BERLIN — Markus Wolf, reputed to be the Cold War's most cunning spymaster, goes on trial today for treason, an unbowed and unbroken victim of his own spectacular success.
The case of the Federal Republic of Germany vs. Markus Wolf is one of ironies within ironies, intrigues within intrigues, a denouement worthy of the John le Carre thrillers whose crafty protagonist Karla is said to be modeled after Wolf himself.
Whether the 70-year-old former chief of Communist East Germany's vast spy network is being prosecuted or persecuted is a matter of hot debate in united Germany: Can you betray a country that was not your own?
Wolf's remarkable feats, along with a taste for danger, beautiful women and the finer things in life, made him stand out as the most colorful of characters in a Communist hierarchy filled with gray, slab-faced men.
Today, he waits, without outward rage or bitterness, to be judged at the trial in Duesseldorf by his enemies, a man who believes himself wronged but is ready to meet his fate.
"I feel no guilt," he said, "because I'm accused of treason and I didn't betray my country.
"There was little to differentiate between the many espionage organizations of the Eastern and Western alliances, which were especially active in Germany," Wolf added.
The constitutionality of holding him accountable to the laws of West Germany when he was sworn to serve East Germany is an issue the nation's highest court will likely have to decide.
Prosecutors argue that Wolf's crime was using his spy network to support an illegal dictatorship while his North Atlantic Treaty Organization rivals used theirs to reinforce elected democracies. His supporters, among them his old foes, say his only crime was that he did it better.
That leaves a dubious Wolf counting on the very system he sought to undermine to save him.
"I see the proceedings as a political trial," he said on in an interview in what used to be the capital of what used to be his country: East Berlin, East Germany.
"We lost the Cold War, and losers can't complain," Wolf added, although he later said that the charges lead him to believe that "there is absolutely no way I can count on a fair trial."
Accused of bribery, espionage and treason, Wolf could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on the treason charge alone. Several of the estimated 500 to 600 West Germans he "turned" are already behind bars.
Having built a 30-year career on the betrayals of others, Wolf now finds himself betrayed by former agents whose confessions helped bolster the 398-page indictment against him.
There are other, less bitter ironies too.
After a lifetime of disguises, the legendary "man without a face" now finds himself politely posing for countless photographs, sitting for interviews and penning his second set of memoirs.
The country he served no longer exists; the secrets he stole no longer matter.
His silver hair thinning and his rumpled clothes hanging a bit looser on the tall, elegant frame, the once-dapper Wolf considers himself the ultimate scapegoat in the "new world order."
He could have run, he said. Cuba was especially eager to offer him asylum.
"I could have been sitting in my rocking chair watching the Caribbean," Wolf mused, "but that was never my intention."
The four cases cited in the indictment represent Wolf's "A" list of spies and date back to 1956, when he planted East German agent Guenter Guillaume in the tide of refugees heading west. Seventeen years later, Guillaume was a top aide to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and his arrest for passing top NATO secrets to the East triggered the resignation of the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Even the former chief of West Germany's BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) spy agency, Heribert Hellenbroich, publicly defends the man whose exploits once humiliated him, admitting a degree of respect for the wily Wolf.
"It's weird," Hellenbroich said Monday in a telephone interview from Frankfurt, where he runs a security consulting firm. "The paradox is that I did the same thing. So did (Foreign Minister) Klaus Kinkel when he ran the BND. And so did former President (George) Bush when he was head of the CIA.
"Should we all stand trial too?"
Wolf hinted during his interview that "there could be a couple of surprises from me and my defense" in the Duesseldorf courtroom, but he has adamantly refused to betray his former agents.
"He swore to his people that he would keep their secrets when it became clear that it was all over," Hellenbroich said. "He handles himself as an officer, and I think he will keep his promise and remain silent."
As major general and deputy chief of the Ministry of State Security--the notorious Stasi secret police--the enigmatic Wolf was said to have used his charm and sympathetic manner to win the loyalty of a legion of about 4,000 spies before retiring three years before the Berlin Wall fell.