Those who haven’t been taught to think critically about the society in which they live cannot ask critical questions. They cannot ask themselves, those to whom they are close, and those in their surroundings. This ultimately means an introverted society – a communist society,  for example- that discourages creativity and eventually fails. 

Dutch citizen Peter van Wermeskerken has quite a story to tell, and he tells it with considerable wit, humor and style. In 1967, at the young age of 27 and with no formal education, he was recruited by the notorious East German spy agency HUV, popularly known as the Stasi, to work for them as a secret agent in the Netherlands. Wisely, Peter immediately reported this contact to the Netherlands’ own secret police agency, the BVD, who took him under their wing and used him as a double agent. What follows in Peter’s account is a series of fascinating episodes and adventures that give us a unique insight into this murky world of double espionage from a very human, down to earth perspective. Some of the adventures are quirky and strange, many are absurdly funny – casting light on the incompetence and naivete of his East German handlers, and occasionally even the ineptitude of his ‘friends’ in the BVD. All the adventures, however, are colored by Peter’s remarkable personality, which is marked by an astonishing bravura and self-confidence. I marveled at Peter’s capacity to sail through some harrowing experiences and close calls with such lighthearted aplomb, coming through these ordeals with enough energy to spare to bicker for a pay rise! This is a remarkable book told by a remarkable man. This title was selected from Book Club Reading List.

Many people have asked me if I found my activities exciting, or if I had been in danger. I can answer both questions with a clear “No.” One has to keep a clear head, and be matter-of-fact and resilient. Boredom and long waiting periods are essential aspects. You have to be able to cope with that. But dangerous? No way. 

A Game of Chess

Peter’s adventures as a counter spy first began through his activities as a young correspondence chess player. Asked by a fellow chess enthusiast if he would be interested in corresponding with a young East German girl, named Kathe (not her real name), from the town of Chemnitz, Peter quickly agreed The two began began corresponding. It didn’t take long before their relationship moved beyond chess and blossomed into romance. Wanting to meet his newfound girlfriend in the flesh, Peter arranged with a major Dutch broadcaster to travel to East Germany to make a broadcast about youth in the GDR. His account of this journey is replete with fascinating incidents and insights into life behind the Iron Curtain, a way of life that appears as alien as life on Mars to those of us reared in the West. In order to bring gifts to his new girlfriend, Peter had to use his wits and ingenuity to find suitable hiding places for the gifts on the train, so they would not be confiscated by border guards. These hiding places included behind and underneath the cushions on the trains, behind the arm rests and even in the toilets. What first struck me about this account is how I never would have thought of this. What also struck me about Peter’s story is his apparent lack of anxiety of any kind. It is clear from the narrative that Peter’s skills as a chess player would serve him well in dealing with the contradictions and absurdities of life in a totalitarian country, and above all in dealing with all the challenges of being a double agent. When Peter arrives at Kathe’s home, he displays his gifts like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat.  Most valued of all his gifts are newspapers and books from the West. Peter also learns from his girlfriend that there are places where he should not be seen and people with whom he should not strike up a conversation. He responds to these warnings and admonitions with cheeky good humor and bravado, sometimes respecting them, sometimes ignoring them. We learn from the reactions of Kathe and her family how difficult life is for them in the GDR and what precautions they must employ to survive. We learn from Peter’s reactions that he is specially gifted to deal with this shadowy world. Peter van Wermeskerken as the narrator is clearly eager to tell his fascinating tale, but in the process he reveals much about his own nature. I found this lack of any self consciousness on the part of the author to be the most charming aspect of the book. Time and again I marveled at Peter’s nerve, his ability to sail through tricky situations without losing his wits or his cool. I kept saying to myself, “I would have been shaking in my boots.”

One of the biggest fears people have when they are not familiar with the world of espionage is that a foreign intelligence service could expose a family member or loved one. This fear was heightened when the service was the notorious East German HVA. People feared that their loved ones would land in prison – or worse yet, be sent to a rehabilitation camp. Stories of torture were common.

The World of Spies

While I don’t wish to spoil the fun of this intriguing story by recounting too many details, the story of Peter’s recruitment by the East German HVA is a highlight of the book. Kathe’s family, much to their dismay, are first contacted by agents, saying they want a meeting with Peter during one of his visits to Chemnitz. Although they first suggest a simple journalistic task for pay, it is evident who they are and what they want. What is Peter’s reaction? To haggle for more pay and to insist as a condition of his cooperation that his beloved Kathe be allowed to immigrate to the Netherlands. Kathe and her mother are alarmed by his affrontery, her father is amused.

But you really did try to press ahead, Peter. Not only do you demand more money, but you also want to abduct a young worker from the Republic. 

And this is how it is for the remainder of the book. We learn more from the reactions of the people around Peter about the terrible conditions in the GDR and the ruses people must employ in order to survive. Peter the double spy seems almost oblivious of the risks, and traverses the complicated terrain of one harrowing and hilarious situation after another with considerable wit, charm, courage and resourcefulness. There are shadowy, clandestine meetings in pubs, risky border crossings, increasingly complicated tasks set by his HUV handlers, a romantic interlude with a young woman named Gudrun that is straight out of a conventional spy novel, bumblings and fumblings on the part of his handlers, worries expressed by his family, cautions from his East German friends, missed assignations, consternation on the part of his superiors. And through it all Peter sails serenely on, always on top of things like a grand chess master, ever bickering for higher pay. This is the first time I have read a spy story that is so humorous and so free of doom and gloom. Peter also gives us his very astute assessments of his handlers on both sides of the Iron Curtain, for whose competence he has little respect. He reserves his most critical comments for his East German handlers, whose naivete about life in the West and what can and cannot be photographed beggars belief. Among Peter’s more challenging tasks for the HUV are the photographing of a key NATO base and an airbase of fighter aircraft.

 There’s a Dutch saying: “Behave normally-then you’re crazy enough.” If I behave normally, I go unnoticed. If I take your advice, I show myself as a spy. I have no desire to do that and you gain nothing if I do. I have no idea where you get your wisdom from, but your organization seems pathologically disturbed. 

An End to Spying

Peter’s candor about his spying exploits also extends to his romantic involvements, of which there are more than one, testifying to Peter’s keen eye for the ladies. As the story began in love – for Kathe (who remained a lifelong friend) – so, in a way, it ends in love with Peter’s future wife, whom he describes first meeting in a subsection entitled, ‘Marga Falls from the Clouds’. He eventually marries Marga and when their first son is born in 1969, Marga convinces Peter that as he is now a father and responsible for her and her son, it is time to give up the spying game. Once again, we learn more from the people around Peter of the risks and dangers he was courting in his clandestine life. Peter acknowledges she is right and so begins the complicated process of disengaging from the tangled web of spydome. It makes for a fascinating conclusion to an already highly intriguing tale.

My mother was happy that the fuss was now over – and my wife, from the depths of her soul, agreed. 

With that brief comment above, we gain some measure of the depths of anxiety experienced by the people closest to Peter and some measure of the risks he was taking and the dangers he was facing. Peter was uniquely blessed with the requisite talents to live through this remarkable adventure, courage, resourcefulness, wily intelligence – and a seeming obliviousness to all risk and danger. His charm and candor come through every page and make this book a thoroughly fascinating and even uplifting read. Addicted as I am to espionage novels, I was hoping for tales of derring do, cloak and dagger, tension and suspense. What I got from the reading was something quite unexpected and refreshing, a down to earth look at the inner world of spying, the tedium and the absurdities, the contradictions and the bumblings, together with the deadening life-destroying effects of a totalitarian culture. Nothing more clearly highlights this deadening, stultifying atmosphere than to see it contrasted with the spirit of a  man of genuine inner freedom  and joie de vivre.  Peter’s personality, which shines through on every page, is the keenest indictment of the corrupt system he helped undermine as a double spy. His was an irrepressible spirit beyond the comprehension of his East German handlers.

There is no more fitting end to this review than Peter’s own ending to his book:

Writing this book has been like sitting on an egg for years before it hatched. The parts about the East Germans’ orders when they wanted to ensure my safety, to get in somewhere, or to take pictures, have generated a lot of merriment at gatherings and festivities. I’ve had such fun writing this book.

I was not the only Dutchman who was able to fool them with the help of the BVD. We Dutch are not so crazy, whether its about espionage or about something else.

A well deserved ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Peter van Wermeskerken’s official website.