Long before the traditions of Valentine’s Day sprang forth, spymasters worldwide used the amorous arts to obtain secrets from their enemies. Known in the trade as “honey traps,” rivals ensnarled their adversaries in this game of love, lure, and lies. One of the best known seductresses was Mata Hari, a Dutch exotic dancer convicted of spying for the Germans during WWI. She was accused of obtaining her intelligence by seducing prominent French politicians and officers. Just the mention of the word ‘temptress’ conjures up images of Cleopatra or Jezebel; rarely does it produce the image of Casanova. But men too have been used as honey traps to steal secrets.
After the end of World War II, the East German authorities constructed the Berlin Wall in 1961; dividing East Germany from West Germany. Neither side trusted the other and both were anxious to know what the other was conspiring. Because of the war, many women of marrying age had taken jobs in business, government, parliament, the military, and the intelligence services in West Germany, and they often had access to highly classified government secrets. With the shortage of eligible men—another consequence of the war—single West German women, eager for male companionship, became frequent targets for East German male spies who were only interested in them for one thing: secrets. These men from the East earned the nickname “Romeo Spies.”
The Man without a Face
Markus Wolf was the mastermind behind the East German Romeo Spies. Western officials referred to him as “the man without a face,” since they were unable to identify him for decades. Wolf was born in Germany but grew up in Moscow, where he learned the tradecraft of spying. He returned to Germany and at the age of 30 and became the chief of the foreign intelligence division of the Stasi, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security. His mission was to infiltrate West German political, military, and security institutions. His weapon of choice: men.
“Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?”
The idea of the Romeo spy developed out of practicality. Romeo spies were a cost-effective way to steal secrets. Wolf believed that one woman with the right access and motivation could provide more intelligence than 10 male diplomats. Of course, not just any man could be a Romeo spy. There was a rigorous screening process that weeded out 99 percent of the candidates. Of those chosen, most were between 25 and 35 years old, well educated, and had good old-fashioned manners, which many women found irresistible. The men selected for this program were trained in espionage and given false identities, typically of a deceased citizen or an immigrant. Then they were sent to West Germany with a specific espionage task to complete. Once there, they identified a potential “Juliet” who had access to the information they were after. They created a chance encounter, began an affair, and then propositioned the women to pass them secrets.
Before being deployed to West Germany, however, Romeo spies were warned that they were prohibited from marrying their assets, even if they developed genuine feelings for them, which many of them did. The Romeo’s true identity and intentions would most likely be discovered: West German authorities conducted background investigations of anyone seeking marriage to an employee of the state who had access to classified material. Therefore, the Romeos had to insist that they were not the marrying type.
The women the Romeos picked were all West German citizens. Many of them had upper-middle-class backgrounds and strong personalities. The majority were employed by the government when they were approached by a Romeo. The men did their homework and knew the likes, dislikes, and vulnerabilities of a particular Juliet prior to setting up a chance encounter. Despite an advertising campaign by the West warning women of these Stasi tactics, many Juliets fell hard for the good-mannered, well-intentioned young men claiming to work for humanitarian organizations.
Initially, most of the women were naive about the true intentions of their Romeos; however, more often than not, as the relationship developed, Juliet began to suspect that her Romeo was working for the other side. Most women were not shocked when they were asked to spy for their men (although this proposition almost always took place in a neutral country, outside West Germany, just in case the Juliet wasn’t receptive and the Romeo needed a quick escape).
While there were many women who terminated the relationship when asked to spy, by this point in the relationship, some women had fallen in love and agreed to spy to keep their affairs going; some relationships lasted for decades. For those women who fell in love with their Romeos, their espionage careers ended when the affairs did. Occasionally a “replacement” Romeo would be deployed, but she would typically not accept him. These women spied for their one true Romeo, and when that relationship ended, so did the espionage.
Other women agreed to spy for love as well, but not for the love of a Romeo. These women fell in love with the excitement of espionage: their Romeos were just part of the process. In this case, these women often would accept a replacement Romeo if the first vanished for security reasons.
Bad Hair Day
From time to time, a Romeo would go missing, captured by the West. For years, the East could not figure out how the West was identifying their men. Turns out it was their haircut. The Romeos all had short and tight cuts, while the young men in the West grew their hair long. When Western counterintelligence officers spotted a man with a short “do,” they would follow the suspect and arrest the Romeo at his first wrong move.
The Original Romeo: The very first Romeo—codenamed “Felix” by the East Germans—was an engineering student reluctant at first to abandon his studies for the pursuit of love, lies, and secrets. He was eventually persuaded and began work as a Romeo in the 1950s. He moved to West Germany, where he devised a plan to meet the ladies who worked at the chancellery. He hung around the bus stop, hoping to have a chance encounter with one of the secretaries. His plot was successful, and he struck up a relationship with a secretary the East Germans codenamed “Norma.” She fell for her Romeo and began passing him secrets from the chancellery. As fate would have it, Felix also fell for the secretary. They moved in together and began an affair that lasted for several years. Alas, their love was not to last. A mole let the East Germans know that Felix had fallen under suspicion. He was pulled East immediately. Norma came home one day after work to an empty apartment. She never learned his true identity or why he had disappeared without a trace.
The Rebound Romeo: Another unsuspecting Juliet, aged 32, met her Romeo in July 1977 on the banks of the Rhine River—it was love at first sight for the divorcee. Her Romeo was seven years her senior and played the part of a scientist employed by a research company devoted to world peace. The couple became engaged three months after meeting. This Juliet worked as a translator and interpreter at the American Embassy. She met her Romeo once a month and passed him thousands of secret documents, more than any other agent in her position. She was madly in love with him and never questioned him about what he did with the documents. Their relationship lasted for 12 years. In 1991, she and her Romeo were betrayed by a Stasi defector. Romeo later died when his car was hit by a train. In 1996, Juliet went on trial for espionage, during which she focused solely on finding out as much as she could about her true love, inquiring if he had, in fact, really loved her. She was given a two-year suspended sentence and fined. The presiding judge concluded her “blind adoration” for her Romeo had led her to spy.
The Super-Romeo: The East Germans referred to select Romeos as “Super-Romeos” for their conquests. One such man was an intelligent, attractive theater director. In 1961, he was sent to Paris, France, to approach an interpreter at NATO’s command center. Three other Romeos had tried and failed. The interpreter was a devoted Catholic who fell for Romeo number four, believing him to be a Danish military intelligence officer. She began passing him NATO secrets when he came to Paris to visit her. Eventually, though, her Catholic upbringing caught up with her, and she suffered from guilt about their affair and her espionage. She felt an overwhelming desire to confess her sins and to marry Romeo if their relationship was to continue. Romeo dodged the marriage requirement, blaming work. He did, however, arrange for an East German intelligence agent, disguised as a Danish-speaking Catholic priest, to hear her confession. Juliet confessed her sins to the “priest,” who absolved her from all wrongdoing and encouraged her to carry on spying with the blessings of the good Lord.
The Two-Timing Romeo:Some Romeos were lucky in love twice. Although not necessarily considered handsome, this Romeo was honest. He met his first Juliet in 1960 at the “secretaries’ sandpit” in Paris, so named by the East for the plethora of West German Government employees sent there to learn French. Romeo charmed his way into the heart of a 19-year-old secretary and revealed his true identity. Their relationship blossomed and continued for several years. At his suggestion, she transferred to the Bonn Foreign Office, where all telegrams from embassies abroad were deciphered. She would stuff the documents into her bag and walk out of the office to meet her Romeo.
Five years later, she was transferred to Warsaw, where the long distance wreaked havoc on their affair. She began drinking heavily and then confided in an undercover Bonn agent disguised as a West German journalist. The agent convinced her to confess her crimes. She did, but first she warned her Romeo, giving him time to flee to East Berlin. The secretary was tried for espionage and received a three-year sentence, shorter than the usual because she had cooperated, disclosing details of her work with the East.
Romeo escaped and was sent to the Black Sea in Bulgaria to recover. While there, he met a potential Juliet—codenamed Inge by the East. He invented a cover story and introduced himself and began an affair. Unfortunately for him, an article in the newspaper revealed his true identity in connection with his previous Juliet’s spying. He was forced to come clean to Inge. She also appreciated his honesty, and the relationship continued. Since Romeo was persona non grata in the West, Inge had to travel to East Berlin on weekends. The East paid for her to learn French and stenography, and she was then able to land a post in the chancellery, where for several years she passed information about the internal workings of the leadership. Inge had a reputation as a hard-working secretary among her colleagues. Little did they know, she was staying late at night to photocopy and microfilm documents.
Inge was in love with her Romeo and wanted to marry him, so the East Germans staged a marriage. The couple said their vows, exchanged rings, and signed the marital register. It wasn’t until her arrest in 1977 that she found out the wedding was a hoax. She was tried for espionage and sentenced to four years and three months in prison.
The High-Achieving Romeo: This Romeo managed to seduce the most highly placed woman in West Germany’s foreign intelligence agency. They met in East Germany where she was working on her doctoral thesis. He was disguised as a mechanic. They spent the summer together, after which Romeo revealed his true identity. Juliet was fascinated. She returned to West Germany but went east every three months to receive espionage training and to meet her Romeo. The couple became engaged. In 1973, she began working as a political analyst for the West’s foreign intelligence agency. When no one was looking, she would microfilm documents and conceal them in fake deodorant bottles. Initially, she hid these bottles in the toilet tanks of trains traveling from Munich into East Germany. This was later deemed too risky and ineffective, so she instead met a female go-between at a Munich swimming pool and passed the information between their changing rooms. Juliet was in love, but not with her Romeo. She had fallen for the excitement of espionage.
In early 1990, the East realized that unification between East and West was inevitable, so they destroyed all documentation of their assets. Unfortunately for Juliet, a senior officer betrayed her identity to secure immunity for himself. She was arrested in 1990 as she crossed the Germany-Austria border for a final meeting with her handlers.
“Stop in the Name of Love”
Forty women were prosecuted in West Germany over the course of four decades during the Cold War for committing espionage. They may have been victims of Cupid’s arrow, but they were not entirely innocent. However, many hearts were broken, including those of several Romeos who truly loved their Juliets. Several couples endured the charade, fell genuinely in love, and went on to marry and start new lives.
Markus Wolf fled to Moscow when Germany reunified. Three years later, he surrendered at a rural border crossing in Bavaria. He was sentenced to six years in prison for treason, but the conviction was overturned on the grounds that East Germany had been a sovereign state for which he had been entitled to spy. The same was true for the Romeos, who were never convicted, although several were apprehended by the West prior to unification
“The ends did not always justify the means we chose to employ,” Wolf wrote in his autobiography, “but, as long as there is espionage, there will be Romeos seducing unsuspecting Juliets with access to secrets. After all, I was running an intelligence service, not a lonely-hearts club.”
Wolf died at the age of 83 on the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.