John, Otto

(1909–1997)
   One of the most bizarre—and still unresolved— stories of the Cold War is the defection of Otto John. John was a member of the German resistance and was able to flee to neutral Portugal after the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler in July 1944. John made his way to London and cooperated with British intelligence. Following World War II, he helped the Western Allies in their prosecution of German war criminals.
   In 1950 John became head of the BfV (Bundesamt fur Verfassungschutz), West Germany’s new counterintelligence service. But he became increasingly discouraged with West German rearmament and the employment of former Nazi officials. He shared his feelings with friends, who happened to be agents of the MGB, the Soviet Ministry of State Security. John was offered the opportunity to meet with senior Soviet officials, and on 17 June 1954 he crossed into East Berlin. He appeared at a news conference a few days later to say that he had voluntarily entered East Germany and intended to remain in the East. Over the next few months, he traveled to the Soviet Union to be debriefed by the MGB. John, however, was not a happy defector, and the East Germans and the Soviets agreed to allow him to redefect to the West. On 12 December 1954, John was spirited out of East Germany by friends who may or may not have been in the pay of the Stasi, the East German security service. Tried by a West German court, John was sentenced to four years in jail. He spent the rest of his life trying to get his reputation back, claiming that he was not a defector but had been kidnapped and drugged. On five occasions he unsuccessfully sought to have the German higher courts quash the verdict, and the John Case became a West German equivalent of the Alger Hiss case in the United States. Shortly before his death, he flew to Moscow in an effort to get documents that would prove his innocence.
   The most recent accounts of the case seem to reach a verdict of “not proven.” The documents do not definitely prove that John entered the East Zone on his own volition. He did not give the MGB the names of any BfV agents. On the other hand, conservative Germans believe that his work in the war suggested he was a man capable of changing sides all too easily. One also can make the argument that angry about the decisions being made in Bonn, he decided after a few too many drinks to try a little individual diplomacy and the initiative went horribly wrong.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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