New light sheds on a legendary Cold War double defector

New light sheds on a legendary Cold War double defector

In the summer of 1954, alarm bells rang out throughout Western capitals when Otto John, the founding director of the West German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt for Verfassungsschutz), which was the security agency, defected to East Berlin, and subsequently the Soviet Union.

Otto John’s move into The Communist East was rooted in the war experience and his resolute opposition against it, which was in stark contrast to the majority of his fellow citizens and Nazism. He had served as a spy to Britain throughout World War II and was involved in the unsuccessful plan to kill Hitler on July 20th 1944.

The year was December 1943. John worked as a chief auditor at Lufthansa, the German airline Lufthansa, which I tell in my latest publication, Interrogation Nation: Refugees and Spies in Cold War Germany. John had started providing British as well as American authorities with data about German missiles, planes, and submarines.

The evacuees were British foreign intelligence agents following the failed July 20th plot. British archive sources confirm that John was a member of the Department of Political Intelligence within the UK foreign office in an underground broadcasting station just north of London. John later interrogated German generals as well as other prisoners of war in Bridgnorth and at different locations in England. In 1948, he filed for naturalization as a British subject. The question of whether he became dual-national is not clear.

Escape to East Berlin

What was the reason John then committed a betrayal of Britain in the process and West Germany? A strong dislike of the rise of former Nazis to prominent positions within the Bonn government is believed to be a factor that drove him to do so; however, as two German researchers recently discovered, the number of ex-Nazis who were part of John’s organization was limited. The federal government was unsure what it should do and then provided a half million Deutschmark incentive for any information that led towards his return. It also asked the American, British, and French high commissioners to reach out to their Soviet counterparts.

Otto John defected to serve the Soviet Union. Bundesarchiv_Bild/Wikimedia

Following his departure from East Berlin under circumstances that remain a mystery, John was then able to spend more than three years in the Soviet Union. Documents from the archives of Stasi – – the East German secret police – show that he provided answers to questions posed by KGB interrogators on European or North Atlantic security planning.

The return West

In December 1955, John went back to West Germany via West Berlin. It was the West German supreme court that convicted John of the crime of treason and sentenced him to four years in prison. A feeling of sympathy for John caused West German president Theodor Heuss to grant him a pardon in July. The documents housed in Stasi Records Agency Stasi Records Agency confirm that John’s decision deferred again caused Stasi head Erich Mielke by surprise, shattering plans to make an autobiography. It was a plan that East German Socialist Unity Party leader Walter Ulbricht had supported in the hope of attracting “bourgeois” circles in the federal republic.

The files in the UK National Archives reveal more fascinating details regarding John’s defections. They also give an understanding of the reasons he chose to leave the UK for the East. It was a matter of what West Germany’s relationship with the other Western nations, particularly those of the US, Britain, and France. British archives show John was concerned about the extensive surveillance powers, which the Western powers had planned to include in a confidential memorandum of understanding signed with West Germany in late 1954.

John spoke of these confidential requirements for intelligence in his conversations while he was living in East Berlin. The West German Chancellor of the time, Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of West Germany at the time. Konrad Adenauer – also made mention of these requirements.


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