Capital of Spies, by Sven Felix Kellerhoff and Bernd von Kostka

David Webb-Carter

An updated edition of a history of spying in Berlin during the Cold War is 'first-class'.
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Capital of Spies

For anyone who lived in West Berlin during the sixties, seventies or eighties, the very mention of the great city’s name on a news bulletin brought a frisson of excitement with memories of Russian checkpoints, the Wall and constant flow of spy stories both real and fictional.

Sven Felix Kellerhoff and Bernd von Kostka have now brought us a fascinating and valuable summary of real intelligence activities in Berlin during the Cold War. Von Kostka, in particular, brings much experience having been curator of the Allied Museum in Berlin for many years. Necessarily details of operations are held classified for many years, but over five editions this excellent book has been updated with the latest information as it became available. They trace the history of allied intelligence in the divided city from the early years immediately after the cessation of World War II to the release of documents and information following the fall of the Wall in 1989. Their work was not easy as all participants have guarded certain activities and not released them for public discussion.

The traitorous activity of the spy George Blake is relatively well known, but this book details the daring construction of a tunnel from the US Sector to a Soviet communications hub. The description of the concept, construction and discovery of the wire-tapping operation is meticulously described. This clever operation had been betrayed by the British traitor, George Blake, who had been recruited when a prisoner of War during the Korean conflict. The book describes the Soviet astonishment at the sophistication of the operation and, even though warned, the delays in discovery.  I had even heard that a manhole had been marked in Russian “Do not open by order of the Commandant”. The tunnel lasted just under a year but provided a huge insight into Soviet military operations and activity.

A Soviet officer examines the communications tunnel. Credit: Bundesarchiv

An interesting and unusual aspect of military intelligence gathering is a chapter on Military Liaison Missions that were exchanged between the Soviets and the allied occupying powers under the Robertson-Malinin agreement of 1947. These uniformed groups were able to tour the army to which they were accredited as confidence building measures, but in truth they were used to collect intelligence. There are some incidents described, including the death of an American Mission member, but on the whole the authors have not been able to publish much of the Missions work as the details remain secret. By the late 1980s the Missions were an increasing irritation to the German authorities both East and West, and so it was a relief to them when activities ceased in mid-1990, although it took much longer for the Soviet troops to withdraw.

Another strength of the book is the history of the formation and rise of the MFS or STASI operations. Capital of Spies traces the early foundation of the organisation under Walter Ulbricht and the emergence of the feared Erich Mielke as its head. We are told STASI numbers of full time staff had reached 90,000 by 1989, but that is only part of the story as under Mielke’s direction the organisation permeated every part of GDR society. Any visitor to East Berlin was immediately aware of the all-embracing atmosphere of surveillance. The fact that the STASI had no authority in West Berlin was no obstacle in their appetite to collect intelligence and the book details the activities of another key figure, Markus Wolf. Many will remember the wave of political assassinations and attempts to murder prominent politicians in West Berlin and Germany during the 1970s and carried out by the Baader-Meinhof Group otherwise known as the Red Army Faction. It was less well known that these terrorists were aided by the STASI on the basis that “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”. The STASI were also complicit in allowing hostile states to import weapons and explosives into West Berlin, although these activities were suspected at the time, the truth only became available after the fall of the Wall. The authors portray well the all-pervading activities that even extended to smuggling people if the money was right.

A valuable section for British eyes is detail of the BND and BfV activities that were theoretically not allowed under the Four Power Agreements. As the West German Government agencies gained in experience, they worked closely with various Allied agencies who had established outposts in the divided city.

All in all, the authors have given a first-class review of espionage in the divided city of Berlin during the Cold War. Now some 30 years later, with Berlin one city, and the capital of a united Germany, it is almost too hard to believe some of the exploits described in this fascinating book.

David Webb-Carter is a former officer of the British Army, and served in military intelligence in Berlin and West Germany during the 1970s and 80s.

Capital of Spies: Intelligence Agencies in Berlin During the Cold War is published by Casemate Publishing and available now.