Honeytraps and Haircuts: East Germany’s Romeo Spies

For all his theoretical love of free market economics, Boyfriend is comically intimidated when presented with choice. At the grocery store, for instance, I often find him scratching his head in one of the aisles, staring at all the options available for the first item on his list. Fire roasted tomato sauce? Tomato sauce with basil? Salted tomato sauce? Tomato sauce made from tomatoes grown in California? 89% organic tomato sauce? 91% organic tomato sauce? Tomato sauce that Rachel Ray uses? Tomato sauce made by your grandmother’s spirit in the basement of your childhood home? Tomato sauce manufactured next to a marijuana facility, the fumes from which infuse it with the promise of happy times? It’s no longer about what he wanted in the first place, but what potentially better option he might lose out on, should he make a decision.

As you can imagine, this confusion over choices follows him everywhere he goes. Yesterday, when he realized that the Tibetan lady who normally cuts his hair is off for the holidays, Boyfriend spent the morning looking up hairdressers on Yelp. And when he finally chose one – a tattooed, muscular, mustachioed guy who was nothing like the Tibetan lady – he then spent the afternoon sitting in the chair at the salon, staring at the catalog of possibilities. The Beiber? The DiCaprio? The Sheldon Cooper? The Calvin? The Beckham, circa 1997? The Beckham, circa 2003? The Beckham, circa 2007?

"The Barden-in-No-Country-for-Old-Men? The Bardem-in-Skyfall? The Bardem-in-The-Counselor?"

The “Bardem-in-No-Country-for-Old-Men?” The “Bardem-in-Skyfall?” The “Bardem-in-The-Counselor?”

“Er… just give me a number 11,” Boyfriend finally spat out after studying the catalog painstakingly for several minutes. The number 11, as it turns out, is a haircut for which I can only imagine one possible name: The Bart Simpson.

“Whatever, it’s just a bad haircut. I don’t care,” Boyfriend claimed as he stepped into the apartment and walked straight to the mirror, his fingers working furiously to soften the column of hair on top of his head, and tousle the closely mowed bits on the sides and the back.

“Yeah, it’s not that bad,” I said, finally feeling some sympathy. “In any case, it’s not like a bad haircut ever caused a war, or anything.”

Boyfriend’s fingers stopped moving. He looked at me in the mirror.

Oh, dear. Here it comes.

“Did you know that West Germany finally caught onto the Stasi’s spy network because the spies all had bad haircuts?”

"See? I knew it was a big deal!"

“See? I knew it was a big deal!”

It’s a fascinating story of sex, politics, and the fallout of war. Oh, and haircuts. Some very bad haircuts.

Most of those who know anything about European history probably know that the distrust between East and West Germany skyrocketed during the Cold War. Families were split down the middle by walls, borders, and ideologies. And in an age when the theater of espionage was truly a theater, replete with dramatic flourishes and heroes and heroines who were willing to do the most absurd things for their country, this rivalry produced the greatest spy story of all time. Like a Hollywood film, but on massive doses of steroids.

Our main character is a man by the name of Markus Wolf, who was born in Germany in 1923 to a Jewish communist father. Obviously, Jewish and communist were both traits that were incompatible with Hitler’s Germany, so the Wolf family escaped to Russia when Markus was still a boy. Growing up in, and going to school in Russia fed Markus’ intellect in some very specific ways, and by the time he was in his twenties, he had already established his Stalinist credentials. In 1952, at the age of thirty, Markus Wolf, who had now returned to East Germany, became the chief of the foreign intelligence division of the Stasi, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security. His prime goal, completely unsurprisingly, was to infiltrate the highest echelons of West German political, military, and security institutions with a network of deadly spies. A job considered impossible for anyone.

Except Markus Wolf wasn’t just anyone. He was exactly the kind of twisted genius who could make this happen. His secret? He knew what loneliness could be like, and he wasn’t afraid to exploit it.

West Germany, while several years ahead of East Germany in terms of infrastructural and economic development at the time, was still reeling from the shame of Naziism and the fallout of World War II. Families had divided loyalties, the social fabric was ripped, and men – many, many men – had died in the war. Even as it pulled itself to stability, West Germany was full of distressed and lonely people, especially lonely women, who now lived by themselves and occupied important positions in the various wings of the government. It was into this setting that Markus Wolf released around 4000 young and attractive spies, most of them men. Their game, to put it simply, was sex.

Wolf’s “Romeo spies,” as they came to be called, targeted the lonely souls working in key positions in West Germany’s government, and engaged them in sexual liaisons. Detailed accounts from women who fell for these Romeo spies and who, decades later, were prosecuted for it, describe the loneliness of living in post-war West Germany, and how the appearance of young, handsome, and compassionate men who claimed to be working for international peacekeeping organizations made them fall in love almost instantly. One of Wolf’s female Romeo spies, after several years of working her way up, finally found herself in the position of secretary in German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s office.

Ironically, despite all of West Germany’s relative developmental advantages, the Romeo spy ring and the man behind it remained a mystery for years. Markus Wolf earned a reputation as the “Man Without A Face,” and West German government officers could do nothing more than be wary of all potential romantic liaisons.

Until a basic ideological difference over fashion gave West Germany a desperately sought lead: the Romeo spies had really bad haircuts.

At the time, West Germany was moving closer to the Western world culturally, with the fashion and style choices of its citizens influenced heavily by the United States and Western Europe. Most men, in keeping with the predominant trend of the time, had longer hair that was styled elaborately. The Romeos, on the other hand, had what some called Communist haircuts – short on the sides and back, practical, fuss-free, and with almost no variations from one individual to the next. West German counterintelligence caught onto this difference, and though it wasn’t a particularly watertight counterintelligence strategy on paper, this breakthrough turned out to be very useful in reality. The West Germans started watching all poorly coiffed men with a feline vigilance, pouncing at the slightest sign of a suspicious move, and arresting several Stasi spies.

Unfortunately, the many women and some men who fell into romantic relationships with these Romeos were not only left devastated, but were also prosecuted for spying against the government. As for Markus Wolf, he sought asylum in the Soviet Union after East Germany disintegrated. He reinvented himself, became a celebrated public figure, claimed the CIA offered him asylum in the US in exchange for all his secrets, and often laughed about how his greatest achievement was to have mastered the psychology behind sex.

Oh, and he wrote a cookbook. In which he compared the craft of Russian cooking to the craft of spying. I’m not even kidding.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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One thought on “Honeytraps and Haircuts: East Germany’s Romeo Spies

  1. Pingback: The Cold War and Ecological History: Why the Red Deer Won’t Cross the Long-Lifted Iron Curtain | Stuff My Boyfriend Tells Me

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