Democracy: “Let them come to Berlin.”

Michael Cox explores the intrigue and complexity of Cold War Berlin.

After World War II, the West and the East found themselves in perpetual conflict. Nuclear annihilation hung over the world, and governments worked tirelessly for supremacy over important regions. Most of these conflicts played out, not on the battlefields, but in the shadows, and if there was one thing those in power craved more than anything it was information.

The Cold War was fought through the intelligence bureaus. Assets who could supply information became invaluable, and governments would do whatever they could to tap into their opposition’s intelligence. Agents and moles were everywhere, and the information they provided allowed governments to be steps ahead of their opponent.

Every major city was on the political chessboard, but no place was more important in the running of spy games during the Cold War than Berlin.


With its four internationally divided sectors—American, British, French and Soviet—Germany was on the threshold of Cold War tensions. The fact that the city of Berlin was also so divided—yet resided within the Soviet section—made the city a hotbed for political strife. Western Berlin became a beacon of hope for Easterners looking for Western freedoms—hopes that were curtailed by Soviet aggression, first through a blockade in 1948 but then much more successfully by the erection of the Berlin Wall.

The Wall meant that governments had to become more sophisticated in their intelligence gathering—as East and West could no longer freely meet. Agents and assets not only had to come up with clever ways to safely trade information discretely, but governments became much more interested in running covert programmes to obtain needed intelligence.

Covert Programmes

After the Berlin Wall was enforced, both East and West came up with ways to not only acquire information but to outflank the opposition. Intelligence, after all, not only allowed governments to know what the other side was doing but actually saved money—paying informants was cheaper than blindly outspending other countries, especially with expensive monitoring programmes.

An example can be found in Operation Gold (known as Operation Stopwatch in the UK), an early US/UK covert programme that saw a tunnel dug from West to East Germany. It was meant as a way of tapping Eastern telephone lines to obtain government information. However, George Blake—a Soviet placed mole within MI6—had informed the East of its construction. It was ‘discovered’ a few years after completion, but not before it was used to feed false information to the West.

If there is a single symbol of the power of Cold War programmes, perhaps it can be found in Erich Mielke, the head of the East German Ministry for State Security (better known as the Stasi). Mielke would run campaigns of fear, both within East Germany and outside its borders. He created a surveillance state and (with Markus Wolf) ran moles in foreign governments—moles who were either willing to help due to political beliefs or individuals who had been coerced.

It would be these ‘moles’ involved in ‘spy rings’ that would do the most damage to counterintelligence for countries.

Spy Rings

While East and West both had ‘inside people’ leaking information, history certainly credits the East, spearheaded by the Soviet Union, as running a far more impressive programme of sabotage in the beginning. This may have been down to a few reasons, including tight bureaucratic control in the East and the fact that Western collaboration meant that a spy placed within the UK could in fact obtain American information.

Many of these ‘rings’ became infamous upon discovery—not only for the information they surrendered to the East but also in those who were involved. These include the famous ‘Cambridge Five’, the ‘Portland Spy Ring’ and the ‘Atomic Spies’.

However, as time went by and disillusionment with Eastern policies became more widespread, the West would also manage to identify their own assets, though half the game the West had to play was figuring out who were genuine and who were purposely sent as double agents.

Captured spies also became bargaining chips. Many would be traded for other captured assets, an act that was dramatised in the recent Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies—which featured the famous Glienicker Brucke, a bridge that spanned East to West and so was used for prisoner exchanges.


The Cold War may be over, but the shadow of espionage still looms. Spy rings might not be the great constant threat they once were, but intelligence gathering is still a top priority with governments.

Spying is still front-page news. Moles are still being caught handing sensitive information over to foreign governments, and the occasional spy ring is discovered. Even in recent news, Russian sleeper agents were discovered in Washington DC while Americans had to admit to tapping Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. And what of the recent announcement about Russian news agency Sputnik setting up shop in Edinburgh: many fear it has dubious intentions.

As for the legacy of Cold War espionage, many key personnel and facts are still classified. And as for Checkpoint Charlie and House 1, the headquarters of the Statsi? They are now popular museums that anyone can freely visit in Berlin.

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By Michael Frayn

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