Spymaster steps from shadow into courtroom limelight

The "man without a face" made a triumphant entry into the bunker, turning his cheek towards the cameras and acknowledging well-wishers with a haughty nod. Markus Wolf, one-time superspy, strutted in the limelight with a familiarity belying his long life in the dark; in the shadowy world of espionage.

For most of the three decades that he ran East Germany's foreign intelligence service, the HVA, his Western adversaries could not even put a face to the name. Now his image fills television screens, his punditry commands exorbitant fees, a book entitled Secrets of Russian Cuisine pays the bills, and the last Cold warrior is about to hit stardom with a seminal work on the Cold War.

All that stands in the way of minting fame into fortune is a little misunderstanding with the German judiciary, who keep trying to throw him into jail. And so Mr Wolf returned yesterday to the windowless Dusseldorf courtroom where he was once convicted of treason, but this time as a common criminal.

Then - he was absolved by the highest court in the land, which ruled that East Germans who had spied on West Germany had committed no crime in their own country. Now - the prosecution is citing the East German penal code in an attempt to convict him on charges of abduction, coercion, and causing grievous bodily harm.

"My accusers have revealed no more than methods that have belonged to all secret services of all ages," Mr Wolf said, staring at his prosecutors. "Neither the constitution, nor the law of the country I served were violated." If he had ordered the kidnapping and brutalisation of innocents, then his actions had been no worse than those of the other side.

In response to the charge that he had ordered the imprisonment of a former Gestapo employee, Mr Wolf took a dig at the Western inclination to turn a blind eye: "Contrary to the West German secret services, the uncovering of former Nazi henchmen was one of the legitimate tasks of the HVA," he declared.

It was dedication to root out "Hitler-fascism" and to defend "socialism" that had driven him, he said. As if to justify his actions, Mr Wolf dwelt at length on his colourful life, his famed memory deserting him only when he was asked about the date of his third marriage.

His parents, atheist Jews who joined the Communist Party in 1928, fled Germany in 1933 after the burning of the Reichstag. Markus - or "Misha" - grew up in Moscow, and was educated at a school for German communists where teachers and pupils would often disappear in a Stalinist purge. Misha studied to be an aircraft engineer, but after the outbreak of war he was ordered to enrol in the Comintern's school for promising leaders of the future satellite states.

He returned to Germany shortly after the surrender, working as a propagandist for the Russian "liberators". Eventually, he became an East German diplomat in Moscow and then a party apparatchik in East Berlin.

On his career between 1955 and 1986, Mr Wolf remained silent, but he appeared keen to talk about his relatively short flirtation with journalism. In 1946, he covered the Nuremberg trials, which some commentators today regard as the precedent for bringing leaders of the East German regime to justice.

"It was a deeply emotional experience, one which I will never forget," Mr Wolf said yesterday, his now famous face betraying not a hint of irony.

The trial is expected to last until the end of March.