Sunday 2 October 2011

In the lair of the Wolf - understanding the Stasi's top spymaster

When you're a spy, how do you measure success? In the case of Markus Wolf, the chief of the East German foreign intelligence service the HVA - Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung - he can look back during a 40-year career with the Stasi at the successful deep penetration of West Germany's intelligence and political structures, and the creation of an overseas agent network that was highly regarded/feared by both sides of the Cold War, and think: job well done.

And yet, like a uniformed King Cnut, ultimately his professionalism and skill was unable as part of the East German political and security leadership to hold back the tide of contradictions in a system that - ultimately - failed economically, politically and morally. How he addresses these twin tracks of professional pride and political failure make the autobiography I've just completed a fascinating read. That, following retirement, he became a Gorbachev follower and in 1989 ended up speaking - now as a writer - to one of the dissident protest forum's that sprang up in that year, is just one of many surprising facts in this book.

Man without a face provides a useful counterpoint to any conventional western understanding of the thrust and parry of Cold War espionage. Wolf comes across as immensely proud of what he achieved, the professional standards he introduced, the innovations his team developed - in particular, the use of Romeo agents to hook unsuspecting West German women into sharing intelligence - and the society which he was defending.

And yet, throughout the book, he expresses significant doubts: about the realities of the comradely relationship with the KGB, about the lives of agents sacrificed to achieve the bigger goal of defending the GDR, and the realities of defending the indefensible when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Stasi files, the reality of East German was exposed for all Germans to see. It is, in its way, a wonderfully expressive defence of the personal over the political.

Wolf's story is both compelling and entertaining. A son of a German communist playwright, his teenage years were spent in Russia, where he took up the struggle against Nazi Germany and became part of the early growth of East German communism under Walter Ulbricht.Wolff - who died in 2006 - is fascinating because he was, after Erich Mielke, one of the top Stasi leaders and spies, although he was rather more 'Control' than 'Bond', spymaster more than spy.

Wolf's life and career are inextricably linked to the fall of Nazi Germany and the communist seizure of Eastern Europe right up to just before the fall of the Wall. That history shapes Wolf's moral framework and his assessment of his role in the Cold War. Acknowledged as "communism's greatest spymaster" in the blurb for this autobiography, what he achieved - in pure espionage terms - is significant:
  • He placed an agent at the heart of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's private office - Günter Guillaume - who brought about the former's resignation
  • The HVA's tentacles reached into the heart of West Germany's counterintelligence through the activities of agent Klaus Kuron
  • The Stasi exposed numerous ex-Nazis at the heart of West Germany's government in the sixties and seventies
  • The HVA funded the 'Generals for Peace' campaign in the seventies which did much too boost the anti-nuclear groups in West Germany which sought to undermine the placement of American Pershing nuclear missiles on German soil by showing leadership to the anti-nuclear protest movement
  • His office trained many of the ANC guerilla's who subsequently played a significant part in defeating the Apartheid regime in South Africa
His morally ambiguous defence of his role at the top of an oppressive, dictatorial and morally dubious political and intelligence system reads at times a little like Albert Speer's defence of his role in the Nazi regime: yes, there were things that in hindsight were wrong, but I was performing a role in the defence of my country and.... well, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

I paraphrase, but there is at the heart of this autobiography a tremendously compelling moral opacity which means one is never sure exactly what Wolf's true feelings are, and whether his defence has any basis in truth. Does helping to liberate Germany from Nazi oppression justify the replacement of Nazi terror with a Communist facsimile? Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" feels, at times, appropriate when judging Wolf's role. Does he really feel remorse, or was he satisfied with having done his job to the best of his abilities?

He is candid and ready to acknowledge some of the internal contradictions within Marxism-Leninism and within the GDR itself. Failures of communism are written about at length - the hypocrisy of state officials having access to Western goods denied the majority of the population; the existence of Soviet tanks, missiles and KGB offices across GDR questioning East Germany evident desire to develop its own foreign and intelligence strategy through its support of Arab regimes in the Sudan and the Yemen; the loss of personal liberty by the GDR's citizens.

But I can't help thinking that, rather like the scene in Berlin Game where Bernard Samson first meets Erich Stinnes, the German-speaking KGB major who openly criticises his superiors and the failings of communism, Wolf's openness and candour  are those of a committed communist who still believes in the rightness of the cause despite the evidence laid before him after the fall of the Wall. Yet, he also writes with the disappointment of someone who realises that much of what he fought for was false, base, a lie. Is his remorse genuine? Like the espionage world itself, this text is riven with moral ambiguity.

There is, however, genuine, moving pathos in his recognition, after the Wall came down, that he had been fighting a doomed battle, that the system which he defended through an extensive overseas agent network bore within it the seeds of its own destruction. The Berlin Wall becomes the ultimate expression of failure, but it was also a victory of sorts for the GDR:
'Looking back, I often ask myself whether things could have been different. My judgement is that East Germany could not have survived as a state socialist system long after 1961 without a closed border. The economic pressures, coupled with the inherent instability of being half a country (and traditionally the poorer half at that) were simply too strong. But the seeds of the divided Germany's demise began to sprout as soon as the border was fortified and the first concrete slabs put in place along the demarcation line. Cutting off the access of our people to the more attractive part of Germany was a brutal and effective solution but it was only a short-term one. In the long run, it was a disaster. I now see in the moral campaign against the East, which gained strength and conviction by the brooding symbolism of the Wall, was one of the decisive reasons for the eventual outcome of the Cold War. No amount of expertise on our part in planning, diplomacy, or the darker arts of espionage could have prevented that.'
And yet, he writes with great pride about his life and career as a spymaster. Despite his awareness of everything around him and the brutalities of the state he served, he continued to serve it assiduously - being a spymaster was a seven-day a week, twelve-hours a day job. Wolf's rationalising of his role in a brutal regime at time bears parallels with the justifications offered by generals and senior officials in the Nazi regime - they were simply working for their country.

The activities of his office and its agents is placed within the special context of East Germany's position as the unloved, sicklier younger brother of the other Germany, split politically but ultimately still sharing a common history and language. And that contributes to the contradiction at the heart of everything Wolf did. He was defending Germany - the true, socialist, Nazi-defeating Germany. He was - as many Nazi's subsequently described themselves - a patriot, a German. Yet he was putting his agents lives at risks to defend a regime he knew was based upon a total mistrust of its own population.

After the Wall's fall led to the eventual demise of the GDR and the incorporation of the East into the new, united Germany, the Germany that Wolf knew and had defended for over forty years was gone. West Germany had been a separate entity and - as he said at his eventual trial for treason - he had been fighting against what was in effect a foreign country:
'The German word for treason is Landesverrat, which quite literally means "betrayal of country". Common sense would dictate that the accusation against me was absurd: Which country was I supposed to have betrayed? I certainly did not betray my own country, nor the people who worked for me, and I saw no earthly reason why I should be in the dock for betraying someone else's.'
Like many in the East, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of any trace of Communism in the East has not shake Wolf's core belief in the rightness of Marxism-Leninism. In his eyes, from the perspective of a true Marxist, he was fighting for what's right. All that went before had a clear moral purpose. But does that make it right?

Wolf writes at the end of his autobiography:
"The Cold War is over, and my work may be done, but I have not lost my faith."
Like any believer, faith has the power ultimately to overcome doubt.

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