Germany finally honours the 'traitor' spy who gave Nazi secrets to America

Few visitors to Berlin's vast concrete and glass foreign ministry building take much notice of the brass plate bearing the name Fritz Kolbe, affixed just three weeks ago to the door of one of its elegant wood-panelled conference rooms. Most Germans have never heard of Fritz Kolbe.

Few visitors to Berlin's vast concrete and glass foreign ministry building take much notice of the brass plate bearing the name Fritz Kolbe, affixed just three weeks ago to the door of one of its elegant wood-panelled conference rooms. Most Germans have never heard of Fritz Kolbe.

Yet the nameplate and a black and white photograph of a balding, impish-looking man with protruding ears on a wall inside the chamber have been reunited in Germany's attempt, 59 years on, to make amends for one of the shabbiest episodes in its post-war history.

Kolbe was described by the CIA as the most important spy of the Second World War. As a bureaucrat in Adolf Hitler's foreign ministry, he smuggled 2,600 secret Nazi documents to American intelligence in Switzerland from 1943 onwards, continuing his task undetected until the war ended.

No other German damaged the Nazi regime to such an extent. Kolbe supplied the Americans with vital information about where the Germans expected the allies to land in Normandy, crucial facts about the Nazi V1 and V2 rockets and Japanese military plans in south-east Asia. He even exposed a butler working in the British embassy in Istanbul as a German spy.

"My aim was to help shorten the war for my unfortunate countrymen and to help concentration camp inmates avoid further suffering," Kolbe wrote from his home in Switzerland in 1965. He never accepted money for his work as a spy.

Yet after the war, Kolbe was dismissed as a traitor by successive German governments. His attempts to rejoin the foreign ministry were repeatedly rejected and he was forced to end his days working as a salesman for an American chainsaw company, until his death in Switzerland in 1971.

"The risks Kolbe took were incalculable," wrote Allan Dulles, Kolbe's American intelligence minder in Switzerland after the war. "I just hope that the injustice done to him will be reversed one day and that his country recognises his true role."

Kolbe's name is still not mentioned in German history books. But the German government's decision earlier this month to award him a posthumous honour by naming a foreign ministry conference room after him represents an attempt to do justice to his memory.

"It is very late, but not too late to pay tribute to Fritz Kolbe," admitted Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, at a ceremony in Berlin earlier this month. "The honour is long overdue. It was not a glorious page in our foreign ministry's history," he said.

Kolbe's rehabilitation has been inspired by the release of his private letters and CIA documents relating to his case that were declassified only four years ago. The information was used as a basis for a new book entitled Fritz Kolbe, the Second World War's Most Important Spy, by the French historian Lucas Delattre.

More than 30 years after Kolbe's death, Delattre's book has managed to provoke some serious soul searching in Germany. "Kolbe's story demonstrates that ordinary Germans could do something to fight Hitler's madness - and post-war Germany treated him like a leper because of his actions," remarked Stern magazine.

Kolbe was recruited by the foreign ministry as a junior diplomat at the age of 25. His career took him to Madrid and Cape Town, before he was ignominiously ordered back to Berlin in 1939, having repeatedly refused to join other German diplomats and become a paid up member of the Nazi party.

His refusal to join the party barred him from taking interesting jobs abroad and Kolbe was given lowly work stamping passports and visas in Von Ribbentrop's foreign ministry. For the first three years of the war, Kolbe spent his time railing against the Nazis with like-minded friends in the back room of a Berlin pub and occasionally dumping anti-Nazi leaflets in telephone boxes.

Kolbe felt impotent as the increasing barbarity of the Nazis became more apparent. But in November 1941, at a soirée of the renowned and discreetly anti-Nazi surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch, he underwent something of a conversion. Kolbe was visibly distressed to hear an account of the Nazis' programme to systematically murder thousands of mentally ill patients, regarded as "people with lives useless" to the Reich. Out of his horror sprung a fervent determination to take on the mission to fight the Nazis.

He was painfully aware that the files and documents which passed over his desk every day could be of paramount importance to the Allies in their war against the regime. The only question was how to provide them with it.

He had to wait nearly three years before he was given the chance. It came when a superior foreign office employee and fellow Nazi critic agreed to put Kolbe on the list of officials privileged to act as diplomatic couriers for the Third Reich.

On the morning of 15 August 1943, Kolbe locked the door of his foreign ministry office, dropped his trousers and bound two large envelopes containing hundreds of mimeographed secret documents to his legs. Equipped with a diplomatic bag full of official dispatches, he boarded a train decked out in Nazi swastika flags at Berlin's Anhalter railway station and set off for the Swiss capital, Berne.

On his first visit to the British embassy in Berne, Kolbe was laughed at and promptly dismissed. The Americans, quicker to trust him, were the first to realise what he could do for the Allied forces.

Meetings continued and by 1944, the Americans valued the information supplied under Kolbe's codename "George Wood" so highly that only 11 people, including President Roosevelt, were allowed to see his documents. By the end of the war, MI6 had conceded it had made a gross misjudgement and singled out Kolbe as "the prize intelligence source of the war". But he was not appreciated by a defeated German people. At best he was regarded as a traitor. At worst he had the blood of millions of his countrymen on his hands.

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