The Long View: Spymaster The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret Police

Another old review, written when John was reviews editor of Culture Wars magazine. John decided to part ways with Culture Wars, for reasons he explains here. A fascinating look at espionage and the Cold War, overlapping slightly with my own book review on American Spies.


Spymaster: The Real-Life Karla, His Moles, and the East German Secret Police
by Leslie Colitt
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company 1995 (November)
304 pp. (Hardcover), $23
ISBN: 0-201-40738-8

Even before the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was liquidated in 1990, it seemed churlish to me to make fun of it. It was obviously such a dismal country that further comment was cruel. Not everybody thought the way I did, however. A friend of mine who visited it on a business trip about 1985 found it hard to keep a straight face. Squired around East Berlin in an official East German car by an official East German official, he and the other Americans guffawed at the dinky little Trabant cars and the appalling architecture. Building facades that were not ghastly concrete slabs were likely to have unrepaired bullet holes in them from the Russian assault in 1945. The group went to a crowded restaurant for lunch, where they were entertained by the spectacle of a drill-sergeant waitress ordering a tableful of her hangdog countrymen to go sit somewhere else so the foreigners could stay together. The highpoint of the trip was the Eastern Block cherry pie that came for desert. The visitors spent many merry minutes noisily demonstrating its amazing impenetrability to eating utensils. The crowd in the restaurant seemed to be able to follow most of this conversation. Their expressions went from morose to suicidal. Surely none of this rudeness was necessary, I told my friend when he got back. When the GDR imploded, I felt no desire to gloat.

Well, I have changed my mind. Few countries, living or dead, have so richly deserved to be razzed as West Germany's evil twin, and many of the reasons can be found in Spymaster, a brief and straightforward account of the East German foreign espionage agency, the Hauptverwaltung fuer Aufklaerung (Central Intelligence Administration, or HVA), and how it interacted with the rest of the GDR's security apparatus. Colitt was long the Berlin correspondent for the Financial Times of London, and for me, at least, one of the merits of this book is that it does not read like a spy novel. However, if you like spy novels, this book gives you all the nuts and bolts you might desire. (I learned far more than I wanted to know about the role played in world history by the lavatories on the interzonal Berlin trains.) The book's central personality is Markus Wolf, the relentlessly elegant head of East German espionage from the early 1950s to the middle 1980s. Wolf was the prototype for "Karla," the archetypical masterspy developed by mystery writer John Le Carre' into one of the demigods of Cold War mythology. Wolf ran a truly formidable service, one that was at least as important for Eastern Block espionage in Europe as the KGB was. Indeed, it is perhaps the measure of his society that its foreign spy agency was the most competent thing about it.

Markus Wolf is invariably portrayed as a romantic figure. Athletic, handsome, cultured, he was the mysterious "Man without a Face" to Western intelligence until the 1980s, when they finally managed to get a photograph of him. Thus, for many years, he was free to travel secretly through much of Europe. He regularly met and charmed his chief moles personally, sometimes spending holidays with them at resorts in neutral countries while engaging them in wide-ranging discussions of politics and culture. He took care to see that lesser agents received birthday greetings and secret medals. For a senior East German official, he had an irregular private life. He was married thrice, not a good idea in a profession where resentful ex-wives are notoriously likely give information to the opposition out of sheer spite. However, the chief irony in the life of the romantic Markus Wolf is that, all his life, he was a "good communist," which is not very different from saying he was a "good Scout."

Wolf was born in 1923 in Weimar Germany. His father, Friedrich, was a playwright of international reputation, a homeopathic healer, and a Communist. The Wolf family fled to the Soviet Union when the Nazis came to power, even though they had a choice of possible havens. Friedrich insisted on listing his nationality in his internal Soviet passport as "German," though he was ethnically Jewish and that category would have made his life easier. His son, who also became a Soviet citizen, followed suit. During the purges, when German Communist exiles in the USSR tended to disappear into the Gulag, Friedrich contrived not only to avoid arrest but to travel to the West in his artistic pursuits, while the family remained in Moscow. Markus became thoroughly Russified; his friends always called him "Mischa." He served mostly in Red Army propaganda units during the war. When the GDR was created in 1949, he was prevailed upon to renounce his Soviet citizenship for the good of the Party so he could serve in the new state's Moscow embassy. In 1951, the Russians decided he was a good candidate to reorganize the primitive East German foreign espionage organization, then known simply as Central Department 4 of the State Security Ministry. He became its head the next year. In 1956, the department became known as the HVA .

Wolf retired just thirty years later at age 63, very young for an important Eastern Bloc figure who was not actually dying. Colitt takes him at his word when Wolf says, in effect, that he had achieved everything he could in his career. However, reasonable people might find it suspicious that he then became a "reform communist," speaking and writing about the Stalinist purges and advocating various incremental reforms in the GDR. He was an early supporter of Gorbachev at a time when the GDR leadership was dead-set against even minor relaxation. For the first time in his life, he was famous. Not that it did him much good. When the Berlin Wall came down, nobody wanted to hear what he had to say. It may be, as he claims, that he was giving vent to years of pent-up liberalism. On the other hand, perhaps he saw before all his colleagues which way the wind was blowing, and imagined that he could be the one to save socialism.

The most fascinating aspect of Spymaster is not the spies, but its description of the society Wolf was trying to save. East Germany may have been the most police-ridden country in human history. It kept long, very long, dossiers on about a quarter of its 16 million people, plus a million more selected foreigners, primarily people in West Germany. Most of this information was collected by ordinary East Germans spying on each other at the behest of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi). Sometimes the arrangement was informal; neighbors agreed to have regular chats about people at work with other neighbors who worked more directly for the state. Many, on the other hand, were paid agents who had signed cooperation agreements with Stasi itself. Bosses and teachers wrote regular, elaborate reports on the opinions and activities of employees and students, who might in turn be writing similar reports on the bosses and teachers. In some cases that became well-publicized after reunification, the husbands of apparently happy marriages spied on their wives, and vice versa. Almost all dissidents "cooperated" with the regime to some degree. This sometimes took the form of actually informing on members of dissident groups. Many intellectuals, however, seem to have genuinely imagined themselves to be negotiating with the regime for eventual liberalization. The Ministry of State Security itself was straight out of Kafka. Its officials took degrees, doctorates, in the applied psychology of mind control and personal intimidation. Somewhere in the former East Germany even today, perhaps, there may be a library of really, really scary doctoral theses.

Because the country pretty much evaporated in the few months after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, it is easy to see most of this crepuscular activity in retrospect as a make-work project. Those dossiers running to hundreds of pages on people who had never actually done anything very interesting, much less subversive, generally served no useful purpose. Even if the files had been computerized, still it would have exceeded the wit of man and his automatons to collate the data. Doubtless the system provided a mechanism, though a grotesquely inefficient one, for finding out what the people really thought. However, since the reaction of the country's leadership to this information was usually to try to make the people think something else, the regime does not seem to have drawn much benefit from this ability. Of course, by making such a large fraction of the people at least slightly guilty of helping the state blackmail and threaten their friends and relatives, it did ensure that few people felt morally secure enough to cast the first stone against the government. A charitable observer, or maybe a former German Marxist adept at reading between the lines, might surmise that this was the real goal of the Stasi system, to make every man his own cop. Or, on the other hand, maybe the system was just as stupid as it looked.

Markus Wolf's HVA stood somewhat apart from the Stasi. Of course, it was part of the Ministry for State Security and Wolf's boss was the thuggish Erich Mielke, the only founding member of the East German state to live through the whole regime into a resentful extreme old age. However, the foreign espionage division that Wolf ran was something of an elite. Its primary missions were the collection of military information of interest to the Warsaw Pact, surveillance of West German political parties, and economic espionage. Mielke in the early years of the regime was skeptical about the need for East Germany to have an elaborate spy-network at all. He had a point. After all, the GDR did not have an independent diplomatic or military policy, so in effect his ministry would simply be spending its own money to do the Russians' work for them. Wolf, however, soon showed such an ability to pull espionage rabbits out of hats that the HVA became one of the chief sources of the ministry's prestige within the government.

Wolf was the great 20th century master of the mole, the long-term agent who lives an apparently normal life in the target country, rising in due course to positions where sensitive information is available for the taking. The discovery in the early 1970s of his most famous mole, Guenter Guillaume, in the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt soon forced Brandt's resignation. Some of his spies were simply paid. For instance, a relatively low-level U.S. Army electronics warfare specialist once sold the HVA what there was to know about American plans for disrupting Warsaw Pact command-and-control in the event of a war in Europe. However, his most important agents tended to be West Germans who served him at least in part for personal reasons, which often included an ideological component. Academics and businessmen provided information to the East because they thought they were "protecting the peace" or, more rarely, "building socialism." An opportunity for spies of this type was provided by the structure of West German political parties. Far more than American parties, they have elaborate central organizations where experts are paid to think deep thoughts about foreign policy and military strategy. Should the party come to power, the party bureaucracy provides the experts for the new government. Wolf placed or cultivated such people while they were still young, and saw his efforts richly rewarded in later years.

And then, of course, there were the secretaries. As Colitt notes, Wolf did not discover the fact that it is usually easier to recruit the secretary of an important person than it is to recruit the bigwig himself. Neither was he the first to make use of "Romeo agents," spies who insinuate themselves into the affections of strategically-placed women and then exploit the relationship to obtain information. However, Wolf used these tactics with such skill and persistence that he seemed at times to be running a male escort service. (To judge from this book, there was a dearth of Mata Haris to balance the Romeos.) One of the recurring themes of the book is the sloppy work done by the West German security agencies throughout the Cold War. They did cursory checks on the staff of officials in sensitive posts, failed to implement even minimal in-office security procedures, and were singularly obtuse in pinpointing the possible source of a leak when they finally realized that one had occurred. Since secretaries, to do their jobs, must have access to the same information their bosses do, the HVA's job was often childishly simple. The culpability of the secretaries themselves varied greatly. They, too, often came to believe that they were helping to keep the peace by letting one Germany know what the other was up to. One particularly gullible woman was led to believe that her Romeo was actually a member of the British Secret Service, and that she was helping the Allies keep track of her own, unreliable government. One point that must be kept in mind about the moral calculus of these people is that nothing very terrible happened to them even when they were caught. Germany provides a maximum sentence of only 10 years for espionage. Typical sentences are for four years, themselves rarely served in full. Since, obviously, their country did not regard what they were doing as the worst of crimes, it is hard to see why the secretaries should have done so.

Did any of this do any real harm? Did it do any good, even from the East German perspective? The question has been of more than academic interest for the spies in the West who found that the end of the long, twilight struggle left them in the revealing glare produced by captured files and vindictive prosecutors. After reunification, the German government undertook to try those who had been involved in espionage for the GDR, even if they had never set foot in West Germany while doing so. Wolf himself was tried and convicted under this policy. However, an appeals court reversed, noting that the courts of the Federal Republic of Germany simply lacked the jurisdiction to try a man who was, in effect, a foreigner living in another country at the time the acts in question were committed. However, there was no lack of people in western Germany, probably well over a thousand, who richly deserved to have something unpleasant happen to them because of their relationship with East German intelligence over the years. One of the factors the courts have to consider in sentencing is the degree of damage the spies did. In the great majority of cases, the damage has been found to be negligible.

The point is not that espionage is an inherently futile enterprise. Wolf's organization found out most of what there was to know about NATO strategy and capabilities, enough, perhaps, to have affected the course of a war. The irony of the Cold War spy era is that, once the East Germans had found out everything there was to know, they still kept looking. The phenomenon was pure institutional inertia. Wolf's moles in the German political parties were happy to send him all the internal memoranda he was willing to pay for. The secretaries provided information on their bosses' private lives that Wolf's own bosses just could not get enough of. Wolf himself knew that this information was essentially junk. It was simply resume-fodder for the controlling agents in the HVA, who naturally tended to tout the value of the information they handled. As Colitt observes, the spy agency came to resemble an old-style Eastern European factory that won awards for the weight of the machinery produced, whether the machinery worked or not. Even information that seemed useful at the time, such as that relating to the latest Western computer technology, often did more harm than good. In practice, the ability to steal new technology discouraged the development of institutions that might have created it locally. Let them take note who think that the CIA should go into the economic warfare business.

As even the Clinton Administration discovered after a few years in office, plain old international power politics is not an obsolete institution. Therefore, neither will espionage be obsolete. Markus Wolf ran for many years the best "human intelligence" spy organization in the world. U.S. intelligence has long concentrated on such things as spy-satellites and electronic eavesdropping, so maybe we have something to learn from his story. Or maybe not. Even if the world is again divided in a geopolitical stand-off between power blocks, still that would not necessarily mean another Cold War (though it could easily mean a hot one). Ideology gave the Cold War a special nightmare affect. The participants secretly feared that history was really against them, or knew that it would bring them final victory despite all setbacks. Good and evil were plotted on a new grid for that conflict. It produced a new kind of novel because the frontiers ran not just across maps, but across individual human hearts. The HVA's successes were due to the fact that its Western moles and agents were of one people with that of the GDR. It is hard to imagine now what configuration of power and hope could divide the world in the same way again. There really is, it seems, such a thing as progress.

This article appeared in the June 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly