Spy who came out of the cold and went into the kitchen

After 25 years service, the head of intelligence at the East German embassy in Beijing was told he was jobless

After 25 years service, the head of intelligence at the East German embassy in Beijing was told he was jobless. He tells Clifford Coonan what he decided to do next

What do spies do when there's no war left to fight? The end of the Cold War left Col Steffen Schindler, head of military intelligence at the East German embassy in Beijing, jobless.

After the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989, fictional spy Ted Mundy, hero of John le Carré's latest novel, Absolute Friends, became a tour guide in Bavaria.

Schindler, the German Democratic Republic's top spy in the Chinese capital, swapped wire taps for a butcher's knife.


"One day they told me after 25 years of service that I didn't need to come into the work the next day. They said, you can go back to the GDR and sign on the dole," says Schindler, speaking in the broad dialect of his native Saxony.

"I was 42 years of age - I had to do something." A good-humoured man in his 50s with a ready smile, Schindler now runs a German food company and a popular restaurant called Schindler's Filling Station, near the Irish embassy in Beijing's diplomatic district.

Sipping a Wernersgruener pilsner in his restaurant on a sub-zero Beijing January evening, Schindler is happy to talk about his Cold War experiences but plays down the cloak-and-dagger elements of spycraft.

"Military intelligence is chiefly about analysing events and concepts and strategies," he says.

"I was in a situation once where I was tailed by several cars. You have to make a decision: should I do something or do I let it go? Or should I just go home and drink a whiskey on my balcony? Which is what I did," he says.

He rejects the popular perception that East Berlin was supporting groups such as the the IRA and Germany's Red Army Faction in a bid to destabilise Western governments.

"Even in the worst depths of the Cold War there was no military link with groups like the IRA or the RAF. We saw them as separatist terrorist organisations. They didn't fit with the party's theoretical basis, they were anarchists and anarchists were undesirables. The IRA had no genuine national goals as far as we were concerned. And there was the whole religious angle. We weren't interested," he says.

"We were interested in UNITA, SWAPO, the ANC," he says, referring to the guerrilla groups of Angola, Namibia and South Africa.

"They seemed like real national liberation movements." Schindler's job meant he knew Cold War legends such as master spy Markus Wolf, but strict hierarchies within the East German intelligence services meant it was unlikely that Wolf was aware of him.

When the Berlin Wall, or the anti-fascist protection barrier as it known in the GDR, fell, he was surprised at the pace of change, with reunification of the two Germanys coming the next year. Too hasty, in Schindler's view.

"The euphoria of the Wall coming down should not have infected the government. It should have kept its foot on the brake a bit," he says.

There was no room in a unified Germany for former spies, leaving Schindler looking for something to do.

A group of top intelligence officers from several embassies, including the United States and Britain, would meet regularly in Beijing for informal talks and a few drinks. A cosy picture which contradicts the traditional image of Cold War hostilities.

It was through this loose alliance of fellow military attaches that Schindler found his new career.

After a tip-off from his Algerian colleague, Schindler got into the slaughtering game and soon found himself back in Germany learning to be a butcher.

"The head of a German meat firm said I could re-train as a butcher in four months, which meant I wasn't qualified to make sausages - that takes much longer," says Schindler.

He came back to China in 1991 where he managed a joint-venture slaughterhouse, then set up a butcher's shop in 1992. In 1999 he set up a company providing German food and in 2002 he opened Schindler's Filling Station.

Schindler enjoys talking about his restaurant, which serves central and southern German cuisine, with the occasional Berlin speciality, and beers from the former GDR.

But Schindler's first love was the military.

"I loved being in the military. I grew up with the army, it was a great career. I miss that." Schindler is not what you expect a spymaster to look like, but then John le Carré would no doubt tell us how that is exactly how a master of espionage should appear.

"I love John le Carré's books. I have them all. But what John le Carré describes is slightly different from my metier.

"The things that happen in le Carré happened once upon a time, but we now live in the age of satellite photography, high tech communications equipment, infra red technology.

"The modern media works like an intelligence service - if something happens, it's around the world straight away. No intelligence service can compete."