Gute spies operate in secret. Ideally forever, but at least during their lifetime. So anyone who reveals secrets and is exposed publicly in the process is certainly not a good spy. However, both sides can have a great interest in portraying someone as a “top agent”.
This is shown by the example of the notorious Stasi spy in the Federal Chancellery, the historian Eckard Michels 2013 in his book “Guillaume, der Spion”, the first critical biography of the most famous MfS officer ever exposed in the West. In May 1974, the first Social Democratic Federal Chancellor, Willy Brandt, fell over him – even if the Guillaume affair was only the reason for his resignation, but by no means the reason.
Michels describes in minute detail how Guillaume was trained and installed in the West. In Frankfurt am Main, the still convinced socialist began his ascent because the SED had high hopes for the decidedly left-wing Hessian SPD.
Espionage zeal flagged
In the second half of the 1960s, however, the Guillaume couple’s interest in their assignment apparently waned. It is true that their actual reports were destroyed in 1989/90; Only lists of the number of file volumes created were preserved. But from this one can see that by 1966, 16 volumes each had been created for Guillaume and his wife Christel, but in the following four years only two more for him and not one for her.
Why that was so remains speculation. Did the Guillaumes suddenly have scruples about passing on internal information about people who trusted them to East Berlin? Or, on the contrary, had his officers given instructions to continue working on his career as inconspicuously as possible in order to advance to really important positions? Guillaume claimed that after his exchange in a lecture to GDR foreign agents, which has even survived as a video recording.
Michels leans towards the first interpretation: “Infiltrated former GDR citizens who knew the contrast of life between East and West Germany from their own experience were probably more susceptible to the suppression of the original scouting job than native West Germans,” he justifies his view plausibly.
Guillaume rose surprisingly
Actually, Guillaume should have become a press officer in the Ministry of Transport after the federal elections in 1969 – but he lacked the formal qualifications required for the higher administrative service. Instead, however, the proven election campaigner and SPD man received the offer to move to the Federal Chancellery, with the responsibility of maintaining contact with unions and parties.
Chancellery head Horst Ehmke and department head Herbert Ehrenberg probably had another reason for the internally controversial attitude. As Michels writes, the main aim was “to provide for a comrade as a reward for his work in such a way that he could not cause too much damage even if he was not qualified”. What a mistake!
The security check revealed additional doubts about Guillaume’s trustworthiness. State Secretary Egon Bahr, Brandt’s most important political collaborator, therefore warned Ehmke in writing: “In my opinion, you should speak to G. Even if you have a positive impression, there is still a certain security risk, especially here.”
But none of the reservations had any effect: at the end of January 1970, Günter Guillaume was appointed to the Chancellery with retrospective effect from the beginning of the year. The field of work of his department, social policy, was “not central to the security concerns of the Federal Republic”. Nevertheless, it was about “core elements of social democratic self-image”. A perfect starting position for an agent.
The HVA was cautious
But for the time being the HVA, the foreign espionage of the MfS, was cautious. In order not to make himself suspicious, Guillaume should keep still for now. It was not until the fall of 1970 that a resident couple from the Stasi in Bonn received the order to contact the agent in the Chancellery again. From November 6, reports from Guillaume in East Berlin continued to flow in for the next 14 months.
To determine the relevance of his information, Michels examines the HVA’s incoming mail book, known by the acronym Sira, which happened to be on file. Accordingly, Guillaume’s reports concerned almost exclusively topics from his direct field of work. However, the agent was unable to provide any information about the new Ostpolitik of the Brandt government.
In East Berlin, people were obviously disappointed – in any case, the resident couple was withdrawn after almost 18 months. The information they relayed was not valuable enough to risk exposure.
In the Chancellor’s personal office
However, Guillaume’s last and most important promotion was still to come: after the federal elections in 1972, he was promoted to Willy Brandt’s personal office in the Chancellery, as a consultant for party issues.
But Michels can well explain why the agent got hold of comparatively little explosive material even in this position of trust: his colleagues in the foreign and security policy departments paid close attention to their confidential documents.
Like the Chancellor himself, they appreciate Guillaume’s organizational skills and his tireless commitment, Michels writes: “But they denied his political flair and found him rather unpleasant in personal dealings.”
Only when it was Guillaume’s turn to accompany Willy Brandt on trips did he have the opportunity to gain insight into secret government processes. Because then the spy acted as a contact between the chancellor and the chancellery. It later turned out to be devastating that Brandt accompanied Guillaume on a four-week vacation to Norway – but only in public perception. Brandt himself had recognized that Guillaume “had neither ideas nor tact”.
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution is suspicious
In the meantime, however, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution was urging the speaker to remain in his position – suspicions had been raised in Cologne, but there was not yet sufficient evidence to strike. In order to prevent Guillaume from fleeing to the GDR, there should be no change in his position that could have made him suspicious. It was a classically misconceived operation by the West German security service: the chancellor became the bait.
At about the same time, Christel Guillaume, meeting a courier, discovered that she was being watched. However, until their arrest at the end of April 1974, the evidence against the couple remained vague. Only when Günter Guillaume, in a startled reaction, called out to a search team from the Federal Criminal Police Office: “I am a citizen of the GDR and your officer, please respect that!” was he convicted.
At the end of 1975, Guillaume was sentenced to 13 years in prison and released in 1981 as part of an agent exchange in the GDR. He was promoted, decorated and received an honorary doctorate. By this time he had long been generally regarded as a “top spy”.
What makes a good spy
Possibly wrong. But both German states had an interest in putting Guillaume’s importance higher than it actually was. After all, an extremely popular chancellor had fallen over the agent, even if the actual reasons were more to be found within the SPD. It was a triumph for the GDR to have installed a spy in the government headquarters of the “class enemy”, even if he had little to report.
There are three conditions for espionage to really influence politics: First, the agent needs access to really sensitive information. Second, he must be able to pass this information on to his clients. And thirdly, his clients must be willing and interested in actually using this information.
“In the Guillaume case, there are strong doubts as to whether even one of the three conditions was met,” Eckard Michels sums up: “In any case, the mere extent of the betrayal of secrets suffered by federal politicians does not justify Willy Brandt’s resignation.”
This article was first published in 2013.