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.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: SEN Jobs Available Devon

Infrastructure Lead, (Trading, VCE, Converged, Hyper V)

£600 - £900 per day: Harrington Starr: Infrastructure Lead, (Trading infrastru...

Software Solution Technician - Peterborough - up to £21,000

£20000 - £21000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Solutio...

Supply teachers needed- Worthing!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Supply teachers needed for va...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering