The End of East West German Secret Service Opens GDR Files
Part 2: Did Informants Just Give BND What it Wanted to Hear?
The documents that have now been declassified were kept in a building known as Building 103. The three-story concrete structure, with steel bars in front of its windows, is in the rear section of the BND headquarters in Pullach, near Munich. The roughly 30 analysts of Department 3 working in Building 103, usually in individual offices, spent much of their time addressing the East German worker and farmer state.
Their job was to evaluate the information obtained by spies and informants on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and to interpret the general mood in the "New Germany." The glamour factor of their jobs was close to zero, and one of the highlights of their work was being occasionally offered an official trip to Washington. The analysts could never meet their agents in person (that was the work of the procurers), nor could they ever travel to the Eastern bloc, because it would have been too dangerous. They also didn't carry guns.
The recently released documents begin in the mid-1980s, when the BND had the reputation among Western intelligence services of being particularly familiar with East Germany. But Hans-Georg Wieck, who assumed the BND presidency in 1985, says today that employees had initially claimed that the SED regime was "firmly in charge" and that the East German people had given up on the prospect of reunification. The leading politicians in every West German party agreed.
Wieck, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had come from the Foreign Ministry and, as German ambassador to Moscow, had experienced the drab routine of socialist life firsthand. He disagreed with the prevailing view. Instead, he favored the approach of systematically determining how the East Germans truly felt about their government and the idea of German reunification.
If Wieck had had his way, he would have sent his agents to interview East Germans vacationing on the beaches of Lake Balaton in Hungary or in the bars on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. But that was too risky for his security experts. Instead, the agents in Pullach contacted East German scientists, managers of combines and private travelers visiting the West, or they questioned East Germans who had moved or fled to the West. All incognito, of course.
The BND had specialists trained to strike up conversations on trains. They were usually middle-aged women, known internally as "train questioners." Other agents sat in hotel bars, where they pretended to be journalists, insurance salesmen or even pollsters, chatting about East German football teams and -- after several drinks -- querying the visitors on their views about German reunification.
This approach yielded about 600 interviews every six months, together with information the agency had obtained from wire-tapped telephone conversations or intercepted letters (the BND routinely opened mail from East German to West Germany). All of this information was turned into material used in analyses of the situation in the GDR.
The analysts also added their educated opinions about issues such as the doubly destabilizing effect of trips to the West. Beginning in 1986, Honecker relaxed some restrictions on travel to West Germany. As the BND discovered, upon returning home the East Germans were initially overwhelmed by their impressions of West German cities like Hamburg or Stuttgart. This was soon followed by feelings of anger and resignation over conditions at home and, finally, periods of depression that often involved calling in sick for weeks at a time.
In most cases, East Germans who had traveled to the West became a lost cause for the SED. And those who were not permitted to travel also resented the party -- for discriminating against them.
The regular BND reports on the "psycho-political situation in the GDR" also reflected an interesting facet of inter-German reality. According to a document dated February 1986, "the concept of German nationality is deeply rooted in the East German population," of which, as the BND analysts argued, only a minority fully supported the communist state. It was an assessment that would change very little in the coming years.
Of course, it is quite possible that some BND informants provided the sort of information the agency's conservative president wanted to hear. This notion is supported by a study that is mentioned in various BND reports. According to the study, which was allegedly conducted by the East Berlin "Institute for International Politics and Economics" (IPW) and prepared in 1988 at the behest of the SED leadership, many East Germans were in favor or reunification, while only about one-tenth of the ordinary population was opposed to reunification.
The problem with this conclusion is that the study apparently doesn't exist -- or at least it was never found in the East German archives. The then director of the IPW, Max Schmidt, says that he never saw such a document, and that the institute did not even conduct the type of research involved.
In other cases, there is also evidence that the BND reported incorrect information, even though it drew the correct conclusions from that information. For example, in early 1989 the agency estimated -- based on "intelligence information from reliable sources" -- that up to 1.5 million East Germans had submitted emigration requests. The BND anticipated a significant wave of emigration, and it was right. But instead of 1.5 million, only 113,500 East Germans had applied to leave the country at that time. According to Wieck, the BND had fallen prey to internal SED manipulation.
Wieck, a native of Hamburg, was one of those BND presidents who were occasionally asked to present his findings to the chancellor. The face-to-face meeting with Kohl usually lasted 20 minutes, followed by a meeting with a larger group, and because the impressions of East Germany that Kohl's wife Hannelore had gained during private visits was consistent with the intelligence information, the mood was cheerful at times. Wieck also brought good news to the chancellor, who was facing criticism at home, such as the July 12, 1989 BND report that the East Germans suddenly liked Kohl. They apparently no longer saw him as a revanchist arch-reactionary, but as a pragmatic politician with the interests of a united Germany at heart.
That report must have been well-received by the chancellor and his staff, because the analyst who reviewed the report noted: "This report was particularly meaningful when it came to the general mood, and its contents attracted great attention. ... There is great interest in such issues relating to the general mood." Some of the file memos from the Chancellery clearly contradict the widely held notion that Kohl consistently ignored the BND reports.
A Catalyst in Hungary
On the other hand, what the service reported in Bonn in the late summer of 1989 was not very coherent. On Aug. 21, the BND observed "a sort of end-times mood in large segments of the population" of East Germany. But in another report, written only two weeks later, the same agency claimed: "a large segment of the population remains loyal to the regime, is resigned to it or at least accepts it."
At least the Pullach analysts accurately interpreted the mass exodus through Hungary as a catalyst. The exodus, they wrote, had "truly activated parts of the population, which had fallen into resignation and lethargy." The people had become "more willing to engage in conflict and to change." This was true, but it didn't take an intelligence agency to arrive at that conclusion. In fact, anyone could read about it in SPIEGEL.
Like almost all Western observers, the BND underestimated the impact of the civil rights movement. It was finding "almost no resonance in the population," Wieck wrote in a report to Bonn at the end of September. According to Wieck, the East German security agencies had everything under control.
- Part 1: West German Secret Service Opens GDR Files
- Part 2: Did Informants Just Give BND What it Wanted to Hear?
- Part 3: The Truth about the Fall of the Berlin Wall