A few days after Christmas in 1976, Jeffrey Schevitz ’62 crossed into East Berlin, met a local contact, and proceeded to a Stasi safehouse, ready to move to Communist East Germany.
One of the stranger episodes of Cold War espionage followed, a tale of shocking betrayal, or — depending on your ideological point of view — of committed embrace of Communist ideals and its infamous secret police. Schevitz, son of a Delaware cobbler, would spy for 13 years for the Stasi — short for Staatssicherheitsdienst, the Ministry for State Security — for which he was later convicted in a German court.
As the “shield and the sword” of the Communist Party, the Stasi maintained a vast network of domestic and international agents and informants to monitor and curtail any possible subversive activities. From factories to universities, churches to bedrooms, no corner of East German life remained free of Stasi surveillance and intimidation, creating a climate of pervasive angst. The Stasi sought to stifle independent thought and action that might threaten the East German state and stood ready to imprison potential troublemakers.
Schevitz, who told his story to PAW last summer, began to learn German at Princeton and first visited the East German capital as an undergrad days before the Communist part of Germany built the Berlin Wall in August 1961. In a series of articles for The Daily Princetonian that fall, he described his impressions, recalling how an East German union official allowed him to survey workers for his senior thesis comparing East and West German and U.S. labor unions.
“A fortuitous occurrence on the third day of my stay began a concatenation of events that turned out to be some of the most rewarding of my life,” Schevitz wrote. “I asked this official if I might be permitted to visit a factory and distribute a questionnaire which I was constructing. To my astonishment he asked me no probing questions. He responded with a laconic ‘Why not?’ ”
Fifteen years later, as Schevitz tells PAW, he was back in Germany as an assistant professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Freie Universität in West Berlin. But by 1976, he had soured on both U.S. academia and capitalism. He began to watch East German television, and as he viewed reports on the central role of workers and the achievements of collective farms, he remembered how East Germany had opened its doors to his undergraduate research. He decided to take a closer look during weekend trips to the other side of the wall.
Before long, Schevitz and his girlfriend, Beatrice Altman, a former SUNY Buffalo student, decided they should experience socialism by living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). They sought advice from a handful of Westerners residing in East Berlin.
“He asked me lots and lots and lots and lots about the GDR,” says Victor Grossman, 94, a Harvard grad who defected to East Germany in 1952. “It wasn’t always so easy to adjust for an American couple from the States. You had to get used to a different life here, obviously.”
Expats introduced Schevitz to “Lutz Schindler,” a government translator who offered to help facilitate a move to East Germany. In reality, Schevitz learned during his own trial, Schindler was Peter Zaumseil, a part-time Stasi collaborator. He took Schevitz to a safehouse near Alexanderplatz to meet Horst Anders, soon to become head of the Stasi’s foreign-espionage department focused on penetrating the West German government, and his deputy, Wildo Arndt.
The Stasi often needed to blackmail, bribe, coerce, or seduce to recruit agents. But no one had to strong-arm Schevitz, who believed in Communism and says he thought the spying could help prevent nuclear war. “You can help us much more if you stay in the West,” the officials proposed. Intrigued and excited to join the struggle on the Cold War’s front line, Schevitz signed a statement of commitment to the Stasi organization.
Altman, who would become his second wife a few months later, also joined up. Only a handful of other Americans are known to have worked for the Stasi’s foreign-intelligence service, experts say. By contrast, about 1,500 West Germans worked for the unit near the end of the 1980s, according to Georg Herbstritt, an expert on the Stasi materials in the German Federal Archives.
How does a largely apolitical Princeton grad become a spy for East Germany? Schevitz’s Princeton classmates could never have imagined his embrace of Communism. “Jeff was never strident about anything at that time,” says John Dunn ’62, Schevitz’s roommate for two years and best man at his first wedding, at the end of senior year. “Politics was not what we talked about. We talked about women because it was an all-male school.”
“His interests included the usual undergraduate stuff — parties, girls, etc.,” agrees Bill de Decker, ’62 *67, another of six friends who roomed together in the then-new Gauss Hall.
Several months after graduation, Schevitz began working on a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. The school exposed him to radical ideas. De Decker visited him there twice and noticed his roommate’s transformation. During the first visit, over Thanksgiving in 1962, his old pal seemed unchanged. But when de Decker returned the following summer as a young aerospace engineer working at a defense contractor, friends at Schevitz’s apartment greeted him with hostility.
“I was called all sorts of names and told that I was in the business of killing people,” he recalls. “When I tried to explain I was actually working on the Apollo moon program, it got worse, since they started accusing me of taking the food out of poor people’s mouths. … When I asked Jeff what he thought about all of that, he did not disagree and in fact said he agreed with it.”
In 1964, Schevitz joined Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. And as U.S. intervention in Vietnam intensified, Schevitz became a fervent antiwar activist. Eventually even liberal Berkeley appeared constraining.
His next stop, in 1969, was Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught in a sociology department becoming known as a hotbed of radicals, and agitated alongside students. “My major activities since graduation have involved learning about and struggling against American corporate capitalism, which appears to me the root cause of the war in Indochina, racism, and the great economic and political inequality in the U.S.,” Schevitz wrote in his Princeton 10th-reunion yearbook, in 1972.
Schevitz’s appointment at Washington University was not renewed. He landed at SUNY Buffalo. When the department there denied him tenure in 1976, he moved to Berlin.
The Stasi told their new West Berlin-based recruit to transform himself from a Berkeley firebrand back into a clean-cut Princetonian. Schevitz trimmed his long hair, bought new clothes, stopped attending public protests, and quit meeting expats in East Berlin.
Schevitz, code-named “Robert,” aided by his wife Altman-Schevitz, known as “Lares,” started spying in early 1977. As he learned the ropes, he says, he passed on minor items such as his institute’s telephone directory and lists of schedules and events. He took notes on acquaintances, including their personal problems — details the Stasi could use to compromise and blackmail people. He soon felt more valued, with a greater sense of purpose than he’d felt in academia, he says.
From time to time, Schevitz met Lutz in the West, as well as his Stasi superiors in East Berlin. Every week he and Altman-Schevitz tuned into a Grundig shortwave radio to write down a string of numbers. They subtracted their personal code, then used a cipher to decode the message. To contact Stasi headquarters, Schevitz could telephone one of several numbers dedicated only to him. A call to one line followed by a quick hang-up announced he was ready to drop off documents. Another number signaled that Schevitz and his wife were being followed.
Only once did the couple believe that a Western agent was closing in on them, Schevitz says. The incident occurred in West Berlin after they returned from East Berlin with the latest codes and a false-bottom bag full of cash. They ducked into a Chinese restaurant. Altman-Schevitz went into the bathroom and inserted the rolled-up wad of paper codes as she might a tampon.
Schevitz’s reporting in West Berlin proved of limited use, his superiors later said, so the spy agency paid for his move to the West German capital, Bonn, in 1978, where he was tasked with finding out what was going on behind closed doors in the West German chancellery and identifying new Stasi agents. With a new job at the German Council on Foreign Relations, he transmitted a telephone list of its employees and his assessments of different people, including a friendly, single-mother librarian, for whom he suggested that the Stasi deploy a “Romeo agent” to seduce and recruit. It is not clear if the Stasi acted on his idea.
His trial revealed that the Stasi rated Schevitz’s usefulness in Bonn as “below average.” He moved again to become a researcher at the Karlsruhe Nuclear Research Center in 1980. There Schevitz devised a better way to penetrate the West German government. Under the guise of moonlighting for an American energy-consulting firm, Schevitz paid two well-connected experts he befriended for reports on energy, technology, and environmental policies.
To relay these photographed reports, Schevitz or Altman-Schevitz would board an overnight train traveling between Basel and Berlin. One or the other would hide the film cannisters above a ceiling tile in a train bathroom. Inside the lavatory the spies also collected cash for expenses. Afterward, they would leave a tiny mark outside to signal the drop.
During these years Schevitz also participated in the Princeton Alumni Association of Germany. He organized the alumni group’s first summer event, a sail down the Neckar River, recalls David T. Fisher ’69, a co-founder of the group. He interviewed high school applicants. Schevitz and his wife also raised a son, who was born in 1978.
On Dec. 28, 1989, more than six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Schevitz traveled to East Berlin for a last meeting with his two Stasi superiors. Even if he had never produced intelligence blockbusters, he had served loyally for a long time and been decorated with medals for merit and length of service.
With the collapse of East Germany approaching, his superiors told Schevitz they would destroy files related to his work. He had made 161 drops and commissioned 25 reports, making him a top producer among foreign-intelligence agents in terms of sheer quantity, according to a later official study. In early 1990, Schevitz received a final instruction: Destroy your cipher and records. He threw the film cannister that would expose film if opened incorrectly into the Neckar.
Then, in May 1994, German agents — with new insights obtained from 381 CD-ROMs with microfilmed documents from destroyed Stasi records — arrested him at his Karlsruhe home.
During the trial, Schevitz contended he had been a CIA double agent, asserting he had only sent the Stasi disinformation. The judge did not believe him, and he now concedes it was not true. He was convicted in November 1995 of working as a Stasi spy and sentenced to 18 months in prison; the court suspended the sentence (he spent four months in prison after his arrest) and ordered him to pay more than $10,000 to a charity, saying he had not caused serious harm to West Germany. Altman-Schevitz was convicted and fined $7,000.
After the trial, the Princeton Alumni Association of Germany declared Schevitz persona non grata. “It was a very emotional thing, because everybody liked Jeffrey,” says Fisher.
Schevitz expresses pride in his espionage work for the East during the Cold War. He does not express regrets. “I felt that I was helping prevent a war and that I was giving East Germany breathing space.”
Today Schevitz, 81, and Altman-Schevitz live in Trauchgau, a quaint Bavarian village where flowers spill over the balconies of traditional homes. Steps from the town church and clock tower, the couple rent a centuries-old two-story home. Their windows overlook neat piles of logs in neighboring yards and the Allgäu Alps beyond.
For many years, Schevitz did not discuss his Stasi past and maintained the fiction that he had worked for the CIA so that he and his wife could keep their post-espionage jobs, he as a family therapist and representative for a medical-device company. After both retired, they agreed to talk publicly, ahead of the January publication of Altman-Schevitz’s memoir, in German, of her life as a spy. Over two days in conversation with PAW, the two confirmed the details of their espionage documented in German court records.
Schevitz expresses pride in his espionage work. He does not express regrets. “I felt that I was helping prevent a war and that I was giving East Germany breathing space. I never thought I was responsible for the Easterners using that breathing space,” he says. If East Germans messed it up, he suggests, “I don’t feel responsible; what could I have done?”
He rarely reflects on his impact on the lives of others, like those who suffered under Stasi surveillance. Instead, he focuses on his ideological commitment to socialist ideals. “The intelligence services don’t work in categories of fair and unfair,” he says. “Obviously, as a spy, you’re a little bit devious, or you wouldn’t be successful.” The pursuit of these higher ideals justified any damage he may have caused, he says.
Nor does he regret betraying friends. “This has always been a difficult question to deal with, deceiving somebody I really felt I liked very much,” he says. How does he reconcile that? “A larger political goal of working to prevent an atomic war may sound highfalutin, but that was the task — provide information that could help reduce the confrontation, or the chance of confrontation, between the two societies.”
He knowingly exploited his Princeton background as a cover. “Well, it’s true. But I used it to pursue the ideals that I felt were worth pursuing. And they were ethically defendable ideas, defensible ideas,” he says. Schevitz bristles at the very word “Stasi,” stressing that he worked for the Hauptverwaltung A (HVA) foreign-intelligence wing of the ministry, not the domestic wing known for repression. He insists that his spying did not make him a Stasi agent. “There is no derogatory word for the HVA. ‘Stasi’ is a term used in the ongoing propaganda war,” he says. “My task was not to steal and/or copy secret documents. My task and my ability was to analyze the overlapping and conflicting developing positions within the chancellor’s office and the other major ministries.”
At his Bavarian home, Schevitz keeps his Princeton reunion books, as well as albums of University music and other souvenirs. “I never rejected Princeton,” he says. “I think it’s a wonderful institution.”
Last summer, Schevitz was planning to attend his 60th reunion this year, and his former roommate John Dunn was looking forward to catching up. He had visited Schevitz in Germany during his Stasi years, learning of his friend’s past only in 2021. “I was so surprised,” says Dunn. “That’s really strange.”
Adds former roommate de Decker: “Jeff is probably one of the most puzzling people I’ve ever known.”
The upcoming Princeton gathering wasn’t the only reunion Schevitz planned to attend: Gatherings of former East German spies are usually held every two years — and when the next one takes place, he expects to be there.
Adam Tanner *88 is the author of Our Bodies, Our Data and What Stays in Vegas.