The Corner


Here’s the London Times obituary of Markus Wolf, the East German spymaster and, incidentally, the model for John le Carre’s Karla, who died last week. Read the whole thing, but these passages are worth noting, particularly given the oddly favorable way the old GDR is sometimes now discussed in Germany:

It was in Stalin’s Moscow that Wolf discovered what real power was, and how it might be used. After East Germany’s collapse, Wolf liked to portray himself in the West as just another intelligence chief. Relativising himself then became his life’s work, a project that had some success. Introduced to a meeting at the Reform Club in London in July last year as a “great European”, even Wolf looked somewhat startled. Others saw him much more plausibly as a fanatic and a brute. Exuding bohemian charm (he even wrote a cook book on the “secrets of the Russian cuisine”), and proclaiming a sudden (if wholly unconvincing) rediscovery of his “Jewishness” after 1990, he tried to rehabilitate himself and to conceal his part in 40 years of the torture and imprisonment of thousands of East Germans. In fact, the East German secret service was totally different from any Western agency, dedicated as it always was to the murderous traditions of Dzerzhinsky and Beria, and, in part, of the Gestapo. This was seen not just by its use of terror but also by the political power the secret police exercised alongside the party leadership. What distinguished the former from the latter was simply that the former were known about, while the latter were usually invisible…In his spying, Wolf corrupted, without shame or mercy, the lives of many thousands of his victims — a category which must include many of his own agents as well as those on whom they spied. Wherever a weakness of any kind was discovered in anyone possessing secrets or having access to them, Wolf’s men would ruthlessly use it. As he himself said, no one touched by his secret service was ever to be forgotten by it, no debt incurred for which he would not one day exact repayment. Wolf retired from the HVA in 1986, although in November 1989 he reappeared to beg the East Germans to retain communism (revealing for one instant his true political standing). Fleeing to Moscow once again, he decided to return to face trial, sure that the German courts would discharge him. They, showing a clear (some might say shameful) reluctance to accept the extent of his evil, did the next best thing. In 1993 he was given six years for treason and corruption but allowed to appeal and then, in 1997, after a retrial (centred on the view that the original charges were not contrary to East German law and therefore not crimes) he received two years’ probation for false imprisonment and sanctioning torture. He was delighted to have spent not a single night in jail.

 The irony of the way that Wolf, a real monster, was treated under German law, will not, I imagine, be lost on Donald Rumsfeld.