The Spy Who Came In With Excuses


The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster

By Markus Wolf with Anne McElvoy

Times 367pp $25

East Germany's Markus Wolf was the Soviet bloc's most accomplished spook. As head of East Germany's foreign intelligence service during most of the cold war, he successfully penetrated NATO and operated a thousand agents in West Germany, including two in the offices of its Chancellor. He was smart and innovative, perfecting, for instance, the use of "Romeo" spies who preyed on lonely secretaries in man-short postwar Germany. He may well have been--as he brags in Man Without a Face, his kiss-and-tell-not-quite-all memoir--technically the best spy, East or West.

Wolf's efforts, however, couldn't save the rotten and repressive East German regime, which collapsed along with the Soviet empire in 1989. Wolf perceived its flaws from the get-go. In June, 1953, for example, less than four years after the creation of the East German state, East Berlin workers staged an uprising. West Berlin radio, and possibly the CIA, egged on the protests against higher food prices and production quotas. But Wolf says he understood what truly ignited the rebellion--communist economic mismanagement and the repressive policies of party supremo Walter Ulbricht.

Such unvarnished truths from the other side of the Iron Curtain are the strong suit of Man Without a Face. The book also excels when dealing with the nitty-gritty of espionage. Forget James Bond, Wolf tells us. Murphy's Law prevails, as when a top-secret Aeroflot flight to Cuba with Wolf aboard ran out of fuel and was forced to land in New York at the height of the cold war. But the memoir fails in its other main purpose--to exculpate Wolf from blame for the system's evils. The author is on shaky moral ground as he loyally soldiers on amid the serial repressions of the Berlin uprising, the 1956 Hungarian revolt, and the Prague Spring of 1968. His thesis that socialism is superior to capitalism but was cursed with flawed leaders is downright naive.

In many ways, Wolf had a privileged life. The son of a noted Jewish communist doctor and author, Wolf and his family fled Nazi Germany via France for the Soviet Union in 1934. There, he spent the rest of his formative years, from age 11 to 22. A member of the Young Pioneers communist youth movement, Wolf attended the Comintern school for the children of international communist brass, became a dedicated comrade, and was groomed for future political assignments.

Such apparent advantages proved to be handicaps, says Wolf, as they led him to rationalize Soviet lies and half-truths. Josef Stalin's terror became a fight against barbaric enemies, while the secret war against democratic West Germany seemed a struggle to prevent the reemergence of Nazism. All of which amounts to saying that Wolf was duped--despite his privileged access to intelligence and the Western press.

Even less persuasive is Wolf's Pontius Pilate act, in which he repudiates any culpability for the State Security Ministry's ferocious internal repression. The hated Stasi blackmailed and cajoled millions of East Germans into snooping on and denouncing one other. Wolf argues that other Stasi departments, not his foreign-intelligence section, were to blame. He should know better: In a youthful stint as radio reporter, he covered the Nuremberg trials, at which Nazi war criminals unsuccessfully offered similar arguments in an attempt to absolve themselves.

Wolf was at the heart of the East German system, however much he tries to minimize his role. He was one of the first recruits to the country's spy service when it was set up in 1951, becoming its head from 1952 until he retired in 1986. Although he never held high political office, he was a card-carrying member of the nomenklatura and a key shaper of the country's security policies.

He is certainly proud of his triumphs on the regime's behalf. His greatest coup was the placement of mole Gunter Guillaume, who rose through the ranks of West Germany's Social Democratic Party to become a key aide to Chancellor Willy Brandt. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Guillaume was apprehended in April, 1974. His unmasking was the final blow to Brandt, who was forced from office. And Brandt, with his Ostpolitik favoring detente with Eastern Europe, was one of the best friends East Berlin ever had.

Another crucial effort, industrial espionage, proved a dismal failure. At one point, says Wolf, the East German computer company Robotron tried to keep pace with Western advances, acquiring knowledge and software through a mole in IBM Germany's Stuttgart headquarters. But as I discovered during a visit to Robotron's main Dresden plant in the spring of 1989, the West's ban on high-technology exports to the Soviet bloc had severely hobbled Robotron.


Despite the more blatantly self-serving passages of his book, Wolf is not an entirely dishonorable person. For example, as Germany reunified, he had the courage to stay on rather than flee to Moscow. During the East German regime's dying days, he even appeared in public to argue for reform. The crowds hissed him, profoundly suspicious of his 11th-hour conversion. Then, reunited Germany tried to nail him for treason, but its federal Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Even now, though, Wolf seems barely to grasp the irony: He was saved by the very democratic institutions that he attempted for so long to undermine.

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