Markus Wolfe
Markus Wolfe; drawing by David Levine

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.

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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.

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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.

His second line of justification is the classic tu quoque. “Our sins and our mistakes were those of every other intelligence agency,” he writes on the very first page. “Crimes were committed by both sides in the global struggle.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the methods used by the East, he argues, were only occasionally more brutal than those used by the West—and less so than those of the CIA in Latin America, or of many secret services in the Middle East. Certainly he and his colleagues used sex, bribery, and blackmail, but not, he claims, torture or what this text racily calls “wet jobs” (i.e., murder). Such deaths as there were usually resulted, he rather feebly suggests, from an overdose of knockout drugs while someone was being kidnapped from the West. He, like his counterparts in the West, thought the end justified these means. And he believed in the noble goal which he calls “socialism” to the bitter end—and even beyond it. The last words of his book are a defiant reaffirmation of faith in Marxism, in the words of another book title: A demain, Karl.

He does nonetheless ask himself—or is asked by his coauthor and editors—whether he feels guilt or remorse. He makes a rather strained distinction between “responsibility,” a matter of conscience, which he does accept, and “guilt,” a matter of law, which he does not. This is hardly persuasive, although understandable given that he has spent the last few years in and out of court. He was actually sentenced to six years in prison for “treason” by a Düsseldorf court in 1993. Pointing out that the German legal term was Landesverrat, literally “betrayal of country,” Wolf reasonably asks: “Which country was I supposed to have betrayed?” For the Federal Republic only became his country on October 3, 1990. To its credit, the Constitutional Court accepted the obvious force of this objection and overturned the conviction. However, at the end of May—as if to coincide with publication—he was given a two-year suspended jail sentence on charges relating to three cases from early in the cold war: the kidnapping of a Stasi officer and his girlfriend who had fled to the West, the abduction of a NATO secretary whom the Stasi hoped to recruit, and the prolonged detention of an East German whom they wanted to involve in a plot to frame Willy Brandt as a Nazi collaborator. I believe this campaign to convict Wolf in the West German courts has been ill-advised, weakening rather than reinforcing the credibility of the “rule of law” in the newly united country. It beggars belief to suppose that operatives of Western secret services never did anything of this kind in the tough early years of the cold war, yet there is no suggestion of prosecuting them. So much for absolute equality before the law. Many, particularly East Germans, will be strengthened in the belief that there is one law for Easterners and another for Westerners.

The historical and ethical verdict is another matter. Wolf does say he feels remorse about the fate of particular persons, although this contrasts somewhat with the cold, detached, amused way in which he tells the stories of people who ended up in West German jails for many years. More substantially, he expresses what in the Communist movement used to be called “self-criticism” for failing to be more critical, sooner, first of Stalinism and then of the Honecker regime. His defense here is that he believed that “change could only come from the top down.” He thought that nothing would be achieved by East German dissidents like Robert Havemann, a former Stalinist who became one of the Honecker regime’s most outspoken critics in the 1970s, or by protest movements from below. Yet he also acknowledges that Poland’s Solidarity overturned this conventional wisdom.

The real problem for his claim of moral equivalence between the spies of East and West is the extent to which his foreign intelligence service was integrated with the vast apparatus of domestic repression. This is a point to which he returns several times, usually in a spirit of denial. “I did not see the intelligence service as part of a repressive structure,” he says. His work in foreign intelligence was “a separate and more defensible sphere of activity.” He was “adamantly against physically violent or dangerous actions.” Of the departments of the Stasi who directly supported terrorists he writes, “They did their work, I did mine.” However, he admits there was “the standard bureaucratic cooperation with counterintelligence,” and that “we were well aware of what was going on, and of counterintelligence’s often harsh methods.”

Behind this euphemism is a reality which is by now very familiar to all German readers, and which even in the English-speaking world has put “Stasi”next to “Gestapo” as a synonym for evil. The methods the Stasi used against their own people were not, to be sure, as physically brutal as those of the security services in Latin America or South Africa, although critics were beaten up, harshly interrogated, and incarcerated. In a state where one in every fifty people had a direct connection with the secret police—either as full-time employee or part-time collaborator—they did not need to be so physically brutal. Subtle, detailed plans were worked out to instill fear, sow suspicion, or turn a prominent dissident’s wife and children against him. East Germany in, say, 1984 was probably as near as we have come in real life to the state of total surveillance that Orwell depicted in 1984.

Wolf again insists that none of this domestic repression was his responsibility. Referring to a well-known characterization of East Germany as a “niche society,” in which most people withdrew into some private sphere—a country bungalow, sport, an unpolitical job—he even goes so far as to say that the HVA was his “niche.”

This really will not do. The HVA and the domestic apparatus of the Stasi were not separate services, like the CIA and FBI or the British MI6 and MI5. The HVA was a department of the Stasi; its offices were within the ministry’s main compound. Other Stasi officers to whom I have talked confirm that it was more distinct than other departments and had a somewhat different and, they generally agree, a better code of behavior. But it was much more closely integrated with the rest of the Stasi than Wolf now contrives to suggest.

Proof of this is made more difficult by the fact that most of the papers of the HVA have either been destroyed or, it is has been suggested, removed to Moscow. Yet in the one hundred and eleven miles of surviving files from the main body of the ministry there remains ample evidence of the closest day-to-day cooperation. In my own file, for example, there is a routine instruction for an informer of the HVA to be deployed against me.4 Wolf himself mentions in passing that “a former agent of my department named Knut [sic] Wollenberger was infiltrated into Havemann’s group of democratic reformers in order to pressure and subvert it.” Some readers may not realize that Knud Wollenberger’s case provides one of the most notorious examples of private betrayal to have been revealed since unification. He informed on his own wife from the moment they met. So much for the clean hands of the HVA.

As for the bullying, paranoid Mielke, who was still toasting Stalin into the 1970s: although their relationship was tense, Wolf was one of his deputy ministers and worked with him very closely for more than thirty years. In perhaps the book’s strangest revelation, we learn that when they visited Moscow together, Mielke “insisted on sharing a room with me because he was lonely or maybe, given the surroundings, a little afraid. At night my companion would snore violently, which was scarcely a recipe for a relaxing week.” Poor Mischa, deprived of his beauty sleep.

But what of the people whose lives were ruined by Mielke’s men? For example, those of Knud Wollenberger’s wife and children; not to mention those who committed suicide in the Stasi’s prisons. Did Wolf ever stand up to Mielke on any issue other than the conduct of his own service? Not that we hear of either from Wolf or from Mielke. Not that anyone else has ever discovered. Here we come to the moral and psychological heart of the Wolf question: the question of character. This book is called Man Without a Face because until 1978 Western secret services did not even know what Wolf looked like. But after one has read it he remains a man without a face in a deeper sense: partly because of the thematic rather than genuinely autobiographical structure of the book, partly because he is himself elusive and inconsistent.

Who was he, the real Wolf? Yes, he was a very successful spy chief, methodically and often skillfully exploiting the uniquely advantageous position of a tightly controlled police state trying to penetrate the wide-open, guilt-ridden Western half of the same nation. Yes, he is, when you meet him, intelligent, cultured, charming, witty. But this immediately compels one to ask: How could he stick it out for thirty-five years in that ministry, with those goons and thugs? His own answer is, unsurprisingly, a romantic rationalization: it was all done for the good of the great cause. On his retirement from the service, he tells us, he quoted a poem by his father, entitled “Apologies for Being Human”:

And if I hated too much
And loved too wild, too free.
Forgive me for being human
Sainthood was not for me.

One might easily agree with the last line; yet the whole citation is testimony to a grandiose delusion. For while he was (and perhaps remains) attractive to women, most of his own life, far from being wild and free, was spent working long, grey hours at an office desk in probably the most anal organization in human history.

He himself admits at one point that he lived “the life of a bureaucrat.” Two former senior officers of his service add that, while the author Wolf praises the lesson of “civil courage” taught him by his father, the intelligence officer Wolf never showed this in his work. Instead, they say, he was deeply autoritätsgläubig—reverential to authority—and even given to flattering the thuggish Mielke.5 For thirty-five years he never spoke up against the horrible, quiet, all-pervasive repression that was being organized from his ministry—and directly supported by his own department. Was this because of idealism? Well, perhaps a little. But it was also because of conformism, cowardice, and concern for his creature comforts. For the bon vivant Wolf had a very comfortable life in the old GDR: chauffeur-driven car, perks, the dacha where he could cook his excellent pelmeni. On his retirement in 1986 he “negotiated a separation package with Mielke” (a wonderful swerve into the language of corporate America). His separation package included a driver, a secretary, an office in the ministry where he could work on The Troika, and a nice flat in the heart of East Berlin, overlooking the River Spree, where he lives to this day.

There he sits, the witness Wolf, articulate, cultured, sophisticated, well-dressed, and well-housed: so unlike all the other bitter, philistine, vulgar former Stasi officers whom I have talked to in their tawdry little bungalows. And yet so very, very like them underneath. Like those petty bureaucratic executors of evil in having behind him a lifetime of conformity, compromise, obedience to authority, and dirty hands. Like them, too, in today’s hoary patterns of denial: it was not me, it was the other department, “I did my job, they did theirs.”

Here is the last, best-kept secret of the legendary spymaster Markus Wolf: he was a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

May 29, 1997

This Issue

June 26, 1997

  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. 

  4. 4

    See my The File: A Personal History (Random House, to be published in Fall 1997). 

  5. 5

    See Richter and Rösler, Wolfs West-Spione, pp. 123-132.