The Stasi pastor who betrayed the faithful

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Gerd Bambowsky: Ordained Lutheran pastor—and Stasi agent dedicated to undermining East German churches (© Erwin Damson)

‘A central part of the Stasis job—to infiltrate, discredit and undermine the churches—has hitherto
remained largely unknown’

Their numbers had been growing steadily over the preceding weeks and months; but in that October, 30 years ago, residents of Leipzig gathered in previously unseen numbers, flowing out onto the pavement outside the Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas Church). The protest march that followed the peace prayer meeting was so huge that the East German authorities felt unable to intervene. Power had moved from the regime to the people. One month later, the Berlin Wall fell.

It was exactly this that the Stasi—the Ministry for State Security—was supposed to prevent. Churches constituted the country’s only relatively free space and attracted a wide range of opposition-minded people. What Solidarity was for Poland and Charter 77 for Czechoslovakia, churches were for East Germany. Many books have been written about the Stasi, but a central part of its job—to infiltrate, discredit and undermine the churches—has hitherto remained largely unknown, particularly for English-speaking audiences.

These operations relied on the sinister participation of clerics ranging from theology students to bishops. Take, for example, Gerd Bambowsky (pictured, opposite). Initially a travelling preacher, later an ordained Lutheran pastor, he was also an undercover agent for the Stasi’s church department, Department XX/4, whose phenomenally successful efforts to undermine East Germany’s churches are documented in my new book God’s Spies (Lion Hudson, £18.99). I used information in Stasi files, as well as interviews with victims and perpetrators—and crucially with Colonel Joachim Wiegand, who led the bureau during East Germany’s final decade and has never before spoken publicly about his work. Why did Wiegand decide to speak to me? I believe he sees in me a neutral voice: an observer familiar with East Germany before and after reunification, who has lived there and written about this peculiar nation-building experiment, but one who is neither East nor West German and carries no baggage regarding the German Democratic Republic.

Alongside his church work, Bambowsky expertly infiltrated Western Bible-smuggling charities, including the Dutch group Open Doors. This was not just on behalf of the Stasi: the KGB had asked the Stasi to help. Despite all the KGB’s efforts to intercept Bibles and other smuggled literature, shipments were still successfully reaching long-suffering Christians inside the Soviet Union. How did the Western groups do it? Who were their couriers? Where were the depots? Who were their recipients? The KGB was at a loss.

Bambowsky was made for this assignment. Born to itinerant actor parents, he possessed considerable acting skills himself, along with a restless nature. Life on the road suited him; so did the opportunity to meet and charm lots of new people. With Bambowsky as the central character, Department XX/4 built Operation Giftspinne (“poisonous spider”). Advised by his handlers, Bambowsky first approached a small East German charity that had a West German sister group. Who wouldn’t trust a friendly clergyman? Bambowsky then used the contact as an introduction to a larger West German charity, Licht im Osten (Light in the East), widely known for its Bible-smuggling. The staffer in charge, Erwin Damson, told me about his first encounter with Bambowsky: one day a middle-aged man appeared at his office in Korntal, a small town near Stuttgart, introduced himself as an East German pastor and declared himself willing to help the group. Damson was delighted, not to say ecstatic: finding couriers who were not only reliable but were also able to travel easily through East Germany and on to the Soviet Union was formidably difficult. And here was a brother in Christ from East Germany, a pastor even, offering to assist. Bambowsky was an exuberant kind of person. When he prayed with Damson, Damson felt his own prayers had been answered.

Licht im Osten began assigning smuggling missions to its new recruit. He collected the books in Korntal and transported them to temporary depots in East Germany, for later delivery to Soviet Christians. As time went on, Damson developed such trust in Bambowsky that he even asked the pastor for advice about potential new couriers and locations for additional depots. He gave him money, too.

It didn’t take long before Bambowsky had parlayed his credibility into assignments for Open Doors, a global hub of assistance for persecuted Christians. Soon he was transporting books and other goods for virtually every organisation assisting Christians in the Soviet empire, and advising others: the Bible Society in Britain, and American organisations such as Operation Mobilisation and Campus Crusade for Christ. Driving an East German minivan supplied to him by Open Doors and equipped with secret compartments, Bambowsky crisscrossed the continent with his sensitive cargo. Generous donors in the West kept the operations going: in February 1981 the UPI newswire reported that the three largest Bible-smuggling organisations had raised $21 million in the previous year.

Soon Bambowsky was entrusted with even more delicate tasks: smuggling disassembled printing presses. What the donors couldn’t know, and the charities would have been shocked to discover, was that large numbers of the books and other necessities never reached their intended recipients. Instead they ended up in the Stasi’s possession, as did the names of the other couriers. Worse, Bambowsky revealed the recipients’ names and addresses to the Stasi, which of course sent them to the KGB. After a set of particularly successful undercover missions on Soviet territory, the grateful Soviet secret police rewarded him with two golden cups.

Bambowsky helped Department XX/4 on its home turf, too, with its core task of keeping the country’s own Christians under control. Working with his handlers, Bambowsky devised a clever scheme: as part of his smuggling activities, he would offer to deliver a conservative West German church magazine to senior clerics in East Germany. It was a litmus test. If the cleric accepted it, it meant that the Stasi would need to keep a closer eye on him.

Bambowsky was a cynical man, one who thrived on adventure, secrecy and betrayal. He was paid not only by the church and by grateful Western charities, but for his undercover betrayals too. In February 1986, he received the Order of Military Merit (silver) of the National People’s Army of the German Democratic Republic, in recognition of his “outstanding achievements in the Ministry for State Security”. The citation, by the Minister for State Security, Erich Mielke, read: “For many years of faithful fulfilment of duties, achievements, initiative and high operational readiness in solving special tasks to strengthen and secure our socialist fatherland.”

Bambowsky was only one of many such agents. Some—like a pastor assigned to Sweden—saw in their Stasi case officers a father figure, or a confidante. Others saw their clandestine work as an opportunity for career advancement. Some simply wanted perks, such as travel to the West or consumer goods. One asked his case officer to arrange tickets to a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Only a very few were pressured into cooperating: Wiegand and his men knew how to identify suitable pastors and win them over.

It was an enormous undertaking: every East German denomination, every church institution, individual pastors and church activists, and international church organisations such as the World Council of Churches: Department XX/4 kept a watchful eye on them all. And for a long time, its efforts seemed to be successful in keeping a lid on dissent spreading from its churches.

Wiegand’s success created a dilemma: by the late 1980s he knew exactly how and where dissent was growing, with demands for real, overarching change. To quell this, the regime would have to resort to brutal repression, harming the country’s reputation and causing West Germany to suspend its lifeline loans to the Soviet puppet state. The other option was to change the country’s direction. “Wiegand often returned in despair from his talks with [Central Committee member and leadership coordinator] Werner Jarowinsky, who had again understood nothing and taken the wrong decisions. Wiegand presented our suggestions for reforms of society time and again, which required plenty of courage given the increasingly obstinate leadership,” his deputy Klaus Rossberg later wrote.

East Germany was unable to change. In the summer of 1988, Department XX/4 had managed to nudge the Lutherans’ annual conference in a regime-friendly direction, but a year later the peace prayer meetings were proliferating around the country. Mere nudges could not turn the ship.

When the Berlin Wall fell a month later, Stasi agents believed that their secrets and lies would die with the regime. Files were shredded at a frantic pace, and what remains is only a part of Department XX/4’s archive. That, coupled with the fact that the files themselves only reveal part of the truth, makes evidence from men like Wiegand, now aged 87, even more important. When he dies, the most important source of information about the Stasi’s effort to undermine East Germany’s churches will be lost. It is possible that duplicated Stasi files still exist in Moscow, since east European intelligence files were copied and transported on a regular basis during the Cold War, but these could never see the light of day without the advent of a friendly Russia. That prospect seems some way off.

Wiegand is the central character in my book. Under his leadership, Department XX/4 officers planned the smuggling missions, and countless other assignments. “Let them sing, let them pray, but they shouldn’t do politics,” was his approach to Christians. In the end, they both prayed, sang and did politics, and they brought down their country’s regime. After the fall of the Wall, when Wiegand closed his department for good, he had to decide what to do with the Stasi’s Bible collection. God’s Spies tells the story of his surprising choice.