in the garden

 

Jul 2014 Journal

next article: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

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.

Anthony Grenville

Anthony Grenville

next article: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