Jan Bauer/Associated Press
Markus Wolf, in a 1995 photo, outwitted the West as East Germany’s master of a network of 4,000 spies who infiltrated NATO headquarters.
Markus Wolf, German Spy, Dies at 83
FRANKFURT, Nov. 9 — Markus Wolf, the famously elusive spymaster of Communist East Germany whose feats of espionage were the stuff of cold war legend, died Thursday. He was 83.
Known as “the man without a face,” because for years Western intelligence agencies did not even possess a photograph of him, Mr. Wolf died in his sleep in his apartment in Berlin, said his stepdaughter, Claudia Wall. She did not specify a cause of death.
Mr. Wolf had lived quietly in Berlin, the German capital, since 1997, when the last of several efforts to punish him for his role in spying against the former West Germany ended with a two-year suspended sentence.
For 34 years, Mr. Wolf directed the foreign intelligence service of East Germany’s feared Ministry of State Security, or Stasi. He ran a network of 4,000 spies who infiltrated NATO headquarters and the West German chancellery and even brought down a chancellor, Willy Brandt.
Though Mr. Wolf was not directly responsible for Stasi’s primary business of spying on East Germans, which made it a reviled instrument of repression, not all his critics were convinced that he was uninvolved.
Tall, suave and impeccably dressed, Mr. Wolf was the antithesis of the colorless apparatchiks who ran East Germany. He was long rumored to be the model for Karla, the shadowy spymaster in John le Carré’s novels — something the writer denied Thursday, as he had before.
Among Mr. Wolf’s innovations in tradecraft was the “Romeo method,” in which he sent young agents to romance lonely secretaries in Bonn, the former West German capital, for access to the confidential files of their bosses. A few of these affairs, he later noted, blossomed into happy marriages, though the more common outcome was betrayal and broken hearts.
The disclosure that one of his spies, Günter Guillaume, had managed to become Brandt’s personal aide toppled a man who had done more to reach out to the east than any German leader.
Mr. Wolf burnished his legend in 1997 by publishing a well-received memoir, “Man Without a Face” (Times Books). But he never escaped the taint of his association with the Stasi, or the judgment in a reunified Germany that he had been on the wrong side of history.
“His greatest success was also his greatest failure,” said Karl-Wilhelm Fricke, an author and expert on the Stasi, referring to the Brandt affair. “He never accepted moral responsibility for his actions. On the contrary, he felt wrongly persecuted. He complained of victor’s justice.”
Mr. Wolf acknowledged the moral ambiguity of his role, but chalked it up to the exigencies of his time and trade.
“One may wonder at times if the end justifies the means,” he said in 1998 in a CNN documentary, “Cold War.” “It would certainly be the simplest thing to say, ‘No, certainly not.’ But that wouldn’t be the full truth. With intelligence methods, you can’t apply the same yardstick as with ordinary morals.”
Markus Wolf was born in 1923 in Hechingen, in southwest Germany. His father, Friedrich Wolf, a Jew, was a doctor, writer and member of the Communist Party of Germany. A decade later, the family was forced to flee by the Nazis, first to Switzerland and eventually to Moscow.
In the Soviet Union, Mr. Wolf was educated at elite party schools and joined the Comintern, where he was trained for undercover work. After World War II, he went to the Soviet-occupied zone of Berlin, where he worked as a radio reporter, among other things, on the Nuremberg trials.
“It was ingrained in my character that if the party asked something of us, we responded obediently,” he wrote in his memoir. “They said ‘Jump’ and we said ‘How high?’ ”
After a stint as a diplomat back in Moscow, Mr. Wolf was present at the creation of the East German foreign intelligence service in 1951. Taking it over a few years later, he was able to demonstrate his loyalty to the Communist government in all sorts of ingenious ways.
West Germany, with its economic riches and NATO military backing, was East Germany’s abiding obsession. Mr. Wolf sent his agents on an unceasing campaign to ferret out information about its plans.
He lured politicians and businessmen with sex and money. He “turned” West German agents, sending them back to spy on their masters. One of his agents, Rainer Rupp, code-named Topaz, worked for 25 years at NATO headquarters in Brussels and was unmasked only in 1993.
Among his few setbacks was the defection of Werner Stiller, who turned over 20,000 pages of microfilmed documents to the West Germans, as well as the first picture in decades of the “man without a face.”
Willy Brandt’s downfall could have been Mr. Wolf’s undoing, since the chancellor’s policy of rapprochement, Ostpolitik, was a momentous opportunity for East Germany. Mr. Wolf himself said later that he regretted the episode. But since his boss, the Communist Party leader, Erich Honecker, was suspicious of Brandt’s overtures, the affair had no lasting consequences for Mr. Wolf.
Mr. Wolf always drew a distinction between his work and that of the Stasi. In later years — too late for critics — he expressed distaste for the Stasi’s hated leader, Erich Mielke.
By the 1980’s, Mr. Wolf was disillusioned by the Communist system. When he spoke out in favor of reform during anti-Communist rallies in 1989, however, few were willing heed an aging spy.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the legal noose drew tighter around Mr. Wolf. In his memoir, he wrote that in May 1990, the Central Intelligence Agency sent an emissary to his summer cottage with an offer of safe haven in the United States if he informed on his old colleagues. He refused.
That poisoned any good will he might have received from Washington. The government turned down his subsequent applications for an entry visa, rejections that the American editor of his memoir, Peter Osnos, said deeply rankled him.
In late September 1990, days before Germany’s formal reunification, Mr. Wolf fled to Moscow. He lingered there about a year, before surrendering to the Germans, who charged him with treason.
In 1993, a Düsseldorf court sentenced Mr. Wolf to six years in prison. A higher court overturned the ruling, pointing out that he had been acting for a sovereign state at the time he was intelligence chief. He was later convicted on a lesser charge of ordering illegal kidnappings.
Besides his stepdaughter, he is survived by his wife, Andrea, and three sons.
Invisible for most of his career, Mr. Wolf embarked on a rather public retirement. He wrote a book of recipes, “Secrets of Russian Cooking,” and contracted with Mr. Osnos, who is now editor at large of PublicAffairs, to write his memoirs.
“Getting a real, full, revealing story out of Markus Wolf was very much an act of editorial gymnastics,” Mr. Osnos said from New York. “The only real leverage I had over him was he needed the money.”
Mr. Wolf’s memoir is far from a confessional. There is much he did not disclose, and which he has now taken to the grave.
“For many men,” Mr. Osnos said, “the cold war was a game, and he was very good at the game.”
His death came 17 years to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic end of that war.