A Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich: The Extraordinary Story of Fritz Kolbe, America's Most Important Spy in World War II

By Stanchak, John E. | America in WWII, June 2006 | Go to article overview

A Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich: The Extraordinary Story of Fritz Kolbe, America's Most Important Spy in World War II


Stanchak, John E., America in WWII


A Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich: The Extraordinary Story of Fritz Kolbe, America's Most Important Spy in World War II, by Lucas Delattre, translated from the French by George Holoch, Jr., paperback, 320 pages, Grove/Atlantic Press.

ON Sunday, August 15, 1943, at about 7 P.M., Herr Fritz Kolbe, a minor functionary in Nazi Germany's diplomatic corps, walked into his Berlin office, opened his safe, and stole top secret Nazi documents, papers he intended to deliver to his nation's enemies. He would soon become America's most effective spy in the Third Reich.

The idea of influencing the future of the world was a mighty bold notion for a man like Fritz Kolbe. As a child he had been an enthusiastic member of the Wandervogel, the German equivalent of the Boy Scouts. During World War I, he served in the military and then took an examination to earn a high school diploma, pursued some further study on his own, and accepted a lowly position in the German government's diplomatic services.

The story of Fritz Kolbe might have all but ended here, but he wasn't without some modest ambition. He married, advanced in the foreign services, and held an office position with the German embassy in Madrid, Spain, through the early 1930s. He saw the rise of the fascist movement up close while he watched from a distance the rise of the Nazi party back home. He began to find himself in a moral quandary.

In the next years, Kolbe returned to Berlin, fathered a son, and then lost his wife to illness. In the wake of this personal tragedy, he accepted a position with the German foreign services in South Africa. He tried settling there with his young son and married a Swiss immigrant. But neither the new post nor the new wife worked out well. Officials inside the diplomatic corps began to pressure him to join the Nazi party, something he steadfastly refused to do, on philosophical grounds. Then his wife declared she couldn't get along with his son. Kolbe soon revealed himself to be something less than a straight arrow and began an affair with a friend's wife that upset more than one household.

At that crucial, very personal point, war broke out between Germany and South Africa's commonwealth partner, Great Britain. Inside South Africa, German civilians were either deported or relocated to communities far from the coast. Kolbe sent his son to live with friends in the interior and departed with other German diplomatic personnel. Once at home, he was assigned a minor post in the offices of Germany's foreign affairs chief Joachim Von Ribbentrop.

Fans of espionage novels know the heroes of these books fall into three basic categories: suave men of action, such as author Ian Fleming's James Bond; jaded veterans of the sort readers come across in John LeCarre's Cold War books; and the timid, quiet little people no one notices, the characters who drive Graham Greene's spy stories. Kolbe fell into the third category. Upon his return to Berlin, he faced a few challenges: convincing his Nazi coworkers that he didn't join their party simply because he was eccentric; demonstrating slavishness to his superiors in the foreign ministry; and forming working friendships with other anti-Nazi Germans, many of them intellectual clergymen or members of the old German aristocracy who tended to feel guilty for not leading the nation's people away from Nazism in the late 1920s. …

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