Markus Wolf, the former East German spymaster who proved a formidable adversary to Western intelligence agencies during the Cold War, has died peacefully in his sleep in Berlin aged 83, his publisher said. Wolf ran a network of 4,000 foreign agents tasked with penetrating Western governments and was particularly successful in West Germany where one of his agents rose to become a senior aide to Chancellor Willy Brandt. The agent, Günter Guillaume, was uncovered in 1974, which led to Brandt's resignation.
Wolf headed the foreign intelligence arm of the feared Ministry for State Security for more than 30 years, and was dubbed the Man Without a Face because Western intelligence spent two decades trying to find out what he looked like until 1978, when Swedish counter-intelligence photographed him on a mission to Stockholm and a defector from East Berlin put a name to the snapshot.
The announcement of his death coincides with the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
After unification in 1990, Wolf fled to the Soviet Union because there was a warrant for his arrest in the West. He returned a year later and was arrested on the border. During interrogation he refused to name any of his agents and was sentenced in 1993 to six years in jail for treason and bribery. But the conviction was overturned by Germany's highest court because he had been acting on behalf of a sovereign state. He did however receive a suspended sentence in 1997 for three Cold War kidnappings.
"I can't say I'm proud of what I did, I'm not. But I don't think I've lived for nothing," he said in an interview in 1997. "I meet my old agents and, although they're worse off than I am -- some of them have got long prison sentences -- these people don't have the feeling that they have to be ashamed of their lives. They did it in good faith, believing they were acting for a good cause. We've often spoken about it and we don't think we've lived in vain," he said.
Wolf said the work of his spies helped East-West detente. Without the secrets they passed on, the Soviet bloc would have known less about NATO and feared it more.
Wolf had trouble convincing people that he knew little of the Stasi's system of repression inside East Germany, where dissent was quelled by a ruthless network of agents and informers. British novelist John Le Carre -- real name David Cronwell -- famous for his Cold War thrillers, once said: "I think that Markus Wolf and his kind knew better than anyone ... what a foul little regime they were serving. I think they are thoroughly guilty men and they should slink away in disgrace."
Wolf denied rumors that he had claimed to be the model for Karla, Le Carre's fictional Communist spymaster.
Wolf was the son of a Jewish communist and the family left Germany in 1933, the year Hitler took power. They settled in the Soviet Union, and Wolf, a committed communist until his death, returned to Germany in 1945 with a group of exiled communists. In his autobiography "Man Without a Face", Wolf admits having doubts about East Germany's brand of communism after 1956, when Hungary rebelled and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev secretly denounced Stalin's purges.
The doubts grew when the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. But he kept silent, convinced that any reform had to come from the top. "It wasn't for want of courage that I didn't speak out, but the system had developed in such a way that it was practically no longer possible. You'd have needed a coup," Wolf said.
Tactics used by Wolf's Stasi to place agents in the West included stealing the identities of children born under Hitler's secret "Lebensborn" program to create a master race. The children, bred to be blond and blue-eyed, were born in special clinics and were often given up for adoption by their mothers.
The Stasi established footholds across the Iron Curtain by sending spies claiming to be long-lost Lebensborn "sons" to make contact with mothers who had handed their babies over to foster parents during World War II.
While the resignation of Chancellor Brandt might be seen as Wolf's biggest coup, he said it was his worst defeat because Brandt's tenure had brought benefits for East Germany as it struggled to win international recognition.
Guillaume had access to secret papers and heard confidential conversations at a crucial time for West Germany as Brandt pursued his "Ostpolitik" of detente with Moscow. "It was an own goal and the worst defeat," Wolf once said in a television documentary.