How was it for you?

David Blackbourn

  • Man Without a Face: The Memoirs of a Spymaster by Markus Wolf and Anne McElvoy
    Cape, 367 pp, £17.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 224 04498 2
  • The File: A Personal History by Timothy Garton Ash
    HarperCollins, 227 pp, £12.99, July 1997, ISBN 0 00 255823 8

John Le Carré called it ‘the Abteilung’, but the real name of the East German foreign intelligence department was the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung, or Main Intelligence Directorate, and the man who ran it for almost 34 years was Markus Wolf. When the Berlin Wall fell, three years after his retirement in 1986, Wolf was courted by other intelligence services – West German, American, even Israeli – who hoped to exploit his vulnerable position. Instead he went to Moscow. Returning after the failed August coup of 1991, he was eventually tried in a Düsseldorf court and found guilty of treason. But the sentence was overturned by the German Supreme Court, on the grounds (argued by Wolf and his lawyer all along) that he could not be convicted of treason against a state of which he had not been a citizen. Now a star of the talk-show circuit, Wolf has produced a book that artfully blends cloak-and-dagger with apologia.

The future spymaster, born during the inflation of 1923, was brought up in a leftwing family. His Jewish father was a doctor and radical playwright who believed in vegetarianism, homeopathic medicine, free love and Communism. Markus and his brother Konrad were educated at a progressive boarding school and joined the Communist Young Pioneers. When Hitler came to power the family fled, after brief stops in Switzerland and France, to the Great Soviet Union the boys had heard so much about. Markus remained there for 11 years, becoming ‘Misha’ and acquiring fluent Russian during a Moscow adolescence. The Purges affected the family only indirectly, but in any case his father seemed to lead a charmed life. When the Germans invaded in 1941, the Wolfs were evacuated to Kazakhstan on the Writers’ Union train, a journey during which Markus sometimes took the bread ration to an ailing Anna Akhmatova.

Wolf was sent by the Party to the Comintern school to prepare for the liberation of Germany, then back to Moscow, where he worked for the German-language radio service and first met future GDR leaders like Walter Ulbricht. After 1945, a job at the Soviet-controlled Berlin Radio was followed by a posting to Moscow as a member of the new East German diplomatic corps, until he was ordered back to East Berlin to work in the fledgling intelligence service. He became its head in December 1952, just short of 30 years old, when his former boss fell out with the Party leadership. Wolf describes how a shoestring service developed into an organisation with a hard currency budget of 10 million Deutschmarks a year and an international reputation for efficiency. His own mystique was enhanced by the fact that, until a defector identified him in a photograph in 1979, he remained the ‘man without a face’ to Western agencies.

Espionage junkies will enjoy the bits of tradecraft scattered through the book: dead-letter drops, fall-backs, couriers, phoney brothels, false-bottomed deodorant bottles left in the lavatory cistern of the night train. True, some revelations are not quite revelations. ‘I realised that the key to the political penetration of the Federal Republic’ – yes, tell us! – ‘lay in a wide variety of sources and solicitous handling of them once they had been contacted.’ Quite so. But there are sharp observations on the value of cultivating ambiguity with contacts (why spell things out if they’re coming across anyway?), and on the various combinations of idealism, resentment, greed and the ‘prickle of forbidden excitement’ that motivated agents. Wolf also shows an intelligence chief’s impatience with politicians who preferred the short-term publicity value of a defector to the long-term rewards of a mole.

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