It happened at Glienicke Bridge

On 11 June 1985 almost 30 spies crossed the bridge between Potsdam and West Berlin in the biggest spy swap of the Cold War. Like in the movies

The US flag was flying on the Berlin side; the flags of East Germany (GDR) and the Soviet Union had again been raised on Potsdam side. People with an uneasy feeling as they looked towards Glienicke Bridge in November 2014 could comfort themselves with the favourite thought of all scared cinema goers: “It’s only a movie, after all.”

Director Steven Spielberg had only had the backdrop built for a film shoot, but you could still be forgiven for thinking you had been whisked back to the Cold War era. Spielberg filmed scenes on the bridge over the river Havel for several days. The film was about the US pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and taken prisoner. In 1962 he was exchanged for the KGB spy Rudolf Abel, who had been in jail in the USA. Tom Hanks plays his lawyer in the film.

Back then, this was the first time that the Glienicke Bridge had been the scene of such a trade-off. Spies changed sides there on two further occasions. The biggest exchange of the Cold War took place on 11 June 1985, when almost 30 spies crossed the white lines on the bridge marking the border between the Federal Republic and the GDR. Most of them were CIA informants.

“Escaped from that despotic regime”

Eberhard Fätkenheuer also took on the journey to the West at that time. “I walked about 30 metres over the bridge together with the other US spies,” he recalled in an article for Der Spiegel. “I was so beside myself that I even left my bag behind on the bus – Kornblum picked it up for me [ed.’s note: John Kornblum, US Ambassador in Berlin after 1985]. Once I had finally crossed the white line and boarded the orange-red-brown striped bus with the West Berlin registration, I felt nothing but fear. Existential fear mainly.” The time after that was difficult, and yet: “Today I often go to the Glienicke Bridge – for me it embodies the feeling that I had escaped from that despotic regime. That makes me proud.”

The Glienicke Bridge has long since become a symbol. Rebuilt after the Second World War and opened in 1949 as the Bridge of Unity, normal traffic was blocked for almost four decades. One half of the bridge was in the East, the other in the West – which you could even tell by the different kinds of paint that were used. Not until 10 November 1989, one day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was it re-opened to traffic.