Built for the nobility – used to exchange Cold War spies. The Glienicker Brücke and its remarkable life story.

Glienicker Brücke, November 2012. No © needed. Photo by Joep de VisserIn Berlins ultimate southwest corner, the 128 meter long Glienicker Brücke connects Berlin with Brandenburg and Potsdam since 1660. It has been demolished and rebuild several times and today it is 105 years ago that the nowadays construction of the bridge is revealed. Currently the bridge is partly being renovated.

Reason to erect this bridge at first, was the need of the nobility – which used the bridge to connect their palaces with their hunting sites. Still, the bridge is named after the former landyard Klein Glienicke – on the site where since 1753 the Schloss Glienicke is situated. Only a century later, the bridge became in public use since 1756. By then, also the post company was allowed to use the bridge – which saved them four out of eight hours travelling. In 1777, the bridge was renewed to fit the increased traffic. By then, it became a drawbridge with rails on the bridge’s sides and checkpoints on both sides of the Havel’s banks. By the end of the 18th century, road tax was asked bear the costs of a new traffic road between Berlin and Potsdam. Nobility was not asked any contribution. The former presence of the nobility is nowadays noticeable by the many palaces around the bridge, for example the Babelsberg Palace on the bridge’s southern side and the Schloss Glienicke on its east.

Glienicker Brücke. Schinkel's design. ©Deutsche Stifung Denkmalschutz

In 1831, the wooden bridge was rebuild as a brick bridge – by the design of Prussian’s most famous Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). The bridge’s houses where taxes had to be paid before, were sold a year later. In the last years of the Glienicker Brücke in Schinkel’s design, an average of 400 cars and carriages passed over the bridge daily. Schinkel’s yellowish stone bridge was, in despite of the protectors for cultural heritage, demolished in 1906 to rebuild the new and nowadays bridge. Among the reasons were that the bridge needed to be higher – so the upcoming car traffic didn’t need to wait. The new bridge was opened for traffic at November 18, 1907. The construction was made out of iron. Critics were mostly negative and said it looked too plump. Also, the decoration at Berlin’s side – giving the bridge a look as if it’s a gate to Potsdam – was considered heavily outdated. In 1931, the decoration torrets on the bridge’s side was removed due to high renovation costs – and gave the bridge an even more plump look. Due to a buss-line from Zehlendorf till Potsdam, the stop Glienicker Brücke became an attraction – and ships which were around started to function as tour boats.

In 1937, the bridge was widened another 4.50 meter – so it became 13 meter wide. These changes had to be made since the bridge was now part of the Reichsstraße 1 – a nazi project which secured a road with four carriageways from Aachen till Königsberg. During the Battle of Berlin, dynamite was placed at all pillars of the bridge. It was only partly blown up – though it remains unclear if German’s did this or if the bridge was damaged due to a Soviet tank which accidently shot at a pillar’s dynamite.

Glienicker Brücke demolished. ©Landesarchiv Berlin

At the reconstruction of the bridge, the pathway for pedestrians was removed – so the bridge’s width was reduced back to 11 meters. The reconstruction took over two years – till it was reopened in December 1949. Ironically, it was given the name Brücke der Einheit (Bridge of Unity). In the middle of the bridge, a white stripe marked the border between the GDR and West Berlin. Already in 1952, public car traffic was not allowed to cross the bridge. Pedestrians who had the valid papers for crossing the bridge could use it for another year – till the bridge was out of public use from the 3rd of July 1953 onwards. Military control posts were erected and military inspectors from France, Great-Brittain and the USA were allowed to patrol through the GDR. During the 1970s, the West and the East couldn’t come to an agreement to pay the bridge maintenance. The GDR felt necessary to close the bridge in November 1984 for all parties safety. A month later, West Berlin’s senate took over the financial responsibilities and paid DM2,000,000 (€1,000,000) for all the reparations.

The bord on the right: "Glienicker Brücke. Who gave this bridge the name 'Bridge of Unity', als build the Wall, erect barbed wire and death strips. They hinder the unity". ©Deutsche Stiftung Denkmalschutz

During the detentes of the Cold War, the Glienicker Brücke was nicknamed ‘the Bridge of Spies’. In three exchanges, fourty people were exchanged here – varying from dissidents till high ranked spies. The Glienicker Brücke was chosen for being a reachable place for both parties and a surrounding which was easy to control. The nearby Villa Kampffmeyer was a observation post of the KGB. Remarkably, the Villa Schöningen – which is even more nearby the Glienicker Brücke – was used as a sort of youth orphanage.

The first exchange found place the 10th of February 1962 – when Frederic Pryor and Francis Gary Powers was exchanged against Rudolf Abel (1903-1971). Rudolf Abel, the nickname of Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, was arrested in June 1957 and a few months later convicted 45 years and $3000 for conspiricy. Most of the information he passed through regarded USA’s defense information. In July 1959, the KGB already made clear to Wolfgang Vogel – a Stasi negotiator who had the right connections and was trusted in the West – that they wanted to exchange Abel. The KGB had to wait nearly a year for a present which fell out of the sky.

Gary Powers (1929-1977) was a CIA agent, who was caught the first of May 1960 when his spyplane – type U2 – was shot down above USSR’s territory. Powers was convicted for 3 years prison and seven years working camp – if he wasn’t exchanged after 21 months. Also Frederic Pryor was exchanged – though not on the Glienicker Brücke but at Checkpoint Charly. Pryor studied East Europe studies at the Freie Universtität in Berlin and did a research about the currency in East European trade. Pryor was kidnapped by the GDR’s police in August 1961 an imprisoned without any charge.

Although the exchange was suppose to stay secret, it leaked out and caused headlines in the media. For the one who thinks that Gary Powers could live a happy life after is wrong. The public opinion thought Powers should have commited suicide and in addition – his wife left him. In contrast, Rudolf Abel was given the opportunity to teach about his spy activities in the USSR.

On the day of exchange at 8:20am – the American deligation went to the middle of the bridge in company of Joseph Murphy, a near colleague of Powers who had to identify him. When Gary Powers walked towards them, accompanied by two guards, Murphey walked towards them and asked Powers for the name of his football coach in high-school. Powers couldn’t remember it directly and started to talk nervously about the dog he had when he was young. Murphey accepted it as an identification. Then, the men had to wait till a confirmation that Pryor was on Western soil – which came at 8:45am. Powers and Abel passed each other without exchanging a word or a greeting. The exchange was finished at 08:52am.

The second exchange on the Glienicker Brücke took place the 11th of June 1985, when 25 political prisoners of the GDR and Poland – among them low ranked spies – were exchanged. The Eastern states also guaranteed that the direct families of the exchanged prisoners could be united. They were exchanged for four high ranked Soviet spies which were imprisoned in the USA. Among them was Marian Zacharski (1951-), who made photo’s of important documents concerning radar technology and the then-new Phoenix and Patriot missiles. Both Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbatsjov were present at this exchange. It was planned that the exchange would finish at 6pm. Already at 12am, the Western deputees were allowed to controll if all 25 exchanged prisoners were on the eastern side of the bridge – which was the case indeed. First, the 25 prisoners were released – then the four high ranked KGB officers. The exchange was finished within an hour.

The last exchange became the most famous one. On the 11th of February 1986, five spies in American captivity were exchanged for four prisoners in the Eastern Bloc. Media gathered in front of the bridge already days before. Especially the USSR dissident Anatoli Schtscharanski made the exchange a compicated one, since the USSR saw him as an American spy – while the USA said he simply was a spy. The USA demanded that Schtscharanski came over the bridge at first. The exchange was had to be completed at February 12th, 6pm. At the Glienicker Brücke, the exchange started February the 11th at 10:42am. Schtscharanski, according to the agreement, came alone – and jumped over the border at the middle of the bridge. The thin rope with held his too big trousers broke because of the effort. Schtscharanski had to held his trousers up with one hand, while walking towards the American cars. The other spies were exchanged one by one – till the exchange was finished at 11:31am.

Not only the military patrols and fourty exchanged spies, dissidents and hostiles crossed the brigde succesfully. In 1988, three GDR civilians broke through the barriers with a truck. A day after the Fall – the bridge became publicly opened again.

In 1998, the Deutsche Post developed a stamp with a drawning of the Glienicker Brücke on it. Ten years after the bridge was opened, a memorial stone on Berlin’s side remembers the Fall of the wall. Since 13th August 2011, 50 years after the Glienicker Brücke became part of the Wall, memorial panels are situated at both sides. As one can expect, the bridge is about to be renovated and soon – the border between the two Bundesländer won’t be clearly visible anymore by the difference of the paint.

Glienicker Brücke, November 2012. Brandenburg's side (left) - Berlin's side (right). No © needed. Picture by Joep de Visser

Recommanded book:
Norbert F. Pötzl, Basar der Spione – Die geheimen Missionen des DDR-Unterhändlers Wolfgang Vogel (Hamburg 1997)

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