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© The Boston Globe 2001.  Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II

by Mark Fritz / Globe Staff / March 11, 2001

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''One of the most spectacular examples is this man in the German Foreign Ministry who gathered this vast amount of information,'' says Weinberg, of Kolbe. ''That this happened has been known for years. What was not known was the enormous extent and value of the material.''

Kolbe's records offer a stark, fly-on-the-wall account of a much-mythologized war being waged in real time. They show how unnervingly fast events unfolded and how quickly decisions were made, without the benefit of historical hindsight.

Hurriedly stapled, badly typed, with handwritten asides and personal chit-chat woven throughout, the declassified documents give a flawed, human intimacy and contemporary immediacy to something that occurred before most Americans were born.

Kolbe's canon of covert cables and the gnawing doubt that kept much of it from having an impact is a timeless cautionary tale for a trade best known for its embarrassments, whether it's the CIA's postwar employment of Hitler's secret agents, or the recent discovery that an FBI veteran had been a salaried Russian mole.

Did Kolbe have any regrets? ''No, never. He would do it again exactly as he did, with no recognition,'' says his son, Peter, a 68-year-old retired geologist living in suburban Sydney, Australia. ''I think the central philosophical question of my father's life would be: At what point do you take action to betray your country?''

A career civil servant

Fritz Kolbe was 14 years old when World War I erupted and 18 by the time Germany was reduced to ruins. He became a career civil servant, first in the rail ministry and then the foreign office of the Weimar Republic, the postwar democracy that crumbled to the nationalist creed and anti-Semitic screed of Adolf Hitler.

Peter Kolbe says his father had a circle of acquaintances, some in the Roman Catholic Church, with whom he discussed deep questions about the fascist regime. He remembers nothing of his mother, who contracted tuberculosis shortly after he was born and spent her last years in quarantine, dying when he was four.

He does remember when he and his father left Hitler behind for a job in the German embassy in South Africa. Then Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and South Africa joined Britain in declaring war on Germany. The embassy had to go.

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