East German spymaster goes on trial: The man said to have provided the model for Le Carre's Karla treats proceedings with studied contempt

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MARKUS WOLF, the head of East Germany's extraordinarily successful espionage network for more than 30 years, went on trial yesterday accused of treason and bribery. He immediately denounced the proceedings as 'absurd' and politically motivated, insisting that, like other prominent East German leaders before him, he was simply being made a scapegoat for a discredited system.

'Which country am I supposed to have betrayed?' asked Mr Wolf, 70, posing the central question in a trial for which there is no precedent and which looks set to run for months.

The prosecution believes the country was the former West Germany. As head of East Germany's Central Agency for Intelligence (HVA), Mr Wolf is alleged to have planted hundreds of spies in key West German institutions and to have bribed a string of West German intelligence officials to swap sides and work for him as agents. As such, he is said to have damaged the interests of the country and 'endangered external security' by passing on sensitive military secrets to the KGB.

Mr Wolf, reportedly used by John le Carre as the model for his fictional Soviet spymaster, Karla, yesterday showed a studied contempt for the whole process. Of course he had engaged people to spy on West Germany. Of course he had had surreptitious meetings with his agents. But he was only doing his job, he insisted. He was, after all, an East German citizen at the time. Far from betraying, he had been serving his country. The world was in the throes of the Cold War. And to try him now for alleged offences against a state of which he had not been a citizen was nonsense - 'victors' justice'. Many Germans share Mr Wolf's view.

Many in eastern Germany remain keen to see any senior figure from the old regime behind bars, but they distinguish between Mr Wolf's activities as the foreign espionage supremo and the oppressors at home - such as Erich Honecker, the country's leader, or Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi secret police. Some are even secretly proud of the astonishing successes chalked up by the HVA, one of East Germany's few institutions that really worked.

'You have got to hand it to Wolf: the information and espionage in the German Democratic Republic were really first class,' Oleg Kalugin, the former head of the KGB, told German television this week. 'The information from the military-political arena was without a doubt the GDR's most valuable contribution to the Socialist bloc's spy work.'

Mr Wolf's most spectacular and far- reaching coup was the planting of Gunter Guillaume in the office of Willy Brandt when he became the leader of the Social Democratic Party and then chancellor. When Guillaume was rumbled in 1974, Brandt had to resign - to the regret of East Berlin, Mr Wolf now concedes.

In addition to the chancellory, most West German ministries, military centres and industrial complexes were infiltrated by East German spies, some of whom were nicknamed 'Romeo agents', who wooed lonely women, mainly secretaries.

An estimated 600 East German agents worked in West Germany and, as their boss between 1953 and 1986, Mr Wolf obtained construction plans for US missile sites, technical plans for several missiles and Nato contingency plans for a Soviet-led attack.

It was an impressive performance and one that won Mr Wolf respect from Western counterparts, who held him in awe. Until 1979, when he was photographed meeting one of his agents in Stockholm, he was known simply as 'The Man With No Face'.

Many East German spies were flushed out after the collapse of Communism in 1989, but some experts estimate that 300 or so have yet to be discovered. Mr Wolf hinted that there may be some embarrassing revelations in coming weeks.

(Photograph omitted)