Markus Wolf

Markus Wolf said the downfall of Willy Brandt was an "own goal"


Obituary: Markus Wolf


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BBC News



The man who came to epitomise the ruthless world of the East German spy machine during the Cold War, Markus Wolf, has died at his home in Berlin.

Wolf was feared and admired by Western intelligence officials and ran a network of 4,000 spies - many of them working deep inside the West German establishment.

The unmasking of one of his moles, Gunter Guillaume, caused the downfall of Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Tall and described as strikingly handsome, Wolf was known as "the man with no face" because for many years there were no photographs of him.

He was rumoured to have been the inspiration for John Le Carre's Soviet spymaster "Karla" in the thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though the writer has denied this.

Born in Germany in 1923, Wolf had a comfortable early childhood. His father was a noted writer and doctor, Friedrich Wolf, who was a communist and a Jew.

His mother was also a staunch communist, and when Hitler came to power in the 1930s, the family fled, eventually settling in Moscow.

The young Wolf quickly embraced his new homeland and came to the notice of Communist Party officials while still at school.

When the war ended he went back to Germany, where he worked for Berlin Radio and covered the Nuremberg trials.

Taste for luxury

The experience was to have a lasting effect on him. In a BBC interview last year he revealed that a dislike of fascism became one of the driving forces in his life, convincing him he had to protect his country from any repetition of the Nazi regime.

In the early 1950s, he was chosen to lead the embryonic foreign intelligence arm of the Stasi - East Germany's feared secret police.

I hoped that after the Nuremberg Trials, there would be a time without war, aggression or crimes against humanity

Watch BBC interview

It was the job which made him a legend and which he held until his retirement in 1986.

Those who met him said that Wolf exuded charm and was the complete antithesis of the image of a communist apparatchik. He understood the attractions of the West - and had a taste for life's luxuries, as well as beautiful women.

He took great care of his staff, winning their steadfast loyalty. But he also used his warmth to exploit and manipulate others.

Sleeper agents

Wolf took a long-term approach to his job, introducing spies into West Germany among the stream of East Germans who fled before the Iron Curtain was imposed.

Sometimes he waited years for his sleeper agents to work their way into high office so that they could begin supplying him with secrets.

Markus Wolf and his wife Andrea Stingl at the premiere of a movie in Berlin

After years in the shadows Wolf became something of a celebrity

One such agent was Gunter Guillaume, who moved to West Germany in 1956. He worked his way up the hierarchy of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), eventually becoming a close aide of the Chancellor, Willy Brandt, and getting his hands on important Nato secrets.

In 1974, he was unmasked by West German intelligence officials and the resulting scandal led to Brandt resigning.

Later Wolf said he had not sought Brandt's downfall - and that the affair had been one of the biggest mistakes of the Stasi.

Guillaume received a 13-year jail sentence and in 1981 was released in an exchange for Western spies caught in the East.

Magnetic reputation

But Wolf also recruited West Germans - his agents often seducing them with sex or money.

He boasted in his memoirs that if he went down in espionage history, it should be for perfecting the use of sex in spying.

Among his biggest triumphs was the recruitment of Hans-Joachim Tiedge, a West German responsible for turning East German spies into double agents.

Tiedge was a big drinker and defected when his debts got so large he could see no other way out. His deputy also joined Wolf and worked for him as a mole, undetected, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The author, Leslie Colitt, who has written extensively on Wolf, believes that some of his success was based on luck, but that his reputation also acted as a magnet for defectors.

Part of Wolf's mystique was that for more than 20 years nobody in the West knew his identity. But a visit to Stockholm in 1978 ended his anonymity.

The Swedish authorities had become suspicious about the distinguished-looking East German and his attractive wife.

An agent with a telephoto lens was dispatched, caught him on film and his cover was blown.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Wolf fled to Moscow but was refused asylum and returned to Germany.

Many of his former colleagues were said to be horrified by their hero's decision to leave the country.

Later he was convicted of treason, but the verdict was over-turned on appeal.

The judges argued that he was acting for the previously independent East German state and therefore could not be tried for treason in a different country.

His death, on the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, will be seen as the end of an era by many.