East Berlin, German Democratic Republic. September 7, 1977.
Ready to cross over to East Berlin, I took a moment to snap a photo of the famed Checkpoint Charlie. The nondescript prefabricated shack was the last stop between West (Allied controlled) and East (Soviet controlled) Berlin. The Cold War was full on and the Berlin Wall, it’s most iconic scar, divided the city and the world. Just on the other side of the wall, a high-ranking East German spy with the codename, “Poet,” stood patiently, smoking a pipe. He was waiting for me.
The “Poet” led a double life full of espionage and double-dealing. Well-known East German writer and author by day, a spy for the Stasi secret police by night. I knew none of this when he slid open the door to my train compartment a few weeks earlier.
While the train rhythmically clicked and clacked its way through the West German night, I learned of Paul Wiens’ writing career and life in East Berlin. The small table perched below the window was covered with his English-translated poems. He invited me for a visit and promised to show me places that others could not see. I was hooked.
As we bid our farewells, I promised to call when I got to West Berlin. Boy, what incredible luck to meet him! No idea of the dark side of his life.
Just recently, I stumbled upon the long-lost diary from my 1977 European travel. With it, came the discovery of Paul’s name, which I had forgotten long ago. Over the many years, I had suspicions, but no way to verify, Paul was more than a communist writer enjoying the extra privilege of international travel. A quick Google search revealed his extraordinary dual life.
We started a walking tour of East Berlin through Marx-Engels Platz then Alexander Platz. More than 20 years after the end of World War II, I was amazed at the number of buildings still pock-marked with bullet/shell damage from the war. Paul indicated that money was scarce for repairs. While passing by a park, I remarked at the size of some grassy hills inside. Debris from the war. Easier, cheaper to cover it with earth than remove it. We also walked past a building’s remnants with 20 year old trees growing out of the middle. Clearly, East Berlin did not share in the rapid economic recovery of cosmopolitan West Berlin.
Stopped for lunch at a private journalists club. After a meal of schnitzel and beer, a communist British journalist joined us for a long conversation that my diary only describes as “discussing politics.” During the discussion, I pulled out my camera but Paul touched my arm and shook his head side-to-side. Although a naive, young man from rural Minnesota, I was a lover of history. The magnitude of this unfolding day was with me every moment.
While he attended to some business (more spying?), Paul put me on a tram trip around the outskirts of East Berlin. The streets were barren, lifeless-looking, not something propagandists would tout. He again treated me for dinner at the journalists club. Then we made two stops on the way back to Checkpoint Charlie.
First, we dropped by his apartment on the 22nd floor of a new building, a stark contrast to the rest of the city. So, he must have some real connections. A lighted view of the Berlin Wall dominated the darkening skyline. Last stop was a small shop that sold tacky tourist goods. Paul bought a present for my mother, an apron she hung on the dining room wall for many years.
After the visit, I recall sending a postcard or two while completing my student teaching experience in Munich, West Germany but never heard back from him. Paul died of natural causes in 1982.
The “Poet” spied on his friends, his colleagues, even his wife. Informing on others was common in paranoid East Germany but Paul was involved at the highest levels. In short, he was famous as a writer and cultural luminary; infamous as a spy.
Was there an ulterior motive for my invitation to East Berlin? Did Paul report his contact with me in a secret police file? From the diary, “Paul never tried to indoctrinate me with communism. It wasn’t brought up often and then only to illustrate a point.” Sophisticated, clever in his ways, I would never know if he was politically “grooming” me or not.
Shortly after the Berlin Wall crashed down in late 1989, private citizens stormed Stasi headquarters and saved 887 million pages of secret files from destruction. After reunification, the German government made all files available upon request. Some requesters in the early 1990s waited years to get the results.
Curious, I just sent a formal request for the small chance there is a Stasi file with my name in it. Hoping it is not another 40 years before I find out.
More on Paul Wien’s life of spying can be found here. (Scroll up/down to find Paul’s section)
I never travel without my diary.
One should always have something sensational to read on the train.