The Bridge of Unity. As Featured in The Modernist 30: Infrastructure


Reporters nicknamed Glienicker Brücke as ‘Bridge of Spies’ during the Cold War. The bridge connected the people of Potsdam and Wannsee, providing a crossing over the Havel River. Originally a bridge of wood and brick, the Prussian government held a competition to replace it with a modern iron one and the Johann Casper Harkort Company won with construction completed by 1907.

After the Second World War Germany was carved-up into separate territories variously under the administration and government of the French, American, Russian and British Allies. In 1949, The Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR for short) was formed from the eastern portion of Germany. Having liberated Berlin from the Nazi’s, the Soviets took occupation of what was by far the biggest share of the Berlin pie. Glienicker Brücke was now situated in the Soviet zone, linking the ‘West’ to a new, socialist republic ‘East’.

Spy Bridge

After major post-war reconstruction, the bridge was an important part of the Eastern Bloc’s infrastructure and its operation was routine and benign. However, the DDR government was based on that of the Soviet Union’s and its politics were formed from a complicated merger of German communist and socialist parties. The politics of the East were now in conflict with those of the West. This led to increased paranoia, distrust and a general dislike for each other’s ideologies. A relationship breakdown that led to robust borders being established – walls being built and bridges closed –  the post-war ambitions of these former allies were no longer compatible. The East German government had renamed the bridge, The Bridge of Unity, but in 1952 ‘unity’ was interrupted when they closed the bridge to citizens of the West.

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Glienicker Brücke then took on a shadier social role than its original function as an essential transportation link. After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 the East German government closed it to all citizens, including its own in the East. No longer would the bridge serve the people; the people had consistently tried to leave massenweise (en masse) to the freedom and prosperity of the West rather than embrace the newly formed DDR. The East German government, had had enough. Instead, the bridge became the main link and artery for only foreign diplomats, the exchange of captured spies, allied military personnel and other such clandestine operators. The Cold War was in full paranoid swing.

Authorized tours by the West, known as Military Liaison Missions or MLMs, began. They were fundamentally legitimate snooping missions, disguised in typical ‘fixed-grin’ Cold War fashion as tours intended to further and better relationships between an increasingly tense East and West. British, American and French diplomats were driven across the bridge in massive, matt-olive-green Ford sedans, Land Rovers, a Benz or an Opel. The Soviets agreed to let them in via its Bridge of Unity – it was the only check-point in Germany that not only had a Soviet presence but was also under full Soviet control. As one of their own heavily restricted borders, they probably felt a bit more comfortable about allowing the West in from here.

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Cold War-era East / West painted border (underneath a commemorative plaque from 1989)

As the Cold War dragged on, the secret world of the intelligence agencies led to a literary-obsession with spies and spying. The more the Soviets siphoned off their secret world, the more the West let its creative imagination fill in the blanks. The Cold War era came to define cult 20th-century spy-fiction and its tales of espionage. Where would the spy-genre be without Commander James Bond or Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin? The bridge plays a key role in the 1964 book, which also features ‘Arry Palmer’s plane landing at Berlins iconic Tempelhof Airport. Locations such as Glienicker Brücke provided both a focal point and a back-drop for the covert operations of spy-genre plots – the darkly charismatic CIA and MI6 were always on the one side of the bridge and the enigmatic Soviet Union and its KGB firmly on the other. Secret agents and covert operators skulked around smoky, shadowy joints dressed in sartorial elegance. They sipped Martinis and inhaled deeply from cigarettes while their Russian double-agent beauty seduced hapless Soviets by spiking their Vodka with nerve agent.

Over the course of the Cold War, the West and the East exchanged 36 high-value political prisoners across Glienicker Brücke. Exchanges would take place at the midway point as denoted by a painted line that marked the border between the West and the East. The Americans swapped Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers in 1962. Abel was convicted for spying for the Soviet Union in 1957 and Powers was a pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down in 1960. The British Secret Service agent Greville Wynne was exchanged for Soviet Konon Molody in 1964 who’d been operating in London, posing as a jukebox salesman. I’d like to have met him. The Americans exchanged the apparently handsome and resourceful Marian Zacharski in 1985. The Soviets considered him and three other Eastern Bloc spies to be worth a whopping 25 American agents – Marian must have been big time! The final such transaction took place in 1986. Anatoly Scharansky was released by the Soviets in exchange for Karl Koecher and his wife, Hana who were in US custody. The negotiation took three years and this exchange was textbook Cold War aesthetic. Shcharansky travelled across a snow-covered Glienicker Brücke in a massive Mercedes and was then whisked away by the Americans in a waiting jet.

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Soviet Cold War Graffitti 1968

In 1989, a series of Eastern Bloc revolutions and increased civil unrest triggered the end of the Berlin Wall as a physical and ideological border. It was gradually demolished (mostly under the weight of David Hasselhoff belting out his trite Looking for Freedom song to the hapless East Germans). From here, it was a short but liberating jump to the total collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the DDR in 1990. The reunification of Germany was complete, and by 1991 the Cold War was considered to be over – The Bridge of Unity regained its original name of Glienicker Brücke, along with other German towns and cities reverting to their pre-DDR appellation.

Although formally dissolved, the Soviet DDR-era is a deeply evocative period – its dark atmosphere lingers on in the shadows of its socialist architecture, sculpture, infrastructure and countless stylized murals featuring atomic-age graphics, astronauts and scientists stood on podiums with fists aloft. The check-points of Glienicker Brücke, its barricades and fortifications are long gone but evidence of its Cold War past remain. Should you wish to visit and view the marking of its midpoint and surviving Soviet graffiti from 1968, the best view is from Babelsburg Park, but its actual address is Konigstrasse, 14467 Berlin. Be sure to go in the dead of winter whilst wearing a trench coat. And tell no one…

The Modernist Infrastructure 30 Bridge of Unity 4

The Modernist Infrastructure 30 Bridge of Unity 3

The Modernist Infrastructure 30 Bridge of Unity 2

Bridge of Spies Potsdam