Capital of Spies: Bernd von Kostka on Berlin

Bernd von Kostka

Bernd von Kostka is an acclaimed historian of the Cold War in Germany. Here he discusses his book on espionage in Berlin.
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Bernd von Kostka, Berlin was the epicentre of the Cold War, with multiple clandestine agencies operating there. Many operations took place in the decades up to the fall of the wall, but which were the most successful?

Well, usually the most successful operations are not the ones that were shouted out loud. The reason behind it: when an operation was successful then similar methods could be used elsewhere for a similar operation. So it would be wise not to talk too much about the success.

Obviously the Western military missions in Potsdam who had the permission to travel through the GDR are pretty successful identifying military equipment of the NVA (the East German Army) and the Soviet Forces. Also the listening station on the Teufelsberg was very effective. Not much is known in detail but they won a prestigious US intelligence trophy on four separate occasions.

What was the impact of the construction of the Berlin Wall on the spies of both the Allies and Soviets, beyond the practical?

The Wall was a game changer. Physical walks from West to East Berlin and vice versa were no longer possible – it was also impossible to do telephone calls that way. Those lines were already cut off by the east in the 1950s. The Wall was also a symbol – the Iron Curtain was not built of iron but of concrete and bricks. It was a new task for the intelligence agencies to cope with this physical barrier.

You write about the trouble George Blake caused to operations in the city. How serious was his impact?

It was very serious – especially for the spy tunnel operation. This operation was probably the most expensive in Germany in the 1950s and also up to 600 people were involved in the evaluation of the telephone tapes in the UK and the US. After it was revealed that Blake was a Soviet spy the intelligence gathered was considered useless because it was thought that false information was sent through the tunnel. George Blake did a lot of harm to Western intelligence operations.

How effective was the Stasi in Berlin?

They were pretty effective concerning a) infiltrating West-Berlin and West Germany and also in monitoring their own people. To point a) During the exodus of the GDR in the 1950s when more than 3 Million people left the East – going to the West. That was the main reason for the Wall. But among those 3 millions were quite a few people that were working for the Stasi and made careers in the West. To point b) The Stasi was able to persuade (sometimes by blackmail) a lot of people to spy on their own social environment. Either their own family  and friends or their colleges at work.

The BND also had to deal with the Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang) from 1970. How active was this gang in Berlin, and how successful was the BND against them? In your book you’ve written about the Stasi assisting other terrorist groups and the RAF in particular – how close were the links between the two?

The Stasi offered a retreat room for the West-German terrorists of the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Through the Stasi channels they also offered them military training in the Middle East. The idea behind it was obviously “the enemy of my enemy can be my friend”.  After the unification it was a shock for West Germany when they learned that their most wanted terrorists could always hide in the GDR.

The BND secured a major victory over the Stasi with the defection of Werner Stiller in 1979 – why was it so significant?

It was not simply Stiller’s military rank (First Lieutenant) but the way his career went in the GDR. He was a blueprint for an excellent Stasi officer. Few would expect that he would defect. In addition was his knowledge about Stasi spies elsewhere in the world. Approx. nine agents were arrested and a further 40 (approx..) were forced to return to the GDR. Furthermore Stiller was able to identify the GDR Spy Master Markus Wolf, who was known as “the man without the face”. Thanks to Stiller Wolf has a face now.  These multiple reasons made Stiller a top target for the Stasi. Stasi Chief Mielke wanted him back “Dead or Alive”.

How much of a challenge was writing the book, when one takes into account gaining access to secret documents from the US, UK and Germany – is it always difficult for historians of espionage?

This is a major problem for every historian working in that field. If everybody spoke freely about his job the Secret Services it would no longer be “secret”. But the collapse of the GDR gave historians a new perspective and a new look at operations, most notably the ‘look’ of the Stasi on those operations. Of course thousands and thousands of documents had been destroyed BUT many more survived! This is an important source for everybody working in the field.

What are you working on at the moment?

Next year is the 75th anniversary of the Berlin Blockade and the Allied Berlin Airlift – the first confrontation of the Cold War! I have written about this subject for a decade and researched for the last 20 years. I have also met a lot of veterans and eye-witnesses. I am working on an exhibition with three Berlin museums and also on a larger Airlift Online project with partners in Great Britain and the US.

Bernd von Kostka is the author of Capital of Spies, published by Casemate UK.