- Presided for 33 years over the foreign intelligence division of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, an organ of extreme repression
- Dispatched some 4,000 spies to the West
Markus Wolf was born in southwestern Germany in January 1923. He and his family were forced to flee the country in 1934, under the rising shadow of the Nazis. Wolf’s father, a Jewish physician and a committed Communist, found refuge for the family in the Soviet Union. There, the younger Wolf progressed through the ranks of KGB-front schools, receiving espionage training, becoming a fluent Russian speaker, and beginning a lifelong love affair with the Soviet state. “It was ingrained in my character that if the party asked something of us, we responded obediently,” he would later write in his memoir. “They said ‘Jump’ and we said ‘How high?’ ”
With the end of WWII in 1945, Markus Wolf returned to Germany and landed a job as a broadcaster for a Soviet propaganda organ — German People’s Radio. 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.”
In 1953, Wolf became director of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HVA), the foreign intelligence division of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (commonly known as the “Stasi”). Wolf would preside over the HVA, an integral part of the machinery of state repression, until 1986. He became known as “the man without a face,” because for years Western intelligence agencies did not even possess a photograph of him.
Throughout the Cold War, Wolf plied his craft at the behest of the schemers in the Soviet Politburo and their client regime in East Germany. Under his leadership, in the interest of state “security,” 16 million East Germans were kept in a state of perpetual terror, and the Stasi maintained individual files on no fewer than 6 million East Germans. Parallel with its role as a pillar of the police state, the Stasi sought to advance Communist tyranny by destabilizing the free neighboring state of West Germany. Such was the cause to which Wolf committed his life.
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. (“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.
Running spies was not all a matter of tradecraft. As Wolf acknowledged in his 1997 autobiography, Man Without a Face, Western intelligence services were at a decided disadvantage. Whereas, for instance, the CIA had to justify its methods to Congress and to 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 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 — he 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 wrote in Man Without a Face. Elsewhere, Wolf took 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 stated that he had 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 wrote.
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 could fail to see Wolf’s act for what it was: a desperate bid to save his own skin.
In May 1990, the CIA offered Wolf safe haven in the United States if he informed on his old colleagues, but he refused. Thus the American government rejected his subsequent applications for an entry visa. In late September 1990, just days before Germany’s formal reunification, Wolf fled to Moscow. Approximately a year later, he surrendered to the Germans, who charged him with treason.
Convicted of treason in a German court in 1993, Wolf received a six-year sentence that was subsequently voided in 1995, on the 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 was 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.
Wolf died at his Berlin home on November 9, 2006 — seventeen years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall
- Much of this profile is adapted from Jacob Laksin’s article.