World

Tinker, Tailor, Pastor, Spy

3.14_PG0411_StasiSpy_01
03/21/14
In the Magazine
Image composed of several pieces of passport photos of Stasi agent Aleksander Radler, found in his Stasi file. Rüdiger Sielaff/BStU

In a dreary office in Frankfurt (Oder) on Germany's border with Poland, forensic experts are painstakingly reassembling thin strips of shredded paper. They've already remade more than 1,500 pages left in sacks by the Stasi secret police as they hurriedly tried to destroy evidence of wrongdoing as East Germany collapsed.

What the experts found was a spy story so exotic it stands out even in the colorful annals of Cold War espionage: a pan-European pastor-spy.

Meet Aleksander Radler. "He would have been the ideal spy for Markus Wolf [East Germany's chief of foreign espionage]," explains Rüdiger Sielaff, head of the Frankfurt branch of the BStU, the federal agency in charge of Stasi files. "Instead he spent a career as an elite informer for the Stasi's church division, a 24-year stint that included the Stasi sending him abroad. I've never seen another case like this."  

A quarter century as a Stasi informer, Sielaff adds, is a long time, especially since the average informant lasted just seven years. "And he rose to the very top, becoming the type of informer who was allowed contact with the 'enemy.' Only 3,900 Stasi informers [of a total 189,000] were elevated to this elite group," he said. "If you reached this rank, it meant the Stasi thoroughly trusted you and that you were a very important asset to them."

Few things mattered to the Stasi as much as religion. Its church department, Division XX, had 15 offices, including the one in Frankfurt that supervised Radler.

Sielaff, as head of the BStU's Frankfurt office, presides over a mountain of dossiers containing evidence of East Germany's Big Brother culture. But few are as expansive as Radler's.

In report after report, postcard after postcard, IM (Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter, unofficial collaborator) "Thomas"—alias Radler—eagerly reports on everything requested by his Stasi handlers.

The files contain secrets about East Germans wanting to escape to the West, East Germans critical of the Communist regime, subversive West Germans, and Swedish churchmen who could be counted on to support the Communist state.

Since the BStU office released the first 1,000 pages of Radler's file to Swedish journalists researching the case in 2012, it has received huge attention in Sweden, and the story of the Cold War spy, unmasked 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is being made into a "documentary thriller."

Radler made his pact with the Stasi in 1965, as a 21-year-old theology student at Humboldt University in East Berlin. "As an informant, he was an overachiever," reports Helmut Müller-Enbergs, a 20-year BStU veteran. "Ordinary IMs delivered reports about once a month, but he did it much more often. He knew no constraints."

In Berlin, Radler's Austrian passport allowed him to shuttle back and forth between East and West, snooping on West Berliners with radical leanings and on good Samaritans who might help East Germans escape. "If they'd only known!" exclaims Sielaff. "When it came to choosing his targets, he had excellent instincts."

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3.14_PG0411_StasiSpy_02 Files in the Birthler office at the Office of the Federal Commissioner (BStU), where archives of the former East German (GDR) secret police, the Stasi (also known as the Ministry for State Security, the MfS), are kept. Stefan Boness/Panos

In 1967, Radler enrolled at the University of Jena for eight months before returning to Humboldt. "He was an exotic character," says Christoph Kähler, who knew Radler as a student. "He had an Austrian passport and lots of women around him. But we also had our suspicions that he worked for the Stasi."

Here's a curious coincidence: Humboldt records seen by Newsweek show that Radler didn't become an Austrian citizen until 1965 - in other words, at the same time he signed up for the Stasi.

Three years later, Radler delivered his first big catch: six students "who've planned and prepared illegally to leave [East Germany]!" as he eagerly reported to his handlers. Henning Frunder, 21, was one of them.

"We had all written letters to relatives in the West asking for help," Frunder explains. Radler agreed to post the students' letters in the West.

"I had all the letters with me, and I met [Radler] at Friedrichstrasse [the crossing between East and West Berlin]," Frunder continues. "We spoke briefly. I still remember his facial expression: enforced friendly. Then he walked across, and I saw him disappear on the other side."

The students were immediately arrested and given lengthy jail sentences. Radler had handed their letters to the Stasi. Around the same time, Radler reported others planning to escape: They, too, went to jail. In one case, Radler visited an unsuspecting wife to enquire about her jailed husband.

While only a few friends were suspicious of Radler before the arrests, the Stasi correctly sensed he'd be the subject of suspicion and if nobody spoke to him he would lose his usefulness. The Stasi decided Sweden should be his next stop.

Stasi agent V 682/65, age 24, travelling on a passport identifying him as Wolfgang Clifford Radler and possessing a ready-made biography supplied by the Stasi, made his way to the University of Lund, Sweden, and pursued doctoral studies.

That did not raise suspicions since students came to Sweden from all over the world to study with Professor Gustaf Wingren, a renowned Lutheran theologian at the university, according to Ingmar Brohed, a church historian who became Radler's boss. (Full disclosure: My father was a Lund theologian befriended by Radler.)

Radler, paid by the Stasi and reimbursed even for his theological textbooks, made friends, learned Swedish, married a Swedish nurse and had two daughters. He was ordained a pastor in the Church of Sweden. Brohed describes a genial man, a popular lecturer who was also an accomplished runner.

Brohed recalls how Radler joined Moderaterna, Sweden's center-right party, an unusual step in a country dominated for decades by the social democrats. Radler later became a local Christian Democrat politician.

On the Stasi's instructions, Radler made inroads into the church hierarchy. "There was not a single high-ranking church official Radler didn't report on," notes Sielaff. In one missive, he called a famous professor a "Jew who has anarchic tendencies, takes an anti-socialist position and regards the socialist system in the USSR as modern slavery."

The peripatetic Radler reported on targets in Prague, Warsaw, Stockholm, West Berlin and other West German cities. He went to Vienna—to visit his mother at a mental institution, he told colleagues. None of the scholars he worked with suspected anything, nor did families like the Broheds who socialized with the Radlers. Even Ulla, his wife, was kept in the dark.

The Lutheran state church in Sweden was an ideal Stasi target. "The church was the biggest enemy of [East Germany] because it had international connections," notes Müller-Enbergs, now an adjunct professor of history at the University of Southern Denmark.

Radler was far from the only pastor spy. The Stasi employed 5 to 6 percent of East German pastors and church employees, and a larger share of theology professors, as informants, according to Clemens Vollnhalls at the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Research in Dresden.

When Radler started visiting East Germany again, many acquaintances became wary. "He came with a group of Swedish students in 1987 or 1988," recalls Kähler. "Of course I wanted to tell them interesting things, but I knew it was a trap."

Kähler, who became a bishop after German reunification, said the motto many clergymen lived by was, "Don't say anything you can't defend in front of God - and the Stasi."

By the mid-1980s, Radler wanted to return to East Germany. Radler's handler, Lieutenant Colonel Reinhard Heinig, helped his "reliable, honest, and proven" agent secure a professorship in Jena.

On October 3, 1990, East Germany ceased to exist. But while the foreign spying service Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung destroyed its files with little effort, Stasi officers frantically began tearing up files, leaving dossiers on their informers untouched. It appeared Radler's game was up.

Far from it. Other spies were unmasked, including a husband who snooped on his dissident wife and a choirmaster who spied on his choirboys, but not Radler. By 1992, he was appointed to a new chair in theology and ethics at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg.

"Women were infatuated with him because he seemed so helpless," recalls one colleague in Halle, where Radler moved in with Bettina, a young theologian, whom he later married after divorcing his first wife. Still, rumors about his links to the Stasi were spreading, especially in 1994 when a book specifically mentioned him.

The dean of the theology department confronted Radler. "He said, 'Can you swear on your ordination vows you were not an IM?' " recalls Kähler. "He said yes." Michael Beintker, an East German theologian who was friends with Radler, also asked him about the rumors. "He told me, 'It's people persecuting me,' " recalls Beintker, who later discovered that Radler had spied on him. Not long after, Radler hastily left Halle to become a pastor in northern Sweden.

Meanwhile, the BStU's puzzle masters were making progress, piecing together the shreds of agent V 682/65's dossier. In 2012, the BStU released the first 1,000 pages. Radler was unmasked. He left the ministry and wrote an open letter acknowledging he was IM Thomas. He hasn't spoken in public since.

Radler's true identity remains a mystery. He was born Wolfgang Clifford Radler on May 17, 1944, and has given his birthplace as Vienna, but the Austrian government has no record of such a birth. The Stasi file gives his birthplace as Poznan, Poland. Born to single mother Helga Radler, he soon found himself growing up in an orphanage.

"Individuals with a broken childhood were ideal for the Stasi," notes Müller-Enbergs. "The Stasi became a substitute family, and the handlers had a father-son relationship with their IMs." In the preface to his doctoral thesis, Radler thanks Hans-Georg Fritzsche, the East German theology professor who recruited him as a spy.

"Aleksander tricked us all, went behind our backs, took advantage of us," reflects Brohed. Swedes and West Germans were merely betrayed, while Radler's East German subjects were sent to prison or suffered damage to their careers. Frunder, who served two years in prison, describes Radler's spying as "diabolical actions." "He belongs to the really terrible IM cases," says Kähler.

Radler, who declined to be interviewed by Newsweek, still lives in his vicarage in the northern Swedish town of Burträsk, where his wife Bettina has succeeded him as pastor. The Swedish statute of limitations means he won't face prosecution.

Spies traditionally return to the safety of their home agency, but like his fellow Stasi informants, IM Thomas has nowhere to return. "They're standing naked, with no way of protecting themselves against the revelations," reflects Müller-Enbergs.  

"Of course that hurts. But in the case of Radler, it seems appropriate. In fact, the publicity is good for him, because now he's free. Now he can stop being an actor."

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