Walk across the Bridge of Spies

The famous Cold War crossing between East Germany and West Berlin

Featured Experience No. 14

The two-tone truss Glienicker Brücke stretches across the River Havel, connecting Berlin with neighbouring Potsdam – a larger than life symbol of the Cold War division of Germany and its capital city. 

Although originally completed in 1907, this eleven metre wide steel bridge has become most popularly known for its role as a border crossing during the Cold War period and for the tense exchanges in human capital that took place here.

The most famous, that of US spy plane pilot, Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and then exchanged here two years later for Soviet intelligence officer Rudolf Abel – earning this structure the moniker, the ‘Bridge of Spies’.

On crossing the bridge today, not only is it possible to move from Berlin to Potsdam, but in the process from the state of Berlin to the state of Brandenburg – and the capital of Brandenburg, which incidentially is also Potsdam. 

During the Cold War period the additional significance was that, with the border established here, anyone leaving Berlin – and the Western district of Wannsee in the US sector – would be then entering East Germany and the countryside of Brandenburg surrounding the divided German capital.

View across the Bridge of Spies
The River Havel flowing under the Bridge of Spies

Heavily damaged at the end of the Battle of Berlin in 1945, the Glienicker Brücke had to be rebuilt – a project completed in 1949, the same year as both East and West Germany were established. A white line was soon introduced in the centre of the bridge, indicating the border between the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and West Berlin (consisting of the combined US, British, and French occupation sectors). 

At around the same time, the bridge was painted different shades of green.

It is still possible to see this difference on the structure today, with the Brandenburg side different from the Berlin side, and a metal strip (instead of a white line) extending across the centre of the bridge. On closer inspection the words “German division until 1989” are now visible in German, on this metal band.

From 1953 until 1989, it was only possible to cross this bridge with a special permit – with Soviet military checkpoints set up for members of the military missions in Berlin – the US, French, and British troops stationed there.

Despite the worldwide fame that this crossing point would achieve as the ‘Bridge of Spies’ – there were only actually three exchanges that took place here. That of Francis Gary Powers for Rudolf Abel in 1962; a mass exchange of 23 Western operatives for four Soviet spies in 1985; and four prisoners from the West swapped for five prisoners from the East in 1986. With this bridge specifically chosen as it was the only crossing between the East and West that fell completely under Soviet, and not East German control – and the exchanges could be carried out without the interference of the East German authorities.

Glienicke Brücke - The Bridge of Spies

Did you know...

That the East German government insisted on renaming the Glienicker Brücke as the 'Bridge of Unity' during the Cold War era - at a time when friendship between East and West was far from certain.

Berlin’s relationship with nearby Potsdam has long since been defined by the investment that the former Hohenzollern royal family made in the area, when choosing to construct their summer residences west of the Prussian capital and in this neighbouring city. 

The most famous of these palaces being Sanssouci, constructed in 1747 by King Frederick II (also known as Frederick the Great).

When, three years later, a permanent mail connection was introduced between Berlin and Potsdam, the carriages responsible for delivery would drive across a small wooden bridge built at this point on the river Havel. Following Fredrick the Great’s death, and due to increased traffic, the bridge would be fully absorbed into the Berlin-Potsdamer Chaussee with the introduction of a toll system and the construction of a Chausseehaus (Toll House) next to the bridge here. Which by the end of the 18th century had developed into a wooden drawbridge to allow for increased river traffic.

This route would later be integrated into the Reichsstrasse 1, which from 1934 until 1945 ran 1392 kilometres across Europe – from the Dutch border near Aachen to the Polish corridor in West Prussia via Berlin. 

Since the end of the Second World War, the section that remains in German territory has been known as Bundesstrasse 1 – and crosses the Glienicker Brücke as it enters Berlin from Potsdam.

The Glienicke Brücke
Statue at the Potsdam side of the Glienicke Brücke

One day after the ‘Fall of the Berlin Wall’ in 1989, the Bridge of Spies was opened to pedestrian traffic and cars – with long lines of East German Trabants queued up to shuttle people back and forth across this now defunct border crossing which for almost three decades had remained symbolically closed to ordinary East Germans. Although, even during the Cold War period, attempted, and successful escapes were not unheard of here. 

In 1988, three people from the East even managed to smash through the barriers on the bridge and escape to the West in an industrial truck.

Since 1990, the Glienicker Brücke has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage List of Parks and Palaces in Potsdam and Berlin, as the connecting element between these two cities.

Walking across the bridge today, it is possible to retrace the steps taken by those Cold War spies and released prisoners here, at the height of a conflict that appeared to have no end in sight – and the jubilant crowds of people who gathered here in 1989 to celebrate the unexpected end of this era. 

As the river Havel continues to flow slowly under this important symbol, it stands silent witness to all that has occured here over the last 100 years of its life – and as a conduit to freedom of movement where there previously was so little.

The Bridge of Spies

Some useful links related to the Bridge of Spies:

The Berlin government page on the Bridge of Spies (Glienicke Brücke)

Featured Experiences- Berlin Experiences