From The Economist print edition
Markus Wolf, East German spymaster, died on November 9th, aged 83
FASCINATING to his fans, odious to his enemies, Markus Wolf embodied the dilemmas and complexities of the cold war in Europe. Seen one way, he was something of a hero: not just a professional but also a patriot and an idealist. Even his ardent communism could be excused: had not his Jewish family found refuge from the Nazis in the Soviet Union? Revealed after the collapse of communism as cultivated, charming, an accomplished cook and, to some, a heart-throb, he was utterly unlike most Soviet-block spymasters—crumpled, podgy men with thick glasses and steel teeth.
There was a whiff of glamour in the way that Mr Wolf's spies outwitted their bumbling West German rivals. As head, for 34 years, of the foreign-intelligence arm of the Stasi, East Germany's Ministry of State Security, he planted agents and recruited informers all over West Germany. Some found their way into the very departments charged with defending democracy, others into the highest reaches of the state, even the chancellery. For those who believed the West to be shamefully materialist or unduly forgiving of the Nazi past, it was tempting to admire the guile of one who so often humiliated it.
“The man without a face”, he was called. His identity was so well concealed that his Western counterparts are supposed to have secured a photograph of him only in 1978. In fact, the CIA had identified him as early as 1959, from photographs taken when he had attended the Nuremberg war-crimes trials as a young radio reporter. Still, many thought he must be the model for the elusive Karla, the fictional Soviet spymaster who ran rings round his Western adversaries in the works of John le Carré, a British novelist steeped in the world of espionage. (Mr le Carré says he was not.)
Mr Wolf was, if anything, even more glamorous in defeat. Spurning American offers of a deal if he would tell all, he sought political asylum in Russia. When that was denied, he returned, and eloquently defended himself against charges of treason. “Victors' justice”, he called his trials; like Western spies, he was doing a dirty but necessary job, and his sins were “those of every other intelligence agency”.
Yet there was nothing glamorous about the communist German state of 1949-89. Mr Wolf claimed that his subtle spycraft was a world away from the regrettable mistakes made by his Stasi colleagues in charge of internal repression and fostering terrorism abroad. After retiring—for mysterious reasons—from the Stasi in 1986, he published a book, “Troika”, which criticised Stalinism. Later he said he hoped that Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms would save a system nobly based on the “combination of socialism and freedom”.
He did admit that East Germany had proved a “sad reality”, but in truth it was far worse than that. The regime he served was a squalid dictatorship that jailed those who challenged it and shot those who tried to escape. Its secret police exploited the smallest weakness of anyone who might be useful or threatening. Husbands were coerced into spying on their wives, parents on their children. Mr Wolf's spies played a full part in a huge security system modelled closely on the Soviet Union's, and using identical tricks.
Though cleared, on appeal, of his 1993 conviction for treason, Mr Wolf was given a two-year suspended sentence in 1997 for his part in the abduction and torture of a German woman who had worked for the Americans in West Berlin. Those may be the methods of the war on terror now, but they were not part of the West's arsenal then, in a struggle won mainly by the potency of ideas, not by force or fear.
Mr Wolf said his most successful tactic was the use of sex: his “Romeo” agents seduced and suborned the lonely spinster secretaries of West German officialdom. The practice worked brilliantly, if you were prepared to overlook the attendant tragedies, such as the death of the hapless Leonore Heinz, who killed herself when she found that her husband had married her not for love but to steal secrets from the foreign ministry, where she worked.
It was all clever stuff, but Mr Wolf's chief target was an easy one. Every East German had the right to West German citizenship. That made it simple to plant sleepers, such as Günter Guillaume, an agent sent to West Germany in 1956, who ended up as a senior aide to the chancellor, Willy Brandt. He produced startling news—not just of Brandt's womanising, but also, paradoxically, that the Social Democratic chancellor genuinely accepted the post-war division of Europe, including the sovereignty of East Germany.
That may have usefully calmed Soviet nerves. But the East Germans' carelessness was their star's downfall: they sent him a coded message congratulating him on the birth of his son. When that was cracked, he was caught. Brandt resigned, and his policy of detente with the East—Ostpolitik—stalled. Mr Wolf admitted that this had been a blunder. Like other people, he said, he sometimes felt remorse.
Maybe he did. Other communists, though, were much quicker to see not just the practical failures but the bankruptcy of the entire creed. Mr Wolf's mild penitence fell far short of convincing contrition.