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The Soviets' Spymaster By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Last week marked the release of the latest installment in the James Bond film franchise, but the most noteworthy news in international espionage broke one week earlier. It was the passing, at the gentle age of 83, of East Germany’s once-feared spymaster, Markus Wolf.

Throughout the Cold War, Wolf was the anti-Bond. Where “007” killed for queen and country, Wolf plied his craft at the behest of the schemers in the Soviet Politburo and their client regime in East Germany. The fictional spy mostly trained his sights on assorted rogue elements. Wolf, as a top apparatchik in the Ministry for State Security, the “Stasi,” widened the category to include most of the residents of East Germany: In the interest of state “security,” 16 million East Germans were to be kept in a state of perpetual terror, the acceptable substitute for allegiance, and the Stasi maintained individual files on no fewer than six million East Germans. Parallel with its role as a pillar of the police state, the Stasi sought to advance the domain Communist tyranny by destabilizing its free neighbor in West Germany. Such was the cause to which Wolf committed his life.


There is a certain irony in Wolf’s chosen career as a servant of dictatorship. Born in 1923, in southwestern Germany, Wolf was forced to flee the country in 1934, under the rising shadow of the Nazis. Wolf’s father, a Jewish physician and committed communist, found refuge for the family in the one place he associated with political, as well as earthly salvation, the Soviet Union. There "Misha" Wolf progressed through the ranks of KGB-front schools, receiving espionage training, becoming a fluent Russian speaker, and beginning a life-long love affair with the Soviet state. Years on a colleague would recall that the famously enigmatic Wolf -- no one in the West could put a face to the notorious name until a photograph was published in 1979 -- was possessed of two identities: German nationality, and Soviet loyalty. From Russia with love indeed.


With the end of the war in 1945, Wolf returned to Germany with the conquering Red Army. Landing a job as broadcaster for a Soviet propaganda organ, the ironically named German People’s Radio, he enthusiastically embraced his work. Convinced that he was aiding in the spread of “political enlightenment,” Wolf pledged that the Communists would “show by our example how much better the Left was than the Right.” On one level, they succeeded. The Nazi era spanned 12 years. Communism held East Germany in its grip for well-nigh half a century.


Wolf’s work was essential to it’s longevity. In 1953, at the age of 30, he became director of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), the East German foreign intelligence service, presiding over the agency until 1986. Later, when his activities would become a liability, Wolf would protest that the HVA was independent of the Stasi and, as such, untainted by its crimes. In fact, it was an integral part of the machinery of state repression.


As a spy, Wolf would have proven worthy competition for James Bond himself. In the realm of romance, Wolf may well have earned the envy of Ian Fleming’s heartthrob. Among the 4,000 spies Wolf dispatched to the West were the so-called “Romeos.” Charming and cunning in equal measure, they trolled West German ministries in search of lonely secretaries with access to state secrets and hearts -- how shall we say? --too soon made glad. (“If I go down in espionage history, it may well be for perfecting the use of sex in spying,” Wolf once said.)


Most prominent of the seductees was Gabriele Gast. Converted to the East German cause as a student, Gast deftly navigated the corridors of power. In time, she became the seniormost woman in West Germany’s mostly-male Federal Intelligence Service, in which capacity she prepared the daily intelligence briefing for Chancellor Helmut Kohl. As a consequence, Wolf and his Soviet taskmasters were fully apprised of the West’s glimpses behind the Iron Curtain. Wolf took personal credit. Of Gast, he said: “She needed to feel wanted by me and I gave her my personal attention.”


It is a measure of Wolf’s effectiveness that Gast was not his greatest achievement. That distinction would have to go to Gunter Guillaume, sent by Wolf to infiltrate the West German chancellery. In a coup whose consequences even Wolf could scarcely have foreseen, Guillaume became a top aide to Chancellor Willy Brandt. When West German intelligence belatedly revealed him as a spy, in 1974, the disgraced Brandt had little choice but to resign. Guillaume got the better of the fallout: In a prisoner exchange, he was returned to East Germany, whereupon East German dictator Erich Honecker presented him with the Communist world’s greatest honor, the Order of Karl Marx.


Running spies was not all a matter of tradecraft. As Wolf acknowledged in his arresting, if characteristically cryptic autobiography, Man Without a Face, (1997) Western intelligence services were at a decided disadvantage. Whereas, for instance, the CIA had to justify its methods to Congress and a critical media, the HVA and the KGB made their own rules. Thus unrestrained, they could bribe, blackmail and kidnap their targets; detain, torture and “liquidate” their enemies; and openly contract alliances with terrorists -- in short, privilege efficiency over ethics. In a cynical aside, Wolf observed that the Stasi could avail itself of the numerous defectors and refugees seeking to escape from East Germany and plant agents in the West. Because defections were a one-way phenomenon, Wolf noted, the West was denied this benefit.


For all his evident ruthlessness, a reading of Wolf’s books makes clear that, unlike so many mindless ideologues who staffed the KGB and HVA’s ranks, he was not blind to the injustices committed on his orders and -- or so he claims -- recognized them as such. This is not necessarily to his credit. That East Germany, like the Soviet Union, was undemocratic; that it had to erect a wall to imprison its own citizens; that it had to create the Stasi to sustain its oppression -- these were not revelations to Wolf. Yet, in his writings as in real life, he found a way to justify his role. “I did not see the intelligence as part of a repressive structure,” he writes in Man Without a Face. Elsewhere, Wolf takes a different tack, venturing that “duty, Party discipline, and the demands of the Cold War” left him little choice but to comply with the regime’s dictates.


Finally, Wolf states the banal truth: To the last, he remained wedded to the Communist dream. “I still refuse to accept the judgmental stance of those who say our system was built on the Lie, but I have to admit that it was, in great part, built on excuses,” he writes. Whether there was some fundamental flaw within the “system” that necessitated the excuses is a question that seems never to have violated Wolf’s conscience.


If Wolf’s reign in the world of international intrigue was the stuff of Hollywood drama, his downfall was anything but. Edged out of the HVA in 1986, apparently for his support of Mikhail Gorbachev against the old Communist guard and its backers in the East German regime, Wolf attempted to position himself for office. But the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 collapsed his political ambitions. Wolf had counted on his Soviet sponsors to protect him, but Gorbachev, in his negotiations for German unification, declined to demand amnesty for Stasi spies. Outraged, Wolf called it the “Soviets’ ultimate betrayal of their East German friends.”


In the ensuing months, Wolf labored to cast himself as a dissident reformer, not unlike the kind the Stasi had existed to suppress. He called for “socialism with a human face” and declared his support for a “peaceful revolution.” The slogans impressed few. At one political rally, Wolf found himself drowned out by boos. As the German essayist Henryk Broder reflected, only those with a foolishly romantic view of the Communist spy industry -- a “James Bond and Dr. No mentality” -- could fail to see Wolf’s act for what it was: a desperate bid to save his own skin.


Still, save it he did. Convicted of treason in a German court in 1993, Wolf received a six-year sentence that was subsequently voided in 1995, on the frustratingly sound grounds that East Germany had been recognized as a sovereign state by the West. Re-indicted for kidnapping -- he had ordered the abduction of an employee at the U.S. embassy in West Berlin -- Wolf was found guilty in 1997 and given two years probation.


After decades of defying the West in secret, Wolf could now do so openly. Boasting that he never served a day in jail, Wolf cast himself, absurdly, as a victim of Siegerjustiz (“the justice of the victors”). Like the Nazi minister Albert Speer before him, Wolf embarked on a new career as a popular author, spinning a minimum of remorse into maximum profit, and capturing the sympathies of those who permitted political delusions to cloud their memories.


History’s verdict will be harsher. Notwithstanding his politically convenient doubts about communism’s excesses, Wolf considered them a payable price during his more than three decades of faithful service to the Soviet Union. The record is far from sealed on this score: Soviet archives may yet shed greater light on Wolf’s Stasi past. The Cold War’s most famous spy is gone, but his story, and that of countless unnamed accomplices, has not been told in full.


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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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