Spy Trader

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Cold War produced some extraordinary characters, but few were more unlikely than the East German lawyer, Wolfgang Vogel, who was the intermediary in procuring the release of a quarter million people to the West. Vogel’s situation was truly unique: a man who became intimate with East Germany’s highest figures without being a member of the Communist Party, a workaholic who sacrificed his marriage to the defense of those who were caught attempting to flee, a trusted associate of West Germany politicians, and a scapegoat accused of having extorted millions from the people he was supposedly helping.

As the East German regime imprisoned thousands for attempting to flee the country, West Germans faced unhappy moral choices. If they left the prisoners in jail until the system choked on the numbers, Communism might come to an end more quickly than if they paid ransom for their release; on the other hand, Communism seemed sufficiently robust that the human suffering was too much to ask. Paying DM 96000 per individual was bound to give the communists valuable foreign exchange, provide the Stasi (Security Police) with a temptation to arrest innocent people in order to sell them, and end in massive corruption. Vogel enjoyed wealth (although no successful Western lawyer would consider his earnings excessive) and, in addition, the fame of having arranged the most celebrated spy swaps of the Cold War.

Whitney’s careful interviews and research into the symbiotic relationship of the Stasi and Western relief efforts illustrate the moral confusion of the era. Even the East German hierarchy did not realize that the sale of human beings was encouraging escape attempts, since eventually everyone would be ransomed. In 1989, it was the numbers of people trying to leave the country which brought down the Wall.