As the sun set on May 31, 1991, the streets of Dresden crackled with energy. All day the city had been abuzz with the rumor that there was going to be a riot in the city’s nascent red-light district. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall some 18 months before, the smog-choked, bomb-scarred city in East Germany had changed. Suddenly, it was filled with new imports from the West, including drugs, gambling, and prostitution. Kiosks that once sold Neues Deutschland, the dour Communist Party propaganda sheet, now carried German editions of Playboy and Hustler. One man had sworn to clean house. His name was Rainer Sonntag, and he was a far-right vigilante—an avowed neo-Nazi.
Sonntag was born and raised in Dresden, but had fled across the Iron Curtain to West Germany five years earlier. By the time the wall fell, Sonntag had become one of the West’s leading neo-Nazis, thanks to a willingness to roll up his sleeves and fight. When he returned home, he recruited a ragtag army of acolytes to rid Dresden of influences he claimed were noxious. Most of his followers came from the grim maze of housing projects in Gorbitz, on Dresden’s western edge. The buildings there were filled with young people who had been stripped of stability and purpose by Communism’s implosion. Sonntag had charisma and an uncanny ability to channel the energy and anger of Gorbitz’s youth. They flocked to him, calling him the Sheriff.
Sonntag’s gang of neo-Nazis had started their supposed purification of the city by targeting the hütchenspieler, three-card swindlers who plied their trade on Dresden’s central Prager Strasse. They handcuffed the men and handed them over to the local police. Then the youth hounded the city’s Vietnamese cigarette sellers. Now they were eyeing brothels. Never mind that not so long ago, Sonntag himself had worked in a red-light district in the West; he timed an assault on a Dresden brothel called the Sex Shopping Center for midnight on the last day of May.
Throughout the evening, far-right youth—some with shaved heads, others with the feathery mullets still fashionable in the Eastern Bloc’s dying days—gathered in nearby bars and outside the boarded-up Faun Palace porn cinema, just down the street from the brothel. From behind the wheel of a parked car, Sonntag waited to give the signal to attack. The Sex Shopping Center was run by a Greek pimp named Nicolas Simeonidis and his business partner, Ronny Matz.
Around 11:45 p.m., as Sonntag’s army assembled beneath the Faun Palace’s faded neon sign, Simeonidis and Matz arrived in a black Mercedes to confront them. Simeonidis, a compact amateur boxer with a 16-1 record, brandished a sawed-off shotgun. “Get out of here!” he yelled at the forty or so young men gathered in the street. Simeonidis waved the shotgun in a wide arc, sending the neo-Nazis scattering for cover behind cars and bushes. “Leave us in peace!” he shouted.
Sonntag opened his car door and emerged. He was of average height and stoutly built, with dark, wavy hair and a round, friendly face that even now seemed on the verge of breaking into an infectious smile. Sonntag had charm to spare and a vicious stubborn streak. He wasn’t likely to back down just because his target had a gun—especially not with his troops watching. “Go on, then! Shoot, you coward!” Sonntag called out, removing his jacket and advancing steadily on Simeonidis.
From their hiding places, the neo-Nazis sensed a shift in the balance of the situation. One by one, they emerged to join their leader. They were willing to follow him anywhere.
But Sonntag’s young disciples didn’t know his darkest secret. While outwardly he was a neo-Nazi, he was also a spy for East Germany’s feared secret police, the Stasi. Not only that, he had ties to the KGB. In fact, right up until the Iron Curtain fell, one of his handlers was a young, ambitious Russian officer stationed in Dresden. The handler’s name was Vladimir Putin.
The story that follows is based on dozens of interviews with neo-Nazis, eyewitnesses, and former spies, and hundreds of pages of Stasi files and court records. It is the story of how, more than thirty years before Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, under the disingenuous banner of “de-Nazifying” the country, he and some of his closest intelligence associates helped nourish a neo-Nazi movement across Germany. Their preferred tool for sowing hate and discord was Rainer Sonntag.
Born Rainer Mersiowsky in 1955, Sonntag never met his biological father and took his stepfather’s name. His mother struggled to keep him on the straight and narrow, and he managed to graduate high school only by repeating his penultimate year. Teachers described him as insouciant, weak-willed, and hot-tempered. He needed constant validation and lacked ambition, they said. He was repeatedly disciplined for disrupting lessons.
When he was a teenager, the Free German Youth assigned Sonntag the role of agit-propagandist; he was also a drill leader in Dresden’s Gymnastics and Sports Federation. He had an apprenticeship as a machine worker and was soon tapped to join a paratrooper regiment in the army. But Sonntag wasn’t interested in being a Communist stooge or enduring a lifetime of drudgery for a meager wage. He began acting out. In 1972, police investigated an incident at a local ice-skating rink, where Sonntag had punched some kids in the face “without provocation.” Worse yet, as far as the authorities were concerned, he showed signs of bucking the ideological yoke. Teachers caught him singing a ribald song about the Soviet Union during a football match—a permanent black mark on his fattening police file.
By 1973, as Sonntag stared down his 18th birthday, his future looked bleak. That February, he had drinks with three friends, including a former schoolmate whom authorities referred to in official documentation as “Hans Peter.” They met at the Gasthof Wölfnitz, an old-fashioned beer hall, to discuss a daring plan: escape to the West. Like many people their age stuck behind the Iron Curtain, they dreamed of a life of freedom and material abundance, glimpsed by most East Germans only when they illegally turned their TV antennas toward the West. Around 150,000 East Germans had fled their country since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. Many more had tried and failed.
One of Sonntag’s friends told the group at the Wölfnitz that his little brother had found a pistol in a nearby park. It was rusty and broken, but together they had cleaned and repainted it. They hoped to have it service ready soon in case they needed it during their escape. Another of Sonntag’s friends was in a mountaineering club and had a skill set that could help them navigate the rugged terrain near the border. The young men plotted their route: first to Czechoslovakia, then to Austria, and finally to West Germany. They set a departure date for later that month, drained their beers, and headed home.
It was summer before they acted on the plan, and only Sonntag and one of his friends decided to go. In July, while Sonntag’s mother, stepfather, and brother were on holiday, he rummaged in the family’s television cabinet, looking for the envelope he knew was stashed there. When he opened it he found 350 East German marks, and a second envelope containing 120 Czechoslovakian koruna. He intended to pay his parents back once he got to West Germany and found a job.
He and his friend boarded a bus to Altenberg, a pretty, medieval town high in the mountains on the East Germany border with Czechoslovakia. To avoid suspicion, the young men decided to tarry for a couple of days rather than cross into the neighboring socialist republic right away. Two days later, they woke early and changed their remaining marks into koruna. At 9:45 a.m., carrying nothing but a couple of sweaters, two knives, and his identity papers, and with money hidden in one of his shoes, Sonntag approached the border.
He and his friend were quickly separated and interrogated: What were their plans in Czechoslovakia? Sonntag told a border guard that they were headed to a parachuting competition in Prague. But his friend said they were planning to stop in Teplice, a spa town. Then the patrol found the money in Sonntag’s shoe.
Even if the friends had kept their stories straight, they never stood a chance. Their entire escape plan was already documented in a Stasi file, labeled “Machinist.” The Stasi had gathered every scrap of information they could from Sonntag’s colleagues and neighbors, the Dresden police, and a secret informant: Sonntag’s friend Hans Peter.
Sonntag and his companion were back in Dresden being interrogated by the Stasi that afternoon. “I knew I was forbidden to go to the capitalist West,” reads Sonntag’s confession, part of more than 230 pages of documentation now at the Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. “Although I knew this, I wanted to leave.” His sentence was 18 months of hard labor.
Authorities bounced Sonntag between several prisons during his sentence, including the notoriously tough Bautzen jail, a crumbling brick building known as the Yellow Misery. No matter where he was, Sonntag rebelled. He mocked the guards with his seeming obedience. “I show them a perfect cell, pretty as a picture,” he once wrote. “Three times they searched me and found nothing.” Prisoners spent much of their free time covering one another in primitive tattoos, and Sonntag, whom Stasi informants had noted possessed a talent for sketching, often came up with the designs.
In February 1974, he wrote a letter that he intended to smuggle out to his family. “The guards would love to throw me in solitary but they can’t get to me, I’ve been clever,” he wrote. Sonntag’s cockiness proved misplaced. On his way to the visiting room that month, warders frisked him and found the letter tucked in his sleeve. They punished him with three weeks in solitary.
While it is hard to know whether Sonntag began his drift to the far right while in prison, it would have been next to impossible to avoid exposure to National Socialism behind bars. The East German prison system was practically a university for Nazism; lockup was filled with extremists, and war criminals flaunted their radical views and groomed new recruits. According to Ingo Hasselbach, a reformed far-right activist who spent time in prison in the late 1980s, on Adolf Hitler’s birthday Nazi prisoners would paint swastikas on toilet paper and fashion them into armbands. “It may sound pathetic, but it was an incredible provocation,” Hasselbach wrote in his memoir, Führer-Ex. “Those people had a big influence on me, and on others.” Some prisoners viewed Nazism as the purest form of opposition to communism, the ideology whose agents had put them behind bars. Indeed, embracing far-right beliefs was, ironically, a demonstration of anti-authoritarianism.
For its part, the Communist Party was in denial. “Officially, in East Germany, Nazism didn’t exist,” said Bernd Wagner, a police commissioner who warned of a rising tide of neo-Nazism in 1985, only to see his report to the Politburo hushed up. His bosses’ response was as simple as it was naïve: “In a socialist paradise, Nazism is impossible.”
* * *
After Sonntag was released from prison, he again clashed with authorities. They issued him an ultimatum: work as an informant for the Dresden police or go back to prison. His freedom now depended on spying on his friends. He agreed to be an informant, but became more determined than ever to get out of East Germany. Sonntag was soon plotting another break for the West.
It would be tougher this time round, not least because his criminal conviction had resulted in the police confiscating his identity papers. Crossing the border legally would be out of the question. Over beers at the Rudolf-Renner-Eck pub, he formulated a new plan: Sonntag would hide in the trunk of a car while accomplices, including a young woman with a child, distracted guards at the border between East Germany and Poland, hoping to prevent the officers from searching the vehicle. Once in Poland, they would sell the car to buy passage across the Baltic Sea and out of the Eastern Bloc. But the authorities were several steps ahead of him: This time, the young woman’s mother was the one who ratted him out.
By 1975, Sonntag was back in jail, charged with “attempted flight from the Republic.” While he was behind bars, the Dresden police continued to use him as an informant. Snitching on fellow prisoners could bring all sorts of benefits in East Germany, from cigarettes to a comfier cell to a shorter sentence. Still, it was dangerous work. The faintest whiff of suspicion could be fatal. Sonntag took the risk anyway. When he was released after three and a half years, it didn’t take long for him to be arrested once more, again for theft. He got out two years later, in 1981, this time for good.
Sonntag had little to show for himself, and his dream of escaping to West Germany seemed more distant than ever. But things were starting to change in the East. For years the authorities had ransomed prisoners and criminals to the West as a way of raising hard currency. In the early 1980s, they expanded the practice, and thousands of East Germans began applying to leave. In theory, leaders in West Germany were paying for political dissidents of conscience; in practice, they never knew who would be shipped over. “East Germany palms its neo-Nazis off on us,” one West German politician complained to the newspaper Die Zeit in 1989.
The authorities turned down far more ransom applications than they approved, but Sonntag had little to lose. In 1984, he put in his official request. If he had ties to the far right at the time, which seems likely given his numerous prison sentences, he kept it under wraps. He told his drinking buddies that if he was allowed to leave, he would join the West German army or find work as a private detective.
As ever, the Stasi was listening. In one of the police state’s many paradoxes, “people who asked to leave were, unsurprisingly, suspected of wanting to leave,” writes Anna Funder in Stasiland. In other words, the requests were legal, but the authorities could also choose to view them as a smear against the state. Based on his ransom application, Sonntag was immediately placed under investigation.
Apparatchiks drafted a 16-point operational plan to preempt the escape plan they were sure Sonntag would hatch if his application was rejected. The Stasi’s ubiquitous network of code-named snitches—Peter, Berger, Nitsche, Pilot, Sander, Roland, Eberhard, Brinkmann—monitored Sonntag’s every move. They followed him to his job packing goods, sat across the room at his favorite watering holes, and even hid outside his apartment.
More often than not, they turned up intelligence that was painfully banal. “On October 6 I could confirm Sonntag and his girlfriend were in his flat,” reads a typical report from an informant with the code name Goldbach. “From voices in the corridor, and lights on in the kitchen and living room, I concluded that both people were at home. The extent to which other people were present I was unable to establish. It seemed to me however, that there were several women in the flat. I didn’t get the impression that anybody planned to leave the place in the evening.”
Behind the dull bureaucracy of police surveillance, however, more powerful forces were at work.