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Germany cagey on spy cooperation in Pinochet's Chile

January 3, 2019

The German Foreign Ministry has refused to shed light on the BND's cooperation with the CIA to aid General Augusto Pinochet's brutal regime in Chile. The vague responses have outraged the German Left party.

A woman looks at a wall of photographs showing victims of Chile's dictatorship
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma/L. Vargas

The German government has offered only cagey responses to questions about cooperation between the BND (Germany's foreign intelligence agency), the American CIA and military dictatorships in Chile and Greece in the late 1960s and early '70s.

The socialist Left party's Jan Korte submitted 68 questions to the German Foreign Ministry late last year, and the incomplete answers he got irritated the Bundestag member so much that he filed an official complaint about the noncooperation of the government. "These answers are an unparalleled insult," he told DW. "And, by the way, that is no way to treat the parliament."

The Foreign Ministry did admit that the administration of Chancellor Willy Brandt knew in advance about the imminent putsch being planned by Chilean military leaders under General Augusto Pinochet in September 1973, but offered few details on exactly how.

Otherwise, the government largely refused to answer any key questions about the cooperation between the CIA (which actively supported Pinochet's coup) and the BND, citing "the good of the state" as the main reason. "The release of information related to the cooperation with foreign security forces would breach the strict and unlimited confidentiality that forms the basis of all intelligence cooperation," according to the government.

The questions that remained unanswered include: When and in what way was the BND active in Chile? Did the CIA inform the BND about the putsch, which the US had supported both financially and actively through its intelligence agency? Was the BND involved in any way with the CIA operations in Chile? What was the central element of German foreign policy in Chile, if not human rights? 

"We can assume that there was close cooperation [between the BND and the CIA], and that it was legitimized by anti-communism," Korte said. The German government also refused to say whether any Chilean military personnel had been trained in West Germany in the years between 1965 and 1995.

But for Korte the actions of the BND is only part of the picture. "For me the important thing is that the government sent out a signal: yes, there were some very dark spots, and we cooperated with people ... who were simply mass murderers," he said. 

Deutschland Chile Franz Josef Strauss bei Pinochet
Franz Josef Strauss (left) met General Pinochet in 1977Image: picture alliance/UPI

Read more: 20 secret police convicted for Pinochet-era crimes

A transparent secret service?

Korte was particularly exercised by the fact the responses came from a ministry run by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has otherwise made a point of its concern for re-evaluating German history. "It just shows that there is no awareness of the problem," he said. "There is apparently no consciousness of history in [Foreign Minister] Heiko Maas."

He also questioned the government's excuses for not providing information: how events that happened decades ago could effect the BND's current operations, or why the German government would want to respect its confidentiality agreements with a regime that maintained torture camps. He also formally complained to the government about the perceived lack of cooperation.

Korte got similar answers to his questions on the BND's collaboration with the military junta that governed Greece between 1967 and 1974. The BND had maintained close contact with its Greek counterpart, the KYP, before and after the coup that brought the far-right regime to power, but could offer Korte no details from the BND's own reports from the country.

The government is not obliged to release intelligence documents that are younger than 60 years old, but Korte and other critics pointed out that its reticence does not chime with the BND's transparency initiatives.

Last October, the agency released a book produced by an independent panel of historians who had researched its archives from 1945 to 1968, supplying €2.4 million ($2.75 million) to support the project. Korte praised this report, commenting that it showed that critical historical reappraisal, even when funded by the government agencies being reviewed, was possible after all.

Chile National Stadium
'Life is pleasant if its sunny at the stadium' - German politician's comment on Chile's national stadium became notoriousImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Read more: Greeks recall 1973 student defiance of junta

The lucrative dictatorship

The Foreign Ministry did offer some insight into German relations with Chile. The answers to Korte's questions revealed that trade with Chile saw a major boost in the year after Pinochet took over, with exports rising by over 40 percent in 1974, and imports by 65 percent.

In fact, German newspaper reports from the time revealed that conservative politicians, along with sections of the media, initially celebrated Pinochet's takeover and the economic benefits it promised.

Franz-Josef Strauss, government minister several times and leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) for over 25 years, told the Bayernkurier in 1973 that "the word 'order' once again has a sweet sound for Chileans."

Meanwhile Bruno Heck, then general secretary of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), traveled to Pinochet's Chile in 1973 as a show of solidarity. When asked about reports that the national stadium in Santiago had been turned into a detention camp where dissidents were being tortured, Heck infamously told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on his return, "life in the stadium is rather pleasant in sunny weather."

For Korte, the government's reticent responses to his questions raised bigger issues about what he called "blind-spots" in West Germany's post-war history: "For example the government's cooperation with the apartheid regime in South Africa, and others like Pinochet and the Greek military dictatorship," he said. "And I think it's time that this history is worked through and the government took a stance on it."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight