From Berlin with love
3 January 2024
Germany’s capital city, Berlin, served as the epicentre of the Cold War between the communist East and the democratic West for many years following World War II. This historic period, marked by tension and separation, prompted the use of daring and innovative methods to gather intelligence on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the ideological barrier that divided East and West Germany.
Our experts at UK NACE take a look into Berlin’s unique history, exploring the various methods used to collect intelligence during the Cold War and what it means for society today.
The brain drain
To explain why tensions were so high in Berlin, it’s important to consider the economic repercussions of World War II and the Cold War on the Eastern Bloc in the 1950s.
The Soviet domination, while intended to promote socialism, resulted in shortages and stagnation of the economy.
Unrestricted travel between the Soviet Union and Allied Powers’ regions meant that residents of East Germany could experience the contrast of Western capitalism. They saw benefits such as improved housing, food, access to consumer goods and greater political freedoms.
As a result, in the 1950s, four million trained and intellectual East German citizens emigrated to the West in a movement known as the ‘brain drain’.
Faced with a significant demographic and intellectual loss, East Germany closed its borders, and the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961.
With new divisions laid, West Berlin was surrounded by a hostile Soviet zone of occupation.
The paranoid Soviet Union sought information on military deployments, nuclear capabilities and intelligence about political and economic strategies.
Although a full-scale war never happened, both sides were locked into an arms race and were determined to have a military and technological advantage over one other.
Human intelligence was a valuable source of information. Individuals moving across borders were often approached and recruited by intelligence agencies.
Diplomats and foreign nationals found themselves under constant surveillance as they commuted to and from work. Their every move was recorded, and their mail infiltrated.
Cold War methods
As technology improved, espionage became more sophisticated with the use of cameras and listening devices that were hard to detect.
The Stasi, the East German secret police, regularly made use of state-of-the-art miniature cameras or microphone radio transmitters. They hid them in everyday objects like items of clothing to spy on their adversaries.
In an operation known as the ‘honey trap’ cameras would be placed in hotel rooms where foreign diplomats or suspected agents would be seduced. Evidence of the hotel guests in compromising situations would be used as blackmail to coerce information from them.
The Stasi would also monitor its own population by using a network of agents and informants. Every apartment building had one tenant that would report unusual activity to the authorities.
Despite the vulnerability of West Berlin, western allies sought to take advantage of the situation for their own intelligence gathering. The Allied Powers invested heavily in espionage, counter-espionage and signals intelligence.
From 1953-1955 American and British intelligence services discreetly tunnelled underground from the American sector to the GDR (German Democratic Republic).
Known as Operation Gold, it allowed the West to listen to Soviet Army communications. The tunnel was meticulously engineered to withstand the considerable weight of Soviet and East German tanks, underscoring the importance of the operation.
The tap into Soviet communications within the tunnel allowed western intelligence to gather 40,000 hours of recorded telephone conversations and six million hours of teletype traffic in a single year.
Life after the Cold War
The Cold War, ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, provided many benefits for today’s modern societies. Not least the peaceful fall of the wall in 1989, demonstrating the desire for freedom and democracy.
The race-to-space and the arms-race accelerated the development of technology, particularly in computing and communications.
The importance of intelligence gathering throughout this era fuelled the development of such technology on both sides. Without this it’s possible that we wouldn’t have the internet, GPS or chip and pin technology.
Strategies to counter-eavesdropping emerged from the Cold War period as the rise of espionage techniques developed. This led to the creation of UK NACE, the UK National Authority for Counter-Eavesdropping.
Modern computers and mobile phones have become the centre of intelligence gathering, but human intelligence is still relevant and continues to be potentially very damaging to the UK. Classified information in the wrong hands could pose a threat to national security, compromise economic stability or harm diplomatic ties with other nations.
Today, UK NACE is the national technical authority that provides valuable advice, guidance and operational support to the UK Government and international partners on technical security. Our experts work tirelessly to prevent unauthorised access to classified information, helping to keep the country safe.
UK NACE is the UK’s national authority in protecting technical security, providing guidance and operational support to the UK government and Friendly Foreign Governments.
UK NACE explores the ‘human’ element of intelligence gathering in an age of new technology. Our experts ask if it’s still something we need to worry about when it comes to technical security.