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Visits With The Man With No Face

During my years in Germany for the Post, I met Markus Wolf, the legendary East German spymaster, several times, and no matter how much I'd read about his misdeeds, no matter how many stories emerged about his willingness to toy with people's emotions and foundations to further his political agenda, he still struck me as a guy you'd love to have as your uncle.

Intellectually, I knew this was wrong. I knew what he was capable of: For years, he plied his art against the West by choosing emotionally insecure West German women who worked in important government offices and lured them into revealing state secrets to the communist side.

But Wolf, who died the other day at 83, was also an artists of sorts, a writer, son of a playwright. And here's what tended to blind literary types to his darker side: Unlike many of his counterparts in the West, Wolf was three times over an outsider. He was a German in Russia, a Jew in Germany, and an intellectual in a petrified bureaucracy. Wolf's father fled the Nazis and settled in the Soviet Union, where his son Markus was selected to be among the Germans who would return to their Fatherland after World War II to create a communist state. Despite a background that should have made him skeptical of totalitarianism, Wolf became intensely loyal to his Stalinist bosses.

In his later years, Wolf tried to portray himself as a benign sort of spy. He claimed to have had nothing to do with East Germany's repressive domestic security agency. Rather, he said, his foreign intelligence section of the Stasi secret police conducted its affairs on a much higher plane.

Balderdash. Wolf did do some nifty spy training and recruiting, and some of it made him worthy of the respect he won from his Western adversaries, who named him The Man With No Face because for many years western intelligence agencies had no photo of him. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wolf was charged with handling 12 agents operating in West Germany, including Guenter Guillaume, a key aide to chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1960s. Wolf trained Guillaume from 1959 to 1964, teaching him how to climb Bonn's bureaucratic ladder as one of the East's most prized moles. Wolf controlled East Germany's foreign agents, electronic surveillance, border controls and investigative department. He handled agents including three officials of the West German intelligence agency, three politicians, two diplomats, two secretaries and a reporter.

But Wolf also trained Palestinian terrorists and gave refuge to Carlos, the world's most wanted agent of terror. After the fall of communism, Wolf conceded that Israel might be "the only country that might be morally entitled" to bar him. (It did not; he visited there a couple of years after the fall of the Wall.) East Germany did not recognize the Jewish state until the end of Communist rule, and Wolf's Stasi agency conducted training sessions for terror units of the PLO, as well as for other Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

Wolf was always cagey in interviews, happy to talk about art and books. He wrote a cookbook in Germany after his country ceased to exist. He liked to talk about Hemingway and Brecht. He wore tweed jackets and knew great food and wine. He made far better dinner conversation than his colleagues from Washington or Bonn.

But the Man with No Face was also a man without any true allegiance, other than to himself and the employers who kept him living in a style that was all but unknown to virtually all of his fellow countrymen. Markus Wolf was an outsider, with all the freedom to think and create that that entails, but he never let himself take advantage of all that outsider status grants a person; in the end, he was a prisoner to a system that was utterly corrupt and cruel, and in service to his own stature, he happily bathed in those filthy waters.

By Marc Fisher |  November 16, 2006; 8:11 AM ET
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Jeez, Marc, after hobnobbing with a guy straight out of a LeCarre novel, isn't it a come down to be writing about stadium parking lots?

Seriously, very evocative post.

Posted by: Jack | November 16, 2006 9:40 AM

Wolf sounds like the kind of fellow that Bill Casey and J. Edgar Hoover would have enjoyed sharing Scotch and cigars with. But who knows what really happened behind the scenes? Maybe he did? The Shadow knows.

Posted by: Ed Harris | November 16, 2006 10:51 AM


That's the problem with evil; its personification is often attractive and intellectually engaging. All the better to attract those lesser minds or of less strongly held beliefs and to bend them to its will.

The hundreds that suffered and or died on his order or because of his activities and the millions that grew up under the regime will never see that bright side. All they see is the bleakness.

We need to be reminded of this occasionally. Thank you.

Ed--Bill Casey yes, I doubt J. Edgar; his tastes were much to proleterian for that.

Posted by: 20th St. and Pennsylvania Ave., NW | November 16, 2006 11:59 AM

Great post Marc, this is some of better writing I've from you in months.

Posted by: Jaydees | November 17, 2006 2:04 PM

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