Exchanges of espionage agents across the Iron Curtain was a feature of the Cold War, the first coming in February 1962 when a Soviet illegal, Willie Fisher, alias Rudolf Abel, serving a 30-year prison sentence, was released in Berlin in return for the Central Intelligence Agency’s U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been imprisoned in Moscow after his plane was shot down in May 1960.
The negotiations were initiated and conducted by an East German lawyer, Wolfgang Vogel, who claimed to be acting on behalf of Fisher’s wife. In July 1969 he also arranged for 11 Bundesnachrichtendienst agents to be sent over the border at Herleshausen, as Yuri Loginov, a KGB illegal arrested in South Africa, was released back to the Soviets.
A third swap took place took place in October 1969 when a British academic, Gerald Brooke, arrested for distributing subversive literature in the Soviet Union, was released in exchange for the Portland spies—Konon Molody, alias Gordon Lonsdale, and Morris and Lona Cohen, alias Peter and Helen Kroger—who had been convicted of breaches of the Official Secrets Act in March 1961. Vogel would supervise dozens of similar swaps, mostly involving the release of East Germans to be reunited with their families in the Federal Republic, in exchange for a ransom of hard currency, a deal known as “Freikauf.” Another, more complex swap occurred in May 1978 when Robert G. Thompson, a former Air Force sergeant who had been sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in May 1965 on charges of having spied for the KGB, was exchanged in Berlin for Alan van Norman, an American student convicted of having attempted to smuggle a family out of East Germany. Also released was Miron Marcus, an Israeli pilot shot down over Mozambique and captured by Communist-backed guerrillas. In February 1986 Vogel brokered another deal, enabling two Czech StB agents, Hanna and Karl Koecher, to be freed in return for the Russian dissident Anatoli Shcharansky, then serving a nine-year prison sentence, together with a Czech convicted of helping refugees to reach the West and two other unnamed agents.