Review: ‘Winter Work,’ by Dan Fesperman

WINTER WORK, by Dan Fesperman


As the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, the Stasi, East Germany’s bloated and brutal Cold War intelligence service, began destroying the documentary evidence of its crimes, and the CIA, just as energetically, set about trying to obtain it.

The Stasi had 90,000 employees and at least 170,000 informants, amassing an enormous trove of documents that tracked almost every element of citizens’ lives. When the agency’s shredding machines broke down under the strain, workers tore up pages by hand or fed them into incinerators around the clock.

But amid the destruction, the CIA managed to acquire the so-called Rosenholz files: 280,000 files on 381 CD-ROMs listing the identities of at least 1,000 agents of the Stasi foreign operations section, known as Hauptverwaltung A, or HVA. How the CIA pulled off this remarkable intelligence coup remains a mystery. Most likely they were bought from a senior Stasi or KGB official, for money is, and always has been, the oil that makes the machinery of espionage run.

The scramble for the Stasi’s Cold War secrets provides the backdrop for Dan Fesperman’s latest well-paced thriller, in which spies from East and West compete for advantage as East Germany’s Communist regime disintegrates.

Emil Grimm is an old Stasi colonel, disillusioned and exhausted; the wall has just fallen, his wife is dying and he has seen too much. After a colleague turns up dead in the woods near his home, he wants out, and he has something valuable to sell in the shape of Stasi files. But it’s a buyers’ market; the KGB is offering the same material and is prepared to kill to secure a lucrative sale. The CIA is buying, extravagantly. (According to Fesperman, President George HW Bush, after seeing TV footage of protesters throwing documents out the windows of Stasi headquarters, remarked: “I hope we’re getting some of that.”)

A former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, with experience in Germany and the Middle East, Fesperman has captured a seedy atmosphere of panic and moral compromise: While young people took pickaxes to the wall, the dinosaurs of the regime retreated to their luxurious gated compounds , fled or tried to leverage their evaporating power.

Grimm is the human face of the Stasi, a man who is trying to build a new life out of the rubble of a discredited ideology. Markus Wolf, the fabled chief of the HVA (who has a cameo in the book), also portrayed himself this way, a professional spy dedicated to foreign espionage untainted by the Stasi’s vast network of internal snoops. In reality, the HVA was a thoroughly nasty organization, up to its ears in the sponsorship of international terrorism.

Fesperman accurately depicts the corrosive effect of life under a surveillance society, debasing both the watchers and the watched. As Grimm observes, the Stasi was addicted to the ruthless exercise of secret power: “You grow accustomed to never having to explain yourself, especially when everyone else is always having to explain themselves to you, and you’re the one who always writes the final report.”

Most Cold War spy novels focus on the Manichaean ideological struggle between East and West; This one successfully explores a grayer era, when neither side in the conflict understood quite what was happening and the old rules of the game evaporated in a matter of weeks. The trade in truth and lies was booming, and nothing was as it seemed.

That also applied to the Rosenholz files. When historians came to examine the trove, they suspected that at least 90 percent of those named as foreign agents had never worked for the Stasi at all.

Ben Macintyre’s book “Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape From Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison” will be published in September.

WINTER WORK, by Dan Fesperman | 338 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28

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