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Berlin’s Bridge of Spies

The Glienicke Bridge (Glienicker Brücke), which crosses the River Havel on the border between Berlin and Potsdam, seems an inconsequential place today. Appearances, however, can be deceptive since this particular bridge, one of Germany’s most storied, is also known as the Bridge of Spies.

by Duncan J.D. Smith

Wood, Stone and Steel

The story of the bridge begins back in the mid-17th century, when the growth of Berlin-Cölln, capital of the March of Brandenburg, was hindered by a series of plagues and famines, as well as the ravages of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). The population had fallen to just 6,000 and Potsdam was viewed as a remote backwater on the opposite side of the Havel. A day’s coach journey away, it was only accessible by a modest wooden bridge.

The situation only changed with the accession of Frederick William, the Great Elector (1640–1688), whose linking of the Spree and Oder Rivers made Berlin the hub of Brandenburg trade. Then in 1660 he selected Potsdam as his secondary residence, after Berlin, inaugurating a daily coach link between the two royal capitals in 1754. The introduction in 1838 of a rail link prompted the construction of a new, sturdier bridge built to a design by renowned architect Carl Frederick Schinkel (1781–1841). Made this time from stone, it retained a wooden central section that could be raised to allow steamers to pass along what had now become a busy waterway. Inevitably, however, the volume of traffic using the bridge increased so that in 1904 a competition was announced to design an even bigger bridge. This time a suspension bridge made from steel, it opened on 16th November 1907.

Bridge of Unity

Despite being damaged in late April 1945, this incarnation of the Glienicke Bridge reopened for business in December 1949. This was shortly after the foundation of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, whose borders ran across it. As such it was named the Brücke der Einheit (‘Bridge of Unity’).

From now on the bridge was primarily used by the Allies as a link between their Berlin zones of occupation and the military liaison missions in Potsdam (the residents of Berlin and Potsdam preferred to use the S-Bahn). Then on 27th May 1952, the bridge was closed to citizens of West Berlin and the Federal Republic. Following the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, citizens of the GDR were also prevented from using it. Ironically, the ‘Bridge of Unity’ had become a symbol of division.

Despite this, the bridge was one of the very few places in the world where the United States and the Soviet Union stood facing each other directly. It was thus deemed the ideal location for the exchange of prisoners during the Cold War (1949–1989). The media quickly dubbed it the ‘Bridge of Spies’ and it gained lasting celluloid fame in the 1966 film Funeral in Berlin starring Michael Caine.

Gary Powers

The first and most famous prisoner exchange took place on 10th February 1962, when American pilot Francis Gary Powers (1929–1977) was swapped for noted KGB spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (real name William Fisher) (1903–1971). Powers stood at the east (Berlin) end of the bridge and Abel at the west (Potsdam), the two simply nodding at each other as they passed. Powers had been captured on 1st May 1960 after his U-2 aircraft was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Sverdlovsk in Soviet airspace. Since the U-2 was designed for covert photographic surveillance, the Soviets imprisoned him for espionage.

Although later cleared by a Senate Armed Services Select Committee, Powers was cold shouldered by the CIA for not having deployed his aircraft’s self-destruct mechanism or his suicide pin sealed inside a hollow silver dollar. Powers later worked for Lockheed as a test pilot and died in 1977, at the age of just 47, when a television helicopter he was piloting crashed in Los Angeles. Only in 2000, on the 40th anniversary of Powers being shot down, was his surviving family presented with his Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, and National Defense Service Medal, all awarded posthumously.

Second Exchange

A second exchange of prisoners occurred on 12th June 1985, in a hastily arranged operation during which four East European “scouts” arrested in the West were swapped for 23 American secret agents held in Eastern Europe. It was the largest prisoner exchange since the end of the Second World War.

On the first of December in the same year the GDR agreed to the bridge reverting back to its original name, in return for assistance in its upkeep. So it was that the Glienicke Bridge became the scene for the third and final exchange of prisoners on 11th February 1986. Nine people were involved, namely five agents from the East, including the Soviet spy Karl Koecher, and four from the West, including human rights campaigner and political prisoner Anatoly Sharansky.

Inevitably in the face of mass demonstrations against the East German regime, and an increasing number of attempted border crossings (including one in 1988 by three Potsdam citizens who forced their way across the Glienicke Bridge in a lorry), the Berlin Wall was officially opened on 9th November 1989. At 6pm the following day, the Glienicke Bridge was also reopened to pedestrians. The bridge’s border defences were finally dismantled after unification was declared on 3rd October 1990.

The bridge of spies is just one feature from Only in Berlin: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan J.D. Smith (published by The Urban Explorer). Find out more about the Berlin guide or purchase online.


Also in this series by Duncan J.D. Smith:


About the Author

Explorer and travel writer Duncan JD Smith first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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