What a Master Spy Couldn't Master

" I did of course know of many of the terrible crimes of the Stalin era even while they were under way; anyone who says he knew nothing is a liar."

-- "Memoirs of a Spymaster,"

Markus Wolf, 1998

He tried hard, but when he died in his sleep last week, at 83, Markus Wolf had still not attained the elder statesman status to which he had long aspired. As chief of East Germany's foreign intelligence service, he had for three decades cultivated an aura of mystery, rejoicing in the nickname "Man Without a Face" (because Western intelligence long had no photograph of him) and in having allegedly been the model for Karla, John le Carre's fictional spymaster (though le Carre repeatedly denied it).

Later, in his post-Cold War books and articles, Wolf fashioned himself the ultimate professional spy. In his memoir he boasted of the skill with which he had carried out his "madcap schemes and daring ruses" and mocked the sloppiness of Western intelligence. In contrast to the efforts to uncover his own slick operatives, spotting CIA men in Bonn was "ridiculously easy," since their "basic information about the East was so sketchy." At one point, Wolf claimed, the poor quality of American agents led him to fear that "Washington had stopped taking East Germany seriously."

In a narrow sense, he may have been right: From a purely technical point of view, East Germany's spies probably were better than their Western counterparts. It is, after all, much easier to spy for a closed society, where there are no open debates about the morality of the methods, no congressional commissions, no nosy media.

Wolf gloried in his own amorality, shrugging his shoulders at the crimes of his society, bragging that he had perfected the art of psychological manipulation. He wrote of East German "Romeo agents" (his phrase) who successfully seduced lonely secretaries in West German ministries. To keep their victims happy, Wolf arranged "Potemkin weddings" (also his phrase) with phony priests -- though if anyone grew suspicious, he swiftly arranged for the "husbands" to disappear back to East Germany.

Wolf also toyed with the emotions of women who had been forced by the Nazi regime to give up their blond, blue-eyed children -- some the product of special breeding clinics -- for adoption. Years later, he arranged for fake "sons" to get back in touch with their long-lost mothers, and then set those women up as East German agents, too.

Such tactics -- combined with a liberal use of bugging devices -- did, it is true, help the East Germans infiltrate the very highest levels of West German society. One of Wolf's agents rose through the West German political hierarchy to become a senior aide to the much-loved chancellor, Willy Brandt. The East Germans were also expert at discrediting West German politicians and institutions: They would listen in on sensitive conversations, note the gaps between what was said in public and private, and then slip the information to journalists who could be relied upon to follow up.

And yet for all his preening, Wolf and his comrades did not win the Cold War. Nor, for all the CIA's ham-handedness, did the agents of communism even win the intelligence war. Invariably, Western agents received their best information not through psychological manipulation and complex schemes but through Soviet and East European defectors who offered themselves up voluntarily. Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, the Polish Warsaw Pact liaison, passed 35,000 pages of mostly Russian documents to the West because he'd seen plans for a Russian invasion of the West, during which Poland would be destroyed. Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer who worked as a double agent for British intelligence, did so because the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had gutted his faith in Soviet propaganda.

In the end, what Wolf liked to call his comrades' "professionalism" -- and what might more accurately be called cynicism, opportunism or cold calculation -- wasn't even persuasive enough to win the allegiance of most East Germans. Like the rest of the Soviet bloc, East Germany eventually fell apart not so much because of Western military pressure but because the loyalty of its people evaporated. As soon as they could leave their country, East Germans left. And no wonder: Who could feel affection for a regime led by men such as Markus Wolf?

Indeed, in retrospect, Wolf's intelligence "achievements" hardly seem to matter: The significance of a few moles pales beside the larger and more important cultural struggle between East and West. Even as he fought on behalf of the Soviet Union and its client states, Wolf -- who had spent his boyhood in Stalinist Moscow -- knew perfectly well that the West was more just, more affluent and more humane than his own cramped, repressive society. Most ordinary people knew it, too.

As we now debate torture, or domestic spying, or other dubious methods that will allegedly help us defeat radical Islam, it's worth remembering that the West won the Cold War not by matching the nastiness of Markus Wolf -- though some certainly tried to do so -- but by being, and remaining, a more open society.

Anne Applebaum