© The Boston Globe 2001. Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II
PART I: THE PERFECT SPY
by Mark Fritz / Globe Staff / March 11, 2001
Page 8 of 9
Continued from page 7
The couple finally squeezed into a box car of a train heading west, then trudged eight miles through snow and darkness to the mountain cabin of his friend from the foreign service, who was already hosting a handful of other renegades. Two visitors were uniformed German officers who told Kolbe they and several others had left Berlin with five truckloads of documents from the German general staff offices. Kolbe had heard rumors of this. ''I know,'' he said. ''The intelligence files on Russia.''
Kolbe used his diplomatic credentials to get a visa to Switzerland and caught a train to Bern, where he told Dulles about the Nazi intelligence men and their cache of Soviet data. Dulles said he would pass the information on to Army intelligence, who would indeed hire Hitler's spies.
Dulles had been delving deeper into the German bureaucracy, eventually reaching the top Nazi general in Italy and negotiating his surrender. Days later, Hitler killed himself, Berlin fell, and the war in Europe was over.
Luck runs out
The subsequent years were less kind to Kolbe, a man who had refused to even join the Nazi Party. As the war ended, Dulles wrote, Kolbe ''volunteered to do difficult and dangerous work for us'' when fears of a Nazi resistance campaign gave way to paranoia that the Soviets intended to attack the Allies. Dulles got the OSS to establish a $10,000 trust account for Kolbe ''largely to protect a minor son in case any accident should befall him.''
Then, Kolbe's war-time luck turned bad. He was riding to OSS headquarters in Berlin when the jeep he was in smashed into a truck. Kolbe flew into a rock pile and fractured six bones, including his skull. He spent five weeks in traction.
''He said things were difficult for him,'' says Peter Kolbe, who finally received his first letter from his father since he'd left Africa. ''I didn't know anything about his special life then. I wasn't very convenient to him. It was some years before I heard from him again.''
The elder Kolbe recovered and continued to work for US intelligence. Truman broke up the OSS after the war but created the CIA in 1947, and Kolbe became close friends with an agent named Harry Hermsdorf. Kolbe ''was very charming, very charismatic,'' recalls Marcia Marshall, Hermsdorf's daughter and Kolbe's goddaughter.
Dulles, back at his law firm in New York, and Kolbe's old friend Kocherthaler began cooking up business deals. Kocherthaler told Dulles he'd hoped to hook Kolbe up with an American company ''to exploit German inventions not yet patented under a Washington license. Would the idea appeal to you?''
Dulles said he'd be happy to help. Kolbe came to New York and sank his $10,000 into an asbestos deal at a time when the substance was a hot new commodity as a fire retardant. The deal turned out to be a scam. Kolbe lost all his money.
Kolbe, penniless, borrowed money from Dulles. He returned to Europe and tried to get a job in the new West German government of Konrad Adenauer, but circles within the government considered Kolbe a traitor. More than 100,000 civil servants in the Third Reich got their jobs back. Except Kolbe.
The reporter from True found Kolbe living with his wife, Maria, in a one-room apartment outside Frankfurt. ''We're lucky to have this one room,'' he said. ''Pity we weren't Nazis.''
Peter Kolbe says his father was subsequently horrified by the breathless, hard-boiled style of the True story and never gave another interview. The Hermsdorf family said the article, ironically, had been planted in order to get some attention and financial help for the unheralded spy.
''My father arranged for that story,'' says Ronald Hermsdorf of Manchester, N.H. ''My father said he was unhappy that [Kolbe] didn't get paid.''
Kolbe subsequently did find work -- apparently back in the spy game. Kocherthaler wrote Dulles: ''He is quite happy in his new activities, which I consider especially interesting, as I consider it vital to change the defensive attitude in the Cold War.'' The Hermsdorf children say Kolbe, in fact, worked for the CIA until retirement. Helms denies it, and confirmation remains classified.
In any case, Kolbe's delicate standing in Germany became painfully clear when a Swiss newspaper reprinted the True article. ''I fear the publication in Switzerland at this time will do him a good bit of harm and this is really tragic,'' Dulles wrote Kocherthaler in 1951.
Into this tense, internecine environment flew Peter Kolbe, an 18-year-old youth who had grown up in the sheltered white man's fantasy of colonial Africa.
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