* 1909 IN MARBURG †1997 IN INNSBRUCK
TREASON OR ABDUCTION?
Otto John is one of the conspirators of 20 July 1944. He flees to Great Britain after the coup against Adolf Hitler fails. Under pressure from the British, John becomes president of the newly created Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (the West German domestic intelligence agency) in 1950. Then, on 22 July 1954, the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany is hit by a shock: East Berlin radio reports that John has decided to stay in the GDR after having traveled there for talks. He later explains that he was drugged and kidnapped, and that his cooperation with his abductors was therefore faked. John’s first public appearance in East Berlin is on 11 August 1954 at a large-scale press conference. Encircled by Soviet and East German secret police, he plays his role well. Regarding West Germany, John criticizes the advanced “restoration of the forces that once put the National Socialists in power and helped keep them there.” Soon after, John is brought to the Soviet Union and interrogated for a number of weeks.
My job was to play the role of the patriot at events (...) in the Sovietzone and sell the illusion of reunification.
A smear campaign is launched against John in West Germany in the days and weeks after his arrival in East Berlin. The Spiegel, a popular weekly news magazine, accuses him of executing the obligations of his office in an amateur manner, as well as homosexual inclinations and a penchant for alcohol.
When John returns to West Germany in 1955, he is arrested. A year later, he is sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Very few people believe his abduction story. Until his death in 1997, Otto John fights in vain to have the conviction against him annulled.
LIFE IN A GILDED CAGE
The East German or Soviet authorities do not treat Otto John like a prisoner after his arrival in the GDR, although intelligence officials constantly surround him. He lacks no material comfort. After he is questioned in the Soviet Union, John is brought back to the GDR at the beginning of December 1954. He subsequently works for the German Institute for Contemporary History in Berlin. He is provided with an office, a secretary, a company car with a chauffeur and a house on a lake in Schmöckwitz.
However, the housekeepers, the driver and the permanent escorts are all employees of the Ministry of State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or MfS). His office, his private rooms, and even in his car are bugged. Although John is monitored around the clock, he is able to escape to West Berlin on 12 December 1955 with the help of a journalist friend. He is remanded in custody there several days later. After serving almost two-thirds of his four-year sentence, he is released from prison in July of 1958.