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US-Russia prisoner swap triggers memories of Cold War Berlin

Rosalia Romaniec
December 10, 2022

The exchange of US basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout reminded many Germans of events during the Cold War. The Glienicke Bridge near Berlin was a top spot for prisoner swaps.

journalists and guards waiting for a released US spy in 1962
Glienicke Bridge by Berlin was a famous spot for prisoner exchanges during the Cold WarImage: dpa/picture alliance

Marian Zacharski, a Polish former intelligence officer, was arrested in 1981 and convicted of espionage against the United States. After four years in prison, he was exchanged for American agents on Berlin's Glienicke Bridge across the Havel river in what was the largest known prisoner swap of the Cold War.

Since then, he has returned to the bridge many times, as for him it symbolizes the happy end to his own story. Zacharski was considered a top agent for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which is why his exchange was particularly difficult to negotiate.

In the 1970s, he lived in California under cover as a Polish businessman and gained access to the US military industry. "I got all the important radar plans from back then, including those for the Patriot, HAWK and cruise missile defense systems," he proudly says now, listing his haul. Over the course of five years, Zacharski got his hands on thousands of pages of secret documents and sent them to Warsaw, from where they were resold to Moscow.

Marian Zacharsk in 2014 by the Glienicke Bridge
Marian Zacharski was a Polish spy during the Cold WarImage: Katja Fischer

But then he was caught and sentenced to life in prison. After four years, however, he was one of the prisoners exchanged on Glienicke Bridge.

"I have good memories of that bridge, but the situation back then wasn't funny at all," Zacharski recalls. He still remembers the rollercoaster of emotions between despair and hope. He and three other agents from the Eastern Bloc were exchanged for 25 Western spies who had been imprisoned in Warsaw Pact countries.

"Four to 25 — that was the ratio. And each exchange was the result of long negotiations, because not every spy had the same value," publicist and historian Norbert Pötzl explains.

Second big prisoner swap

A few months later, the Glienicke Bridge once again became the backdrop for a Cold War prisoner swap.

On February 11, 1986, the images made front-page news worldwide — a small man in a large fur hat in the middle of the snow-covered bridge, being led to freedom by diplomats. It was Anatoly Shcharansky, a Soviet dissident and human rights activist. He served nine years in Soviet labor camps before being allowed to walk to the West — watched by hundreds of international journalists. The US had been trying to secure his release for years: Shcharansky was considered a symbol of freedom in the West.

Hundreds of journalists waiting at Glienicke Bridge in 1986
Hundreds of journalists were at Glienicke Bridge to see the prisoner swap in 1986Image: Heribert Proepper/AP/picture alliance

It was no coincidence that the Glienicke Bridge became the site of this spectacular swap and many others: It is located on the outskirts of Berlin, where there used to be a military border crossing between the two blocs. Soldiers faced each other there for four decades.

"We insisted that the exchanges take place where Soviets, not GDR border guards, were standing," John Kornblum, the US exchange coordinator at the time told DW. "Maybe it sounds like Cold War rhetoric today, but at the time it was very important to us."

Cold War political deals

The idyllically located bridge provided plenty of space and a fitting backdrop for the swaps that were supposed to remain secret. But when news of an impending exchange was leaked in 1985 and 1986, the US and the Soviet Union decided to exchange their agents despite the spotlight.

"This was a good chance for all parties involved in both East and West to use the publicity to their advantage," Norbert Pötzl says. The swaps took place a few months after the change of power in Moscow. At that time, Mikhail Gorbachev moved into the Kremlin. "The release had been prepared long before, and its implementation was a clear signal to the West," Pötzl believes. "Gorbachev showed himself willing to compromise and give in, while the West celebrated his success. Everyone was happy and even some glory fell on East Germany, too."

Spy Bridge - the Last Cold War Exchange of Agents Took Place on the Glienicker Bridge # neue Version # 11.02.2011 # People and Politics

GDR lawyer as international mediator

The East German GDR played an important role in the swaps, with its star lawyer Wolfgang Vogel acting as a special intermediary between East and West. The lawyer, who has since died, was admitted to the bar in both German states and arranged many ransom payments for GDR dissidents. This made it easier for him to play the role of mediator between Washington and Moscow.

In 1962, Vogel brokered the first major exchange on behalf of the Kremlin. In order to free the top Soviet agent Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, who had been imprisoned in the US, he offered the Americans their airplane pilot, Gary Powers, who was imprisoned in the East.

Vogel was successful and from then on kept trying to arrange new deals. But he had to wait 23 years for the next swap. At the height of the Cold War, negotiations on such agent exchanges were virtually impossible.

Vogel, however, did not give up. His success also pleased GDR head of state, Erich Honecker. "For Honecker, it was a prestigious undertaking, because it allowed him and his socialist republic to move more to the center of world attention," explains Pötzl.

1989: regular East Germans began crossing Glienicke Bridge in their Trabant cars
Following the collapse of the GDR in 1989, regular East Germans began crossing Glienicke Bridge in their Trabant carsImage: Pansegrau/akg-images/picture-alliance

German special role

German politicians and intermediaries — in the West German capital of Bonn and in the GDR's capital of Berlin — were heavily involved in negotiations between Washington and Moscow.

West Germany was interested because there were some West Germans serving time in the East after having spied for the US and being exposed. "They usually did trifling things, for example, writing down car license plates for the US while on trip to the GDR and then were arrested and got long prison sentences for it," says Ludwig Rehlinger, the FRG's negotiator and secretary of state at the time.

John Kornblum also recalls, "We had lost people in the GDR at that time through poor preparation of our own services and felt obligated to get them out."

Few exchanges took place in the public eye. Günter Guillaume, for example, was arguably Germany's most famous spy, an East German Stasi agent who worked undercover at the heart of West Germany's government as an aide to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. The scandal forced Brandt to resign in 1974. Guillaume, his wife, and several others were exchanged for eight West German, US, and British agents in a highly secretive swap in 1981.

But the 1985 exchange on Glienicke Bridge was the largest Cold War prisoner swap: Three dozen individuals from several countries crossed the bridge: Russians, Americans, Czechs, Bulgarians and Poles. Several said that they felt their release was almost a miracle — as it was for Marian Zacharski, who had already been in prison for 1,444 days. He has often stressed that he felt gratitude towards the German mediators and negotiators on both sides.

This article was originally written in German.

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