Markus ‘Mischa’ Wolf (1923-2006)

Markus Wolf was the consummate Cold War spy master, ruthless and intelligent, he was much feared by many and at his height ran a network of 4,000 spies, mostly deep inside West German organisations.

Wolf was born in Hechingen, which is in the modern province of Baden-Wurttemberg, in 1923. His father was a doctor, a writer, and an active member of the German Communist party. Markus's brother Konrad became a well known film director. With the rise of Hitler the Wolf family fled to Moscow via Switzerland as having Jewish ancestry and communist links they would have been at great risk

Markus attended the German Karl Liebknecht school and then a Russian school, entering the Moscow Institute of Airplane Engineering, which was moved to Alma Ata when the German invasion began. Joining the Comintern, as a fluent German speaker Wolf was prepared for covert work deep behind enemy lines.

With the end of the war he returned to Germany and worked for Berlin Radio covering the Nuremburg trials. Wolf was driven by a hatred of the Nazi regime and he was determined to make sure that it never happened again, this was a major motivation for Wolf as he admitted in a BBC interview in 2005.
 
At the age of 30 Wolf was one of the founding members of the East German Foreign intelligence service, part of the ministry for state security (the much feared Stasi). He was to lead this organisation for the next 33 years with considerable success, although the downfall of Chancellor Willy Brandt following the discovery in 1974 of one of Wolf's agents, Gunter Guillaume, was seen by Wolf as a failure.  Guillaume had spent years infiltrating the West German government and received a 13 year prison sentence. This reflected Wolf's long term approach, many of Wolf's agents were those who fled to West Germany before the "Iron curtain" came down. These so called sleeper agents would spend years working their way into positions in organisations before they were activated and started supplying Wolf with West Germany's secrets.

Markus Wolf also recruited his spies from among the West Germans, using sex or money. Wolf boasted in his memoirs that he should go down in espionage history for perfecting the use of sex in intelligence operations. Wolf also had agents in the UK with several being members of CND, UK political parties, and trade unions, others were used as recruiters at some British universities.  A large part of Wolf's reputation was the fact that for many years there were no photographs of him - he was known as "the man without a face". This ended in 1978 when while on a visit to Stockholm with his wife the Swedish authorities became suspicious and an East German defector identified Wolf from photos taken with a zoom lens.

Wolf had tremendous success with his agents in Washington, London, West Germany and Brussels. In 1980 he was promoted to General and given the Golden Order of the Fatherland.  West Germany suffered the most with thousands of infiltrators who not only spied but tried to actively promote and support terrorist groups and political extremists including, despite Wolf's dislike of fascism, neo-Nazi groups within West Germany

In 1986 Wolf retired from the intelligence services. He supported Glasnost and Perestroika and the Gorbachev regime. He also produced a book ‘Troika’ about his upbringing in 1930s Moscow with his brother Konrad.

When Germany reunified Wolf sought asylum in Russia and Austria but was refused and forced to return to Germany. He was arrested and in 1996 sentenced to 6 years for treason. The Federal Criminal court later over turned this as Wolf had acted while in East Germany so technically no criminal act was committed by him on West German soil. Wolf's enemies were not so easily put off and in 1997 he was convicted of unlawful detention, coercion and bodily harm and given a 2 year suspended sentence. During the 1990s Markus Wolf became something of a celebrity using his charm and political skill to try and reinvent himself with some success.

Wolf was tall and handsome with a magnetic personality; he looked after his staff well and inspired fierce loyalty but was also adept at manipulating people with his charm. He understood the benefits of the West and was far from the stereotypical communist, renown for his taste for fine foods and fine women. Some authors have claimed that much of Wolf's success was down to luck but his reputation without doubt attracted defectors. Many have claimed, despite the author's denial, that the spymaster Karla in John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People was based on Markus Wolf and there are strong similarities. Wolf was totally ruthless and exploited any person's weaknesses with great precision and a total lack of compassion. He often said that no one who touched his intelligence service would be forgotten, no debt would ever be cancelled.

He died quietly in his sleep on 19th November 2006, his death seen as an end of era by many.

Smiley's People, John Le Carre. The classic John Le Carre cold war thriller and the follow up to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier , Spy cover cover cover

Smiley's People, John Le Carre. The classic film of the classic book, staring Alec Guinness, Eileen Atkins, Bernard Hepton, Michael Byrne and Barry Foster cover cover cover

Memoirs of a Spymaster: The Man Who Waged a Secret War Against the West, Markus Wolf and Anne McElvoy. Wolf's own account of his life. cover cover
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (1 August 2007), Markus ‘Mischa’ Wolf (1923-2006), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_wolf_markus.html

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