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German ‘Watergate’: Chancellor spied on rival party, study reveals

West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer with Vice President Richard M. Nixon on May 28, 1959. At the time, Adenauer was using the state intelligence service to spy on a rival party, in a scandal that a leader of the bombshell report compared to Watergate. (Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress)

BERLIN — The first chancellor of West Germany used the state intelligence agency to spy on the leading opposition party just eight years after World War II, according to a new bombshell study.

Konrad Adenauer, who founded the Christian Democrats, a dominant party in Germany over the last seven decades, was chancellor for 14 years until resigning at age 87 in 1963. According to the report, Adenauer directed the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), West Germany’s foreign intelligence service, and its predecessor organization to inform him about the Social Democrats’ campaign strategies, foreign policy, internal power struggles and more from 1953 to 1962.

Adenauer, who helped cement West Germany’s relationship with the West and oversaw the country’s entry into NATO in 1955, molded his political strategies based on that spying to stay in power.

“This is Super-Watergate,” Klaus-Dietmar Henke, who helped lead the study, told The Washington Post. “Richard Nixon sent his cronies to break into the Watergate Hotel, but they failed. This instrumentalization worked for 10 years. They got 500 reports, sometimes 10 to 12 each day, about the most secret decisions of the opposite parties. And it stayed a secret for 50 to 60 years.”

The study’s findings were investigated and published by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared exclusively with The Post and the Guardian.

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Henke and more than a dozen researchers at the Independent Commission of Historians for Research Into the History of the Federal Intelligence Service spent the last 10 years reviewing more than 100,000 records from the time, detailing what Henke called an “abuse of power.”

Germany was a country divided after World War II, and Adenauer was seen as a founding father and savior of the Federal Republic of Germany. He warned that if the center-left Social Democratic Party (known as the SPD in German) came to power, West Germany would soon become a satellite state of the Soviet Union.

The BND relied on two informants inside the SPD (today the party of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz), according to the study, which identified them as Siegfried Ziegler and Siegfried Ortloff. Reinhard Gehlen, who led the intelligence service, denied spying within West Germany or sending any intelligence on the opposition party to the chancellor.

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The German weekly Der Spiegel reported in 2017 that the BND under Adenauer spied on Social Democrat Willy Brandt, who was later mayor of Berlin and chancellor of West Germany. But Henke said the commission’s revelations go far beyond that report, since it found that Adenauer and Gehlen penetrated the entire SPD leadership.

Adenauer was known to be brash, Henke said, but this discovery shows another side of the politician who referred to the SPD as his “mortal enemy.”

“Adenauer is the idol of the German people and the [Christian Democrats]. Historians know he was a very harsh politician,” said Henke, who has worked as a historian for more than 40 years. “This is too much. This was against the law. You have a foreign intelligence service which is sniffing into your opposition in party politics. For 10 years, he knew what would be the next move of his political opponents.”

According to the study, Adenauer frequently dropped hints in party meetings that he knew secrets about the opposition party but couldn’t reveal where he’d gotten the information.

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In 1957, for example, he quoted SPD internal notes verbatim to the Christian Democrats’ leadership.

“I have here some notes from SPD circles,” he told the party leaders, according to Henke’s research. “I must read this out carefully, so as not to reveal the source. You will understand that.”

In the early 1960s, Gehlen, the head of the BND, began to worry that the spying scheme could be discovered as the twilight of Adenauer’s chancellery set in. To ensure that the secret stayed out of the public eye, Gehlen hired Ortloff, one of the SPD informants, to work at the BND, with a high salary. The other informant, Ziegler, was sent to Mexico, with a cushy income.

On the 50th anniversary of Adenauer’s death in 2017, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel, also of the Christian Democrats, called Adenauer a “master mediator” and a man of “consensus.”

"He was always controversial," Merkel said at the anniversary ceremony. "His methods and goals polarized people, but he was someone who gave people orientation and faith."

In 2011, the commission of historians obtained the records from the BND, said Henke, who is publishing a 1,500-page book next month, in part about the findings. The BND, which continues today as Germany’s intelligence agency, reviewed the records for national security reasons before Henke shared the information. The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The study casts a shadow over the founding chancellor’s legacy, Henke said, adding that the Adenauer era must be reexamined and rewritten.

“This is a German idol and one of the biggest figures in German history,” he said. “This spying was a matter of maintaining power at all costs. I wouldn’t have believed it if I had not known the records came from the BND. They thought it would never come to life.”