German Democracy's Watershed Moment

They were given names like Dragonfly, Fly and Wasp. Five teams with codenames like "Pentathlon" and "Einstein" were on their trail in a secret operation by Germany's Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), one of the country's three federal intelligence agencies, that was dubbed "Sabotage." The hunt had begun.


The affair that happened in West Germany in October 1962 sounds like a spy thriller from the pen of John le Carré, who at the time was working on his bestseller "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold." But at the time, the height of the Cold War, German intelligence really believed they were on the trail of a large-scale conspiracy. They thought that SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein (codenamed "Dragonfly"), as well as SPIEGEL reporters including Conrad Ahlers ("Fly") and Hans Schmelz ("Wasp") had betrayed West German military secrets.

The resulting SPIEGEL affair, as it was later dubbed, would cost the defense minister his job, make the magazine famous around the world and mark a watershed moment in the history of West German postwar democracy.


But the meticulously planned MAD operation began with a gaffe. At 6:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26, an elderly gentleman rushed from a Düsseldorf department store to his Mercedes in the pouring rain, carrying a duck for his Sunday roast under his arm. Suddenly he was stopped by officers from the Federal Criminal Police Office.


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