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Dark Side Last Updated: Nov 20, 2022 - 12:21:12 PM

The Stasi spies who traded sex for secrets
By Sunday Times, 20/1/22
Nov 20, 2022 - 12:20:13 PM

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What’s the best way to spy on your enemies? Sleep with their secretaries. Oliver Moody unearths East Germany’s ruthless blueprint for Cold War sexpionage


She has only one option, he tells her: to join him and shelter under the protecting arm of the Soviet motherland. She starts to cry. When he takes her in his arms, though, she leans into him and clasps him ever more tightly. “I love you all the same,” she says. “I don’t care, I love you.”

Three days later he tells her if she truly loves him, she must set down her feelings for him in a letter. This is the only way he can persuade his masters in Moscow that she won’t give him up. They will also need information — diplomatic telegrams, classified reports, scraps of gossip, the identity of every visitor who sets foot in the chancellor’s antechamber. Wiping away her tears, she agrees. For him, she will betray her country.

The HVA was run from the Ministry for State
                    Security in East Berlin
The HVA was run from the Ministry for State Security in East Berlin

The year is 1959 and the Soviet spy’s name is Herbert Söhler, a well-to-do property dealer and hobby pilot in Bonn. Among the many things he hasn’t told his girlfriend is that he isn’t working for the Red Army at all. In fact he is an agent for the Stasi, socialist East Germany’s formidable secret police, and this is the dry run of a new and vicious model of espionage. The story, reconstructed through the diligent detective work of a German historian, can now be told in full for the first time.

Spies have used sex as a tool for most of recorded history and the honeytrap is one of the oldest tricks in the book. But no spy agency has harnessed the heart’s yearning for love and companionship so systematically and ingeniously as the Stasi.

Today the agency is mostly remembered as the “sword and shield” deployed by the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) against its own people. But it also had a foreign intelligence unit, the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), aimed squarely at the West. In an age when the faultline of the Cold War ran straight through the heart of Germany, its primary task was to infiltrate the ministries, agencies, embassies and military headquarters on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

The spymaster Markus Wolf devised the Romeo
The spymaster Markus Wolf devised the Romeo operation

The HVA was run for almost its entire existence by Markus Wolf, an urbane spymaster nicknamed “the man without a face” because his western counterparts supposedly hadn’t the faintest idea what he looked like. Said to have been the inspiration for Karla, the chief antagonist in John le Carré’s Smiley novels, Wolf built a network of at least 6,000 assets in capitalist West Germany, stretching all the way up to the highest levels of government.

The spy chief realised early on that blackmailing potential assets was a fool’s errand: the surest means of securing their loyalty was to manipulate your way into their head and heart. He also believed that the most valuable secrets would not necessarily be obtained from the men in positions of power, who might have only a limited insight into the machinery of government around them, but rather from the women who did the unglamorous work in the background: the secretaries, telephonists and filing clerks. Frequently young, single or unhappily married, underpaid and overqualified, these women could provide a bewildering array of documents and office chitchat.

Wolf set about assembling an elite cadre of male spies to seek out these women. Often the men were chosen not so much for their good looks as for their affability and emotional intelligence. For sure, Wolf reasoned, the women had physical desires, but what they wanted most was intimacy.

The operation was dubbed the Romeo programme and the targets were referred to as Julias, the German form of Juliet. The task was seduction — or, as they put it in the callous jargon of the Stasi, Ficken fürs Vaterland, a phrase that is probably best left untranslated. By the end of the 1980s Wolf’s agents had placed at least 40 Juliets in the West German government.

Wolf was supposedly the inspiration for
                    Smiley’s nemesis, Karla, in Tinker Tailor Soldier
                    Spy, played by Patrick Stewart, left, in the 1979
                    television series
Wolf was supposedly the inspiration for Smiley’s nemesis, Karla, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, played by Patrick Stewart, left, in the 1979 television series

For nearly 70 years the genesis of the programme has largely remained a mystery. But in 2018 Gunnar Take, a historian now based at Stuttgart University, found the key to unlocking its origins and the identity of Herbert Söhler, the pioneering Romeo agent whose cruel recruitment of a secretary in the chancellery became the blueprint for the entire operation.

In the reading room of the main Stasi archive, a heroically unsightly lump of grey and yellow in central Berlin, Take came across a 1974 PhD thesis unpromisingly titled “Results of research on the development of operational process for the systematic infiltration of significant management positions”. Personally commissioned by Wolf and compiled at the Stasi university in Potsdam by two senior officers involved in the Romeo project, the thesis was nothing short of a masterplan for smuggling spies into the West German chancellery. Over several years of painstakingly cross-referencing the details against other archives, Take has unmasked the very first Romeo agents Wolf deployed to Bonn in the mid-1950s. This is their story.

On October 5, 1952, Albert Weissbach, 30, sat in a Stasi office and wrote down a version of his life he thought the secret police would want to read.

He had grown up in the mountains of southern Saxony, and as a boy he had hung out with the sons of communists and Social Democrats, getting into fights with the sons of farmers and petty officials. Trained as a baker’s apprentice, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and deployed to the gruelling siege of Leningrad, where — he claimed — a kind of Marxist class consciousness began to stir in his veins. “Life itself put me through a hard school,” he wrote, “so I began to think politically.”

Weissbach was captured by the Red Army and detained at a Soviet prisoner of war camp in the Urals. One day an officer made him an offer he could hardly refuse: join the global socialist revolution and win your freedom. After the war he was put through an “anti-fascist” training college and then hand-picked by Wolf for the Stasi’s embryonic foreign branch. He fluffed his only trial mission, taking fright on the way to meet his designated contact in Hamburg. Despite the dodgy start, the Stasi packed him off to West Germany in 1953.

The West German capital, Bonn, in 1953, the
                    year Weissbach arrived
The West German capital, Bonn, in 1953, the year Weissbach arrived

He made for Bonn, a damp but genteel town skulking along the banks of the Rhine that had been arbitrarily selected as the country’s new capital. Le Carré, who was stationed there in the early 1960s as an MI6 agent under diplomatic cover, found it unremittingly grim and oppressive. An American foreign correspondent described it as “half as big as Chicago central cemetery, and twice as dead”.

What Bonn lacked in conventional appeal, it more than made up for in skulduggery. Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s wily first chancellor, was busy building a huge and profoundly sleazy apparatus of power, supported by a network of old Nazi functionaries including three of his right-hand men. The city was frenetic with activity: preparations for rebuilding the country’s military, Nato accession and integration into the western European concert of nations. Adenauer’s chancellery, the nerve centre of it all, made a daunting target for the Stasi. Closely watched by the West German security services, its staff were “for the most part absolutely dependable forces of the imperialist system”, as the Romeo report put it. They were hyper-alert to the threat from foreign spies.

At this point, what the agency needed was not so much political intelligence as simply any way in it could find. It took a couple of years but Weissbach eventually found that way in. Erna Knaupmeier was a widowed single mother of precisely the same age (they are thought to have met in 1956 when both were 34 years old) who had taken a poorly remunerated job as a telephonist in Adenauer’s chancellery. She spent her working days connecting calls and overhearing the private conversations of some of the most powerful men in the land while making barely enough money to get by. The economics of love were stacked against her: there were about 10,000 more women than men in Bonn at the time, and a lowly clerical worker had little hope of catching an eligible bachelor’s eye.

President Kennedy with Konrad Adenauer in 1961
President Kennedy with Konrad Adenauer in 1961

Along came Weissbach, in the guise of a salesman hawking hairdressing products and kitchenware. Quite by chance, she bought some of his wares and asked him to stay a while and talk. Under Wolf’s direct supervision Weissbach was patient, helpful and solicitous. It took about a year before he and Knaupmeier developed what she later described as an “intimate relationship”. She conscientiously reported it to her superiors, who conducted a background check on her new boyfriend. They found no obvious red flags: before the mission he had adopted his stepfather’s surname, Gläser, which sufficed to throw the West Germans off the scent.

Seven years passed. Günter Knaupmeier, her son, a teenager at the time, says Weissbach became like a second father to him and the relationship was a marriage in all but name. The Stasi agent quietly amassed a breastful of medals back in East Germany but appears to have delivered little in the way of useful intelligence. No matter: he was a pathfinder, the first wasp to scout out the picnic.

In 1962, after receiving a tip-off that his cover might imminently be blown, Weissbach’s masters recalled him to East Berlin. But he had been playing with fire. His Stasi personnel file suggests that by this point his entanglement with Knaupmeier was more than strictly professional. In desperation he lured his lover and her son to Antwerp under false pretences and begged her to join him in the east, without disclosing the real reason for his departure.

Knaupmeier refused to go: the Berlin Wall had been erected only months earlier, and she knew she might never be able to return from the drab mirror world beyond the barbed wire. For months, though, she remained true to her partner, paying the rent on his flat in Bonn and sending him care packages and love letters imploring him to come back. “I thought, my God, she’s sending all these parcels back and forth and she’s doing terribly,” her son, now a retired electronics entrepreneur, told Take. “The woman must have suffered such torments.”

Weissbach all but ghosted her. Take says he sporadically replied with “four-sentence letters — ‘I’m fine, I’ve travelled somewhere, the weather’s nice, I hope you have a nice Easter’. The asymmetry is so stark.” Privately, however, he seems to have been in pieces. He tried to resign from the Stasi and, in the end, Wolf had to step in as an agony aunt and persuade him to stay.

With time, both parties got over the break-up. Weissbach stayed on in the HVA and married an East German doctor, while Knaupmeier honourably reported her boyfriend’s disappearance to her bosses, who refrained from punishing her. She left the chancellery the following autumn and started a textiles business. It is not clear whether she ever knew or suspected the truth about her former lover.

The Romeo agent Herbert Söhler, 1963
The Romeo agent Herbert Söhler, 1963

Weissbach’s years of deceit were not wasted. One weekend he and Knaupmeier had gone on a day trip with an acquaintance of hers from work. Unlike Knaupmeier, Margarete Breitbach, known to her friends as Gretel, was possessed of a strong taste for the high life. The daughter of a mid-ranking official from the postal service, she had grown up in a small village west of Frankfurt and started work as a stenographer in 1939, at the age of 16.

After the war Breitbach found a job in the chancellery as a secretary to Hans Kilb, a lawyer and Wehrmacht veteran who handled much of the chancellor’s dirty work as his personal assistant. The Stasi codenamed her “Gudrun” and she seems to have been a bit of a live wire. “Gudrun sets great store by her wardrobe,” Weissbach told his handlers. “Gudrun is intelligent; she has a good all-round education and a confident manner. She is sociable and likes to dance.” She spoke several languages and thought she deserved better than her low-status secretarial job. She also had a very particular taste in her friends. “She preferred a social circle of respectable, materially secure older men,” the Stasi noted, “apparently without developing any strong sexual needs or pursuing a hasty entanglement.”

Wolf had identified the perfect Juliet. What he needed was a suitable Romeo: a man, as the Stasi thesis put it, “with great experience of life and an attractive social position, to awaken a single female person’s interest in getting acquainted with him”.

That man was Herbert Söhler. A prosperous divorcee and estate agent from Hamburg, he was gregarious and charismatic but 23 years older than Breitbach and not exactly handsome by any ordinary standards. In 1933, four months after Hitler seized the chancellorship, Söhler had joined the Nazi party and then the Luftwaffe, but his military file turned out to contain a few skeletons in the closet. In 1938 he was discharged for having sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl. When her outraged father sent her away to Britain, Söhler pursued her across the Channel. “That’s Söhler in a nutshell,” Take says. “He’s a Nazi paedophile and yet the Stasi decided to hire this guy. That tells you a lot about the agency and its ruthlessness.”

Documents are still being sifted in the Stasi
Documents are still being sifted in the Stasi archive

The Second World War came to Söhler’s rescue. Called back up to the Luftwaffe, he rose through the ranks to major and took charge of several commands in Italy. “Clear, unobjectionable character,” one of his Nazi supervisors wrote. “Honest and confident. Energetically gets his own way, but sometimes slightly oversteps his remit in the process.” That he certainly did: in 1944 Söhler was stripped of his command and confined to barracks for “persistent disobedience”.

Like Weissbach, Söhler was recruited to the forces of socialism through a Soviet prisoner of war facility. Given the density of old Third Reich operators in Adenauer’s milieu, Wolf was inclined to regard his Nazi background as an asset rather than a liability. He was impressed by the man’s resourcefulness and emotional insight. Codenamed “Astor”, Söhler moved to Bonn in the mid-1950s, got back into the property trade and joined a flying club frequented by the West German elites.

It was not long before he made his move on Breitbach. Working with Weissbach, he tracked her down to a spa cure in Bad Wildungen, 70 miles north of Frankfurt, in early March 1956. Yet the courtship proved tricky. His mark already had a middle-aged gentleman friend in tow. Undeterred, Söhler engineered a “chance” encounter with the couple at a local hostelry. The trio got along famously and caroused into the early hours.

But the plot thickened. The next day Breitbach left for a different sanatorium in the Bavarian Alps, accompanied by yet another beau of advancing years. Söhler was in danger of getting stuck in the friend zone. Seizing the initiative, he waylaid her at her apartment in Bonn and asked her out. For one of their first dates he took her up over the grey roofs of the capital in an aeroplane.

The situation rapidly evolved into what Söhler’s handlers depicted as a firm relationship with “intimate goings-on”, although she kicked him out of her flat by 10pm each evening so that her superiors wouldn’t suspect her of impropriety.

Söhler soon befriended her boss Hans Kilb, a fellow ex-Nazi who acted as the chancellor’s chief fixer in a sprawling swamp of industrial corruption, orchestrating political favours for manufacturers and creaming off a considerable amount of money from his business contacts.

Söhler eagerly relayed all this information to East Berlin, with the additional revelation that Adenauer’s chief of staff, Hans Globke, and his head of intelligence, Reinhard Gehlen — another pair of old Third Reich string-pullers — were running a secret and completely illegal espionage operation directed against the chancellor’s domestic opponents. The Stasi had struck gold.

Bizarrely, however, they blew it. At the time, East and West Germany were locked in a vicious but mostly futile propaganda war. The information Söhler delivered to the agency on Kilb was simply chucked into the mix as one more gobbet of dirt amid the general mud-slinging. East Berlin even published a truly execrable poem about Kilb’s sleazy machinations. It held back the kompromat on Globke for a while. In 1963, though, it put him on trial in absentia for his alleged crimes against humanity, adding his illicit spy campaign to the very long and elaborate charge sheet. Bonn easily shrugged the whole thing off as crude socialist disinformation.

Meanwhile Söhler contracted a nasty case of pneumonia after a holiday with Breitbach in 1958. Following several months of treatment at a Swiss hospital, he signalled back to East Berlin that he was too ill to do any more missions for the Stasi.

In an operative last hurrah, Söhler decided to go for broke and turn his lover into a willing accomplice. Inviting her back out to Switzerland, he weaved his web of quarter-truths about plotting to kill Hitler and spying for the Red Army. It was a textbook piece of manipulation and it worked, at least for a little while. Söhler persuaded Breitbach to report to a new Stasi handler before bidding her farewell and vanishing into the GDR. She never saw him again. Whatever she felt for Söhler, though, she appears to have got over it pretty quickly. After supplying odds and ends of information to the Stasi for a few months, she left her job at the chancellery and married an old flame.

Söhler lived on for a few more years. In 1961 he made a late-night appearance on GDR television and unloaded his experiences of Bonn in a half-fictitious chunder of information, to little effect. By far his greatest contribution to the cause came later. In the following years the Stasi’s Romeos managed to seduce a pair of sisters who worked in the chancellery, before running into a long dry spell when nothing they did seemed to work. Frustrated, Wolf ordered a full review of the HVA’s record — the PhD thesis Take found in the Stasi archive — to try and identify which tactics had worked.

In the “cloister of bulls”, the agency’s training college at Bad Belzig, a small spa town 40 miles southwest of Berlin, Söhler’s work was held up as a masterpiece for the other “love commandos” to emulate. Psychologists pored over every last detail of the Romeos’ romantic encounters — public displays of affection, tone of voice, the wording of love letters — to fathom what women truly wanted. Among their conclusions was that the best time to broach the stealing of secrets was just after sex, when the targets would be at their most emotionally dependent.

The work of Romeo agents seducing their “Julia”
                    targets was dramatised in the 1987 German TV film
                    Schlüsselblumen (Cowslips)
The work of Romeo agents seducing their “Julia” targets was dramatised in the 1987 German TV film Schlüsselblumen (Cowslips)

Over two decades the agency developed a conveyor belt of finely tuned seducers. The Stasi often observed their prey for months beforehand, studying their every habit and social contact. Pop culture usually depicts the Romeos as irresistibly handsome young men but sometimes the spy chiefs decided that what was really called for was a debonair father figure, a sugar daddy like Söhler. What they all had in common was a cultivated instinct for the fragilities of the female ego in what was still a highly patriarchal society. “They generally behaved, you could say, in a less egotistical way than most West German men,” Take says.

Sometimes the Romeo agents would visit their lovers only once every few weeks, feigning business abroad as a pretext for keeping the women in a state of longing. It was not unusual for them to wait years before seeking any classified information. Occasionally the Stasi went to extraordinary lengths to preserve the illusion. One Juliet, a former nun, refused to have sex with her Romeo unless they were married. The couple were spirited away to a chapel in Copenhagen, where both the priest and the groom’s “mother” were played by East German agents.

To this day the ultimate value of the Romeo operation remains difficult to assess, not least because most of the records were destroyed in the months after the Berlin Wall came down. It certainly had its advantages for the Stasi. For one thing, it was cheap. Unable to afford the sophisticated electronic surveillance wielded by its western rivals, the agency resorted to human labour instead. For another, it worked. Of the 15 spies identified in the West German chancellery from 1949 to 1989, 12 were Stasi assets — and the majority of these were Juliets. At one point in the mid-1970s Romeos were sleeping with secretaries at the top of the chancellor’s economics, foreign policy and home affairs departments.

Yet the intelligence haul was of variable quality and often wasted through East Berlin’s strategic ineptitude. The one Stasi coup that did indisputably alter the course of history was a calamitous accident that had nothing to do with the Romeo operation. In 1974 it emerged that the closest aide of Willy Brandt, West Germany’s first centre-left chancellor and the architect of rapprochement with the Soviet Union and the GDR, had been passing information to the agency for years. Brandt resigned days later. The East Germans were mortified: the chancellor had been the most sympathetic leader they could have hoped for in Bonn.

Regardless of its wider impact or lack of it, the Romeo operation did come with great costs to those caught up in it. The collateral damage to the programme’s targets and those around them was enormous, and the agents themselves did not escape consequences. Take argues that in the final analysis, the so-called Romeos could be viewed more properly as “male prostitutes”, while their victims exhibited enough spirit and autonomy fully to merit the term “survivors”.

Source:Ocnus.net 2022

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