Prologue Magazine

A Time to Act: The Beginning of the Fritz Kolbe Story, 1900–1943, Part 3

Spring 2002, Vol. 34, No. 1

By Greg Bradsher


Allen Dulles

Allen W. Dulles (NARA, 306-PS-59-17740)

Allen Dulles in Bern

Cartwright was correct in his observation. The next morning Kocherthaler would meet Gerald Mayer, and soon Kocherthaler and Kolbe would meet Dulles. Dulles had arrived in Bern in November 1942 to head up the OSS Switzerland field station. He was attached to the American legation as a special assistant to the minister. "My real tasks," Dulles wrote, "however, were to gather information about the Nazi and Fascist enemy and quietly render such support and encouragement as I could to the resistance forces working against the Nazis and Fascists in the areas adjacent to Switzerland which were under the rule of Hitler or Mussolini."84

Dulles knew Bern. It was there, during World War I, that he had received his first training in the work of intelligence.85 Early in his career, he had learned an important lesson in espionage when he inadvertently passed up an opportunity to meet with an obscure Russian visitor, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. He vowed to never again disregard any source of intelligence.86

Some twenty-two years later, Dulles, then a successful New York City attorney, was back in the intelligence business and soon would be back in Switzerland. Dulles was recruited by OSS Director William J. Donovan for the OSS's predecessor organization, the Coordinator of Information (COI), and in January 1942, Dulles opened the COI New York office. His staff launched intelligence projects in every part of the world, but Dulles took a personal interest in German operations.87

Dulles arrived at the Swiss border the same day in November 1942 that Allied troops landed in North Africa, and as his train passed from Vichy France into Switzerland, the Germans closed the border.88 The Allen W. Dulles who arrived in Bern did not look like a spy— he appeared more like a diplomat or professor. After finding out what Dulles was doing in Switzerland, Mary Bancroft, an American living there who would work for Dulles, wrote "I still had difficulty believing that this cheery, extroverted man was actually engaged in intelligence work."89

Dulles house in Bern

The home of Allen Dulles in Bern, Switzerland, at 23 Herrengasse. (Courtesy of Giuliana and Shawn Bullard)


Dulles rented a flat at 23 Herrengasse in the picturesque medieval section of Bern, near its cathedral and casino, and placed an inconspicuous sign outside his door: "Allen W. Dulles, Special Assistant to the American Minister." The flat had a back entrance that people could use when they came to see him at night. For those who might come to Dulles's front door in the evening, he pulled some strings and had the streetlight opposite his front door turned off for the duration of the war. That Dulles was able to pull the strings probably related to the fact that he had only been in Bern for a few weeks when one of its most respected and widely read newspapers published an article describing him as "the personal representative of President Roosevelt" with a "special duty" assignment. Most of Dulles's surreptitious important visitors were duly noted by the Swiss, and this resulted in a "great man" image that filtered down through the bureaucracy. Swiss bureaucrats treated him with some deference.90


It was no real secret that Dulles was an intelligence operative or that his home was being used for intelligence work. However, a circumspect concern for Swiss sensibilities dictated that he at least seek an office that could claim diplomatic immunity, so he set up shop at 24 Duforstrasse with Gerald Mayer, whose OWI propaganda operation had taken office space on the first floor of the building. Dulles occupied the second floor, with a very small staff.91

Because of the related nature of their work and because Dulles was badly understaffed, he very quickly "recruited" Mayer to assist him with OSS work. Mayer was the chief of the OWI Switzerland outpost. He oversaw OWI operations in Switzerland, which consisted of the disseminating OWI and United Nations material in that country and surrounding occupied territories, gathering intelligence material, and analyzing United States propaganda efforts. Mayer, of German-Jewish extraction, had spent much of his life in Europe and spoke fluent German.92

Dulles's first and most important task was to find out what was going on in Germany, including knowing who in Germany were really opposed to Hitler and whether they were actively at work to overthrow him and his regime. The sources for intelligence were abundant in Switzerland. There were spies and traitors; refugees, exiles, and expatriates; ecumenical church functionaries and German Catholic and Protestant church representatives; German, Austrian, and Italian businessmen who occasionally visited Switzerland; political and labor leaders once prominent under the Weimar Republic who had fled after Hitler came to power; diplomats of countries that were either neutral or German satellites; and opponents of the Hitler government, including German officials working in Switzerland. He obtained information from the British and the Swiss as well as members of the French and Italian Resistance.93

The rumor that Dulles was Roosevelt's personal representative was an excellent cover for his intelligence work. Dulles did nothing to counter the rumor and even fostered the impression it was true. Many of the would-be informants coming to see him were legitimate, but many were not. According to an Abwehr official with whom he worked, Dulles was particularly troubled by the flourishing guild of professional spies, the traders in espionage materials, who would visit German intelligence agents in the morning, the British MI6 in the afternoon, and Dulles's home in the evening, offering to each their carefully prepared and sensational reports.94

Dulles listened to most of those who came. According to Mary Bancroft, in a private setting Dulles "never hesitated to show his very real charm" which "so enchanted the European statesmen and politicians who made their way . . . to see him." Regardless of whether the visitor was a prominent person wanting to discuss policy or just another provider of routine intelligence information, Dulles was always interested in results. "Useful was a word that was constantly on his lips," according to Bancroft. "He judged everyone and everything by the yardstick of its usefulness in the war effort, even going to far as to wonder why one of the men at the legation was getting married— he didn't consider the girl he was marrying 'useful.'" Dulles "was first and foremost a pragmatist, who could usually tell at a glance what would or would not work and what facet of any activity could be used to further the work of his organization."95

Kocherthaler Makes Contact with Mayer

Dreyfus called Mayer about 7:30 A.M. on August 18, stating that a friend of his would call at his office at 9 A.M. Dreyfus explained that the previous day his friend had sent him an express letter requesting either a better introduction to Mr. Norton or a contact with the American legation. Mayer had known Dreyfus for about a year. He also knew about his efforts to facilitate the exodus of Jewish refugees from Axis-occupied territories and that he had immediately ceased such activities when informed by the legation that it was not permissible to trade with the enemy in this fashion.96

Mayer then contacted Dulles about the impending visit. He may have even received a call from Kocherthaler himself confirming the 9 A.M. appointment. Dulles assumed that the impending visitor, Kocherthaler, was the individual that Cartwright had told him about the previous evening.

Kocherthaler appeared at Mayer's office at 9 A.M. as scheduled. He told Mayer that he was a friend of Dreyfus's and then provided an involved explanation of his own identity and background. Mayer, like Cartwright, thought that Kocherthaler could be an agent provocateur sent by the Swiss to determine whether he was engaged in espionage work, thereby breaking the law. He also thought that Kocherthaler might be a blacklisted businessman who had cultivated an approach to the Allied cause to get some funds unblocked. Switzerland was full of such people. Mayer, regardless of what he thought, was busy and bluntly asked him to come to the point.97

Kocherthaler told Mayer of his acquaintance with a source who was prepared to contact United States officials. Kocherthaler then produced three documents and spread them out before Mayer on his desk. They were copies of cables, in German and headed "Geheime Reichssache" (state secret document), addressed to the German Foreign Office in Berlin and signed by the Nazi ambassadors in Ankara, Paris, and Prague. From Paris, Ambassador Abetz was relaying certain plans from the French Vichyites that might permit German agents to penetrate American and British lines in North Africa, via Algiers. Ambassador Neurath was reporting on Czech morale. Ambassador Von Papen was alerting Berlin on British attempts to sneak operatives into the Balkans via Istanbul.98

Mayer was excited and asked Kocherthaler where he had obtained the messages. He replied that there was more from the same source, who was in Bern. Kocherthaler added that the source worked for the German Foreign Office and that he had arrived the day before as a special diplomatic courier. "I have known him for years," he said, and "I can assure you he is one hundred percent anti-Nazi and is determined to work actively against Hitler, at his own peril. He wants to meet you, personally. As proof of his good will he sends you this data. He has much more information he wishes to give you."99

At that point Kocherthaler told Mayer that as a token of good faith he would leave sixteen telegrams for Mayer to study before deciding to see his friend. Mayer quickly looked at the documents. There were mimeographed copies of telegrams addressed to the Foreign Office from the German legations in Dublin, Stockholm, Sofia, Ankara, Rome, and Bern and seemed the usual copies that any foreign ministry must make to disseminate incoming messages. A routing stamp showed that these particular copies were intended for "Ambassador Ritter."100

Mayer asked Kocherthaler to wait in the anteroom, then dashed upstairs to Dulles's office and told him what had happened and showed him the documents. Dulles quickly grasped the extraordinary possibilities of what he had been shown. He knew that the prospect of establishing a contact in the Foreign Office, a key to top-level Nazi secrets, was too good to be true. They both thought this must be a trap. Dulles said there were three possibilities. "This could be an attempt to break our code. The Germans figure we'll bite, cipher this stuff and radio it to Washington. They monitor everything, including Swiss commercial wireless channels. . . . Or perhaps our friend is an agent provocateur. He plants the information with us and then tips off the Swiss police that we are spying. His rendezvous with us is proof and we are kicked out of the country. Still, there is just the glimmer of a chance that this man is on the square."101

Dulles hoped the unknown German would be legitimate, because OSS Bern was increasingly being pressured for more and better quality information. An opportunity to get a view of what was going on in Berlin from the vantage point of the enemy's foreign office could hardly have materialized at a better time.102

Mayer said that Kocherthaler impressed him and that he seemed genuine. He suggested they take a chance and set up a meeting. Dulles agreed, possibly thinking back to the time he passed up an opportunity to meet Lenin. Mayer returned to his office and told Kocherthaler that he was ready to meet the courier that evening. Kocherthaler said that his friend, the courier, was dining that evening with a colleague at the German legation, but they could meet them afterwards. Mayer said that would be fine and proposed a midnight meeting at his apartment in the Kirchenfeld district. He drew Kocherthaler a map so he could find his way without arousing suspicion with inquiries.103

Meanwhile Dulles made arrangements to meet Colonel Cartwright, the British military attaché, at about 11:30 A.M. Cartwright told Dulles that a man giving his name as Kocherthaler had called to see him the day before with a story that he could put him in touch with a German from Berlin who could give him valuable information. As evidence, he showed him one paper in German that purported to be the text of a deciphered German telegram. Dulles left the meeting believing that Cartwright had not even read the telegram and knew nothing either for or against his visitor except that Kocherthaler's lack of a sufficient introduction did not justify giving further attention to what he had to say.104

A Time to Act, Part 1
A Time to Act, Part 2
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).