Prologue Magazine

A Time to Act: The Beginning of the Fritz Kolbe Story, 1900–1943, Part 2

Spring 2002, Vol. 34, No. 1

By Greg Bradsher


Kolbe Takes Action to Contact the Allies

Kolbe knew that his access to many of the documents and some of the information that the top Nazis saw or knew put him in a unique position to help the Allies. "From the first day I found myself in touch with Nazi secrets, I knew," Kolbe said, "I would have to find a way, somehow, to get them out." This meant treason. He thought about it and concluded that "nobody was obligated to be faithful and obedient toward Hitler's regime" and therefore, to benefit Germany, he needed to mentally transcend the issue of treason. He did and decided to make contact with the Allies. In late 1941, before Pearl Harbor, he made attempts to contact American officials in Berlin through Catholic Church intermediaries. These efforts failed, and the American embassy was soon closed once Germany declared war against the United States. Kolbe, perhaps discouraged, tried unsuccessfully at this point to get out of his position with Ritter and be sent abroad.39

During the winter of 1941 - 1942, Kolbe watched the war from the safety of Berlin as the military fortunes of Germany ebbed and flowed in North Africa and Russia. Millions were being killed, and undoubtedly Kolbe knew of the atrocities being committed by the Germans on the eastern front. Starting in March 1942, German cities were subjected to devastating air attacks. The German people gradually began to realize that the war might be lost.

Kolbe wanted to take action and get information to the Allies, but he knew that he had to be cautious. "Months went by without my being able to do a thing," he recalled. So during the winter and following spring, Kolbe tried to live a simple, normal life, perhaps not wanting to bring attention to himself. Increasingly, Germany was becoming a dangerous place, and not just because of the war. Under German law there had been only three capital offenses in 1939. By 1942 the number had risen to forty-six. In the Reich the number of people put to death rose from 926 in 1940 to 3,002 in 1942.40

During the spring of 1942, it became obvious to Kolbe that the only way to make a satisfactory contact with the Allies would be on neutral territory. Switzerland seemed to him the best place. He knew the country and had friends there, but to get to Switzerland, he would have to furnish a valid reason for an exit permit. That spring Kolbe asked his superiors if he could take a brief vacation, skiing in the Swiss Alps, or Italy, telling them it did not matter which country. They turned down his request.41

Kolbe's Contacts with the Opposition

Although unable to leave Germany, Kolbe continued his association with members of the opposition. Besides his anti-Nazi contacts within the Foreign Office, Kolbe also had ties to the opposition movement through Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch. One center of anti-Nazi sentiment in Berlin was the university hospital directed by Sauerbruch, the most famous surgeon in Germany during the Third Reich. Kolbe was engaged, pending his divorce, to Sauerbruch's secretary. Sauerbruch had initially supported Hitler and the Nazi Party and was often called upon to operate on important Nazi leaders, including Propaganda Minister Goebbels, and he even performed a throat operation on Hitler in 1940.42

At some point, probably during 1940 - 1942, Sauerbruch became an anti-Nazi and was involved in the resistance movement. He traveled frequently to Zurich, Switzerland, for medical meetings and talked freely to people with whom he came in contact. He was known among his medical colleagues, as well as others, in Switzerland as an outspoken critic of Hitler's regime.43

Kolbe was able to get some information out of Germany to help the Allied cause. Among the cables he read, he saw many relating to pending arrests of leaders of the French Resistance movement. For example, he read in a cable from Otto Abetz, the Nazi ambassador to Vichy, that Cardinal Gerlier of Lyon, who had saved many Jewish children, was about to be arrested. To warn him, Kolbe met an Alsatian leader of the Resistance, who, according to Kolbe, was startled when he opened the conversation with the questions, "Do you have courage? Are you daring?" After receiving satisfactory answers, Kolbe gave the Alsatian the information to warn the French.44

In the fall of 1942, a young Alsatian doctor whom the Germans had drafted, Adolphe Jung, was requisitioned by Dr. Sauerbruch to work with him. Kolbe sounded him out and found him eager to do something for Free France. Kolbe was soon using Dr. Jung's office for temporary storage of documents filched from the Foreign Office. As Dr. Jung had reason to make occasional trips to Strasbourg, where his brother or a friend could get information to the French Resistance and on to London, Kolbe was soon using this channel, particularly for warnings that certain Frenchmen were about to be arrested.45

The War Turns

During the fall of 1942 the course of the war was turning in favor of the Allies, as Rommel's Afrika Korps was defeated at El Alamein, Anglo-American forces landed in Morocco and Algeria, and the Russians mounted attacks north and south of Stalingrad. At the end of January 1943, the German Sixth Army surrendered to the Russians. These defeats, the increasing aerial bombardments, and the terror and shortages at home increased hatred of Hitler and the Nazis. This hatred would deepen with the beginning of the massive bombing campaign in the spring. Many Nazis, even die-hard ones, were changing their views about Hitler and the Nazi Party. One such person was Karl Ritter, Kolbe's boss. Increasingly during 1943, he became more interested in his own well-being than that of the Nazi Party, Foreign Office, and Hitler. Ritter, according to Kolbe, had now become thoroughly corrupt. When Ritter was questioned about his views, he evaded answer by saying, "Anyhow, we get wonderful trips out of this." Ritter began becoming more openly critical of the Nazi Party.46

In mid-February there were student-led anti-Nazi demonstrations on the streets of Munich. During February and March the military and civilian opposition contemplated the overthrow of Hitler and the party.47 Other anti-Nazis did not take action, for various reasons. After the disaster of Stalingrad, Gen. George Thomas began to "feel that nothing could be achieved any longer from the overthrow of Hitler. The war now obviously lost and could only result in a harsh peace for Germany no matter what government were in power; it seemed best to let the odium for this fall on the Nazi regime." He was especially fearful that a successful attempt to assassinate Hitler would lead to a new legend "in which he would be canonized as a martyr and the generals blamed for the collapse."48 The Allies' demand at the Casablanca Conference for unconditional surrender led many Germans to believe that the Allies would take revenge on them.49 In early April a Swiss businessman just back from Berlin informed American officials "that, if the German people could be shown that their existence would not be threatened after the war, they would overthrow the present Government without much delay."50

Another reason for lack of action was fear of reprisals from the Gestapo. Fearful of an internal overthrow, the forces of Himmler and the Gestapo were unleashed on the opposition. The first five months of 1943 witnessed thousands of arrests and executions as the Gestapo exercised a severity hitherto not seen by the German public. Student leaders were executed in late February, and a major opposition organization, the Oster Circle, was destroyed in April 1943.51

The German people were caught between a rock and a hard place in the late spring and early summer of 1943. On one hand it was next to impossible to overthrow Hitler and the party. On the other hand, because of the Allied demand of unconditional surrender, and therefore no opportunity for a compromise peace, there seemed to be no other alternative but to continue the military struggle.52

As Kolbe witnessed events in Germany during the spring, he decided once again to attempt to get to Switzerland. In his request for leave, he explained it had become necessary for him to divorce his second wife, who was Swiss, and he needed to travel to Zurich to engage an attorney for the proceedings. That could wait, he was informed. When he then volunteered as a special diplomatic courier, he was informed that there were others available.53

Nevertheless, Kolbe tried his best to assist the Allies. He learned that a spy was active in England who provided Berlin, by way of the German embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, with weather forecasts and inside information about aircraft production. Determine to stop the flow through these channels, he made contact with the British through his confidants in Alsace. They in turn got in touch with a go-between in Paris, who then dealt with British representatives. The British, according to Kolbe, were at first inclined to scoff at him but finally took him seriously when the information he gave them led at once to arresting the spy and stopping the leak.54

By the end of May 1943, the German forces had been driven out of North Africa, and the beginning of the end was in sight on the eastern front. Additionally, Germany was losing the war in the air and on the sea. In August the Allies occupied Sicily. The German navy was also suffering reversals of fortune. During the last week of July, ten U-boats were sunk in four days in the Bay of Biscay, and the Allies were effectively blocking the U-boat exit routes.

During the period July 24 - August 3, 1943, the British Royal Air Force, briefly assisted by the U.S. Eighth Air Force, launched a major air offensive against Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city. Forty thousand people were killed, and tens of thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed.

On July 24 the Italian Fascist Grand Council arraigned Mussolini for mismanaging the war and exercising an arbitrary dictatorship, and the next day King Emmanuel III relieved Mussolini of his office and asked Marshal Badoglio to form a new government. The news of Mussolini's downfall affected the German public more than did the bad tidings from Stalingrad. For many in Germany, the fall of Mussolini had broken the spell of National Socialism.55 Although the morale of the German army remained relatively high during the early summer, civilian morale was in marked decline as a result of the aerial bombardments and the news from the various fronts. Most Germans realized, as the events of July and early August took place, that the war was lost and there was not a chance for a compromise peace settlement.

The Opposition, Summer 1943

Despite fear of the Gestapo, some German people, however, did speak out and show signs of protest during the summer of 1943.56 Despite the mass arrests and executions of the spring, the opposition still plotted and planned. Some Germans were "convinced that it is their duty to apply all possible expedients to end the war as quickly as possible, that is, to further the German defeat with all available means."57 Kolbe certainly shared this point of view.

During the summer of 1943 he expanded his contacts with opposition members outside of the Foreign Office, particularly with those associated with Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg.58 Stauffenberg had become disillusioned about the Nazis during the Russian campaign and by 1942 was involved in the opposition movement. In early 1943 he was posted to Tunisia and on April 7 was gravely wounded. He was returned to a Munich hospital, where he recovered under Dr. Sauerbruch's supervision. While recuperating, he decided to devote all of his energies to removing Hitler at all costs. He was convinced the war was lost and was determined not to allow Hitler to destroy the army and Germany itself. During the year he would move into the inner circle of the resistance to Hitler.59

The fall of Mussolini gave the opposition plotters more hope to be able to achieve similar results in Germany and seemed to provide a propitious moment to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime.60 But this did not happen for a variety of reasons. First and foremost was the fear of Himmler and the Gestapo. During June, July, and August, Himmler's forces continued to move swiftly against the opposition, rendering any organized opposition impossible. Arrests and executions were common. Terror against the people had become a way of life.61 A second major reason was that the opposition's peace feelers to the western Allies did not meet with success.62

A Time to Act

Kolbe lacked confidence in the opposition methods and did not believe that their plans to kill Hitler and topple the Nazi Party would succeed. He saw only one means to bring about the downfall of the Nazis— the military defeat of Nazi Germany.63 Being well informed about international affairs, Kolbe knew it was hopeless to separate the Western Allies from Russia. During 1943 he became ever "more convinced that in order to liberate the German people from Nazi terror and corruption, some Germans had to risk their lives in combining the fight against the common enemy with the Allies."64 For Kolbe this meant getting information to the Allies— information that would hasten Germany's defeat.

Early in August Kolbe decided that it was now time for him to act— time to go Switzerland with information for the Allies. He did not believe that at this point he was under any suspicion by the Gestapo. If he were, he would not have been working in the sensitive position he held. And he believed that a friend in the Foreign Office could help him. This was Fraulein Maria von Heimerdinger, assistant chief of the courier section and one of Kolbe's old Wandervogel comrades. Kolbe told her that he must go to Switzerland to check on certain business interests of some friends and asked if it would be possible to take the next special courier's assignment. She told him a pouch would be ready for Bern in about a week's time. Kolbe received permission to go and received his exit visa.65

Kolbe Arrives in Switzerland

Kolbe went to a Berlin train station late on Sunday, August 15, to catch a train to Switzerland. The documents he intended to give the Allies were strapped to his leg. He must have been nervous; at this time, all train passengers were checked several times by Gestapo agents in the trains, in waiting rooms, and on platforms. As a diplomat, described as "Secretary of Consulates, Berlin, traveling to Bern as courier," he was not searched. The trip was uneventful, and Kolbe's train crossed over the Rhine River and entered Switzerland via Basel on August 16.66

View of Bern, Switzerland

Bern, Switzerland, ca. 1930s. (NARA, 306-NT-89390)

Although Switzerland was a neutral country, in many respects it was in a war for survival, surrounded by Nazi-controlled territory. Fearful of being invaded by Germany, Switzerland had mobilized all or part of its armed forces since September 2, 1939.67

The Swiss population in 1943 was about four million people, most of who identified with the Allied cause.68 The small nation also held tens of thousands of refugees from the Nazis, internees, escaped prisoners of war, deserters, hospital cases, civilian refugees, political refugees, and emigrants. A large number of diplomats and intelligence agents resided in Switzerland as did foreign businessmen. Germany had many diplomats and businessmen in Switzerland as well as supporters among the Swiss. German intelligence and counterintelligence activities also had a presence in Switzerland. The German military intelligence organization (Abwehr) in Switzerland was headquartered at the German embassy at Bern, with substations in seven cities. Thirty members of the Gestapo also operated in Switzerland.69

Once in Bern, Kolbe remained cautious. Not only was he concerned about Abwehr and Gestapo agents, he also had to worry about the Swiss secret police. The Swiss counterespionage agents were most effective. A German officer stated that "after a certain point the Swiss counterespionage organization was considered as by far the most dangerous. It is in Switzerland that the proportion of agents put out of action was highest. Our painstakingly built networks were constantly disorganized by timely intervention of Swiss counterespionage."70 In early summer 1943, more than one hundred Germans, Swiss, and Italians were under arrest for espionage in Switzerland.71

Kolbe checked into the Terminus Hotel on the Bahnhofplatz, right in the center of town, intending to stay two or three days. He then left the hotel, found a public telephone, and dialed the number of Dr. Ernest (also Ernesto) Kocherthaler.72

Kolbe had met Kocherthaler in the mid-1930s while serving in the German embassy in Madrid and sought his assistance in making contact with the British. Kocherthaler, a German-born Jew and businessman, left Germany in the middle 1920s and went to Madrid, where he took over some of his father's business interests there and also engaged in importing Russian oil into Spain. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War he was jailed by the Franco forces, presumably because of his Russian affiliations. He was released and in 1936 went to Switzerland, settling in Adelboden and marrying a Swiss woman. Either while in Spain or subsequently in Switzerland, Kocherthaler converted to Christianity and became quite active in religious circles. His anti-Nazi position was well known.73

Kocherthaler Meets the British

Kocherthaler came to Bern on the evening of August 16 or very early on the seventeenth. He and Kolbe talked about what could and could not be done with respect to ending the war. Kocherthaler believed Kolbe's "way of action the only reasonable one for a better German future," and he "appreciated the valiant attitude of a man, who had always been an opponent to Hitler by conviction." Kolbe gave him a document (maybe more) that he could show the British so they would be interested in meeting him and receiving more documents. Kolbe undoubtedly felt it safer to send Kocherthaler to the British embassy rather than risking going himself.74

During the day of August 17, Kocherthaler went to the British embassy and tried to meet with a diplomat named MacKillop, who was too busy to see him. He then met with a Captain Reid and informed him he had a German friend who was willing to work with the British. Being unable to present any satisfactory introduction and declining to disclose the name of his German friend, Reid dismissed him without carrying the matter further. Not giving up, Kocherthaler met with Col. Henry Cartwright, the British military attaché. Cartwright also represented MI9, the organization that helped and debriefed escapees from Germany. Cartwright's cover role was well known in Switzerland, and German intelligence had several times tried to plant an agent on him. These attempts had made Cartwright very suspicious of "walk-ins."75

Kocherthaler told Cartwright that that he could put him in touch with a German from Berlin who could provide valuable information. As evidence, he showed Cartwright one paper in German that purported to be the text of a deciphered German telegram. Cartwright did not even look at it. Kocherthaler made some vague remarks about knowing the British minister and MacKillop, but when Cartwright pressed for specifics, Kocherthaler admitted that his acquaintanceship with the minister was apparently limited to having met him at a reception. When asked why did not he try to see MacKillop, Kocherthaler said that he had tried but that MacKillop had said he was busy.76 Cartwright thanked Kocherthaler and showed him the door.

Cartwright cannot be completely faulted for thinking Kocherthaler was a plant or agent provocateur. The Venlo incident of 1939, when Gestapo agents posing as anti-Nazis in the Netherlands kidnapped two British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officers lured to a meeting to discuss peace terms, prompted Churchill to ban any further contact with the German opposition. The British did not want to deal with anti-Nazis primarily because they were fearful that the Russians would believe they were attempting to make deals behind their backs. Thus Cartwright was simply following his country's policy with regards to possible traps and contacts with anyone representing the German opposition.77

Kocherthaler believed they needed a better introduction to either the Americans or even the British again. To obtain this, he wrote a letter, sent by express mail, to an "old established and reputable Basel banker," Paul Dreyfus, requesting either an introduction to Mr. Norton [the British minister] or a contact with the American legation.78 Dreyfus, head of a private bank in Basel, was an interesting choice for such an introduction. During the previous winter, this well-known banker had been in trouble with the British and American authorities for having been involved in buying, from Germans, exit permits to allow Dutch Jews to depart from Nazi-occupied Holland. When confronted with the possibility of being placed on the British Black List or the American Proclaimed List (thereby not being able to conduct business with an Allied individuals or companies), he signed a statement for the British diplomatic authorities in Basel indicating he would refrain from the Jewish ransom traffic.79 To follow up on this statement, he provided reports on conditions in Germany to British diplomatic officials, who supplied them to the Americans.80 Most probably, Kocherthaler knew of Dreyfus's contacts with the British and Americans and thought him a good choice to make contact with them.

Dreyfus responded to Kocherthaler and told him that he was going to arrange an introduction with Gerald Mayer, an American working for the Office of War Information (OWI) the next morning at 9 A.M. Dreyfus had known Mayer for about a year and undoubtedly knew his connections with the American legation and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).81

Meanwhile, around 6 P.M. on August 17, the head of the Bern OSS office, Allen W. Dulles, ran into Cartwright in front of the OSS office at 24 Duforstrasse. Cartwright cryptically remarked (someone was with him at the time) that he had had been contacted by a person whose name had "tal" in it (he did not remember the exact spelling) and that undoubtedly the fellow would turn up at his shop in due course.82 Dulles probably envisioned another person trying to provide information at a price and also probably recalled the warning he had received soon after his arrival in Bern from the MI6 not to trust people claiming to be anti-Nazis.83

A Time to Act, Part 1
A Time to Act, Part 3
A Time to Act, Part 4
A Time to Act, Part 5

See also:

The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group

Holocaust-Era Assets

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).