Spies wanted (academics need not apply)

February 11, 2000

Although David Childs was shocked to learn an academic had spied on him, he still thinks they make lousy agents

In the years leading up to 1989 there were few British academics carrying out research into the history and politics of the German Democratic Republic. As professor of German politics at Nottingham and chair of the Association for the Study of German Politics, I was one of a handful.

The thrust of my research was opposed to the GDR. I had a strong antipathy to so-called communist regimes - I thought they betrayed the socialist ideal. In Britain and the United States in the 1980s, before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, one often faced hostility for attempting to shed light on the GDR, for shattering the dream. Often a critical account would be dismissed as "anecdotal evidence" that did not square with official statistics.

There were other academics, such as Hull lecturer Robin Pearson, who had very different views about the GDR. From the evidence so far, they seem to have been hoodwinked by their belief in socialism.

Pearson, we now know, even worked for the Stasi, the East German secret police. He went to Leipzig University where he found the official rhetoric consistent with his own beliefs - solidarity with Cuba, with the African National Congress, with Nicaragua. The Stasi would have put specially trained individuals in bars, lecture halls, or anywhere else he was likely to visit in a bid to win his confidence and persuade him to become a spy. It was a strange and shadowy world that is slowly becoming visible.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, academics gained access to Stasi files. That is how I discovered a file on me. My file named the three leading figures in GDR research in Britain in the 1980s as myself, Ian Wallace at Loughborough and Martin McCauley at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London.

The file revealed that at many conferences at which I had spoken there was a Stasi informant - in Dundee, Bradford, Nottingham, Loughborough and London.

After the GDR became history, I approached the Gauck-Behorde in Berlin, where the Stasi archives are kept, in a bid to discover more. Remarkably, the contents were not about me talking about Nietzsche to an anonymous schoolteacher in Weimar, but about my activities in Britain.

One document, dated December 5 1983, reported that "a reliable source in the operational area" had provided details of a planned conference in Bradford organised by Roland Smith at which I was to speak. The document said I "belonged to the most outspoken anti-communist forces" in GDR research and that I had "secret service connections".

One of the writers of this report was identified by her first name: she was a British academic well-known for her pro-GDR views. The same name subsequently appeared on the file of a GDR writer, Joachim Walther, in effect questioning his loyalty. As a result he was not allowed to take up his invitation to visit British universities in 1983.

I have never named this academic, who has now retired, and although I have seen her since - at an examiners' meeting - I did not confront her with my discovery.

Further investigation revealed a "top secret" Stasi report of March 1985 that claimed that "internal information" showed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had instructed me, as chairman of the Association for the Study of German Politics, to step up research on the GDR. According to the report, I took this seriously, even though the funding was inadequate.

Only the information on funding was accurate.

In 1987, the Stasi passed on details of my "active" file to the KGB. The proposal, in the documents, to deny me entry to the GDR, was never implemented. I presume the idea was to allow me to continue visiting East Germany in the hope that I would expose GDR contacts.

Home secretary Jack Straw said recently that there were 200 Stasi suspects in Britain. That is possible, but my guess is that few of those 200 are academics.

The Stasi was more interested in recruiting those working in high-tech and those employed by Nato and the European Union - including British women secretaries across whose desks masses of material passed daily.

Academics rarely have access to such useful information. Nonetheless, discovering that you have been the target of an information gathering campaign and that colleagues have contributed to it is a deeply unpleasant experience.

But were there no British students or academics working for the West? Certainly there were. I personally counselled one student who did excellent work for the security authorities, helping them to keep track of Warsaw Pact agents in Britain.

David Childs is emeritus professor of German politics at Nottingham University.

* Tell us your views on academics who spied for communist countries.

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