For nearly 30 years, Markus Wolf headed the international intelligence gathering arm (HVA) of East Germany's Ministry for State Security (MfS), or Stasi. Known to Western intelligence as "the man without a face" for his ability to avoid being photographed, Wolf developed one of the Cold War's most effective espionage operations. Under his direction from 1958 to 1987, HVA ran a network of about 4,000 agents outside East Germany, infiltrating NATO headquarters and the administration of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. After German reunification Wolf was sentenced to six years in prison for espionage and treason. Later, however, the conviction was overturned, and he received a suspended sentence on lesser charges. Wolf was interviewed for COLD WAR in January 1998. The text has been translated from German.
On recruiting spies in the West:
I feel that I, and the people under my command, tried to use all the traditional methods of recruiting agents which were also used by other intelligence services; adopting also means like pressure, money, sex -- but that did not characterize my service. I mean, it did exist and may have been adopted, and was successful in one or other case; but still, from the very beginning, when we had no experience, while the West German service had the experience of the Nazi General [Reinhard] Gehlen and they should have been superior, I feel that with our political convictions, we managed a lot. ...
The most important thing was that we tried to have a targeted approach -- to attack where the side had its secrets, in the centers in Bonn where the major government institutions and the Chancellor were -- you will know we were not quite unsuccessful there -- and in NATO and NATO countries. But the latter was not top priority. And of course, we thought about how to approach these people, how to get inside. For instance, with the West German Foreign Office, it was important for us to study very closely how to make an application there, what sort of people were recruited -- perhaps from diplomatic families with establishment backgrounds, people who had studied a certain field at university and had shown good results; that is, people who from a Western perspective looked good and had a good chance of getting in. ... And so some of the most important sources were in the Foreign Office.
There were links through the [student protest] movement in 1968, where [West German] establishment youngsters joined us as a way of protesting against the state they were living in. ... One example concerns someone from the 1968 movement who wanted to protest against the injustice he saw in the West. Another [agent] who found him said: "If you genuinely want to do something against the country and against the establishment, there are other options. Let's go over to Berlin and do some talking about it." And then his further development was controlled, from his university studies up to a top position in NATO. ...
What we wanted from an agent depended on what he brought in. It was our experience that a simple sergeant in the U.S. Army, or a technical employee in the Ministry in Bonn, where not many abilities were needed apart from a willingness to furnish information, was perhaps more important and resulted in better, more secret information, and a larger volume, than [information provided by] an undersecretary, a high official or a high officer. What we wanted from an agent depended [on a series of factors]: he had to be willing to do it, and to accept certain risks and dangers and a variety of different psychological preconditions as well. One person can take papers, photograph them without getting excited, return them, and give them away without any scruples; while someone else has to overcome an enormous obstacle. The question of trust comes in. ... On the other hand, for a secretary who has a lot of confidence in her boss, and maybe has a certain liking for him -- to abuse his trust and to take secrets from his cabinet or shelf must be a major psychological barrier. Perhaps insurmountable.
And we weren't only successful there: there were cases where interesting target people said, "No. That's it -- period." You can't do anything if a person says no. In such a case, there's nothing you can do -- unlike the popular cliche that pressure is exerted, or that maybe an unwilling source is done away with. No. I can give you an example of a secretary who used to work at the Chancellor's office, and who was seduced to cooperate through a [male agent]. She even asked to be accepted into our party. And then the man, because his papers weren't that good, had to be withdrawn back to the GDR, and she got to know another man, a simple waiter, and she told him everything, and he said, "You're not going to carry on." I talked to both of them myself in Berlin, and I tried to lure them: I made financial offers, I tried to get them to carry on their work, but we failed and there was nothing we could do. ...
Making use of human weaknesses in intelligence work is a logical matter. It keeps coming up, and of course you try to look at all the aspects that interest you in a human being. At our college we were taught a universal approach to find out about a person: what problems the person has, what difficulties, what personal tendencies and likings. But I must say that from my experience and the experience of my service, [it's not as] is popularly thought: that somebody who is a homosexual or engages in perverse sexual practices, or gambles or is over-indebted -- okay, that comes into the game, yes -- but of all the human weaknesses, I would think the most common weakness in capitalism is the lust for money: to have more money than you do, to live better than you can afford to. That is what was mostly used and played a major role. Then it's psychologically not that difficult to find a way. It used to be my principle, even with someone who sold himself to us, to try to remove their feeling that they were doing something dirty. I tried to instill a different motivation, to give them the security and the conviction that they were doing something good, something necessary, something useful -- if you want to use a grandiose expression, that they were doing something for peace. I mean, we did believe we were doing it for peace.
On sex and espionage:
Sex and espionage certainly go together -- that's an old tradition. There are many examples described in history as well as in literature, for example in "The Three Musketeers," where there is this famous story about the attempt to seduce D'Artagnan. But there are also true stories, for example that of Mata Hari. [Sex] does play a major role, in so far as women are employed against men; much more so [in other services] than in the service I used to be the director of. I have no good Mata Hari-type examples to talk about.
There was, however, a different approach, which the media called the "Romeo method" (though we never used that term) which became a very successful strategy. We used young men, people whom we had initially meant to send to the West anyway, who were unmarried. They had different jobs initially, and we said to them, "If you need a woman -- and you may need one -- then don't choose one [who is] just a tram-driver: look out for a [government] secretary you like." And it worked. ... It wasn't, as the media cliche would have it, the middle-aged, not beautiful, sad, easily seducible person -- no, no. I mean, they may have existed as well, but that wasn't the focus. There are as many examples as life itself. There were some tragic cases of women whose love was abused, who for a certain time procured important documents or information, not knowing who for, what service they worked for, and for a variety reasons got jailed, were tried and sentenced. That's on the negative side, on the morally negative balance sheet; but there were also some who were lucky, who were happy enough. It was a successful method. You couldn't say that we were a "lonely hearts" operation. ... [But] I could maybe give you 10 or more examples where that turned into a happy relationship, and even a marriage with children, where I was present as a witness to the wedding ceremony. I still correspond with several such couples where there was this fortunate outcome. But we can't say that the service was a marriage agency -- no, that was partly a by-product of that tough work, which in the end has nothing to do with romance.
On Berlin's role in Cold War espionage:
The particular feature of Berlin -- well, all you need to do is look at the map: the geographical position of the city right in the heart of Europe, and the separation of the most powerful two blocs we've ever had in history, which went all the way through Germany. Berlin was in this exotic position, right in the heart of a socialist country, or a country within the socialist camp or the Warsaw Pact countries. And at least until 1961, when the borders were closed, it was easy to operate there. ...
The atmosphere in Berlin in the 1950s, early 1960s ... I mean, it was a hard, tough fight. It wasn't fun; it was a tough fight for all those involved. ... It was an exciting time. But for those in charge, it was more work behind their desk, where the excitement came in the form of paper, of reports. Every arrest caused excitement. I hadn't been long in my post at the head of the service, when the West German Vice-Chancellor Blucher announced that 37 East German agents had been arrested. That was the first man who left our service and betrayed it to the West. That created a lot of tension for the director, causing sleepless nights.
I used to live in a small settlement at the time, which was surrounded by guards, where leading politicians of the GDR used to live only a few hundred meters away from the French sector in West Berlin. And one could freely move to and fro, and there were abductions -- people got kidnapped from the West to the East. So we had to expect retaliation, that one of us might become a target. I didn't have a personal bodyguard, although I had been offered one. But I didn't like that. But of course, I had a pistol. I was armed. ...
Our area never had anything to do with James Bond-style espionage. In the John Le Carre film "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," which included perhaps a depiction of myself, the tension was exaggerated for the purposes of the film. But then again, there really was an underlying tension. The responsibility for the agents, for offensive espionage work, is linked to tense situations. There were arrests time and again. ... Sure, there were also action scenes; there was tension, but the tension was chiefly invisible. It was an invisible war. We coined the term ["invisible front"]-- or rather, we took it from the Russian language, to be exact. There was a song, and I remember I wrote the German lyrics: "The Soldiers of the Invisible Front." The invisible front -- that's what it was in the Cold War. And for us it was war. The soldiers were still on the alert, but for us and for others who did go out into the cold, it was a war.
On technical intelligence:
We planted bugs, microphones, in premises which interested us in the West. We weren't too successful -- I would have said unfortunately in former years, but I don't care anymore now. But strangely enough, we were successful with Egon Bahr, one of the closest collaborators of [West German Chancellor] Willy Brandt, and we managed to monitor his confidential talks with an emissary from Moscow, which was interesting -- and we had no information [about the talks] from Moscow at the time -- but it wasn't of decisive importance.
Most of the results of using technical bugging devices were of little importance for my service. It may have been different in counter-intelligence, where bugs in flats, etc., were used to obtain a lot of information about what counter-intelligence was interested in. There was a lot of superfluous stuff, in my opinion, when other people were monitored: those with dissenting opinions, people in hotels, what people suspected of being spies said in hotels. ... Of course, counter-intelligence used technical means in hotels for the surveillance of journalists, foreigners, people who were suspected, but all in all, as far as my service, the HVA, was concerned, the use of technical means played a subordinate role.
On the ethics of espionage:
I'll use a comparison which I don't like to use, but ... you see, a general who commands soldiers in a war knows that some of them are not going to survive. And generally speaking, he will have no moral scruples. Of course, having human feelings, he will be sorry for every dead soldier, but he will say, "I did that in fulfillment of my purpose, my task." I don't like this comparison, but it's true in some way. If, as a director of the intelligence service, I am putting people at risk of going to jail, then I don't do anything other than the general who does that in war. ... All staff members of a secret service, including my own, knew that they were risking death if they furnished information to the other side. ... Each staff member of an intelligence agency who crossed the borders and betrayed secrets, knew what to expect while there was capital punishment in the GDR.
In terms of intelligence methods, one may wonder at times if the end justifies the means -- this famous Machiavellian expression. I'm asked about that, with respect to the Romeo cases in particular, and it would certainly be the simplest thing to say, "No, certainly not; one has to refute such a principle." But that wouldn't be the full truth. With intelligence methods, you can't apply the same yardstick as with ordinary morals. And surely, one or the other means is justified. And if, say, a secretary whose feelings were misused for love, or pretended love, for a man -- I'm thinking of a particular case now -- if, for 10, 12 or more years, she supplied secret documents which were vital for our service, and it was discovered and she was jailed for three years, and she lost the man and she lost the love -- I must say, as the head of that secret service, that in that case, well, it was worth it. It's not nice, certainly, but then again, every director of an intelligence service, including those in the West, would be in the wrong position if he said, "I have to be scrupulous about it -- is that in line with my ethical conduct?" Intelligence methods are not moral things.
On the importance of espionage in the Cold War:
Whether it was important or not is something for the historians later on to decide. But I feel that at that stage of the 20th century European history, developments at times bordered on a hot war, and that's why I think that if something positive can be said about the work of the intelligence services, it's that through their work they may have avoided this going over the threshold to a hot war. I think that's the most important thing. ...
Generally speaking we reaffirmed that the purpose of our intelligence service (maybe of all the services) was to prevent surprises -- above all, military surprises -- against one's own country or one's own alliance. That was the main job; that's the way we formulated our functions, and that's the way I saw it. ...
I'm pretty sure that the intelligence services on the whole, and the spies both in the East and the West, tended towards a more realistic assessment of the balance of power than that of politicians and military leaders; so that actions, or even adventurous actions which could easily have led to an escalation [of tension] or even to a war, would have been desisted from. So, yes, I do claim that my unit contributed to our having had the longest peacetime in modern European history. I feel I can justly say so. ...
[But] I have my doubts about the use of secret services. ... In the end, it all depended on the political decision-making, and I feel that we can count ourselves lucky that in those critical crisis situations in the Cold War -- in the end -- political reason won, somehow. Many things were not handled very reasonably, and perhaps if people had listened more to secret service agencies, some things would have been done more intelligently, more reasonably. I don't think the intelligence systems spoiled a lot, but whether they were a lot of use -- well, I would reserve my reply.