East, West Germany trade spies; West plays 'waiting game'
Bonn — In the first East-West spy swap in 20 months, the wife of East Germany's most famous secret agent has been returned to East Germany. Christel Guillaume -- whose husband was former Chancellor Willy Brandt's trusted personal aide until his unmasking as a spy in 1974 -- was joined in her homecoming by military spies Frank and Christine Gerstner, and by several other convicted East German agents.
Apart from these three, the number and names of those exchanged has not been made public. Unconfirmed reports give 18 as the total traded in the two-way deal.
Among West Germans released from East German jails after being convicted as spies, only the name of Peter Felten has leaked out so far. Felten was arrested in 1979 when he was in East Germany as a visiting radio journalist; he was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment for spying. In a TV interview on the day the swap was announced, March 20, Felten in effect confirmed that his conviction was legitimate.
He said that the East Germans handled him correctly physically, but that the psychological stress in prison was great and led to mental illness among some of the 20 West German prisoners he had contact with in his jail.
Torn between his relief at being free and his concern about his fellow inmates, Felten observed, "I was still fresh. I could have waited."
Waiting is apparently the current aim of the West German government, as this increases the risks that any East German spy must run in West Germany. In earlier years spy exchanges took place more promptly. East Germany has tried repeatedly to get master spy Gunter Guillaume back, but West Germany is insisting that he serve his full 13-year sentence.
The Guillaumes came to West Germany in 1956, posing as political refugees from East Germany. They opened a snack bar, and Gunter began doing volunteer work for the local Social Democratic Party.
By the time the Social Democrats took office in 1969, the affable Mr. Guillaume had worked his way up to become Brandt's aide, with access to top secret West German and NATO documents. Guillaume's wife regularly passed on photocopies of such documents to East German couriers.
After his arrest Guillaume confirmed proudly that he was an officer in the East German Army.
Ironically, the years in which Guillaume worked for Brandt were the very years in which Brandt brought about the normalization of relations between East and West Germany, after a quarter century of mutual non-recognition. Guillaume's arrest triggered Brandt's resignation.
Just before her release, Christel Guillaume was pardoned by West Germany. This means that she may come visit her ailing husband in jail any time the East Germans give her an exit visa.
The Gerstners were a spy couple who managed a network of defense ministry spies. The uncovering of this ring two years ago led to the resignation of Georg Leber as defense minister. Five people were convicted.
According to the newspaper Die Welt, the Bonn government was reluctant to release the Gerstners in the latest trade so soon after their arrest. This reluctance was apparently outweighed, however, by the desire to stand by West Germany's own caught spies and get selected ones out of East German prisons.
Die Welt also said West Germany paid East Germany an unspecified amount of money as part of this month's swap.