On 16 August 1951 HVA was given the cover name Institut für wirtschaftliche Forschung (IWF), meaning Institute for Scientific Research. The first head of this new enterprise was Anton Ackermann, another of the returnees who had spent the war in Moscow and returned early to have a career in GDR politics that ended after he unwisely disagreed with SED policy. His Soviet ‘adviser’ Andreij Grauer was so dictatorial, ruthless and unpopular that his own staff nicknamed him ‘Little Beria’. He got on so badly with Ackermann that he was withdrawn by Moscow in the following year. In September 1953 Markus Wolf – perhaps the most famous spymaster of the Cold War – took command of HVA. Known as ‘the man without a face’ because he was only identified – and that by chance – in 1978, Wolf had also spent the war years in the USSR – in his case, working in the Comintern before returning to Germany posing as a journalist covering the Nuremburg trials.
From 1945 until the building of the Wall in 1961 a steady stream of refugees crossed into West Berlin and the Bundesrepublik. Although low-level security checks were run on them while in the reception camps, it was impossible to catch every HVA-trained agent, who travelled in the stream to take up life as a sleeper or active spy, mainly in Western Germany and the USA. If ever an intelligence service had an easy way of infiltrating spies and sleepers, this was it.
One such agent was Harald Gottfried. Code-named ‘Gärtner’, and trained in the use of invisible inks, mini-cameras, codes and radio transmitters, he was inserted in the stream of refugees as a ‘future agent’ in 1956, but produced no results until 1968 because his target area was nuclear research and establishing his bona fides as a loyal West German took several years.
The sheer numbers of Stasi agents in the flood of refugees had, perversely, an inbuilt problem. For obvious reasons, there are no statistics, but there was always a risk when sending agents and sleepers into the West that they would come to like the much more comfortable life, to enjoy the political and physical freedom and, of course, to enter relationships and beget children who would hardly want to return to the greyness and perpetual fear of ‘socialist’ Eastern Europe. In the course of writing this book, the author has interviewed one false refugee from Poland and one Czech who decided never to ‘go back’. Although knowing that there would be no prosecution now for admitting their past, they are still so buttoned-up after decades of clandestine life that they gave little detail as to how and why they came to the West during the Cold War. Secrecy gets to be a habit, as it did for some British friends of the author who were employed on secret work during the Second World War and yet never told their spouses about it during sixty subsequent years of happily married life.
The most successful agent to arrive in the Bundesrepublik as a refugee was without doubt Günter Guillaume. Despite the French surname, he was picked up by the Stasi and approved by the KGB while working as a labourer, living in East Berlin, but employed in West Berlin. Marcus Wolf personally groomed Guillaume, who had the correct anti-Western political views, for his mission. He also had a war-wounded father reputed to have tended the wounds of Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt during the war. In 1956, Günter and his wife, Christel, emigrated to West Germany as pretended refugees. Whether or not the story is true that his father wrote to Brandt asking him to assist his son’s career, Günter rose steadily through the hierarchy of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to become a personal assistant to the West German chancellor. From then on, his slavish devotion to work on Brandt’s staff earned him access to everything that passed through the Chancellor’s office – all of which he passed to East Berlin.
In 1974 the devoted PA was outed by the BfV, triggering a scandal that could not be hushed up and caused Brandt to resign the chancellorship. Guillaume was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for espionage; for acting as his courier, Christel received a sentence of eight years, but the couple was released in a spy swap in 1981. Sources in the Stasi said that Brandt’s political ruin was not intended, but collateral damage – he had advocated rapprochement with the GDR and would have been more useful in office than in disgrace.
When 32-year-old Werner Stiller, the highest-ranking HVA officer to defect, came over to West Germany on 18 January 1979 his SED credentials were impeccable. Active in the Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) – the Communist successor to the Hitler Youth – since the age of 14, he was a physics graduate trained to seek out nuclear research secrets. His final exam paper was on the subject of electron spin resonance spectroscopy research into the behaviour of free radicals. Together with his Hungarian wife, Erzsebet, he settled in East Berlin, supplementing his salary from a day job as a physicist with nightly training by Stasi officers in techniques like surveillance avoidance and the use of dead letter boxes. In 1972 he was given the rank of full-time MfS Oberleutnant in the Sektor Wissenschaft und Technik, with glowing reports from his instructors as a politically active and ideologically sound young man who got on well with colleagues. The only black mark against him was his impulsive nature. With his academic background, it was inevitable that he would be used in the acquisition of nuclear research.
His work was more than a desk job, involving contacts in cafes and safe houses, using money and ideological motivation to run three HVA agents, three West German sources in the Bundesrepublik and thirty IMs in the GDR, particularly targeting the nuclear research facility in Karlsruhe and the data processing programs of IBM in Stuttgart and Siemens in West Berlin that had military implications for the East German Nazionale Volksarmee (NVA). He also travelled to meet his West German agents in Prague, Budapest and other cities where they could go without exciting suspicion. The Stasi actually had a permanent office at Lake Balaton in Hungary because it was a tourist resort that could be visited by people from both the satellite countries and the West. In Vienna Stiller set up a network with connections to Silicon Valley that was able to acquire commercially some strategic items that were embargoed for sale to the GDR. Stiller’s high security clearance was obvious in one or two trips he also made under false identity into the Bundesrepublik itself – normally a no-go area for any officer knowing all the secrets he did.
In January 1978 Stiller was on the way to meet an agent on the inner-German border, and stopped for a nightcap at a hotel in the winter sport resort of Oberhof, where he chatted up the pretty waitress named Helga, who made no secret of what she felt after being refused a visa to attend her brother’s wedding in the West. Was she genuine or a Stasi provocatrice? Stiller had to know, so he visited the district Stasi office and found she was genuine. After waiting a few weeks, he paid her another visit and showed her his Stasi ID, to which the universal reaction was fear and loathing. Helga took one look and told him to get out, so he confessed that he was looking for someone to help him make contact with a Western agency. One week later, she telephoned to say she would help. They were both taking a colossal risk, not least because, as Stiller well knew, the West German agencies had many double agents and moles planted by the Stasi and KGB, who might betray their approach. The relationship was complicated by them both falling in love after he explained to her that her known political attitude gave her no future in the GDR, so she ought to flee with him.
He did not tell Helga that he was married, but his domestic life was also complicated, with his wife giving birth to their second child. On the ride back from the hospital with mother and child, Stiller told her that he was leaving her for another woman. She knew enough about the Stasi’s moral code to threaten to tell his boss he was having an affair. Things got even worse for Stiller when his immediate superior Horst Vogel saw Stiller and Helga together in Oberhof and called him into the office, to ask who was his lady friend. Four weeks went by and Stiller was given an explicit warning to sort out his marriage, or else. Although his boss knew instinctively that the liaison with Helga was serious, Stiller still was not sure.
At this point – it was now the end of April – Helga’s brother Herbert paid a visit from the West, with his new wife, and Stiller gave him a briefcase with a secret compartment containing a letter offering to work for the BND. Herbert, however, misunderstood and handed the briefcase and letter to the West German frontier post on his return journey. The letter apparently reached its destination because Herbert was twice visited by a BND officer who said his name was Ritter, in the hope of clarifying whether Stiller’s offer was genuine. Deciding that it was, he sent an oral message to Stiller via Helga on Herbert’s next visit to his sister, when Stiller was on holiday in Hungary with his wife and children.
He must have given Helga some form of code to use on the telephone, since all calls into or from the GDR were monitored. After learning that she had received a message from the BND, Stiller went with her to a dead letter drop under a pile of leaves in a Berlin park. Hidden in a false log, they found everything necessary for their flight across the border, including a letter of welcome from his BND case officer. In Stiller’s safe house, where he had been hiding files and microfilms in a hole in the ceiling since February, they broke open the log and used the list of frequencies to listen to a coded message that evening, decoding this with the key supplied.
A busy exchange of information began in July 1978, with Helga encoding the replies and sending them, written in invisible ink, and some of the microfilms in envelopes directed to cover addresses in the Bundesrepublik. In these letters were the damning betrayals of Stiller’s agents in the West, which he had to give to prove that he was not a Stasi plant. But in betraying his agents, Stiller was taking the greatest risk so far. If the BND had them arrested, the Stasi would arrest him. In fact, on 28 August its mail interception department forwarded a suspicious letter, whose return address did not exist, to the operational-technical section. The coded message of blocks of five digits, written in invisible ink, was swiftly revealed with chemicals and an intensive hunt was launched to track down the spy concerned.
By then, both Stiller and Helga were taking more and more risks. On 7 December she secreted a despatch of material for the BND in a toilet aboard an inter-zonal train, which she left while it was still in the GDR. Her coded telegram informing the BND where to find it was intercepted by the Stasi, whose searchers spent the following forty-eight hours taking eleven coaches apart and checking out the twenty-two toilet compartments without finding anything.
BND ‘Agent 688’ – i.e. Stiller – had received 1,841 five-digit code blocks in the last six months.
For the BND, the microfilms were the most important proof that Stiller was genuine. The first escape plan in mid-December foundered because Stiller’s false passport supplied by BND described his eyes as blue instead of brown. At the same time, Helga made a serious error in despatching her collection of crystal glass to her brother in Coburg, showing her real address in case it went astray. The handwriting on the parcel was recognised by a graphologist in the postal department as being that of the person who had sent the incriminating telegrams. An IM was sent to Oberhof to check Helga’s identity but he failed to find her. After learning only that she had a boyfriend in Berlin, he travelled back there. It was the most amazing piece of luck for the two spies, and gave them much-needed breathing space. The new escape plan was for Stiller to travel on an inter-zonal train to Hannover using another false passport, while Helga and her son were to go to Warsaw, where a BND courier would bring them their new identity papers.
By this stage, the Stasi’s postal department had checked 462,500 letters and filmed everyone who posted a letter in East Berlin. Their colleagues in the radio intercept department were also busy recording fifteen transmissions totalling 1,841 five-figure groups that BND had sent to ‘Agent 688’. Stiller at this point had a crisis of conscience and wrote his wife a farewell letter, enclosing 10,000 Ostmarks, to tide her over what was obviously going to be severe punishment for his betrayal:
When you read this, the worst lies behind me. Since we first met I have been working for the other side. At the beginning of last year I made the mistake of telling you about Helga. Then Vogel saw us together in Oberhof … It would make no sense to take you with me because you have lived too long in [the GDR]. The children will be safe here. There are so many things I cannot understand.
That evening – it was 19 January 1979 – after most of the staff had left the HQ on the Normannenstrasse, Stiller collected all the material he could lay hands on. He failed to force open Vogel’s safe, but did succeed in finding in the secretary’s safe the pass which he and his colleagues used at the Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station when they wanted to leave messages for agents in West Berlin. Some instinct made him wary of the BND’s plan, so he decided on the spur of the moment to use the pass and make his own way independently across the sector boundary. There was, however, one flaw in this plan: the secretary would normally have added a date stamp to the pass. This being missing, Stiller had an uneasy moment at the pass gate in the Friedrichstrasse station before the duty officer accepted his argument that his mission was urgent and let him through anyway. On the platform, waiting for the next train into West Berlin he spent what he called ‘the longest six minutes of my life’ while doing his best to avoid the closed-circuit cameras in case he was identified by some eagle-eyed colleague watching the screens.
Leaving the train at the first possibility, he took a taxi to Tegel airport in the French sector and there identified himself to an immigration officer. How right he had been to make his own way across was discovered long afterwards in the Stasi’s files at the BStU: a flurry of activity at the BND had been picked up by Stasi agents in the West and triggered a special watch on the train he should have taken, which would probably have ended his adventure before he ever reached the West – after which he would have been sentenced to life in jail or shot. First on the scene at Tegel airport was an officer of the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionage (SDECE), which was then France’s most important intelligence service. As the office filled with representatives of West German and other intelligence agencies, Stiller handed the French officer the file on a Stasi agent working undercover in France, and placed on the table a in high pile of microfilms – and about DM 14,000 in cash, explaining that he had brought it with him in case he was not paid enough for his betrayal, because he needed capital to start a business!
By the skin of his teeth, Stiller had pulled off his escape, having timed it carefully to fall in the winter holiday season, so that it was not immediately obvious which member of staff had broken into the secretary’s safe and taken the pass. That same evening, orders were given to search Helga’s apartment and intensify the monitoring of her telephone calls. The following morning, Neues Deutschland published her photograph as a person wanted by the Stasi. She and her son were, however, safely in Poland, while Stiller was giving his debriefing officers information on the Stasi agents to be arrested. From there he was taken to Cologne, making the headlines across the Atlantic, where his escape was hailed as an intelligence triumph in the New York Times. Broadcasting the news, West German television added the spurious detail that a woman and a child had travelled with him – this to protect Helga, who was still in Poland.
The news was the worst present for HVA spymaster Marcus Wolf, whose birthday it was. He was furious, but his reaction paled into insignificance when compared with Mielke’s. When Wolf called, to give the news, Mielke screamed, ‘You load of shit! You might as well invite the enemy [sic] to our meetings and be done with it. You all make me sick!’
At the Normannenstrasse HQ a vast damage limitation operation was immediately launched, with agents recalled from the West and a list compiled of compromising material that was missing. Officers visited Stiller’s wife, and when told the news, she fainted with the baby in her arms and a doctor was called. When she came to, Erzsebet told them all she knew – about Stiller’s increasing drinking, nervousness and irritability that led to bitter arguments and also about his sexual preferences and the time he came home with scratches from Helga’s nails on his back. As to his letter for her with the 10,000 Ostmarks, it was intercepted before being delivered. All she did get was an order to change her address and her job – and never again to speak of her husband or what had happened. Next, all Stiller’s IMs were hauled in for questioning, from which a profile was built up of their absent case officer as a man who had been giving warning signs for six months that he was under severe tension.
Stiller was by this juncture in an ultra-secure BND safe house in Munich, Bavaria, guarded by twenty men round the clock. When Helga arrived the following day, the reunion was, to put it mildly, a great disappointment for her as he announced that the affair was all over and she was now just a friend to him. His debriefing, which covered not just his own work, but every aspect of the HVA, was interrupted at weekends, when he went climbing in the Bavarian Alps accompanied by armed BND bodyguards. He identified photographs of, among other, Markus Wolf – who was no longer ‘the man without a face’ when it was published in a March 1979 edition of Der Spiegel. Stiller’s debriefing also resulted in 100 trials of Stasi agents and fifteen others were expelled from the Bundesrepublik. More to the point, his debriefing let the BfV know that the MfS main targets for espionage in Western Germany were industrial and scientific intelligence – and also just how widely these key areas in the Bundesrepublik were infiltrated by Stasi agents.
For all this information, he was awarded DM 400,000. Mielke’s rage at Stiller’s escape did not subside. After having him condemned to death in absentia, he gave orders that the turncoat should be tracked down and brought back ‘dead or alive’. His actual words were, ‘I want him brought back and, if that can’t be done, rendered harmless’.7 Several agents trained to carry out Smersh-type assassinations were placed on standby, but the security screen around Stiller was apparently impenetrable, despite a number of Stasi deep-penetration agents inside the BND and BfV. The claustrophobic high security around Stiller made Helga feel as though she was in prison. When Stiller was allowed to go windsurfing on Lake Garda under guard, to give him a break, she was not included in the party. While there, he picked up a pretty Italian girl for a brief affair, telling her his true identity before the BND bodyguards could haul him back to Munich.
This made his continued presence in Europe insecure, so he was shipped off to the USA for another three-month interrogation by the CIA, followed by a term in a secure language school to improve his English. To set him up in his new identity as Hans-Peter Fischer, he was also given a social security number, credit cards and a quarter-million dollars – which he proceeded to lose in its entirety by gambling on the Stock Exchange, whose workings fascinated him. Perhaps because of this he either chose, or was advised by his handlers, to take a master’s course in business studies. St Louis in the state of Missouri was selected because it was in an area thought not to be covered by any Stasi agents or sleepers. There, he developed an amazing talent for understanding the money markets. His athletic lifestyle and blond good looks impressed younger female students, so he enjoyed every minute of his new life.
Life in what James Jesus Angleton, sometime head of CIA counter-espionage, called ‘the wilderness of mirrors’ is never straightforward. There are indications that the BND courier who serviced Stiller before his flight was a double agent but, for reasons unknown, did not betray Stiller. When this became known in the Normannenstrasse, he was trapped and sentenced to imprisonment for life, but released after four years, presumably in return for cooperating during his debriefing.
Peter Fischer finished his retraining at the age of 34 and was employed by the subsequently infamous investment bank of Goldman Sachs in New York; he also married a much younger American woman said to have connections with the Mafia without telling her that he already had a wife and two children in the GDR. When this came out, she was horrified – and would have been more so had she known that Erzsebet ended up cleaning toilets for a living because her husband was a traitor. After moving to Goldman Sachs’ London office, Fischer specialised in advising the firm’s German clients, living a life of luxury in a fashionable loft apartment with a holiday house on the Côte d’Azur. Of this time, he said, ‘There is great similarity between spying and banking. In each, you work with personal contacts. [In New York and London], I influenced my clients and they … wanted to betray me.’
After the reunification of Germany, he moved to the Lehman Brothers branch in Frankfurt, where his luck eventually ran out. After a series of bad investments, he ‘was let go’, which did not stop him talking his way into setting up a real estate business in Leipzig and continuing his high-life existence and multiple love affairs – and taking part in a film about his double life, as well as writing a book about it and being featured in three articles in the mass-circulation news magazine Der Spiegel in 1992.
He might have done better to keep a lower profile. As in many divorces accorded in New York State, he was taken for a fortune by his American wife and also received many death threats from former Stasi colleagues who understandably resented his riches while they lived in poverty after the fall of the Wall. Even his wives, who had every reason to hate him, agreed that he had a golden tongue, which enabled Fischer to talk his way back into a job at Goldman Sachs in Frankfurt, where he was again fired – this time for sexual harassment, which he denied, and for the undesirable publicity he attracted. After marrying another younger woman, a Hungarian, his last known address was in a high-rise apartment in the suburbs of Budapest, where he may also have a real estate firm.
When Kristie Macrakis interviewed Horst Vogel, who had been Stiller’s section leader at the time of his defection – and whose career must have suffered severely on that account – he turned, in her words, ‘red with rage’. After he had calmed down, he told her, ‘People love [the idea of] betrayal, but no one loves a traitor.’ Markus Wolf, when he was interviewed by Macrakis, confined himself to saying of Stiller/Fischer, ‘He’s no friend of mine.’
The motivations of traitors vary from ideological persuasion to hatred of a father-figure to lust for a better lifestyle – the dream of a house in California or Florida with two cars and a private swimming pool incited many KGB and other East European intelligence officers to defect at great risk to their lives. In the case of Stiller/Fischer, the most important factor in his defection was his compulsive womanising, which was unacceptable in the paradoxically puritan MfS, and in the GDR generally, obliging him to seek a society where promiscuity was condoned behaviour in a successful man.
As a sad footnote to the whole affair, there is a book entitled Verratene Kinder – The Children they Betrayed – written jointly by Edina Stiller, the daughter Stiller left behind in the GDR in 1979, and Nicole Glocke, a daughter of one of Stiller’s agents in the Bundesrepublik, whom he betrayed to the BfV after his defection. The title says it all. If things do not work out for defectors, they have only themselves to blame, but very often their families are also punished – in their case, for something they have not done.
Nicole Glocke’s father, Karl-Heinz, was 44 at the time of Stiller’s defection, employed as chief economist in the strategically important Rheinisch-Westfälischen Elektrizitätswerken company. Aged 9 at the time, Nicole was at least able to console herself later with the thought that her father had spied through genuine ideological motivation and been betrayed by a traitor. An attractive brunette living in Berlin, she grew up to be a successful journalist and scientific rapporteur for the German Parliament. Edina Stiller, aged only 7 at the time of her father’s defection, grew up in uncomfortable accommodation with her underpaid mother in an ugly industrial town, to which they had been forcibly reallocated as punishment and where they were shunned by all previous friends. She had to swallow an additional bitter pill when she later learned that her father had betrayed his country for the basest of all motives – sex and money. Worse, he had chosen to abandon his wife and two children, leaving with them the reflected stigma of treachery as their sole emotional legacy. It is not surprising that she was unable to trust any man or keep any relationship for long. She grew up to be rather haunted-looking, employed as telephone and telex operator for the Nazionale Volksarmee, dropped by her friends when she became an alcoholic, hiding the empty bottles and other evidence from her mother, with whom she still lived.
She did not see her father for two decades after the awful morning when his colleagues knocked on the door in Berlin with the awful news. Having tracked him down, living in some luxury in Budapest with yet another young partner, she found him devoid of any apparent guilt, but he did help her to make contact with Nicole Glocke, who had already traced him during a visit he made to Berlin. Possibly for reasons of journalistic curiosity, Nicole wrote to Edina in April 2002, saying that she would like to discuss the effect on her life of Stiller’s defection. Edina was amazed that the daughter of one of her father’s victims should apparently feel no hatred for the man who had put her own father in prison and ruined his career. Having got to know each other, the two young women collaborated on the book, which proved a useful therapy for Edina. After the end of the GDR she retrained as a lawyer and notary in the reunited Germany.