The Faceless Man Who Perfected Sex in Spying

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Former East Germany spy chief Markus Wolf stands in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, 1995

He never repented — never saw the need to. Markus Wolf was so clever a spymaster that the fact he worked for East Germany, a repugnant regime that rightly disappeared into history's dustbin, never dented the massive ego that had driven his success. When he died Thursday at 83, quietly in his Berlin apartment, on the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wolf thought himself a victim of victor's justice that had denied him the esteem he deserved—and he took countless secrets to his grave.

Known as "The Man Without A Face" — for many years, Western spy agencies did not even have a photo of him — Wolf was the son of a German Jewish doctor and playwright, a Communist who had to flee Hitler and ended up in Moscow. He attended elite party schools in the Soviet Union, was trained for undercover work, returned to Germany as a journalist covering the Nuremburg trials and joined the East Germany spy service at its inception. In 1952, because his pungent Stalinism convinced Russian leaders of his loyalty, he became its chief — and brilliant at his job, too.

As the central front in the Cold War, traumatized by Naziism and defeat, with plenty of families and loyalties divided between East and West, Germany was a target-rich environment for espionage. Wolf's foreign intelligence section of the Stasi (he claimed not to be involved in its pervasive organs of domestic repression, though critics doubted this) ran as many as 4,000 agents at a time. They penetrated the top ranks of business, government, parliament, the military and the intelligence services in West Germany and beyond. Wolf developed a particularly effective line in "Romeo" spies, handsome men who would befriend lonely secretaries working for senior officials and spymasters. Immensely patient, he would carefully help direct his plants to jobs where they could be increasingly valuable. One "Romeo" spy worked her way, after a long career, into the office of the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Wolf mused in retirement that "if I go down in espionage history, it may well be for perfecting the use of sex in spying."

Wolf also turned many Western German spies into double agents. One, code-named "Topaz," worked for more than two decades in NATO's headquarters. Wolf personally ran the highest-ranking woman in the West German intelligence service, the deputy head of its Soviet bloc division, whose reports were so good they regularly reached the desks of the head of the KGB in Moscow. Even the head of West German counterintelligence defected to Wolf. "As even my bitter foes would acknowledge," he wrote in his interesting but fundamentally unrevealing 1997 memoir The Man Without A Face, his spy agency "was probably the most efficient and effective such service on the European continent."

Wolf's most famous victory was Gunter Guillaume, a long-time East German agent who feigned escape from the East to the West in 1956, became a successful businessman and politician in Frankfurt, and rose to become a trusted aide of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, in charge of Brandt's schedule and relations with his own party. Brandt was trying to calm the Cold War and reconcile the two Germanys through his "Ostpolitik," which Guillaume's reports confirmed as a genuine shift in policy. To keep Brandt from losing a no-confidence motion, Wolf paid 50,000 marks to a corrupt West German deputy to switch his vote. But all the while, Guillaume continued to vacuum up secrets to transmit back to Wolf. He was ultimately unmasked, and Brandt, disgraced, had to quit. Wolf later agreed this result was "equivalent to kicking a football into our own goal."

As East Germany disintegrated, Wolf called for reforms, but finally sought asylum in the Soviet Union. He claimed to have turned down a CIA offer for a lifetime of ease in the U.S. if he would spill his secrets. He later returned to Germany and was sentenced to six years in prison for treason, but the conviction was overturned on the grounds that East Germany had been a sovereign state for which he had been entitled to spy. He was later convicted on kidnapping-related charges, but received a suspended sentence. That left him free to reinvent himself, which he did with a mix of cynicism and egotism he might have admired in any of his best agents. Always immaculately dressed and well-spoken, he became a minor public figure. In addition to his memoirs, he wrote a cookbook, Secrets of Russian Cooking, that compared the creativity and craftsmanship of cooking to that of spying. He was also a regular on chat shows and documentaries. He died in his sleep, prosperous and pleased with himself. Had his side won the Cold War, his vanquished counterparts from West Germany would not have been so lucky.