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Cold War Spies and Authoritarian Lies

Cold War Spies and Authoritarian Lies

All nations spy just as all governments lie. But dictatorships are different. And free societies, with their goodwill and naiveté, are a field day for adversaries.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Fifty years ago, in spring 1974, a stunning Cold War secret was revealed. A top aide to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt was exposed as an East German spy. The revelation spelled the end of the Brandt administration. How this all came about is a remarkable story. It ought to help us think about Vladimir Putin’s mindset and the Kremlin’s new Cold War today.

A decade after the end of World War II, the original Cold War was putting things into sharp relief. There was full employment in West Germany. Postwar prosperity was taking hold. The country had held free elections. In communist East Germany, a workers rebellion had been crushed, food was still rationed. By the mid-1950s, the East German police state was properly established.

 In May 1956, Günter Guillaume and his wife Christel fled East Germany and arrived as refugees in Frankfurt am Main. Christel’s mother came ahead to prepare the family’s new life. Next to the Frankfurt cathedral the Guillaumes opened a cafe called “Boom,” after the last name of Christel’s stepfather. 

All three—Christel, her mother, and her husband Günter—were agents of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. Günter and Christel had been assigned to work as handlers for sources in West Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). By registering at a local police station instead of a refugee center, the Guillaumes were able to elude customary vetting. Christel’s mother, having married a man from the Netherlands in the early 1930s, had a Dutch passport and was ready to vouch for her daughter and son-in-law.

Christel’s career got traction. From 1964 to 1969, she worked for an SPD regional head who served as a member of the Bundestag, the European Parliament, and the council of the Frankfurt-based public broadcaster, Hessischer Rundfunk. Husband Günter developed his own career as a conservative SPD man in local Frankfurt politics. Then, through an association with Georg Leber, West Germany’s minister for transportation—Günter had worked for Leber’s election campaign—Günter landed a desk officer’s job in the Bonn chancellery. He started in 1969, responsible for trade union relations. Three years later, he was one of Chancellor Brandt’s three personal assistants.

Günter organized the Chancellor’s travel and accompanied Brandt virtually everywhere he went, gathering documents for the Stasi along the way. Brandt took his aide along on a holiday in Norway in the summer of 1973. Günter later claimed that he had stuffed a briefcase full of material—including letters from U.S. President Richard Nixon on NATO nuclear strategy—that he passed to an agent in Sweden on the way back to the West German capital.

It was Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher who first alerted Brandt to the suspicion that Günter was an agent. That was summer 1973 right before the Norway vacation. The investigation continued. Brandt’s young son Matthias would report odd behavior, including typing in the middle of the night at the family’s holiday home north of Oslo. 

On April 24, 1974, at 6:32 in the morning, Günter and Christel were arrested at their Bad Godesberg apartment near Bonn. Two weeks later, Brandt was forced to resign. The West German public was shocked. West German security services were embarrassed it had taken so long to identify a spy who had risen so high. It was the biggest espionage scandal in German Cold War history.

There’s possibly more we don’t know about “the Guillaume Affair” with files destroyed by the Stasi in East Germany’s waning days and with an unknown quantity of material transferred into KGB (and CIA) hands. We know that Günter had the cover name “Hansen,” his wife Christel the cover “Heinze,” and that while Hansen filed twenty-three reports between 1969 and April 1974, none of the material was considered by the East Germans to be of particularly high quality. 

In 1976, West Germany arrested three East German spies who had access to hundreds of top-secret documents, the magnitude of which far surpassed what Günter had collected. But Günter had developed unparalleled access. 

In Günter Guillaume East Berlin lost a prized source. The fall of the Brandt government, what’s more, was a blow to the SPD’s Ostpolitik and the normalization of East-West relations that East German Communists had been desperate to establish. 

All nations spy just as all governments lie. Authoritarian regimes flourish in spying and lying. The absence of checks and balances at home provides one natural advantage. Another: Free societies with their accessibility—and our never-ending goodwill and naïveté—are a field day for adversaries. 

East Germany ran several thousand agents and influencers across West Germany during the Cold War. There were some 1,500 West Germans working for the Stasi when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. For years, the Stasi and KGB had supported left-wing terrorism to destabilize West Germany. 

In The Art of War Sun Tzu said know yourself and your enemy. We’re not very good at either. The masters of spying and lying excel at both. 

Markus Wolf, the legendary spymaster, was already central to the world of East German foreign intelligence when the Guillaumes were dispatched in the mid-1950s. Wolf grew up in the Weimar Republic. He came from a communist family that had fled Nazi Germany and received political asylum in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, he finished secondary education in Moscow, joined the Soviet Young Pioneers, and marched across Red Square for Joseph Stalin.

At the age of twenty, Mischa, as Wolf was called, learned how to use machine guns, rifles, pistols, explosives, and hand grenades. A special school he attended included training in disinformation and techniques for message passing and clandestine meetings. 

After World War II, Wolf was sent to East Berlin, first to work as a propaganda journalist and then to help set up East Germany’s security services. The Stasi was the KGB’s star pupil. Germany was a key Soviet investment. World revolution, Lenin had contended, depended on the Germans.

Wolf was creative. His “Romeo” program sent agents into the West to date and develop long-term relationships with staff in politics and industry. Preparation was remarkable. It might take two years or longer to prepare a profile of the target. Romeo agents studied interests, preferences, previous relationships—every opportunity and vulnerability—long before an orchestrated chance encounter would take place at a bus stop, a cafe, a park bench. In his memoir, Wolf boasted he had perfected the science of seduction for espionage. 

Gabriele Kliem was a thirty-two-year-old translator at the U.S. embassy in Bonn when she fell for Frank Dietzel, a good-looking gentleman who claimed he was a researcher with an international peace foundation. During the course of their seven-year relationship Kliem supplied Dietzel with hundreds of classified documents. She just wanted to help her boyfriend with his important work. She was loyal and in love. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stasi files revealed that an East German scout had Kliem under observation for two years before Dietzel approached her. 

Romeo agents wouldn’t marry. Paperwork might lead to a blown cover. In one instance, when an agent felt pressured by his West German girlfriend to wed, he obliged with a ceremony in a Copenhagen church. One Stasi agent played the role of the mother-in-law. Another presided in the role of a priest. 

An aide to Chancellor Angela Merkel once told me that his boss’ relationship with President Putin rested on the fact that “she knows he lies and he knows she knows he lies.” But then Merkel had the advantage of having grown up in East Germany where Putin came of age as a KGB agent.

There’s a 2004 play called Democracy by Michael Frayn that tells the story of Günter and Brandt, a study of psychology and relationships. 

There’s tragedy and wreckage wherever KGB culture has been present. Christel Guillaume gave birth to a son, Pierre, two years after she and Günter arrived in West Germany. Pierre was seventeen at the time of his father’s arrest. After Günter’s release from prison, his father disowned Pierre and may even have plotted to have his son murdered. Both were back in East Germany in the 1980s. Günter was disgusted that his son wanted to return to the West.

After six years in prison, Günter and Christel came out in 1981 in separate spy swaps. Christel divorced her husband. She had been frustrated in early Frankfurt days that superiors in East Berlin seemed to favor him. Once he was placed in the Chancellery, there’s no record of Christel filing anything. She never forgave her husband for confessing after their arrest.

Günter Guillaume died of a heart attack in Petershagen-Eggersdorf outside Berlin on April 10, 1995. Christel Guillaume died of heart failure in the West Berlin neighborhood of Wilmersdorf on March 20, 2004. Markus Wolf died in his sleep in his Berlin home on November 9, 2006.  

Willy Brandt, who died outside Bonn on October 8, 1992, called the Guillaume Affair his greatest failure. “Not for the first time,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I had overestimated my knowledge of human nature.” 

Christel and Günter’s son Pierre is a journalist living on the North Sea island of Sylt. In his book Der Fremde Vater (“The Foreign Father”), he discusses the relationship with his father. A 2004 documentary Schattenväter (“Shadow Fathers”) has Pierre and Matthias Brandt recalling childhood and relationships with their parents.

Vladimir Putin, age seventy-one, has an expiration date. He’ll be survived, though, by a deep KGB culture that will likely test us for some time. 

In the 1980s, I traveled frequently to East Germany. I’ve just applied to review my Stasi file. I’ll share with American Purpose readers what I find.

Jeffrey Gedmin, a former president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: Chancellor Willy Brandt (L) and Gunter Guillaume (R) at a train yard. (Credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F042453-0011 / Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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