'Spy without a face' who inspired Le Carré dies at 83

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The legendary East German foreign intelligence chief who inspired the creation of the inscrutable Communist spymaster "Karla" in John le Carré's Cold War novels died at his home in Berlin yesterday - exactly 17 years after the fall of the city's wall.

Markus "Mischa" Wolf died in his sleep at the age of 83 after completing a spying career that made him one of the most influential figures in the Cold War and forced the former West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, to resign in 1974.

Yet although he headed a retinue of some 4,000 East German Stasi secret agents across the globe, he was for decades nicknamed "the man without a face" because Western intelligence could not even procure a photograph of him.

Wolf, born to a Jewish doctor's family in Germany, emigrated to the former Soviet Union after the Nazi's rise to power in 1933. A confirmed Communist, he moved to what was to become East Germany in 1945.

He worked as a journalist for East Germany's state-run media during the Nuremburg trials and last year admitted that witnessing the evidence of the Nazi's crimes had wholly influenced his later life because anti-fascism became his raison d'être.

"I hoped that after Nuremberg there would be a time without war, aggression or crimes without humanity," he said at the time.

In 1956, Wolf became head of East Germany's foreign intelligence service ­ a post he held until 1986, by which time he was also deputy to Erich Mielke, the feared chief of the country's notorious Stasi.

His most significant achievement was to force the resignation of Willy Brandt, the popular West German Social Democrat Chancellor, in 1974. Brandt was shadowed by the East German agent Guenter Guillaume, who was given a job in the Chancellor's office. When Guillaume was unmasked, Brandt had no option but to leave office. Yet Wolf later described the resignation as an "own goal" because of Brandt's commitment to détente with East Germany.

Wolf was booed and shouted down when he tried to side with East Germans demanding democratic elections in the days that immediately preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall. He fled to Moscow but returned to reunified Germany, where in May 1997 he was found guilty of treason and kidnapping. He was given a two year suspended sentence.

He said that in the final days of the divided Germany, the CIA had asked him to defect to America with the offer of a home in California and a large salary. Wolf said he refused because he would never betray his agents. One may wonder what he thought about Carré's novel Smiley's People, when Karla was unmasked by the British spy George Smiley and crossed the Wall to defect to the West.

A spymaster with an acute sense of history, it is unlikely that the irony of the timing of his death, on yesterday's anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, would have been lost on him.