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Invisible Man

MAN WITHOUT A FACE: The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster By Markus Wolf with Anne McElvoy, Times Books: 368 pp., $25

June 22, 1997|PETER SCHNEIDER | Peter Schneider, author of "The Wall Jumper" and, most recently, "Couplings," lives in Berlin. His review was translated from the German by Frank F. Wagner

We live in the age of confession, of the memoir, of the "tell-all." Even a figure like Markus Wolf, whose job was never to say a word, turns out not to be immune to the seductions of the genre. As "the greatest spymaster of our century," or so his publisher would have us believe, Wolf might seem to be the last man willing to tell secrets. After all, he was for 34 years the chief of Department XX, the espionage unit of the East German secret police, the infamous Ministry of State Security, or Stasi.

Autobiography, as Freud well knew, is a notoriously suspect literary form. It is, he once observed, a fiction. Memoirs promise authenticity but deliver deception, often as much for the author as for the reader. They are inherently self-serving. What matters, of course, is what an author chooses to include and what to keep out. "Man Without a Face" is an exemplary model of selective memory at work.

The world knows Markus Wolf as the master spy in charge of some 4,000 spies in the West during the Cold War, from the early 1950s until the late 1980s. He was responsible for planting his operative, Gunter Guillaume, in the inner circle of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who resigned when the betrayal became public. Wolf trained his agents as "Romeos" who would position themselves as lovers and husbands of lonely government secretaries in Bonn. He controlled "Topaz," alias Rainer Rupp, who worked for more than 25 years as a mole in NATO headquarters in Brussels until he was exposed in 1993.

What was less known is the fact that Wolf was one of four cabinet members under Erich Mielke who set the agenda and controlled the activities of the Stasi. Although the Stasi was not the most brutal organization in the world, it was the most Orwellian. Its reach was monstrous, its ambition boundless. Under Mielke's direction, its 80,000 full-time members (with the help of about 200,000 unofficial informants) compiled 6 million files on Germans, one-third of whom lived in West Germany. The numbers speak for themselves. When you exclude children and retirees from the 17 million citizens of the so-called German Democratic Republic, you are left with about 8 million people, whom the Stasi considered potential security risks. Roughly every other adult in the GDR had an intelligence file, and in a few instances, these files comprised thousands of pages. (By comparison, the Gestapo had about 35,000 informants who kept track of nearly 80 million citizens. Unfortunately, this disparity is easily explained: The Nazis were far more popular than the Communists.)

For the Stasi, as for any intelligence organization, there was never enough information. More was always needed. Nor were there enough people to evaluate all the data that were gathered up at such great cost and ingenuity. Indeed, it is a fundamental irony of the Stasi that, the most powerful secret police agency in history was unable to predict the collapse of the state it served, much less prevent it. As an intelligence agency, it was ultimately a failure. Its legacy was to poison an entire society from within, to turn neighbors against neighbors, children against parents, brothers against brothers, husbands against wives.

But Markus Wolf would have you believe that he had nothing to do with any of this. On the contrary, he presents himself in "Man Without a Face" as the gallant knight of this evil organization. He apparently never got his hands dirty, and as for his former boss, Mielke, the most hated man in the GDR, he has nothing but disparaging words. Wolf would like us to believe that he is almost an aesthete, a comrade loyal to high ideals, that he betrayed his fealty to the true cross of socialism to no one, least of all to Mielke. Until the publication of this book, he seems to have kept to himself his true opinions of East Germany's course. These opinions, one suspects, are of very recent vintage. Before the end of the Cold War, such views had to be secret--so secret that no one, not even Wolf himself, noticed them.

"Man Without a Face," which has already appeared in 14 languages, reads like Wolf's last will and testament. The depth of his written confession is, of course, limited by the fact that he was also preparing to be tried for treason in a district court in Dusseldorf. Never mind that the judgment against Wolf was eventually lifted. In a second trial, he was convicted of kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment and bodily injury, and in May, was given a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to pay about $30,000 to a Munich orphanage and to cover court costs, estimated at about $120,000.

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