Berlin, 1963. An early morning spy swap, not at the familiar setting for such exchanges, nor at Checkpoint Charlie, where international visitors cross into the East, but at a more discreet border crossing, usually reserved for East German VIPs. The Communists are trading two American students caught helping people to escape over the wall and an aging MI6 operative. On the other side of the trade: Martin Keller, a physicist who once made headlines, but who then disappeared into the English prison system. Keller’s most critical possession: his American passport. Keller’s most ardent desire: to see his ex-wife Sabine and their young son.
The exchange is made with the formality characteristic of these swaps. But Martin has other questions: Who asked for him? Who negotiated the deal? The KGB? He knows that nothing happens by chance. They want him for something. Not physics—his expertise is out of date. Something else, which he cannot learn until he arrives in East Berlin, when suddenly the game is afoot.
Intriguing and atmospheric, with action rising to a dangerous climax, The Berlin Exchange “expertly describes what happens when a disillusioned former agent tries to come in from the cold” (The New York Times Book Review), confirming Kanon as “the greatest writer ever of historical espionage fiction” (Spybrary).
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Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
The exchange, it was decided, would take place at the Invalidenstrasse checkpoint. The press kept an eye on Glienicke Bridge now, hoping for another Powers-Abel swap, and the international crossing at Checkpoint Charlie would be crowded, cars streaming out of the American sector on day visas. Invalidenstrasse had the virtue of being discreet, out of the way, designated for the few West Germans heading east. And it was in the British sector. This was officially a British exchange, Martin for an MI6 operative the East Germans had held for years and two English students caught helping friends over the wall. Small fry. For someone who’d made headlines. Well, years ago. How many of the young guards up ahead would even know who he was? All they’d see would be the prisoner skin, the unmistakable pallor of someone who’d been inside. There was a different light in prison, even in the exercise yard, the sun itself filtered, behind bars.
“We get out here,” McGregor said, his escort since Heathrow, guiding him through customs at Tegel and across the British sector, staying close, as if he were afraid Martin would pick his moment and bolt. Where?
“Just to the other side of the bridge,” McGregor said, nodding to the checkpoint barrier up ahead. They had stopped on the western side of one of those canals that trickled out of the Spree. “The car needs to turn around here.”
Martin got out, feeling the cold through his coat. There it was, the wall he’d seen in a thousand pictures, more brutal somehow in real life, a gray slab running along the water, broken here by a gap the width of a car. Some men were getting out of a black sedan on the other side.
“Right on time,” McGregor said, checking his watch. “Germans.”
A few minutes and he’d be free. Which wasn’t how Digby, the junior warden who’d handled his release, had seen it. “You ask me, it’s changing one prison for another. Different walls, that’s all.” But how could he know, someone who went home at night? “They’re trying to get out over there, not in. You’ll be getting parole soon. You’d have a choice. And who’d choose—”
“I have a son there. A wife.”
Digby looked at him, surprised. “A wife. Who never visits. Not as long as I’ve been here.”
Digby took this in, then side-stepped. “Now, Moscow, that would be different. I mean, that’s who you did it for. The spying. A hero’s welcome there, wouldn’t it be?”
Martin smiled a little. “Except they haven’t asked for me. The East Germans have.”
“And that’s the wife asking, is that it?”
Martin ignored this. “I didn’t do it for the Russians.”
“No. Who, then?”
“I thought I was doing it for everybody.”
Digby looked away, uncomfortable. “But that’s not the way it worked out.”
Digby handed over his personal papers, the American passport on top. “I still say, hold on to this. Ticket home. You never know.”
Home. Where they’d executed the Rosenbergs. Getting caught in Britain had saved his life. Under British law, only high treason, working for the enemy in wartime, was a capital crime. They gave him the maximum sentence, fourteen years, but he was alive.
“They’ll miss you at the library. You’ve done a nice job there.”
“It passes the time.”
“Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Digby turned to go, then hesitated. “I wish you luck. I’ve enjoyed our chats.”
Martin looked up, not expecting this. What had they talked about?
“You keep your cards close to your vest, though. A wife. First I’ve heard of it.”
“Before your time.”
“Still. You don’t give up much.”
“Less for you to pass along.” To whom, Martin wondered. MI5? The head warden? Was anyone still interested?
“You think that?” Digby said, pretending to be offended. “Not very nice. But I suppose you have to think like that. In your line of work.”
“My line of work.”
“On second thought, maybe you’ll fit right in. With the Krauts. They say everybody’s got an ear out over there.”
The men on the other side had now formed a line, like a team taking positions, their clothes so similar they might have been uniforms: gray baggy raincoats, mufflers, rimless German glasses. Except the last one, smart in a belted camel-hair topcoat and thick black-framed glasses, the fashion look a surreal touch in the morning gloom. But what wasn’t surreal in Berlin? Even on the drive in from Tegel he had been disoriented, once familiar streets now unrecognizable. There were still pockets of bomb damage, after all these years. Stretches of wasteland next to new apartment buildings. An empty space where Lehrter Station had been, the whole ornate pile gone, vanished.
At least the Charité hospital complex was still there, across the canal, its nineteenth-century red brick evidently strong enough to survive the wolf’s blast, like the clever little pig’s house. Or just lucky, the bombs falling somewhere else. Hospital wards and classrooms shoehorned into Wilhelmine mansions, Luisenstrasse with its medical supply shops and textbook sellers, the streets running off it lined with old apartment buildings where students rented spare rooms or pooled their money to share a place of their own. And gave parties. How he had met Sabine. A casual invitation from Georg, a break from Göttingen, carrying his overnight bag from Friedrichstrasse Station, the rush of hot smoky air and music when he opened Georg’s door, music the Nazis disapproved of, just playing it an act of rebellion. A beer thrust into his hand before he could even put his bag down. And then, a sudden opening through the crowd, her eyes looking up at the same time. She’d been sitting on a couch, legs curled beneath her, an ashtray in her lap, a cigarette in one hand, the other at her elbow, as if she were holding herself down, about to float away with the smoke. She stared at him, a snapshot second, head half-turned, like someone who’d been tapped on the shoulder. Yes? Then Georg came over to greet him and he lost sight of her again behind the crowd. That had been the beginning. A party at the Charité. Just across the bridge.
“They start. Then we start. High Noon.”
“Without the guns.”
“Now,” McGregor said, beginning to walk. “Not too fast. We want to be there at the same time. When you get to the barrier, they’ll raise it and you keep going. The others will pass you coming out. So nobody’s first. Nobody pulls anything.”
“That ever happen?” A chess piece yanked off the board.
“No, they’re just like that. By the book.”
Over the water now, the wall ahead. Behind it a heavy turn-of-the-century building big enough to have been a government ministry, its façade unscarred by bombs. Massive doors and pediments, built to last. The confident years.
The man in the camel-hair coat stopped, as McGregor had, the three in raincoats coming on by themselves. Three for one. The road barrier was raised and Martin walked through the checkpoint, the others passing on his left, nobody hurrying, wary, as if they were expecting something to go wrong at the last minute. And then they were in the West and Martin was in East Berlin, free.
He stopped for a minute, breathing in the damp air. He was through. Nobody was going to pull him back, lock him up again. He’d paid and now it was over.
A smile from the man in camel hair, hand outstretched.
“So. Welcome to the better Germany. As we like to say. I’m Kurt Thiele. You had an easy trip?”
“Yes,” he said, still smiling. “She’s anxious to see you. After so many years. And of course Peter.”
“You arranged this,” Martin said, waving his hand to take in the whole border crossing.
“It’s what I do,” he said easily. “These exchanges with the West. It’s a kind of specialty. I used to work with Vogel, the lawyer. You’ve heard of him?”
“He arranged the Abel swap. And many others. Now too many. So there’s business for me,” he said, breezy, a car salesman. But she’d married him. Made him Peter’s father. Did Peter call him that?
“Then I have you to thank.”
“No, no. Sabine. The British would say no and she would say, ask again. Offer them more. I think she feels—you know, you’re so many years in prison. Only you.” So he knew. But of course he would. “But the British still said no. I think because the Americans didn’t like it.”
“And then you changed their minds.”
“Well, the Americans. It’s a long time and maybe they don’t care so much anymore. And I made the point that your parole would come soon. After that, they don’t have you to trade, so why not make a deal now? Get something for you.”
“Like those dangerous characters,” Martin said, cocking his head back toward the raincoats.
“Yes, Boothby. Just in time for his pension. The students.” He waved his hand in dismissal. “So also some political prisoners for the West Germans. They’ll be exchanged tonight at Herleshausen. And the West Germans will be very grateful to their British friends. So everyone gets something.” The salesman smile again. What was he talking about? Political prisoners. Martin just a piece of contraband. But what did it matter? He was here.
“Sabine didn’t come?”
“No. This business, it’s better if it’s done quietly. But you will come tonight. For dinner.” He hesitated. “You know, I maybe should be a little bit jealous. The first husband.”
“A long time ago.”
“Still. The first love,” he said.
Martin looked over to the Charité complex, then back at him. “A long time,” he said again. “I’m grateful for everything you’ve done.”
A faint nod. “Peter. He’s always known you were his father. We made sure of that. So he’s curious. He thinks you’re a socialist hero.”
“The man who gave us the bomb. That’s what they used to say in Neues Deutschland. You know you’ll have to give them an interview. It’s not so usual these days, coming east.”
“Why all the secrecy, then? If it’s going to be news.”
“No secrecy,” Kurt said. “It’s better people don’t know how these things are arranged. The details. That’s all. It’s enough to know you are here. Well, there’s the car. I’ll drop you at the hotel.”
“The hotel?” Not with Sabine and Peter, his family. But they were Kurt’s family now.
“The Berolina. Only the best for a distinguished guest,” Kurt said, a wink in his voice. “We’ll find you an apartment later. When your plans are settled.”
“That’s very generous. I didn’t expect—”
“Apartments are assigned,” Kurt said, explaining. “I’ll get you a priority on the list, but until then, the Berolina. A guest of the state.” He lowered his voice, suddenly practical. “You still have an English bank account, yes? Hard currency. Very valuable here when you transfer the funds. Well, come.”
An ambulance was pulling into Invalidenstrasse, life going on. The raincoats had disappeared into their pickup car. Martin looked at the bridge, empty now, the road barrier still up, waiting for them to leave, the final exit of the play.
“Of course you will also have a pension from the state,” Kurt was saying. “You will be comfortable.”
“But I’d still want to teach, do something. Be useful.”
“A good socialist,” Kurt said, another wink. He nodded. “You will be. Don’t worry about Neues Deutschland. I’ll help you—what to say. One interview only. Be careful,” he said, suddenly pulling at Martin’s sleeve. “They don’t slow down.” Backing them away from the path of the ambulance, then doing a double-take. “But it’s the wrong way. Alt!” A shout to the guards, who were stepping back to let the ambulance pass, then springing forward again to stop it at the wall opening.
A sudden roar, the ambulance shooting ahead, crashing past the checkpoint, no barrier, a moment they must have been watching for. Just a second from the bridge. A gun sticking out the passenger window, pointing. Martin froze, the old instinct, a leopard about to leap out of the tree, then ducked, pushing Kurt to the ground with him, the bullet passing over their heads, the whole quiet morning erupting with sound, gears grinding, another shot, closer, his face against the pavement now, trying to sink into it, out of range. He glanced up at the guards, rifles out, but looking at each other, not sure what to do. Another bullet from the ambulance, hitting the waiting car. A shout from the Western side of the bridge. Now the guards at the wall crouched down, aiming at the ambulance as it came toward them, a burst of tat-tat explosions that finally made it careen into the wall, out of control. Scraping metal until it stopped.
“Fools,” Kurt said, his breath ragged.
The guards rushed over to the ambulance, yanking open the door, guns on the driver, slumped forward over the wheel.
“Out!” Motioning with the gun.
The driver stayed slumped over, but a young man opened the passenger door, hands up. “Don’t shoot.” He looked at the driver, distraught. “You killed him. Murderers.”
The guard moved the driver’s head back, putting his fingers on the neck, checking for a pulse.
“He’s alive. Still bleeding,” he said, pulling his fingers away, queasy.
“How many in the back?” Kurt said, getting up and brushing his coat, the movements jerky, shaking. He held out his hand to help Martin to his feet.
The passenger shook his head. “Nobody else. He’s going to die.”
“I can’t help that,” Kurt said, suddenly in charge, the guards as young as the passenger. Then, coming back to himself, “Call the hospital. This one’s useless now.” Waving his hand at the ambulance. “Did you steal it?”
The passenger shook his head. “It’s ours. I mean we work on it. For the Charité.”
“Even worse. State property. Stealing state property. For this foolishness. What were you thinking?”
“I didn’t mean to hit him,” the guard said. “We’re not supposed to use guns. During an exchange.”
“No one’s blaming you,” Kurt said.
“It went through the windshield,” the guard said, tracing the trajectory. “Off the hood.”
“He’ll die,” the passenger said, hands still up in the air. He looked at the empty bridge, his eyes watering. For a moment Martin thought he would run, chance it, but his eyes now were on the guard’s gun, the years ahead.
“I’m sorry for this,” Kurt said to Martin.
Martin nodded, holding his hands steady, the gunfire still in his head, like radio static.
The driver moved, his body pitching sideward, about to slide out of the seat. The guard stuck the rifle against his shoulder, propping him, then looked over to see the Western guards rushing over the bridge, following the noise.
“Stay back!” the guard shouted. “It’s finished.”
The Western guards, also young, hesitated, trained not to cross the border line.
“He’s bleeding to death,” the passenger yelled, a plea.
“Then he can bleed here. In his own country,” Kurt said. “Take him away,” he said to the guard holding a gun on the passenger. Then, to the other, “You have a field phone? Call the hospital.” He looked to the bridge, raising his voice. “Go back.”
The Western guards took a minute, hands on their guns, then backed away, boys standing down from a fight.
“You see what it’s like,” Kurt said to Martin. “They see things on television. The paradise in the West. And then look.” Taking in the crashed ambulance, the slumped driver. “Flight from the Republic is a serious crime.”
“What’ll happen to him?”
“Prison.” He watched the passenger being led away. “So, another chip.”
“The West Germans will want him. There is no East Germany to them. Only German citizens, all of us. So by this logic, we’re putting their citizens in jail. They have a responsibility to get them out.”
“How?” Martin said, watching the guard on the phone.
“Trade someone, like you.” He paused. “Or buy them out,” he said, almost a grin.
“All this business, a spy for a spy. It’s valuable, yes, of course we must do it, but what we really need is hard currency.”
“Not old spies.”
“Don’t misunderstand. It’s an honor to do this for you. But as a practical matter—”
“You can’t sell people. That’s—”
Kurt jumped in. “Yes, I know, how would it look? To the good West Germans. Hypocrites. But here are two more.” He nodded to the young men. “What do we do with them? More expenses.”
An ambulance was coming around the corner, followed by a car of border police.
“Let’s go,” Kurt said, leaving the guards to deal with whatever reports were going to be made. “It’s another matter, the exchange. Nothing to do with this. We don’t want them confused. Come.” Protecting himself.
They got into the back of the black sedan, saying nothing for a minute, still shaken.
“Not a very pleasant welcome,” Kurt said as their driver pulled out. “I hope you won’t think this is typical. Very rare. Before the wall, it was a problem. The state trains someone, years of free education, and then one day he takes the S-Bahn to the West and all the skills are lost. Years of investment gone. You heard them. Their ambulance. Skilled medical workers.”
They were speeding past the Charité grounds, nurses and students filling the street. Sabine hadn’t been a medical student, just a friend of Georg’s brother, a girl at a party.
“I’m too much a coward,” she’d said. “All the blood. I don’t have the stomach for that. It doesn’t bother you?”
“I’m not in medicine. Physics.”
“Oh, physics. I don’t even know what it means. Something they teach at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, I think. I met someone from there once. He said it was how the world works. Yes?” Her eyes moving all over his face, studying him, already familiar.
“He meant the underlying principles of—”
“I know what he meant,” she said, a quick smile. “You’re at the Kaiser Wilhelm too?”
“Göttingen. I’m just here for the weekend.”
“So you don’t know Berlin?”
“Well, I don’t know any Americans. You’re the first.” Looking at him, the eyes again.
“What do you think? So far.”
“You’re a serious person,” she said, glancing at the rest of the room, her voice throaty with smoke. “That’s what I think. So far.”
“Serious. Is that good?”
“For me, yes.” She drew on her cigarette. “Are you political?”
Almost a laugh, caught in time. Then, when she kept staring, “We don’t have politics. Not like here.”
“Everybody has politics.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to ask a German that?”
“Unless you’re a Nazi, you mean.”
“We’re all Nazis now. If you ask that.”
He looked at her. “Not you.”
“How can you know?”
“You’re here, for one thing. In this crowd.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
He shrugged. “I trust my instincts.”
“Ouf,” she said, dismissing this. “Instincts.”
“You trusted yours, didn’t you? When you started talking to me?”
She smiled, then looked away. “No, that was flirting. A difference.” The word running through him, a jolt, the eyes sexual now. She turned back. “But you’re right. I’m not a Nazi. The opposite.”
“What, a Communist?” he said, not serious, party talk.
“Not officially. But up here, yes.” She touched her head. “I used to think I was anyway.” Something people didn’t say out loud, the boldness of it another jolt.
“But not now?”
“Now? If I were a Communist in Germany now, I’d be dead.”
But of course she had been, even then, something he would have known if he’d been listening, too busy hearing the rush of blood in his ears, the throaty voice. At the beginning, when he believed everything she said.
And then, abruptly, “Do you want to leave?”
“Leave?” he said, surprised. “I’m staying here.”
“Georg won’t mind.” Another smile, conspiratorial. “He’ll be impressed.” She touched his arm. “I just have to get my coat.” Moving away, everything decided. Around him people were talking and smoking, unaware that anything was happening.
The car turned right on Chausseestrasse.
“You’re all right?” Kurt said.
“He’s right, you know. The guard. They have orders not to shoot, during an exchange. Such a tense moment. You can imagine what would happen if— They must have known about it, those two. The time of the exchange. How?” He leaned over. “That’s where Brecht used to live,” he said, pointing. “Another one who joined us in the East. And was very happy here.” Still apologizing for what had happened at the checkpoint.
Martin looked out the window, then up, following the line of the buildings. The contrast with the West had become a magazine cliché—the shiny cars reflecting the lights of the Kurfürstendamm, the gray shabby streets of the East—and it was true that the buildings were dingier on this side, neglected, but it was still the same city, the same architecture. They passed Torstrasse. She’d lived near here, an old tenement building in Albrechtstrasse, because it was close to the theaters and she wanted to be an actress, was an actress, except it was all foolishness in the theater, nothing serious, you had to scrape by with walk-on bits out at the UFA studios. When you could get them. And the building was all right, your own bathroom, not a shared toilet down the hall.
He remembered that the stair lights had a timer. You had to hurry if you lived at the top, and that was how they’d first kissed, the light clicking off, pushed against the wall, slightly out of breath from the climb, opening his mouth to her. The taste of cigarettes and the smell of her perfume, the same brand for years and he’d never known which, just the smell of her. They pressed against each other on the stairs, and then she clutched his coat and pulled him up with her, and when they were inside, the back of the door was like the stairway again, pushing against it, but now they were taking their clothes off as they kissed, moving toward the bed. No drinks, no conversation, working up to something. They were already there, so excited he thought it would happen too soon, and then in, panting now, not caring who heard. And when they came, her eyes were on him again, taking him in, seeing him.
After, they lay still for a few minutes, and then he rolled off, slightly embarrassed, afraid he’d given himself away, who he really was. She reached over and took out a cigarette, something he imagined she would do every time, the way he’d first seen her, smoking.
“Would you like to know my name?” she said, drawing in smoke, amused. “You never asked.”
He smiled. “I guess I didn’t,” he said, only half there, lazy with sex.
“Well, I didn’t ask either. I wanted to see first. If we fit.”
“If we fit. You know, like this,” she said, waving her hand between them.
He sat up halfway, propped on his elbow. In the light coming in from the street he saw the gleam on her skin, the dark patch farther down, and then the red tip of her cigarette. He ran his hand over her, a physical contact to make sure she was really there.
She hesitated for a moment, drawing on her cigarette. “You want to know? All right. We should never lie to each other, don’t you agree?”
He nodded, not sure where this was going.
“So we’ll know what’s true, between us. The others? That’s something else. But between us, the truth.”
He hitched himself up a little higher. “Which is?”
“You’re an American. I thought, he can get me out of Germany.”
“What’s going to happen here? A war. Things will get worse and worse. And now it’s not so easy to go. But an American. And then you looked at me like that.”
“The way you want someone to look at you. Like a hunger. And I thought—if we’re telling the truth—maybe with him. But I had to know first. If we fit. You see, I don’t lie to you. I wouldn’t say this if we didn’t fit.”
He was quiet for a second. “But we do.”
“Yes,” she said, crushing out the cigarette and looking at him. “It’s a good fit. And once that’s right, you always have it.”
And they did, again that night and for years after. They always had the sex. Even after things changed, after they became different people, they had the sex. One of their secrets. Sometimes, in prison, he wondered if he had done it for sex, had been that much of a fool. But it hadn’t felt that way at the time. Something the Party needed, the world, if it was to have peace. Serious reasons. He hadn’t done it for her, the spying. But he wouldn’t have done it alone.
Now he was riding down Friedrichstrasse with her husband. How did they fit? he wondered. Don’t. Past the station, turning onto Unter den Linden, the imperial route. But the street looked more run-down than the ones by the Charité, the old Schinkel buildings sooty and damaged, what they must have looked like right after the war. Down toward the Gendarmenmarkt you could still see heaps of rubble that no one had bothered to cart away.
“The Schloss is gone,” Martin said, seeing the empty space where the palace had been. Across from it, the Dom was streaked with black char.
“Yes, a long time now. It was dangerous, not worth saving.”
“A shame, though.”
“Well, perhaps. But a bad symbol. There was so much to do after the war. And no money. What do you do? Save the past, patch it up? Or build the future. A socialist society—we had to look ahead. Wait till you see what they’ve done in Alexanderplatz.”
The station looked the same, but everything else, the maze of small streets that had fed off it with their pickpockets and lottery sellers and whores, the usual station riffraff, had been razed, paved over, and turned into a shapeless open plaza surrounded by glass high-rises, a cheap version of West Berlin.
“You see there? They’re building a radio tower. The tallest in the world. Much higher than the Funkturm.” A point of pride, winning some invisible race. “For television too. You know that Peter is on the television?”
“No.” Or anything else about him. What he smelled like as an infant. The look of him in Sabine’s arms. How it felt, seeing him. Then not seeing him.
“Yes. Die Familie Schmidt. A program on the DFF. He plays the son. At first, a small part. Sabine arranged it. You know, she has friends in the theater. Now television. The work is there. So why not use Peter? A little extra money. And you know, she’s drawn to that life. So maybe it’s for her a little too. And then what happens? People like him. The funny one. But a good boy. So more lines. Now he’s well-known. One of the Publikumslieblinge.”
Martin looked at him, unfamiliar with the expression. “Public darlings?”
“Yes, audience favorites. Not necessarily the star part, but people look forward to seeing you.”
Martin sat back. East German television. What could that possibly be like? Something else he didn’t know.
“How long has he been doing this?”
“Two years. Of course, the way he’s growing now, he may grow out of the part soon.” The proud father.
“Why don’t they just let him get older, if he’s such a favorite?”
“No, he needs to be a child. That’s the point, you understand. A family show. Peter does something he shouldn’t, some mischief, and then his father teaches him a lesson. How a good socialist behaves. It wouldn’t work if he were older.”
Is that what you do? Martin wondered. Teach good socialist lessons?
“And does he enjoy it? Acting?”
“Well, but he’s not a professional. Sabine coaches him, but the reason it’s good is that he’s so natural, a real boy. That’s my theory anyway. Of course he likes having the car, things like that.”
“To drive him to the studios. In Adlershof.”
Martin glanced out the window. Another glass high-rise, dreary in gray Berlin, designed for sun. The socialist experiment, with car and driver.
“It’s a good experience for him,” Kurt was saying.
An audience darling. He imagined holding the car door for him, his chauffeur, some absurd turnabout. But what had he thought they’d be doing? Playing catch? Going to ball games?
“You don’t approve?”
“No, I was just thinking—how much I don’t know. How much I’ve missed.”
“Well, but you’re here. You’ll get to know each other better. Ah, look. Karl-Marx-Allee. Now you’ll see what we have done in the East. You remember when it was Frankfurter Allee? After the war, the bombing, there was absolutely nothing. They made a mountain in Volkspark Friedrichshain with the rubble. Now look.”
Now look. A broad divided avenue lined with apartment blocks as far as one could see, not the cheap glass of Alexanderplatz, but solid stone, Soviet wedding cake style, modern and curiously lace curtain at the same time, what you saw in pictures of Moscow.
“Different architects,” Kurt was saying. “You can imagine the competition, to be a part of this. Your design. Yet a harmonious effect.”
One giant building after the other, their long façades broken by numbered entryways and hundreds of windows, not like the dim Hinterhofs of old Berlin, one courtyard behind another. A traffic circle with a fountain.
“Who lives here?” Martin said.
“Everybody. Workers. Of course, in the beginning, a privilege. Hot water, central heating, these things were luxuries in those days. But now everywhere. We live not far from here. In Weberwiese. You’ll see later.”
“Not Party leaders?” Martin said, still looking.
“Out in Pankow. They prefer villas. All close together. Maybe to keep an eye on each other.” He arched his eyebrows, making a joke. “And maybe a little old-fashioned. This is—modern for them. So, here we are. Interhotel Berolina. Nothing but the best.”
The hotel was brand-new, located on its own plaza behind the Kino International, a theater with a swooshing curve to its roof, as if it had been streamlined during the trip from Miami. The hotel also had a tropical look, its front faced with blue glazed tiles, like a beach resort. Inside, the lobby furniture was Scandinavian modern, dotted with plants in pots. Anywhere.
There were no forms to fill out at the desk, everything having been arranged by Kurt and the manager.
“Your key, Herr Keller,” the manager said. “Welcome to Berlin. There is no other luggage?” Looking at the overnight bag, all he’d been allowed in prison.
“We must fix you up with some new clothes,” Kurt said. “Bodo Jahn, I think, no?” A question to the manager, who nodded. “A tailor,” Kurt explained. “Out in Biesdorf. Very good workmanship.” He ran a hand down the side of his suit. “Always busy, but he’ll fit you in if I ask. But today you’ll want to rest.” Locked in another room. “I’ll have the car come for you at seven, all right?”
Martin nodded. Agree to anything. Alone soon.
“Well, Kurt.” A voice behind them. “It’s lucky to run into you.” A stocky man in a bulky shapeless overcoat, glancing at Martin, expecting to be introduced.
“Hans,” Kurt said, suddenly hearty. “What are you doing here? During working hours.” He looked at his watch. “Not some assignation, I hope. The hotel has a reputation to protect.”
Martin looked at the man more closely. Short and balding, with ferret-like eyes, an unlikely candidate for an affair. But who knew? He took the joke, or maybe just the intimacy, as a kind of compliment, smiling and nodding.
“No, I thought you might be here. And here you are. So, a good guess, no? You always bring your visitors here,” he said, looking at Martin, waiting.
“And family friends. Martin, Hans Rieger. Neues Deutschland.”
Martin raised his eyes but said nothing, waiting to take his cue from Kurt.
“You came to see me?” Kurt said.
“For details. About the incident this morning.”
“At Invalidenstrasse. Wall jumpers. In an ambulance. I think something new, using an ambulance. I don’t remember anyone before—”
“And did they make it?” Kurt said.
Martin looked at him.
“No. One dead. Just now.”
“Dead?” Martin said.
“Your news travels fast,” Kurt said.
“A friend at the hospital?” Really asking.
“Everywhere. You know the news business.”
“Neues Deutschland?” Kurt said, an exaggerated skepticism, playing.
“Yes, I know. The SED Congress, the trade delegation. But that’s not all we are. A man shot dead in Invalidenstrasse? People want to know.”
“But will the SED want them to know? Nobody dies at the wall these days. You still have your old habits, Hans.” He turned to Martin. “Hans is a refugee from the West. He used to work for Springer, so he’s a bloodhound with a crime story. Except there is no crime in the Republic.”
“So you saw nothing?” Hans said. “I thought maybe— It’s your favorite crossing, no? Back and forth he goes,” he said to Martin. “The only one these days.”
“I have business in the West. In the interests of the East.”
“But not this morning? It’s easily checked.” Looking up at him.
Kurt stared back, deciding something. “There was an exchange, yes,” he said flatly. “The incident must have been after.”
“Well, as I said, it’s easily checked.”
Kurt shrugged. “They will never print this story. So why—”
“I know. You’re right—old habits. What else would I do?” He looked again at Martin. “The exchange was for you?”
“Let me introduce you. Martin Keller.”
Hans peered at Martin, rifling through some mental file drawer. “The spy?” How he’d be known now. Hans turned to Kurt. “You might have told me. I suppose he’s already promised to Gerhard? Some favor you owe him.”
“It’s not in my gift, Hans. They want Gerhard to do the interview. I’ll make it up to you.”
“Oh yes? How? Maybe that interview with your son you keep promising.”
Kurt held up his hand. “And if it were up to me, you’d have it. But you know the DFF, they control everything. Every move.”
“You could talk to them. You’re his father.”
Kurt glanced at Martin, uneasy.
“I can ask again, yes. But you know what they’re like.” He paused. “What do you want to know? About this morning?”
Hans looked at him, surprised, an unexpected olive branch. “You saw it?”
Kurt nodded. “Well, if you call it seeing. A flash and then it’s over. You understand I had to protect Martin, get him out of there, so I wasn’t noticing much. What, in particular?”
“Nothing in particular. Just—what happened. Why didn’t it work?”
“Why didn’t it work?”
“The escape. The barrier was raised, the ambulance is close, nobody suspecting until the last minute. A minute is all they needed. So why?”
“Why? You’ll have to ask them why.”
“Only one now.”
“All right, him, then.”
“If I can get to him.”
“Why,” Kurt repeated, shrugging. “Maybe bad luck. Maybe kids who didn’t know what they were doing. It’s often the case. So.” An end to it, about to move away. “I’m sorry about Gerhard. Next time.”
Hans made a faint smile. “Your next spy.” He looked at Martin. “You’re the physicist, no? So here’s another. My interview today.” He tilted his head up, someone at the hotel. “A returnee. What do you ask a physicist? That a reader understands?”
“Returnee,” Kurt said. “I thought the Russians sent the last one back years ago.”
“Stefan Schell?” Martin said.
Hans looked over at him. “You know him?”
A look from Kurt that Martin couldn’t interpret.
“Everybody knows him,” Martin said, evading. “The first reactor.”
“Everybody but me.”
Another look from Kurt.
“In the field, I mean. Maybe not the general public.”
“He’s staying here?” Kurt said. “Not in Karlshorst?”
“To give the interview. Then Dresden. So what do I ask?”
“Ask him why he decided to return,” Martin said. “After so many years.”
“The Russians, I think, make that decision.”
“Ah,” Martin said, just a sound, an end, nowhere to go.
“You’ll think of something,” Kurt said, beginning to move. “You always do.”
“One more thing?” Hans said.
“At Invalidenstrasse. The barrier was up. For the exchange.”
Not a question, but Kurt nodded.
“The right moment for them. If you have to crash through a barrier—even an ambulance—it would slow you down.”
“So how did they know? To be there?”
“You can see from Luisenstrasse. They must have been watching.”
“You have a suspicious nature, Hans.”
“It hasn’t occurred to you, this question?”
“Not until you mentioned it,” Kurt said easily.
Martin looked from one to the other. Some dance between them.
“It would be a shame, in this work you do, if someone—”
“That’s why I handle things myself.”
Hans smiled. “Somebody you can trust. Well, maybe you’re right, watching from Luisenstrasse. Amateurs.”
“They’d have to be. If they thought they could drive through the wall.” Kurt raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Good luck with the science quiz. Martin,” he said, moving them off to the elevators.
“You don’t have to come up.”
“No, just a word.” A glance to the lobby. “There he goes. I was afraid— But that was good, everybody in the field. He doesn’t have to know you’re a friend of Schell’s.”
“A hundred years ago.”
Kurt nodded. “You were at Göttingen together. Old comrades.”
Martin looked at him. “You know that?”
“It’s not a secret, is it? Of course I know. In this work you have to know everything about your clients.”
“But you don’t want Hans to know.”
Kurt looked up a second. “We want to be careful.”
“You heard his questions? For a story they won’t print. Why ask? He has two jobs.”
“And Neues Deutschland’s only one of them.”
“Just like Springer was. They always wanted to have someone inside at Springer. And he wanted the money. So, two paychecks.”
“But then he got caught.”
“That’s why he’s here,” Kurt said, looking at him.
“And you?” Martin said, not thinking, blurting it out. “How many jobs do you work?”
Kurt took a step back, surprised. “You want to know, am I Stasi?” he said bluntly. “I can’t be. The go-between? Both sides have to trust you. It’s a tightrope sometimes. If I need to work with the Stasi, I work with them. How else, with political prisoners? But I can’t be one of them. So they’re suspicious. It’s their nature. But they need me. They don’t negotiate. Someone else has to negotiate. Someone the West will trust too. So, one job only.”
“Hans doesn’t think so.”
“Hans is looking for an opportunity. To be noticed. But I don’t give him one.” He looked up at Martin again. “One job.” He put his hand on Martin’s arm. “Well, later, then. That was very good, not knowing Schell. So quick. You never lose the training.”
“Not much training. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
“The perfect asset. But you have to have the instinct too.” He looked away. “Imagine that dummkopf Rieger. Not knowing who he is, his own interview.”
“Can I call him? Schell. I mean, if he’s just down the hall—”
“When the time is right.”
“When the time is right,” Martin said, an echo, picking at the words.
“You will have to trust me. Can you do that?”
Martin said nothing.
“Good. So, first come to dinner. See Peter. You want to see your old friend Schell? Of course. See anybody you like. Well, maybe not Ulbricht. Nobody sees him. Except Frau Ulbricht.” He smiled, an easy joke, patching things over. “But there’s a right time.” He moved his hand to Martin’s chest, a faint pat. “Let me arrange things.”
The room faced the back, away from Karl-Marx-Allee, but was high enough to have a view over a neighboring roof. Not a cell. He’d left the door unlocked, opening it once to prove he could. Then opened the window, not minding the damp air, taking it in with deep breaths. No one outside the door, no bells to call him to the dining hall, no lights-out. His own room, open to the air.
On the desk the management had left a bottle of Hungarian Tokay, wrapped in colored plastic, with a welcome card from the German Academy of Sciences, a VIP gesture. Then why this clutching in his stomach? Brought in quietly through the back door, not even a hello to Schell, Kurt arranging things. Not Sabine. This dinner, awkward even before it happened, wouldn’t have been her idea. Kurt wanted to watch, the careful greeting, the forced small talk, forced just because he was there watching, his family now. Peter a good socialist boy. But why shouldn’t he be? Isn’t it what they all had wanted once? Still, this dread. Trust me.
He put the overnight bag on the bed and started unpacking. Not much more than a change and a Dopp kit. My tailor will fit you in. He hung his jacket on the curtain rod in the shower to steam out the wrinkles later. Peter’s first look at him. Sabine’s. What would she see? He stopped in front of the mirror, hands on the washbasin. Someone else looking back. The same high forehead, what Sabine said she’d noticed first “to hold all the brains,” but the hair all gray now, and thinning. Prison skin, haggard, not puffy or slack, but worn, like his eyes, the sheen gone, set deeper than before, as if they were receding, tired of seeing. Ten years of his life and all of them visible here, in the creases. And she? A matron in a broad skirt? A fleshy line along the chin? No, she’d be the same, the only way he could imagine her. The same eyes, the same secret place at the back of her neck. And for a second, he wanted the impossible, to be as they had been, young, shiny, just the two of them. Except it had never been just them. There had been the secrets, the handlers, the close calls, Sabine knowing what to do, cool and excited at the same time, getting away with it.
He went back over to the window. No sun, but no rain either, the cloudy Berlin sky. He could go out, he realized, just open the door and go. A walk if he felt like it. He expected to be stopped in the lobby, but the man at the door merely nodded, a working man’s version of a tipped hat. He crossed the plaza, then paused in front of the Kino. He wanted to walk and walk. Why not go all the way to Frankfurter Tor, see the whole street? There was a snap in the air. Berliner Luft, just like the song. He felt his face begin to move, an involuntary smile. Because he was walking.
This time he took in the ground-floor shops of the apartment blocks—a bookstore, a salon, even, improbably, a travel agency. Where could anybody go? State resorts on the Baltic, dormitory hotels. There were no posters in any of the windows, no sales signs. Or customers, the sidewalks mostly empty—an old man with a string bag, a mother pushing a pram. A showcase with an air of disappointment about it now, some promise not kept. He could imagine the architectural schematics, with trees and sidewalk cafés and open-shirted workers and their wives in sundresses bustling into the stores, everybody glowing with pride in the new buildings. You could still feel some of this ambition, just in the scale of the street, but the people in the drawings had gone. No one now but him and a lone window shopper over by the Buchhandlung.
He slowed. At the window but not really looking. A man in a hat and another shapeless overcoat, his body half-turned. If the street had been busy, Martin never would have noticed him, but now he felt a prickling at the back of his neck. Someone trying to be inconspicuous, betrayed by the empty street. Would he follow? Martin walked past the bookstore, the man in the hat still at the window. Another shop, entrance steps, Martin still in his sight line, but getting farther away. The man turned and started down the sidewalk. Heading east too, behind Martin, no crowds to swallow him up. So exposed Martin could hear his footsteps. At the corner Martin stopped for a pedestrian light and glanced back. The man was lighting a cigarette, the only excuse he could think of to stop, not catch up. For a second Martin was tempted to turn around and face him, almost a tease. But it wasn’t a game, being followed here. It was a reminder, like bars on a window, that your life wasn’t your own. What had Digby said? They’ve all got an ear out over there. Clumsy, too close behind in the empty street, but maybe the point was being obvious, so that both of them knew.
The light turned green but instead of crossing Martin turned back to the Allee and the stairs for the underground passage, built to avoid street traffic that wasn’t there. The sound of his shoes on the stairs, then the man’s steps. He forced himself not to look over his shoulder. Maybe the man was just going to the U-bahn station below. But when they passed the entrance, the sound of the steps was still there, persistent. The north side of the Allee now, looking toward the radio tower going up in Alexanderplatz. How long had he been out? All he’d wanted to do was take a walk. Now he felt his chest tighten, apprehensive, as if a hand were going to fall on his shoulder. Come with us.
He stopped, whirling around to face the man in the hat, startling him. The man halted, his body still pitched forward, and looked at Martin for a second. Not the way this was supposed to happen. Neither of them said anything, staring, and Martin wondered what showed in his face, the anger he could feel running through him, or a more hidden despair. This is what it was going to be like. He’d known, even at Invalidenstrasse, taking the first steps. His life now. And then the man, as if he had heard him, moved his mouth in a small smile and nodded. He started walking again, past Martin, everything understood. When he reached the Kino, he waited, as if he wanted to make sure Martin got home safely.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Berlin Exchange includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Berlin, 1963. American physicist Martin Keller, jailed for ten years in an English prison for being a Soviet spy, is suddenly offered his freedom and a new life in East Germany. The price is reasonable: a Cold War prisoner exchange—Martin for two American students who tried to help a friend escape over the Berlin Wall and an old MI6 operative. An irresistible offer. But has he merely traded one prison for another? His freedom has been arranged by his ex-wife’s new husband, Kurt, a man who works all sides of every conflict, and his old spymasters still see him as a valuable chess piece. But to what end?
Steeped in atmospheric tension and dizzying layers of secrecy, The Berlin Exchange follows Martin as he finds himself more and more deeply involved in Kurt’s morally ambiguous dealings and political entanglements until finally he has to navigate a treacherous path that could put not just his own life at risk but also that of his ex-wife, Sabine, and their young son, Peter, all the while trying to find answers. Did he do the right thing during the war? How do you live day to day in a surveillance state? And, most urgently, what did all the sets of eyes watching his every move want from him?
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. In chapter 3, Martin meets up with his old handler in Russian intelligence, Andrei, who asks him to begin spying for them again; we learn Martin passed atomic secrets from the United States to Russia. How did this affect your view of Martin? How has his position changed since going to prison?
2. The eyes of the Stasi are always watching. Discuss scenes where you noticed characters being careful about what they said, even when the Stasi weren’t mentioned. What did they seem most nervous about discussing and what did that say about the values of East Germany?
3. In chapter 3, Martin is shocked to learn that political prisoners are ransomed for money to fuel the Eastern economy. When he asks Kurt if that’s legal, Kurt responds, “Legal is what the state says is legal.” How is the line between legality and morality blurred?
4. Kurt frequently brings Martin along with him when he works, allowing Martin to see the illicit dealings that make his new life in East Berlin possible. Why does Kurt want Martin to see what he does, especially given the recurring mantra, “There is no crime in the DDR”? What does it reveal about Kurt’s character?
5. A journalist, Hans Reiger, constantly dogs Martin about a violent incident that occurred during his exchange, in an effort to answer the same questions Martin has about it. In chapter 4, Kurt insists again that “nobody wants such a story,” yet goes out of his way to throw Hans off the trail. What does this signal about the importance of Hans’s story? Who do you think could be interested after all?
6. In chapter 4, Martin is at a meet-and-greet with other physicists working on nuclear energy for East Berlin when he begins talking with Klaus Fuchs, an eminent German physicist and former atomic spy, who feels safe in East Berlin. When Martin questions him, he answers, “No FBI, no more army intelligence, with their questions, trying to trap you. All those years, not knowing if— But now it’s safe. You can breathe.” How is his perspective different from Martin’s?
7. In chapter 5, Martin is with Peter for a photoshoot for an East German television show, Die Familie Schmidt, and Peter mentions that Kurt only allows photographs of the new plazas, free of damage from the war, otherwise “everybody thinks East Berlin is all like that.” How does Kurt’s vision of East Berlin compare with the one you had at the beginning of the novel?
8. In Chapter 5, Andrei asks Martin to find out his old colleague Stefan’s intentions for the atomic peace conference in Geneva. What is he concerned Stefan will do or say? Why would Stefan leaving East Berlin be bad not only for East Berlin but also for Russia?
9. In Chapter 5, Stefan reveals that he will call for an end to the arms race at the conference in Geneva. Then he asks Martin, “What do you say to [your son], when he asks someday? Why you do this work? How do you answer him? . . . How would I explain myself? For making these bombs. What explanation could there be? . . . All of us have to answer for it.” How does this affect Martin going forward? Do you think he would have made different decisions if Stefan had nott made it so personal?
10. Martin’s actions during the war landed him in English prison and would have gotten him executed in America; he feels incredible guilt for helping create weapons that would kill hundreds of thousands of people. Stefan’s decision to call for peace go against the Cold War objectives of East Germany and Russia. Discuss the role that individuals can play in global events and the idea of personal accountability. How are these themes important today?
11. The moment Martin decides not to betray Stefan changes everything. What would you have done? Could you put your life and the safety of your family at risk to make sure the truth was spoken? If Martin knew at the time how it would turn out, do you think he would have made the same decision?
12. On page 220, as Martin convinces Stefan to make a run for the border, Stefan reminds him “You know, they’re no better, the other side,” referring to the United States. Both Martin and Stefan have felt the sting of Western justice, both disagreed with its values, yet they both ultimately decided to return and leave East Germany and its tarnished dream of a Communist state behind. What makes them believe in a better life on the other side of the wall? What do you make of their quest for a better future?
13. In chapter 8, Stefan accuses Martin of “having a taste for” espionage, something Sabine and Andrei also echo as Martin’s plan unfurls. Martin denies it each time. Do you believe him? Would his enjoyment of solving the puzzle to save his family invalidate the morality of his actions? Discuss the complexity of mixed motivations in high-stakes circumstances.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Reread the author’s note and, as a group, follow up on one of the real-life figures that inspired the characters in The Berlin Exchange. How are their lives different from those of the book’s characters?
2. An omnipresent concern of East Germany are the optics of its citizens leaving for the West. Research firsthand accounts of life in East Germany. What aligns with the story and what is different? What is the role of propaganda in building a nation? What are some examples of modern propaganda?
3. Watch the documentary Behind the Wall (2011), the film The Debt (2010), or the film The Lives of Others (2006) and discuss as a group.