A Time to Act: The Beginning of the Fritz Kolbe Story, 1900–1943
Spring 2002, Vol. 34, No. 1
By Greg Bradsher
"Our best intelligence source on Germany materialized in the summer of 1943, in the person of a diplomat, one who had the kind of access which is the intelligence officer's dream," Allen Dulles, the legendary spymaster wrote. "George Wood (our code name for him) was not only our best source on Germany but undoubtedly one of the best secret agents any intelligence service has ever had."1
Dulles, who would later head the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, was referring to Fritz Kolbe. Like many young people of his generation, this mild-mannered young German had rejected the old German order. But he refused, even under pressure, to join the Nazi Party in the years leading up to World War II and after the Nazis had overrun Europe.
Despite his hatred of the Nazis, the talented and hard-working Kolbe rose to responsible and sensitive positions in the German Foreign Office, where he worked diligently without suspicion and earned the trust of his superiors. This won him access to some of the Third Reich's most important military and intelligence secrets— about troop strengths and movements, supply lines, diplomatic maneuvers, and spy operations.
Kolbe eventually was able to pass on secret German information to the American Office of Strategic Services operating in Bern, Switzerland. He relayed this information, at great personal risk, during diplomatic courier trips to Switzerland as well as through messages sent by various means.
This is the story of how Fritz Kolbe came to be George Wood and how he would supply the Allies with some of their most important intelligence of World War II
Fritz Kolbe, ca. 1946 - 47. (NARA, Records of the Office of Strategic Services, RG 226)
The Beginnings, 1900 - 1939
Fritz Kolbe was born into a middle-class family in Berlin on September 25, 1900. His father, a saddlemaker, drilled into him this principle: "always to do what he thought right and never be afraid." Kolbe was also greatly influenced by the Wandervogel movement, which he joined in 1914 and which instilled in him a sense of sincerity and inner integrity that guided his personal conduct, his views about the Nazis, and the actions he would subsequently take against them.2
The Wandervogel, roughly translated as "Birds of Passage" (also "wandering free spirits"), was a middle-class youth movement begun in the late 1890s in response to the seemingly repressive system of values of the time and the industrial revolution. Discontented middle-class German youths rejected the bourgeois way of life, which to them seemed wholly dedicated to the achievement of material gains. The Wandervogel, numbering some 25,000 in 1914, wished to introduce simplicity and sincerity into the German way of life.3
The Wandervogel movement initially consisted of youth-led nature hikes and excursions, both as a means of temporarily escaping their parents' way of life and to gain a better sense of values through being in touch with nature. To look forward to a better society, the Wandervogel looked to the past. Much of the focus of the movement before World War I was on traditional German folk stories, folk songs, and folk heroes as well as poetry, art, and romantic literature.
Kolbe left school and his Wandervogel activities in October 1917, when he was conscripted as a civilian employee into the German army. He served until August 1918 with a telegraph unit and from then until the end of 1918 as a soldier with an engineer battalion.4 Later Kolbe wrote that he "regretted that so much courage and determination were diverted to destruction" and believed that such courage and determination could have better been "directed to build a better world."5
After the war, Kolbe renewed his association with the Wandervogel. The postwar period witnessed an explosion of the number of youth groups; by the end of the 1920s, German youth were involved in about two thousand groups and organizations. This renewed youth movement was a rejection of the Weimar government and society.
The Weimar-era Wandervogel was popular due to its emphasis on sports and weekend retreats that involved hiking and skiing. These postwar Wandervogel members shared the same views as their prewar predecessors, and like them, they did not take the step toward organized, focused social rebellion. They believed that the changes they wanted to make in society could not be brought about by political means but only by the improvement of the individual. They believed in sincerity and straightforwardness because "they had seen to what the cleverness and shrewdness of politicians had led their country and the world."6
Many of the youth groups were courted by the Nazis and were eventually absorbed into the Nazi youth movement. Kolbe's particular group held an anti-Nazi viewpoint and often came into conflict with the Sturmabteilung (SA), the early private army of the Nazi Party.7
Home from military service in 1919, Kolbe took an apprentice job with the German State Railways. He sought this employment because he wanted to travel abroad. While serving as an apprentice, Kolbe took evening classes and graduated from high school and enrolled for four semesters at the University of Berlin, studying economics. In 1922 he passed the exam for a civil service appointment with the railroad, and his hard work made him Germany's youngest stationmaster. But Kolbe was interested in the world outside Germany, so he studied for and subsequently passed in early 1925 the foreign service examinations.8
Joining the Foreign Office in Berlin in March 1925, Kolbe settled in at a clerical job and married a German woman that year.9 During 1925 Kolbe witnessed the rise of Nazism. "Of course," he later wrote, they would have liked him to join them as "they desired energetic men in their ranks," but he refused. He believed the Nazis "were liars who tried to fool everybody" but that they were never able fool "all the people all the time."10 In October 1925 Kolbe was assigned to the German embassy in Madrid, Spain, where he remained until January 1936. There, in 1932, Kolbe and his wife had their only child, a boy.11
With the beginning of the world depression, the Weimar Republic began to falter. In 1930 Nazi armed bands roamed the streets, terrorizing anyone who dissented from their views, and that year Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party significantly increased its presence in the Reichstag. Watching these developments from Spain, Kolbe would later recall that "Hitler understood masterfully to use the economic need and emptiness of the soul of the masses for his own purpose." In early 1933 Hitler and the Nazi Party took control of Germany. Kolbe later wrote that they had done so "by frightening old [President] Hindenburg with an alleged intention of Reichswehr [Germany Army] to conquer Berlin from Potsdam and by frightening the German well-to-do class with the threat of Bolchevism [sic]."12
Kolbe ceased his open opposition once Hitler took office.13 He must have felt as so many other German bureaucrats did: one must be loyal to legitimate authority. And Hitler had been legitimately placed in power. Very quickly Kolbe and his colleagues in the Foreign Office would learn that Hitler did not reciprocate their loyalty.
Hitler believed that he, and he alone, was responsible for the foreign policy of Nazi Germany and had little use for his foreign minister and the Foreign Office. However, Hitler and his party certainly wanted members of the Foreign Office to support their regime. During the early years of the Nazi regime, the party pushed to have Foreign Office personnel become party members and also tried to impose its voice in the appointment, training, and promotion of higher officials.14 According to Kolbe, all of his colleagues in Spain joined the party.15 On one occasion, in 1935, he was summoned by local party chiefs and interrogated about why he did not join. Kolbe played dumb, avoiding clear answers to their inquiries and engaged them in a discussion of his Weltanschauung, his philosophy of life. He was, Kolbe later recalled, "dismissed as a hopeless case."16
In late 1936 Civil War broke out in Spain, with Germany and Italy backing the Fascist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco and the Russians supporting the Spanish Loyalists. Early in the war, when German diplomatic personnel fled Barcelona, they left behind some of their records, including Kolbe's recent personnel evaluation. It was published in a newspaper, much to Kolbe's delight. The evaluation, probably done after his 1935 interrogation, noted that Kolbe had a "good character" but that he had contacts with "Marxists and Jews" and was therefore not considered for party membership. Upon reading this, Kolbe felt "a tad pleased with myself."17
After leaving Madrid, Kolbe spent two months at the German embassy at Warsaw, returning to Berlin in mid-1936 due to the ill health of his wife. She died that year, leaving him to care for their son. Kolbe worked in the political department under Rudolph Leitner, who was involved in economic matters.18
During the latter half of 1937, Kolbe was posted to the German consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, along with Leitner, who was the acting consulate general. While there, Kolbe socialized with anti-Nazis and at some point in 1938 he married a Swiss woman. With the outbreak of war in September 1939, he was ordered back to Berlin to work at the Foreign Office. His anti-Nazi friends offered to have him arrested in order to remain in South Africa, but he refused, fearing repercussions for Leitner. When he departed in November 1939, Kolbe left behind his son in the care of his former family housekeeper as well as his wife, from whom he was trying to get a divorce. He decided not to take his son because he wanted to keep him safe from the Nazi ideology in Germany and the chaos that would be taking place in Europe.19 Knowing that life might be difficult when he arrived back in Germany and that he might have to flee at some point, Kolbe left Cape Town with German, Czech, and Nansen passports; various official rubber stamps; and a pistol.20
Back in Berlin, 1939
During Kolbe's short time away, the Nazis had tightened their hold on internal affairs, increased their persecution of the Jews, and acquired Austria and Czechoslovakia. Many, if not most, Germans who had had confidence in Hitler until 1938 were now not so sure. According to Kolbe's future boss, Karl Ritter, it became evident in 1938 that Hitler was leading the country away from peace. It then became necessary for Hitler to control the people by means of terror. Ritter said from that time on, "single persons could do nothing."21 Little did Ritter realize that a single person, one who would work for him, would do something— something to assist in bringing defeat to Nazi Germany.
Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister. (NARA, 242-JRB-47-68)
The Foreign Office of 1939 was quite different from the one Kolbe had left in 1937. The most important change was the new foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who assumed that position on February 4, 1938. Ribbentrop's only concern was Hitler and trying to achieve Hitler's goals. Nothing else mattered.22
Two other changes in the Foreign Office had occurred during Kolbe's absence. The first was the size of the organization. The pre-Ribbentrop Foreign Office employed some 2,500 - 2,800 people. By 1941 the number was well over 10,000. This growth resulted in part because of the war and in part because of Ribbentrop's desire to make the Foreign Office as large and impressive as possible. The other change was the increased number of Nazi Party members, some of whom Ribbentrop brought with him when he assumed his position.23
Kolbe liked neither the Germany nor the Foreign Office to which he returned. "The more he saw of Nazi politics and their wickedness, the stronger he felt in his opposition" he later recalled.24
Kolbe worked initially for Minister Rudolf Leitner, who was responsible for many issues relating to the war.25 Not long after starting to work for Leitner, Kolbe was considered for assignment to Stavanger, Norway, to serve as the consulate general. Leitner urged Kolbe to become a Nazi Party member in order to assist in this promotion. Although Kolbe desired to leave Germany, he refused to join the party; the diplomatic assignment fell through.26 Even though he knew that without joining the party his chances were slim, Kolbe nevertheless did make several futile attempts to get assigned to a diplomatic post abroad.27
At the same time, Kolbe became engaged in somewhat minor anti-Nazi activities. All of the blank passports he had brought with him from South Africa were used by various Jewish refugees to escape.28 Many of his old Wandervogel comrades felt as he did about what the Nazis where doing to Germany. They knew that open revolt against the Nazi regime would have meant suicide, so they started an underground opposition effort. As a cover for their opposition activities, they formed a sports club, believing the Nazis could not protest against young men trying to keep fit in wartime. Ostensibly to prepare for their Sunday tours, they gathered in the evenings and wrote letters (in block letters to conceal their handwriting) to banks and department stores, where they could expect that dozens of people would read them before somebody would hand them over to the police. "The letters," according to Kolbe, "contained the truth about the Nazis disclosing the tricks of Hitler and Ribbentrop to fool the Germans and the foreign countries." They were quite careful in this activity, handling the correspondence with gloves in order to avoid fingerprints and posting the letters from a different quarter of Berlin each time. But his colleagues apparently were not careful enough about putting out leaflets and other covert anti-regime propaganda. Several were caught and put in concentration camps; one paid with his life.29
As the Germans conquered more of Europe, the Foreign Office became more nazified. Kolbe thought about emigrating, perhaps even escaping over the Swiss border. He discussed what he should do with his respected Benedictine friend, Prelate Georg Schreiber, head of the monastery at Ottobeuren in Bavaria, one of the leading Catholic Centralist politicians of the Weimar Republic and a declared foe of Nazism. Schreiber convinced Kolbe that he should remain in Germany and find a way to use his position in the struggle against the Nazis. Schreiber also declared Kolbe free of any oath to Hitler.30
Despite his opposition to the Nazis, his resistance activities, and desire to leave Germany, Kolbe was a good bureaucrat, though outspoken at time. Kolbe could be astonishingly frank. In the presence of a Nazi party official, he had once referred to Mussolini as a "pig," and he refused to back down upon being sternly reprimanded. Kolbe's candor was tolerated as part of his eccentricity and because, for the most part, he kept his mouth shut and did his job well. He made himself indispensable to Leitner, and though he was not a Nazi Party member, his hard work, skill, and ability was appreciated and rewarded. Sometime in the latter half of 1941, Kolbe went to work for Karl Ritter, who, like Leitner (who worked for Ritter), would also find Kolbe indispensable.31
Working for Ritter and for the Opposition
During the summer of 1941, Karl Ritter, who had joined the Foreign Office in 1921, was assigned to serve as the liaison between the Foreign Office and the Wehrmacht supreme military command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW). In his new capacity he would work with Gen. Alfred Jodl, the chief of operations of the German General Staff, and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Walther Warlimont, and was concerned with military as well as political matters.32 Kolbe and others believed that Ritter had been given his new assignment because his strong personality, known rudeness and rough manner, and "case-hardened intellect" equipped him to deal with and stand up to the generals.33
Beginning in the summer of 1941 and through much of the war, Hitler spent most of his time at the Wolfschanze (Wolf's Lair), his remote headquarters in East Prussia. Throughout the entire war Ribbentrop insisted on having a headquarters of his own there in order to confer with Hitler at any time. It was therefore necessary that a number of Foreign Office officials be nearby, and Ritter was generally one of them. His absence from Berlin would have a significant role in Kolbe's anti-Nazi activities.34
Kolbe had three chief duties to perform for Ritter. The first was to review incoming diplomatic cables and collect the most important for Ritter's consideration. Each day he received from 18 to 120 cables from all German embassies and consulates. These cables concerned military and naval affairs, foreign affairs, and developments in the occupied territories. His second task was to review all reports of foreign diplomats and to receive and review all memorandums of conversations held by any member of the Foreign Office with members of the diplomatic corps in Berlin. He would select those of sufficient interest or significance for Ritter. His third task was to read the foreign press and the material furnished by the news agencies and to make a collection of the more important news, marking most important items for Ritter. American press, including periodicals, arrived in Berlin via Lisbon about one month after publication. Kolbe also received at regular intervals information on U-boat stations and was responsible for destroying the copies of secret and top secret messages that came to his office.35
In this new and important capacity, Kolbe was frequently pressured to join the Nazi Party. Though he refused, he retained his position. This firm stand won the high respect of less uncompromising officials who did not sympathize with the Nazi aims and practices.36
Kolbe found it ironic that he held such a trusted position. He would later write that he had quickly become one of the best-informed civil servants in the Foreign Office. "It was like a comedy. I who, without any compromises, rejected and fought the Nazis, even hated them, had . . . ended up in their inner circle." "I did not feel good about that, especially since I had signs that due to my work for Ambassador Ritter I was under particular surveillance."37
Despite the surveillance, Kolbe discussed with his Wandervogel and some Foreign Office colleagues how best to end the war. Kolbe knew that about fifty to eighty members within the Foreign Office belonged to the "Opposition." He later recalled that everyone knew with whom to speak openly, and the only reference made was "He is one of us." One former Wandervogel comrade, Fraulein Maria von Heimerdinger with the courier service, was one of them. Although many of Kolbe's friends and acquaintances knew about his views and that he was resisting the Nazis in his own way, they rarely got into specifics with him as to what he was doing or planned to do.38
A Time to Act, Part 2
A Time to Act, Part 3
A Time to Act, Part 4
A Time to Act, Part 5
The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group
Greg Bradsher, an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, is working on a book about Fritz Kolbe, Allen Dulles, and World War II intelligence. His previous contributions to Prologue have been "Taking America's Heritage to the People: The Freedom Train Story" (Winter 1985) and "Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure" (Spring 1999).