berlin, “George Wood,” was kept secret. Only one or two people knew his real name and position: Fritz Kolbe, born in 1900, official in the central administration of the Foreign Ministry of the Reich in Berlin.
Madrid, September 1935
It was ten in the morning in Madrid, and the city was bathed in the soft light of late summer. After eating his breakfast while reading the papers, Ernst Kocherthaler left home and headed for the German embassy. It was some distance, about three quarters of an hour away, but Kocherthaler walked quickly. As he walked beneath the locust trees, passing in front of still-deserted cafés, he could not stop thinking about the article he had just read in ABC: “Nuremberg, 15 September 1935: The National Socialist Party is going to pass several laws depriving Jews of full German citizenship. One planned law provides that marriages between Jews and German citizens will be prohibited. Extramarital relations between Jews and German citizens will also be prohibited.” Phrases like “protection of German blood and German honor,” and “survival of the German people” were repellent to Kocherthaler. He was extremely tense when he reached the embassy. He had the slight consolation that he did not yet have to see the swastika hanging in front of the building. The façade still displayed the traditional flag of the Reich (black, red, and white), but not for much longer. The Nazi Party had just decided in Nuremberg that its emblem would become the flag of the entire nation.
At the entrance, he asked for the consular service. His papers were not even checked, since he was known as a friend of Count Johannes von Welczeck, the ambassador. Count von Welczeck and Ernst Kocherthaler met often, publicly and privately. Sometimes they even spent summer vacations together, in San Sebastian, Biarritz, or Hendaye. The ambassador lobbied the Spanish authorities in support of his friend’s investment proposals and liked to talk with him about economics, politics, and business. Kocherthaler owned shares in the copper mines of Andalusia and handled major energy concerns. He represented the interests of large hydrocarbon companies in Spain and was the co-president of the national federation of oil traders. Kocherthaler knew many people and was one of the most prominent figures in the Spanish capital.
Kocherthaler was led through the high-ceilinged corridors of the palace, a beautiful building that had been the Prussian embassy in the nineteenth century, to the visa and passport office in the consular section. He was shown to a seat in a waiting room, next to a little table with newspapers on it. There were a few copies of the Frankfurter Zeitung, still a relatively respectable paper, and certainly less painful to read than the Völkischer Beobachter, also available for visitors, along with various pamphlets by Joseph Goebbels. “How can Welczeck allow this propaganda in the embassy?” thought Kocherthaler, who, despite his personal friendship with the ambassador, resented him for giving in to the dictates of the Nazi Party.
By May 1933, all German diplomatic offices abroad had received a detailed document from Berlin designed to answer questions about the fate of Jews in Germany. German diplomats in Madrid had been seen at evening receptions launching into long arguments on the “Jewish question,” explaining the specifically German concerns involved, and trying to put together arguments about its “universal character.” The party and its ideas were infiltrating everywhere, including the German-Spanish Chamber of Commerce, where, as a non-Aryan businessman, Kocherthaler was already no longer welcome.
Leafing through the paper, Kocherthaler lifted his head and looked around. He saw an old engraving of the Brandenburg Gate. There was also a poster of the “Strength through Joy” organization, depicting two young blond women sitting on the white sand of a Baltic beach. The picture reminded him of Rügen Island, where he had spent all his childhood summers. Finally, there was a portrait of the führer with a little girl giving him a huge bouquet of flowers.
The door of the office facing him opened a few minutes later. A short official, only about five feet three inches tall, appeared in the doorway. He had a round face with prominent ears. His bald crown was as smooth as his perfectly polished shoes. The man did not have a typically German appearance, looking more like a Slav or someone from southern Europe. He was soberly but elegantly dressed. The tone of his voice was clear, and his elocution as distinct as the text of a Prussian law. His general appearance was quite pleasant, and he seemed to have a certain charm.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Kocherthaler?” he asked, pointing to a chair. Kocherthaler remained standing. The consular agent, much shorter than his visitor, was forced to look up in order to talk to him. His politeness surprised Kocherthaler, who had noticed a certain decline in German good manners since the Nazi accession to power. Minor embassy officials, most of them already Nazi Party members, seemed to have taken advantage of the new state of affairs to adopt authoritarian airs or unwelcome and excessive familiarity. This man was different.
The businessman, still standing, spoke with the solemnity of an officer of the Imperial Guard: “I have come to take the necessary steps to renounce my German citizenship.” Ernst Kocherthaler asked the official to inform the authorities in Berlin that he was withdrawing from the national community and that he had taken steps to become, immediately, a Spanish citizen. “This decision is irrevocable,” he added after a brief pause, his eyes downcast and his voice slightly trembling with emotion.
A little taken aback by the tenor of the statement, the consular agent seemed not to understand. He asked the visitor to explain the reasons for his action. Kocherthaler mentioned the persecution of the Jews in Germany, the daily humiliations to which they were subjected, the boycotting of Jewish shops, the constant undercurrent of terror. “The Jews have been excluded from all professions and from all public places. The only thing they have left is their driver’s licenses. This Germany is no longer mine!” said Kocherthaler.
The laws that had just been adopted in Nuremberg had finally convinced him: He could no longer be a citizen of a country in which he was relegated to second-class status. He himself had converted to Protestantism before 1914, but both his parents were Jewish, and his family tree was officially considered “impure.” “I am a citizen of the Reich, and nothing else,” he said, clenching his fists. He had volunteered during the war, and, he told the official now, he maintained his status as a reserve officer. The black, red, and white ribbon on his lapel indicated that he had received a distinguished war medal. “Did you fight? Do you know what it was like?” Kocherthaler asked.
The consular agent, a little surprised by the question, answered that he had been too young to fight, that he had not been recruited until the very last months of the war, into a Berlin battalion that had never been sent to the front. Ernst Kocherthaler had already been in his office for more than half an hour. In the waiting room, other visitors were growing restive. Among them was a young Spanish Falangist who wanted a visa for Germany, and who now made a noisy display of his impatience. But the businessman was in no hurry. He spoke of his love for Germany, that he had left well before the rise of National Socialism. “After the war,” he recalled, “I understood that there was no longer a place for me in Germany. I was considered with contempt either as a nasty banker or a wicked Jew, or both at once.”