Last stand for East Berlin's spymaster

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In an airless room in the basement of Dusseldorf's court-house, the former East Germany's spymaster is about to make his last stand against the capitalist state.

Markus Wolf, the larger than life hero/villain widely thought to be the inspiration for John le Carre's "Karla", goes on trial today, in the German authorities' final attempt to bring their greatest adversary to justice.

No longer is he accused of treason, a charge quashed by the Constitutional Court because Mr Wolf had quite evidently not betrayed his own country, the German Democratic Republic. Now prosecutors are trying to send him to prison for offences which are universally punishable by jail in East and West, even if they belonged to the secret-service repertoire. Mr Wolf, a dapper 73-year-old, is accused of abduction, coercion and causing grievous bodily harm.

All the charges go back decades. In 1955 Mr Wolf is alleged to have ordered the abduction of Christa Trapp, an interpreter working for the United States High Commission in West Berlin. Ms Trapp and her mother were spirited across the Wall in an attempt to force the daughter to work for the East German secret service, the Stasi.

In 1962, the Stasi went after its own, a defector named Walter Thrane, who had fled to Austria with his girlfriend. The couple were lured to a secret hide-out, allegedly belonging to Mr Wolf, where they were beaten and smuggled back into East Germany via the then Czechoslovakia. Thrane was jailed for more than 10 years, his girlfriend for three years and four months.

The most bizarre case involves an East German typesetter named Georg Angerer, whose misfortune was to have known Willy Brandt, the future chancellor, during the Second World War. Angerer had worked as a Gestapo interpreter in occupied Norway, where Brandt lived for a while in exile from Nazi Germany.

In 1959 Mr Wolf ordered Angerer's arrest on trumped-up charges, and tried to extract a testimony portraying Brandt, at that time mayor of West Berlin, as a former Gestapo agent. The plot failed, and Angerer was free six months later, a broken man.

The paths of Brandt and East Berlin's master spy were to cross again, culminating in a scandal that ended the Chancellor's career. In 1974, the German secret service discovered one of Mr Wolf's top agents, Gunter Guillaume, working in Brandt's office. He and his wife had been planted by Mr Wolf decades before. Guillaume had climbed the Social Democrat ladder, and reached a position from which he could feed East Berlin with the Bonn government's secrets.

The Guillaume affair and a string of similar feats by Mr Wolf's agents exposed the West German authorities' incompetence. The spymaster became the most hated Ossie, or East German, among Bonn's political class, a sentiment Mr Wolf says still lingers.

"Since the Constitutional Court didn't play along, they're trying to make an example of me in a different way," he told the weekly Der Spiegel.

Mr Wolf, and his coterie of moles who will be in court to cheer him, speak of "political revenge", orchestrated by Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government. To the superannuated Stasi agents, Mr Wolf's sole crime is that he happens to have done his job a lot better than his Western counterparts.

"The trial is not fair," said Herbert Kloss, one of Mr Wolf's agents who spent two years and four months in jail after the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to Mr Kloss, his former boss is a "fantastic man ... a reliable friend".

Mr Wolf "was convinced that democratic socialism was possible" - a genuine mistake he discovered only too late.

"Misha" - as he is known to his friends - is a German Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union in the Thirties and who came to believe that Communism provided the only salvation for his country. He was head of the HVA, the Stasi's foreign intelligence arm, for three decades, and lives in a modest flat in Berlin on a monthly pension of DM802 (pounds 305), supplemented by fees for chat-show appearances.

About a dozen of Mr Wolf's officers have been imprisoned since reunification, though he himself remains free on bail. Bringing other Stasi spies to trial is virtually impossible, because most of the evidence against them is in Mr Wolf's head.

"Western agencies have tried to buy his knowledge for millions of dollars," said Mr Trapp. "He told them: `I shall not betray my friends and former colleagues'."