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A bridge to the Cold War

You work with me not someone else

Words and photography by Sarah Feeney for @themodernist print magazine 
A 4-minute read


Reporters nicknamed Glienicker Brücke "Bridge of Spies" during the Cold War.


The bridge connected the people of Potsdam and Berlin, providing a crossing over the Havel River.


After WW2, Germany and its capital Berlin were divided into separate territories under the administration and government of allies France, America, the Soviet Union and Britain.


The Soviets took the eastern portion of both Germany and Berlin, and in 1949 they formed The Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR for short).

Glienicker Brücke was now situated in the Soviet zone linking it to West Berlin.


After major post-war reconstruction, the bridge became an important part of the Eastern Bloc’s infrastructure, and its operation was routine and benign.


However, the DDR government was based on that of the Soviet Union, and its politics were formed from a complicated merger of German communist and socialist parties whose politics conflicted with those in the West. This led to increased paranoia, distrust and a general dislike for each other’s ideologies.


As the relationship soured, robust borders were established, walls were built, and bridges closed. The post-war ambitions of these former allies were no longer compatible.


In 1949 the new East German government renamed the bridge “The Bridge of Unity”, but by 1952 this “unity” was interrupted when they closed the bridge to citizens of the West altogether.


Its original function as an essential transport link ended, and instead, it took on a much shadier social role.


It got worse.

After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the East German government decided to close it to ALL citizens, including its own in the East who'd spent most of the 1950s trying to leave massenweise (en masse) to the freedom and prosperity of the West rather than embrace the newly formed DDR.


The East German government had had enough.

No longer would the bridge serve the people.

Instead, it became the main link and artery for foreign diplomats, the exchange of captured spies, allied military personnel and clandestine operators.


The Cold War was in full paranoid swing.


Authorised tours by the West, known as Military Liaison Missions or MLMs, began. They were fundamentally legitimate snooping missions, disguised in typical fixed-grin Cold War fashion as “tours” intended to further and better relationships between an increasingly tense East and West.


British, American and French diplomats were driven across the bridge in massive, matt-olive-green Ford sedans, Land Rovers, a Benz or an Opel.


The Soviets agreed to let them in via its Bridge of Unity – it was the only checkpoint in Germany that not only had a Soviet presence but was also under full Soviet control. As one of their own heavily restricted borders, they probably felt more comfortable allowing the West in from here.


As the Cold War dragged on, the secret world of intelligence agencies led to a literary obsession with spies and spying. The more the Soviets siphoned off their secret world, the more the West let its creative imagination fill in the blanks. 


The Cold War era came to define cult 20th-century spy fiction and its tales of espionage.


Where would the spy genre be without Commander James Bond or Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin? The bridge plays a key role in the 1964 book (which also features ‘Arry Palmer flying into Berlin's iconic Tempelhof Airport.)


Locations such as Glienicker Brücke provided both a focal point and a backdrop for the covert operations of spy-genre plots. The darkly charismatic CIA and MI6 were always on one side of the bridge, with the enigmatic Soviet Union and its KGB firmly on the other.


Secret agents and covert operators skulked around smoky, shadowy joints dressed in sartorial elegance. They sipped Martinis and deeply inhaled cigarettes while a Russian double-agent beauty seduced hapless Soviets and spiked their Vodka with a nerve agent.


Throughout the Cold War, the West and the East exchanged 36 high-value political prisoners across The Bridge of Unity. Exchanges would take place at the midway point, denoted by a painted line marking the border between the West and the East.


The Americans swapped Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers in 1962. Abel was convicted for spying for the Soviet Union in 1957, and Powers was a pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down in 1960.


The British Secret Service agent Greville Wynne was exchanged for Soviet Konon Molody in 1964, who’d been operating in London, posing as a jukebox salesman. I’d like to have met him.


The Americans exchanged the handsome and resourceful Marian Zacharski in 1985. The Soviets considered him and three other Eastern Bloc spies to be worth a whopping 25 American agents – Marian must have been big-time!


The final such transaction took place in 1986. Anatoly Scharansky was released by the Soviets in exchange for Karl Koecher and his wife, Hana, who were in US custody.


The negotiation took three years; this exchange was textbook Cold War aesthetic. Shcharansky travelled across the snow-covered bridge in a massive Mercedes and was whisked away by the Americans in a waiting jet.


In 1989, a series of Eastern Bloc revolutions and increased civil unrest triggered the end of the Berlin Wall as a physical and ideological border.


It was gradually demolished, mostly under the weight of David Hasselhoff belting out his trite “Looking for Freedom” song to the hapless East Germans.


From here, it was a short but liberating jump to the total collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the DDR in 1990.


The reunification of Germany was complete, and by 1991 the Cold War was considered over.


The Bridge of Unity regained its original name of Glienicker Brücke, along with other German towns and cities reverting to their pre-DDR appellation.


Although formally dissolved, the Soviet DDR era is a deeply evocative period – its dark atmosphere lingers on in the shadows of its socialist architecture, sculpture, infrastructure and countless stylized murals featuring atomic-age graphics, astronauts and scientists standing on podiums with fists aloft.


The checkpoints of Glienicker Brücke, its barricades and fortifications are long gone, but evidence of its Cold War past remains.


Should you wish to visit and view the marking of its midpoint and surviving Soviet graffiti from 1968, the best view is from Babelsberg Park, but its actual address is Konigstrasse, 14467 Berlin. 


Be sure to go in the dead of winter whilst wearing a trench coat and Shuron glasses. And tell no one…




As featured in @themodernist magazine 30 | INFRASTRUCTURE edited by @mainstream_modern

Writing and photography by Sarah Feeney



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