Glienicke Bridge: The Bridge Of Spies

Dec 19, 2023 0 comments

In the Wannsee district of Berlin, Germany, there is a brief bridge spanning the Havel River, connecting the German capital to Potsdam. Historically, this bridge served as a border between East and West Berlin, marked by a white line in its center. Its secluded location made it a strategic point for exchanging high-ranking spies between the Eastern and Western powers, earning it the moniker 'Bridge of Spies.'

Photo credit: Andreas Levers/Flickr

Originally, a wooded bridge from the 17th century stood at this spot, facilitating access to the hunting grounds around Stolpe. In the early 1800s, a new bridge with a combination of brick and wood was constructed to handle the growing traffic. However, as the 20th century dawned, the demands exceeded even this bridge's capacity. Consequently, in 1907, it was replaced with a modern iron bridge.

Throughout the Cold War era, the East German authorities named the bridge the "Bridge of Unity" because the border demarcation between East Germany and Western Allied-occupied West Berlin ran directly through its center. Paradoxically, despite this symbolic unity, every effort was made to hinder any actual reunification between East and West Germany. In 1952, the East German authorities even took a decisive step by closing the bridge to citizens of West Berlin and West Germany. Subsequently, after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the bridge became off-limits to East German citizens as well. Exclusive access was granted solely to allied military personnel and foreign diplomats.

A photograph of Glienicke Bridge taken in 1987. Photo credit: David Stanley/Flickr

Among all the checkpoints linking West Berlin to East Berlin and East Germany, the Bridge of Unity held a distinctive status. It was not only characterized by a Soviet presence but was also under full Soviet control, setting it apart from other checkpoints that were under East German authority and lacked a direct Soviet influence.

The bridge soon became the site for several high-profile prisoner exchanges, starting with the exchange between Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel, and U.S. spy-plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down in the USSR in his U2 spy plane in 1960. The exchange, which took place on 10 February 1962, would live on in American memory with James Donovan’s 1964 book about the trial, negotiations, and exchange titled Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers. This event also provided the basis for Stephen Spielberg’s thriller Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as James Donovan.

Glienicke Bridge after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Photo credit: Gavin Stewart/Wikimedia Commons

The next exchange took place in April 1964 when Soviet intelligence officer Konon Molody was exchanged for British MI6 agent Greville Wynne. On 12 June 1985, 23 American agents held in eastern Europe were exchanged for top Polish industrial spy, Marian Zacharski, and three other Soviet agents. The final exchange took place on 11 February 1986, when the human rights campaigner and political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky and three Western agents were exchanged for Karl Koecher, the Czech mole in the CIA, and four other Eastern agents.

In 1980, the West Berlin government took steps to repair its portion of the bridge, and in 1985, it financed the repair of the East German side in return for officially renaming the bridge "Glienicke Bridge," in reference to the nearby Glienicke Palace. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Glienicke Bridge was reopened for pedestrians, marking a symbolic end to the division. As part of the German reunification process in 1990, the border fortifications and barricades that once separated East and West Germany were dismantled, ushering in a new era of unity.

Plaque across the bridge to remember the division of Germany until 1989. Photo credit: Roland.h.bueb/Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Uwca/Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Loewenflausch/Wikimedia Commons


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