Werner Stiller (* August 24, 1947, in Weßmar; † December 20, 2016, in Budapest) was a German agent and defector. From 1972 to 1979 he was a full-time employee of the Ministry of State Security (MfS) of the GDR, last in the rank of first lieutenant. He decided to defect to the Federal Republic and offer himself to the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), from which he received the code name “Machete.” His escape from the GDR to the West in 1979 with numerous secret documents is still considered one of the most spectacular espionage cases in the Cold War.
He arrived with two suitcases full of secret files and became a star in the West: Stasi spy Werner Stiller is the GDR’s best-known defector – and became a model capitalist with the help of the CIA. Double Agent Werner Stiller
When Werner Stiller breaks into his own office at night, it is snowing in East Berlin. He quietly creeps through the corridors, cracks open a filing cabinet, and packs two suitcases full of top-secret documents. Then he drives back to his family. The next morning, he kisses his two small children on the forehead, tells his wife he loves her – and disappears. Stiller did not work for just any company, but for the Ministry of State Security, Department A, responsible for foreign espionage, area: nuclear and space espionage. He worked there for ten years as a senior officer for the Stasi.
Anxious but determined, he heads for the Friedrichstrasse border crossing on January 18, 1979. In his suitcases: Tens of thousands of pages of spy reports on West German nuclear research, clear names of spies who snooped for the GDR in the Federal Republic and the corporations that employed them. He knows that if he is caught, he will face the death penalty. He carries a pistol hidden under his jacket. Double Agent Werner Stiller
He wants to leave the country through a secret door on the south side of the S-Bahn station. A border guard stops him and checks Stiller’s special ID – and his pass. Something is wrong with the papers; the agent has made a mistake in forging the exit card, a note on it is missing. “Tse, our secretary, is so stupid,” Stiller replies when the policeman approaches him about it. “Alright, for once,” the security guard replies and lets him through. Once in the West, the Stasi man immediately turns himself into the police.
The Stasi’s heaviest defeat Double Agent Werner Stiller
His escape is the top news story on the “Tagesschau.” For the German secret services, the defection of the top spy is like winning the lottery – but for the Stasi, the defection is a disaster, its worst defeat. Never has a higher-ranking agent defected to the enemy. Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security, has had a fit of rage and declared his ex-agent to be public enemy number one. He wanted Stiller back at all costs, and “if that is not possible, he must be rendered harmless,” Mielke is reported to have said. The same day, the Europe-wide hunt for Stiller began.
It is the story of an adventurer and “gambler,” as he calls himself. He lived in two systems – and pushed the limits in both. First as an elite spy in the GDR, later as a stockbroker in New York and London. How does someone manage to get to the top in such a short time in two such different systems? From communist to capitalist. From agent to broker.
This is exactly what the documentary film “The Agent” tries to find out. Director Rudolph Herzog found and interviewed several people from Werner Stiller’s life. For the first time, his former Stasi department head speaks and attests to Stiller: “He could talk well, you have to give him that – even if he was sometimes a bit superficial in doing so.” A lover who picked up Stiller at the GDR’s flagship hotel “Panorama” in Oberhof remembers Werner Stiller the charmer well: “He could give compliments, they were very credible and made you feel good.” Rhetoric, charm, and knowledge of human nature are Stiller’s tools on his way to the top. Double Agent Werner Stiller
First, he makes a career in the GDR: high school graduation, FDJ secretary, physics studies. While he was still at university, a Stasi man recruited him over five schnapps in a café. He becomes a lieutenant, later a first lieutenant in the foreign espionage department of the Stasi headquarters. Shortly before he escapes, he manages 50 unofficial collaborators (IM) in the Federal Republic: His informers sit at Siemens, Hoechst, Degussa, on philosophy chairs at universities Preussag tourism group, or as secretaries in the Federal Ministry of Finance.
Business studies, financed by the CIA
“Over the years, the system had become downright repugnant to me,” Werner Stiller always said in earlier interviews, explaining his reasons for fleeing. The film suggests that, in addition to the political reasons, there were also very tangible personal reasons: his marriage was in crisis, the Stasi had found out about his affairs, his office neighbor was promoted – and not him.
His plan: betrayal for money. For four years, he tried to contact the West German foreign intelligence service BND. In 1978, the West German agents finally deciphered one of his encrypted messages, which he has had smuggled to Pullach via an acquaintance – pasted into a wallet. For five months, he receives secret orders from the BND via shortwave radio. He sends his answers, written in invisible ink, to the West. One of these letters is intercepted by the Stasi counterintelligence. Now Stiller is in great danger.
After his last-second escape, in January 1979, the BND hides him and spies on him for a year. He unmasks not only the head of GDR foreign espionage, Markus Wolf, who until then had been considered a phantom of the Cold War but also 60 Stasi agents in West Germany. For this, he receives 400,000 D-marks. The USA was also interested in the intelligence work in the East. In exchange for information, he had the CIA finance a place to study business administration in the USA.
Under his cover name Klaus-Peter Fischer, he starts a new life at the age of 31. After graduating in business administration, he goes to New York to work for Goldman Sachs and is soon recommended to London. There he wins some high-profile clients for the investment bank. “A great success story,” says his boss at the time, Bruno Cappuccini, in the documentary. Stiller enjoys luxury: he lives in a loft in London, goes surfing at Lake Garda and deep-sea diving, and maintains a villa on the Cote d’Azur. With reunification, he moves to Lehman Brothers in Frankfurt.
Asked why he was so successful in two systems, he replies, “The commonality between intelligence and banking is that you spin very personal networks. I influenced clients – and they wanted to trust me.” The ex-spy’s success and wealth did not last long. Werner Stiller died in Budapest in December 2016.
Translated into English by the author. Original text in German, Speigel Geschichte, 05.02.2013, Christian Fuchs
FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?
The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...
2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?
Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...
3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?
"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...
4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?
Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...
5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?
Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.
6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?
7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?
During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...
8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?
Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.
9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?
Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.
10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?
A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉
11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?
First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...
Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.
Question? Contact me...