Economist Frederic Pryor Recounts Life as a 'Spy'

Frederic Pryor

For more than half a century, Frederic Pryor has been doing his best to forget about his experiences in East Germany.

“Half a year of prison isn’t fun,” says the professor emeritus of economics and senior research scholar, whom the Stasi, the East German secret police, arrested in 1961 on suspicion of spying. He had written a doctoral dissertation on the foreign trade system of the Soviet bloc, which was misconstrued as intel for the U.S.

Pryor was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, he says, and that was that.

Then along came Bridge of Spies, a film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, which was released to critical acclaim on Friday. It depicts Pryor being freed just before American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was swapped for Soviet KGB spy Rudolph Abel, hinging on the negotiations of attorney James Donovan.

Pryor was “something of an afterthought” in the swap, he says, and the actor playing him has little screen time. But he is referenced throughout the film, which cites his Swarthmore affiliation in the credits.

Pryor first heard about the film from his son during the summer. He had no input on and was not allowed to see the script, and he didn’t see the film until buying a ticket along with his family last weekend. His review?

“Well, I enjoyed the movie,” he said. “It was good. But they took a lot of liberties with it.”

Speaking in his office on Monday morning, between phone calls from reporters from far and wide, Pryor shared his perspective on the film and set the record straight on his real-life experiences.

How do the events depicted in the film compare to your actual experiences?

They had me arrested while the Berlin Wall was being built for trying to help some woman get out. Absolutely false. I wasn’t even in Berlin when the wall was being built. I was in Denmark on vacation, and I came back after it had been up for a couple days. I decided to return to East Berlin, just once, to attend to three things. One, to hear a speech by Walter Ulbricht [the head of the Communist Party], justifying why the wall went up. Two, to visit the sister of a friend of mine to see if she had any messages for me, since communications [between east and west] had been cut. Three, to give a copy of my dissertation to an East German professor who had been helping me.

At what point did you run into trouble?

I went to see my friend’s sister and her landlord said she wasn’t there. But what she failed to tell me was that the woman had fled to the west in some sort of passport manipulation. The Stasi were staking out her apartment to catch anyone coming to get her stuff. I didn’t even get into apartment, but they arrested me. They brought me to the police station. When they found my dissertation, they gasped and sent me to prison. There I remained for almost half a year.  

What was your experience in prison?

I lived from day to day. I knew nothing about the negotiation process to get me out. Letters sent to me, I never got. Christmas packages from my parents, food, I never got them. I was cut off from all communication. They interrogated me every day for four and a half months. Good practice for your German, by the way.

To show you how detailed their interrogation was, I had about 50 slips of paper on me. One was my Yale library card. It said ‘Special Student, Only Room 413.’ We spent an entire week on what that meant. I couldn’t remember. Finally, I remembered I was late in paying my tuition and that the library only allowed me to go to the economic study room to read books I was assigned. Once I told them about it, that was it. But it took a week.

Did things change for you after the interrogations?

They let me read books. A guy would come around with a basket of them. I can still remember the first one that I read, a Socialist realism novel translated from Russian called Cement. It was about a team in Siberia trying to set the world’s record in laying cement. Since it was the first book I had read in four-and-a-half months, I enjoyed it enormously.

In the film, Donovan’s negotiations continue until the moment of your release. Is that true?

No, that was the biggest error. I had been prepared for my release about two days before it occurred. But because the East Germans weren’t happy about releasing me, they played a little trick. When my lawyer drove me to Checkpoint Charlie, they had us sit there for half an hour. The East Germans deliberately delayed the exchange of Powers and Abel, who were not supposed to be exchanged until after I was released. So I sat there until they finally escorted me to the border. It didn’t happen like it did in the movie at all.

How did you know your release was imminent?

About two days before, they started doing special things for me. On the last night in jail, my interrogator came to my cell in the evening and sat there the entire night — so I wouldn’t commit suicide. God knows what was going through their minds. But I slept soundly.

Were there other important inaccuracies in the film?

The portrayal of Wolfgang Vogel, my East German lawyer who was negotiating the communist side, was unfair. They made him out to be a total apparatchik, and one of the villains. He wasn’t. He was a quiet, well-spoken man. The movie made it out to be a political thing, him trying to get the U.S. to publicly recognize the East German government. But it was more a waiting game the East Germans played to show the Russians they had the upper hand. Vogel was actually a very nice guy, whom I later visited several times.

What impact did the arrest have on you, moving forward?

My dissertation had been accepted, so it had no impact on my academic career. But I didn’t want to teach. I wanted a job in the government, the Agency of International Development or the State Department. But they refused to hire anyone to represent them abroad who had been arrested for espionage.

So I went into industry. I had consulted for GM the summer before, so I asked them about a job. But they said no, they didn’t want anyone with a prison record. I said, ‘But it was the commies!’ They said, ‘Tough.’

The only places that didn’t pay mind to my prison experience were colleges and universities. Swarthmore didn’t care. In fact, I think the students kind of got a kick out of having an ex-con teaching them.

Did you ever learn more about the circumstances of your arrest?

I went to East Berlin after the wall went down and I read my Stasi file, which was 5,000 pages. A highlight was that my cellmate was reporting everything we spoke about. I didn’t talk to him about anything important, because I didn’t have anything of importance to tell him. Every time I was interrogated, though, he went the Stasi office to dictate what we had talked about the previous day. One of the things I found out was that an American woman told the Stasi that I was well known to be in the CIA, just to get in their good graces and keep herself out of trouble. They were delighted to hear that and tried to squeeze more out of me, but what could I say? I never even heard of this woman.

What’s it like to see yourself depicted on screen?   

[After the screening,] another person asked me what I thought of the film and I said parts of it were inaccurate. He asked which parts and I told him. He asked how I knew that, and I said ‘I’m Frederic Pryor.’ He and the person he was with were really excited, and I took a picture with them.

I didn’t really think about the film until I was walking back home with my son and my grandchildren. But I had no particular feelings, one way or the other. These events happened more than 50 years ago. You know, I hadn’t forgotten, but they’re of no emotional consequence for me. In other words, no big deal.

Pryor, a specialist in comparative economic systems and international economics, is the author of 13 books and dozens of scholarly articles. He joined the faculty at Swarthmore in 1967 and taught classes at the College until 1998, relishing the work ethic and intelligence of his students. He continues to research a variety of economics subjects that interest him.