EAST BERLIN -- What does a master spy trader do when the Cold War dries up his clientele? Wolfgang Vogel, the East Berlin lawyer who engineered the most celebrated spy swaps of the past three decades, will never lack for clients with star appeal.
In the Cold War, Vogel's date book included U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and Soviet dissident Andre Sakharov. Today he has taken up the defense of deposed East German leader Erich Honecker, who may soon face a series of charges ranging from corruption and treason to murder. Everybody deserves a defense, is the Western axiom that Vogel offered us when we asked why he would take on the disgraced Honecker.
Vogel is a Marxist who likes his perks, a friend of both East and West who will land on his feet no matter who is in power. At 65, the enigmatic Vogel has found a niche for himself in the soon-to-be unified Germany.
His second wife, Helga, is a West German, who approached him in the 1970s when she was a member of the West German swimming team. She wanted to arrange the emigration of her boyfriend, an East German swimmer. She ended up marrying Vogel.
Vogel's name first came to Western attention in January of 1962, when he wrote an American official in West Berlin asking if the United States was interested in a swap -- Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of the U-2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union, for Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a Soviet super-spy in prison in New York.
The Soviets and East Germans picked Vogel to broker the swap because he had friends in the West who would vouch for his credibility and because he was a private lawyer. The governments could claim they had nothing to do with the deal if it fell through. Powers and Abel became the first of many pairs that Vogel would switch on the Glienicke Bridge between West Berlin and Potsdam.
There were plenty of big names, but the bulk of Vogel's time was spent as an intermediary between the two Germanys, arranging the release, by his estimate, of more than 33,000 imprisoned dissidents, union leaders, rebellious military offices, clergymen and unsuccessful escapees.
The deals, averaging about 1,500 people a year, had to be conducted in secret. The East Germans warned that if news leaked out, the swaps would be canceled.
East Germany required West Germany secretly to pay for the East Germans who got out via the swap method. East German officials reasoned that it was simply the price its defecting citizens owed for their training and loss of future productivity in the East.
The minimum ransom for an East German rose from about $10,000 to $50,000 between 1963 and 1989. Doctors went for as much as $100,000. Women were generally cheaper than men, and children went for as little as $500. Our sources estimate that more than $1 billion in cash and goods were paid for these prisoners, most of it going through Protestant church channels.
West German officials insisted on making some of the payments in goods, so during the swap years, East Germans enjoyed scarce Western treats including oranges, bananas, coffee, steel, rubber, tractors, trucks, fertilizer, radios and even elevators.
Vogel, who made a relatively small fee from the transactions, makes no apologies for his role as a broker in human beings. He saw it as a good deal for his clients -- the prisoners who wanted out -- and good for his other client -- the East German government, which badly needed the hard currency and goods. On the side, Vogel arranged swaps for the Soviets, France, Britain and the United States.
Vogel was a natural bridge between East and West because he never fit comfortably in either. He is a humanist and a Marxist, a believing Catholic in an atheist state. His daughter was confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church in 1964 when the practice was verboten in East Germany. Vogel even picked an American diplomat as godfather. He is, above all, a survivor.