The End of East West German Secret Service Opens GDR Files

Germany's foreign intelligence agency recently released some of its files from the run-up to the collapse of East Germany. The papers show that West German spies had conflicting information. At times they were well sourced, but they failed to see that the Berlin Wall was about to collapse.


It could have been a real coup: Erich Honecker escapes to the West, and the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, is the first to know. It was Nov. 7, 1989, two days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The BND notified the Chancellery that the leader of the East German Communist Party, who had been overthrown only a few weeks earlier, "visited his sister in Wiebelskirchen in the Saarland region on 11/6" and then "traveled to Switzerland for medical treatment."

The sobering correction of the story came later. Not only was the BND the first to know about Honecker's supposed escape, but it was apparently the only one to know. The report had turned out to be incorrect. In reality, Honecker was at his home in Wandlitz near Berlin, and he wasn't taking the fall of East Germany in stride.

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The story of Honecker and the BND is one of hearsay, knowledge and false information. In September 1989, for example, BND agents sent an "express message" to the Chancellery in Bonn to announce that Honecker had died on the 13th of the month, and that the funeral was planned for the 24th. The information had come from the Americans and was reported in the tabloid Bild, but the BND was responsible for spreading the supposedly sensational story, even though it noted that there were "considerable doubts" as to the veracity of the report. Those doubts were correct. Honecker would remain alive until 1994.

Was it just bad luck, incompetence or just another of the usual scrapes anyone working undercover in unknown territory is likely to get into? How effective is the BND? This has been a hotly debated question ever since it was founded. And not even insiders would venture to guess how efficient West German intelligence gathering was on East German territory. This makes it all the more astonishing that the BND, responding to a request from SPIEGEL, has now, for the first time, declassified large numbers of documents relating to a landmark even in postwar history: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of German Democratic Republic (GDR).

In doing so the BND, notorious among academics and journalists for its secretiveness, is placing itself at the forefront of the examination of history, far ahead of the Soviet KGB, the American CIA and Britain's MI6, which continue to keep their dossiers on the events of 1989 under lock and key.

Thousands of pages of documents are now available to the public at the national archive in the western German city of Koblenz. Although they represent only a part of the BND's files on the demise of East Germany (its files on the East German economy, the secret police known as the Stasi and foreign espionage), they provide enough information to indicate how much the West German intelligence service knew about the National People's Army of the GDR (almost everything), the mood at the headquarters of the East German Communist Party, the SED (quite a lot), and what was happening in the politburo (almost nothing). In addition to absurd false reports, the wealth of documents also contains spectacular materials, such as records from the first half of 1990 relating to Hans Modrow, the last communist premier of East Germany and the current honorary Chairman of Germany's Left Party.

Offering Moscow the Stasi

Modrow, an advocate of reform, had long enjoyed a good reputation at the BND. "He was our hero," says Dieter Gandersheim, who was in charge of the office that analyzed the "general situation" during the transitional period. But then, on Jan. 30, Modrow traveled to Moscow to meet with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The economic and currency union with West Germany was about to begin, and the SED was on the verge of losing power.

According to the BND information, Modrow offered his host the last thing his party had left to offer: the Stasi. At first, Modrow discussed the Stasi's reconnaissance unit, which was responsible for foreign espionage, that "efficiently operating" instrument of espionage that was "hardly being used" at the time and that Modrow, according to the BND, told Gorbachev he could make "generally available" to the Soviets. The Soviets were to assume responsibility for paying the salaries of Stasi employees, but they would also receive something in return, Modrow said. According to the BND report, "all key reconnaissance areas remained covered," particularly in West Germany.

According to the documents, the East German leader also wanted to bequeath the 260,000 official and unofficial employees of the Stasi, which bolstered the SED dictatorship internally, to the KGB. As an enticement, Modrow allegedly told Gorbachev that the "tightly woven network of agents and informants covered, to a large extent, the entire spectrum of parties and the opposition in the GDR." According to the BND notes, "Gorbachev was interested."

Commenting on the documents today, Modrow says: "None of that is true." He insists that the BND information is "an utter lie." Many members of the BND, on the other hand, believe that the KGB took on at least some of the Stasi employees.

Moscow Revokes the Brezhnev Doctrine

Gorbachev's conversations provided interesting insights about the condition and future of the GDR. A record that the BND sent to the Chancellery and selected ministries on June 5, 1989 relates to a groundbreaking conversation between Gorbachev and Honecker from the previous year. Gorbachev wanted to withdraw Soviet troops from East Germany, but Honecker was against the idea. Nevertheless, according to the BND documents, the Soviet leader was insistent: "Each country, according to Gorbachev, bears the sole and exclusive responsibility for its internal security. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union would not intervene to protect a party or regime against the dissatisfied masses."

The Soviet Union could not have revoked the Brezhnev doctrine more clearly. Under that doctrine, no one within the Soviet bloc was permitted to withdraw from real socialism. The Soviet guarantee of the existence of East Germany had expired -- at least a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Such insights are likely to solve the mystery of why then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher were so convinced, in 1989, that Moscow would allow the Berlin Wall to come down.

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