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A Spy at the Heart of the Third ReichThe Extraordinary Story of Fritz Kolbe, America's Most Important Spy in World War II
By Lucas Delattre
Grove PressCopyright © 2005 Lucas Delattre
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSenor Fritz Kolbe Madrid, September 1935 It was ten in the morning in Madrid, and the city was bathed in the soft light of late summer. After eating his breakfast while reading the papers, Ernst Kocherthaler left home and headed for the German embassy. It was some distance, about three quarters of an hour away, but Kocherthaler walked quickly. As he walked beneath the locust trees, passing in front of still-deserted cafes, he could not stop thinking about the article he had just read in ABC: "Nuremberg, 15 September 1935: The National Socialist Party is going to pass several laws depriving Jews of full German citizenship. One planned law provides that marriages between Jews and German citizens will be prohibited. Extramarital relations between Jews and German citizens will also be prohibited." Phrases like "protection of German blood and German honor," and "survival of the German people" were repellent to Kocherthaler. He was extremely tense when he reached the embassy. He had the slight consolation that he did not yet have to see the swastika hanging in front of the building. The facade stilldisplayed the traditional flag of the Reich (black, red, and white), but not for much longer. The Nazi Party had just decided in Nuremberg that its emblem would become the flag of the entire nation. At the entrance, he asked for the consular service. His papers were not even checked, since he was known as a friend of Count Johannes von Welczeck, the ambassador. Count von Welczeck and Ernst Kocherthaler met often, publicly and privately. Sometimes they even spent summer vacations together, in San Sebastian, Biarritz, or Hendaye. The ambassador lobbied the Spanish authorities in support of his friend's investment proposals and liked to talk with him about economics, politics, and business. Kocherthaler owned shares in the copper mines of Andalusia and handled major energy concerns. He represented the interests of large hydrocarbon companies in Spain and was the co-president of the national federation of oil traders. Kocherthaler knew many people and was one of the most prominent figures in the Spanish capital. Kocherthaler was led through the high-ceilinged corridors of the palace, a beautiful building that had been the Prussian embassy in the nineteenth century, to the visa and passport office in the consular section. He was shown to a seat in a waiting room, next to a little table with newspapers on it. There were a few copies of the Frankfurter Zeitung, still a relatively respectable paper, and certainly less painful to read than the Volkischer Beobachter, also available for visitors, along with various pamphlets by Joseph Goebbels. "How can Welczeck allow this propaganda in the embassy?" thought Kocherthaler, who, despite his personal friendship with the ambassador, resented him for giving in to the dictates of the Nazi Party. By May 1933, all German diplomatic offices abroad had received a detailed document from Berlin designed to answer questions about the fate of Jews in Germany. German diplomats in Madrid had been seen at evening receptions launching into long arguments on the "Jewish question," explaining the specifically German concerns involved, and trying to put together arguments about its "universal character." The party and its ideas were infiltrating everywhere, including the German-Spanish Chamber of Commerce, where, as a non-Aryan businessman, Kocherthaler was already no longer welcome. Leafing through the paper, Kocherthaler lifted his head and looked around. He saw an old engraving of the Brandenburg Gate. There was also a poster of the "Strength through Joy" organization, depicting two young blond women sitting on the white sand of a Baltic beach. The picture reminded him of Rugen Island, where he had spent all his childhood summers. Finally, there was a portrait of the fuhrer with a little girl giving him a huge bouquet of flowers. The door of the office facing him opened a few minutes later. A short official, only about five feet three inches tall, appeared in the doorway. He had a round face with prominent ears. His bald crown was as smooth as his perfectly polished shoes. The man did not have a typically German appearance, looking more like a Slav or someone from southern Europe. He was soberly but elegantly dressed. The tone of his voice was clear, and his elocution as distinct as the text of a Prussian. His general appearance was quite pleasant, and he seemed to have a certain charm. "What can I do for you, Mr. Kocherthaler?" he asked, pointing to a chair. Kocherthaler remained standing. The consular agent, much shorter than his visitor, was forced to look up in order to talk to him. His politeness surprised Kocherthaler, who had noticed a certain decline in German good manners since the Nazi accession to power. Minor embassy officials, most of them already Nazi Party members, seemed to have taken advantage of the new state of affairs to adopt authoritarian airs or unwelcome and excessive familiarity. This man was different. The businessman, still standing, spoke with the solemnity of an officer of the Imperial Guard: "I have come to take the necessary steps to renounce my German citizenship." Ernst Kocherthaler asked the official to inform the authorities in Berlin that he was withdrawing from the national community and that he had taken steps to become, immediately, a Spanish citizen. "This decision is irrevocable," he added after a brief pause, his eyes downcast and his voice slightly trembling with emotion. A little taken aback by the tenor of the statement, the consular agent seemed not to understand. He asked the visitor to explain the reasons for his action. Kocherthaler mentioned the persecution of the Jews in Germany, the daily humiliations to which they were subjected, the boycotting of Jewish shops, the constant undercurrent of terror. "The Jews have been excluded from all professions and from all public places. The only thing they have left is their driver's licenses. This Germany is no longer mine!" said Kocherthaler. The laws that had just been adopted in Nuremberg had finally convinced him: He could no longer be a citizen of a country in which he was relegated to second-class status. He himself had converted to Protestantism before 1914, but both his parents were Jewish, and his family tree was officially considered "impure." "I am a citizen of the Reich, and nothing else," he said, clenching his fists. He had volunteered during the war, and, he told the official now, he maintained his status as a reserve officer. The black, red, and white ribbon on his lapel indicated that he had received a distinguished war medal. "Did you fight? Do you know what it was like?" Kocherthaler asked. The consular agent, a little surprised by the question, answered that he had been too young to fight, that he had not been recruited until the very last months of the war, into a Berlin battalion that had never been sent to the front. Ernst Kocherthaler had already been in his office for more than half an hour. In the waiting room, other visitors were growing restive. Among them was a young Spanish Falangist who wanted a visa for Germany, and who now made a noisy display of his impatience. But the businessman was in no hurry. He spoke of his love for Germany, that he had left well before the rise of National Socialism. "After the war," he recalled, "I understood that there was no longer a place for me in Germany. I was considered with contempt either as a nasty banker or a wicked Jew, or both at once." After three-quarters of an hour, he handed his passport to the consular employee and asked him to tear it up. A few seconds went by. The passport remained on the table, an old one without a swastika. The silence, barely disturbed by noises from outside, became almost oppressive. Finally, the consular official spoke. "You should maintain your nationality," he said to his visitor in a decisive tone. "There may be a way of not giving up your status as a German citizen. Your war medal could be used as an argument. In any event, here the Nazis can do nothing against you. I'm going to find out what can be done ..." Ernst Kocherthaler sat down and discreetly wiped his forehead. "I have no greater desire than to remain German. But on condition that I can officially declare my opposition to National Socialism in a document that will have to be rapidly transmitted to the highest authorities in Berlin." The ambassador, he thought, would no doubt approve this step. How could he refuse to allow a friend to make this gesture? The consular agent promised to deal with the matter swiftly and to keep him informed. The visitor stood and left his business card: Ernst Kocherthaler, Russian Petroleum Products Company, Madrid. The official rummaged for a few moments among the papers covering his desk-some of the documents written in French, the customary language of diplomacy-and handed him his card, on which could be read: Senor Fritz Kolbe. Secretario de Cancilleria. Embajada de Alemania. Madrid. Ernst Kocherthaler learned a few days later that the ambassador had not approved his action and had not transmitted his petition to Berlin. Deeply vexed, he renounced his German nationality, trying to persuade himself that the freedom of exile was better than domestic servitude. He silently reproached von Welczeck for not having the daring of Friedrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron, the German ambassador to Washington before 1933, the only German diplomat to resign on the Nazi accession to power. About his friend von Welczeck, he thought: "Not writing 'Heil Hitler!' at the bottom of your official correspondence does not make you part of the resistance." Kocherthaler also thought again of the consular secretary who had received him. What a strange figure-Kolbe had not once used the slightest anti-Semitic expression. At one point, he had spoken of the "Nazis." No one used that epithet except opponents of the regime (its adherents would use the more dignified "National Socialists"). Kocherthaler found it strange that an obscure member of the embassy staff could openly show his distance from the party. The National Socialist Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP) recruited a substantial part of its troops from among second-level officials who, like Kolbe, had no university education. The others, the higher officials whom Kocherthaler knew well, tended to behave like nihilistic power elites, making fun of the Nazis while continuing to serve them. Kocherthaler learned that Fritz Kolbe was the only official in the German embassy who had not joined the party. This information intrigued him, and he took the liberty of resuming contact with the chancellery secretary, curious to get to know this unusual man a little better. Fritz Kolbe was surprised by this, since, having worked for several years on economic matters with the commercial counselor of the embassy, he knew Kocherthaler to be one of the most important people in the German community of Madrid. "Why would such an important personality want to see me? What can we possibly have to say to each other?" he wondered, after agreeing to a meeting the first Sunday in October at the Cafe Gijon on the Avenida de los Recoletos. Madrid, October 1935 When the day came, Fritz Kolbe almost turned back before he reached the Cafe Gijon. He arrived a little early, sat on the terrace, set his white hat on his lap, and ordered a lemon granizado. Through the evening air drifted scents of mint and shellfish. The cafe was crowded that night, and the waiters were slow in filling orders. Kocherthaler arrived, smiling, looking relaxed. The natural gentleness of his gaze and his warm handshake immediately put Kolbe at ease. He ordered a vermouth. After a few purely polite exchanges, the two men fell into an unexpectedly spontaneous rapport. Ernst Kocherthaler had ideas about everything and, it seemed, a broad experience of life. He spoke with ease, with a certain detachment, but without intimidating his companion. Even though Kocherthaler was involved in big business, Kolbe sensed that money was not the essential value for him. Kocherthaler was a cultivated man. He spoke of the Mediterranean as the "sacred cradle of our civilization" and regretted that the Germans "now want to separate themselves from it" by seeking nourishment for the national imagination in Nordic myths. "There was a time when Germany defended freedom of conscience and welcomed all the refugees of Europe.... All that is long in the past!" He thought that the world was divided between those who were ready for "deeds and sufferings and sacrifices" and those who were content "with eating and drinking, coffee and knitting, cards and radio music." As he was talking, Kocherthaler wondered to which of the two categories Fritz Kolbe belonged: his external appearance was nondescript but he saw a certain spark in his gaze. Confessing his curiosity, he asked Fritz Kolbe why he had not joined the party. Some diplomats opposed to the regime, in high positions or not, had agreed to sign up in order not to be noticed and to avoid suspicion. Why not him? Kolbe, who was not expecting to have to talk about this sensitive subject, tried to take refuge in banalities. "I'm only a minor official in the embassy," he said, going on to say that it seemed sufficient that he had sworn an oath of loyalty and obedience to Hitler like all agents of the state. The NSDAP already had more than two million members, "so one more or one less, what does it matter?" he added, reasoning a bit maliciously that perhaps he had not been considered reliable enough to join. Many officials had submitted applications for membership to the "Brown House" in Munich, which was automatically suspicious of diplomats. Kocherthaler wanted to know more. He was well enough informed about his interlocutor to understand that he was a rebel, but was curious about his background, wondering how a modest German official could resist the attractions of National Socialism. For his part, Fritz Kolbe had never been asked to explain his attitude, though it had not developed overnight. He was flattered that someone was interested in him but embarrassed to dwell on his personal choices. He explained that the NSDAP attracted primarily dull minds and invoked the values that had been passed on to him by his father: the refusal to obey anyone blindly, loyalty to himself, and the love of freedom. To make his point, he quoted classic maxims, such as: "Always be loyal and true, until the cold grave," or: "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" Fritz Kolbe had learned this passage from Matthew from his mother's lips and had never forgotten it. Ernst Kocherthaler did not accept these trite answers. He wanted to know whether Kolbe was anti-Nazi out of Christian conviction or because he had socialist or even communist sympathies. To put him at ease, he told Kolbe that he had many professional contacts with the Soviet Union and that he had had a "splendid" time there in 1931. Kolbe acknowledged that he had indeed been raised Christian, but that he was not a churchgoer or even a believer. "You have nothing against the Jews?" Kocherthaler asked him abruptly. "Why should I?" answered Kolbe. "For me, between an Aryan and a Jew, the only difference is that one of them eats kosher food and the other one doesn't." As for communism, he had always had deep suspicion of indoctrination, though his belief in the traditional "Prussian virtues" of order, work, and discipline gave him a certain fellow-feeling for the socialists. Friedrich Kolbe, his father, had voted faithfully for the Social Democratic Party. He had been a saddle maker in Berlin and had always told his son to "do good" and "never fear the future." The Kolbe family came from Pomerania in northeastern Germany, a traditionally Protestant region. The Pomeranians had the reputation of being simple people, as solid as country wardrobes, provincials who were always lightly mocked for their plattdeutsch dialect. The Kolbe family had been part of the great migration to Berlin after 1871. Millions of people from the borders of the empire had settled in the new capital of the Reich in the hope of finding work. Fritz Kolbe had inherited an unshakable drive for upward mobility.
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