Letter from Thessaloniki

«Because I was the chief of the foreign intelligence branch of the ministry (Ministry for State Security, or MfS, which covered the secret police, popularly referred to as the Stasi), it is not surprising that I am assumed to have known everything about my government’s relationship with terrorists.» Markus Wolf, the relentlessly elegant head of East German espionage from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s, the archetypical masterspy developed by mystery writer John le Carre into one of the demigods of Cold War mythology, the legendary chief of the notorious Stasi and author of the autobiographical «Man Without a Face» (published by Random House) was elusive. Currently, at 78, he is writing a sequel to his memoirs. Since his retirement he has been a frequent visitor to Greece. His sense of right and wrong is still based on what he was brought up to believe was right and wrong, as prescribed by communist dogma and custom in the Soviet Union, where he grew up with his parents who evaded Nazi Germany. He declares: «My primary responsibility was intelligence: the gathering of information, preferably secret. That is spying, not terrorism.» And the illustrious ex-spymaster (who once confirmed to me that after the fall of the Berlin Wall the CIA had offered him a new life in California if he told them everything his agents had been doing during the Cold War) concluded, «I was never personally involved in the planning or execution of terrorist acts.» That was last year when I visited him in his apartment – fifth floor, no lift – in fashionable Nikolai-Viertel in the center of Berlin. Yesterday’s Kathimerini devoted its front page to the connections between the Stasi and November 17. It has been long rumored that police were searching for clues as to the possible connection of the Nov17 terrorists with foreign terrorists and agencies. Now came some sort of confirmation. In yesterday’s article it was documented that the Stasi had been shadowing members of the Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA), an organization having common origins with November 17. In this connection the notorious Venezuelan terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, who «had grand projects for what he could accomplish with his Greek friends,» was also mentioned. «I never met Carlos or other international terrorist stars. I left the contacts with the Palestinians to my Middle East specialist, whose code name was Roscher – I will not use his real name,» states Wolf, whose espionage department proved to be a truly formidable service, one that was at least as important for Eastern bloc espionage in Europe as the KGB was. Yet it was also closely linked to terrorists abroad. The former general insists on denying having a hand in any radical actions, but at least his knowledge of some of them has been well documented. «We did give instruction (to the PLO). My senior officers were called in to give lectures on intelligence gathering and encoding and decoding, and to pass on our experience of counterespionage techniques to Palestinian visitors. We of course guessed that this information might pass to terrorist commandos…» asserts Wolf in a book subtitled «The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster.» What is generally said to be wrong is wrong, while: «It is widely said that future historians will count the GDR (former East Germany) among the most active supporters of terrorism. I and my work have swept up in these accusations, the harshest of which come from America,» he went on, adding accusingly: «They seem to forget their own long history of supporting brutal dictators and attacking legitimate governments, overtly and covertly – from overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala, and Allende in Chile to supporting the Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua and too many others like them in many parts of the globe.» There seems always to be a considerable gap between what is officially recognized as good and what is in actual fact countenanced. Well, now how about any contacts with some Greek figures? Markus Wolf has always refrained from hinting at any such connection. When I once mentioned a certain celebrated Greek name to him he replied elusively, «That name has never played a significant role for us.» In actual practice, since there is no solid evidence that anything similar to terrorism guided directly by the Stasi has taken place in Greece, one can only wonder whether there is any substance to last week’s row between two PASOK MPs who have both served as public order ministers. Thessaloniki-based Stelios Papathemelis claimed he was sacked by then-PM Andreas Papandreou in April 1995 for the mere reason that he had made progress in sifting through the files of the former East German Stasi security service for Greek suspects. On the other hand, his successor, Sifis Valyrakis, declared he had done all that was necessary to make use of the files. As usual, the various state laws were then once more in wild disarray. Obviously, public attitudes have changed since those vigorous days. The concrete and accepted fact that remains is that for years Greek authorities did close to nothing in tracking down terrorist criminals, also often ignoring all requests from Western judicial authorities for assistance on this matter. «There is no question that the release of Ministry of State Security files has shown that the ministry of which my foreign intelligence department, the HVA, was part, cooperated with several organizations such as the PLO, and that the GDR supported some of these groups involved in politically motivated terrorism,» writes Wolf in his autobiography, putting the following question: «Did we know full well that what we were offering might be used in ways with which we disagreed? Of course… I do accept responsibility for these abuses – not guilt.» During the Red Scare years, I had lived a very full life among the East Germans. As a young student and also as a keen and busy, albeit thoroughly bourgeois, correspondent I was moving constantly back and forth across the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. I went often to the theater in East Berlin, seldom to the Linden-Opera and regularly to the Friedrichstrasse bars. I met friends like the film director Konrad Wolf – Markus’s brother – and Helene Weigel, Brecht’s widow. All very suspicious. Therefore, it is not a wild guess that the Ministry for State Security of the German Democratic Republic, at that time at its most forbidding and cruel, might have indeed taken a close interest in me as well. I have been informed that the united German authority which now administers the Stasi files invites those who were once watched to come and turn the tables on the watchers. I made a mental note to wade through my own Stasi files next time I happen to be in Berlin.

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