Legacy of an Unrepentant Spy
Story of Markus Wolf sheds light on many unresolved cold war issues
Spy Master: The Definitive story of Markus WolfSkip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
By Leslie Colitt
302 pp., $23
The cold war may be over and won by the West, but the battle to achieve unity and harmony not only in Germany, but all across Europe, is perhaps still in its early stages. That is one of the chief impressions of "Spy Master: The Definitive Story of Markus Wolf." by Leslie Colitt.
The book is billed as biography. The dust jacket calls it the "first reckoning" of Wolf, who ran Communist East Germany's foreign espionage service for most of the cold war era. As East Germany's spymaster, Wolf built a reputation of near-mythic proportions, and is still widely regarded as the world's top practioner of espionage since World War II. He served as a real-life model for John LeCarre's fiction.
Unfortunately, Colitt's account of Wolf's fascinating life is rather thin on the juicy details that espionage aficionados want. Perhaps the best tidbits concern Wolf's teenage years spent in Moscow, the city to which his Jewish-Communist father had fled to escape persecution from Hitler's Nazis.
But the dearth of illuminating information on Wolf doesn't mean this book isn't worth reading. Indeed, throughout his work, Colitt sheds light on crucial topics concerning the cold war's legacy that have until now been largely avoided.
The most important issue is the West's behavior as the cold war's victor. The collapse of communism produced in NATO nations a mood of triumphalism, particularly in western Germany, which was the epicenter of cold war maneuvering. This lingering triumphant mood, however, has perhaps done more to hinder, rather than help, establish a post-cold-war order with a unified Europe that is democratic, peaceful, and prosperous.
Another issue Colitt touches on is how East German totalitarianism fueled the neo-Nazi backlash that continues to haunt reunified Germany.
In discussing the cold war and its after-effects, Colitt focuses on the experiences of some of the moles and informers recruited by Wolf and deployed by the dreaded Stasi security service. These stories of recruitment, duplicity, and betrayal form the most interesting sections of the book.
Colitt details well the methods employed by the Stasi to "break" potential agents, getting them to "serve the cause of peace and socialism." Of particular note is the saga of Guenter Guillaume, a mole planted by Wolf in West Germany who went on to become an aide to Chancellor Willy Brandt. Guillaume passed a treasure trove of secrets to his East German controllers before being caught in 1974.
Of perhaps more significance than their exploits are the experiences of some of Wolf's moles and informers in the years since communism's house of cards came crashing down in 1989. East German spies, including Wolf, were ruthlessly hunted and prosecuted by West German authorities, who had been so often outmaneuvered and embarrassed by security leaks during the cold war.
The vigorous prosecution contributed to a sense of resentment among many East Germans toward their western brethren, who were perceived as being motivated by a need for revenge, not by a desire to administer justice. Germany's Constitutional Court in 1995 approved a de facto amnesty for most East German spies. But much of the bitterness fomented by the prosecutions remains.
Colitt's book reinforces the idea that a huge gap in thinking still divides eastern and western Germans. Given that the German economy now serves as the economic engine of Europe, this chasm complicates attempts to forge greater stability on the continent. A Germany grappling with internal divisions can hardly be a forceful catalyst for European integration.
Wolf remains unrepentant for his actions. When convicted of treason in 1993 under Western German law, Wolf maintained his innocence, insisting he had never done anything to betray East Germany. Technically he was right, and the German Constitutional Court agreed with him. But that fact doesn't absolve him of complicity in prolonging the life of a monstrous totalitarian system.
The US government concurred in this assesment when it refused recently to grant a visa to Wolf to visit America, citing his past activities. Wolf, however, prefers to portray himself as a victim of the system he served. "We were tied as with chains, and our mouths were sealed shut," Wolf told Colitt in an interview.
Such denials and self-pity call attention to another post-cold war obstacle: Many of the people who lived under communism won't recognize the role they played in perpetuating the system. Wolf played an extraordinary part, but the system couldn't have lasted as long as it did (not just in East Germany, but all across the former Soviet bloc) without at least the passive support of the bulk of the population. The widespread refusal to assume responsibility for past actions makes it difficult for formerly Communist nations to adapt to the future.
Colitt's book leaves plenty of room for future works to expand on it. But despite its shortcomings, the book, by examining the nature of east-west espionage battles, increases understanding about the fault lines of post-cold war Europe.
Conlcuding, Colitt writes: "There is no reason to feel triumphant. I had never been subjected to the crushing pressure of a dictatorship [to submit and collaborate].... Whether I would have shown greater courage and moral strength (to resist) I would never know." If more Westerners honestly considered the same dilemma, then Europe, and perhaps the world, might be farther along than it is now in building a "new order."
*Justin Burke is a visiting scholar at The Harvard University Russian Research Center.