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Will Sellers: Espionage’s unintended consequences

Fifty years ago, Americans were so distracted by Watergate that they failed to notice the unmasking of one of the most consequential spies during the Cold War.

Even today, few will remember the name Günter Guillaume; but most will remember a spy precipitating the fall of the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt.

While it is hard to quantify exactly what state secrets Guillaume disclosed to his East German handlers, it is even more difficult to connect his espionage with any specific action taken or withheld which prevented or caused a foreign policy coup.

In fact, Guillaume’s notoriety was not based on information he discovered but rather that he had worked his way up the West German political ladder and became Willy Brandt’s personal secretary. In this capacity, Guillaume was privy to all top-secret communications Brandt received as chancellor, and 50 years ago, it was in the best interest of East Germany and its benefactor, the Soviet Union, to know exactly what West Germany and its NATO allies were thinking.

Guillaume and his wife were specifically recruited and trained to infiltrate the West German government. Before the construction of the Berlin Wall, travel between the two German nations was not restricted, so it was easy to send an East German couple across the border with the cover story of escaping communism.

Under the direction of East German’s Stasi spymaster, Markus Wolf, the Guillaumes found work in various departments of the Social Democratic Party. They were aided in their advancement by other Germans sympathetic to the East German cause, and while Guillaume was not initially advanced on his own merit, once he obtained a position, he worked very hard, showed ambition and was promoted. In many ways he was a sleeper agent, inserted into a country without a specific mission, but encouraged to work his way into a position of trust and influence.

At this time, Germany was the focus of Cold War tensions and the flash point in global foreign policy. Debates about US and Soviet foreign policy seemed to revolve around Germany in general and Berlin in particular. In fact, the “German Question” was the sole remaining unresolved issue of World War II. Germany was divided by what were supposed to be temporary post war boundaries, but as time wore on, the temporary became more permanent, but only Russia continued as an occupying power.

The West German government would not even recognize East Germany and advocated re-unification by a popular vote. In opposition, the Russians liked having a divided Germany not only out of fear of German economic power, but also to have a satellite country in the middle of Europe. Inasmuch as other recognized countries were firmly within the Soviet sphere of influence, Berlin and Germany represented unfinished business that both superpowers used as a demonstration of their commitment to their respective world orders.

Germany became a political football, and each time the Soviets tried to isolate Berlin with blockades and other obstacles to free travel, the US and its allies would respond. This action and reaction went back and forth until a stalemate was reached after it became clear that reunification was impossible.

With the construction of the Berlin Wall, the division of the two Germanys was obvious and apparent, but neither the United States nor its NATO allies was interested in going to war —which might have meant use of nuclear weapons — to stop a wall that recognized boundaries previously negotiated.

The true impact of the Berlin Wall was to stop the mass migration of Germans to the West for opportunity and advancement, but psychologically, its construction was a statement against reunification. From a political standpoint, once reunification was removed as an organizing principle for the West German government, a new policy had to be considered.

As long as the possibility of reunification was present, West Germany could act boldly and refuse to establish diplomatic relations with any country other than Russia that treated East Germany as a separate country and dispute its post-war borders. But as time elapsed and the Wall separated the countries, a new policy emerged from the Social Democrats with the election of Willy Brandt.

Brandt would advocate warmer relations with neighboring Soviet satellites, acknowledge East Germany and seek reproachment with Russia.

Initially, the East Germans and Russians were suspicious and wanted to know if Brandt was sincere or if these actions were a ruse. The East Germans relied on Guillaume to confirm the chancellor’s motives as well as evaluate NATO’s response to his acceptance of a divided Germany and Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.

The Russians were afraid of NATO and its guarantor, the United States. Their hope was that Brandt’s actions would create a split in NATO and divide allies over how to deal with him, his vision for Germany, and relations with the East. With Guillaume’s placement, they were able to read all correspondence between the German chancellor and other NATO leaders.

They learned that rather than dividing NATO, Brandt’s actions were actually creating a closer relationship with President Nixon, who supported the chancellor’s policies as leverage against Soviet adventurism. Brandt’s policies created a de-escalation of superpower hostilities, paving the way for détente.

In the Cold War, achieving a peaceful co-existence was deemed progress, and while Guillaume helped the Russians understand and accept Brandt’s policies as sincere and legitimate, the Soviet leaders became concerned that exposing Guillaume could damage Brandt. Thus, they prevailed on the East Germans to curtail contacts lest through misadventure Guillaume’s true loyalties might be revealed.

It seemed in everyone’s best interest to keep Brandt as chancellor, but Guillaume’s wife had been careless in transactions with her East German contacts. As West German counterintelligence more carefully scrutinized relocated East Germans in government, Guillaume’s role as a spy came to light.

When he was confronted by West German authorities, he admitted that he was a proud communist. His exposure shocked the nation, and within a few weeks, the unintended consequence of Guillaume’s espionage was Brandt’s abrupt resignation.

Will Sellers is a graduate of Hillsdale College and an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama. He is best reached at [email protected]

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