Markus Wolf, the former East German spy chief who bedeviled Western intelligence services and developed an interest in his Jewish roots late in life, died Nov. 9 at age 83. Known to family as Misha and to Western intelligence as “the man with no face,” Wolf died peacefully in his Berlin home.
For decades, Western intelligence sought in vain to capture an image of Wolf, the architect of Communist East Germany’s international intelligence network. At the height of his power, Wolf commanded an estimated 4,000 agents.
He was famous for infiltrating the highest echelons of West German government, perpetrating a security breach that forced Chancellor Willy Brandt to resign.
Wolf also was notorious for the army of “Romeo” spies he sent into the West — attractive men who would seduce lonely secretaries to the powerful and use them to access secrets. In later years, he alternatively expressed pride and regret about the tactic, at one point writing, “If I go down in espionage history, it may well be for perfecting the use of sex in spying,” then telling reporters that “nobody has the right to spoil an innocent person’s life.”
After his retirement in 1986, Wolf turned to writing his memoirs. He also re-examined his Jewish roots, though he once told a Swiss Jewish newspaper that he would never identify religiously. He made one visit to Israel, which he described as “a great experience.”
Wolf’s death brought mixed reactions.
He was “a master spy, whose accomplishments were worse than his reputation,” British historian Timothy Garton Ash told Reuters in an interview. “Later, he was idealized as a glamorous intellectual and Communist reformer.”
The Left Party in Germany, successor to the former East German Socialist Party, praised Wolf as a man with a varied biography.
“He was a fighter against the Nazi regime, head of intelligence for the state security and a writer,” party president Lothar Bisky said in a public statement.
Hans Modrow, the last premier of Communist East Germany, told reporters that he had lost one of his best friends, a hero in the fight against fascism.
According to the newspaper Die Welt, few representatives of former East German citizens’ groups wished to comment on Wolf’s death.
Wolf was born in 1923 in Hechingen to a Jewish father who was a playwright and doctor, and a non-Jewish mother. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Wolf’s father, a committed Communist, fled to Switzerland. The family then traveled to Moscow, where Wolf was schooled.
Wolf was trained in intelligence work at a Communist academy, but after Stalin dissolved the Comintern organization, Wolf was set up as a radio journalist in Moscow. He returned to East Germany in 1945, reporting on the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals for Berlin Broadcasting.
From 1949-51 he worked at the East German mission in Moscow, until the Soviets set up a spying station in East Berlin. Wolf was appointed head of secret intelligence in 1951. He established a brutally effective international espionage system, whose main focus, he later said, was to penetrate West Germany.
Western intelligence had only one photo of Wolf until 1978, when a Swedish spy captured his image on film. An East German defector identified Wolf in the photo.
Wolf later said he wished he had taken a stand against some of his colleagues’ policies. He said he secretly sympathized with the Perestroika policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and tried to distance himself from East Germany’s anti-Israel policies.
After unification, he was high on the West German most-wanted list, and tried unsuccessfully to find refuge in Austria. He ended up returning to Moscow before being arrested while crossing into Germany in 1991.
Convicted of treason, his sentence was suspended and Wolf ended up serving only a few days in jail for refusing to testify in a trial about fellow spies.
Nearly a decade ago, upon publication of his memoirs, Wolf gave an interview to Juedische Rundschau, a Jewish newspaper, in which he said that his atheist father’s Jewish roots had a profound influence on him.
But his strongest memory of Jewish tradition was linked with an eccentric uncle who quit his law practice to become a homeopathic healer and lived in a forest in southern Germany, surrounded by goats and a dog. As head of foreign intelligence, Wolf said, he tried to keep clear of policy-making vis-a-vis Israel. Privately, he read and enjoyed Leon Uris’ “Exodus” and asked his secret agents who had been to Israel to inform him about the kibbutzim, which he imagined were a “somehow different, exotic expression of socialist thought and practice.”
After German unification, Wolf considered Israel as one of several possible refuges, but did not follow through.
Then “I got an invitation from Yediot Achronot. So I thought, why not?” he said, referring to an Israeli newspaper.
Though he did not seek refuge in Israel, Wolf did make one visit in 1996, and met with former heads of Israeli intelligence.
“It was very impressive for me,” he told Juedische Rundschau. “I was naturally very excited. After what they had said about me in America, about the activities of the intelligence agency and the contact with the PLO, I expected to be attacked. But I was also very interested in the land of my forefathers. I have to say, it was a very rich and very pleasant trip.”
He recalled with particular enthusiasm his visit to Jerusalem, “bound as it is with all that it means for Jews.
“I would not describe myself as a reborn Jew,” Wolf said. “This would be presumptuous and no one would believe it. But like many older people who are interested in where they come from, I am interested in my own roots.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.