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Historical perspectives

Witness to the first spy swap at Glienicker Bridge

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

When the spies came in from the cold

Regular readers of my blog will know that, from time to time, I like to highlight the careers of women who – in a culture very different from today – bucked the trend, ignored barriers and created for themselves a place in Reuters history. Annette von Broecker, who retired in 1994 as Reuters editor in Germany, was one of those women.

Five years ago, Reuters Security Correspondent, William Maclean (today Gulf Bureau Chief), looked back at von Broecker’s first scoop – in 1962 – during the height of the Cold War era. Annette von Broecker was, in her own words, a 19-year-old blonde when Reuters hired her as an editorial assistant in West Berlin in October 1959.

Annette von Broecker
Annette von Broecker at work in the Reuters Berlin office with bureau chief Alfred Kluehs (L) a few weeks after her 1962 scoop

She would probably never have become a journalist had it not been for a story that unfolded before her eyes at a time when history was being made; “and, of course, because my mother desperately wanted to get me out of the house,” she recounted later. There was drama aplenty in the Berlin spy swap which she witnessed one chilly February morning in 1962, amid a wind that “seemed to blow straight from the North Pole.”

In a Reuters publication, Frontlines: snapshots of history (2001), von Broecker credited her scoop to a lucky guess. After Berlin bureau chief Alfred Kluehs had sent two correspondents to Checkpoint Charlie to staff both sides of the border crossing between the divided city, she stared at a big map that was hanging on the wall behind the boss’s desk.

“He sat with his back to it. My eyes wandered about. I looked at all the coloured pins that Alfred had stuck on the map to mark important sites, such as border crossings. They stopped suddenly, in the southwest corner of Berlin. There was a border. There was a bridge. It spanned the River Havel and connected the American sector of Berlin with the East German town of Potsdam. That was where the Western allies used to have their military liaison missions, which were attached to the Soviet headquarters in East Germany. Only Allied military personnel were allowed to cross the Glienicker Bridge, an elegant iron structure in two sets of concave bows across the Havel, some 150 yards wide.

“I said nothing for a while. But then I could not hold back. ‘Herr Kluehs,’ I coughed. ‘What about Glienicker Brücke?’

Berlin bridge
The Glienicker bridge across the Havel River connecting Berlin with Potsdam. Reporters used to call it the bridge of spies during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and the United States used it three times to exchange captured agents. The Rudolf Abel-Gary Powers exchange witnessed by Annette von Broecker was the first of those swaps.

“Alfred looked around, then a bolt of lightning seemed to hit him. ‘Woman, if you have nothing else to do than make funny suggestions, why the hell don’t you get there immediately?’ He made a few frantic calls, got ambiguous replies and spurred me to find a taxi. How different if there had been mobile telephones in those days. Perhaps he might have reassigned someone from Checkpoint Charlie. Who knows?

“It was a peaceful scene, static and unreal. The men, wrapped in winter coats, who stood on the bridge, were in two groups, divided by a white line that was brushed across the tarmac to declare that here was the Iron Curtain. As I arrived, the men were set in motion. One group walked eastwards, the other west, vanishing behind closed curtains in limousines. They took off like rockets.”

The drama of von Broecker’s scoop is unlikely to be repeated in any future 21st Century swaps between Moscow and Washington, said Maclean.

“…. there will be no dawn walks across the Glienicke Bridge like the one that day by prisoners including KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel and U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers. Even if some Moscow-Washington tensions remain, simultaneous two-way crossings of the Iron Curtain are history.”


Learn more

Browse our company history dating back to 1799 or contact our archive staff directly for a deeper dive into the Thomson Reuters Archives.

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