The following is an excerpt from Cold War Spy Stories from Eastern Europe edited by Valentina Glajar, Alison Lewis, and Corina L. Petrescu (August 2019). The excerpt is from the life of German spymaster Markus Wolf.
The “man without a face” was allegedly a fan of spy fiction and flattered by rumors that he was the model for the Soviet spymaster Karla in the novels of John Le Carré (Colitt 1995, 89). Although Le Carré repeatedly refuted the connection and denied intentional parallels between [Markus] Wolf and the German Jewish character Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), the rumors persisted and added to Wolf ’s mystique. While neither fanning nor refuting rumors about himself, Wolf employs a narrative strategy that alternately invokes and dismisses similarities between the real-world HVA and the fictional world of spies. On the one hand, he distances himself and his lifework from clichéd literary tropes, emphasizing the banality of spy work. Comments such as “vast stretches of this work were very boring” function to de-romanticize popular impressions of spycraft and explain the unorthodox decision to run a dozen agents himself. Dramatic stories of HVA operations are often prefaced with disclaimers such as, “What then happened, sounds more like a spy thriller than sober reality.”
On the other hand, his account treads familiar territory for readers of spy fiction. His life story makes for fascinating reading and has no shortage of political intrigue, dangerous missions, secret signals, couriers, double agents, and deadly outcomes. Amused when real-world intelligence imitates art, with some of their “madcap schemes and daring ruses” striking him as something of a “spy thriller cliché,” he does not disavow “how rough the game had become,” but writes: “The clichés established by espionage movies and novels notwithstanding, physical violence was the exception, not the rule.” Wolf recalls being “painfully aware” of his own recourse to the clichéd discourse of fictional characters when the CIA attempted to recruit him after 1989. Even though his future was far from certain at this time, he brazenly rejects the offer, suggesting that the weather in Siberia would be just as agreeable to him as the weather in California. He notes wryly the bizarre way in which “real conversations in espionage can sometimes imitate the style of spy novels.”
Tall, handsome, and urbane, Wolf cut a dashing figure and drew obvious comparisons to the most famous character of spy fiction, James Bond. In another example of life imitating art, the real-life spymaster was reputed to be a ladies’ man like Bond. He was known to give special personal attention to certain female agents, and both his first and second marriage ended as a result of affairs. He formed a particularly close bond with HVA supermole Gabriele Gast and notes that he gave her “personal attention” because she “needed to feel wanted by him.” Womanizing is a trait the spymaster apparently shared with his father as well, and while acknowledging his mother’s pain over her husband’s philandering, he is largely silent on the subject of his own dalliances and their toll on his personal life. Leslie Colitt describes in much greater detail, for instance, the messy divorce from his second wife, Christel, whose best friend, Andrea, became the third Mrs. Wolf well after their adulterous affair had become public knowledge.
Anticipating that some readers will expect “something like a James Bond film or espionage thriller,” Wolf writes, “I would be failing to give a truthful picture, however, if I did not reveal in detail some of the more exotic and tragic operations in which my men took part.” Such disclaimers allow him to appear candid while satisfying reader interest in the more colorful and intriguing aspects of espionage. Even when demurring that “not every agent is a born James Bond,” he invokes reader associations with the literary genre: “To outsiders, the world of secret services must sometimes appear absurd, their activities at best a senseless game, at worst immoral.” Rather than romanticize Cold War espionage the way spy novels do, he admits that “people suffered. Life was hard. . . . Crimes were committed by both sides in the global struggle. Like most people in this world, [he felt] remorse.”
The use of Romeo agents, who seduced single West German women in important administrative positions in government and industry, was one of the most sensational and controversial chapters in East German espionage. Striking a rare note of false modesty, Wolf writes, “If I go down in espionage history, it may well be for perfecting the use of sex in spying” a practice he dates back to biblical times. Protesting that the “link between sex and spying is no invention of mine,” he nonetheless acknowledges that his reputation and some of the more spectacular successes of the HVA can be traced back to the work of his Romeos. The chapter “Spying for Love” both normalizes and romanticizes the deployment of Romeo agents, arguing that other intelligence agencies engaged in similar practices although without as much success, and that it was “natural” for single male agents operating in the Federal Republic to fall in love while on the job. Eager to stress that genuine romantic relationships often resulted, he omits how Romeos were trained and set upon single women to exploit their need for love and draw them into the operational plans of the HVA. Indeed, he is more amused by the caper than remorseful about the deceit perpetrated on one of his “Juliets” (women who aided Romeos and sometimes became spies for the GDR) when he describes the elaborate efforts to create a “Potemkin” wedding ceremony with an HVA officer posing as a priest for a strict Catholic West German woman who felt guilty about living in sin with her Romeo. Rather than lose an asset, Wolf devised a ruse to assuage her guilt and keep the intelligence pouring in. There is little remorse for such deceptions because he was “running an intelligence agency, not a ‘lonely-hearts club.’” In the final analysis, whenever Wolf poses the question to himself about HVA methods and dubious outcomes, he concludes that the ends justified the means.
Man without a Face is not a “tell-all” book, as Craig R. Whitney notes in the foreword. Neither is Spionagechef im geheimen Krieg. The consummate spymaster, while wanting to appear straightforward with his readers, reserves his right to silence. He is cautious in what he reveals and how much he tells. The spy stories he commits to paper are already a matter of public record; the agents he writes about have been exposed, arrested, and prosecuted. Indeed, he admits at one point that he had hoped to write the story of his lifework without mentioning certain agents who are included in the book only because their cover was blown. Wolf is similarly careful in expressions of personal culpability, to avoid opening himself to additional legal problems.
Like other former SED elites, Wolf found himself in an unenviable situation after the East German state collapsed. In writing several memoirs and making numerous public appearances, the man who had spent a lifetime in the shadows threw himself into the limelight and in the crosshairs of contentious debates about the Stasi and the East German past. His autobiographies are marked by the ambiguous space of postunification Germany as he attempts to navigate in the shifting terrains of political discourses. In contrast to other high-ranking officials whose autobiographies have been analyzed by Hirsekorn and Jung, Wolf was neither a Politburo member nor the head of a ministry. He nonetheless wielded considerable power, had access to the inner circles of East German leadership, and enjoyed a privileged lifestyle available to only the highest party officials. His autobiographies, however, tell a different story, one that puts him at odds with his boss and party and, most importantly, not in a position of power when the wall fell. Although politically encumbered by his decades of service, his voluntary retirement three years earlier and his belated, half-hearted engagement for reform allow him to exploit the ambiguity of his status as former power holder and potential change agent in his autobiographies.