JBD

 

Extracts from the Jul 2014 Journal

Us and the spooks

Given the wealth of literature that has appeared in recent decades on the victims of Nazism, it is now rare indeed for a book on the refugees from Hitler in Britain to open up to its readers an almost completely unexplored area of that history. Yet this is the case with Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove’s study A Matter of Intelligence: MI5 and the Surveillance of Anti-Nazi Refugees, 1933-1950 (Manchester University Press, 2014, £70.00).This takes as its subject the British Security Service, commonly known as MI5, and its attempts to keep under surveillance any potentially hostile elements among the many thousands of refugees who fled to Britain after 1933 from Nazi-held territories.
MI5’s prime targets were political refugees - the Communists, socialists, trade unionists, pacifists and liberal progressives - rather than the mostly apolitical Jewish refugees who formed the great majority of those who escaped to Britain, though sometimes the boundaries between the two groups were blurred. The book is based on detailed and meticulous research, principally on the MI5 files on refugees held at the National Archives in Kew, many of which have, however, been destroyed or remain, even at this late date, closed to the public. Despite this, the authors have succeeded in building up a compelling picture of the way in which MI5 proceeded towards the unexpected influx of refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia into Britain. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that almost every page of the book contains some fascinating nugget of information about the interplay between the Security Service and its largely unsuspecting refugee targets.
In the 1930s, MI5 directed most of its activities against Germany and the Soviet Union - against Nazism and Communism. The Secret Service had been formed in 1909 in response to the threat from Germany, and Germany and Germans remained the object of its intense suspicion. MI5 was largely successful in neutralising the threat posed by the Nazi Auslandsorganisation (foreign organisation) in Britain – whose efficacy can be measured by the fact that its leader was a hair tonic salesman and a chum of Rudolf Hess – and in keeping tabs on native British Fascists and Mosleyites. But MI5’s suspicion of the refugees as Germans led it to carry out the intensive and largely pointless monitoring of many completely harmless refugees and, worse still, led to its culpable role as a leading instigator of the mass internment of ‘enemy aliens’, Jewish as well as ‘political’, in summer 1940. Although Brinson and Dove discovered much evidence of casual anti-Semitism in MI5 files and documents, they remain unconvinced that MI5’s advocacy of internment was primarily motivated by anti-Semitism.
The extent of MI5’s misjudgement of the threat posed by the refugees from Hitler in the pre-war years leaps out from the pages of the book. For example, when the elderly pacifist Otto Lehmann-Russbueldt arrived in Britain in 1933 he would hardly have expected to find himself placed under covert surveillance, especially as it was his intention to warn Britain of the danger represented by Nazi Germany’s programme of rearmament. Another improbable target of MI5 scrutiny was the writer and anti-Nazi activist Karl Otten, in whose membership of a tiny and insignificant refugee grouping known as the Primrose League – which met at a refugee’s flat near London’s Primrose Hill – MI5 took a close, if unwarranted, interest; it even detailed an agent, Claud W. Sykes, a translator and author of popular books on aerial combat in the First World War, to befriend Otten and infiltrate the group. MI5 was also given information about alleged security risks among the refugees by informants from within the refugee community; ironically these included Otten, as well as the activist Kurt Hiller, an indefatigable participant in the bitter political infighting that distinguished the warring factions of the German Left even before 1933.
Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, MI5 had been acutely conscious of the need to counter the threat of Communist subversion. This obsession with the ‘Red Menace’ caused MI5 to be slow in its initial reaction to the aggressive potential of Nazi Germany. It continued to devote considerable resources to monitoring left-wing targets throughout the 1930s and especially during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (August 1939 – June 1941). Even after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, MI5 continued to take an active interest in left-wing refugees. It was especially suspicious of left-leaning refugee organisations like the Free German League of Culture and the Austrian Centre, as well as the Czech Refugee Trust Fund, despite the fact that the latter had been set up by the British government to bring endangered refugees from Czechoslovakia to Britain. As Brinson and Dove show, it was thanks to the Home Office that known Communists like Eva Kolmer of the Austrian Centre and Jürgen Kuczynski of the Free German League of Culture, whose internment was repeatedly demanded by MI5, remained at liberty.
Despite the resources that MI5 devoted to monitoring security risks among the refugees from Hitler, it failed conspicuously in its task of detecting those who posed a genuine and serious threat to British national interests. In particular, it judged that the ‘atom spy’ Klaus Fuchs, who had worked on the construction of the atomic bomb in the United States and had returned to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in 1946, posed no significant security risk. The British arrested Fuchs only in 1950, after the Americans discovered that he had been passing highly secret material to the Soviets for years. MI5 was even less successful in uncovering the activities of another known Communist among the refugees from Nazism, Engelbert Broda, who engaged in scientific espionage at the highest level in Britain but was allowed to return with impunity to his native Vienna, where he died in 1983.
Last but by no means least, MI5 was unsuccessful in countering the activities of Arnold Deutsch, who had arrived in Britain in 1934 with instructions to set up a Soviet spy network. Deutsch, the most successful Soviet spymaster in Britain in that period, was principally responsible for recruiting the notorious ‘Cambridge Five’ agents - Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross - who together wrought untold damage on British interests and the British security services. Deutsch employed a number of refugee agents, including Viennese-born Edith Tudor-Hart, a friend of Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedmann; it was Tudor-Hart who introduced Philby to Deutsch, thus setting in motion a catastrophe for British intelligence.
As befits impartial academics, Brinson and Dove maintain a stance of strict moral and political neutrality in their depiction of those who spied for the Soviet Union. But such a position of neutrality itself arguably implies a political judgment, the assumption of an approximate moral equivalence between the British and Soviet systems. This assumption is widespread in fictional reconstructions of the ‘Cambridge Five’, such as Alan Bennett’s depiction of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt in the films/stage plays An Englishman Abroad (1983) and A Question of Attribution (1988), and in Julian Mitchell’s fictionalised reworking of Guy Burgess’s schooldays at Eton in Another Country (1981). The novels of John le Carré have immortalised the image of the British and Soviet security services as competing institutions inevitably involved in the moral compromises of their trade and degenerating through the exigencies of espionage and counter-espionage into a world of barely distinguishable shades of ethically ambiguous grey.
To justify the behaviour of the Soviet Union’s British spies, proponents of this view habitually invoke E. M. Forster’s dictum that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. That Philby and company betrayed their country is beyond dispute: they disclosed its most valuable secrets to its mortal enemies, undermined the institutions devoted to its defence, and did not hesitate to sacrifice the lives of the operatives of its security services. Furthermore, they did not do this in order to remain true to their friends. On the contrary, Philby routinely betrayed his friends - those with whom he worked in the British intelligence service and with whom he broke bread on a daily basis.
In her book of memoirs, Die hellen und die finsteren Zeiten (Light and Dark Times) (1989), Hilde Spiel relates how in 1946 her husband, the writer Peter de Mendelssohn, then working for the Allied occupation forces in Germany, secured a position with the British military authorities for his friend and fellow refugee Georg Honigmann, now married to Litzi Friedmann, Philby’s ex-wife. But instead of travelling to Hamburg, Honigmann made his way to Berlin and defected to the Russians, leaving his friend de Mendelssohn, who had vouched for his reliability, distraught and heavily compromised in the eyes of the military authorities. This was but one small act of betrayal carried out in the service of Stalin’s Soviet Union, a regime that extinguished the lives of millions of its own people and blighted those of millions more who fell under its sway. [more...]

A lasting memorial to the Jewish communities of Germany POGROM NIGHT 1938: A MEMORIAL TO THE DESTROYED SYNAGOGUES OF GERMANY Published by the Synagogue Memorial Beit Ashkenaz, Jerusalem, 2014

 I literally trembled with emotion when I held the two volumes of this monumental work in my hands. Together the volumes comprise over 700 pages, which are packed with information about the more than 1,000 synagogues and prayer rooms that existed in pre-Second World War Germany and were burned, destroyed, pillaged or plundered on the night of 9 November 1938, which was given the derisive designation of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, by its Nazi perpetrators.
The book contains concise texts giving the history, dates and vital statistics of each synagogue and community and, in many cases, these are accompanied by photographs of how the place looked before, and sometimes after, 9 November 1938. The work is, in fact, an encyclopaedic account of the life and times of the many Jewish communities that once existed in Germany, as it was defined by its 1937 borders. On a personal note, my heart lifted when I saw that what was once the small town of Sprottau in Silesia, the birthplace of my mother and today known as Szprotawa in Poland, is included.
The inside cover of the book shows a map of Germany on that fateful day. The map is in grey and is studded with tiny dots of white, giving the impression of innumerable spots of light. These denote the places where synagogues or prayer rooms existed and were destroyed or attacked that night. In one startling and concise graphic image, the reader grasps the full extent of the tragedy of the Jews of Germany.
Forewords have been written by Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German Ambassador to the USA and the UK and now Global Head of Germany’s Allianz Group, and Malcolm Hoenlein, Vice-President of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, both of which contributed funds to support the project. But the main contribution and acknowledgement belong to Professor Meir Schwartz, who instigated the project and brought it to its final realisation over the course of the last 20 years.
Professor Schwarz, who was born in Nuremberg in 1926, was sent on his own to what was then Palestine at the age of nine. In his professional career, becoming a world-renowned expert on hydroponics, he helped to make the desert bloom, both in Israel and elsewhere, thus providing sustenance to many millions.
In his foreword to the book, Professor Schwarz relates that when he visited the town of his birth he found that the memory of the former Jewish community had been all but erased. This was in 1988, when he happened to be in Germany attending an international biology conference. The local officials he spoke to had no knowledge of the synagogue that had once existed there, although Professor Schwarz remembered being present as a child and seeing it with his own eyes as it burned.
Thus it was that in 1988 he determined to set the record straight and create a memorial for all the synagogues that had once existed, forming the focal point of the Jewish communities that had once flourished throughout Germany. In the larger towns there was generally more than one synagogue, and these are all commemorated, as are even the tiny stieblach and prayer rooms that existed in the smaller, rural communities. Contrary to general belief, there were many Jews who lived in far-flung towns and villages in Germany, in Jewish communities that often consisted of just a handful of families.
Volume 1 also contains an extensive illustrated introduction relating the history of the Jewish community of Germany in considerable detail, with particular emphasis on that of Cologne.
Many people helped to bring this immense project to fruition, and the undersigned is proud to note her own small contribution as author of some of the texts. However, without Professor Schwarz’s guiding hand and powerful vision, the book would never have come into existence. Having worked in the past as the editor and translator of publications put out by Israel’s central bank, I can appreciate how much care, time and effort have been put into the production of this complex, comprehensive - and, above all, beautiful - work.
These two volumes constitute a treasure trove of information and will undoubtedly stand as a resounding achievement, as well as a lasting memorial, to the once-glorious Jewish communities of Germany.
The book will have limited distribution but much of the work is also presented online at the website germansynagogues.com which has a searchable database of towns and cities where synagogues were destroyed.
Dorothea Shefer-Vanson [link]

‘Your life is an example of humanity and modesty’: Sir Nicholas Winton celebrates 105th birthday

Sir Nicholas Winton has celebrated his 105th birthday at the Czech Embassy in London with his family, friends and some of his ‘children’ and their families.
Czech Ambassador Michael Žantovský led the tributes to Sir Nicholas at a special event on 19 May. In addition to honouring the man who has become known as the ‘British Schindler’, Ambassador Žantovský conveyed greetings from, among others, the Czech President, Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament of the Czech Republic. He also presented Sir Nicholas with a home-made birthday cake with 105 candles and a bouquet of flowers.
In a letter to Sir Nicky, President Zeman said: ‘You gave these children the greatest possible gift - the chance to live and be free. But you did not think of yourself as a hero because you were led by a desire to help those who could not defend themselves, those who were vulnerable. Your life is an example of humanity, selflessness, personal courage and modesty.’ The Czech President also invited Sir Nicky to a ceremony in Prague in November when he will bestow on him the Order of the White Lion.
The event at the Czech Embassy was also organised to launch Barbara Winton’s biography of her father: If It’s Not Impossible ... The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton*, in which she chronicles Nicky’s life from his privileged upbringing to his army days through to his remarkable reunion on Esther Rantzen’s 1988 TV show That’s Life with some of the 669 Kinder he rescued from Czechoslovakia.
*Barbara Winton: If It’s Not Impossible ... The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton (Matador, tel 0116 279 2299, email books@troubador.co.uk and amazon.co.uk), 278 pp. paperback, £12.99 ISBN 978 1783065 202 [link]

LETTER FROM ISRAEL Blot on the landscape

 Over and above the scandal and shenanigans surrounding the prosecution, trial and eventual conviction for accepting bribes and betraying the voters’ trust of the erstwhile Mayor of Jerusalem and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his associates is the very material existence of the building that lies at the heart of the whole saga.
Almost since time immemorial, Jerusalem has been dear to the heart of mankind. The ancient Hebrews conquered the land of Canaan, led by King David, defeated the Jebusites, and made the city their capital. Although it did not stand at the mouth of a river or command sea routes, its situation atop a promontory that is part of the Judaean Hills commands the fertile plain to the north and overlooks the desert to the south, and was therefore considered virtually unassailable.
The Crusaders, who controlled the city for 100 years in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, built churches and sites of worship, using the local stone, of course, as did their successors, the Muslims. The memory of the brief Christian hegemony of Jerusalem lingers on in the hymns, poems, prayers and yearnings that prevail throughout the Christian world.
In 1921 Sir Ronald Storrs the man appointed by the British Mandatory authorities as (to quote his words) ‘the first military governor of Jerusalem since Pontius Pilate’, ordered that all buildings erected in the city be built of Jerusalem stone. Known for his love of art, literature and music, Storrs was determined to establish firm architectural and town-planning principles for the city, and it is largely thanks to his foresight and vision that these have more or less been maintained ever since. These principles were maintained as the city expanded beyond the crenellated walls surrounding the Old City that were built by Sultan Suleiman the Great in the sixteenth century.
And always, no matter what the pressures and exigencies may have been, the hilly skyline surrounding Jerusalem was preserved, providing aesthetic and architectural pleasure for its denizens, rich and poor alike.
Until the Holyland project came along, that is.
One wonders: where were the architects, the town planners, the civil engineers who allowed this travesty to come into existence? Possibly some of them lined their pockets in order to enable the plans to pass the various approval stages, while others simply turned a blind eye. But when one thinks about it, how is it that no one stopped to consider what this would do to Jerusalem’s skyline and the mental state of the people who live there?
Now, every time one looks out over the Jerusalem skyline, from pretty much anywhere in Jerusalem, one sees the inelegant blocks of the Holyland project with the tower that dominates them and the surrounding area, like a huge wart on the face of a lovely woman. Instead of feeling uplifted by the beauty of the environment, one’s heart sinks at the way it has been so blatantly defaced.
Perhaps it’s as well that Ehud Olmert and the others are going to spend some time in jail - otherwise the inhabitants of Jerusalem might have taken the law into their own hands and torn them limb from limb. Presumably their fellow-inmates won’t care much about aesthetic damage. Jail might even serve as a place of refuge from the wrath of people who are now forced to suffer this eyesore on a daily basis.
The blot on the landscape is both physical and metaphorical, the tangible evidence of the corruption and moral depravity that seem to characterise too many of our political leaders these days. Olmert and co will serve just a few years in prison but those of us who live in Jerusalem are condemned to a life sentence of viewing the result of their wanton greed whenever we lift up our eyes unto the hills.
Dorothea Shefer-Vanson [link]

Letters to the Editor

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