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Germany: Death Of A Mystery Intelligence Agent

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, 31 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Otto John, who was the central figure in one of the most intriguing mysteries of post-war Germany, has died with the mystery still unsolved.

In July 1954 John, who was head of West Germany's counter-intelligence service, disappeared into communist East Germany. A month later he appeared at the traditional press conference in East Berlin to denounce the West.

The story took a bizarre turn the following year when Dr. John was driven back into West Germany by a Danish journalist.

John, a lawyer by training, claimed he had not defected but had been kidnapped by the KGB and had only pretended to work with them to keep open the chance that he might be able to return to the West. He was convicted of treachery and sentenced to four years hard labor.

After his release, he moved to house in the mountains near the Austrian city of Innsbruck. For the rest of his life he tried to persuade the German authorities of his innocence. He told a newspaper interviewer in 1968: "I don't want to die as a traitor".

In one of his last letters before he died, the 88-year-old John told a German publisher he felt he had been the victim of a plot by real Soviet agents in the German intelligence service who feared he would uncover them. A number of Soviet agents in senior positions were in fact uncovered several years later.

John's story continues to divide German experts. In a recent magazine article his defenders pointed to his record in wartime resistance circles. He worked with the Abwehr intelligence organization lead by Admiral Canaris and, like Canaris, was involved in the July 1944 plot against Hitler. He was Canaris' agent in Portugal when the plot collapsed and used his contacts in British intelligence to escape to London where he worked for a branch of British intelligence. It was his record that persuaded German president Theodore Heuss to appoint him head of the counter-intelligence service in 1951.

These defenders point out that it was common Soviet and east German practice in the 1950's to kidnap people from West Germany and take them to East Berlin. In fact the legendary head of the East German intelligence service, Markus Wolf, is currently on trial for allegedly helping organize such kidnappings.

One case concerns a woman translator at the Allied High Commission in Berlin, Christa Trapp. She was kidnapped in June 1955 -- that is, about a year after John disappeared. After a brief period of interrogation in East Berlin she managed to get back to the West and now lives in the United States.

But most German officials believe John guilty and point out that being a member of the anti-Nazi resistance did not mean he was also anti-communist.

The Berlin courts consistently refused him a new trial. The German press reported that KGB files which came available after the collapse of communism contradicted John's own claims that he never provided any secret information in his months in East Germany.

The only slight success in his long campaign for rehabilitation came in 1988 when then German President Richard von Weiszaecker granted him a living allowance as an "act of mercy" (gnadenweg).

Now John is dead and the mystery of how and why he disappeared from his post in July 1954 may never be answered.