'Spymaster' Wolf punctures the myth

Where's the blood? asks Imre Karacs, as prosecutors try to nail the former East German intelligence chief
The public prosecutor mustered his sternest voice for the occasion. "The accused held conspiratorial meetings in Sweden and Yugoslavia," he intoned gravely. "He controlled between 500 and 600 agents in the Federal Republic." Some people had even been abducted and beaten up on his orders.

"No kidding," murmured the retired Fifth Columnists who had infiltrated the Dusseldorf courtroom to catch a glimpse of their former boss. The black American man in the public gallery, representing the barely reconstructed communists of East Germany, took copious notes. They know a lot about show trials at party headquarters on Berlin's Rosa Luxemburgplatz, and are convinced this one fits the bill.

Except that the defendant, Markus Wolf, is not following the script. Instead of entering the well-rehearsed plea of "guilty, comrade", the former head of East Germany's foreign intelligence service, the HVA, is taunting his accusers. "You seem to be bad losers," he tells them, slamming the charges as "pure invention". "There was neither a death commando nor a hit squad within the HVA."

Could this be the end of a myth? Mr Wolf is said to have been the inspiration for John Le Carre's Karla, arch-nemesis of George Smiley and the Circus - though all the author would admit is that he got the name from a lawn- mower lying in his garden shed. Karla or not, the wily, suave spymaster of East Germany appeared the closest thing in real life to his fictional alter ego. Like Le Carre's anti-hero, he was never seen or heard, not until 1979, when Western agents took their first picture of him by accident. He was good at his job - perhaps the best in the intelligence business - and never got caught.

It is somewhat disappointing, therefore, to find him in the dock, charged with nothing worse than three cases of abduction, one case of false arrest and a bit of brutality administered on his orders. Where is all the blood? As Mr Wolf pointed out with glee, all the German authorities have to show for six years of painstaking research is proof that the HVA had resorted to the same methods as its Western rivals. The prosecution have even failed to persuade one of the victims, a secretary kidnapped for a day from West Berlin in 1955, to testify.

They have until the end of March, when the trial is due to end, to persuade the court that he is guilty of... something. Last time they managed to get a conviction for treason in the same courtroom three years ago, the Constitutional Court overturned the verdict, on the grounds that Mr Wolf, an East German citizen, had not betrayed his country. They very nearly gave him a medal. Now they are throwing the East German penal code at him, citing communist justice chapter and verse. Thuggery, it seems, was a criminal offence in the German Democratic Republic too.

If there is not much violence in evidence, that is not the fault of the investigators, who have been sifting through mountains of captured Stasi files. Mr Wolf was far too smooth an operator to apply coercion when more subtle means were available. His stock in trade was the "Romeo method", stealing the hearts of lonely women working at Western embassies and military installations, and persuading them to steal secrets for their "fiances". Operators were often coached personally by Mr Wolf, who had a reputation as something of a ladies' man, a trait he doubtless inherited from his notoriously philandering father. The lovers camouflaged their actions so well that many of the Juliets never had an inkling that they were working for the other side.

Most of his Western moles enlisted voluntarily, because they believed in the East German brand of "socialism". "We all knew what we were doing," says Herbert Kloss, who, unlike his controller, was not able to escape jail, yet has no regrets. "Most East German spies worked out of political conviction. Most of us were left-wing students when we were recruited, and knew that what we were doing was illegal."

Mr Wolf was also a believer. A fine specimen of Homo Sovieticus, he was brought up in the Soviet Union, where his parents, communist Jews, had fled in 1933. He was raised on Stalinist dogma, and educated to become a leader of Moscow's German colony. He excelled in every job handed to him, until he was appointed the head of East Germany's fledgling secret service in 1953. He retired in 1986 with nothing more to show for years of devotion than a rented flat in East Berlin, a summer house and a collection of fine suits.

Now aged 73 and into his third marriage, Mr Wolf's faith is unbroken. He still believes, like many of his moles, that communist rule could have been reformed and East Germany should have been allowed to survive. He supplements his reduced pension these days by television appearances and writing. His last book, Secrets of Russian Cuisine, was a moderate success, earning DM5,000 (around pounds 2,000). The next, a history of the Cold War, should be out about the time the court announces its verdict.