Skip to content

East Berlin Stories

Gay espionage in Cold War Berlin

On the afternoon of October 21, 1960, Joachim L., an East Berlin actor in his twenties, met with his friend Jakob H. They had been having sex regularly, and Joachim likely thought there was nothing out of the ordinary until Jakob suggested that he ought to consider dabbling in espionage. According to a secret police informant—code name “Deege”—who was friends with them both, Jakob and Joachim “were speaking about opportunities to earn money, and H. mentioned that one can easily earn some quick money, up to 3,000 DM per month. When L. asked how that was possible, H. indicated that one could spy.” Joachim related this conversation to “Deege” soon thereafter. The informant encouraged Joachim to take the matter to the secret police, which he soon did. “Deege” also passed the story on to his Stasi handler the next day.

Two days later, gears began to grind at the Stasi’s Berlin offices. An “operative plan” appeared suggesting that the ministry should consider recruiting Joachim. The report stressed that he was in contact with both Jakob and a certain Karl O., “who are allegedly involved in espionage against the GDR and to this end are supposedly recruiting among homosexual circles in order to prepare for and carry out their enemy activities.” The secret police believed Joachim, who would take the code name “Franz Moor,” could provide them with invaluable, even incriminating, evidence against Jakob and Karl. They hoped Joachim would lend “valuable support in unmasking this circle [of spies].”

At the same time, Stasi officers expected that Joachim would help them infiltrate the gay subculture on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In a report two days before Joachim’s official enrollment as a collaborator, officers noted that “because of his large circle of acquaintances, in particular among homosexuals and other negative persons, he is in a position to give us further leads, which could lead to further recruitments.” They anticipated that Joachim could act as their beachhead into Berlin’s gay subculture—the network of bars, public toilets, baths, and house parties where gay men socialized and looked for sex. Secret police officials hoped that he would enable them to enlist their own network of gay spies.

Over the course of almost five years, “Franz Moor” provided the Stasi with information in exchange for regular “monetary contributions” of anywhere from ten to two hundred marks. In an assessment of his services, the Stasi found that he showed “individual initiative in the detection of enemy elements,” and that through his efforts “one enemy person was imprisoned.” Most of Joachim’s tasks over those five years, however, involved not flashy scandal but rather the tedium of everyday espionage.

The Stasi came to believe gay men, and the opaque social networks to which they belonged, posed an intelligence threat.

What “Franz Moor” reported on—and what his Stasi handlers were interested in learning about—provides a glimpse into how gay spy networks shaped the East German regime’s view of homosexuality in socialist society. Spanning four files and more than seven hundred pages, these reports paint a picture of a bureaucracy worried about its inability to surveil Berlin’s gay subculture and reveal its desire to rectify the problem by enlisting gay spies.

The Stasi decided to recruit Joachim both to provide specific information about the agents who had supposedly attempted to enlist him and to give the agency access to the gay subculture. Much like Horst Krüger, an agent of West German counterintelligence, who fretted that among “homosexuals, who are consolidated into organizations, there are situated agents,” the East German regime came to worry that the subculture was a target of West German intelligence agencies. In the earlier case of Johann L., the East German regime had only concluded that Western intelligence services were willing to employ “unscrupulous subjects [and] criminal elements,” but not that there existed any necessary connection between the two. Joachim’s exploits, on the other hand, point to the Stasi’s new fear that Western agents were “recruiting among homosexual circles,” as officials noted in a report of October 23, 1960.

That concern was reflected in the tasks that officials set for “Franz Moor.” Their collaborator “Deege,” one of Joachim’s friends, suggested that they could use him for “reconnaissance missions, for instance homosexual locales in West Berlin, which, insofar as I can judge, are of great interest for intelligence.” “Deege” supplied the Stasi with a list of West German organizations, such as the homophile Association for a Humanistic Way of Life and the Bremen League for Human Rights, the homophile magazine Der Weg, and a number of bars, on which he suggested Joachim might spy. He also hinted that West Berlin politicians, such as a school administrator and a Bundestag member, frequented some of these locales, implying that they would be useful places to collect intelligence on the West German government.

Deege’s suggestions are important because they illustrate a specific process by which the Stasi came to believe gay men, and the opaque social networks to which they belonged, posed an intelligence threat. The informant, who proved far more knowledgeable about the gay underground than his Stasi handlers, applied his powers of persuasion to convince the secret police that it could employ “Franz Moor” to forge its own network of gay agents. Officials evidently took his advice, for information regarding Joachim’s gay contacts dominates the reports he submitted. More than four hundred pages of accounts between 1960 and 1965 detail his many friends and acquaintances in the East and West Berlin gay subcultures. These notes almost always indicate the person’s sexuality alongside key information about their upbringing, social status, employment, and political views.

In 1960, for instance, Joachim informed officers about a party at the home of one Rudolf A. Among the seven homosexual guests was Hans G., who made a living pimping boys on both sides of the border (the Berlin Wall was built the following year). That night, Hans told Joachim, according to the latter’s account, that he had “around eighty boys ‘to run.’” In another statement, Joachim informed the Stasi of the homosexuality of a famous East German ambassador. Joachim’s other contacts included numerous artists, many of them from the theatres and operas in East Berlin, the State Opera (Staatsoper) in particular.

They also included Ingolf M., a gay man the Stasi had attempted to blackmail into working for them in the 1950s; an eighteen-year-old gay ballet dancer; a twenty-two-year-old prostitute; an aristocrat in his early twenties; a thirty-year-old member of the SED; and the editor of a Berlin weekly. In all, Joachim passed detailed information about more than eighty of his acquaintances, almost all of them gay. This material, which provided the Stasi with a fuller picture of Berlin’s gay subculture, was the “good and honest collaboration” for which the secret police paid Joachim thousands of marks over the course of five years.

The information was occasionally sensational. In 1961 Joachim reported evidence of a social group that called itself the Nibelungenring (the Nibelungen Ring)—a play on Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen). According to Stasi reports,

In Esterhazy-Keller and in City-Klause, two women supposedly socialize and maintain a circle of young men. They turn these men into spies. The men are set up with homosexual persons. There they have to pump those individuals for information and learn their political views.

Although “the young men never know to whom exactly they deliver the information,” the revelation provided further evidence of the extent to which intelligence agencies had colonized Berlin’s gay subculture.

Curiously, the topic of blackmail, a concern at the heart of the U.S. Lavender Scare a decade earlier and many other accounts of Cold War espionage, rarely appears in these records. It seems that only rarely did the Stasi attempt to blackmail a man using his homosexuality. Likewise, Western agents did not seem particularly interested in blackmail. These bureaus seemed rather more captivated by the possibility of using the subculture’s dense networks to extract information about the regime, the military, and the Stasi itself. In turn, it appears the Stasi, once it began recruiting gay agents in the 1960s, focused on using the gay subculture’s class-crossing nature to gather intelligence about West Germany rather than trying to blackmail gay Westerners.

The Stasi was most interested in using Joachim to get at Jakob H. and Karl O. The secret police already knew from “Deege” that Karl “shows a strong interest in people (for instance) actors at the German theatre among others, girls, youths (so-called rowdies), homosexuals”—people who existed on society’s margins. Karl had recently helped a female prostitute flee to West Berlin. After she successfully crossed the border, he “used the woman’s apartment for frequent overnight visitors, where he hosted sexual orgies with various boys.” He was also friendly with the rent boys who haunted the Friedrichstrasse train station. As one Stasi report mused, “It is possible that he is only using them as a means to some end.” Joachim confirmed the Stasi’s suspicion that Karl’s lovers were “entangled in a spy affair.”

Joachim’s collaboration with the Stasi dropped off in 1962 after an East Berlin court sentenced him to nine months in prison for having sex with a sixteen-year-old call boy. His informal collaboration with the Stasi did not shield him from the law. Joachim’s last reports arrived in January 1965. His service underlines the Stasi’s growing fear of and willingness to take action against gay agents. Unlike gay espionage cases from the 1950s, which prosecutors interpreted as evidence of Western decadence and aggression, in Joachim’s case the Stasi came to believe that foreign agents were targeting the gay subculture as an avenue of infiltration.

In order both to combat this danger and to take advantage of the intelligence opportunities that the gay subculture presented, the Stasi needed its own gay agents. In fact, in the early 1960s, a Stasi officer prepared a report, drawing in part on intelligence Joachim had gathered, describing how homosexual men had more of a “natural talent for conspiratorial behavior” than heterosexuals and were therefore of interest to East German intelligence. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, that view became more ingrained. The secret police began to consider the gay subculture as both a threat and an opportunity, a field in which Western espionage services had gained an advantage but also through which the Stasi, with the help of the right agents, might better extract intelligence.

By the 1970s, after two decades of run-ins with gay agents, secret police officials believed gay men could use their sexuality as a means to meet contacts, get in and out of the country, and gather intelligence. West Germans had accepted this far sooner. In the early 1950s, politicians and propagandists there had fretted about the threats posed to the young republic by the “freemasonry of the sexually perverse” and their collusion with communist intelligence agencies. Horst Krüger, a West German counter-intelligence agent, had attempted to stitch together a band of gay agents in Hesse in order to unmask politicians whom he and his superiors believed to be East German spies. A decade later, Stasi officers thought to do the same. Even then, the secret police recruited Joachim L. only after he came to them with claims of a gay spy ring operating in East Berlin.

While historians accurately characterize gay espionage as a paranoid fantasy, in Cold War Berlin it became a self-reinforcing cycle of practice and prejudice.

Though they did not change the course of the Cold War, these developments are significant because the East German regime had initially opted for a laissez-faire approach to homosexuality. The Socialist Unity Party that governed the country had balanced historical opposition to criminalizing homosexuality against the anti-gay views it believed East Germans held (and that it also at times stoked). The government’s policy accorded neither power nor significance to gay men or lesbians. Unlike in West Germany, where the debate over §175—the law that criminalized adult homosexuality there until 1969—became an important political struggle, the East German government rarely thematized homosexuality in public after the early 1950s.

Nonetheless, encounters with gay Western agents shaped how Stasi officials viewed the subculture. Their growing concern with gay espionage illustrates in stark terms both why the shape of anti-gay animus matters and how that animus can evolve over time. Viewed as an avenue of Western infiltration, the gay subculture acquired new significance for East Germany’s rulers. The Stasi’s use of gay agents in turn set off a feedback loop by which the secret police gathered ever more information about the subculture, uncovering more alleged threats, which in turn reaffirmed the danger that it believed the subculture posed.

Thus, while historians accurately characterize gay espionage as a paranoid fantasy, in Cold War Berlin it became something more, a self-reinforcing cycle of practice and prejudice. This cycle informed how East Germany’s sprawling surveillance apparatus thought of homosexuality and how the state as a whole treated gay citizens. Both German states’ exploitation of the gay subculture as a tool in intra-German geopolitics became a defining feature of gay life in the Democratic Republic. Gay men, that is, were at once both privileged and persecuted objects of state power.

When the idea of gay liberation made its way across the Iron Curtain in the mid-1970s, Stasi officials, and through them the regime, were primed to consider activists’ efforts not as a legitimate quest for belonging but rather as a sinister attempt by Western intelligence outfits to disrupt socialist rule. Ironically, East German activists would eventually leverage these fears to convince Stasi officials and party leaders to promulgate an ambitious pro-gay agenda that far exceeded anything activists ever extracted from the West German federal government.

Excerpted from States of Liberation: Gay Men between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany by Samuel Huneke with permission of University of Toronto Press.