Thousands of Spies Kept Tabs on East German Military | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.10.2007

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Thousands of Spies Kept Tabs on East German Military

West Germany's Federal Intelligence Agency got information about the movement and activities of the Soviet armed forces in East Germany from as many as 10,000 citizens who acted as spies, new research claims.

A military parade in Berlin circa 1955

Keeping tabs

In spite of the danger involved, the Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) used up to 10,000 spies to keep tabs on the military activity in communist East Germany (GDR) during the Cold War, according to new research by historians Armin Wagner and Matthias Uhl.

"We could substantiate that the BND was very informed about the Soviet armed forces in Germany," Uhl said.

The researchers based their study of BND files that were recently made public and turned their findings into a book, which was launched in Potsdam on Wednesday, Oct. 17.

Spies from within

Strollers pass a part of the former Berlin Wall

Spies told West Germany what was happening behind the wall

West Germany relied both on ordinary East German citizens to keep them informed of military happenings as well as civilian informers who worked inside garrisons and barracks.

Once the Berlin Wall went up, the BND also relied on information from West German citizens who traveled to the east and reported their observations about Soviet military activity. West Germany often knew very quickly about the Soviet army's restructuring plans, said Uhl, who hails from Thuringia, a state in the former GDR. That was also true of where various troops were stationed.

West German intelligence also got important information from East German refugees and defectors, such as learning about a special weapons arsenal in Thuringia.

Spies didn't get top secret information

Military recruits in a training exercise

Spies reported on troop training and movements

While the BND received a good amount of data about troop movements and training exercises, it was less successful at getting information that had a high level of internal secrecy attached to it, Uhl said.

Intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom concurred that more important information, such as specific attack plans, remained unknown to the West. The BND was unsuccessful in getting sources at the top of the political power apparatus.

"The Federal Intelligence Service had a good picture of the strength of the Soviet military," said Schmidt-Eenboom.

Secret files contain a wealth of information

U.S. Army tanks (foreground) faced Soviet tanks at the Berlin wall, Friedrichstreet, checkpoint Charly, on October 27/28th 1961

The Soviet's military strength was well known in the West

The BND, which continued to exist after reunification, will neither confirm nor deny the findings that 10,000 people were involved in spying.

"Uhl and Wagner have shown in their book that the BND's intelligence was well-positioned in the GDR," said BND spokesman Stefan Borchert.

Uhl said he expects further research on the topic of BND spying in the future as more information from the archives is released. So far, 2,000 BND files from 1951 to 1991 have been made public.

"What is publicly available is only a small part of what likely exists in the archive," he said.

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