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.
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.
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.
The Truth about the Fall of the Berlin Wall
The BND was able to wiretap telephone conversations with its dense network of radio reconnaissance stations along the inter-German border. The agents called this information, which also included reports to party headquarters from the SED's county administrations, "bug material." In May of 1989, the BND reported "deep-seated unease" within the base and "a lack of orientation and loss of confidence in the leadership." In the waning days of the GDR, the agency noted that there was "mistrust and resignation, not just among ordinary party members, but also among officials in the base, county and district organizations."
Nevertheless, for a long time the BND doubted that the SED leadership would give up power voluntarily. It was not until Nov. 3, at a time when hundreds of thousands of East Germans had already taken to the streets, that the BND's chief analyst for East Germany, whose code name was "Schönbeck," reported that the SED would "possibly have to relinquish its monopoly on power," which it was still "tenaciously defending."
Just how widely the quality of the BND's sources varied became clear at the moment when the second German nation literally imploded. The analysts in Pullach were already well-informed about the National People's Army, based on information that was being leaked to the West from the East German Central Committee, as well as its foreign and interior ministries. But the BND agents still hadn't gained access to the inner circle of the politburo -- about a dozen senior officials -- where the real decisions were made.
Of course, this didn't stop the intelligence service from merrily reporting details about the SED leadership. Some of the information was true, and some wasn't. This probably had something to do with the fact that the Stasi had likely turned around almost all informants, as the BND admits today.
In this conflicting situation, differentiating between truth and disinformation was a tricky undertaking. In July, for example, Honecker was forced to leave the Warsaw Pact summit meeting in Bucharest early. According to the BND, the 76-year-old had suffered a "harmless attack," and he was treated on the spot. The analysts concluded that the politically isolated SED chairman had not returned home for health reasons, but to "get away from the unpleasant mood at the summit."
But Honecker was in fact seriously ill and had to undergo gall bladder surgery. And the BND's performance still didn't improve. In August, Wieck wrote in his report to Bonn that Honecker had pancreatic cancer, and incurable and highly malignant disease. If that had been true, Honecker would probably not have survived 1989.
They were turbulent times, both in East Germany and among the agents and analysts in Pullach. Honecker had hardly returned to the politburo in late September before Wieck reported that there was "information from a competent source" to suggest that the SED General Secretary was about to introduce reforms in the GDR. Gorbachev, according to Wieck, had pressured Honecker. By then Ulrich Schwarz, the SPIEGEL correspondent in East Berlin at the time, had already written that "the political days of Erich Honecker are numbered."
Two weeks later, the BND was back in touch with actual developments on the other side of the Wall. The agency wrote that it expected to see "staffing consequences at the top of the SED, in which Honecker may be included."
Honecker Steps Down
In fact, on the very next day, Oct. 17, members of the politburo asked the aging and senile Honecker to resign. That same evening Honecker, a native of the western Saarland region, cleared his desk.
The BND leadership learned of the development through an intercepted telephone call the next morning between two senior SED officials: The wife -- referred to as "A" by the BND analyst -- was in East Berlin and knew what had happened, while the husband ("B") was in the northern port city of Rostock and only gradually comprehended the situation.
The Central Committee still had to approve of Honecker's removal from power that afternoon, and the wife was concerned:
"A: You probably haven't heard yet. However, I don't want to put it in so many words on the telephone. Just as a pricaution (sic!), one might set aside a bottle of champagne or wine for this evening. (Speaks cautiously and knowingly, choosing her words carefully)
A: There will be something to celebrate.
A: Everything's new.
B: Good. We are anxiously awaiting things here. But we're also somewhat tentative, of course.
A: Exactly, and that's why. I think that you will -- okay, absolutely and try during the day, really everything, and it's very serious.
B: I heard about it early this morning. There was that thing yesterday with the students in ...
A: No, no. I mean really everything and very serious. (Speaks slowly, emphatically, sounds believable)
A: Okay, I'm going to spell the word leadership. L - E - A - D - E - R - S - H - I - P.
B: Okay, darling.
A: Goosebumps. Let's hope it goes well.
B: Yes. (...)
A: Sweetheart, because you suffered so much because of it, so I thought I should let you know right away.
B: Okay, honey.
The documentation of a change of government in a dictatorship. That evening, A and B were able to pop the corks and drink their champagne. The Honecker era had come to an end.
His successor was a man named Egon Krenz, Honecker's crown prince for years. The BND had also consistently speculated that Krenz, who was seen as "flexible and pragmatic," was one of the leading contenders to replace the SED General Secretary. But was there any significance to the appointment, when more and more people were taking to the streets every day, demanding an end to the SED dictatorship?
The BND did not release its dossier on Krenz. Only one detail can be deduced from the documents now available in the national archive, and what the document says is true, it does not shed a favorable light on Krenz. After the death of his mother in 1975, he is believed to have personally seen to it that the entry permit for his half-sister, who lived in West Germany, was delayed so that she could not attend the funeral in East Germany. Krenz denies the accusation, saying that it is based on "misinformation." He claims that he had no contact with his West German relatives since 1957, and that he had not known whether "they even wanted to come to the funeral."
Politically speaking, Krenz came off surprisingly well at the BND. "We had pinned our hopes on him, to a certain extent," says Gandersheim. The BND had long believed that it was to Krenz's credit that the police, factory militias, the Stasi and the East German army did not shoot into the crowd during the massive demonstration in Leipzig on Oct. 9. But the truth is that Honecker's successor had nothing to do with it.
The Border Guards Give In
The BND also attributed the opening of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9 to the new SED General Secretary. In truth, however, the party leadership had planned something entirely different from the festive chaos on that night of nights. After a transition period, East Germans would be permitted to travel to the West as part of an orderly process. It was to be an act of mercy, granted from above, complete with permits issued by the police and, of course, the option of denying such permits at any time.
But in his legendary press conference on the evening of Nov. 9, politburo member Günter Schabowski conveyed the impression that East Germans could cross over to the West immediately. Thousands of East Berliners promptly gathered in front of the border crossings and loudly demanded that they be opened. Without any instructions to the contrary, the bewildered border guards finally gave in.
On Nov. 10, 1989, the BND wrote in its report to Bonn: "To reduce the flow of refugees, the SED surprisingly opened its western borders on the evening of Nov. 9, which prompted large numbers of Germans to pay a visit to the respective other part of Germany. ... This downright sensational measure can be seen as Krenz's most radical step to date, which he using in an attempt to gain the trust of the population."
None of those in charge at the BND at the time can claim today that the agency was in top form in those days surrounding Nov. 9.
When the Wall came down, Kohl and Genscher were in Warsaw on an official visit -- and completely in the dark. BND President Wieck was in Washington on official business. He heard about the opening of the Wall from the television set in his hotel room.
Wieck called Pullach immediately, where a few experts on East Germany were also gathered in front of the TV. They told Wieck: "We too were taken by surprise."
That report was true. Undoubtedly.