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The Imperfect Spy

Man Without A Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster

by Markus Wolf
Times Books, 367 pp., $25.00

Die Troika (The Troika)

by Markus Wolf. (out of print)
Hildesheim, 256 pp.

In eigenem Auftrag (On My Own Orders)

by Markus Wolf. (out of print)
Munich: Schneekluth, 366 pp.

Geheimnisse der russischen Küche (Secrets of Russian Cuisine)

by Markus Wolf
Munich: Piper, 224 pp., DM 16,90

Markus Wolf: ‘Ich bin kein Spion’ (Markus Wolf: ‘I Am Not a Spy’)

by Irene Runge, by Uwe Stelbrink. (out of print)
Berlin: Dietz, 126 pp.

Spymaster: The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret Police

by Leslie Colitt
Addison-Wesley, 302 pp., $23.00

Wolfs West-Spione (Wolf’s West-Spies)

by Peter Richter, by Klaus Rösler
Berlin: Elefanten Press, 190 pp., DM 24,90

Some six years ago, I heard “the greatest spymaster of our century”—to quote Times Books’ jacket hype—testify at the trial of one of his former subordinates in a Munich court. The judge started by asking “the witness Wolf” to give his name, address, age—and then his profession. “I work as an author,” said Wolf. A titter went round the courtroom, and even the judge could not restrain a smile.

In fact, since he retired in 1986, after thirty-three years as the head of East German foreign intelligence, Markus “Mischa” Wolf has been equally active and successful as an author. He has also given gainful employment to many other writers. His first book, in 1989, The Troika, was a sentimental memoir of his brother, the film director Konrad Wolf, and three other friends from their shared childhood in Stalinist Moscow. In 1990, there appeared Markus Wolf: “I Am Not a Spy”—a title that surely deserves the Kurt Waldheim Prize for Denial. This was a book-length interview with two sympathetic East German questioners. In 1991, Wolf published his second book, called On My Own Orders, an edited version of his notes and diary of the year of wonders 1989, topped and tailed with a few autobiographical reflections. Two years ago he produced a cookbook with his favorite Russian recipes, predictably named Secrets of Russian Cuisine.1

Meanwhile, beside a flood of newspaper interviews and television appearances, the now celebrated spy-author has already been the subject of several books by other writers, including one in English by the long-serving Berlin correspondent of the Financial Times, Leslie Colitt, entitled Spymaster: The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret Police. Initially, Wolf’s memoirs were to be published by Bertelsmann, but the West German media giant then pulled out in a fit of morality. Stout-hearted Random House stepped in where Bertelsmann feared to tread, and the American publisher is now orchestrating the worldwide simultaneous publication of this authorized version of his life, with much publicity—hindered only by the fact that the United States has so far denied the author a visa on the grounds that he was implicated in the Stasi’s well-documented support for international terrorism.

We must therefore brace ourselves for another torrent of copywriter’s clichés: “legendary spy chief,” “in from the cold,” “real-life Karla.” Never mind that John le Carré firmly denies having had Wolf in mind, not just for his Russian Karla but also for a figure more plausibly associated with Wolf: the Jewish intellectual East German intelligence officer Fiedler, bullied by his coarse, anti-Semitic superior Mundtin The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The fact that Fiedler was actually called “Wolf” in an earlier draft of that novel is pure coincidence, says le Carré: he took the name “Wolf” from his lawnmower. Yet when I spoke to the real Wolf in Berlin last year, he told me that he had read le Carré’s novel soon after it came out in 1963, and was amazed at the uncanny way in which the novelist had echoed, in the Fiedler-Mundt conflict, the tensions of his own relationship with his superior, Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security. Was British intelligence that good, he wondered.

So can one, even now, really disentangle fact and fiction, author and spy, Wolf and “Wolf”?

Man Without a Face is billed as an “autobiography.” But it is that only in part. A bravura opening chapter describes various attempts to woo his cooperation by West German, American and even, it seems, Israeli intelligence, in the months between the collapse of the East German Communist regime in the autumn of 1989 and formal unification in October 1990. There is a hilarious description of two gentlemen from the CIA appearing at his dacha outside East Berlin, bearing flowers and a box of chocolates for his wife, and offering him a new life in California. He later realized that the costive, fervently non-smoking Mr. Gardner A. Hathaway was really after the identity of the Soviet agent at the heart of the CIA. But while Wolf had heard hints from Soviet comrades, he did not then know the name of Aldrich Ames.

The book then flashes back to a rather perfunctory account of his German childhood as the son of the gifted, womanizing, naturist, left-wing playwright Friedrich Wolf; his happy, Russian-speaking youth in Moscow in the 1930s (not such a happy place for many others, as he fairly remarks); and his diversion from a dreamed-of career in aeronautical engineering to the Comintern school at Kushnarenkovo, where he was given the first of many false names. Returning to the Soviet-occupied part of Germany at the age of twenty-three, he became a journalist (covering, among other things, the Nuremberg trials) and a diplomat, before joining, at the age of twenty-eight, the fledgling foreign intelligence service, known initially as the “Institute for Economic Scientific Research” and later as the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (literally, “Main Administration [of] Enlightenment”), or HVA for short.

The story of the service is taken forward more or less chronologically to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, but then broken, for the largest part of the book, into a series of thematic chapters on different aspects of his and the State Security Service’s work: the so-called “Romeo” spies (sent to seduce women secretaries), traitors, double and triple agents, disinformation, terrorism, Cuba. This is to a significant degree the result of further questioning (not to say interrogation) by his coauthor, Anne McElvoy, herself the author of an excellent book about Communist East Germany,2 and by his American editors.

The end product is certainly the most substantial piece of Wolf literature to date. While he holds to the retired intelligence officer’s first commandment, “Thou shalt not betray thy agents,” so many of them have already been exposed that he is able to tell their stories. He adds some interesting detail to the story of Günter Guillaume, his man in Willy Brandt’s Chancellery, whose exposure as an East German agent precipitated Brandt’s resignation. For example, he says that the copies of top secret documents from Brandt’s Norwegian holiday retreat, which Guillaume claimed to have sent East, never actually reached him—because the messenger took fright and dumped them. On the famous case of Otto John, the first head of West Germany’s domestic security service, the “Office for the Protection of the Constitution,” who turned up in East Berlin one day in 1954, he claims that John did not willingly defect. Rather, he was driven across the border by a man he trusted (who was, in fact, a Soviet agent) while depressed about the rehabilitation of former Nazis in the West—and not entirely sober.

While playing down his own direct involvement, Wolf nonetheless catalogs the Stasi’s extensive involvement with terrorism. Its officials played host to and supported members of ETA, the IRA, the West German Red Army Faction—whom they gave further training in how to blow up civilians—and the dreadful Carlos, hanging out in the bar at the Palast Hotel in East Berlin where, fortunately, “the prostitutes all reported to State Security.” He describes how the Stasi3 and the KGB helped to finance and support part of the West German peace movement, the so-called “Generals for Peace.” He is scathing about the CIA, whose agents in the 1980s were, he claims, so bad that the East Germans began to worry that the Americans were not taking them seriously anymore. As for the West German foreign intelligence service, the BND, they had that almost totally penetrated.

He is best on German-German spying, and the larger context in which it took place. “Germany in the early 1950s,” he writes, “was a huge web of declared and undeclared connections, secret shame, and covert loyalties on both the Right and the Left. Nothing was certain, no one could be trusted completely, appearances deceived.” He emphasizes how many subtle gradations of cooperation with the East there were, especially in the period of détente, with its ideology of promoting West-East contacts of all kinds, and how careful his service often was to keep Westerners confused. Thus for his contacts with a senior West German businessman, Christian Steinrücke, Wolf invented “a whole alternative family life.” When Steinrücke came to dinner, Wolf took over a small villa where a pretty announcer from East German television pretended to be his wife. Pictures of her children were prominently displayed.

He is interesting about the motives of the people who did become conscious agents. For a start, there were the lonely secretaries in Bonn, frustrated by the acute postwar shortage of men, and then picked up by Wolf’s “Romeos”—a West German journalists’ label used in this book, although Wolf told me they never used it in the ministry at the time. He writes, for example, of the West German woman called Margarete who began to have pangs of guilt, like her namesake in Goethe’s Faust. Her conscience was assuaged by a Stasi officer masquerading as a Danish priest, who solemnly heard her confession and assured her that to go on passing secrets was no sin. It also leads him to some dry reflections on human nature: “One thing my job taught me is that women know far more about their husbands than the men think they know.”

Besides sex—or is it love?—there was also what he calls the “erotic appeal of the East.” Many Westerners were excited by that exotic, dangerous world behind the Wall. Then, very importantly, there was the West German protest generation of 1968, with its revulsion against a Federal Republic which had not “confronted” the Nazi past, and its hope of “another republic” of the left. This generation was a rich recruiting ground for his service. A mixture of all these motives seems to have been at work in one of his best agents, Gabriele Gast, a senior analyst with the BND, whose perceptive reports on the state of the Soviet bloc landed both on Chancellor Kohl’s desk and on General Wolf’s. There were also the usual personal frustrations—the sense of being passed over at work, drink and money problems—which brought two very senior figures in the West German security service to work for the East.

Even if we all along suspected it, the sheer quantity of spying and the degree of interpenetration between East and West Germany are staggering. In the 1950s, he estimates, there were as many as eighty secret service organizations operating in Berlin, and “one sometimes had the impression that half of Bonn was employed watching the other.” “By the end of the cold war,” he writes, Russian intelligence “came to the conclusion, which they still hold, that it was impossible to know with certainty whic h side any German agent was working for.”

Ironically enough, this becomes part of his retrospective self-justification. He is skeptical about what intelligence services can ever achieve; you can often learn more, he observes at one point, by a careful reading of the press. But he argues that they did contribute to keeping the peace during the cold war, precisely because each side was so well-informed about the other’s military hardware, strategy, and real intentions. There is some plausibility in this argument.

  1. 1

    He is famed for his pelmeni, Russian dumplings. In Man Without a Face he recalls that he cooked pelmeni with Kim Philby “so we could compare our versions of this dish, with its highly individualistic combination of ingredients.” This is one of many small scenes in the book around which a whole play could be written.

  2. 2

    Anne McElvoy, The Saddled Cow: East Germany’s Life and Legacy (Faber and Faber, 1992).

  3. 3

    Wolf avoids the pejorative term “Stasi” (short for Staatssicherheitsdienst, State Security Service, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, Ministry for State Security), as do most former Stasi officers.He also says in a footnote that “to my knowledge the term Stasi became popular after the events of 1989.” This is one small indication of how out of touch he was with ordinary people in East Germany, for anyone who lived there as an ordinary person can testify that the term was widely used in private conversation.

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