Be rude, and they will leave you alone
Tuesday 26 January 2021
Great reflections here in The Baron about spying and journalism, in the wake of the passing of the incomparable John le Carré. It is clear that his world and ours had some similarities.
I, too, had brushes with operatives from the other side. They were mostly comical, or at least I saw them as such - and acted accordingly.
I don’t know why anyone would think I could be an asset. But East Bloc talent spotters may just have imagined that, as a Swede, I was a softish target. Maybe a social democrat (Lenin called soc dems “useful fools”), if not a fellow traveller.
One encounter led to a brief entry into my Stasi files, which I retrieved post ’89 from the office set up after Germany’s reunification to bring transparency into the murky legacy of the “workers’ and farmers’” surveillance state.
On 5 December 1979, the accredited Western media was bussed by the East Berlin foreign ministry press office to Lutherstadt Wittenberg to witness the withdrawal of a Soviet tank division as part of a Soviet-US deal. These were the years of endless SALT negotiations. The power blocs were in a thaw, which quickly froze over a little later when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
December 5th was a cold day. After getting up at 5 am and crossing Checkpoint Charlie, I walked to the Friedrichstrasse Foreign Ministry press office in East Berlin, signed in and boarded a press bus.
Breakfast was provided - a string bag with small, hard oranges, a bottle of salty mineral water, a huge smoked sausage and enough dark bread to get through the week.
Deciding whether to eat or not helped pass the time as the press bus drove through towns and villages, meandering off the Autobahn for a very autocratic reason.
The Leipzig Fair was opening that day, so the motorway was closed. This allowed the leadership to travel unbothered between East Berlin and Leipzig. Like most dictators, the leaders in the GDR seemed afraid of the people, and certainly avoided any unscripted encounters.
Once again, the GDR and its small towns, even in white winter finery, struck me as grey and very sad.
Most towns and villages had a Platz der Deutsch-Sovietischen Freundschaft - the German-Soviet Friendship Square. It seemed as if an “or else” was missing on the street signs that usually just read “DSF-Platz”.
In Wittenberg, there was the usual unriveting ceremony - long speeches, pompous music by a military band and inept singing by a Young Pioneers choir.
After that, a troop train with tanks and baby-faced soldiers with carnations in their gun barrels pulled out of the station. As part of the ceremony, the Young Pioneers had given the carnations to the soldiers, who all spontaneously stuck them into their guns, as you do.
As the train chugged away, it passed a sign saying “Richtung Berlin” - a PR slip, surely. I cursed myself for not having brought a camera.
During the ceremony, I had left the area for 15 minutes to go look for a place to buy a sandwich, or a beer. Two men in long leather coats followed me, walking close so I would not miss their presence. After a few loops along empty streets, I gave up and returned. I remember reminding myself not to talk to anyone, knowing that I would cause them all kinds of trouble just by asking for directions.
On the bus back to Berlin, a too friendly fellow from the ministry press office sat down next to me.
He ignored the fact that I was clearly trying to compose a story and was deep into my notes.
I was going to dictate my night lead to the UPI desk in London (I was a UPI staffer for six years before joining Reuters in 1983) as soon as I got back to the Kempinski Hotel in West Berlin. This was not an urgent story, but a current affairs piece that would get play in the US. It did even get into the Herald Tribune with my lead about “baby-faced soldiers, carnations at the ready” untouched.
The official really tried to draw me into a conversation. He asked my views about all sorts of current political situations, not at all put off by my monosyllabic grunts. He said at one point that he hoped we could remain in touch once I returned to Hamburg. It seemed to be his way of telling me that he knew who I was.
(As news editor for UPI in West Germany, I was based in Hamburg at dpa headquarters, next to their domestic desk. I also served as foreign coverage liaison between UPI and dpa. A cool domestic news editor said once that dpa’s motto should really be “we may be late but we’re often wrong”.)
I desperately wanted the GDR official to leave me alone. After close to an hour, I finally found a way to get rid of him.
In the GDR, every road sign for Berlin read “Berlin Capital of the GDR”. To the GDR, claiming the divided city of Berlin as the capital was of course politically vital. But I cheekily asked him if the people in his country had memory problems or learning difficulties.
“Why,” he replied. I said, loud enough so a few heads turned, that in Sweden we learn at a young age that Stockholm is the capital and there is no need to put a reminder on every road sign for Stockholm. As far as I knew, I said, that that seemed to be the situation in most countries except the GDR.
Red in the face, he rose at once and left me alone. In the files, the Stasi official - because that is what he was - wrote simply that I had been on the media trip but had kept to myself and had not done anything untoward.
Hardly the stuff of espionage. Just an anecdote from an everyday occurrence by a Western reporter behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
And a reminder that in a pinch, it can be helpful to be rude if you want to be left alone. ■