05 July 2009

'Der Illegale'

A couple of months ago, the New York Times ran a short article reminiscing about Colonel Abel, the famous Soviet spy of the 1950s who was caught and then exchanged for Francis Gary Powers, the downed U-2 spy pilot. When I was in the army back in the early ‘70s, I was a counterintelligence officer stationed in West Berlin. Now, I was never involved in a case quite as dramatic or famous as the Colonel Abel capture, but when I attended the Bundeswehr intel school, I did discover something interesting in that line.

I was a member of MAD Spezial Lehrgruppe “Abwehroperation” für Offiziere (MAD Special Class “Counterintelligence Operations” for Officers), a two-part course from 20 June to 7 July and 26 September to 13 October 1972. (MAD was the Militärischer Abschirmdienst, the military counterintelligence service of the Bundeswehr. Military Intelligence Branch, in which I served, is solely army intel, but MAD was an all-service organization. It is now called the Amt für Sicherheit der Bundeswehr—the office for the security of the Bundeswehr.) I had been sent as a guest-officer to the MAD-Schule in the little hot-water spa of Bad Ems, across the Rhine from Koblenz, the town I had lived in ten years before as a teenager. (I got a little nostalgic trip “home” thrown in. I planned my arrival so I could spend the night in Koblenz—at a pension right by the Deutsches Eck, down the Rheinanlagen from where we used to live—so I could check out the town and then report to the MAD-Schule fresh and in uniform the next morning.) I was one of two U.S. Army officers in the class, the other being a captain from Munich, our unit HQ. The rest of the class were German army, navy, and Luftwaffe officers, mostly majors and lieutenant colonels or lieutenant commanders and commanders, and that was an experience. I don’t mean the classes—they were interesting, of course, but purely from a professional perspective, nothing amusing. Going to class in German, especially an esoteric class like intel, was a trip, but it was a terrific exercise for me. The German officers—who were all older than both the captain and I—were rather astonished to find that we could get on so well in German. (Germans love the idea of foreigners learning their language. They’re much less jealous of it than the French are of their mother tongue.) And that’s where the revelations started.

I’m assuming that this bunch was pretty much typical—I don’t see why they wouldn’t be. The school was its own facility in Bad Ems on the banks of the Lahn (Bad means ‘bath’ in German; all towns with that in their names are or were thermal spas)—there was no military base to which it was attached like the Armor School at Ft. Knox or the Intel School at either Holabird or Huachuca. (Even the language school I attended in Monterey, California, was at the Presidio, a satellite of the huge Ft. Ord on the other side of town.) So we had a little mess—decent food, by the way—and an O-club. Well, a bar. After classes, we’d all gather there for drinks and conversation—everyone was very gemütlich (an untranslatable word which here is best rendered as ‘convivial’)—and then we’d return after dinner. Man, could those German officers drink! My American colleague gave up trying to keep up with them pretty quickly—they kept buying rounds, and you can’t really say no. (Well, you can, but I was in my middle 20's, so I just wasn’t gonna.) So I’m drinking mine . . . and his to keep the Germans from feeling slighted. And not only are they buying round after round, but they keep changing liquor. (They even drank some bourbon, in deference to us Americans. I’m surprised they had any in stock. They also bought a round of Ratzeputz, a German liqueur I had experienced in my earlier days in the country. The name means something like “cleans out your gut” and it’ll eat the enamel off your teeth. It’s pretty vile.) Okay, so we’re all getting pretty plastered—nothing rude, but loose. We’re comparing backgrounds and home lives and so on, and then the Germans start to sing. Now, these guys weren’t all in the same service as I said, or from the same part of the country, but they all knew the same songs. And they knew them all the way through. They asked us to sing some American songs, and do you know that between the two of us, we didn’t know one song together through to the end? Germany is a singing society—or it was until that generation, at least. They would sing when they got together. (Russians are like that, too.) We just don’t. (The French don’t either much, but the English do a little and I think the Aussies are singers. And the Irish and the Welsh—well, they sing at the merest suggestion!)

While I was in Bad Ems, a three-part TV movie, Der Illegale: Biografie eines Spions, aired on German television. Der Illegale was based on a true story and was amazingly accurate in terms of “tradecraft,” as it’s called in most spy novels. The miniseries aired on ZDF—Zweite Deutsche Fernseh—on Sunday, Wednesday, and Saturday evenings, 1, 4, and 7 October. (The title means “The illegal agent: biography of a spy”; spookdom distinguishes between legal agents, those with at least an ostensible reason for being in the host country—trade representatives, exchange students, embassy and consular employees, tourist or airline agents—and illegal agents, those who use false identities, forged documents, and other deceptions to gain entry into the host country.) The whole MAD class gathered in the O-club for the three evenings and watched as avidly as if it were a training film. For the German officers, this was the world in which they were working! In fact, since these guys were all senior officers, some of them might well have been active MAD lieutenants or captains when the real case had occurred.

The story of Der Illegale, written by Henry Kolarz, directed by Günter Gräwert, and starring Götz George and Vera Tschechowa, is of a Russian-born ethnic German, Nikolai Grunwaldt, who is recruited at a very young age by the KGB. Nikolai is rigorously trained and then married to a female agent, Katharina Feldmann. He is then inserted into West Germany by one of the commonest means used, even as late as my day. He’s sent across the East-West border as a refugee and upon arriving in West Germany, he merely declares his “right of return”—any ethnic German by law was eligible to become a West German citizen by simply declaring his desire to become one. The Soviets and East Germans sent thousands of people across just this way—criminals, prostitutes, various other undesirables, old-age pensioners (so the West would have to pick up the tab) . . . and spies. It was easy—no muss, no fuss. (I encountered this tactic myself many times in the two-and-a-half years I worked in Berlin.) Most refugees had no ID documents so they just made up an identity (Nikolai, for example, becomes Kurt Blohm), which became “real” as soon as the West German authorities issued new documents in that name for their new citizen. Voilà: instant cover. “Kurt” then gets jobs in the French embassy in Bonn and then at NATO in Cologne and begins copying documents. Here’s the interesting part, from the tradecraft point of view: how Nikolai gets back and forth to meet with his handlers in Moscow. He simply gets on a plane and flies to West Berlin. Any German could do that without passport or international travel documents because the West Germans treated travel to and from West Berlin as internal travel—there were no customs controls, and no record. Then he goes down into the S-Bahn, the commuter rail service that was controlled by the East (the U-Bahn was the city subway system, controlled by the West; both systems, which predated the war, crossed under the Wall), and rides to Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin. There are no borders to cross so far, and no guards, no controls, and no records. It’s just like flying from D.C. to New York and getting on the subway to Brooklyn. The only tricky part is at Friedrichstrasse, because there are guards and gates to control the access in and out of East Berlin—but if you’re a KGB agent, you have a prearranged exit gate with a guard who knows you’re coming, and he lets you through with no questions. Then you take a cab to Schönefeld, the East Berlin airport, get on a flight to Moscow—again, no record or documents because you’re under Soviet control now—and make your meeting at KGB HQ. Then reverse the process and you’re back in Cologne and no one’s the wiser; you’ve just been away for the weekend. That’s exactly how it really happened—and exactly how easy it was to do. (Now you see why there were so many spies in Berlin, Cold War Europe’s Espionage Central. It was like Grand Central Station for Europe: you could go anywhere, in either direction, east or west, with so little trouble.) The plot of the show isn’t really important here—“Kurt” copies documents in both his jobs and carries the copies to Moscow—so I’ll just cut to the chase: Nikolai falls in love with his wife (!) and wants the gig in Moscow he was promised so his son can go to school at home. When the KGB reneges and assigns him to some place like South America, Nikolai looks up the CIA station chief in Berlin in the KGB files and makes one of his surreptitious trips to Berlin. But instead of crossing over to East Berlin, he contacts the CIA in West Berlin and defects, with the promise that they’ll also bring his wife and son out.

The miniseries was a terrific program. Even just as a story, it was a good film: a sort of German Spy Who Came in from the Cold for the ‘70s—very in tune with the Cold War times I was witnessing. I don’t think any of the actors became internationally known, but they were excellent. The series was, as I said, also very accurate with respect to the tradecraft and I decided that if it could be acquired and properly dubbed or subtitled, it would make an excellent training film for MI agents. Everything in the film was either historically true or, at the very least, possible with the technology and methods then in use. (The TV show used several real, even state-of-the-art spy techniques and practices, including a hand-held copier that was a technological innovation we'd only heard about in '72!) And it was all excellently done for the film. One reason for this accuracy, I think, was that, as I said, the film was based on a real case. I knew that when we saw the broadcast in Bad Ems; the series was considered a Dokumentarspiel, a “docudrama.” I even learned, when I got back home to Berlin, that one of our DAC’s (Department of the Army civilian) had been involved in the defection. But I either never learned the name of the defecting spy or I forgot it in the ensuing decades. After I wrote up a memoir of the time I spent in Berlin a few years ago, I set about seeing if I could put together enough information to search out the real case and learn the story of the actual espionage adventure that led to the movie. Bit by bit through November and December 2008, adding a small fact or a name each time I discovered it, I was able to gather together the outlines of the story as published in public records, without delving into government agency files or doing primary-source research in old documents. Here’s what I learned, and it’s amazingly similar to the story of Der Illegale, with only the smallest details changed, mostly for obvious dramatic effect.

On 10 October 1967, just under four years before I arrived in Berlin (and five years to the week before the series aired), the CIA managed the skillful extrication from Moscow of Yevgeny (‘Eugen’ in German) Runge, 39, a KGB lieutenant colonel of German ethnicity who, under the cover identity Willi Gast, had led a spy network in West Germany since 1955. Runge, code-named ‘Max’ (or ‘Maks’ in Russian), defected in Berlin with his wife, Valentina, and his 8-year-old son, just as Nikolai had in the TV series.

After I identified the spy-defector so I had something to search, I tried to track down some of the history of the Runge case. There are scattered references around the 'Net, including some books that cover the period, the field of intel, and the Cold War in Germany. (The New York Times coverage, of course, ends shortly after Runge's defection, so it doesn't say anything about what happened to him later.) The difficulty was that Runge is not an uncommon name in Germany and the man's first name has various spellings depending on how it's transliterated from Russian (Evgeny, Yevgeny, Evgeni, etc.—even Jewgenij, the German spelling of his Russian name), not to mention his German name, Eugen. (Then there’s also the question of whether or not to include his middle initial: Y—for Yevgenyevich.) I looked for sites in German, of course, but as I’ve mentioned before, my computer isn’t equipped to handle Cyrillic well at all. (From what I was able to tell in my limited search, the German press didn't have more coverage of the case than the U.S. press did. Runge defected to the CIA and was brought to the U.S. almost immediately. We shared some info with the West Germans, but they didn't have access to Runge before he was brought here.) The books I found are fairly recent (late '90's for the most part), but they don't include much detail, or mention Runge's fate after he turned CIA informant in 1967. The rest of his record, however, seems to be thus:

Runge, a "Volga German," was born on 8 March 1928 in Novo-Solenoye, the Ukraine, but raised in what became East Germany and, like the character in the TV show (who was ethnically German but born and raised in Russia), was spotted early and recruited and trained as an adolescent before being inserted into West Germany. Runge went to school in Russia until 1941, he said, the year the Wehrmacht occupied eastern Europe. The Soviet authorities deported his father and sister to Siberia, but the young Runge remained in German-occupied territory. The Germans sent Runge to eastern Germany as forced labor near the end of the war. He remained under German control until 1945 when the war front moved west back into Germany and the Soviet army occupied eastern Germany. The 19-year-old worked as an interpreter at the Soviet military headquarters in eastern Germany until he was returned with others from the German territory to a camp in Vologda in northern Russia. Runge escaped, however, and went back to eastern Germany, working again as a translator. When the Soviet authorities told him, “You can’t stay here,” he moved to the Soviet-occupied sector of Berlin where he lived under an assumed identity; he retained his actual name, but he asserted that he was born in Germany. Runge maintained his false identity until 1948 when he contacted the Soviet embassy to effect his repatriation to Russia and between 1948 and 1949, he began studying at Humboldt University in what became East Berlin (the GDR was declared in 1949). The young student was recruited there in 1949, when he was all of 21, by the MVD (the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the forerunner of the KGB) on an “unofficial” basis. He finished his studies in 1954 and became a member of the Deutsche Einheitspartei (the German Unity Party, the official name of East Germany’s communist party) and received new identity documents as a Russian citizen. The KGB (which took its new name, the Committee for State Security, that same year) helped Runge with school and living expenses and got him a place to live, and after he graduated from Humboldt, formally signed their new agent up as a “junior” (second) lieutenant. Runge trained for another year before he was inserted in the West in 1955. He operated there for 12 years.

Exactly like the TV character, Runge's first target was the French embassy in Bonn where his main focus had been NATO documents and plans. (France was still a participant in NATO’s military alliance in those years. France withdrew from the military part of NATO in 1966.) The spy in the movie was a loner, which was part of the psychology of his character, of course—he was alone except for his small family. Runge, however, ran a ring of spies and penetrated the French embassy through the work of another agent. He communicated with the KGB by written reports, on one-time pads and in code, which he mailed to an accommodation address in Vienna. When an agent in Runge’s circle was arrested, Runge’s handlers brought him back to Moscow briefly in 1967 for “operational reasons” in case he had been burned. When it was clear he hadn’t been, the KGB reassigned him to Frankfurt, the headquarters of the U.S. Army in Europe. Runge also began to prepare for an assignment in the United States, including a two-year temporary assignment while he learned more English among other new skills.

Also like the TV character, Runge was married and had a son. Like Nikolai, too, he had married his wife on KGB orders. Valentina was an East German citizen, but had also been recruited by the KGB when she was in school. Furthermore, two of the agents Runge ran (who also became infamous spies and were arrested after his defection) were a couple, the Sütterlins. Heinz Sütterlin had also married his wife, Leonore, because the KGB had ordered him to. Leonore had gotten NATO documents from her job at the German defense ministry. In the TV show, Nikolai wants to go back to Moscow and educate his son in a Russian school and defects when the KGB reneges on its promise to repatriate him. Runge wanted to return with his family to East Germany, but the KGB assigned him to Bulgaria, so he engineered the defection in Berlin. (One report said that the Soviets wanted to make Runge’s son stay in Moscow as a “hostage.”) I don’t know if Runge’s still alive now (he’d be over 80), but he lived under an assumed name in the United States after becoming a CIA asset and revealing many espionage secrets of the KGB and eastern bloc. He was brought to the U.S. almost immediately upon his defection in Berlin.

I haven't found any reference that the miniseries is available on video here anywhere. As I said, I recall that it was really a good show, very well acted and extremely accurate in terms of the tradecraft and technology it displayed (for the day, of course). You know it must have been pretty good if I still remember it, even as poorly as I do, after 37 years. I probably wouldn’t have been able to find as much of the real history behind the miniseries as I have had I tried 30 years ago, before the Internet and all the connections it has provided. (The author of one of the books, Battleground Berlin by David E. Murphy, cites several government documents, including CIA memos and so on, to which I wouldn’t have gotten access, so the information, except what I might have found in the New York Times through its index, would have been hard to identify, locate, and access.) So, oddly, the fact that this TV series stayed with me for so long and resurfaced in my memory all these years later was a boon: it allowed me to piece together a rudimentary history of the actual subject of the plot of the TV show that had intrigued me for so long.


  1. The three parts of "Der Illegale" are being shown by one of ZDF's satellite channels this week! Jan. 14-17, 2010, I have been told today. Better check correct dates.

  2. Unfortunately, I don't have satellite so I couldn't check this out myself. I checked and the series was rebroadcast as reported--which also means that it must be available on video somewhere. (The re-airing didn't generate any further info on the actual Runge case, however. Too bad.) Thanks for letting me know, however.


  3. Last week, I watched the 2015 Steven Spielberg film, 'Bridge of Spies,' about the exchange of Soviet spy Col. Rudolf Abel for captured CIA U-2 pilot Lt. Francis Gary Powers. The prisoner swap took place in 1962 in Berlin--the movie's title refers to the Glienicke Bridge, which connects Potsdam (Soviet headquarters in East Germany) with East Berlin across the Havel River--so it occurred a decade before I was stationed in Berlin myself. Several of the senior agents at Berlin Station, however--all DAC's (Department of the Army Civilians) when I knew them--had been engaged in the efforts leading up to the swap. 'Bridge of Spies' doesn't make any mention of my unit's participation.

    (By the way, ROTters might take note that Tom Hanks's character, the American lawyer negotiating the exchange, James Donovan, travels between West and East Berlin by S-Bahn, a transportation mode I mention above. He goes to Friedrichstrasse, the main S-Bahn station in East Berlin, just as I describe in my article here.)