The spy chief realized early on that blackmailing potential assets was a fool’s errand: the surest means of securing their loyalty was to manipulate your way into their head and heart. He also believed that the most valuable secrets would not necessarily be obtained from the men in positions of power, who might have only a limited insight into the machinery of government around them, but rather from the women who did the unglamorous work in the background: the secretaries, telephonists and filing clerks. Frequently young, single or unhappily married, underpaid and overqualified, these women could provide a bewildering array of documents and office chitchat. Wolf set about assembling an elite cadre of male spies to seek out these women. Often the men were chosen not so much for their good looks as for their affability and emotional intelligence. For sure, Wolf reasoned, the women had physical desires, but what they wanted most was intimacy. The operation was dubbed the Romeo program and the targets were referred to as Julias, the German form of Juliet. The task was seduction — or, as they put it in the callous jargon of the Stasi, Ficken fürs Vaterland, a phrase that is probably best left untranslated. By the end of the 1980s Wolf’s agents had placed at least 40 Juliets in the West German government.
The very first Romeo agents Wolf deployed to Bonn in the mid-1950s was Albert Weissbach who was recruited by the Stasi to target women working for the West German government. He had grown up in the mountains of southern Saxony, and as a boy he had hung out with the sons of communists and Social Democrats, getting into fights with the sons of farmers and petty officials. Trained as a baker’s apprentice, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and deployed to the grueling siege of Leningrad, where kind of Marxist class consciousness began to stir in his veins and he began to think politically. Weissbach was captured by the Red Army and detained at a Soviet prisoner of war camp in the Urals. One day an officer made him an offer he could hardly refuse: join the global socialist revolution and win your freedom. After the war he was put through an “anti-fascist” training college and then hand-picked by Wolf for the Stasi’s embryonic foreign branch. He fluffed his only trial mission, taking fright on the way to meet his designated contact in Hamburg. Despite the dodgy start, the Stasi packed him off to Bonn (West Germany) in 1953, where Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s wily first chancellor, was busy building a huge and profoundly sleazy apparatus of power, supported by a network of old Nazi functionaries. Adenauer’s chancellery, hyper-alert to the threat from foreign spies, was a daunting target for the Stasi. It took a couple of years but Weissbach eventually found that way in. Erna Knaupmeier was a widowed single mother of precisely the same age (they are thought to have met in 1956 when both were 34 years old) who had taken a poorly remunerated job as a telephonist in Adenauer’s chancellery. She spent her working days connecting calls and overhearing the private conversations of some of the most powerful men in the land while making barely enough money to get by. The economics of love were stacked against her: there were about 10,000 more women than men in Bonn at the time, and a lowly clerical worker had little hope of catching an eligible bachelor’s eye. Along came Weissbach, in the guise of a salesman hawking hairdressing products and kitchenware. Quite by chance, she bought some of his wares and asked him to stay a while and talk. Under Wolf’s direct supervision Weissbach was patient, helpful and solicitous. It took about a year before he and Knaupmeier developed what she later described as an “intimate relationship”. She conscientiously reported it to her superiors, who conducted a background check on her new boyfriend. They found no obvious red flags: before the mission he had adopted his stepfather’s surname, Gläser, which sufficed to throw the West Germans off the scent. Günter Knaupmeier, her son says Weissbach became like a second father to him and the relationship was a marriage in all but name. In 1962, after receiving a tip-off that his cover might imminently be blown, Weissbach’s masters recalled him to East Berlin. But he had been playing with fire. His Stasi personnel file suggests that by this point his entanglement with Knaupmeier was more than strictly professional. In desperation he lured his lover and her son to Antwerp under false pretences and begged her to join him in the east, without disclosing the real reason for his departure. Knaupmeier refused to go: the Berlin Wall had been erected only months earlier, and she knew she might never be able to return from the drab mirror world beyond the barbed wire. For months, though, she remained true to her partner, paying the rent on his flat in Bonn and sending him care packages and love letters imploring him to come back. Weissbach all but ghosted her. Take says he sporadically replied with “four-sentence letters — ‘I’m fine, I’ve travelled somewhere, the weather’s nice, I hope you have a nice Easter’. The asymmetry is so stark.” Privately, however, he seems to have been in pieces. He tried to resign from the Stasi and, in the end, Wolf had to step in as an agony aunt and persuade him to stay. With time, both parties got over the break-up. Weissbach stayed on in the HVA and married an East German doctor, while Knaupmeier honourably reported her boyfriend’s disappearance to her bosses, who refrained from punishing her. She left the chancellery the following autumn and started a textiles business. It is not clear whether she ever knew or suspected the truth about her former lover. The Stasi agent quietly amassed a breastful of medals back in East Germany but appears to have delivered little in the way of useful intelligence. No matter: he was a pathfinder, the first wasp to scout out the picnic.
Weissbach’s years of deceit were not wasted. One weekend he and Knaupmeier had gone on a day trip with an acquaintance of hers from work. Unlike Knaupmeier, Margarete Breitbach, known to her friends as Gretel, a secretary in the office of the West German chancellor. She was possessed of a strong taste for the high life. The daughter of a mid-ranking official from the postal service, she had grown up in a small village west of Frankfurt and started work as a stenographer in 1939, at the age of 16. After the war Breitbach found a job in the chancellery as a secretary to Hans Kilb, a lawyer and Wehrmacht veteran who handled much of the chancellor’s dirty work as his personal assistant. The Stasi codenamed her “Gudrun” and she seems to have been a bit of a live wire. “Gudrun sets great store by her wardrobe,” Weissbach told his handlers. “Gudrun is intelligent; she has a good all-round education and a confident manner. She is sociable and likes to dance.” She spoke several languages and thought she deserved better than her low-status secretarial job. She also had a very particular taste in her friends. “She preferred a social circle of respectable, materially secure older men,” the Stasi noted, “apparently without developing any strong sexual needs or pursuing a hasty entanglement.” Wolf had identified the perfect Juliet. What he needed was a suitable Romeo: a man “with great experience of life and an attractive social position, to awaken a single female person’s interest in getting acquainted with him”.
That man was Herbert Söhler, a well-to-do property dealer and hobby pilot in Bonn, whose cruel recruitment of a secretary in the chancellery became the blueprint for the entire operation. A prosperous divorcee and estate agent from Hamburg, he was gregarious and charismatic but 23 years older than Breitbach and not exactly handsome by any ordinary standards. In 1933, four months after Hitler seized the chancellorship, Söhler had joined the Nazi party and then the Luftwaffe, but his military file turned out to contain a few skeletons in the closet. In 1938 he was discharged for having sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl. When her outraged father sent her away to Britain, Söhler pursued her across the Channel. That was Söhler in a nutshell as a Nazi pedophile and yet the Stasi decided to hire this guy. The Second World War came to Söhler’s rescue. Called back up to the Luftwaffe, he rose through the ranks to major and took charge of several commands in Italy. “Clear, unobjectionable character,” one of his Nazi supervisors wrote. “Honest and confident. Energetically gets his own way, but sometimes slightly oversteps his remit in the process.” That he certainly did: in 1944 Söhler was stripped of his command and confined to barracks for “persistent disobedience”. Like Weissbach, Söhler was recruited to the forces of socialism through a Soviet prisoner of war facility. Given the density of old Third Reich operators in Adenauer’s milieu, Wolf was inclined to regard his Nazi background as an asset rather than a liability. He was impressed by the man’s resourcefulness and emotional insight. Codenamed “Astor”, Söhler moved to Bonn in the mid-1950s, got back into the property trade and joined a flying club frequented by the West German elites. It was not long before he made his move on Breitbach. Working with Weissbach, he tracked her down to a spa cure in Bad Wildungen, 70 miles north of Frankfurt, in early March 1956. Yet the courtship proved tricky. His mark already had a middle-aged gentleman friend in tow. Undeterred, Söhler engineered a “chance” encounter with the couple at a local hostelry in 1959. The trio got along famously and caroused into the early hours. But the plot thickened. The next day Breitbach left for a different sanatorium in the Bavarian Alps, accompanied by yet another beau of advancing years. Söhler was in danger of getting stuck in the friend zone. Seizing the initiative, he waylaid her at her apartment in Bonn and asked her out. For one of their first dates he took her up over the grey roofs of the capital in an airplane. The situation rapidly evolved into what Söhler’s handlers depicted as a firm relationship with “intimate goings-on”, although she kicked him out of her flat by 10pm each evening so that her superiors wouldn’t suspect her of impropriety. Söhler soon befriended her boss Hans Kilb, a fellow ex-Nazi who acted as the chancellor’s chief fixer in a sprawling swamp of industrial corruption, orchestrating political favors for manufacturers and creaming off a considerable amount of money from his business contacts. Söhler eagerly relayed all this information to East Berlin, with the additional revelation that Adenauer’s chief of staff, Hans Globke, and his head of intelligence, Reinhard Gehlen — another pair of old Third Reich string-pullers — were running a secret and completely illegal espionage operation directed against the chancellor’s domestic opponents. Söhler contracted a nasty case of pneumonia after a holiday with Breitbach in 1958. Following several months of treatment at a Swiss hospital, he signalled back to East Berlin that he was too ill to do any more missions for the Stasi. In an operative last hurrah, Söhler decided to go for broke and turn his lover into a willing accomplice. Inviting her back out to Switzerland, he weaved his web of quarter-truths about plotting to kill Hitler and spying for the Red Army. She has been proposed only one option, he tells her: to join him and shelter under the protecting arm of the Soviet motherland. Three days later he tells her if she truly loves him, she must set down her feelings for him in a letter. This is the only way he can persuade his masters in Moscow that she won’t give him up. They will also need information — diplomatic telegrams, classified reports, scraps of gossip, the identity of every visitor who sets foot in the chancellor’s antechamber. Wiping away her tears, she agrees. For him, she will betray her country. Among the many things he hasn’t told his girlfriend is that he isn’t working for the Red Army at all. In fact he is an agent for the Stasi. It was a textbook piece of manipulation and it worked, at least for a little while. Söhler persuaded Breitbach to report to a new Stasi handler before bidding her farewell and vanishing into the GDR. She never saw him again. Whatever she felt for Söhler, though, she appears to have got over it pretty quickly. After supplying odds and ends of information to the Stasi for a few months, she left her job at the chancellery and married an old flame. Söhler lived on for a few more years. In 1961 he made a late-night appearance on GDR television and unloaded his experiences of Bonn in a half-fictitious chunder of information, to little effect.
By far his greatest contribution to the cause came later. In the following years the Stasi’s Romeos managed to seduce a pair of sisters who worked in the chancellery, before running into a long dry spell when nothing they did seemed to work. Frustrated, Wolf ordered a full review of the HVA’s record to try and identify which tactics had worked. In the “cloister of bulls”, the agency’s training college at Bad Belzig, a small spa town 40 miles southwest of Berlin, Söhler’s work was held up as a masterpiece for the other “love commandos” to emulate. Psychologists pored over every last detail of the Romeos’ romantic encounters — public displays of affection, tone of voice, the wording of love letters — to fathom what women truly wanted. Among their conclusions was that the best time to broach the stealing of secrets was just after sex, when the targets would be at their most emotionally dependent. Over two decades the agency developed a conveyor belt of finely tuned seducers. The Stasi often observed their prey for months beforehand, studying their every habit and social contact. Pop culture usually depicts the Romeos as irresistibly handsome young men but sometimes the spy chiefs decided that what was really called for was a debonair father figure, a sugar daddy like Söhler. What they all had in common was a cultivated instinct for the fragilities of the female ego in what was still a highly patriarchal society. They generally behaved, you could say, in a less egotistical way than most West German men. Sometimes the Romeo agents would visit their lovers only once every few weeks, feigning business abroad as a pretext for keeping the women in a state of longing. It was not unusual for them to wait years before seeking any classified information. Occasionally the Stasi went to extraordinary lengths to preserve the illusion. One Juliet, a former nun, refused to have sex with her Romeo unless they were married. The couple were spirited away to a chapel in Copenhagen, where both the priest and the groom’s “mother” were played by East German agents.
For nearly 70 years the genesis of the program has largely remained a mystery. The light was spread into program through a 1974 PhD thesis titled “Results of research on the development of operational process for the systematic infiltration of significant management positions” was personally commissioned by Wolf and compiled at the Stasi university in Potsdam by two senior officers involved in the Romeo project. The thesis was nothing short of a masterplan for smuggling spies into the West German chancellery. To this day the ultimate value of the Romeo operation remains difficult to assess, not least because most of the records were destroyed in the months after the Berlin Wall came down. It certainly had its advantages for the Stasi. For one thing, it was cheap. Unable to afford the sophisticated electronic surveillance wielded by its western rivals, the agency resorted to human labour instead. For another, it worked. Of the 15 spies identified in the West German chancellery from 1949 to 1989, 12 were Stasi assets — and the majority of these were Juliets. At one point in the mid-1970s Romeos were sleeping with secretaries at the top of the chancellor’s economics, foreign policy and home affairs departments. Yet the intelligence haul was of variable quality and often wasted through East Berlin’s strategic ineptitude. The one Stasi coup that did indisputably alter the course of history was a calamitous accident that had nothing to do with the Romeo operation. In 1974 it emerged that the closest aide of Willy Brandt, West Germany’s first centre-left chancellor and the architect of rapprochement with the Soviet Union and the GDR, had been passing information to the agency for years. Brandt resigned days later. The East Germans were mortified: the chancellor had been the most sympathetic leader they could have hoped for in Bonn. Regardless of its wider impact or lack of it, the Romeo operation did come with great costs to those caught up in it. The collateral damage to the programme’s targets and those around them was enormous, and the agents themselves did not escape consequences. Take argues that in the final analysis, the so-called Romeos could be viewed more properly as “male prostitutes”, while their victims exhibited enough spirit and autonomy fully to merit the term “survivors”. (by Oliver Moody | The Sunday Times, 2022)
In a rented apartment at a resort in the Swiss Alps, a gravely ill man lifts his gaze and looks his lover in the eyes. At first he seems unsure how to begin. Du