Berlin spies, floundering in the cold
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once called the German capital, the ‘nest of spies.’ A new tour explores this legacy.Hanging out beside Berlin’s corporate-encrusted Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz is perhaps the last place one would expect to contemplate the vibrant world of Iron Curtain black markets and international spy games.
In a city where dramatic gaps still yawn between buildings like missing teeth, bombed out during World War II and never rebuilt, the mountainous, neon complex is one of Berlin’s few symbols of conspicuous, state-sanctioned capitalism.
Yet on one recent gloomy Saturday morning on Berlin Walks’ “Nest of Spies” tour, a group of about 20 history-lovers gathered to uncover the covert histories of this Berlin landmark.
Potsdamer Platz, which lies in the center of the city near its famed Tiergarten, was a unique area in post-World War II Berlin. So bombed out after the war that an American soldier reportedly said it “looked like the face of the moon,” the district was also the only place in Berlin where the borders of the American, Russian and British sectors met – making it a hotbed for underground economies, as well as for spying.
“Each different sector had different rules, different laws and different police forces,” our tour guide Lisa explained, her university-acquired Scottish accent belying her childhood in West Berlin. “So if you saw that the police were coming in your own sector, you could just jump over into another one and they literally couldn’t touch you. This part of Germany was the only part where Americans, Russians, French and British worked so closely together – providing a very convenient loophole for spying.”
With the world’s two superpowers poised to plunge into nuclear war, Berlin’s spies were entrusted with the task of gathering enough intelligence to keep tensions from escalating beyond that tipping point.
Given this mix of incredible stakes and unusual circumstance, one might expect Berlin’s espionage history to be full of dramatic, sexy stories of spy legend. Yet, surprisingly, the “Nest of Spies” tour paints an entirely different picture of the undercover life – one that primarily smacked of human failure, misguided ambition and, befitting the clandestine nature of spying, relative anonymity.
Take, for instance, one of the pre-Cold War tales of Berlin-based subterfuge: the attempt by German Army General Hans Oster to overthrow the Nazi regime. Today, the best-known plot to overthrow Hitler’s government is the failed coup of July 20, 1944, which culminated in Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed attempt to assassinate Hitler (immortalized recently by Tom Cruise in the Hollywood film Valkyrie). Less remembered, however, is Oster’s plan, which was never enacted but which was actually meant to take place six years earlier than von Stauffenberg’s.
Ducking off Stauffenbergstrasse (renamed for the colonel in 1955), we headed into the tranquil, stony courtyard of the “Bendler Block,” the former headquarters of the German Army’s High Command and now the site of a minimalist memorial to German resistance to National Socialism, to learn about Oster’s plan.
The plot that never was
In the years leading up to World War II, Oster was part of a movement within the German army that was strongly opposed to the Nazi party. However, the general’s real determination to depose the Führer came after a meeting in 1937. At the gathering, “Hitler sat all of the high-ranking German army generals down and said to them: ‘Within a year, I want to have annexed Austria and invade Czechoslovakia,’” Lisa explained. It was then that Oster perceived Hitler as a dangerous warmonger who was leading the country into another world war.
Subsequently, Oster began to develop a secret plot against Hitler. His plan was two-fold: First, to secretly contact British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and convince him that Hitler meant war and needed to be stood up to immediately. And second, to station troops outside Berlin, wait until the German army was off invading Czechoslovakia and march into the city and overthrow Hitler’s regime.
Unfortunately, however, the headstrong British leader remained unconvinced. Before Hitler could move to invade Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain orchestrated the Munich Agreement, which gave Hitler a large part of Czechoslovakia, relieving him of the need to invade. The German army never left Berlin, thwarting Oster’s plans.
Later on, standing in the wide, unremarkable streets outside of Potsdamer Platz, we learned about the equally fantastic and flawed scheme “Operation Gold” – a joint American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) mission that was hatched in 1951.
During the early 1950s, the Soviets decided to shift most of their military communications from radio to landline telephones. Recognizing this as an opportunity for closer surveillance, the CIA and SIS decided they would dig a secret, quarter-mile-long tunnel from the American sector into Soviet East Berlin that would allow them to tap Soviet military communications.
The task, started in 1954, was formidable. About 3,100 tons of soil was removed – enough to fill almost 20 living rooms – and after its completion, the operation seemed a great success. During the tunnel’s short lifespan, American and British subterranean spies intercepted about 443,000 Soviet and East German conversations. Allen Dulles, the longest serving director of the CIA, later called the tunnel "one of the most valuable and daring projects ever undertaken" by the agency.
Unfortunately, what the CIA would only later discover was that the KGB was onto their plan from the start. George Blake, a highly placed KGB mole working in Britain’s MI-6, sat in on the very first meeting about the tunnel. Indeed, the only reason why the KGB allowed the tunnel to continue for as long as it did was to keep Blake’s cover. Once Blake was transferred to another assignment, in early 1956, the Soviets staged an “accidental” discovery of the tunnel and subsequently turned it into a tourist attraction to display the West’s “villainous” conduct.
From failure to ingenuity
In these and other stories, Berlin Walks presents Berlin’s spy legacy not as one full of omnipotent, martini-sipping debonair spooks but rather as one of mere mortals trying to foil equally fallible enemies. Sold under the umbrella of glamour and intrigue, the tour in fact presents Berlin’s World War II and Cold War past through the lens of the ordinary Joe (and Jill): This is history from the imperfect ground up.
How especially banal did Cold War espionage seem when sitting in the deserted, monotonously concrete grounds of the former headquarters of East Germany’s official secret police – known as the Stasi – in Berlin-Lichtenberg. The complex, which now houses a museum dedicated to the spy agency and several converted office buildings, practically reeks of bureaucracy. Rows of tiny windows line endless, gray buildings, each evoking the thousands of paper pushers and desk clerks that worked for the massive organization. (By 1989 the Stasi employed over 100,000 workers and maintained files on approximately 6 million East German citizens – more than one-third of the population).
Yet once again, this story of a supposedly expert espionage organization is one marred by human shortcomings. When Berlin demonstrators finally gained entry into the Stasi compound in January 1990, they found to their surprise that the agents had not been able to successfully get rid of all the incriminating documents. While some records were destroyed beyond repair, 45 million of them, ripped into approximately 600 million scraps, were sitting in neatly stacked bags in the headquarters’ basement.
Soon after this discovery, a group of people began manually reconstructing the documents in order to rescue the lost data and, in May 2007, a team of computer scientists in Berlin announced that they had invented a system to digitally tape together the torn fragments. The participants hope that their software and scanners can reconstruct the files in less than five years.
If the history of Berlin espionage reveals all humans as inevitably flawed, at least projects such as these show our knack for innovation, too.