Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster
By Markus Wolf With Anne McElvoy
367 pp., $25
How do you evaluate the memoirs of a Communist spymaster, even when the cold war has ended? How complete, how accurate is the information he gives?
It is widely believed that the memoirs of defectors to the Soviet Union, such as the infamous British traitor Kim Philby - autobiographies published at the height of the cold war - were filled with disinformation. Indeed, in "Man Without a Face," Markus Wolf, former East Germany's top spy, admits that the autobiography of Genter Guillaume, the East German spy who served as an assistant to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, contains deliberate distortions of fact to mislead Western intelligence services. So how much of Wolf's memoirs can be taken at, pardon the expression, face value?
It's a difficult question to answer, especially since few people outside the upper reaches of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal German intelligence have the information needed to evaluate his story. So the lay reader is wise to take some of what Wolf has to say with a grain of salt.
But based on my experience as a former American diplomat who served five years behind the Iron Curtain, I found that parts of this book have the ring of truth and can give a Western reader, especially in North America, a much better understanding of what made East Europe's Communist regimes and the people who ran them tick.
Wolf's East German foreign intelligence service - the HVA, or Hauptverwaltung Aufklaerung - was generally acknowledged to be one of the best in the Warsaw Pact. It certainly riddled the West German government, which leaked like a sieve, with spies and moles. In the case of Brandt, the scandal resulting from the exposure of Guillaume brought down the chancellor who made peace with East Germany, an outcome Wolf says he deeply regrets.
The HVA had several advantages, however, that helped it in stealing NATO secrets. First, it could rely on the tradition of German Communists and their heroic underground resistance to Hitler, which continued all through the war. Second, East and West Germans lived in a country divided, with both sharing a common culture and language. Many citizens of both countries had relatives on either side of the border.
Wolf does a masterly job of explaining how German Communists such as his parents were given shelter in the Soviet Union, trained to work in Germany at such time as Hitler fell, and then became officials of the new eastern state when the country was divided in the late 1940s. And he sheds an interesting light on how and why his service was so successful against its West German counterparts.
Wolf's stories of how the HVA made fools of the West German government, and not infrequently of the CIA, are sometimes hard to read. It's important to remember that the West scored some important intelligence victories, too. At the same time his evaluation of the CIA and its successes and failures makes some useful points American intelligence and its congressional overseers should note.
Those interested in German history, foreign affairs, the cold war, and intelligence work will find this book fascinating on many levels, self-serving on some, and simply wrong on others.
* Lawrence J. Goodrich is the Monitor's congressional correspondent.