Tony Paterson: Vienna plays host to Cold War drama reimagined as farce

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Sunday 23 October 2011 06:55
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Vienna, the city that formed the backdrop to the classic Cold War film The Third Man and which was once a hotbed of CIA and KGB espionage activity was suddenly being reinvented as the post-Communist world's spy-swap capital yesterday.

But a 90-minute prisoner exchange on the tarmac at Vienna airport involving spies who supplied information to their paymasters that could normally be found on the internet was hardly the stuff of the Cold War.

By pre-1989 standards yesterday's Vienna spy swap was a comedy and one devoid of drama to boot. Where were the stone-faced Kalashnikov-toting border guards, the fat black Soviet limousines, the agents in shabby raincoats slipping out from behind the Iron Curtain? We got 90 minutes of covered aircraft boarding ladders instead.

During the Cold War, Vienna was genuinely a spying centre at the crossroads of communist eastern and capitalist western Europe. But over the years the city has relied more on Graham Greene and Orson Welles to promote this reputation. Real espionage is not often talked about, after all.

John le Carré did the same for Bonn with his novel, A Small Town in Germany and his epic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold almost did it for Berlin, but not quite. In reality, the German capital with its legendary "Bridge of Spies" delivered facts more powerful than fiction. It's spy swap record remains unassailable.

America and the Soviet Union used Berlin's legendary Glienicke bridge three times to swap captured spies during the Cold War. The first took place in early 1962 when the US released the Russian spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel, in exchange for the US pilot Gary Powers who was shot down while flying a plane over the Soviet Union two years earlier. The second happened in 1985, when the Russians swapped 23 American spies for the Pole Marian Zacharski and three other Soviet spies.

The third took place in the full glare of the Western media on 11 February 1986 and I saw it happen. The Glienicke Bridge links what was capitalist West Berlin with the former GDR town of Potsdam. Its heavy Iron Curtain girders span the Havel river that separates the two towns. In February, 24 years ago, it was used to swap the Soviet dissident Anatoly Sharansky and three Western agents for the Soviet spy Karl Koecher and four others.

The build up to the exchange had started weeks beforehand. By 11 February it was at fever pitch. Standing in frost-hardened snow, the world's media lined the road leading to the bridge on the western side. That morning all eyes were glued on the gate in the middle of the bridge bearing the hammer and compass emblem of Communist East Germany. Eventually, a pair of armed guards in Russian-style fur hats and grey greatcoats stomped up to it, arms swinging. It was pure Cold War pantomime.

The gate creaked as it swung open. Suddenly, the gold Mercedes limousine of Wolfgang Vogel, East Germany's top prisoner exchange negotiator, swung into view and pulled up. Buses shot up from east and west and parked on the bridge.

Doors opened and shut, figures shuffled, then one man in a fur hat and grey overcoat emerged. Anatoly Sharansky walked up to a western limousine and sped away. The most publicised spy swap on record lasted about 10 minutes. The only sounds were the slamming of car doors and roaring of engines.

Nobody said a thing.

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