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

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.

East German foreign intelligence was a global player of sorts. Wolf placed two major agents in the US (‘Piano’ and ‘Painter’, both now dead, and unnamed here), but admits that his people never really got the hang of working in America. Greater success was achieved in recruiting US servicemen in Germany with access to signals intelligence, and in turning the CIA’s East German agents. From the middle of the Sixties, as the GDR craved international recognition, the intelligence service became active in Cuba, East Africa and the Middle East. But the cost plainly outweighed the benefit in Wolf’s view, for which he lays out ample evidence here. His book confirms what we already knew in a general way: that the real business of GDR spying was spying on the other Germany. By the Eighties the East Germans had about a thousand agents in the Federal Republic. They had penetrated government, diplomatic and intelligence services, political parties, press, business, scientific research institutes and the peace movement. West German agents also gave them access to high-level intelligence at Nato.

There are many reasons why the Federal Republic was such an easy target. Agents shared the same language and culture – only their failure to grow convincing long hair apparently gave some of them away. They could also be floated into the West on the larger stream of genuine refugees, although this became harder after the Wall went up. Operational advantages aside, special motives drove Germans (West) to pass information to Germans (East). Some felt a conservative distaste for Adenauer’s ‘Americanisation’, others guilt over the prominence of ex-Nazis like Globke, Lübke and Kiesinger in Federal politics. Many believed that their actions were humanitarian contributions to peace. Then there were the ’68ers, who provided key recruits. All in all, the pathology of German-German relations probably did more than blackmail or dirty tricks to maintain Wolf’s run of success, although he also writes about his trademark use of ‘Romeo spies’ who seduced secretaries in high places.

Some of the intelligence passing to East Berlin prior to West German recognition of the GDR in 1972 would have been gleaned through diplomatic channels, had these existed. The great architect of Ostpolitik and the German Basic Treaty was, of course, Willy Brandt – who was brought down when it was revealed in 1974 that one of his senior aides, Günter Guillaume, had been an East German agent since the Fifties. Wolf is aware of the painful historical irony (Brandt, of all people), and does his best to argue – he is not the first – that Guillaume was merely the pretext that allowed Brandt’s political rivals to force him out. He nevertheless describes the episode as an own goal.

Most readers will probably feel that Wolf has more on his conscience than the downfall of Willy Brandt. He studiously plays down the poison-tipped umbrellas and cross-border kidnappings (they were rare, he argues, a sign of weakness), just as he predictably plays the moral equivalence card for all it’s worth. In this game of universal cockups, the CIA’s activities provide the usual aid and comfort for everybody else. What does ring true is Wolf’s evident admiration for the work of spies such as George Blake, Fuchs and Guillaume, and his belief that espionage helped to keep the peace by reducing the element of surprise. By contrast, his line on the use of the GDR as a base for active (Carlos the Jackal) and semi-retired (Red Army Faction) terrorists tempers truth with prevarication. I am happy to accept that he personally regarded these people as dangerous adventurists and spoilt bourgeois, less convinced that dealing with them was entirely the job of the specialists in ‘Department XXII’.

Wolf, who aligned himself with ‘reform Communists’ like Hans Modrow during the death-throes of the GDR, was obviously a different type from the hatchetmen of the Party: cultivated, charming, a man who enjoyed talking books with Kim Philby and Blake, a Communist of the old school who once acted as an extra in Ivan the Terrible and can cite all the mordant Brechtian lines about the price exacted by the cause. A note of genuine cosmopolitan disdain for the apparatchiks pervades the book. Ulbricht was not only (Wolf’s adjectives) hard-line, ruthless, authoritarian, pig-headed and heavy-handed; he also spoke – for heaven’s sake – with a ‘provincial Saxon accent’. All true. And it is no doubt equally true that Erich Mielke, Wolf’s immediate superior as head of the Ministry of State Security and the real villain of his book, was the narrow-minded and mean-spirited old Stalinist described here. But was Wolf really so insulated by departmental walls from knowledge of the Stasi’s domestic role as he claims?

The old prestidigitator is disarmingly free with generalised self-criticism. ‘Throughout my career I overlooked, minimised or rationalised repressive episodes,’ he says. What the book lacks is specifics. In a rather different sense from his father, Markus Wolf also led a charmed life, because he was always looking the other way at the right time. The building of the Wall? Nobody told him anything, and he was very cross. The execution in 1981 of one of his own officers found guilty of treason? Not his department, and the circumstances ‘remain something of a mystery to me’. Just like the East German prisons: he never saw them, but was shocked, shocked, when he later heard what had been going on. It is shifty passages like these that stick in the craw when Markus Wolf tries to pass himself off as a benign Central European Marxist intellectual, an Ernst Fischer or Isaac Deutscher fallen among Stalinists.

Timothy Garton Ash met Wolf while working on The File and felt both the charm and the deep-seated denial. Wolf, he suggests, was the Albert Speer of East Germany, another argument from moral equivalence that Garton Ash quickly defends and qualifies: ‘Wolf has yet to acknowledge his full co-responsibility for the horrors of domestic repression in East Germany – lesser horrors, of course, but still, as he says himself, “bad things”.’ Those ‘bad things’ are at the centre of Garton Ash’s book, which begins with an examination of his own secret file and proceeds as an attempt to investigate the investigators. Who were they, what did they think they were doing, why did they do it, and how do they feel now?

The Ministry of State Security employed over 90,000 people, assisted by 170,000 ‘unofficial collaborators’ (or ‘IMs’, from the German abbreviation that has now entered the language). They spied on their ‘objects’, photographed them, intercepted their mail, and collated this information in files. The one on the dissident poet and singer Wolf Biermann ran to 40,000 pages. The consequences could be serious: loss of job, denial of educational opportunities for one’s children, imprisonment – or pressure to inform on others. Since unification these files, 111 miles of them, have been administered by a body popularly known as the ‘Gauck authority’ after the former East German pastor who directs it. By June 1996, it had fielded over a million applications from individuals seeking to inspect their own files. The process has uncovered terrible human tragedies. The political activist Vera Wollenberger, for example, discovered that her husband (they are now divorced) had been informing on her ever since they met.

Garton Ash first crossed the Stasi radar screen in 1979. Later an outstanding commentator on the revolt against Communism in Eastern Europe, he was then an Oxford graduate student based in Berlin. Working on the Third Reich, he became interested in the mainsprings of collaboration and resistance as they presented themselves ‘in real time’, in the GDR, where he lived for 18 months. He was eventually banned from the country after publishing a critical account of society behind the Wall. By then he had become an object code-named ‘Romeo’ with a modest file of 325 pages. First impressions of this are grimly comic. They mangle his name, get dates wrong, and have him born in the London suburb of Winbredow (these are clearly not tennis fans); he is a student at st ansowts who writes articles for the Spekta. Less amusing are the signs of close surveillance, and the conversations that are now played back to him over a distance of 15 years thanks to busy IM reports.

Garton Ash identifies the informers – someone at the Humboldt University, a lecturer in English literature, a British national who took the code-name ‘Smith’. The most interesting is ‘Michaela’, who worked in a state art-dealer’s and reported for years on subordinates, acquaintances, friends, even her daughter’s boyfriend – out of a residual belief in the system, because she felt it her duty, as a result of pressure, but also as a way to earn rewards like foreign travel. Garton Ash handles all this with sensitivity, recognising the power that he now holds – and, as one case shows, how easy it is to draw the wrong conclusion. He then identifies the case-officers concerned, four of whom agree to meet him, and finds men who mostly sit in their shirt-sleeves surrounded by kitsch, who tell him that they were only doing their jobs, and complain about rising crime and unemployment since unification. There is one exception, a decent and obviously remorseful man whom Garton Ash likes. But even the others are far from evil incarnate: they are former bureaucrats whose sense of self-justification derives from attachment to secondary virtues like duty, loyalty, punctuality and hard work.

The book is, simultaneously, an exploration of historical and personal time, public and private worlds. It is a coming-of-age book. From the file and his own diaries Garton Ash recovers the callow youth of 1980, energetic, ambitious, a bit priggish, committed to the Kipling view that he who travels fastest travels alone, and looks back on this strange person from the maturity of marriage and fatherhood. To pull this off, and show the actual life so imperfectly captured in the file, involves a good deal of personal show-and-tell, not to mention kiss-and-tell. Pages are filled with the author’s conversations, the apartments where he lived, the bars and restaurants where he ate and drank, and above all with the FOTs, the Friends of Tim: James, Werner, Daniel, Claudia, Jay, Andrea, Graham, Bernd, Werner, Mel and Dot. We are awash with memoir literature at the moment and Garton Ash is not the first historian to catch the wave. As scholarly protocol yields to the new subjectivity, the historical question is shifting from ‘what happened?’ to ‘how was it for you?’ The element of self-indulgence is offset in this case by the advantages that flow from the autobiographical format. A discussion of spying gains texture because Garton Ash has told us earlier about his attraction to Greeneland and his decision not to join SIS. And the experience of holding his own life up to scrutiny adds humanity to his reflections on what it means to come to terms with the past.

This book has all the qualities we associate with its author: journalistic legwork, intellectual curiosity, supple prose and a beady eye for detail. Unlike chatty Stasi informers, he can capture a character or milieu with cruel precision. This, coupled with the memoir form, put me oddly in mind of a book by his contemporary, Richard Rayner. The Blue Suit is also a coming-of-age work with an Oxbridge protagonist and intelligence recruiters in the wings; the two books even mention the same superstar literature don (I shall call him ‘George’, since that is his name). And both, for some reason, are obsessed with clothes: Rayner with blazers, velvet jackets, scarves, a Chanel outfit, a pair of lilac gloves and the eponymous blue suit, Garton Ash with his own Ducker shoes and tweed jacket, the jeans and open shirts of the ’68ers, the suits and plus-fours of SIS, and – most of all – the uniforms of East German dinginess: the white socks and brown shoes that ‘Smith’ wears, the ‘hand-me-down Marlene’ clothes worn by ‘Michaela’, the cheap synthetic track-suits of the former Stasi officers. It comes as no surprise that when Markus Wolf strolls into these pages he is tall and ‘well-dressed’.

This preoccupation with The Look is doubtless a generational thing that I’m a bit too old to grasp. Generations play an important part in both these books. While counting his blessings, Garton Ash remarks rather nastily that if he’d been born a few years earlier he might have supported the Khmer Rouge – and averted his eyes from the evils across the Wall, presumably, like the rest of the ’68ers? Markus Wolf, meanwhile, testifies for a generation of old Jewish Communists. Several of them crop up in The File. There is Litzi Philby, criticising the GDR but seeing no alternative to socialism. More poignant still, there is ‘Frau R.’, a Communist who suffered under Communism but retained her faith, a woman whom the young Garton Ash had greatly liked – and another IM. Each takes a burden of guilt away from their meeting 15 years on. As Garton Ash says, the informing was ‘such a far, far cry from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out, a whole lifetime ago, to fight for a better world’. Substitute ‘boy’ for ‘girl’, and you have the moral tragedy of Markus Wolf.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences