The following story is taken from John Koehler’s masterfully researched Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (1999). It is just one of countless tales of tragedy, suffering, and betrayal that took place in East Germany between the years 1945 and 1989. As the memory of communist oppression continues to recede in time, it becomes increasingly important to document, for the benefit of future generations, its fearsome scope and unrelenting cruelty.
In August 1944, as the war in Europe was drawing to a close, an eighteen-year-old soldier in the Luftwaffe’s Ninth Parachute Regiment named Günther Müller was captured by the American army. His war was over; he and several comrades were shipped across the Atlantic to be housed in one of the many POW camps built to receive increasingly large numbers of German prisoners. Müller himself was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. When he was finally outprocessed and released in 1948, he decided to return to Germany. In hindsight, this would turn out to be his first big mistake. For his home was located outside Berlin’s northwest boundary, within the Soviet zone of occupation. His motivations were his desire to be with family, and to be on what he assumed would be familiar grounds. But there was nothing familiar about the Soviet zone, which was rapidly being transformed into a Kremlin-controlled police state.
For a time Günther Müller tried to put his past behind him and build a new life. He married a girl he had known for years, and took on a job with the railroads. But he could not shut his eyes to what was happening around him. The Soviets, with their German minions, were moving to crush all forms of dissent and build a socialist utopia. When author John Koehler interviewed Müller decades later, Müller told him of his growing political awareness:
I began to detest the Russians and their German stooges with a passion. I had enough of the communists, who were no different from the [National Socialists]…I loved the Americans ever since I was their prisoner. I was astonished how well they treated me when I was captured and later in Oklahoma. It was like living in paradise, and now I wanted to do something for them.
Soon after his daughter was born in the spring of 1953, Müller decided to act. He visited the American occupation zone in Berlin (the Berlin would not be built until 1961) and made contact with an old friend named Paul Perner. To him Müller confided his hatred of communism and his desire to fight back; and to Müller’s surprise, Perner said that he was already working for American military intelligence. Müller offered his services on the spot; the two of them would now work as a team. As a railroad dispatcher, he was in a good position to relay information about train schedules, troop movements, and similar information. Such intelligence could provide an “early warning system” in the event of a Soviet invasion of western Germany, which was a distinct possibility at the time.
Günther Müller was provided with a small camera by his American handlers, and given the code name “Münzberger.” He never accepted payment for his services, however—only compensation for his out-of-pocket expenses. Patriotism, not money, was his motivation. Müller proved to be a competent spy. He photographed and recorded everything that might be of value: train numbers, unit designations, departure points, destinations, rail car descriptions, anything that might be of value. This information, along with any rumors he might have picked up, was turned over to his western handlers during clandestine meetings at the Kempinski Hotel in Berlin. But in late 1954, his fortunes changed for the worse, and his true ordeal would begin. Müller and Perner were introduced to an operative named Moosbach who used the code name “Moritz.” Moosbach gave the two men an 8 mm motion picture camera, a miniature Minox camera, and pens with invisible ink; he also trained them how to make dead letter drops (a technique for passing information using secret locations).
On November 20, 1955, Müller’s world disintegrated. At 1:30 am, a team of Stasi agents burst into his apartment and handcuffed him. He was dragged away while his horrified wife Irene and two-year-old daughter looked on; the arrest had been so rough and sudden that he had no opportunity to put on shoes or decent clothing. The Stasi men—who never identified themselves or bothered to show a warrant—searched the apartment all day, but uncovered only a small roll of Minox film. The men pulled the infant out of Irene’s arms. They told her that the girl would now be sent to her grandmother. “You are coming with us,” the Stasi men said, and casually added, “You may never see your child again.”
Irene Müller was taken to the Stasi interrogation center on Lindenstrasse in Potsdam. Her questioners hammered her for hours. Why, they wanted to know, did her husband travel frequently to Berlin? Her answer, which she consistently maintained, was that he needed to buy medications and fruit there for the family, commodities that were unavailable in the east. After hours of the same questions over and over, the interrogators were replaced by a sadistic female agent. Irene later described the scene:
[S]he screamed at me and called me such names as “dirty slut,” “whore,” and “boozing bitch.” When I held my handkerchief to my eyes, she grabbed my hands roughly, slammed them on the table, and hit them with her fist. Once, when my arms dropped to my side because I was exhausted after so many hours on the stool, she grabbed them so violently that my dress was torn. I told her that I had never met a woman like her in my life, which made her so mad that she punched me in the face.
The next day a beaten and exhausted Irene Müller was asked to sign a “confession” which she was unable to read (she was only permitted to see the signature line). Unless she signed it, she was told, she would be sent to a camp in Siberia and never see her daughter again. Eventually another Stasi men entered, speaking Russian to his colleague; Frau Müller recognized the word davai, meaning “let’s get started.” She was bundled into a car and dumped off in front of her mother’s house. She was unsure whether she has signed anything; but after thirty hours of no food, drink, or sleep, her ordeal was over.
Her husband, of course, did not get off so easy at the Lindenstrasse. Günther Müller was beaten to a pulp while his hands were bound behind his back. He later said, “By far the worst torturer was a woman who would scream and threaten. When I said to her, ‘If you think you can squeeze me like a lemon, you are wrong,’ she grabbed a large key ring and smashed it over my temple.” He was kept in a tiny cell for four months while being physically interrogated on alternate days. From the questions he was being asked, the canny Müller was able to deduce that the Stasi did not know what his friend Perner looked like, or how long the two of them had been collecting intelligence.
Müller admitted only to being a courier; he claimed not to know anything about Perner, and concealed the extent of his activities. This, he believed, was what kept him from a death sentence. “Since they really did not know much about what I did,” he later said, “I was able to lie my way out of the gallows. Because if the whole truth had some out, I would not have gotten away with less than life in prison. I think I handled myself the right way.” He was given a one-hour “trial” on March 2, 1956, sentenced to a term of eight years, and carted off to Brandenburg penitentiary.
In Brandenburg, Günther Müller entered the circles of hell. He heard absolutely nothing from his family for four years. He was not unsure if they had cut all ties to him, or whether the communists were not permitting him to have contact. But then the worst possible news arrived, in a letter he received from his mother. Irene had fled to West Germany in 1956, and his daughter had died in a refugee camp. Müller was crushed, and nearly gave in to despair. He later said,
For me the world caved in, and I began to doubt God and justness. When I signed up with the Americans, I was told not to reveal my activities to anyone, not even my wife, and I obeyed. In hindsight, I should have left a letter with instructions for my wife with someone I could trust in Berlin. Then she could have been helped by the Americans.
Günther Müller then received a glimmer of hope. His sentence was reduced to six years in September 1960, and he was released a little over a year later. But he was still trapped in East Germany; the Berlin Wall now interposed itself between him and freedom, and he was without money, family, or prospects. The only place he could find work was on a collective farm, where he performed menial chores. But he still knew people who had been friends when he worked on the railroad; and some of them were secret anticommunists. He resolved to escape from the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and rejoin his family in the free west.
Müller’s plan was to hide in a sealed freight car bound for West Germany. He told his two friends that this could be done by replacing the car’s original seals with others harvested from different trains. On March 10, 1962, he was able to slip inside a car containing sacks of cement headed for West Germany; his two railroad friends re-sealed the car for him so it would not be searched. With a small knife, Müller bored a hole in the wooden planking of the car, so that he could see what was happening outside.
Train cars leaving the GDR were inspected twice before crossing the border, and Müller almost gave himself away at one stop by knocking on the car’s wall. If the inspectors had had dogs with them, he would certainly have been discovered; but luck was with him. After hours of travel, he began to notice the difference in his surroundings. He decided to risk leaving the railcar at one stop. Breaking the seal and emerging into the open air, he approached a railway worker and asked the name of the station. “Buchen,” was the reply. He had made it. After being questioned by police, he was soon reunited with his wife near the Dutch border.
Günther Müller was able to start over in West Germany as a railway operator. He would eventually retire in 1985; the West German government paid him a total of $2,750 for his years in prison. He never asked the U.S. government or military for anything. He never forgot his ordeal, but for him it was enough to be with his wife again. But after the collapse of the GDR in 1989, he felt compelled to examine his Stasi file, in the hope of finding out how he had been betrayed so many years before.
And so it was that Günther Müller, now an old man, found himself on October 26, 1993, crouched over his thick file at the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin. Who had sold him out? How had it happened? Even after all the intervening years, Müller’s rage mounted as he probed deeper into his records. He unearthed a statement by one Georg Anschütz, also known as “Anderson,” who had been a British intelligence asset. At some point, Anschütz had betrayed the British and become a Stasi mole. Unbelievably, Müller discovered that his supposed handler Moosbach (the man who had provided him and Perner their photographic equipment), had given Georg Anschütz Müller’s name and home address. And Anschütz had then passed this information on to the Stasi. This was what had brought the Stasi to Müller’s door. Moosbach was either working with Anschütz, or had been criminally negligent. The former possibility was more likely. Perner had managed to escape to the west before being picked up; but he had been unable to warn Müller in time to avoid his arrest.
But this was not all. In his file Müller found a letter written by Markus Wolf, a high-ranking Stasi official, to another secret police bureaucrat, in which Müller’s railway escape was discussed. The letter revealed details of the statements Müller made to West German police in his debriefing after his escape. What statements, specifically? The information about the two railway worker friends who had helped Müller seal himself inside the railway car. The Stasi obviously had moles even in the West German police, who passed on details of the escapee’s debriefing. Müller was horrified to learn that his two friends had both been given prison sentences for helping him escape.
And there was one last revelation. Müller’s file contained secret teletype messages from the West German counterintelligence agency and the Landeskriminalamt (LKA, or Criminal Investigative Bureau). The West German messages revealed that their security services actually suspected Müller himself—who had sacrificed so much for his country—of being a Stasi double agent or “plant” (i.e., a fake escapee). His reduced sentence in the GDR had apparently given rise to such suspicions. Müller seethed with anger to learn that he himself had once been under a cloud of baseless incertitude with the West German authorities. According to author John Koehler, the most likely candidate for the Stasi mole who had passed on the secret teletypes was a well-placed communications technician named Ruth Wiegand, a dedicated communist spy since the late 1950s. She was eventually convicted for treason, but served only three years.
Read more accounts of suffering and survival in Thirty Seven and Pantheon: