For 30 years, Markus Wolf was the world's ultimate spymaster. His East German intelligence network was as feared as the mighty KGB. John le Carre based his character 'Karla' on him. Western spies, unable even to obtain a current photograph of him, dubbed him 'the man without a face'. Then the Berlin Wall came down
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The opening of the Berlin Wall caught Markus Wolf by surprise. His embattled former colleagues from State Security were seeking his advice and support as never before. He urged them to remain loyal and not to commit "treason" by defecting to the Western security services. He himself, meanwhile, left Berlin for Moscow, in February 1990, giving rise to a spate of rumours: he was negotiating with the KGB on unfinished business, arranging his eventual asylum in Moscow to avoid prosecution in a united Germany, or - his version - escaping the glare of publicity in Germany and completing his memoirs. The contract he signed to produce three books was worth more than $400,000, one publishing source said.

Wolf's flight and the stories surrounding it generated anger and disappointment among many of his hitherto admiring officers. Was this how one of the East's most celebrated Cold War warriors would adapt to the new world order? Wolf maintained that his intention was always to return to Berlin - which he did after a month. When he got back, he wrote to Willy Brandt and West German president Richard von Weizsacker to ask them to intervene on his behalf and that of other former East German intelligence officers and spies who were facing arrest on charges of espionage and treason. He apologised to Brandt, the ex-chancellor whom he had helped to topple (by planting a mole, Gunter Guillaume, in his private office). He asked for forgiveness for the "personal pain" he had caused him.

But moving on from the bitterness of the past was going to take more than apologies and forgiveness. Due process was inevitable. On unification day, 3 October 1990, agents of the German Federal Criminal Office bounded up the steps to Wolf's apartment. Wolf had been warned; he had already fled back to Moscow, having informed the Federal Supreme Court that he did not want to take part in the media "event" of his arrest. In August 1991, however, following the attempted coup against Gorbachev, Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chief and Wolf's friend and admirer, was arrested. Realising that he now faced eventual extradition to Germany, Wolf made his way to Austria, where he applied for political asylum. His application was rejected. While waiting in Vienna he entertained the media with interviews, such as one by the giant Ferris wheel of the Prater amusement park, which was featured in the postwar spy film The Third Man. His ex-subordinates in Berlin were not amused.

On 24 September 1991, Wolf was arrested. In many ways the pending trial was both hypocritical and absurd. After all, the BND, West Germany's counterpart to Wolf's outfit, had also conducted espionage, yet no one was suggesting that the head of the BND be put on trial along with his senior officers. As for high treason and bribery, Wolf, at the time, had been a citizen of the GDR and not the Federal Republic of Germany, the state he was accused of having betrayed. And if he was accused of having bribed his moles, then surely every intelligence chief - from Washington to Bonn - was guilty of the same crime?

But then Wolf was no ordinary intelligence chief.

Markus Wolf's network of spies, sleepers, informers and instructors in West Germany, today estimated to have numbered as many as 20,000 at the height of the Cold War, was arguably the most extraordinary in the history of espionage. It ran from the two-bit players - the moles in the vehicle registration office providing duplicate car licences, for instance - to the deputy head of the Soviet Union department in West German intelligence. Its spread and penetration were partly the result of historical accident - the diffused loyalties and contorted morality born of a country artificially divided. But they were primarily the result of the genius with which Wolf exploited these conditions.

His enemies admired him as much as they hated and feared him. Western intelligence agencies - for decades able only to get a faded, fuzzy photograph of him from the early Fifties - nicknamed him "the man without a face". When John le Carre came to create his fiendish fictional spymaster Karla, he was widely assumed to have used Wolf as his model. During Wolf's three decades at its helm, East Germany's Central Intelligence Administration (HVA) grew in power and influence, until - with its 2,500 staff officers in the mid-1980s - it was exceeded in manpower within the Warsaw Pact countries only by the KGB's foreign intelligence arm. But the East German agency was second to none in its dedication and skill. Wolf's HVA was a prime source of intelligence for the KGB.

Tall, strikingly handsome and endowed with great charm, Wolf was the opposite in appearance and demeanour to the image of the plodding Communist commissar. His early years had been spent in the bourgeois ease of a large Bauhaus-designed home in Stuttgart. His father was Friedrich Wolf, a prominent physician who rejected orthodox Judaism and gained fame as a Communist playwright and pro-abortion campaigner; his mother Else, a great beauty, was also a staunch Communist. In 1934, his comfortable German boyhood came to an abrupt end when the family fled Hitler's Germany to asylum in the Soviet Union and a cramped Moscow flat. He was soon transformed into a typical Moscow teenager, fluent in the local slang and fiercely loyal to his adopted home and to Stalin. His attitudes and attributes were spotted by the Communist Party, and while still at school he was chosen to be a member of the nomenklatura, the elite inner circle of future officials.

In 1945, aged 22 and just married, Wolf returned to Berlin on only the second aircraft to arrive from Moscow bringing officials to take over the administration of occupied East Germany. His first job was as head of Berlin radio; six years later he was chosen to run the newly formed East German intelligence service. Here, his particular gifts and quirks flourished. His personal warmth and concern for those who worked for him gained him their unshakeable loyalty and created a powerful esprit de corps; but he was ready to use the same human understanding to manipulate and exploit others. Above all, Wolf was a supreme tactician. He was behind the audacious plan to introduce long-term "sleeper" agents into the stream of East German refugees entering the West. This strategy entailed years, sometimes decades, during which the new citizens of West Germany worked their way into key positions before starting to supply him with the innermost secrets of the "class enemy".

His speciality was human espionage as opposed to hi-tech intelligence- gathering, and for good reason. West Germany, his main target, was easily accessible to his spies and couriers, who, given new Western identities, were indistinguishable from West Germans. Wolf was also well-equipped to recruit West Germans as his moles. With his bourgeois background, he understood the habits and mentality of Westerners and above all their weaknesses. The controllers who worked for him were not mere handlers of spies in the West but expert psychologists who prided themselves on their close personal ties to their charges on the "invisible front".

Wolf's extraordinary success was partly founded on luck, although it was the kind of luck that tends to follow those who are pre-eminent in their field. He was lucky enough to be operating at a time when West German intelligence was, in places, quite astonishingly lax. Arguably his biggest catch, for example, was Hansjoachim Tiedge, a high-spending senior official in counter-intelligence responsible for turning East German spies in the West into double agents who was so addicted to the bottle that he could scarcely drag himself through the working day. Tiedge defected in 1985 when his debts rose to the point where he could see no other way out. Another spectacular success was Klaus Kuron, Tiedge's deputy, who, also driven by debt, had sought out Wolf in 1981, unprompted. He worked for East German intelligence as a mole, undetected, until the fall of the Berlin Wall. This kind of "luck" often came to Wolf: despite his invisibility, his reputation drew defectors like a magnet. To Kuron, working for Wolf represented the pinnacle of his espionage career.

But most of Wolf's achievement was the result of his inexhaustibly painstaking methods, of his charisma, and of his ultimate ruthlessness.

Nothing exemplified these qualities better than Wolf's use of "Romeo" agents. Sex has been used to gather intelligence since ancient times, but Wolf created a new twist on the female spy who seduced her victim to obtain secrets. He did the same thing with male spies.

Early in his career Wolf realised that it was not enough to infiltrate East German agents into the West; the HVA had to concentrate on recruiting West Germans with access to top-level secrets. Experience showed that it was usually much simpler for his agents to ensnare the secretary of a high-ranking Western official than the official himself, and that she would often have the same access to confidential information as her boss. Wolf's Romeos targetted lonely women in Bonn government offices and the NATO headquarters in Brussels. When, after the Cold War had ended, I asked Wolf about the morality of misusing the emotions and trust of vulnerable women, he reminded me that his intelligence service did not act by the rules and regulations of either "a girls' school or the Salvation Army".

Not all of Wolf's Romeos latched on to hapless secretaries. One of his most far-sighted, as well as lucky, entrapments involved a demure, conservative, impressionable student of political science at the Technical University in Aachen, one Gabriele Gast. She was writing a doctoral thesis on the political role of East German women. To further her research, Gast wrote to her relatives in East Germany, who obtained permission for her to visit them in the spring of 1968. The regional office of the Stasi was also eagerly awaiting her arrival.

She encountered surprisingly few problems in the GDR and was provided with an official chauffeured car to take her to her interviews with East German women active in politics and in the state trade union. Over a beer one evening in the Kosmos bar, she and the driver got to know each other better. He was a friendly man with a crew-cut and a beer belly who said that his name was Karl-Heinz Schmidt, and that he was a technician. He looked like someone's kindly uncle, and was considerably older than Gast. Gast had always preferred older men, and, at the age of 25, had seldom had a date. They arranged to meet again. Before she knew it, Gast had fallen in love with him.

His real name was Karl-Heinz Schneider, and he was an officer in a regional office of Wolf's intelligence service. Schneider told his superior, Gotthard Schramm, about the affair, and Gast was invited to East Berlin, where the three of them met in the Hotel Unter den Linden. The trap was set. Schneider, alias Schmidt, introduced Schramm to her as his "friend", Gotthard Schiefer. He informed Gast that they were from the Stasi, and bluntly told her that State Security suspected her of being a Western agent who had been sent to spy on Schmidt. Her relationship with him would have to be terminated, Schiefer said - unless, of course, she helped them by obtaining some information about her professors.

Gast was staggered. What on earth was going on? By now, she felt emotionally involved with Schmidt and could not bear the thought of losing him; and, after all, the information they were asking for seemed harmless enough and was common knowledge at the university. She agreed to cooperate with them, informally, without signing anything. She told them she wanted no money for her work. But once she had overcome her first reservations about her recruitment, the situation took on its own momentum. She was given her new code name, Gisela, a forged passport and a handbag with a secret compartment. She was given a course on the tools of espionage: how to use invisible ink, photograph documents, monitor coded radio messages, and how to conduct herself at conspiratorial meetings with her controller. She was directed to come to East Berlin every three months, an instruction designed to intensify her attachment to Schmidt - though she didn't need much encouragement. Back in Aachen, she tuned in her shortwave radio at the same time every Tuesday and wrote down the series of numbers read off by a woman in a monotone. The numbers she decrypted were messages from Schmidt; some were instructions, others morale-boosting love notes.

On obtaining her doctorate, Gast, whose politics had always been moderate Christian democrat, joined an ultra-conservative think-tank that dealt with security problems. She photographed everything of possible interest to the HVA, which sent a courier to pick up the film. Gast still refused all payment for her services; she told herself she was working in the interest of peace.

Within the year, she replied to a job advertisement placed by the West German Foreign Ministry, and was surprised to be contacted by a man who said he was from the Federal Intelligence Agency (BND). She showed interest and was given an application form. In a letter written in invisible ink, she proudly informed Schmidt of this promising development. Gast was hired by the BND after passing a less-than-stringent security check, and, on 1 November 1973, she moved into her new office at BND headquarters in Pullach, near Munich. She was given her West German code name, Frau Dr Leinfelder, and was assigned to the section of the analysis department that dealt with the Soviet Union. Here she photographed confidential documents that the BND prepared for the use of the West German government and parliament, passing on the films to her courier.

Gast, alias Frau Dr Leinfelder, alias Gisela, lived for the times when she could be with her lover, Schmidt, in Austria or northern Italy. She was informed about the rendezvous by coded message from East Berlin. The couple would dine in cosy restaurants, dance, and go to the opera in Vienna. Gast's controlling officer in East Berlin was careful to protect the intimate, private nature of her relationship with Schmidt.

Wolf quickly realised that he had struck gold with Gisela. He set up a permanent contact in West Germany that was responsible exclusively for Gast. This consisted of an East German couple who had entered West Germany from Britain. The woman met Gast every few weeks in a ladies' room, where they swapped hollow deodorant spray cans containing miniature films. Gast's material was then transported on the smoke-belching Reichsbahn railroad, East German intelligence's favourite rolling safe drop. The courier slipped the cans behind a panel underneath the washbasin of the regular train between West Germany and East Berlin, leaving a chalk mark at the spot. At the other end, one of Wolf's officers entered the train and searched for a chalk mark.

Wolf was anxious to get to know his prize BND mole, so he arranged to meet her in September 1975 at the secluded resort of Rabac on the Slovenian coast of Yugoslavia, where Gast and Schmidt were staying. The handsome, casually dressed man who arrived at the seaside bungalow her was totally at odds with the mental picture she had of the head of East German intelligence. She had expected a stilted, baggy-faced Communist functionary, but here was a tall, slender, youthful-looking man in his mid-fifties with a soothing timbre in his voice.

Wolf was impressed by Gast's intelligence and analytical powers. They discussed Ostpolitik (Eastern policy) and the problems of the Soviet Union and its allies. She in turn was impressed by his seeming openness: Wolf was undogmatic, freely admitting that the Communist countries had a long way to go before they could profit from socialism's inherent advantages.

The following year, West German intelligence promoted Gast to councillor, a considerable achievement for a woman in the male-dominated German civil service. In all, Gast would pass a total of 49 lengthy intelligence reports to Wolf from inside the BND, where eventually she rose to the position of deputy head of the Soviet section. The report topics ranged from internal economic problems to analyses of Soviet politics and the Soviet space programme, as well as of the summit meeting between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. For a while she was assigned to work in the federal chancellory in Bonn, where she was responsible for putting together the regular intelligence reports for Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Only days later, Wolf, too, was able to read these. Equally important, she gave Wolf everything she knew about the organisation of the BND, the real names of its officials, its codes and the names of all its resident agents abroad.

Wolf was delighted by Gast's career progress. The higher she rose, the greater was her value to him - and the more cordial he became at their near-annual meetings. Yet Gast was beginning to suffer from the strain of her dual existence. In January 1980, while on holiday with Schmidt in Innsbruck, she made her first attempt to break free. She told her lover that she was planning to take over the care of her sister's spastic child and wanted to curtail her work for East Berlin. However, as soon as it was made clear to her by Schmidt's superior that this would mean a curtailment of the relationship too, she said she would keep trying.

None the less, the strain grew, and she repeatedly tried to summon up the courage to tell Wolf that she wanted to stop spying. But that bond, too, was hard to break. Alone as she was most of the time now, caring for the spastic child, constantly having to conceal her true identity, she found her meetings with Wolf an enormous boost to her depressed spirits. He had told her so often how invaluable she was to the HVA and the cause of detente. She was determined not to disappoint him.

When the Communist system collapsed in early 1990, Gast's controller, Colonel Karlheinz Stephan, arranged for a final meeting with her in Austria in late March. In contrast to most of his other Western agents, there was no question of making a final payment as she had never accepted a pfennig from the HVA.

Schmidt was with Colonel Stephan when Gast arrived at the meeting place, a smart restaurant near Salzburg, Austria. Stephan - now an ex-colonel - solemnly thanked Gast for her years of service in the cause of peace and assured her that everything remotely connected with her work for the HVA had been destroyed under his personal supervision. She wanted to believe him.

Six months later, four days before German unification, Gast left her home in Munich bright and early one Saturday morning for a rendezvous in Austria with her beloved Karliczek, as she had nicknamed her lover. As she drove up to the German-Austrian border, she was met by officials of the Criminal Investigation Department, who arrested her on suspicion of treason and espionage for the GDR. This was the start of an unravelling of her life, her allegiances and her love that nearly broke her.

Only during her interrogation did Gast learn that her lover's real name was Karl-Heinz Schneider, and, worse, that he was not the friendly technician and sometime driver he had pretended to be. Her career wrecked and her personal life in shreds, Gast spent 14 months in solitary confinement. In sheer desperation, she wrote a letter to Wolf, telling him that she was filled with bitterness. Whenever she had tried to terminate her work for the HVA, Wolf's officers had refused. Was Schneider's relationship with her, she asked, nothing but a tactic used by the HVA to retain her as a "source"?

"Please give me an answer," she wrote. "With great affection, your Gaby."

She never got an answer. At her trial Schneider testified that he had merely been a lure to get her to work for the HVA. This was the final blow, even worse than a life sentence. On 19 December 1991, Gast was found guilty of espionage and treason and sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. Schneider and Colonel Stephan were given probationary sentences, Schneider for 18 months and Stephan for 12.

I watched Wolf at his trial, which finally began in the High Court in Dusseldorf on 4 May 1993, as one after another of his top moles was summoned to testify. They all nodded to him, or shook his hand as they passed the table where he sat with his lawyers. The one exception was Gabriele Gast. She avoided even a glance in his direction. The pain was still too great.

During a break in his trial in the late summer of 1993, we met again in Berlin. We went to a restaurant near his apartment for lunch. He was open, engaging, and sparkling as he recalled incidents from his childhood, as well as a visit to an Armenian pilgrimage site in 1970 during which he registered the incipient nationalism that would later destroy the Soviet Union. As we were sipping coffee, a young waitress approached our table, bent over, and spoke to Wolf in an audible whisper: "I want to express my contempt for you," she said, then turned on her heel.

What struck me was that Wolf never for a moment lost his composure. "It's the second time this year that someone has said that to me," he remarked calmly. "But most people here support me, which is what you would expect in the East." It all sounded so disarmingly frank, yet it was fraudulent. He knew as well as I did that his prominent role in the Communist regime had discredited him in the eyes not only of the waitress but also of a lot of other former East Germans.

Wolf's expression betrayed not the slightest hint of surprise when, on 6 December 1993, Judge Wagner sentenced him to six years in prison. He had been found guilty of severely endangering West Germany's security by his espionage activities and of committing high treason. But Wolf was free to go home until his appeal was ruled on, the judge added charitably. Outside the courthouse, a crowd of supporters cheered their fallen hero.

The final verdict on Wolf still had to be spoken. For over a year he waited anxiously for a ruling on his appeal against his sentence. He complained about his freedom of movement being restricted to Berlin, and of having to seek permission from the authorities before visiting his weekend dacha in Prenden. I thought about the many victims of the Stasi who had languished for years in dehumanising prisons. Some had not survived long enough to be released.

Though free, Wolf was struggling financially: his special pension arrangements had been cancelled and he was left with the basic rate for former Stasi officials, DM802 per month. Now, in the new capitalist world, he girded himself to make a living from the ruins of the past. He decided that his fellow Germans were less eager to hear his political revelations than to sample his fabled recipes, which he published in a cookbook with the tongue-in-cheek title Secrets of Russian Cooking.

More than two years had passed since the Berlin High Court dismissed the espionage case against Wolf's successor, Werner Grossmann. The Berlin court argued that to prosecute former GDR spies and spymasters, while West German spies and spymasters enjoyed immunity, violated the Constitution's principle of equality before the law. It was difficult to imagine that Wolf would land in prison; but his supporters had prepared for that eventuality, issuing a thinly veiled threat to the German authorities. They hinted that Wolf was privy to acutely embarrassing secrets about prominent West Germans, and that if he told what he knew the entire German establishment might never recover.

On the morning of 23 May 1995, Wolf, his face deeply etched from months of worrying, heard the long-awaited ruling from the appeal court: former East German intelligence officers who had spied exclusively from GDR territory could not be prosecuted for their espionage. Visibly relieved over what amounted to an amnesty, Wolf said that he expected his sentence to be annulled and that the years of uncertainty and slander against him and his former associates would be ended.

But it was not to be that simple. A new indictment charging him with kidnapping in three cases has been drawn up by the Federal Prosecutor. Wolf's retrial is to take place in Dusseldorf, probably early next year. Although legal sources say that it is unlikely that he will actually be made to serve a prison term, West German justice officials are causing the 73-year-old ex-spymaster considerable anguish by leaving this a possibility.

No doubt monitoring these developments in Munich, Gabriele Gast looks forward to completing her gaol term after which she will return to her tidy flat in Neuried to contemplate her future and come to terms with her past.

! Adapted from 'Spymaster', by Leslie Colitt, published by Robson Books at pounds 16.95 on 26 September