Category Archives: Philosophy

The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 2)

[In Part 1 of this segment, I analysed the way in which Rudolf Peierls tried to frame his life and career. He almost managed to conceal a murky connection with the  Soviet authorities, but a study of archives, letters and memoirs strongly suggested a hold that Moscow exerted over him and his wife. In Part 2, I investigate how the network of physicists in Britain in the 1930s helped to enable Peierls’s close friend and protégé Klaus Fuchs to thrive, and explore how Peierls tried to explain away Fuchs’s ability to spy under his watch.]

Rudolf Peierls

When those UK public servants who aided or abetted the espionage of Klaus Fuchs were judged, whether they were in academia, government, or intelligence, the investigation essentially boiled down to four questions: 1) Were they incompetent? (‘I never knew he was a Communist’); 2) Were they negligent? (‘I knew he was a Communist, but didn’t think it mattered’); 3) Were they timid? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and was concerned, but didn’t want to rock the boat’); or 4) Were they culpable? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and that is why I recruited/approved him’). The actions of each were highly dependent upon roles and timing: supporting a communist scientist in the 1930s would have been almost de rigueur in physicist circles; in 1941 the Ministry of Aircraft Production was so desperate to beat Hitler that it admitted it had no qualms about recruiting a communist; after Gouzenko’s defection in 1945, and Nunn May’s sentencing, any communist links began to be treated as dangerous; in 1951 Sillitoe and White of MI5 lied to Prime Minster Attlee about Fuchs’s communism in order to save the institution’s skin. In comparison, in 1944 the OSS recruited Jürgen Kuczynski (Sonia’s brother, who introduced Fuchs to a member of Soviet military intelligence) because he was a communist. But the post mortems of the Cold War suggested that warning signals should have been made at every stage of the spy’s advancement to positions where he had access to highly confidential information.

Moreover, Fuchs is often presented in contrasting styles. On the one hand appears the superb master of tradecraft, who effortlessly insinuated himself into Britain’s academic elite, convinced the authorities of his skills and commitment, took up UK nationality, and then, with his keen knowledge of counter-surveillance techniques was able to pass on atomic secrets to his handler, Sonia, and later, in 1949, to give away no clues when he was being watched, being betrayed solely because of the VENONA decrypts, and the tenacity of those who followed the leads. On the other hand we see the clumsy communist, who made no effort to conceal his true affiliations, escaped undetected only because of the incompetence of MI5, but carelessly provided possible clues by visiting his sister in Boston, and contacting a known Communist (Johanna Klopstech) on his return to the UK in 1946. Moreover, he drank ‘like a fish’, according to Genia Peierls. When questioned, he was foolish enough to confess to espionage when anyone else would have brazened it out, with the result that his Soviet spymasters were disgusted with him.

Would it not have made more sense for Fuchs to soften his communist stance, thus avoiding a complete volte-face and loss of credibility with his leftist peers in England, but suggesting he was more of a vague theoretician than a firm believer in the Stalinist paradise? In this respect the relationship to Fuchs of Rudolph Peierls, as his mentor and recruiter, is especially poignant. In this article, I examine what is known about Peierls’s and other scientists’ awareness of Fuchs’s true political commitment, and how Peierls danced around the issue in the years after Fuchs’s prison sentencing, and later, when Fuchs was released, and left the UK for the German Democratic Republic. I expand my analysis by using the statements and testimony of other scientists who dealt with the pair.

I wrote about Peierls in Misdefending the Realm, and it might be useful to re-present here a few sections from my book that focused on my assessment of Peierls’s role in recruiting Fuchs to the Tube Alloys project, from Chapter 8:

Peierls’s account of what happened next is deceptive. In his autobiography he claimed that, several months after Fuchs’s release, when thinking about technical help he himself needed in the spring of 1941, he thought of Fuchs. “I knew and liked his papers, and I had met him”, he wrote, dismissing the relationship as fairly remote. Yet he had never written about Fuchs beforehand, and he does not describe the circumstances in which he had met him. His autobiographical contribution is undermined, however, by what he had told MI5. When he was interviewed by Commander Burt in February, 1950, shortly before Fuchs’s trial, he said that he had first met Fuchs “in about 1934, probably at some scientific conference”, but also stated that “he did not know him very well until Born recommended him”. Fuchs was later to confirm that he had met Peierls at a scientific conference “immediately before the war”. An MI5 report of November 23, 1949, states that “Peierls had met Fuchs at a Physics Conference in Bristol, when Peierls had first suggested that Fuchs should work under him at Birmingham”. That occasion was clearly before the war: Peierls and Fuchs had achieved more than merely discuss issues of joint interest, and Peierls clearly misrepresented the closeness of their relationship when speaking to Burt.

Without explaining how he had learned that Fuchs had been released from internment, and had returned to Edinburgh, Peierls stated that he wrote to Fuchs asking him whether he wanted to work with him, even before he (Peierls) had gained permission to do so. He next asked for official clearance, but was instructed “to tell him as little as possible”. “In due course he [Fuchs] got a full clearance, and he started work in May 1941.” One might conclude that the impression Peierls wanted to give is that it was a fortuitous accident that Fuchs’s availability, and his own need, coincided: he conveniently forgot the previous job offer. Moreover, the “and” in Peierls’s account is troublesome, suggesting a sequence of events that did not in fact happen that way. Fuchs had not received ‘full clearance’ by that time: in another item of correspondence, Peierls admitted that he had to wait. The process was to drag on for several months, and some MI5 personnel were later to express horror that the relevant government ministries had proceeded so carelessly in advancing Fuchs’s career without concluding the formal checks. For example, in June 1940, Peierls had taken Fuchs with him to Cambridge to meet the Austrian expert in heavy water, Dr. Hans Halban, who was a member of the exclusive five-man Tube Alloys Technical Committee: Fuchs’s training was assuredly not being held back.

Moreover, Peierls’s account does not correspond with other records. It is clear from his file at the National Archives that Fuchs was recommended for release from internment in Canada as early as October 14, 1940 (i.e. shortly after the meeting of the Maud Technical Sub-Committee), and that the termination of his internment (to return to Edinburgh) was officially approved a few weeks later. This followed an inquiry by the Royal Society as early as July 1940, since an MI5 memorandum states that “the Royal Society included Fuchs on list of scientists they wanted urgently released soon after Fuchs sailed on Ettrick on July 3, 1940.” An ‘exceptional case’ was made on October 17, and the Home Office gave Fuchs’s name to the High Commissioner for Canada. These requests would later appear very provocative, as a defined role for Fuchs appeared to have been described very early in the cycle. Yet, after his arrival in Liverpool in January 1941, the Immigration Officer specified very clearly to the Superintendent of the Register of Aliens that Fuchs would not be able to “engage in any kind of employment without the consent of the Ministry of Labour”.

It would at first glance be quite reasonable to suppose that Peierls had initiated this action, especially given the curious testimony of Fuchs’s supervisor at Edinburgh, Max Born. In a letter dated May 29, 1940, Born had written (to whom is not clear) that, despite Fuchs’s being “in the small top group of theoretical physicists in this country”, he and the others should not be freed from internment. Furthermore, Born wrote that “there are strict regulations that prohibit any liberated internees to return to the ‘protected area’ where they live”. “Even if they would be released they could not join my department again”, he added. Either this was a deliberate deception by Born, to provide a cover-story, or he had a quick change of heart, or he was sincere, but was overruled, the British government wishing to maintain the fiction that everything happened later than supposed. The third alternative can probably be discounted, as Born soon after began writing to influential persons, trying to gain Fuchs’s release, immediately after his arrest, and himself vigorously tried to find Fuchs remunerative employment as soon as he learned about Fuchs’s release from internment. In any case, the earlier statement represented an unnecessarily severe judgment, made just over two weeks after Fuchs’s interrogation and arrest, and its only purpose can have been to smooth the path of Fuchs’s employment elsewhere after his eventual release.  [pp 217-218]

And:

In fact, correspondence between Peierls and the pacifist-minded Born suggests that the two collaborated to find Fuchs employment very soon after his release from internment was approved. It appears the two scientists knew each other well. In the summer of 1936, Born (whose position at Cambridge had come to an end) had received an invitation from Kapitza to work for him in Moscow. The fact that Kapitza appeared then to be an unreformed Stalinist, writing in his letter of invitation: “Now, Born, is the time to make your decision whether you will be on the right or the wrong side in the coming political struggle”, did not deter Born.  He considered it so seriously that he started taking Russian lessons from Peierls’s wife, Eugenia, but instead assumed the chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University in October 1936. Laucht’s study of Frisch and Peierls refers to letters exchanged between Peierls and Born in November, 1940, where they explored opportunities for placing Fuchs successfully. This correspondence continued during the spring of 1941, with Peierls expressing extreme dedication towards bringing Fuchs into his camp. “Although it looked initially as if Fuchs would not make the move to the University of Birmingham, Peierls remained tireless in his effort to find a job for the talented physicist at his university. In the end, he succeeded and offered Fuchs a temporary position,” wrote Laucht. Thus Peierls’s version of the recruitment process can be interpreted as another self-serving memoir attempting to distance the author from a traitor. All this was known by MI5: they had gained Home Office Warrants to read the correspondence.

Max Born, moreover, was far from innocent in helping Fuchs on his mission. In his two items of autobiography, he relentlessly reminds his readers that he had no competence in nuclear physics, a convenient pretence for his attitude of non-participation and pacifism. Yet in his later, more comprehensive volume he related the episode of a visit to Cambridge in the summer of 1939, where he met the nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, and how, on his return, he shared with Fuchs Szilard’s conviction that an atom bomb could be made. He was then unequivocal that Fuchs knew that the nature of the work he would have to be engaged in was nuclear weapons research, with the goal of defeating Hitler, as he claimed he tried to talk Fuchs out of it. Just as Peierls did in his own memoir, Born concealed the fact of the correspondence between the two exiled scientists at the end of 1940, supporting the lie that it was Peierls’s sudden request for Fuchs in May of 1941 that occasioned the latter’s transfer from Edinburgh to Birmingham. [pp 220-21]

What new material can shed further light on this story? In some ways, the sources have become sparser. In recent years, previously available files concerning atomic weapons and energy research, including vital files on Klaus Fuchs, have been ‘retained’ by UK government departments for unspecified reasons. (see, for example:
https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/research-brought-halt-national-archives/
and

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/23/british-nuclear-archive-files-withdrawn-without-explanation ) Very recently, some of the files on Sonia’s family have been inexplicably withdrawn (’closed while access is under review’). In his 1997 biography of Professor Chadwick (the head of the British mission to assist in the Manhattan Project), Andrew Brown wrote: “Some of the wartime letters between Chadwick and Peierls that have never been released in England were available at the National Archives, but possibly as a result of the Gulf War, they were recently recensored by the US authorities”  –  an extraordinary admission of foreign interference. The Cleveland Cram archive of CIA material at Georgetown University has been withdrawn, at the CIA’s request (see: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/25/how-the-cia-writes-history/). Sabine Lee’s publication of the Letters of Rudolf Peierls has usefully extracted a number of communications between the scientist and his colleagues and contacts, but the emphasis is very much on technical matters, most of the letters appear in the original German, and the volume is very expensive.

On the other hand, a careful examination of the archival material of fringe figures (such as the enigmatic Herbert Skinner), and the articles, book reviews, memoirs and biographies of scientists who engaged with Peierls and Fuchs in the 1930s, 40s and 50s can reveal a host of subsidiary detail that helps to shed light on the process by which Fuchs was allowed to be adopted by Peierls, and approved for work on Tube Alloys.

The Physicists

The Physics Department at Bristol

The saga started at the University of Bristol, where a fascinating group of future luminaries was assembled in the 1930s. Klaus Fuchs arrived there, in October 1933, and was introduced to Professor Nevill Mott by Ronald Gunn, who was a director of Imperial Tobacco, was described by many as a Quaker, but was also a strong communist sympathiser. Gunn had visited the Soviet Union in 1932, had met Fuchs in Paris in 1933, and had sponsored his move to Bristol. The university admissions board accepted Fuchs as a doctoral student of Mott, who held the Melville Wills Chair of Theoretical Physics. Mott and Gunn were both alumni of Clifton College, as, indeed, was Roger Hollis, the controversial future chief of MI5. Mott had taken up his new position only in the autumn of 1933, at the young age of twenty-six, and one of his new colleagues was Herbert Skinner, to whom he was indebted for helping focus his research. Professor Tyndall’s history of the Physics Department also credits Skinner with endorsing the selection of Mott.

Skinner was later to become Fuchs’s boss at AERE Harwell, where Fuchs was to conduct an affair with Skinner’s ‘Austrian-born’ wife, Erna, described as ’glamorous’ in one memoir. Skinner had been appointed a Henry Herbert Will Research Fellow at Bristol in 1927, and was given a more permanent position as Lecturer in Spectroscopy in June 1931, which he held until 1946. In October 1934, Rudolph Peierls’s long-time friend, colleague and correspondent Hans Bethe arrived, but he stayed only four months before leaving for the United States to take up a chair at Cornell University. Soon after that, however, Herbert Fröhlich was added to the faculty. (I wrote about his miraculous escape from the Soviet Union in Part 1 of this analysis.) Fröhlich was appointed Lecturer in 1944, and Reader in 1946. He stayed until 1948, when he was appointed as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Liverpool University. Ronald Gurney was another Soviet sympathiser, a member of the local Communist Party, working as a George Wills research associate from 1933 to 1939, and contributing, alongside Fröhlich, to Mott’s research on semiconductors and crystals. (Ironically, Fuchs would later tell the FBI that Gurney was ‘a security risk’ because he and his wife had at Bristol both been members of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR.) Alan Nunn May, the other famed ‘atom spy’ was one of those scientists from King’s College, London, evacuated to Bristol at the start of the war.

Other German-speaking physicists were recruited, and were later, like Fuchs, to undergo internment during the ‘fifth column’ scare of 1940. Christopher Laucht writes, in Elemental Germans: “Other German-speaking émigré physicists who were interned included Walter Kohn and Hans Kronberger, as well as eight members of the physics department at Bristol University: Walter Heitler and his brother Hans, Herbert Fröhlich, Kurt Hoselitz, Phillip Gross and Heinz London, and two of their students Robert Arno Sack and G. Eichholz.” (p 27) Yet it is primarily the exposures of Mott, Born, Skinner, Gurney and Fröhlich to Klaus Fuchs, supplemented by the careers of two other important figures, Rotblat and Plazcek, that concern me here.

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott was ambivalent in his assessment of Fuchs. Mott was some kind of fellow-traveller himself: in his memoir, A Life in Science, he describes how in 1934 he enthusiastically paid a visit to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to attend a conference celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mendeleyev. The scientist who invited him, Yakov Frenkel, was the same person who had invited Peierls to Odessa in 1931. Mott had the good (or bad) fortune to be accompanied on the Soviet boat by Sidney Webb. He recorded part of his experiences as follows: “To me, from England at the height of the depression, Russia appeared as a country without unemployment. At any rate, I wanted to believe in it. It was after the ‘dekulakization’ but before Stalin’s purges. ‘What about the Kulaks?’, I asked a Russian physicist. ‘Well, we had to get rid of the half million rich peasants in the interests of the masses, but now that this has been done there will be nothing more like it, and the future is rosy.’ I believed him.”

Mott could be described as the perfect embodiment of Lenin’s ‘useful idiot’. Admittedly, far greater persons posed the same question. Winston Churchill also asked Stalin about the kulaks, in 1942, although it was a foolish impulse, as the Prime Minister must have known full well by then what the nature and scale of the massacres, deportations and enforced famine had been, and, if he was not prepared to challenge the Soviet dictator on the matter, his question would turn out to be a political victory for Stalin. Mott was naive enough to admit his gullibility, at least: Peierls remained silent after his more tortured visit.

Yet Mott was a little evasive about Fuchs. In a memoir Bristol Physics in the 1930s, he wrote that Fuchs’s ‘views, as we all knew, were very left wing, and at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, so were those of many of the young physicists’. In A Life in Science, however, Mott’s awkwardness shines through. First he introduces Fuchs as ‘a political refugee, with communist sympathies’, not explaining how he knew that. He next writes that Fuchs was ‘was shy and reserved and I do not remember discussing politics with him’. But then he relates the famous incident of the meeting of the local branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, which he and Fuchs – and maybe others – attended. The description ironically does not comment on those aspects of ‘cultural relations’ that Mott judged worthy of nurturing.

“In Bristol in the 1930s, we had a branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. It met from time to time in a studio in Park Street, which disappeared in 1940 in the first big raid on Bristol, (during which I remember walking home from a meeting, with incendiaries falling in the street). We used to dramatize translations of the Soviet treason trials, but which Stalin appears to have got rid of most of his possible rivals. They were accused of sabotage in the interests of the Germans. But my most vivid recollection is of Fuchs in the role of Vishinsky, the prosecutor, accusing the defendents [sic] with a cold venom that I would never have suspected from so quiet and unassuming a young man.” The mystery is a) why Fuchs would go out of his way to express his political sympathies, and b) why Bristol academia would not consider his behaviour outrageous.

Eventually, Fuchs moved on – to Edinburgh University, under Professor Max Born. The record here is again ambiguous. Mott described the action as follows: “After four years I arranged for him to go to the former leader of the Göttingen theorists, Max Born, by then Professor in Edinburgh. Born, in his autobiography, writes that I wanted to get rid of him because he was a communist, but that was not so; we had many refugees in Bristol and needed to think about permanent posts for some of them, and we hadn’t the resources to provide for all.”

Max Born

Max Born

Max Born had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1933, and after taking a position at St. John’s College, Cambridge, was in 1936 appointed to the Tait chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. In an essay in his My Life and Views, Born wrote: “Next, Klaus Fuchs, a highly gifted man who never concealed the fact that he was a communist; after the outbreak of the war and a short internment as an enemy alien, he joined the British team investigating nuclear fission. I think he became a spy not from ulterior motives but from honest conviction.” Apart from the disingenuous claim that ‘ulterior motives’ and ‘honest conviction’ are opposite motivators in the field of espionage, Born makes it quite clear that he knew about Fuchs’s loyalties, writing in My Life about recently arrived scientists at Edinburgh: “One of the first of these was Klaus Fuchs, later so well known through the spy affair in which he was involved,’ as if The Spy Who Changed the World (Michael Rossiter’s clumsy title for his first-class biography, flawed only by its lack of specific references) had been a bit-player in some distasteful society scandal.

This controversy was intensified, however, when the first biography of Fuchs, by Norman Moss, titled Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb, was reviewed by M. F. Perutz in the 25 June, 1987 issue of the London Review of Books. Fuchs had taught Perutz the principles of theoretical physics when both were interned in Canada in the summer of 1940. In his review, Perutz referred to the claim made by Prime Minister Attlee in the House of Commons that there had been no evidence that Fuchs had ever been a Communist, and commented: “When I mentioned this to a veteran physicist friend of mine recently, he interjected: ‘But Fuchs and I were in the same Communist cell when we were students at Bristol.’ Max Born, Fuchs’s former chief at Edinburgh, wrote about Fuchs: ‘He never concealed that he was a convinced communist. During the Russo-Finnish war everyone’s sympathies in our department were with the Finns, while Fuchs was passionately pro-Russian.’ On the other hand, Peierls had no idea that Fuchs was a Communist.”

Norman Moss explained more, in a response published by the LRB: “In his autobiography My Life, Max Born, who took on Fuchs as a young researcher, said Sir Nevill Mott told him he sent him away from Bristol University because ‘he spread Communist propaganda among the undergraduates.’ But there is a footnote containing a comment by Sir Nevill to the effect that Born must have misunderstood something he said, because he does not remember his doing any such thing. “In fact, none of Fuchs’s close friends knew he had been an active Communist in Germany. Fuchs did once defend Russia’s attack on Finland in 1939 in an argument with Born, as Professor Perutz says in his review and as I said in my book.”

While this sheds light on the Born-Mott misunderstanding, the final sentences would seem to be a non sequitur. It is worth examining Born’s text more closely. In fact he admitted surprise at the written reasons Mott gave for passing Fuchs on to him, which stressed Mott’s desire to learn more about Born’s ‘special methods’. Born felt that Mott understood such methods very well, and could have thus passed them on to Fuchs himself. The message that Mott later denied was delivered orally at a meeting in London. According to Born: “I enjoyed working with Fuchs so much that I wondered why Mott had sent him away. This was explained when I encountered Mott at a meeting in London. He asked me how I was getting on with Fuchs, and when I answered ‘splendidly’, and praised his talent, Mott said ‘What a pity I had to get rid of him. He spread communist propaganda among the undergraduates’. Mott told me that he had arranged for his own contribution to the general refugee fund to be directed to Fuchs, a generous gesture which possibly also showed how much he was afraid of communist propaganda.”

Does that last statement indicate that Mott was trying to buy Fuchs off? What did it mean that Mott (or Bristol) could not afford to pay Fuchs, but could cover his expenses at Edinburgh? It does not appear to make much sense. In any case, Mott apparently had a chance to review Born’s script before publication, as he was allowed to comment, in the footnote cited by Moss, as follows: “I must have made a remark which Born misunderstood or took more seriously than I intended. I do not remember believing that Fuchs spread communist propaganda among the students, and at a time when Hitler was the enemy I could not have worried unduly if he had. What happened was this. In Bristol we had research funds from the generous gifts of the Wills family, and with these and help from the Academic Assistance Council we built up a very strong group of physicists who had left Germany in 1933. Some we wished to keep; but established positions then as now were few and far between and for others we helped as we could to find jobs elsewhere. This is how we acted about Fuchs.”

A strong measure of truth may have accompanied that last claim, but how come Born could not have been apprised of it from the outset? Why did Mott beat about the bush? And why did he so carelessly misrepresent Nazi Germany’s status as of 1937, when Fuchs moved to Edinburgh? At that time, Hitler may have been a grossly unpleasant threat to leftist scientists like Mott, but he was no more ‘the enemy’ than Stalin was. It was a typically disingenuous footnote by Mott.

Many witnesses seem to be behaving economically with the truth here, including, of course, Clement Attlee, who had been lied to outrageously by Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5. Yet the most startling item of evidence is the statement by Perutz’s ‘veteran physicist friend’, who talks about membership of communist cells as casually as a British diplomat might refer to his house at Marlborough or Wellington. Who was this friend? And why would Perutz treat his friend’s confession so lightly?

Herbert Fröhlich

Herbert Froehlich

The friend cannot have been Skinner, as Skinner had died while attending a conference in Geneva in 1960.  Ronald Gurney had been a member of the CPGB, but he had left for the United States, where he died in 1953. If we are looking for a prominent physicist, of suspected communist affiliation, present at Bristol between 1934 and 1937, still alive in 1987, and a probable friend of Max Perutz, it would be Herbert Fröhlich. And the communist cell may not have been a unit of the Communist Party of Great Britain: it was much more likely to have been the German branch (the KPD). Fuchs regarded himself still as a member of the KPD when in the United Kingdom, and he had made contact with Jürgen Kuczynski, Sonia’s brother, who had arrived in London in 1933, and re-energised the KPD through the front of the Free German League of Culture. Jürgen became head of the KPD in Britain, and was in contact with the GRU representative in London, Simon Kremer.

You will not find a reference to Fröhlich in the biographies of Fuchs by Moss, Edwards, Rossiter or Close. Christopher Laucht, in Elemental Germans, records the contribution to the Maud Committee that Fröhlich made with Walter Heitner, in the field of spontaneous fission in uranium. Yet he glides smoothly over Fröhlich’s time in the Soviet Union, remarking solely that he experienced problems in getting his visa renewed. Laucht does note, however, that Fröhlich also lodged with the Peierlses, and that Peierls managed to gain funding for Fröhlich from the Academic Assistance Council.

G.J. Hyland’s biography of Fröhlich (A Physicist Ahead of His Time, published in 2015) provides the details on Frohlich’s experiences in the Soviet Union, whither he had also been invited by the ever-present Frenkel. Yet Hyland is comparatively bland on the physicist’s career after that, providing a text that is very much directed at the specialist. He does not mention any Maud work, although he does record that Fröhlich, after being released from internment in September 1940, returned to Bristol, but was prohibited from working on nuclear fission – an intriguing contrast to how Fuchs was sought out and approved. During the remainder of the war, Fröhlich ‘was occupied in part-time research for the Ministry of Supply, working initially on an image converter instrument for use on tanks to extend night vision’. Fröhlich was not naturalised until August 1946, but was then offered the position of Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell. “He declined this offer, however, not wanting to be involved with any work that might further nuclear warfare,” writes Hyland, adding: “Klaus Fuchs was appointed in his place!”

(I welcome any other suggestions as to who Perutz’s communist friend might have been.)

Herbert Skinner

Herbert Skinner

The most mysterious figure in this whole farrago is Herbert Skinner, since he owned an unmatched intimacy and longevity in his relationship with Klaus Fuchs, but his career is the least well documented of all. While his presence at Bristol University in the 1930s has been clearly described, his period in the war years has been sparsely addressed. His biographical memoir as a Fellow of the Royal Society indicates that, from 1939, he performed very valuable work on the detection of submarines by microwave radar, and after experiments in the Shetlands pursued the deployment of the technology at the Telecommunication Research Establishment at Malvern. (Ironically, this type of work was so secret, and so critical to the defence of the nation, that Skinner’s German-born colleagues were prohibited from working on it.) Skinner was then recruited, in 1943, to work as Oliphant’s deputy in California. Mike Rossiter simply notes that Skinner had contributed to the Manhattan Project at Berkeley ‘on electromagnetic separation with Lawrence’, and Frank Close similarly – but not strictly correctly – writes that ‘Herbert Skinner had also spent the war in the Berkeley team, which had studied separation of isotopes and investigated the physics of plutonium’. Skinner merits only one mention in Volume 1, 1939-1945) of Margaret Gowing’s history of Britain and Atomic Energy, when she refers to a Harwell planning meeting he attended in Washington in November 1944. Skinner does not appear in Graham Farmelow’s Churchill’s Bomb.

Skinner came to life again on his appointment at Harwell after the war as head of the General Physics Department. He was also John Cockcroft’s deputy, and in the first half of 1946 selected staff and guided the construction, while Cockcroft was still in Canada. Fuchs was one of those appointments, arriving at Harwell in June 1946. Before the sordid business in the late forties, however, when Fuchs conducted his affair with Erna Skinner, a liaison closely surveilled by MI5 and Special Branch, Skinner appeared with Fuchs in a very strange episode in New York. I introduced this event in my Letter to Frank Close, but it merits deeper coverage here.

The two of them had travelled to Washington in November 1947, in order to attend a declassification conference (November 14-16) where the implications of the McMahon Act on release of information on atomic weaponry and energy were to be discussed. Evidence supplied in 1950 to the FBI is so bizarre that I decided to transcribe here the main section of the report. (I do not believe it has been reproduced anywhere before this. See https://vault.fbi.gov/rosenberg-case/klaus-fuchs/klaus-fuchs-part-05-of/view  .) On February 4, 1950, Dr. Samuel Goudsmit * informed the FBI that Dr. Karl Cohen, who was head of the Theoretical Physics Division, and thus Fuchs’s counterpart in the Atomic Energy Program, had described to him how Fuchs, after meeting Cohen at a restaurant, had later called his counterpart, asking him to pick up a hat he had left at the restaurant and return it to the person from whom he had borrowed it on West 111th Street.

[* Goudsmit had been the head of the Alsos project, which set out to determine how close the Nazis were getting to the creation of an atomic bomb. After the war, he appears to have been a regular contributor to the FBI, the CIA and SIS. His name comes up as an informant in the Pontecorvo archive.]

The FBI interviewed Cohen on February 9, 1950.  He described his encounters with Fuchs at Columbia University and in Los Alamos, and then went on to explain that he had no further meeting with Fuchs until the declassification conference. His testimony is presented as follows:

“Cohen was told by Dr. Willard Libby of the Atomic Energy Commission that he should discuss with Fuchs the declassification of a certain document and make his recommendations to the conference. Cohen received a phone call from a woman who explained that she was a good friend of Fuchs, that Fuchs was staying either at the Henry Hudson Hotel or Park Central Hotel, and that Fuchs wanted to see Cohen. Thereafter Cohen called Fuchs and invited him to his home, which invitation Fuchs declined. He and Fuchs, however, had dinner at a restaurant of Cohen’s choosing, during which time they discussed the declassification of the document, Cohen recommending that it be declassified and Fuchs opposing. Cohen stated that some time after leaving the restaurant, Fuchs realized he had left a hat in the restaurant, which had belonged to the person with whom he had been staying. He asked Cohen to pick it up and return it since he, Fuchs, was leaving town. Cohen said that he regarded this request out of line, but agreed to call the people and tell them where they could obtain the hat. He did this, but the woman declined to retrieve the hat and consequently, a few days later, Cohen obtained it and returned it. It was Cohen’s recollection that Fuchs’ contact was a Dr. Cooper or Dr. Skinner, attached to the British Delegation that was in the United States for the Declassification Conference and who was staying with his wife and her father on West 111th Street. He said that when he returned the hat he met the scientist’s wife and her father. He described the wife as being typically English, but stated that her father was of European extraction and spoke with an accent. He said that on the bell to the apartment house there was the name Cooper or Skinner, as well as the name of the father-in-law. He commented that he would have forgotten this incident had it not been for the recent publicity on Fuchs.” The FBI later confirmed that the names on the bell of 536 West 111th Street appeared as Skinner, Hoffman and Kirsch, and that the apartment was owned by Mrs. Skinner ‘who is presently living in Connecticut’. The report added that ‘she had rented out this apartment to various roomers for the past six years’.

What is one to make of this extraordinary tale? Why was there such a performance around a simple hat? Was there any significance in Erna’s accompanying her husband to New York at that time? What was the role of her father, named Wurmbrand? (Her father was Moishe Michael Wurmbrand, who was born in Sadhora, a suburb of Czernowitz, in 1883 and died in New York in 1952. The claim that Erna was ‘Austrian’, as represented at the National Archives, may have been a convenient fiction, but Bukovina was governed by the Austrian Empire until 1918, after which it lay under Romanian rule until 1940. Skinner’s Wikipedia entry gives her maiden name as ‘Abrahamson’.) Why did Fuchs have to borrow a hat, and why could the Skinners not have picked it up themselves?

A former intelligence officer tells me that he regards the whole episode as an example of complex tradecraft, but, given Cohen’s sure innocence (else he would not have alerted the authorities), it seems a very clumsy effort by Fuchs that risked exposing contacts to the FBI. As I pointed out earlier, when speaking to the FBI, Fuchs identified the property as belonging to Mrs. Skinner, overlooking her husband’s presence. (I believe I misjudged the knowledge of the FBI about Cohen, and his role, in my earlier piece. And the FBI surely was aware of the joint mission of Fuchs and Skinner, although the report, rather dimly, states that ‘it would appear probable that Mrs. Skinner is the wife of Dr. W. H. B. Skinner . . . who was one of the members attending the Declassification Conference  . . .’) Perhaps Cohen was used, as an unwitting and innocent accomplice, to send a message about a completed project from the restaurant to the Skinners – or Erna’s father. Fuchs may have left a message at the restaurant chosen by Cohen, but wanted confirmation of its receipt to be delivered to Erna and her father by an unimpeachable medium. In any case, the incident shows that all the biographers of Fuchs have failed to exploit the considerable information about him in the FBI Vault.

How much did Herbert Skinner himself know what was going on? Why would he not have mentioned this incident to MI5 himself, given the suspicions he later claimed to have had about Fuchs? And why would the FBI not have made some connection? I have found no evidence of it in the obvious places. The FBI’s Robert Lamphere came to London with Hugh Clegg in May 1950, after Fuchs’s conviction, to interview the spy, and extracted from him the photographic recognition of his contact Harry Gold. Lamphere reports that Clegg, who was not familiar with the case, brought a copy of the whole Fuchs file with him, and read it on the plane. But Lamphere does not even mention Skinner in his book, The FBI-KGB Wars.

Skinner comes across as a very complex character. Rudolf Peierls has this to say about him, in Bird of Passage: “His [Cockcroft’s] second-in-command was Herbert Skinner, a well-known experimental physicist, whom we had known since the thirties. He was more forceful in conversation than Cockcroft; he tended to hold strong opinions, often more conservative than those of most physicists, and was never reluctant to make them known. His lively personal contacts with the staff at Harwell made up for Cockcroft’s detachment.” Cockcroft presented him as somewhat self-important, with a tendency to regard himself and his family as specially entitled. Others have described the Skinners’ boisterous parties at Harwell, which were less inhibited than those of the Cockcrofts.  Close describes him as follows: “A lean man with tousled hair, he and his wife Erna shared a bohemian outlook. She had grown up in Berlin between the wars. Both were socialists, like many of the scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb programme, but they also had a cosmopolitan circle of friends in London, all of which interested MI5.”

‘Bohemian’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ – dangerous epithets in the world of security. Yet how are the contrary ideas of ‘conservative’ and ‘socialist’ explained? Was Skinner a dissembler, working perhaps for some other organisation himself, and playing Philbyesque roles of communist one day, fascist sympathiser the next? Rossiter describes the two occasions, in December 1947 and February 1949, where Skinner confided to Fuchs that he had seen two separate reports from MI6 that indicated that German nuclear scientists had been detected working on a Soviet nuclear bomb at Sukhumi on the Black Sea coast, immediately putting Fuchs on his guard. Why and how would MI6 (SIS) have introduced such reports to a socialist like Skinner? Why would they not have gone to Cockcroft, and why did Skinner think it was suitable to show them to Fuchs, given the suspicions he admittedly harboured about him? Is there another narrative, with Skinner involved as some secret channel by SIS, to be uncovered here? So many questions, still.

It is true that MI5 did maintain a file on Herbert and Erna (see KV 2/2080, 2/2081 & 2/2082 at The National Archives). Yet it was not opened until the end of 1949, when the Fuchs affair was brewing, and MI5 noticed that Erna was associating ‘with a proven Soviet spy’ as well as ‘with persons who are potential spies’. (It was not unknown for MI5 to maintain files on MI6 operatives about whom they were not told anything.) Input from the FBI would have been very appropriate at that time, and it was careless of MI5 not to have recalled the 1947 visit to New York. It would also have been odd if Robert Lamphere did not mention the incident while he was in England. (Maybe he did, of course, but nothing was recorded.) One would think that any possible link that had an aspect of subterfuge should have been followed up. That was what ‘intelligence-sharing’ was about.

In any case, MI5 had by then demanded that Commander Henry Arnold, the Security Officer at Harwell, warn Skinner about such undesirable contacts. The Skinners admitted that they had communist friends, and MI5 considered that it would be safer to move Skinner to Liverpool, thus indicating that MI5’s discomfort over him anteceded Cohen’s revelations. (I shall investigate the whole story about the role of Liverpool University as a rest-home for distressed spies, and how MI5 misrepresented the project to Prime Minister Attlee, in a future article.)

On June 28, 1950, William Skardon interviewed Skinner at Liverpool, and elicited an extraordinary statement from him: “Dr. Skinner was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946.” One might ask what Skinner had done about this, in the fraught post-war world of 1946, with the Cold War under way, and Nunn May having been sentenced a few months before. Skinner was surely responsible for making the key appointments at Harwell. Skardon did in fact ask him, as his report shows: “Of course I asked Skinner whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this rebuff.”

Skinner echoed this opinion in a review of Alan Moorehead’s Traitors in The Atomic Scientists’ News : “We should not take on another Pontecorvo, who had never lived in England, or another Fuchs, whom we knew to have been a communist in Germany and who all through the 8 years of his stay in Britain until his employment on the project, had continually consorted with extreme left-wing groups without any attempt to disguise the fact.”  This was a remarkably naïve position for Skinner to take, given his prominence in atomic affairs, and his leading role at Harwell. More alarming, perhaps, was a Liverpool police report from May 10, 1951, sent to Sir Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, that the Chief Constable had received information, from ‘a hitherto most reliable and trustworthy source’, that the Skinners were attending Communist Party meetings. Were they working under cover?

Skinner died in 1960, at the relatively young age of fifty-nine, at a conference in Geneva. Was there anything suspicious about his death? None appears to have been raised. But he was a very paradoxical character, and I do not believe the last word has been uttered on exactly what his role in atomic espionage – either abetting it, or trying to prevent it – had been.

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat never served on the faculty at Bristol, but his career is so interwoven with that of Peierls and the other émigré scientists that he merits a section here. His life was scarred by an unspeakable tragedy, but he came under suspicion by the FBI when he was posted to Los Alamos.

Rotblat was born in 1908 in Poland. He left Warsaw for Great Britain in 1939, travelling to Liverpool to learn more about the cyclotron being constructed there under James Chadwick’s direction. Chadwick soon awarded Rotblat a fellowship, which now meant that he could afford to bring Ewa, his wife, to the U.K. With the prospect of war looming, he returned to Poland in order to pick up Ewa. She was ill with appendicitis, however, so he reluctantly returned without her. Strenuous efforts to bring her out after the outbreak of war failed. She was killed at Belzec concentration camp, although Rotblat was not to learn this for several years.

Rotblat worked on the Tube Alloys project, although he had never became naturalised. He was nevertheless still allowed to join the Manhattan project at Los Alamos in January 1944, after a waiver had been granted. Committed to the project out of fear that the Germans would acquire the atomic bomb, Rotblat asked to be released when it seemed that the Germans would fail: he reputedly heard from General Groves that the Soviets were now the potential enemy, and his pro-Soviet sympathies rebelled at this prospect.

By this time he had come under suspicion. When he told Chadwick of his desire to return to the UK, Chadwick contacted General Groves, who showed him the contents of the FBI file on him, now available on-line. Exactly what happened cannot be determined from the file, as so many retractions and denials concerning its content occurred later. But Rotblat’s name was later found in Fuchs’s address book, which led to renewed investigations. Rotblat had met in the course of his year at Los Alamos a lady friend from England, in love with Rotblat, who at first indicated to the FBI that Rotblat had had communist sympathies, and wanted to train with the RAF so that he could parachute into Soviet-occupied Poland. That would have been unthinkable, given what he knew. The lady later retracted some of her testimony, and Rotblat apparently managed to convince the authorities that the accusations were baseless.

One final twist on the story is that Rotblat, leaving Los Alamos on Christmas Eve 1944 on a train to Washington and New York, packed a large box with all his personal records in it. After staying with Chadwick in Washington, he discovered in New York that the box was missing. Yet Martin Underwood, in an article for Science and Engineering Ethics in 2013 (‘Joseph Rotblat, the Bomb, and Anomalies for his Archive’) points out that highly confidential papers concerning critical developments at Los Alamos turned up in Rotblat’s archive at Churchill College in Cambridge, showing that Rotblat probably did engage in important work (despite his claim that he was bored and underutilised), and that thus not all his papers were in that mysterious lost box.

Rotblat was a complex character, and his work for the Pugwash Conference led him to a Nobel Prize. He worked closely with Peierls, who had been instrumental in setting up the Soviet-friendly British Association of Atomic Scientists in the early postwar years. Moreover, he was one of those scientists involved in the musical chairs at Liverpool. In 1946 he took up British citizenship, and was appointed acting director of nuclear physics at Liverpool. After Chadwick moved on to become Master of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1949, and Skinner was appointed his replacement, Rotblat, against Chadwick’s stern advice, left Liverpool to become Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. By then he had learned that Ewa was dead. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of eighty-seven, in 1995.

George Placzek

George Plazcek

George Placzek deserves a mention because he was a close collaborator with Peierls. As a resident scientist in Kharkov, working with Landau, he also attended the fateful 1937 conference in Moscow [but see below: the evidence is contradictory]. Yet he is distinctive mainly because he retained a fiercely critical opinion of the Stalinist oppression of scientists, and was outspoken about it when he returned to the West. Placzek was born in 1902 in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after working in Prague and Vienna, joined Lev Landau’s circle in Kharkov in 1937. There he witnessed some of the persecutions of scientists by Stalin, such as Houtermans, Ruhemann, Weisskopf, and Landau himself. Blessed with a sardonic wit, and a sense of humour, Placzek got himself into trouble. (As a fascinating but irrelevant sidenote in this whole saga of intelligence, Plazcek was to marry Els, the first wife of Hans Halban, the Austrian physicist: Isaiah Berlin married Halban’s second wife. For details, please read Isaiah in Love. Placzek was also involved in performing a security check on Pontecorvo at the time the latter was recruited, on Halban’s recommendation, in Montreal: correspondence from British Security Coordination in Washington was sent to him in March 1943.)

In the book he edited about the travails of scientists in the Soviet Union, Physics in a Mad World, Mikhail Shifman relates an anecdote about Placzek where his subject, having been offered a permanent chair in Kharkov, named five conditions that would have to be fulfilled for him to accept it. The last was that ‘the Khozyain must go’, with a scarcely veiled reference to the Boss, Stalin himself. While most of the small gathering that heard his playful speech were amused, the incident was reported by Ruhemann’s wife, Barbara, to the local Communist Party chief. It thus got back to Stalin, who immediately dubbed him as a Trotskyist. Plazcek managed to get away, unlike some of his colleagues, but he was a marked man.

The difference was that, when Placzek returned to the West, he ruthlessly warned his colleague of the dangers of Stalinism, unlike, for example, Ruhemann, who immediately joined the Communist Party, or Peierls, who maintained an undignified silence. As Shifman writes in Love and Physics: “In England, Fuchs could have discussed the situation with David Shoenberg, professor at the Mond Laboratory at Cambridge, who spent a year in Moscow (from September 1937 to September 1938) and had witnessed the arrest of Landau and hundreds of other innocent scientists and the onset of the Great Terror. Also, he could have spoken with George Placzek, who returned from Kharkov in early 1937; before his departure for the US in 1938 he stayed some time in Copenhagen, London, and Paris to explain the consequences of the communist ideology to the left-leaning colleagues he was in contact with.”

What is especially poignant is the fact that Placzek made several appeals to Peierls to intervene in the cases of incarcerated scientists in the Soviet Union. On September 4, 1938, he wrote to him from Pasadena: “Zunächst möchte ich Sie fragen, was mich der seelige Bucharin fragte, als ich ihn einmal sozusagen im Namen der internationalen Wissenschaft bat, sich dafür einzusetzen, dass Landau ab und zu ins Ausland gelassen werde, nämlich: Ist Ihre Demarche offiziell, offiziös, oder inoffiziell?” (My translation: “I would next like to ask you the question that the late Bukharin asked me, when once, in the name of international science I begged him to stand up for Landau’s being allowed to travel abroad occasionally, namely: Is your initiative official, semi-official, or unofficial?” In his biography of Plazcek, Shifman translates the passage as follows: “First of all, may I ask you, as blessed Bukharin asked me (when once I, so to say, personally represented international science and solicited for Landau, trying to convince Bukharin that they should now and then let him travel abroad), namely: is your démarche official, officious, or unofficial?”)  And, with a little more desperation, from Paris on October 17, 1938: “Ich höre dass der Schönberg jetzt in Cambridge sein soll, wissen Sie etwas authentisches über Dau???” (“I hear that Shoenberg is supposed to be in Cambridge by now, do you know anything authoritative about Landau???”)

Peierls’s response from Birmingham on October 22 was lapidary and vague. “Shoenberg habe ich gesprochen. Ueber Dau hatte er nicht mehr zu berichten, als wir schon wussten (oder jedenfalls befürcheteten). In dieselbe Gruppe gehören auch Rumer und Hellman. Hier in England läuft der Zehden herum, der via Berlin hierher vorgedrungen ist, aber seine russische Frau mit Kind in M. zurücklassen musste, und seit Monaten nicht mehr mit ihr korrespondiert. Es ist eine schöne Welt.” (In Shifman’s translation, from his biography of Placzek: “I spoke to Shoenberg. On Landau, he had nothing more to report than we already knew (or feared). Rumer and Hellman belong to the same group. [Walter] Zehden is running around here in England; he got here via Berlin, but had to leave his Russian wife and child in M[oscow], and hasn’t corresponded with her for months. What a world we live in.” Indeed, Sir Rudolf. [Shifman notes that Hellman, a German-born quantum scientist, had worked at the Karpov Institute in Moscow, was arrested on charges of espionage in March 1938, and shot in May 1938.] Later in the same letter, Peierls says: “I’d rather not write about the political situation. It’s just too annoying. [‘ . . .man ärgert sich doch zu sehr.’]”  That was an understatement, but a revealing one. Hitler’s persecutions and Stalin’s purges – a very tiresome business.

Plazcek also worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project. Later, in 1947, he tried to inject a dose of reality into the attempts to gain agreement with the Soviets over mutual inspection of installations working on nuclear weaponry, pouring cold water on the statement, expressed by Gromyko, that foreign inspectors would be allowed to pry around on Soviet territory. It appears he trusted Peierls to the end. And what was his end? He met a premature death in a hotel in Zürich in 1955, at the comparatively young age of fifty. His biographers Gottwald and Shifman ascribe his death to suicide, but was the long arm of Soviet intelligence behind his demise? Did they recall his heretical comments from 1937, and were waiting to pounce? Like Skinner, an unexplained death, far from home, in a Swiss hotel.

Rudolf Peierls

Rudolf Peierls

It thus seems inconceivable that Peierls could have not been aware of Fuchs’s communist allegiance. He worked with him closely, Fuchs lodged with him, they were friends. Frank Close describes Fuchs as ‘like a son’ to Peierls. So how did Peierls explain the situation? I analyse a few of his statements:

  1. “I can believe now that he may have had so much self control as to deceive all those who believed to be his friends. I asked him whether he really believed in the superiority of the Soviet system. His reply was, ‘You must remember what I went through under the Nazis’. I said I quite understood this but I was surprised he still believed in all this at the time we were in America.” (from letter to Commander Burt, received February 6, 1950)
  • “If one takes these statements as genuine, and it is very hard to believe anything else, he has lived all these years hiding his real allegiance, yet at the same time acquiring a genuine and almost passionate interest for his job and building up personal relationships and friendships which were kept quite separate from his secret contacts. One can believe that a man should hold political views of such strong, almost religious, conviction that he should let them override all other considerations, but it is incredible that, at the same time, a man who had never thought for himself and was always ready to go to enormous lengths in the interest of others, should allow himself to become so attached to the people and to allow other people to become so attached to him without seeing what he was doing for them.” (from letter to Niels Bohr, February 14, 1950)
  • “I knew he had left Germany because of his opposition to the Nazis and I respected him for this. I knew of his connection with left-wing student organizations in Germany since at that time the communist controlled organizations were the only ones putting up any active opposition . . .

During all these years we saw much of him. Shy and retiring at first he made many friends and in many conversations politics was, of course, a frequent topic. His views seemed perhaps a little to the left of ours, but he seemed to share the attitude to Communism – and to any kind of dictatorship – of most of his friends. I remember an occasion when he talked to a young man who was in sympathy with communism and in the argument Fuchs was very scornful of the other’s dogmatic views.

When I heard of his arrest I regarded it as quite incredible that anyone should have hidden his real beliefs so well. Looking back it seems that at first he shared in the life of his colleagues and pretended to share their views and attitude only in order to hide his own convictions. But gradually he must have come to believe what was at first only pretence. There must have been a time when he shared one attitude with his colleagues and friends and another with the agents to whom he then still transmitted information, and when he was himself in doubt which of the two was conviction and which was pretence. I do not want to enter into speculations about the state of his mind during all this time. Some have described it as a superb piece of acting, but either way it was certainly quite exceptional.

In the case of Fuchs, they would have had to probe very deeply to disclose his continued adherence to the communist cause and that would have required a depth of human insight that is very hard to achieve.” (from memorandum ‘The Lesson of the Fuchs Case’, March 1950)

  • “The main point was Fuchs had then, although he had changed his mind and allegedly or at least claimed not to be pro-Communist anymore, he still out of a sense of chivalry was refusing to name his contacts and so on, and they thought this was foolish and they expected I would think it foolish too, and they wanted me to urge him to do that – which I tried. I don’t know whether this was a success. Anyway, in the course of this conversation, Commander Burt of Scotland Yard, asked me what sort of man Fuchs had appeared to be and whether we realized what his views were. I said, ‘No, he didn’t say much on political things, but he gave the impression of agreeing with everybody else, being perhaps a little to the left of most of us but not drastically.’ Of course, I knew that as a young man he had been mixed up with a Communist student organization in Germany, but that was understandable and this was very common with young people.” (from interview with Charles Weiner, 1969)
  • “But I needed regular help – someone with whom I would be able to discuss the theoretical technicalities. I looked around for a suitable person, and thought of Klaus Fuchs. He was a German, who as a student had been politically active as a member of a socialist student group (which was essentially communist) and had to flee for his life from the Nazis. He came to England, where he worked with Neville Mott in Bristol, completed his Ph. D., and did some excellent work in the electron theory of metals and other aspects of the theory of solids. I knew and liked his papers, and had met him.

He also asked me whether Fuchs’s pro-communist views had been evident. ‘No’, I said, ‘he never talked much about his political views, but gave the impression he shared our general views. I knew, of course, that he had been strongly left-wing as a student, but that is very common with young people.

I formed the impression that his conversion from communism was genuine. His communist friends in Germany must have instilled in him a rather unfavourable picture of Britain, which life in Bristol and Edinburgh, where he perhaps still associated with left-wing friends, did not dispel.

Perhaps the process of understanding took so long because in our intellectual circles we are curiously shy about saying what we believe. Our style is not to use any words with capital letters. We don’t mind talking about what is wrong and what we want to fight, but we find it much harder to talk about moral principles and about what is right. Our behavior follows quite firm rules, but somehow we feel it is bad taste to spell them out, and they have to be discovered by observing how we act.” (from Bird of Passage, 1985)

It is instructive to examine the probable evolution of Peierls’s thoughts.

At the time of A) he knows that he is under suspicion as well (telephone taps have revealed Genia’s fears). He deems it appropriate to show some initiative with Commander Burt of Special Branch, knowing that the policeman will probably not be familiar with the background of Nazi and Soviet oppression of opposition elements. Peierls no doubt believes that Fuchs’s blatant demonstrations of pro-Soviet views may be forever concealed, so he confidently ascribes Fuchs’s deception of his friends to superlative self-control, thus absolving Peierls (who after all, is a very bright man) of any responsibility for not seeing through his subterfuge. In expressing sympathy for what Fuchs went through Peierls conveniently overlooks what his wife’s family, and the physicists who were murdered by Stalin, underwent, which dwarfed the actual sufferings of Klaus Fuchs.

A little later, in B), he is more reflective. Fuchs’s confession of January 27 made a claim that the spy was subject to a ‘controlling schizophrenia’ which allowed his life to be strictly compartmentalized. This is Fuchs’s excuse for letting down his friends. So Peierls can jump on this self-assessment to his own advantage, while at the same time expressing some sympathy for Fuchs’s commitment and earnestness. Yet the suggestion, to a fellow ‘peace-loving’ scientist, Bohr, that Fuchs possessed some kind of saintly altruism and selflessness is disturbing and irresponsible. It is not surprising that Peierls apparently did not share this confidence with anyone else.

A few weeks later, a more measured statement is required, in C). As an astute political watcher, Peierls has to show a greater awareness of the facts of life, and a slippery equivalence of ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’ is even admitted. He has to admit that he and Fuchs talked politics: after all, the Peierls household saw such lodgers as Bethe, Fröhlich, Frisch, G. E. Brown, even the recently deceased Freeman Dyson, as well as Fuchs, so it would have been difficult to steer the conversation away from politics. Now he indulges in some very fine distinctions: Fuchs’s views are ‘a little left’ from those of the Peierlses, but, in an unlikely aside, Peierls indicates that Fuchs was ‘very scornful’ of a dogmatic communist. In this, he directly contradicts Born’s evidence. Significantly, the episode is undated: in the thirties, through the Spanish Civil War, right up until the Nazi-Soviet pact, it would have been very appropriate in intellectual circles for enthusiasm for Communism as the ‘bulwark against Fascism’ to be expressed.

So what were Fuchs’s ‘real beliefs’ that he hid so well from Peierls? A loyalty to Stalin instead of an honest commitment to principles of the Bolshevik revolution? This reflection allows Peierls to make an artificial distinction between ‘his colleagues and friends’ and ‘the agents to whom he still transmitted information’, when Peierls must have known that there would not have been much time for idle political chit-chat during the encounters when Fuchs passed on his secrets, and was aware that he still mingled with  communist sympathisers, and had promoted his views unrestrainedly, such as at Bristol and Edinburgh universities, and in the internment camp in Canada. Thus he creates a cover for himself, suggesting that the authorities would have had to be very tenacious to detect Fuchs’s adherence to the communist cause when a relatively simple investigation would have revealed his political cause.

By the time of D), the crisis has blown over.  The complete text of the interview shows that Weiner was a very persistent interrogator, but he was not well-prepared on the Fuchs case. Peierls can dispose of Fuchs’s communism as a student entanglement, and represents the state of being ‘strongly left-wing’ as an affectation of young people, predominantly, calmly overlooking the fact that, in the 1930s, it was almost a required disposition of the intellectually ‘progressive’ academic body. In contrast to his statement of almost twenty years before (when politics was a ‘frequent topic of conversation’) Peierls now minimizes the time he and Fuchs talked politics, since Fuchs ‘didn’t say much on political things’. Moreover, he can diminish Fuchs’s involvement with the communist organisation in Germany, describing Fuchs’s role as being ‘mixed up’ with it, as if he were a respectable youth who had, ‘fallen in with the wrong crowd’, and become a delinquent, as one occasionally reads in the words of regretful parents. Yet such persons are part of the crowd, and are thus responsible.

This strain continues in Peierls’s autobiography in E), written sixteen years later. Moreover, Peierls can now afford to be cavalier with the chronology. His comment about looking around for ‘a suitable person’ overlooks the fact that Fuchs had been identified for early deportation from Canada in the summer of 1940, that Peierls and Born had discussed his recruitment, and that Fuchs knew, as early as January 1941, when he first met Simon Kremer, that he would have access to important information on nuclear physics. On the other hand, it is true that Peierls met Fuchs at Bristol, and collaborated with him. A letter from Nevill Mott to Peierls, dated December 4, 1936, invites Peierls to add his name to a paper produced primarily by Fuchs. Peierls declines.

And Peierls reinforces the illusion of political discussions, let alone articulation of extreme views. He echoes the notion that strong left-wing views are primarily the province of young people, and gives the impression that the young firebrand had mellowed, and shared the opinions of Peierls’s circle –  ‘our general views’. But again, he provides no date, and Peierls had gained a reputation for encouraging and harbouring communists at Birmingham University. He continues the lazy distinction between ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’, but then indulges in some very complacent pipe-dreaming. Peierls is by now part of the establishment, the academic elite: he is an English gentleman. Thus he romantically starts to refer to ‘our intellectual circles’ –  the senior common-room at New College, Oxford, in the 1970s, presumably –  as if it were indistinguishable from the 1930s hothouses of Bristol, Cambridge, or Birmingham. That delicate English sensitivity in refraining from hard ideologies now provides cover for his group’s not quickly winkling out Fuchs’s traitorous impulses.  Peierls is now safe.

Thus Peierls, in the multiple roles of his public, private and secret lives, experienced all four of the traits I listed above. He had to present to the outside world the notion that he was not aware that Fuchs was a Communist. He had to convince the authorities selecting the Tube Alloys team that any suspicions of Fuchs’s ultra left-wing views did not present a danger, or reason for disqualification. He had to recoil from any exposure of Fuchs’s activities because of the threats that the Soviet regime made on Genia’s family. He had to conceal his own very real preferences for recruiting communist sympathisers to his team.

Peierls’s Naturalization

The last, highly important item, in the case against Peierls is his failure to tell the truth in his application for British citizenship. I pointed out, in Chapter 1 of this report, how a 1989 letter of his, to L. I. Volodarskaya, admitted that he had travelled to the Soviet Union several times in the 1930s. These visits had probably been concealed by dint of their being inserted into extended journeys to Copenhagen, to see Bohr and Placzek. In his statement (undated, viewable at KV 2/1658-1, but certainly accompanying his May 17, 1938 application for naturalisation), Peierls records the visits he made abroad between 1933 and 1938. The list includes a ‘holiday trip to the Caucases’ [sic] in 1934, and attendance at a Conference on Nuclear Physics in Moscow in 1937. He had much to hide.

It is worthwhile trying to define the sequence of events that led to his naturalization. For some reason, in Bird of Passage, Peierls does not describe the application. He writes of it only: “Our position improved further, quiet unexpectedly, when in February 1940 my naturalisation papers came through.” Yet in a letter to Professor Appleton, dated September 13, 1939 (written thus by a German subject after the outbreak of war), he explains that he first made his application in May 1938. We should recall that that date was immediately after his return from a holiday in Copenhagen, where an observant customs officer noticed the 1937 Soviet stamp in his German passport, and Peierls had been very evasive over the reason for his visit. He had got away with it, but perhaps that was an alarm call. Maybe Moscow had told him to acquire UK citizenship. Peierls never explained why or when he made the decision.

One might imagine that the idea of reprisals governed the timing. While Genia’s family was evidently undergoing threats in the Soviet Union, Rudolf’s father, Heinrich, and second wife, Else, were still resident in Nazi Germany in 1938. A too precipitous rejection of German citizenship might have caused repercussions for Heinrich and Else. Yet, according to Sabine Lee, Rudolf’s father and step-mother did not get permission to leave Germany, and be admitted to the UK, until early 1939. Peierls wrote that his father had been reluctant to leave Germany, because of his age, health, and lack of other languages, but that ‘in 1938, he finally decided to leave’. It does not seem as if it was as simple as that, but Heinrich and Else were able to join Heinrich’s brother, Siegfried, in New York in 1940.

The processing of the application took an inordinately long time. Peierls clearly believed that he would have to record the 1937 visit in his outline of foreign travel, and thus more boldly described the conference in Moscow about which he had been so sheepish a month before. He would have had, at some stage, to submit his German passport (which was to expire on May 17, 1939) to the UK authorities, but that apparently did not happen for some while, as the record from the Letters indicates he paid at least two more visits to Copenhagen that year. Peierls himself twice states, in his memoir, that he paid ‘several visits to Copenhagen’ in 1938). Yet, if his own admission elsewhere is correct about other undocumented visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, they must have been undertaken with a forged Soviet passport in order to leave and return to Copenhagen. (One wonders, also, whether an alien in the process of applying for citizenship would have been allowed to leave the country at all.)

The archive is very sketchy about what happened next, and some of the few documents that have survived have been redacted. One letter of December 8, 1938, reporting to the Chief Constable of Cambridge, lays out the positive outcome of an inquiry into Peierls’s credentials. Page 2 of a chronology laying out the processing of the request appears, and runs as follows (enigmatically, Page 1 is missing):

19.12.38 Confirms residence at Stockport

13.5.39 Positive interviews with Peierls’s referees

31.8.39 Application from Peierls for permit to join in A. R. P. (Air Raid Precaution) work

10.10.39 Peierls and wife exempted from internment

21.2.40 Fee of £9 paid for Certification of Naturalization

23.3.40 Oath of Allegiance received from Peierls

2.4.40 Naturalization granted

On July 18, 1939, Peierls wrote to the German Embassy, asking whether he could renounce his German citizenship before his naturalization papers came through, but received a dampening reply that he could only do that if he submitted birth certificates, which were, of course, already in the hands of the British authorities. And then, a remarkable revelation appears: on August 31, Peierls wrote to the Home Office, with some obvious – but subdued – frustration, trying to determine where his application stood. (This is presumably what the item above refers to.) “I am therefore writing now to ask whether there is any way of obtaining a statement to the effect that my application for naturalization is being considered, or some other statement which might make it possible for me to enroll [in any ARP service]”, he wrote. Was it really possible that, after fifteen months, Peierls had received no acknowledgment that his application was even being considered? Peierls does not record these events, either.

Perhaps the only conclusions that can be drawn from this saga is that there existed a strong reluctance to naturalize German scientists until war was imminent, or even under way. Yet a period between May 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939 for sitting on an application, with neither a rejection nor an approval, seems very odd. Were there some witnesses who made objections, aware perhaps of his connections and sympathies – even of his unadmitted travel to the Soviet Union? After all, someone decided to place the customs officer’s report on file –  a highly selective but broad hint from the authorities to us researchers, perhaps. Peierls again is very coy: he does not comment on the long period of waiting, or even suggest to Appleton that the delay is unreasonable. He must have been anxious not to appear peevish or querulous, as any more detailed inquiry might have upset the applecart. As it was, his collaboration with Frisch, and Appleton’s important role as Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and awareness of what he and Frisch were doing, saved him.

In their book A Matter of Intelligence, MI5 and the Surveillance of anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-1950, Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove sum up the episode as follows: “Peierls’ perceived importance in British atomic research can be measured by his successful application for British naturalisation. His work was considered so valuable to the war effort that he was granted British citizenship as early as [sic!] March 1940: a rare distinction, since naturalisation had been formally suspended for the duration of the war and was permitted only in exceptional circumstances.” Given what we know now (but which Peierls himself did not reveal), we might ask instead: ‘What took them so long?’

Conclusions

What was it that drew so many scientists to the communist cause? Winston Churchill spoke of the Nazis’ use of ‘perverted science’ in his ‘Finest Hour’ speech, but at that time the observation could more appropriately have been directed at Joseph Stalin. It was as if the slogan ‘the communist experiment’, in which millions of human beings were treated like laboratory rats in the quest to build Soviet man took on a respectability that merited the endorsement of the western scientific world. Yet an initiative to exploit their naivety was surely undertaken.

If I were an avid conspiracy theorist, I would be tempted to point out some alarming coincidences in the events that led to Fuchs’s betrayal of his naturalised allegiance, and his passing on of atomic secrets to the Soviets. I would refer to Ronald Gunn’s predecessor visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, and his sponsorship of Fuchs’s establishment in the UK. I would allude to the fact that Yakov Frenkel invited Peierls, Mott and Fröhlich to the conference in Odessa in 1934. I would point out that some unusual circumstances allowed all three to be installed in influential academic positions that they might otherwise not have achieved. Peierls was able to use the funding released by Kapitza’s forced detention in the Soviet Union to gain his position at the Cavendish Laboratory. Mott was appointed professor, at a very young age, for a position for which he had to receive technical guidance from Skinner at Bristol, because of the influence of his schoolfriend, Ronald Gunn, and the encouragement of Skinner himself. Peierls helped locate funding for Fröhlich to work under Mott after Fröhlich’s extraordinary escape from the Soviet Union. And then Gunn introduced Fuchs to Mott, who protected him, and then arranged his transfer to Edinburgh, again using special funding.

Rudolf Peierls was thus caught up in this maelstrom. True, he made some personal questionable decisions (as well as some good ones), but he was also inveigled into a conspiracy not of his direct choosing. This resulted, I believe, in his living a lie, and I know that he wrote a very dishonest memoir. I suspect the internal pressure on him may have been even greater than that on Fuchs, who, despite some superficial softening in his exposure to a liberal democracy, remained a hardened communist. Yet Peierls’s career, for all its achievement, was essentially dishonourable.

I received several notes of appreciation after I published Part 1 of this report on Peierls. I did not receive – even confidentially – any complaints over, or criticisms of, my conclusions about the probable explanation for the strange behavior of Rudolf and Genia. That may have been, of course, because no one who might challenge my thesis actually read the piece. Or it might mean that they read it, but did not want to draw any undesirable attention to it. (I suspect that Frank Close and Sabine Lee have read it, and even introduced it to the Peierls offspring. But maybe not.) My intention has not been to single Peierls out, and malign him, for the sake of rabble-rousing, and I have expressed a measure of sympathy for his probable plight. My goal, however, has been to stir up the complacent and lazy official and authorised historians, and the fawning biographers, and the custodians of MI5’s official memory. I want to encourage them to reach beyond the obvious, and question the very misleading memoirs, autobiographies and testimonies to their biographers made by such as Peierls, Berlin, White, Jebb, Philby, Foote, Sillitoe, Wright, etc. etc., instead of treating them as reliable archival material. I want them to amend their incomplete and erroneous accounts of how the realm was let down by a very shoddy security and counter-espionage system, and that continuing to try to conceal the facts performs a gross disservice to the historiography of British Intelligence. But not just that – to the history of the United Kingdom itself.


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War in 1944: Howard’s Folly

I was reading, in the Times Literary Supplement of January 17, a review of a book titled The French Revolutionary Tradition in Russian and Soviet Politics, Political Thought, and Culture. The author of the book was one Jay Bergman, the writer of the review Daniel Beer, described as Reader in Modern European History at Royal Holloway, University of London. I came across the following sentences: “The Bolsheviks could never admit that Marxism was a failed ideology or that they had actually seized power in defiance of it. Their difficulties, they argued, were rather the work of enemies arrayed against the Party and traitors in their midst.”

This seemed to me an impossibly quaint way of describing the purges of Stalin’s Russia. Whom were these Bolsheviks trying to convince in their ‘arguments’, and where did they make them? Were they perhaps published on the Letters page of the Pravda Literary Supplement or as articles in The Moscow Review of Books? Or were they presented at conferences held at the elegant Romanov House, famed for its stately rooms and its careful rules of debate? I was so taken aback by the suggestion that the (unidentified) Bolsheviks had engaged in some kind of serious discussions on policy, as if they were an Eastern variant of the British Tory Party, working through items on the agenda at some seaside resort like Scarborough, and perhaps coming up with a resolution on the lines of tightening up on immigration, that I was minded to write a letter to the Editor. It was short, and ran as follows:

“So who were these Bolsheviks who argued that ‘their difficulties were rather the work of enemies arrayed against the Party and traitors in its midst’? Were they perhaps those ‘hardliners in the Politburo’ whom Roosevelt, Churchill and Eden imagined were exerting a malign influence on the genial Uncle Joe Stalin, but whose existence turned out to be illusory? Or were they such as Trotsky, Kirov, Radek, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, etc. etc., most of whom Stalin had murdered simply because they were ‘old Bolsheviks’, and knew too much? I think we should be told.”

Now the Editor did not see fit to publish my offering. Perhaps he felt that, since he had used a letter of mine about the highly confused Professor Paul Collier in the December 2019 issue, my quota was up for the season. I can think of no other conceivable reason why my submission was considered of less interest than those which he did select.

Regular readers of coldspur will be familiar with my observations about the asymmetry of Allied relationships with the Soviet Union in World War II. See, for instance, http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/, where I analysed such disequilibrium by the categories of Moral Equivalency, Pluralism vs. Totalitarianism, Espionage, Culture, and Warfare. The misunderstanding about the nature of Stalin’s autocracy can be viewed in two dimensions: the role of the Russian people, and that of Stalin himself.

During the war, much genuine and well-deserved sympathy was shown in Britain towards the long-suffering Russian people, but the cause was often distorted by Soviet propaganda, either directly from such as ambassador Maisky and his cronies, or by agents installed in institutions such as the Ministry of Information. The misconceptions arose from thinking that the Russians were really similar to British citizens, with some control over their lives, where they worked, the selection of those who governed them, what they could choose to read, how they were allowed to congregate and discuss politics, and the manner in which they thus influenced their leaders, but had unfortunately allowed themselves to sign a pact with the Nazis and then been treacherously invaded by them. Their bravery in defending their country against the assault, with losses in the millions, was much admired.

Yet the catastrophe of Barbarossa was entirely Stalin’s fault: as he once said to his Politburo, using a vulgar epithet, ‘we’ had screwed up everything that Lenin had founded and passed on. And he was ruthless in using the citizenry as cannon fodder, just as he had been ruthless in sending innocent victims to execution, famine, exile, or the Gulag. For example, in the Battle of Stalingrad, 10,000 Soviet soldiers were executed by Beria’s NKVD for desertion or cowardice in the face of battle. 10,000! It is difficult to imagine that number, but I think of the total number of pupils at my secondary school, just over 800, filling Big School, and multiplying it by 12. If anything along those lines had occurred with British forces, Churchill would have been thrown out in minutes. Yet morale was not universally sound with the Allies, either. Antony Beevor reports that in May 1944 ‘nearly 30,000 men had deserted or were absent without leave from British units in Italy’ – an astonishing statistic. The British Army had even had a mutiny on its hands at Salerno in 1943, but the few death sentences passed were quickly commuted. (Stalin’s opinions on such a lily-livered approach to discipline appear not to have been recorded.) As a reminder of the relative casualties, the total number of British deaths in the military (including POWs) in World War II was 326,000, with 62,000 civilians lost. The numbers for the Soviet Union were 13,600,000 and 7,000,000, respectively.

As my letter suggested, Western leaders were often perplexed by how Stalin’s occasionally genial personality, and his expressed desire for ‘co-operation’, were frequently darkened by influences that they could not discern. They spoke (as The Kremlin Letters reminds us) of Stalin’s need to listen to public opinion, or deal with the unions, or heed those hard-liners on the Politburo, who were all holding him back from making more peaceful overtures over Poland, or Italy, or the Baltic States. During negotiations, Molotov was frequently presented as the ‘hard man’, with Stalin then countering with a less demanding offer, thus causing the Western powers to think they had gained something. This was all nonsense, of course, but Stalin played along, and manipulated Churchill and Roosevelt, pretending that he was not the despot making all the decisions himself.

Thus Daniel Beer’s portrayal of those Bolsheviks ‘arguing’ about the subversive threat holds a tragi-comic aspect in my book. Because those selfsame Bolsheviks who had rallied under Lenin to forge the Revolution were the very same persons whom Stalin himself identified as a threat to him, and he had them shot, almost every one. The few that survived did so because they were absolutely loyal to Stalin, and not to the principles (if they can be called that) of the Bolshevik Revolution.

I was reminded of this distortion of history when reading Professor Sir Michael Howard’s memoir, Captain Professor. I had read Howard’s obituary in December 2019, and noted from it that he had apparently encountered Guy Burgess when at Oxford. The only work of Howard’s that I had read was his Volume 5 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, where he covered Strategic Deception. (The publication of this book had been delayed by Margaret Thatcher, and its impact had thus been diminished by the time it was issued in 1999. I analysed it in my piece ‘Officially Unreliable’. It is a very competent but inevitably flawed analysis of some complex material.) With my interest in Burgess’s movements, and his possible involvement in setting up the ‘Oxford Ring’ of spies, I wanted to learn more about the timing of this meeting, and what Burgess was up to, so I acquired a copy of Howard’s memoir.

Captain Professor

The paragraph on Burgess was not very informative, but I obviously came to learn more about Howard, this acknowledged expert in the history of warfare. He has received several plaudits since his death. In the January issue of History Today, the editor Paul Lay wrote an encomium to him, which included a quotation from the historian’s essay ‘Military Experience in European Literature’. It ran as follows: “In European literature the military experience has, when it has been properly understood and interpreted, immeasurably enriched that understanding of mankind, of its powers and limitations, of its splendours and its miseries, and not least of its relationship to God, which must lie at the root of all societies that can lay any claim to civilization.”

Now what on earth does that mean? I was not impressed by such metaphysical waffle. If I had submitted a sentence like that in an undergraduate essay, I would not have been surprised to see it returned with a circle of red ink. Yet its tone echoed a remark by Howard, in Captain Professor, that I had included in my December 2019 Commonplace file: “I had written a little about this in a small book The Invention of Peace, a year earlier, where I tried to describe how the Enlightenment, and the secularization and industrialization it brought in its wake, had destroyed the beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years and evoked a backlash of tribal nationalism that had torn apart and reached climax with the two world wars.” (p 218) Hallo, Professor! ‘Beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years’? What about all those wars? Revolutions? Religious persecution? Specifically, what about the Inquisition and the Thirty Years War? What was this ‘European society’ that cohered so closely, and which the Professor held in such regard? I wondered whether the expression of these somewhat eccentric ideas was a reason why the sometime Regius Professor of History at Oxford University had not been invited to contribute to the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War, or the Oxford Illustrated History of World War II.

Apparently, all this has to do with the concept of ‘War and Society’, with which Howard is associated. Another quote from Captain Professor: “The history of war, I came to realize, was more than the operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies. Only by studying their cultures could one come to understand what it was they fought about and why they fought in the way they did. Further, the fact that they did so fight had a reciprocal impact on their social structure. I had to learn not only to think about war in a different way, but also to think about history itself in a different way. I would certainly not claim to have invented the concept of ‘War and Society’, but I think I did something to popularize it.” Note the contradiction that, if these ‘societies and cultures’ were fighting each other, they could hardly be said to have ‘held together for a thousand years’. I am also not sure that the Soviet soldiers in WII, conscripted and harassed by the NKVD, shot at the first blink of cowardice or retreat, thought much about how the way they fought had a reciprocal impact on Soviet culture (whatever that was), but maybe Howard was not thinking of the Red Army. In some sense I could see what he was getting at (e.g. the lowering of some social barriers after World War II in the United Kingdom, because of the absurd ‘officers’ and ‘men’ distinctions: no one told me at the time why the Officers’ Training Corps had morphed into the Combined Cadet Force). Nevertheless, it seemed a bizarre agenda.

And then I came on the following passage, describing Howard’s experiences in Italy: “In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had issued orders for the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German communications throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on and around Monte Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The Allied armies did not come to their help, and the partisan movement in North Italy was largely destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna, where the communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had been deliberately planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist movement, much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts that this was an outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we could have done, they smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered about poor Terry, was there really nothing that we could have done to help? Were there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines might have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”

My initial reaction was of astonishment, rather like Howard’s first expression of outrage, I imagine. How could the betrayal of the Poles by the halted Soviet forces on the banks of the Vistula, in the process of ‘liberating’ a country that they had raped in 1939, now an ally, be compared with the advance of the Allied Armies in Italy, trying to expel the Germans, while liberating a country that had been an enemy during the war? What had the one to do with the other? And why would it have been controversial for the Allies to have wanted to weaken the Communist movement? But perhaps I was missing something. What had caused Howard to change his mind? I needed to look into it.

Her Majesty & Professor Sir Michael Howard

The poignant aspect of this anecdote was that Howard had been wounded at Monte Sole, only in December 1944, some two months after the Monte Sole massacre. Howard had been commanding a platoon, and had been sent on a reconnaissance mission with ‘poor Terry’ (an alias). Returning from the front line, they had become disoriented, and stumbled into an ambush, where Terry was mortally wounded by a mine, and Howard, having been shot in the leg, managed to escape. He was mortified by the fact that he had chosen to leave Terry to die, and felt his Military Cross was not really deserved. He had fought courageously for the cause of ridding Italy of fascism, yet the fact that he had not known at the time of the Massacre of Monte Sole (sometimes known as the Marzobotto Massacre) was perplexing to me.

These two closely contemporaneous events – the Warsaw Uprising, and the Monte Sole Massacre – were linked in a way that Howard does not describe, as I shall show later. They could be summarised as follows:

The Warsaw Uprising

As the Red Army approached Warsaw at the end of July of 1944, the Polish government-in-exile in London decided that it needed to install its own administration before the Communist Committee of National Liberation, established by the Soviets as the Lublin Committee on July 22, could take over leadership. Using its wireless communications, it encouraged the illegal Polish military government in Warsaw to call on the citizenry to build fortifications. On July 29, the London leader, Mikolajczyk, went to Moscow, whereupon Moscow Radio urged the Polish Resistance to rise up against the invader. A few days later, Stalin promised Mikołajczyk that he would assist the Warsaw Uprising with arms and ammunition. On August 1, Bor-Komorowski, the Warsaw leader, issued the proclamation for the uprising. In a few days, the Poles were in control of most of Warsaw, but the introduction of the ruthless SS, under the leadership of von dem Bach-Zelewski, crushed the rebellion with brutal force. Meanwhile, the Soviets waited on the other side of the Vistula. Stalin told Churchill that the uprising was a stupid adventure, and refused to allow British and American planes dropping supplies from as far away as Italy to land on Soviet territory to refuel. The resistance forces capitulated on October 2, with about 200,000 Polish dead.

The Monte Sole Massacre

In the summer of 1944, British and American forces were making slow progress against the ‘Gothic Line’, the German defensive wall that ran along the Apennines. Italy was at that time practically in a stage of civil war: Mussolini had been ousted in the summer of 1943, and Marshall Badoglio, having signed an armistice with the Allies, was appointed Prime Minister on September 3. Mussolini’s RSI (the Italian Social Republic) governed the North, as a puppet for the Germans, while Badoglio led the south. Apart from the general goal of pushing the Germans out of Italy, the strategic objective had been to keep enough Nazi troops held up to allow the D-Day invasion of Normandy to take place successfully. In late June, General Alexander appealed to the Italian partisans to intensify a policy of sabotage and murder against the German forces. The Germans already had a track-record of fierce reprisals, such as the Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome in March 1944, when 320 civilians had been killed following the murder of 32 German soldiers. The worst of these atrocities occurred at Monte Sole on September 29-30, where the SS killed 1830 local villagers at Marzabotto. Shortly after that, Alexander called upon the partisans to hold back their assaults because of the approach of winter.

Site of the Monte Sole Massacre

Now, there are some obvious common threads woven into these narratives (‘partisans’, ‘reprisals’, ‘invasions’, ‘encouragement’, ‘SS brutality’, ‘betrayal’), but was there more than met the eye, and was Howard pointing at something more sinister on the part of the Western Allies, and something more pardonable in the actions of the Soviets? I needed some structure in which to shape my research, if I were to understand Howard’s weakly presented case. Thus I drew up five categories by which I could analyse the events:

  1. Military Operation: What was the nature of the overall military strategy, and how was it evolving across different fronts?
  2. Political Goals: What were the occupier’s (‘liberator’s’) goals for political infrastructure in the territories controlled, and by what means did they plan to achieve them?
  3. Make-up, role and goals of partisans: How were the partisan forces constituted, and what drove their activities? How did the respective Allied forces communicate with, and behave towards, the partisan forces?
  4. Offensive strategy: What was the offensive strategy of the armed forces in approaching their target?  How successful was the local operation in contributing to overall military goals?
  5. The Aftermath, political outcomes and historical assessment: What was the long-term result of the operation on the country’s political architecture? How are the events assessed seventy-five years later?

The Red Army and Warsaw

  1. Military Operation:

The most important resolution from the Tehran Conference, signed by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin on December 1, 1943, was a co-ordinated approach to ensuring that the planned D-Day operation (‘Overlord’) would be complemented by assaults elsewhere. Such cooperation would prevent German forces being withdrawn to defend the Allies in eastern France. Thus an operation in the South of France (‘Anvil’) was to take place at the same time that Stalin would launch a major offensive in the East (‘Bagration’). At that time Overlord was planned to occur in late May; operational problems, and poor weather meant that it did not take place until June 6, 1944.

Stalin’s goal was to reach Berlin, and conquer as much territory as he could before the Western Allies reached it. Ever since his strategy of creating ‘buffer states’ in the shape of eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and western Ukraine after the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 had been shown to be an embarrassing calamity (although not recognized by Churchill at the time), he realised that more vigorously extending the Soviet Empire was a necessity for spreading the cause of Bolshevism, and protecting the Soviet Union against another assault from Germany. When a strong defensive border (the ‘Stalin Line’) had been partially dismantled to create a weaker set of fortifications along the new borders with Nazi Germany’s extended territories (the ‘Molotov Line’), it had fearfully exposed the weaknesses of the Soviet armed forces, and Hitler had invaded with appalling loss of life and material for the Soviet Union.

In 1944, therefore, the imperative was to move forward ruthlessly, capturing the key capital cities that Hitler prized so highly, and pile in a seemingly inexhaustible supply of troops. When the Red Army encountered German forces, it almost always outnumbered them, but the quality of its leadership and personnel were inferior, with conscripts often picked up from the territories gained, poorly trained, but used as cannon fodder. Casualties as a percentage of personnel were considerably higher than that which the Germans underwent. The Soviet Union had produced superior tanks, but repair facilities, communications, and supply lines were constantly being stretched too far.

On June 22, Operation ‘Bagration’ began. Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front crossed the River Bug, which was significantly on the Polish side of the ‘Curzon Line’, the border defined (and then modified by Lewis Namier) in 1919, but well inside the expanded territories of Poland that the latter had occupied and owned between the two World Wars. On July 7, Soviet troops entered Vilna to the north, a highly symbolic city in Poland’s history. On July 27, they entered Bialystok and Lvov. By July 31, they had approached within twenty-five miles of the Vistula, the river that runs through Warsaw, and four days later, had actually crossed the waterway 120 miles south of Warsaw. At this stage, exhausted and depleted, they met fiercer opposition from German forces. Exactly what happened thereafter is a little murky.

  • Political Goals:

The Soviets’ message was one of ‘liberation’, although exactly from what the strife-worn populations of the countries being ‘liberated’ were escaping from was controversial. The Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) had suffered, particularly, from the Soviet annexation of 1940, which meant persecution and murder of intellectuals and professionals, through the invasion by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941, which meant persecution and murder of Jews and Communists, to the re-invasion of the Soviets in 1944, which meant persecution and murder of anyone suspected of fascist tendencies or sympathies. Yet the British Foreign Office had practically written off the Baltic States as a lost cause: Poland was of far greater concern, since it was on her behalf that Great Britain had declared war on Germany in September 1939.

The institution favoured by the British government to lead Poland after the war was the government-in-exile, led, after the death in a plane crash of General Sikorski in June 1943, by Stanisław Mikałojczyk. It maintained wireless communications with underground forces in Poland, but retained somewhat unreasonable goals for the reconstitution of Poland after the war, attaching high importance to the original pre-war boundaries, and especially to the cities of Vilna and Lvov. The London Poles had been infuriated by Stalin’s cover-up of the Katyn massacres, and by Churchill’s apparent compliance, the British prime Minster harbouring a desire to maintain harmonious relations with Stalin. Mikałojczyk continuously applied pressure on Winston Churchill to represent the interests of a free and independent Poland to Stalin, who, like Roosevelt, had outwardly accepted the principles of the Atlantic Charter that gave the right of self-determination to ‘peoples’. Mikałojczyk was adamant on two matters: the recognition of its traditional eastern borders, and its right to form a non-communist government. Stalin was equally obdurate on countering both initiatives, and his language on a ‘free and independent Poland’ started taking on clauses that contained a requirement that any Polish government would have to be ‘friendly’ towards the Soviet Union.

Stanislaw Mikolajcyzk

On July 23, the city of Lublin was liberated by the Russians, and Stalin announced that a Polish Committee of National Liberation (the PCNL, a communist puppet) had been set up in Chelm the day before. Churchill was in a bind: he realised which way the wind was blowing, and how Soviet might would determine the outcomes in Poland. He desperately did not want to let down Mikałojczyk, and preferred, foolishly, to trust in Stalin’s benevolence and reasonableness. Churchill had been pressing for Mikałojczyk to meet with Stalin, as he was beginning to become frustrated by the Poles’ insistence and romantic demands. Stalin told Churchill that Mikałojczyk should confer with the PCNL.

When Stalin made an ominously worded declaration on July 28, where he ‘welcomed unification of Poles friendly disposed to all three Allies’ (which made even Anthony Eden recoil in horror), Churchill convinced Mikałojczyk to visit Moscow, where Stalin agreed to see him. On July 29, Moscow Radio urged the workers of the Polish Resistance to rise up against the German invader. Had Mikałojczyk perhaps been successful in negotiating with Stalin?

  • The Partisans:

On July 31, the Polish underground, encouraged by messages from the Polish Home Army in London, ordered a general uprising in Warsaw. It had also succeeded in letting a delegate escape to the USA and convince the US administration that it could ally with Soviet forces in freeing Warsaw. (It is a possibility that this person, Tatar, was a Soviet agent: something hinted at, but not explicitly claimed, by Norman Davies.) It was, however, not as if there was much to unite the partisans, outside a hatred of the Fascist occupying forces. The Home Army (AK) was threatened by various splinter groups, namely the People’s Army (AL), which professed vague left-wing political opinions (i.e. a removal of the landowning class, and more property rights for small farmers and peasants), the PAL, which was communist-dominated, and thus highly sympathetic to the Soviet advance, and the Nationalist Armed Forces (NSZ), which Alan Clark described as ‘an extreme right-wing force, against any compromise with Russian power’. Like any partisan group in Europe at the time, it was thus driven by a mixture of motivations.

Yet for a few short weeks they unified in working on fortifications and attacking the Nazis. They mostly took their orders from London, but for a short while it seemed that Moscow was supporting them. According to Alexander Werth (who was in Warsaw at the time), there was talk in Moscow that Rokossovsky would shortly be capturing Warsaw, and Churchill was even spurred to remind the House of Commons on August 2 of the pledge to Polish independence. On August 3, Stalin was reported by Mikałojczyk to have promised to assist the Uprising by providing arms and ammunition – although the transcripts of their discussions do not really indicate this. By August 6, the Poles were said (by Alan Clark) to be in control of most of Warsaw.

The Home Army was also considerably assisted by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which had succeeded in landing hundreds of agents in Warsaw and surrounding districts, with RAF flights bringing food, medical supplies and wireless equipment. This was an exercise that had started in February 1941, with flights originating both from Britain and, latterly, from southern Italy. By the summer of 1944, a majority of the military and civilian leadership in Warsaw had been brought in by SOE. Colonel Gubbins, who had been appointed SOE chief in September 1943, was an eager champion of the Polish cause, but the group’s energies may have pointed to a difference in policy between SOE’s sabotage programme, and Britain’s diplomatic initiatives, a subject that has probably not received the attention it merits.

Yet the Rising all very quickly turned sour. The Nazis, recognizing the symbolic value of losing an important capital city like Warsaw, responded with power. The Hermann Goering division was rushed from Italy to Warsaw on August 3. Five days later the SS, led by von dem Bach-Zelewski, was introduced to bring in a campaign of terror against the citizenry. After a desperate appeal for help by the beleaguered Poles to the Allies, thirteen British aircraft were despatched from southern Italy to drop supplies: five failed to return. The Chiefs of Staff called off the missions, but a few Polish planes carried on the effort. Further desperate calls for help arrived, and on August 14 Stalin was asked to allow British and American planes, based in the UK, to refuel behind the Soviet lines to allow them more time to focus on airdrops. He refused.

By now, however, Stalin was openly dismissing the foolish adventurism of the Warsaw Uprising, lecturing Churchill so on August 16, and, despite Churchill’s continuing implorations, upgraded his accusations, on August 23, to a claim that the partisans were ‘criminals’. On August 19, the NKVD had shot several dozen members of the Home Army near the Byelorussian border, carrying out an order from Stalin that they should be killed if they did not cooperate. Antony Beevor states that the Warsaw Poles heard about that outrage, but, in any case, by now the Poles in London were incensed to the degree that they considered Mikałojczyk not ‘anti-Soviet’ enough. Roosevelt began to tire of Churchill’s persistence, since he was much more interested in building the new world order with Uncle Joe than he was in sorting out irritating rebel movements. By September 5, the Germans were in total control of Warsaw again, and several thousand Poles were shot. On September 9, the War Cabinet had reluctantly concluded that any further airdrops could not be justified. The Uprising was essentially over: more than 300,000 Poles lost their lives.

  • Offensive Strategy:

Accounts differ as to how close the Soviet forces were to Warsaw, and how much they were repulsed by fresh German attacks. Alexander Werth interviewed General Rokossovsky on August 26, 1944, the latter claiming that his forces were driven back after August 1 by about 65 miles. Stalin told Churchill in October, when they met in Moscow, of Rokossovsky’s tribulations with fresh German attacks. Yet that does not appear to tally with Moscow’s expectations for the capture of Warsaw, and it was a surprising acknowledgement of weakness on Rokossovsky’s part if it were true. Soviet histories inform us that the thrust was exhausted by August 1, but, in fact, the First Belorussian Front was close to the suburb of Praga by then, approaching from the south-east. (The Vistula was narrower than the Thames in London. I was about to draw an analogy of the geography when I discovered that Norman Davies had beaten me to it, using almost the exact wording that I had thought suitable: “Londoners would have grasped what was happening if told that everyone was being systematically deported from districts north of the Thames, whilst across the river to Battersea, Lambeth, and Southwark nothing moved, no one intervened,”  from Rising ’44, page 433).  Rokossovsky told Werth that the Rising was a bad mistake, and that it should have waited until the Soviets were close. On the other hand, the Polish General Anders, very familiar with Stalin’s ways, and then operating under Alexander in Italy, thought the Uprising was a dangerous mistake.

General Rokossovsky

Yet all that really misses the point. It was far easier for Stalin to have the Germans exterminate the opposition, even if it contained some communist sympathisers. (Norman Davies hypothesizes that the radio message inciting the partisans to rebel may have been directed at the Communists only, but it is hard to see how an AL-only uprising would have been able to succeed: such a claim sounds like retrospective disinformation.) Stalin’s forces would eventually have taken over Warsaw, and he would have conducted any purge he felt was suitable. He had shamelessly manipulated Home Army partisans when capturing Polish cities to the east of Warsaw (such as Lvov), and disposed of them when they had delivered for him. Thus sitting back and waiting was a cynical, but reasonable, strategy for Stalin, who by now was confident enough of his ability to execute – and was also being informed by his spies of the strategies of his democratic Allies in their plans for Europe. Donald Maclean’s first despatch from the Washington Embassy, betraying communications between Churchill and Roosevelt, was dated August 2/3, as revealed in the VENONA decrypts.

One last aspect of the Soviet attack concerns the role of the Poles in the Red Army. When the captured Polish officers who avoided the Katyn massacres were freed in 1942, they had a choice: to join Allied forces overseas, or to join the Red Army. General Zygmunt Berling had agreed to cooperate after his release from prison, and had recommended the creation of a Polish People’s Army in May 1943. He became commander of the first unit, and eventually was promoted to General of the Polish Army under Rokossovsky. But it was not until August 14 that he was entrusted to support the Warsaw Uprising, crossing the Vistula and entering Praga the following day – which suggests that the river was not quite the natural barrier others have made it out to be. He was repulsed, however, and had to withdraw eight days later. The failed attempt, with many casualties, resulted in his dismissal soon afterwards. Perhaps Stalin felt that Polish communists, because they were Poles, could be sacrificed: Berling may not have received approval for his venture.

  • The Aftermath:

With Warsaw untaken, the National Council of Poland declared Lublin as the national capital, on August 18, and on September 9, a formal agreement was signed between the Polish communists and the Kremlin. In Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski, perhaps now concluding that war crimes trials might be hanging over him, relented the pressure somewhat, and even parleyed with the survivors. He tried to convince them that the threat from Bolshevism was far more dangerous than the continuance of Fascism, even suggesting that the menace from the East ‘‘might very well bring about the downfall of Western culture’ (Clark). It was not certain what aspects of Western culture he believed the Nazi regime had enhanced. (Maybe Professor Howard could have provided some insights.)

The Lublin administration had to wait a while as the ‘government-in-waiting’, as Warsaw was not captured by the Red Army until January 17, 1945. By that time, imaginative voices in the Foreign Office had begun to point out the ruthlessness and menace of the tide of Soviet communism in eastern Europe, and Churchill’s – and even more, Roosevelt’s – beliefs that they could cooperate with the man in the Kremlin were looking very weary. By the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, any hopes that a democratically elected government would take power in Poland had been abandoned.  Stalin had masterfully manipulated his allies, and claimed, through the blood spent by the millions who pushed back the Nazi forces, that he merited control of the territories that became part of the Soviet Empire. There was nothing that Churchill (or then Attlee), or Roosevelt, rapidly fading (and then Truman) could do.

The historical assessment is one of a Great Betrayal – which it surely was, in the sense that the Poles were misled by the promises of Churchill and Roosevelt, and in the self-delusion that the two leaders had that, because Stalin was fighting Hitler alongside them, he was actually one of the team, a man they could cooperate with, and someone who had tamed his oppressive and murderous instincts that were so evident from before the war. But whether the ‘Soviet armies’ deserved sympathy for their halt on the Vistula is quite another question. It was probable that most of the Ivans in the Soviet armed forces were heartily sick of Communism, and the havoc it had brought to their homes and families, but were instead conscripted and forced to fight out of fear for what might happen if they resisted. By then, fighting for Mother Russia, and out of hatred for the Germans because of the devastation the latter had wrought on their homeland, they were brought to a halt before Warsaw to avoid a clash that may have been premature. But they were Communists by identification, not by conviction. Stalin was the sole man in charge. He was ruthless: he was going to eliminate the Home Army anyway: why not let the Germans do the job?

Alan Clark’s summing-up ran as follows: “The story of the Warsaw uprising illustrates many features of the later history of World War II. The alternating perfidy and impotence of the western Allies; the alternating brutality and sail-trimming of the SS; the constancy of Soviet power and ambition. Above all, perhaps, it shows the quality of the people for whom nominally, and originally, the war had been fought and how the two dictatorships could still find common ground in the need to suppress them.”

The Allies in Italy

  1. Military Operations

The invasion of Italy (starting with Operation ‘Husky’, the invasion of Sicily) had always been Churchill’s favoured project, since he regarded it as an easier way to repel the Germans and occupy central Europe before Stalin reached it. It was the western Allies’ first foray into Axis-controlled territory, and had been endorsed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca in January 1943. Under General Alexander, British and American troops had landed in Sicily in July 1943, and on the mainland, at Salerno, two months later. Yet it was always something of a maverick operation: the Teheran Agreement made no mention of it as a diversionary initiative, and thereafter the assault was regularly liable to having troops withdrawn for the more official invasion of Southern France (Operation Anvil, modified to Dragoon). This strategy rebounded in a perhaps predictable way: Hitler maintained troops in Italy to ward off the offensive, thus contributing to Overlord’s success, but the resistance that Alexander’s Army encountered meant that the progress in liberating Italy occurred much more slowly than its architects had forecast.

Operation ANVIL

Enthusiasm for the Italian venture had initially been shared by the Americans and the British, and was confirmed at the TRIDENT conference in Washington in May 1943. At this stage, the British Chiefs of Staff hoped to conclude the war in a year’s time, believing that a march up Italy would be achieved practically unopposed, with the goal of reaching the ‘Ljubljana Gap’ (which was probably a more durable obstacle than the ‘Watford’, or even the ‘Cumberland’ Gap) and striking at the southern portions of Hitler’s Empire before the Soviets arrived there. Yet, as plans advanced, the British brio was tempered by American scepticism. After the Sicilian campaign, the Allied forces were thwarted by issues of terrain, a surprising German resurgence, and a lack of coordination of American and British divisions. In essence, clear strategic goals had not been set, nor processes by which they might be achieved.

Matters were complicated in September 1943 by the ouster of Mussolini, the escape of King Emanuel and General Badoglio to Brindisi, to lead a non-fascist government in the south, and the rescue of Mussolini by Nazi paratroopers so that he could be installed as head of a puppet government in Salò in the North. An armistice between the southern Italians and the Allies was announced (September 3) the day before troops landed at Salerno. The invading forces were now faced with an uncertain ally in the south, not fully trusted because of its past associations with Mussolini’s government, and a revitalized foe in the north. Hitler was determined to defend the territory, had moved sixteen divisions into Italy, and started a reign of terror against both the civilian population and the remnants of the Italian army, thousands of whom were extracted to Germany to work as slaves or be incarcerated.

The period between the armistice and D-Day was thus a perpetual struggle. As the demands for landing-craft and troops to support Overlord increased, morale in Alexander’s Army declined, and progress was tortuously slow, as evidenced by the highly controversial capture of Monte Cassino between January and May 1944, where the Polish Army sustained 6,000 casualties. The British Chiefs of Staff continually challenged the agreement made in Quebec that the Anvil attack was of the highest priority (and even received support from Eisenhower for a while). Moreover, the Allies did not handle the civilian populace very shrewdly, with widescale bombing undermining the suggestion that they had arrived as ’liberators’. With a valiant push, Rome was captured on June 4, by American forces, but a rivalry between the vain and glory-seeking General Clark and the sometimes timid General Alexander meant that the advantage was not hammered home. The dispute over Anvil had to be settled by Roosevelt himself in June. In the summer of 1944, the Allies faced another major defensive obstacle, the Gothic Line, which ran along the Apennines from Spezia to Pesari. Bologna, the city at the center of this discussion, lay about forty miles north of this redoubt. And there the Allied forces stalled.

  • Political Goals

The Allies were unanimous that they wanted to install a democratic, non-fascist government in Italy at the conclusion of the war, but did not really define what shape it should take, or understand who among the various factions claiming ideological leadership might contribute. Certainly, the British feared an infusion of Communism into the mix. ‘Anti-fascism’ had a durable odour of ‘communism’ about it, and there was no doubt that strong communist organisations existed both in the industrial towns and in the resistance groups that had escaped to the mountains or the countryside. (After the armistice, a multi-party political committee had been formed with the name of the ‘Committee of National Liberation’, a name that was exactly echoed a few months later by the Soviets’ puppets in Chelm, Poland.) Moreover, while the Foreign Office, epitomised by the vain and ineffectual Anthony Eden, who still harboured a grudge with Mussolini over the Ethiopian wars, expressed a general disdain about the Italians, the Americans were less interested in the fate of individual European nations. Roosevelt’s main focus was on ‘getting his boys home’, and then concentrating on building World Peace with Stalin through the United Nations. The OSS, however, modelled on Britain’s SOE, had more overt communist sympathies.

Yet there existed also rivalry between the USA and Great Britain about post-war goals. The British were looking to control the Mediterranean to protect its colonial routes: the Americans generally tried to undermine such imperial pretensions, and were looking out for their own commercial advantages when hostilities ceased. At this time, Roosevelt and Churchill were starting to disagree more about tactics, and the fate of individual nations, as the debate over Poland, and Roosevelt’s secret parleys with Stalin, showed. Churchill was much more suspicious of Soviet intrigues at this time, although it did not stop him groveling to Stalin, or singing his praises in more sentimental moments.

The result was a high degree of mutual distrust between the Allies and its new partners, the southern Italians, and those resisting Nazi oppression in the north. As Caroline Moorehead aptly puts it, in her very recent House in the Mountains: “Now the cold wariness of the British liberating troops puzzled them. It was, noted Harold Macmillan, ‘one vast headache, with all give and no take’. How much money would have to be spent in order to prevent ‘disease and unrest’? How much aid was going to be necessary to make the Italians militarily useful in the campaign for liberation? And what was the right approach to take towards a country which was at once a defeated enemy and a co-belligerent which expected to be treated as an ally?”

  • The Partisans

The partisans in northern Italy, like almost all such groups in occupied Europe, were of very mixed origins, holding multitudinous objectives. But here they were especially motley, containing absconders from the domestic Italian Army, resisting deportation by the Nazis, escaped prisoners-of-war, trying to find a way back to Allied lines, non-Germans conscripted by the Wehrmacht, who had escaped but were uncertain where to turn next, refugees from armies that had fought in the east, earnest civilians distraught over missing loved ones, Jews suddenly threatened by Mussolini’s support of Hitler’s anti-Semitic persecution, the ideologically dedicated, as well as young adventurists, bandits, thieves and terrorists. As a report from Alexander’s staff said: “Bands exist of every degree, down to gangs of thugs who don a partisan cloak of respectability to conceal the nakedness of their brigandage, and bands who bury their arms in their back gardens and only dig them up and festoon themselves in comic opera uniforms when the first Allied troops arrive.”  It was thus challenging to find a way to deal consistently with such groups, scattered broadly around the mountainous terrain.

The British generally disapproved of irregular armies, and preferred the partisans to continue the important work of helping POWs escape to Switzerland, where they were able to pass on valuable information to the SIS and OSS offices there. As Richard Lamb wrote: “However, the Allies wanted the partisan activities to be confined to sabotage, facilitating the escape of POWs, and gathering intelligence about the Germans.”  Sabotage was encouraged, because its perpetrators could not easily be identified, and it helped the war effort, while direct attacks on German forces could result in fearful reprisals – a phenomenon that took on increasing significance. Hitler had given instructions to the highly experienced General Kesselring that any such assaults should be responded to with ruthless killing of hostages.

Yet the political agitators in the partisans were dominated by communists – who continuously quarreled with the non-communists. The British did not want a repeat of what had happened in Yugoslavia and Greece, where irredentists had established separate control. The CLN had set up a Northern Italian section (the CLNAI) in January 1944, and had made overt claims for political control of some remote areas, seeing itself as the third leg of government. Thus the British were suspicious, and held off infiltrating SOE liaison officers, and parachuting in weapons and supplies, with the first delivery not occurring until December 1943. This encouraged the partisans to think that the Allies were not interested in widespread resistance, and were fearful of communism – which was largely (but not absolutely) true. Tellingly, on July 27, 1944, in the light of Soviet’s expansive colonial intentions, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke first voiced the opinion that Britain might need to view Germany as a future ally against the Soviets.

Churchill expressed outwardly hostile opinions on the partisans in a speech to the House of Commons on February 22, 1944, and his support for Badoglio (and, indirectly, the monarchy) laid him open to the same criticisms of anti-democratic spirit that would bedevil his attitude towards Greece. Ironically, it was the arrival of the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti from Moscow in March 1944, and his subsequent decision to join Badoglio’s government, that helped to repair some of the discord. In May, many more OSS and SOE officers were flown in, and acts of sabotage increased. This interrupted the German war effort considerably, as Kesselring admitted a few years later. Thus, as summer drew on, the partisans had expectations of a big push to defeat and expel the Germans. By June, all Italian partisan forces were co-ordinated into a collective command structure. They were told by their SOE liaison officers that a break through the Gothic Line would take place in September.

Meanwhile, the confusion in the British camp had become intense. Churchill dithered with his Chiefs of Staff about the competing demands of Italy and France. General Maitland Wilson, who had replaced Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean in January 1944, was in June forecasting the entry into Trieste and Ljubljana by September, apparently unaware of the Anvil plans. He was brought back to earth by Eisenhower. At the beginning of August 1944, Alexander’s forces were reduced from 250,000 to 153,000 men, because of the needs in France. Yet Churchill continued to place demands on Alexander, and privately railed over the Anvil decision. Badoglio was replaced by Bonomi, to Churchill’s disappointment. Alexander said his troops were demoralized. There was discord between SOE and the OSS, as well as between SOE and the Foreign Office. It was at this juncture that the controversy started.

  • Offensive Strategy

On June 7, Alexander had made a radio appeal to the partisans, encouraging sabotage. As Iris Origo reported it in, in War in Val D’orcia (written soon after the events, in 1947): “General Alexander issues a broadcast to the Italian patriots, telling them that the hour of their rising has come at last. They are to cut the German Army communications wherever possible, by destroying roads, bridges, railways, telegraph-wires. They are to form ambushes and cut off retreating Germans – and to give shelter to Volksdeutsche who have deserted from the German Army. Workmen are urged to sabotage, soldiers and police to desert, ‘collaborators of fascism’ to take this last chance of showing their patriotism and helping the cause of their country’s deliverance. United, we shall attain victory.”

General Alexander of Tunis

This was an enormously significant proclamation, given what Alexander must have known about the proposed reduction in forces, and what his intelligence sources must have told him about Nazi reprisals. They were surely not words Alexander had crafted himself. One can conclude that it was perhaps part of the general propaganda campaign, current with the D-Day landings, to focus the attention of Nazi forces around Europe on the local threats. Indeed the Political Warfare Executive made a proposal to Eisenhower intended to ‘stimulate . . . strikes, guerilla action and armed uprisings behind the enemy lines’. Historians have accepted that such an initiative would have endangered many civilian lives. The exact follow-up to this recommendation, and how it was manifested in BBC broadcasts in different languages, is outside my current scope, but Origo’s diary entry shows how eagerly the broadcasts from London were followed.

What is highly significant is that General Alexander, in the summer of 1944, was involved in an auxiliary deception operation codenamed ‘Otrington’, which was designed to lead the Germans to think that an attack was going to take place on the Nazi flanks in Genoa and Rimini, as opposed to the south of France, and also as a feint for Alexander’s planned attack through the central Apennines north of Florence. (This was all part of the grander ‘Bodyguard’ deception plan for Overlord.) Yet in August 1944, such plans were changed when General Sir Oliver Leese, now commanding the Eighth Army, persuaded Alexander to move his forces away from the central Apennines over to the Adriatic sector, for an attack on August 25. The Germans were misled to the extent that they had moved forces to the Adriatic, thus confusing Leese’s initiative. Moreover, the historian on whom we rely for this exposition was Professor Sir Michael Howard himself – in his Chapter 7 of Volume 5 of the British Intelligence history. Yet the author makes no reference here to Alexander’s communications to the partisans, or how such signals related to the deception exercise, merely laconically noting: “The attack, after its initial success, was gradually brought to a halt [by Kesselring], and Allied operations in Italy bogged down for another winter.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the message provoked even further animosity from the Germans when Alexander made three separate broadcasts through the BBC, on June 19, 20 and 27, where he encouraged Italian partisans to ‘shoot Germans in the back’. The response from Kesselring, who of course heard the open declaration, was instantaneous. He issued an order on June 20 that read, partially, as follows: “Whenever there is evidence of considerable numbers of partisan groups a proportion of the male population of the area will be arrested, and in the event of an act of violence these men will be shot. The population must be informed of this. Should troops etc. be fired at from any village, the village will be burnt down. Perpetrators or ringleaders will be hanged in public.”

The outcome of this was that a horrible series of massacres occurred during August and September, leading to the worst of all, that at Marzabotto, on September 29 and 30. A more specific order by the German 5 Corps was issued on August 9, with instructions as to how local populations would be assembled to witness the shootings. Yet this was not a new phenomenon: fascist troops had been killing partisan bands and their abettors for the past year in the North. The requirement for Mussolini’s neo-fascist government to recruit young men for its military and police forces prompted thousands to run for the mountains and join the partisans. Italy was now engaged in a civil war, and in the north Italians had been killing other Italians. One of the most infamous of the massacres had occurred in Rome, in March 1944, at the Ardeatine Caves. A Communist Patriotic Action Group had killed 33 German soldiers in the Via Rasella, and ten times that many hostages were killed the next day as a form of reprisal. The summer of 1944 was the bitterest time for executions of Italians: 7500 civilians were killed between March 1944 and April 1945, and 5000 of these met their deaths in the summer months of 1944.

The records show that support for the partisans had been consistent up until September, although demands had sharply risen. “In July 1944 SOE was operating 16 radio stations behind enemy lines, and its missions rose from 23 in August to 33 in September; meanwhile the OSS had 12 in place, plus another 6 ready to leave. Contacts between Allied teams and partisan formations made large-scale airdrops of supplies possible. In May 1944, 152 tons were dropped; 361 tons were delivered in June, 446 tons in July, 227 tons in August, and 252 tons in September.” (Battistelli and Crociani) Yet those authors offer up another explanation: Operation ‘Olive’ which began on August 25, at the Adriatic end of the Gothic Line, provoked a severe response against partisans in the north-west. The fierce German reprisals that then took place (on partisans and civilians, including the Marzobotto massacre) by the SS Panzer Green Division Reichsführer contributed to the demoralization of the partisan forces, and 47,000 handed themselves in after an amnesty offer by the RSI on October 28.

What is not clear is why the partisans continued to engage in such desperate actions. Had they become desperadoes? As Battistelli and Crociani write, a period of crisis had arrived: “In mid-September 1944 the partisans’ war was, for all practical purposes, at a standstill. The influx of would-be recruits made it impossible for the Allies to arm them all; many of the premature ‘free zones’ were being retaken by the Germans; true insurgency was not possible without direct Allied support; and, despite attacks by the US Fifth and British Eighth Armies against the Gothic Line from 12 September, progress would be slow and mainly up the Adriatic flank. Against the advice of Allied liaison officers, the partisan reaction was, inexplicably, to declare more ‘free zones’.” Things appeared to be out of control. Battistelli and Crociani further analyse it as follows: “The summer of 1944 thus represented a turning-point in partisan activity, after which sabotage and attacks against communications decreased in favour of first looting and then attacks against Axis troops, both being necessary to obtain food and weapons to enable large formations to carry on their war.” And it thus led to the deadliest massacre at Marzabotto, south of Bologna, where the SS, under Sturmbannführer Walter Reder, shot about 770 men, women, and children.

The wholesale deaths even provoked Mussolini to beg the SS to back off. On November 13 Alexander issued a belated communiqué encouraging the partisans to disarm for the winter, as the campaign was effectively coming to a halt. Alexander’s advice was largely ignored: the partisans viewed it a political move executed out of disdain for communism. The Germans viewed it as a sign of weakness, and it deterred any thoughts of immediate surrender. Thus the activity of the partisans continued, but less vigorously, as air support in the way of supplies had already begun to dwindle. And another significant factor was at work. Before he left Moscow, Togliatti, the newly arrived Communist leader, had made an appeal to the Italian resistance movement to take up arms against the Fascists. Yet when he arrived in Italy in March 1944, Togliatti had submerged the militant aspects of his PCI (Communist Party of Italy) in the cause of unity and democracy, and had the Garibaldi (Communist) brigades disarmed. Moorehead points out that the Northern partisans were effectively stunned and weakened by Togliatti’s strategic move to make the Communists appear less harmful as the country prepared for postwar government.

In addition, roles changed. Not just the arrival of General Leese, and his disruption of careful deception plans. General George Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, took the view that Italy was ‘an expensive sideshow’ (Brian Holden Reid). In December, Alexander had to tried to breathe fresh life into the plan to assault the Ljubljana Gap,  but after the Yalta Conference of February 1945, Alexander, now Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, was instructed simply to ensure that the maximum number of German divisions were held down, thus allowing the progress by Allied troops in France and Germany to be maintained. Bologna was not taken until April 1945, after which the reprisals against fascists began. Perhaps three thousand were killed there by the partisans.

  • The Aftermath

The massacres of September and October 1944 have not been forgotten, but their circumstances have tended to be overlooked in the histories. It is difficult to find a sharp and incisive analysis of British strategy and communications at this time. Norman Davies writes about the parallel activities in Poland and Italy in the summer of 1944 in No Simple Victory, but I would suggest that he does not do justice to the situation. He blames General Alexander for ‘opening the floodgates for a second wave of German revenge’ when he publicly announced that there would be no winter offensive in 1944-45, but it was highly unlikely that that ‘unoriginal thinker’ (Oxford Companion to Word War II) would have been allowed to come up with such a message without guidance and approval. Davies points to ‘differences of opinion between British and American strategists’, which allowed German commanders to be given a free hand to take ruthless action against the partisans’. So why were the differences not resolved by Eisenhower? Moreover, while oppression against the partisans did intensify, the worst reprisals against civilians that Davies refers to were over by then.

Had Alexander severely misled the partisans in his encouragement that their ‘hour of rising’ had come at last? What was intended by his open bloodthirsty call to kill Nazis in the back? Did the partisans really pursue such aggressive attacks because of Alexander’s provocative words, or, did they engage in them in full knowledge of the carnage it would cause, trying to prove, perhaps, that a fierce and autocratic form of government was the only method of eliminating fascism? Were the local SOE officers responsible for encouraging attacks on German troops in order to secure weapons and food? Why could Togliatti not maintain any control over the communists? And what was Alexander’s intention in calling the forces to hold up for the winter, knowing that the Germans would pick up that message? Whatever the reality, it was not a very honourable episode in the British war effort. Too many organisations arguing amongst themselves, no doubt. Churchill had many things on his mind, but it was another example of where he wavered on strategy, then became too involved in details, or followed his buccaneering instincts, and afterwards turned sentimental at inappropriate times. Yet Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander, and clearly had problems in enforcing a disciplined approach to strategy.

At least the horrendous reprisals ceased. Maybe, as in Warsaw, the SS realised that the war was going to be lost, and that war crimes tribunals would investigate the legality of the massacre of innocent civilians. Yet a few grisly murders continued. Internecine feuds continued among the partisans during the winter of 1944-45, with fears of collaborators and spies in the midst, and frequently individuals who opposed communism were persecuted and killed. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the events of this winter in the north (see Moorehead for more details), but a few statements need to be made. The number of partisans did decline sharply to begin with, but then ascended in the spring. More supplies were dropped by SOE, but the latter’s anti-communist message intensified, and the organisation tried to direct weaponry to non-communist units. Savage reprisals by the fascists did take place, but not on the scale of the September massacres. In the end, the communists managed to emerge from World War II with a large amount of prestige, because they ensured that they were present to liberate finally the cities of Turin, Milan, and Bologna in concert with the Allied forces that eventually broke through, even though they were merciless with fascists who had remained loyal to Mussolini and the Nazis. As with Spain, the memories of civil war and different allegiances stayed and festered for a long time.

And the communists actually survived and thrived, as Howard’s encounter forty years later proved –  a dramatic difference from the possibility of independent democratic organisations in Warsaw enduring after the war, for example. Moreover, they obviously held a grudge. Yet history continues to be distorted. Views contrary to the betrayal of such ‘liberating’ communists have been expressed. In his book The Pursuit of Italy David Gilmour writes: “At the entrance of the town hall of Bologna photographs are still displayed of partisans liberating the city without giving a hint that Allied forces had helped them to do so.” He goes on to point out that, after the massacre of the Ardeatine Caves, many Italians were of the opinion that those responsible (Communists) should have given them up for execution instead. Others claim that the murders of the German soldiers were not actually communists: Moorhead claims they were mainly ‘students’. It all gets very murky. I leave the epitaph to Nicola Bianca: “The fact is that brutalization was a much part of the Italian wars as of any other, even if it was these same wars which made possible the birth of the first true democracy the country had known.”

Reassessment of Howard’s Judgment

Professor Howard seemed to be drawing an equivalence between, on the one hand, the desire for the Red Army to have the Nazis perform their dirty work for them by eliminating a nominal ally but a social enemy (the Home Army), and thus disengage from an attack on Warsaw, and, on the other, a strained Allied Army, with its resources strategically depleted, reneging on commitments to provide material support to a scattered force of anti-fascist sympathisers, some of whom it regarded as dangerous for the long-term health of the invading country, as well as that of the nation it was attempting to liberate. This is highly unbalanced, as the Home Army had few choices, whereas the Italian partisans had time and territory on their side. They did not have to engage in bloody attacks that would provoke reprisals of innocents. The Allies in Italy were trying to liberate a country that had waged warfare against them: the Soviet Army refused to assist insurgents who were supposedly fighting the same enemy. The British, certainly, were determined to weaken the Communists: why was Howard surprised by this? And, if he had a case to make, he could have criticised the British Army and its propagandists back in London for obvious lapses in communications rather than switching his attention to expressing sympathy for the communists outside Warsaw. Was he loath to analyse what Alexander had done simply because he had served under him?

It is informative to parse carefully the phrases Howard uses in his outburst. I present the text again here, for ease of reference:

“In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had issued orders for the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German communications throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on and around Monte Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The Allied armies did not come to their help, and the partisan movement in North Italy was largely destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna, where the communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had been deliberately planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist movement, much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts that this was an outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we could have done, they smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered about poor Terry, was there really nothing that we could have done to help? Were there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines might have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”

‘In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command . . ’

Did the incitement actually happen in September, as opposed to June? What was the source, and who actually issued the order? What did that ‘in sight’ mean? It is a woolly, evasive term. Who actually believed that the war would end shortly? Were these orders issued over public radio (for the Germans to hear), or privately, to SOE and OSS representatives?

‘ . . had issued orders to unmask themselves’.

What does that mean? Take off their camouflage and engage in open warfare? The Allied High Command could in fact not ‘order’ the partisans to do anything, but why would an ‘order’ be issued to do that? I can find no evidence for it in the transcripts.

‘ . . .and attack German communications’.

An incitement to sabotage was fine, and consistent, but the communication specifically did not encourage murder of fascist forces, whether Italian or German. Alexander admittedly did so in June, but Howard does not cite those broadcasts.

‘The Germans reacted with predictable savagery.’

The Germans engaged in savage reprisals primarily in August, before the supposed order that Howard quotes. The reprisals took place because of partisan murders of soldiers, and in response to Operation ‘Olive’, not simply because of attacks on communications, as Howard suggests here. Moreover, the massacre at Marzabotto occurred at the end of September, when Kesselring had mollified his instructions, after Mussolini’s intervention.

‘Allied armies did not come to their help’.

But was anything more than parachuting in supplies expected? Over an area of more than 30,000 square miles, behind enemy lines? Bologna only? Where is the evidence – beyond the June message quoted by Origo? What did the SOE officers say? (I have not yet read Joe Maioli’s Mission Accomplished: SOE in Italy 1943-45, although its title suggests success, not failure.)

‘The partisan movement in northern Italy was largely destroyed’.

This was not true, as numerous memoirs and histories indicate. Admittedly, activity sharply decreased after September, because of the Nazi attacks, and the reduction in supplies. It thus suffered in the short term, but the movement became highly active again in the spring of 1945. On what did Howard base his conclusion? And why did he not mention that it was the Communist Togliatti who had been as much responsible for any weakening in the autumn of 1944? Or that Italian neo-fascists had been determinedly hunting down partisans all year?

‘It was still believed . .  .’

Why the passive voice? Who? When? Why? Of course the communists in Bologna would say that.

‘ . . .deliberately planned to weaken the communist movement’.

Richard Lamb wrote that Field Marshal Harding, Alexander’s Chief of Staff, had told him that the controversial Proclama Alexander, interpreted by some Italian historians as an anti-communist move, had been designed to protect the partisans. But that proclamation was made in November, and it encouraged partisans to suspend hostilities. In any case, weakening the communist movement was not a dishonourable goal, considering what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

‘. . . much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them’.

Did the Bologna communists really make this analogy, condemning the actions of communists in Poland as if they were akin to the actions of the Allies? Expressing sympathy for the class enemies of the Polish Home Army would have been heresy. Why could Howard not refute it at the time, or point out the contradictions in this passage?

‘ . . .was there really nothing that we could have done to help?

Aren’t you the one supposed to be answering the questions, Professor, not asking them?

‘. . . huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines’

Why had Howard forgotten about the depletion of resources in Italy, the decision to hold ground, and what he wrote about in Strategic Deception? Did he really think that Alexander would have been able to ignore Eisenhower’s directives? And why ’cumbrous’ – unwieldy? inflexible?

‘Someone must have known what was going on’.

 Indeed. And shouldn’t it have been Howard’s responsibility to find out?

‘Ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies’

Where? In print? In conversations? What has one got to do with the other? Why should an implicit criticism of the Allied Command be converted into sympathy for Stalin?

The irony is that the Allied Command, perhaps guided by the Political Warfare Executive, did probably woefully mismanage expectations, and encourage attacks on German troops that resulted in the murder of innocent civilians. But Howard does not make this case. Those events happened primarily in the June through August period, while Howard bases his argument on a September proclamation. He was very quick to accept the Bologna communists’ claim that the alleged ‘destruction’ of the partisans was all the Allies’ fault, when the partisans themselves, northern Italian fascists, the SS troops, Togliatti, and even the Pope, held some responsibility. If Howard had other evidence, he should have presented it.

Why was Howard not aware of the Monte Sole massacre at the time? Why did he not perform research before walking into the meeting in Bologna? What did the communists there tell him that convinced him that they had been hard done by? Did they blame the British for the SS reprisals? Why was he taken in by the relentless propagandizing of the Communists? Why did he not explain what he thought the parallels were between Alexander’s actions and those of Rokossovsky? The episode offered an intriguing opportunity to investigate Allied strategy in Italy and Poland in the approach to D-Day and afterwards, but Howard fumbled it, and an enormous amount is thus missing from his casual observations. He could have illustrated how the attempts by the Western Allies to protect the incursions into Europe had unintended consequences, and shown the result of the competition between western intelligence and Togliatti for the allegiance of the Italian partisans. Instead the illustrious historian never did his homework. He obfuscated rather than illuminated, indulging in vague speculation, shaky chronology, ineffectual hand-wringing, and unsupported conclusions.

Perhaps a pertinent epitaph is what Howard himself wrote, in his volume of Strategic Deception, about the campaign in India (p 221): “The real problem which confronted the British deception staff in India, however, was that created by its own side; the continuing uncertainty as to what Allied strategic intentions really were. In default of any actual plans the best that the deceivers could do as one of them ruefully put it, was to ensure that the enemy remained as confused as they were themselves.” He had an excellent opportunity to inspect the Italian campaign as a case study for the same phenomenon, but for some reason avoided it.

This has been a fascinating and educational, though ultimately sterile, exercise for me. It certainly did not help me understand why Howard is held in such regard as a historian. ‘Why are eminent figures allowed to get away with such feeble analysis?’, I asked myself. Is it because they are distinguished, and an aura of authority has descended upon them? Or am I completely out to lunch? No doubt I should read more of Howard’s works. But ars longa, vita brevis  . . .

Sources:

War in Italy 1943-1945, A Brutal Story by Richard Lamb

Russia at War 1941-1945 by Nicholas Werth

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

War in Val D’Orcia by Iris Origo

Captain Professor by Michael Howard

The House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead

World War II Partisan Warfare in Italy by Pier Paola Battistelli & Piero Crociani

The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

Between Giants by Prit Buttar

Winston Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945 by Martin Gilbert

Rising ’47 by Norman Davies

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

The Oxford Companion to World War II edited by Ian Dear and M. R. E. Foot

The Oxford Illustrated History of World War II edited by Paul Overy

British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, Strategic Deception by Michael Howard

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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

A few weeks ago, at the bridge table at St. James, I was chatting between rounds, and my opponent happened to say, in response to some light-heated comment I made: ‘Touché!’  Now that immediately made me think of the famous James Thurber cartoon from the New Yorker, and I was surprised to learn that my friend (who has now become my bridge partner at a game elsewhere) was not familiar with this iconic drawing. And then, a few days ago, while at the chiropractor’s premises, I happened to mention to one of the assistants that one of the leg-stretching pieces of equipment looked like something by Rube Goldberg. (For British readers, Goldberg is the American equivalent of W. Heath Robinson.) The assistant looked at me blankly: she had never heard of Goldberg.

James Thurber’s 1932 Cartoon

I recalled being introduced to Goldberg soon after I arrived in this country. But ‘Touché’ took me back much further. It set me thinking: how had I been introduced to this classic example of American culture? Thurber was overall a really poor draughtsman, but this particular creation, published in the New Yorker in 1932, is cleanly made, and its impossibly unrealistic cruelty did not shock the youngster who must have first encountered it in the late 1950s. A magazine would probably not get away with publishing it these days: it would be deprecated (perhaps like Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes) as a depiction of gratuitous violence, likely to cause offence to persons of a sensitive disposition, and also surely deemed to be ‘an insult to the entire worldwide fencing community’.

Was it my father who showed it to me? Freddie Percy was one of the most serious of persons, but he did have a partiality for subversive wit and humour, especially when it entered the realm of nonsense, so long as it did not involve long hair, illicit substances, or sexual innuendo. I recall he was fan of the Marx Brothers, and the songs of Tom Lehrer, though how I knew this is not certain, as we had no television in those days, and he never took us to see a Marx Brothers movie. Had he perhaps heard Tom Lehrer on the radio? He also enjoyed the antics of Victor Borge (rather hammy slapstick, as far as I can remember) as well as those of Jacques Tati, and our parents took my brother, sister and me to see the films of Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – from a Thurber story – and Hans Christian Andersen), both of which, I must confess, failed to bowl me over.

Freddie and Mollie Percy (ca. 2004)

What was it with these Jewish performers? The Marx Brothers, Lehrer, Borge (né Rosenbaum) and Kaye (né Kaminsky)? Was the shtick my father told us about the Dukes of Northumberland all a fraud, and was his father (who in the 1920s worked in the clothes trade, selling school uniforms that he commissioned from East London Jewish tailors) perhaps an émigré from Minsk whose original name was Persky? And what happened to my grandfather’s Freemason paraphernalia, which my father kept in a trunk in the attic for so long after his death? It is too late to ask him about any of this, sadly. These questions do not come up at the right time.

I may have learned about Thurber from my brother. He was a fan of Thurber’s books, also – volumes that I never explored deeply, for some reason. Yet the reminiscence set me thinking about the American cultural influences at play in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and how they corresponded to local traditions.

Movies and television did not play a large part in my childhood: we did not have television installed until about 1965, so my teenage watching was limited to occasional visits to friends, where I might be exposed to Bonanza or Wagon Train, or even to the enigmatic Sergeant Bilko. I felt culturally and socially deprived, as my schoolmates would gleefully discuss Hancock’s Half Hour, or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and I had no idea what they were talking about. (It has taken a lifetime for me to recover from this feeling of cultural inferiority.) I did not attend cinemas very often during the 1950s, although I do recall the Norman Wisdom escapades, and the Doctor in the House series featuring Dirk Bogarde (the dislike of whom my father would not shrink from expressing) and James Robertson Justice. Apart from those mentioned above, I do not recall many American films, although later The Searchers made a big impression, anything with Audrey Hepburn in it was magical, and I rather unpredictably enjoyed the musicals from that era, such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I.

It was perhaps fortunate that I did not at that stage inform my father that I had suddenly discovered my calling in the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, as the old meshugennah might have thrown me out of Haling Park Cottage on my ear before you could say ‘Jack Rubenstein’. In fact, the theatre had no durable hold on me, although the escapist musical attraction did lead me into an absorption with American popular music, which I always thought more polished and more stimulating than most of the British pap that was produced. (I exclude the Zombies, Lesley Duncan, Sandy Denny, and a few others from my wholesale dismissal.) Perhaps seeing Sonny and Cher perform I Got You Babe, or the Ronettes imploring me to Be My Baby, on Top of the Pops, led me to believe that there was a more exciting life beyond my dreary damp November suburban existence in Croydon, Surrey: California Dreaming reflected that thwarted ambition.

We left the UK in 1980, and, despite my frequent returns while I was working, and during my retirement, primarily for research purposes, my picture of Britain is frozen in a time warp of that period. Derek Underwood is wheeling away from the Pavilion End, a round of beers can be bought for a pound, the Two Ronnies are on TV, the Rolling Stones are just about to start a world tour, and George Formby is performing down the road at the Brixton Essoldo. [Is this correct? Ed.] I try to stay current with what is going on in the UK through my subscriptions to Punch (though, as I think about it, I haven’t received an issue for quite a while), Private Eye (continuous since 1965), the Spectator (since 1982), and Prospect (a few years old), but, as each year goes by, a little more is lost on me.

We are just about to enter our fortieth year living in the USA. As I wrote, we ‘uprooted’ in 1980, although at the time we considered that the relocation would be for just a few years, to gain some work experience, and see the country, before we returned to the UK. My wife, Sylvia, and I now joke that, once we have settled in, we shall explore the country properly. We retired to Southport, North Carolina, in 2001, and have thus lived here longer than in any other residence. Yet we have not even visited famous Charleston, a few hours down the road in South Carolina, let alone the Tennessee border, which is about seven hours’ drive away. (The area of North Carolina is just a tad smaller than that of England.) We (and our daughter) are not fond of long journeys in the car, which seems to us a colossal waste of time overall, and I have to admit there is a sameness about many American destinations. And this part of the world is very flat – like Norfolk without the windmills. You do not drive for the scenery.

Do I belong here? Many years ago we took up US citizenship. (I thus have two passports, retaining my UK affiliation, but had to declare primary loyalty to the USA.) My accent is a giveaway. Whereas my friends, when I return to the UK, ask me why I have acquired that mid-Atlantic twang, nearly everyone I meet over here comments that ‘they like my accent’ – even though some have been known to ask whether it is Australian or South African. (Hallo! Do I sound like Crocodile Dundee?) Sometimes their curiosity is phrased in the quintessential American phrase: ‘Where are you from?’, which most Americans can quickly respond to with the name of the city where they grew up. They may have moved around the country – or even worked abroad – but their family hometown is where they are ‘from’.

So what do I answer? ‘The UK’ simplifies things, but is a bit dull. To jolly up the proceedings, I sometimes say: ‘Well, we are all out of Africa, aren’t we?’, but that may unfortunately not go down well with everyone, especially in this neck of the woods. Facetiousness mixed with literal truth may be a bit heady for some people. So I may get a bit of a laugh if I respond ‘Brooklyn’, or even ‘Connecticut’, which is the state we moved to in 1980, and the state we retired from in 2001 (and whither we have not been back since.)

What they really want to know is where my roots lie. Now, I believe that if one is going to acknowledge ‘roots’, they had better be a bit romantic. My old schoolfriend Nigel Platts is wont to declare that he has his roots in Cumbria (wild borderlands, like the tribal lands of Pakistan, Lakeland poets: A-), while another old friend, Chris Jenkins, claims his are in Devon (seafarers, pirates, boggy moors: B+). My wife can outdo them both, since she was born in St. Vincent (tropical island, volcano, banana plantations: A+). But what do I say? I grew up in Purley, Coulsdon, and South Croydon, in Surrey: (C-). No one has roots in Purley, except for the wife of the Terry Jones character in the famous Monty Python ‘Nudge Nudge’ sketch. So I normally leave it as ‘Surrey’, as if I had grown up in the remote and largely unexplored Chipstead Valley, or in the shadow of Box Hill, stalking the Surrey Puma, which sounds a bit more exotic than spending my teenage years watching, from a house opposite the AGIP service station, the buses stream along the Brighton Road in South Croydon.

Do I carry British (or English) culture with me? I am a bit skeptical about these notions of ‘national culture’. One might summarise English culture by such a catalogue as the Lord’s test-match, sheepdog trials, pantomime, fish and chips, The Last Night of the Proms, the National Trust, etc. etc., but then one ends up either with some devilish discriminations between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture or with a list of everything that goes on in the country, which makes the whole exercise pointless. And what about ‘European’ culture? Is there such a thing, apart from the obvious shared heritage and cross-influences of music, art and literature? Bullfights as well as foxhunting? Bierfests alongside pub quizzes? The Eurovision Song Contest? Moreover, all too often, national ‘culture’ ends up as quaint customs and costumes put on for the benefit of the tourists.

Similarly, one could try to describe American culture: the Superbowl, revivalist rallies, Fourth of July parades, rodeos, NASCAR, Thanksgiving turkey. But where does the NRA, or the Mormon Church (sorry, newly branded as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), fit in? Perhaps the USA is too large, and too new, to have a ‘national culture’. Some historians have claimed that the USA is actually made up of several ‘nations’. Colin Woodard subtitled his book American Nations ‘A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America’, and drew on their colonial heritages to explain some mostly political inclinations. Somewhat of an oversimplification, of course, as immigration and relocation have blurred the lines and identities, but still a useful pointer to the cultural shock that can occur when an employee is transplanted from one locality to another, say from Boston to Dallas. Here, in south-eastern North Carolina, retirees from Yankeedom frequently write letters to the newspaper expressing their bewilderment and frustration that local drivers never seem to use their indicators before turning, and habitually drive below maximum speed in the fast lane of the highway. The locals respond, saying: “If you don’t like how we do things down here, go back to where you came from!”.

And then is the apparent obsession in some places about ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’. The New York Times, leading the ‘progressive’ (dread word!) media, is notorious on this matter, lavishly publishing streams of Op-Ed articles and editorial columns about ‘racial’ identities and ‘ethnic’ exploitation. Some of this originates from the absurdities of the U.S. Census Bureau, with its desperate attempts to categorise everybody in some racial pigeonhole. What they might do with such information, I have no idea. Shortly after I came to this country, I was sent on a management training course, where I was solemnly informed that I was not allowed to ask any prospective job candidate what his or her ‘race’ was. Ten minutes later, I was told that Human Resource departments had to track every employee’s race so that they could meet Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. So it all depended on how a new employee decided to identify him- or her-self, and the bureaucrats got to work. I might have picked ‘Pacific Islander’, and no-one could have questioned it. (Sorry! I meant ‘Atlantic Islander’ . . .) Crazy stuff.

A few weeks ago, I had to fill out one of those interminable forms that accompany the delivery of healthcare in the USA. It was a requirement of the March 2010 Affordable Care Act, and I had to answer three questions. “The Government does not allow for unanswered questions. If you choose not to disclose the requested information, you must answer REFUSED to ensure compliance with the law”, the form sternly informed me. (I did not bother to inquire what would happen to me if I left the questions unanswered.) The first two questions ran as follows:

1. Circle the one that best describes your RACE:

  1. American Indian or Alaska native
  2. Asian
  3. Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
  4. Black or African American
  5. White
  6. Hispanic
  7. Other Race
  8. REFUSED

2. Circle the one that best describes your ETHNICITY:

            a. Hispanic or Latin

            b. Non-Hispanic or Non-Latin

            c. REFUSED

What fresh nonsense is this? To think that a panel of experts actually sat down around a table for several meetings and came up with this tomfoolery is almost beyond belief. (You will notice that the forms did not ask me whether the patient was an illegal immigrant.) But this must be one of the reasons why so many are desperate to enter the country – to have the opportunity to respond to those wonderful life-enhancing questionnaires created by our government.

This sociological aberration leaks into ‘identity’, the great hoax of the 21st century. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an editorial in which it, without a trace of irony, announced that some political candidate in New York had recently identified herself as ‘queer Latina’, as if that settled the suitability of her election. The newspaper’s letter pages are sprinkled with earnest and vapid statements from subscribers who start off their communications on the following lines: “As a bald progressive Polish-American dentist, I believe that  . . . .”, as if somehow their views were not free, and arrived at after careful reflection, but conditioned by their genetic material, their parents, their chosen career, and their ideological group membership, and that their status somehow gave them a superior entitlement to voice their opinions on the subject of their choice.  (I believe the name for this is ‘essentialism’.) But all that is irrelevant to the fact of whether they have anything of value to say.

The trouble is that, if we read about the views of one bald progressive Polish-American dentist, the next time we meet one of his or her kind, we shall say: “Ah! You’re one of them!”, and assume that that person holds the same opinions as the previously encountered self-appointed representative of the bald progressive Polish-American dentist community. And we end up with clumsy stereotypes, which of course are a Bad Thing.

Identity should be about uniqueness, not groupthink or unscientific notions of ethnicity, and cannot be defined by a series of labels. No habits or practices are inherited: they are all acquired culturally. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad for that reason, but people need to recognize that they were not born on predestinate grooves to become Baptists or Muslims, to worship cows, to practice female circumcision, or to engage in strange activities such as shooting small birds in great numbers, or watching motor vehicles circle an oval track at dangerous speeds for hours on end, in the hope that they will at some time collide, or descending, and occasionally falling down on, snowy mountainsides with their feet buckled to wooden planks, while doing their best to avoid trees and boulders. It is not ‘in their blood’, or ‘in their DNA’.

Social workers are encouraged (and sometimes required) to seek foster-parents for adoption cases that match the subject’s ‘ethnicity’, so as to provide an appropriate cultural background for them, such as a ‘native American’ way of life. Wistful and new-agey adults, perhaps suffering from some disappointment in career or life, sometimes seek out the birthplace of a grandparent, in the belief that the exposure may reveal some vital part of their ‘identity’. All absolute nonsense, of course.

For instance, I might claim that cricket is ‘in my DNA’, but I would not be able to tell you in what epoch that genetic mutation occurred, or why the gene has atrophied in our rascally son, James, who was brought to these shores as a ten month-old, and has since refused to show any interest whatsoever in the great game. On the other hand, did the young Andrew Strauss dream, on the banks of the blue Danube, of opening the batting for England? Did Michael Kasprowicz learn to bowl outswingers in the shadow of the Tatra Mountains? 

Yet this practice of pigeon-holing and stereotyping leads to deeper problems. We now have to deal with the newly discovered injustice of ‘cultural appropriation’. I read the other day that student union officials at the University of East Anglia had banned the distribution of sombreros to students, as stallholders were forbidden from handing out ‘discriminatory or stereotypical imagery’. Well, I can understand why Ku Klux Klan hoods, and Nazi regalia, would necessarily be regarded as offensive, but sunhats? Were sombreros introduced by the Spanish on reluctant Aztecan populations, and are they thus a symbol of Spanish imperialism? Who is actually at risk here? What about solar topis? Would they be banned, too?

We mustn’t stop there, of course. Is the fact that Chicken Tikka Masala is now viewed by some as a national British dish an insult to the subcontinent of India, or a marvellous statement of homage to its wonderful cuisine? Should South Koreans be playing golf, which, as we know, is an ethnic pastime of the Scots? Should non-Maori members of the New Zealand rugby team be dancing the haka? English bands playing rhythm ‘n’ blues? Should Irving Berlin have written ‘White Christmas’?

The blight has even started to affect the world of imaginative fiction. I recently read, in the Times Literary Supplement, in an article on John Updike, the following: “Is self-absorbed fiction always narcissistic, or only if it’s written by a straight white male? What if it’s autofiction, does that make it ok? What are the alternatives? If a writer ventures outside their own socio-cultural sphere, is that praiseworthy empathy or problematic cultural appropriation? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard more self-absorbed than Rachel Cusk? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” (‘Autofiction’ was a new one on me, but it apparently means that you can invent things while pretending to write a memoir, and get away with it. Since most autobiographies I have read are a pack of lies planned to glorify the accomplishments of the writer, and paper over all those embarrassing unpleasantnesses, I doubt whether we need a new term here. Reminiscences handed down in old age should more accurately be called ‘oublioirs’.)

The writer, Claire Lowdon, almost nails it, but falls into a pit of her own making. ‘Socio-cultural sphere’? What is that supposed to mean? Is that a category anointed by some policepersons from a Literary Council, like the Soviet Glavlit, or is it a classification, like ‘Pacific Islander’, that the author can provide him- or her-self, as with ‘gay Latina’? Should Tolstoy’s maleness, and his ‘socio-cultural sphere’, have prevented him from imagining the torments of Anna Karenina, or portraying the peasant Karatayev as a source of wisdom? The defenders of culture against ‘misappropriation’ are hoist with the petard of their own stereotypes. (And please don’t ask me who Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are. Just because I know who John Updike, James Thurber and Rube Goldberg are, but fall short with these two, does not automatically make me nekulturny, and totally un-cool.)

The whole point of this piece is to emphasise the strengths and importance of pluralism, and diminish the notion of multiculturalism. As I so urbanely wrote in Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm: “In a pluralist society, opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group), and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere.”   

Thus, while tracing some allegiance to the cultures of both the UK and the USA, I do not have to admit to interest in any of their characteristic practices (opera, horse-racing, NASCAR, American football, Game of Thrones, etc. etc.) but can just quietly go about my business following my legal pursuits, and rejoice in the variety and richness of it all.

It was thus refreshing, however, to find elsewhere, in the same issue of the TLS, the following statement  –  about cricket. An Indian politician, Shashi Tharoor, wrote: “And yet, this match revealed once again that cricket can serve as a reminder of all that Indians and Pakistanis have in common – language, cuisine, music, clothes, tastes in entertainment, and most markets of culture, including sporting passions. Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us together – one that transcends geopolitical differences. This cultural foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in the UK. Cricket confirms that there is more that unites us than divides us.”

Well, up to a point, Lord Ram. That claim might be a slight exaggeration and simplification, avoiding those tetchy issues about Hindu-based nationalism, but no matter. Cricket is a sport that was enthusiastically picked up – not appropriated – in places all around the world. I cannot be the only fan who was delighted with Afghanistan’s appearance in the recent World Cup, and so desperately wanted the team to win at least one game. I have so many good memories of playing cricket against teams from all backgrounds (the Free Foresters, the Brixton West Indians, even the Old Alleynians), never questioning which ‘socio-cultural sphere’ they came from (okay, occasionally, as those readers familiar with my Richie Benaud experience will attest), but simply sharing in the lore and traditions of cricket with those who love the game, the game in which, as A. G. McDonnell reminded us in England Their England, the squire and the blacksmith contested without class warfare getting in the way. Lenin was said to have despaired when he read that policemen and striking miners in Scotland took time off from their feuding to play soccer. He then remarked that revolution would never happen in the UK.

For a while, I considered myself part of that very wholesome tradition. I was looking forward, perhaps, to explaining one day to my grandchildren that I had watched Cowdrey and May at the Oval (‘Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago  . . .’), and that I could clearly recall an evening in late July 1956 where I overheard a friend of my father’s asking him whether he had heard that ‘Laker took all ten’. But Ashley, and the twins Alexis and Alyssa (one of their maternal great-grandfathers looked just like Ho Chi Minh, but was a very gentle man with no discernible cricket gene in his make-up) would surely give me a quizzical look, as if it were all very boring, and ask me instead to tell them again the story of how I single-handedly tracked down the Surrey Puma . . .

Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley reacting to the story of Jim Laker’s 10-53 at Old Trafford

Uprooted and rootless I thus remain. My cosmopolitan days are largely over, too. Even though I have never set my eyes on Greenland’s icy mountains or India’s coral strand (or Minsk), I was fortunate enough to visit all five continents on my business travels. I may still make the occasional return to the United Kingdom: otherwise my voyages to major metropolitan centres are restricted to visits to Wilmington for appointments with the chiropractor, and cross-country journeys to Los Altos, California to see James and his family.

So where does that leave me, and the ‘common cultural mosaic that binds us together’? A civilized culture should acknowledge some common heritage and shared customs, while allowing for a large amount of differences. Individuals may have an adversarial relationship in such an environment, but it should be based on roles that are temporary, not essentials. Shared custom should prevent the differences becoming destructive. Yet putting too many new stresses on the social fabric too quickly will cause it to fray. For example, returning to the UK has often been a strange experience, revealing gradual changes in common civilities. I recall, a few years ago, walking into the branch of my bank in South Croydon, where I have held an account since 1965. (The bank manager famously gave me what I interpreted as a masonic handshake in 1971, when I was seeking a loan to ease my entry into the ‘property-owning classes’.)  The first thing I saw was a sign on the wall that warned customers something along these lines: “Abuse of the service staff in this bank will not be tolerated! Offenders will be strictly prosecuted.”

My, oh my, I thought – does this bank have a problem! What a dreadful first impression! Did they really resent their customers so much that they had to welcome them with such a hostile message? Was the emotional well-being of their service staff that fragile? Did the bank’s executives not realise that customer service requires a thick skin? And perhaps behind all that lay a deeper problem – that their customer service, and attentiveness to customers’ needs, were so bad that customers too often were provoked into ire? Why would they otherwise advertise that fact to everyone who walked in?

I can’t see that happening in a bank in the United States, where I am more likely to receive the well-intentioned but cringe-making farewell of ‘Have a blessed day!’ when I have completed my transaction. That must be the American equivalent of the masonic handshake. (No, I don’t do all my bank business via my cell-phone.) Some edginess and lack of trust appear to have crept in to the domain of suburban Surrey – and maybe beyond. Brexit must have intensified those tensions.

Another example: In North Carolina, when walking along the street, we residents are in the habit of engaging with strangers as we pass them, with a smile, and a ‘Good Day!’, or ’How are you doin’?’, just as a measure of reinforcing our common civility and good humour. When I last tried that, walking around in South Croydon, where my roots are supposed to be, it did not work out well. I got a scared look from an astonished local, as if to say: ‘Who’s that weird geezer! He clearly doesn’t belong here’. And he would be right.

In conclusion: a list. As a retired Anglo-American slightly Aspergerish atheist ex-database administrator, I love lists, as all persons with the above description predictably do. My choice below catalogues fifty cultural figures (including one pair) who have influenced me, or for whom I hold some enthusiasm, a relationship occasionally enhanced by a personal encounter that contained something special. (I should point out, however, that I was brought up in a milieu that stressed the avoidance of showing excessive enthusiasm: ‘Surtout, pas trop de zèle!’. Somehow I survived American business without being ‘passionate’ about anything.) That does not mean that these persons are idols, heroes, icons, or role-models – they simply reflect my enthusiasms and tastes. But they give an idea of how scattered and chaotic any one person’s cultural interests can be in a pluralist society. Think of them as my cosmopolitan roots. Rachel Cusk did not make the list, but she would probably have beaten out J. R. R. Tolkien and Eric Hobsbawm.

Kingsley Amis

Jane Archer

John Arlott

Correlli Barnett

Raymond Chandler

Anton Chekhov

John Cleese

Robert Conquest

Peter Cook

Peter Davison

Theodor Fontane

Milton Friedman

Alan Furst

Peter and Rosemary Grant

Robert Graves

Emmylou Harris

Friedrich Hayek

Audrey Hepburn

Ronald Hingley

Clive James

Paul Jennings

Gordon Kaufmann

Hugh Kingsmill

Heinrich von Kleist

Arthur Koestler

Osbert Lancaster

Philip Larkin

Stephen Leacock

Fitzroy Maclean

D. S. Macnutt

René Magritte

Nadezhda Mandelstam

John Martin

Peter Medawar

H. L. Mencken

Christian Morgenstern

George Orwell

Arvo Pärt

Sergey Rachmaninov

Joseph Roth

Peter Sellers

Eric Shipton

Posy Simmons

Joe Simpson

Wilfred Thesiger

Alan Turing

Immanuel Velikovsky

Carolyn Wells

Michael Wharton

P. G. Wodehouse

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Special Bulletin: In Search of Henry Hardy

Regular readers will know that Isaiah Berlin has featured prominently in my research. His planned trip to Russia with Guy Burgess in 1940 was what triggered the course of study leading to my doctoral thesis; my article in History Today, ‘The Undercover Egghead’, analysed his role in intelligence; his study of Marx and Marxism plays a pivotal role in Misdefending the Realm, where I also record his wartime activities, including his somewhat shady dealings with the Soviet agent Gorsky; I have written about his private life in ‘Isaiah in Love’, and in ‘Some Diplomatic Incidents’, both posted on this website.

Isaiah Berlin

Throughout this time Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, and the man largely responsible for bringing Berlin’s writings to orderly publication, and a broader audience, has been very helpful to me, providing me with unpublished source material, and answering my questions. He attended the seminar on Berlin that I held at the University of Buckingham, and I had the pleasure of travelling to the Wirral to visit him a few years ago. Yet Henry has, quite naturally, been a little suspicious of my motives, thinking that I was perhaps a ‘conspiracy theorist’ (true, in a way), and he has probably not agreed with all my conclusions about the qualities of Berlin’s thought, or the judiciousness of some of his actions. I believe I can confidently state, however, that he respects the seriousness of my methods, and my commitment to scholarship.

Henry Hardy

Last year, Henry published a book titled In Search of Isaiah Berlin, in which he describes his decades-long relationship with Berlin, and his struggles (as they must surely be called) to bring Berlin’s papers to a state ready for publication and see them into print. (He had already kindly sent me some of these works that I had not already acquired.) A philosopher himself, Henry also records the exchanges he had with Berlin in trying to understand exactly what lay behind the ideas his mentor espoused, attempting to resolve what appeared to him to be contradictions.

The book recently became available in the USA, and I have now read it. While enjoying the saga of Henry’s activities as an editor, I must confess to being somewhat disappointed by the essence and outcome of the philosophical debate. (I am probably a little jealous, too, that Henry’s book has received far more attention in the press than has Misdefending the Realm, but that must be due both to Henry’s energies and the fact that Berlin is still regarded as a national treasure.)

‘In Search of Isaiah Berlin’ by Henry Hardy

Henry’s reflections concern some of Berlin’s more controversial assertions, especially those about the universality of human nature, and the nature of pluralism. At the risk of oversimplifying what is a deep discussion in the second part of Henry’s book, the paradoxes arising from Berlin’s writings that particularly interested me could be stated as follows:

  1. Are human values in some way universal, and thus shared? If so, whence do they derive? And should we treat behavior that appears essentially as ’evil’ as still ‘human’?
  2. How does a pluralist outlook relate to the national culture to which it belongs, and how should it treat dogmas that ruthlessly reject such a compromising worldview?
  3. Can pluralism function as a remedy against relativism, namely the view that values have no standing outside the society or person who espouses them?

Berlin appeared to cherish some thoughts about the objectivity of such a common core of values across humanity, but provided little evidence, and Henry’s earnest and well-framed questions frequently drew no convincing response from Berlin. I was somewhat alarmed at the fuzziness of all of this, and accordingly organised some thoughts to send to Henry, to which he generously replied. That exchange comprises this Special Bulletin. Henry’s comments appear in bold in the passage below.

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Dear Henry,

Congratulations on the publication of In Search of Isaiah Berlin. I enjoyed the story of your quest. I wonder: will we soon read a parody by David Taylor in Private EyeHope springs eternal …

I was prompted by the intensity of your debate, and my own exposure to IB’s writings, to record a few reactions, not exactly random, but not comprehensive or fully-formed, either. (I have not studied what sociologists have no doubt written about these issues.)

The dominant thought that occupied me was that, if the great thinker’s ideas needed to be explained by his amanuensis, and yet that interpreter could not find any consistency or coherence in them That’s an exaggeration: my difficulties are local, and I believe resolvable, though not, it seems, by IB at that stage of his life, when his mind had begun to rigidify, then perhaps the ideas were not that outstanding in the first place. Some critics have called out IB for humbuggery, but, now having read your book, I am more convinced that IB accepted that he was not a great or original thinker, and was indeed surprised by the attention, acclaim, and awards that he received. Yes, I think he meant it, though he was not too keen when one agreed too readily.

What also struck me was a disappointing vagueness in the terminology used in the discourse. That point is well taken, and indeed I make it myself in the book (e.g. p. 207). But to some extent vagueness goes with the territory: ‘Out of the vague timber of humanity no precise thing was ever made’, one might say. This point was made by Aristotle: ‘It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.’ Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, 1094b.24. IB himself is aware of this point: I could look for the references if you wanted them. But the main message is that human affairs do not lend themselves to the same precision as the sciences. You may recall that, in Misdefending the Realm, I wrote of IB’s book on Marx: “In his method and style, Berlin echoes much of Marx’s verbosity, and displays an unexpected lack of precision in his references to such concepts as ‘civilisation’, ‘class’, ‘nation’, ‘race’, ‘community’, ‘people’, ‘group’, ‘culture’, ‘age’, ‘epoch’, ‘milieu’, ‘country’, ‘generation’, ‘ideology’, ‘social order’, and ‘outlook’, which terms all run off the page without being clearly defined or differentiated.” I am not sure that watertight definitions of these terms are possible; but of course one should use them with all due care. (I also asserted that the book was ‘erudite, but not really scholarly’ – an opinion with which Professor Clarke of All Souls and the University of Buckingham agreed. I agree too. Did you really find it ‘brilliant’ (p 61)? Yes, in the sense that he gets inside Marx’s skin and understands what makes him tick: far more important, in my opinion, than getting the references right. Sadly, I saw this pattern repeated in many of the exchanges you had with IB. What does it mean, for example, to wish that humanity could have ‘moral or metaphysical unity’ My phrase not IB’s: I meant living in a shared moral and conceptual world (p 251)? Who are ‘normal human beings’ (p 177)? That is the $64,000 question, to which chunks of this book, and all of the next one, are/will be devoted. It was also one of IB’s recurring themes, of course, but it is not an easy one: he appeals to ‘A general sense of what human beings are like – which may well not merely have gaps but be seriously mistaken in places – but that cannot be helped: all vast generalisations of this kind are neither avoidable nor demonstrable’ (p. 189).

 I also found the debate all very abstract. That may be a valid criticism. My own default methodological rule is to give at least one concrete example of every abstract point, but I expect I fail to do this reliably in the book. However, part of the problem is that IB and I have a more philosophical temperament than you do, as a historian. That’s why I invited unphilosophical readers to skip chapters 9–11. Do you not agree that it could have benefitted from more real-world examples? Probably (see above). Perhaps some references to research being performed in more scientific disciplines than philosophy, such as anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, or even history, and the dreaded sociology? Perhaps, but a leading burden of IB’s song is that human studies are generically different from scientific ones, and this means that there is a limit to how far the latter can throw light on the former. Some disciplines are partly hybrids between the two, including those IB mentions on p. 189; and he always insisted that science should be used to the maximum extent possible. I, however, am too ignorant to summarise the current state of science. (IB tends to support this point of exposure on p 189.) As I write, I have in front of me the March 1 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. In one review, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham is quoted as identifying ‘coalitionary proactive aggression’ as a drive that launched human ancestors toward full humanity. I read that review too, and found it enormously suggestive. A few pages later, Michael Stanislawski draws our attention to Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide (which I have read, and have referred to on my website), which describes how members of a friendly community suddenly turned mercilessly on each other under the experience of both Nazi and Soviet occupation. What do such pieces tell us about any consistent ‘human nature’, and how could other such experts contribute to the debate? Good questions, which again I am not competent to answer. But there are connections between them and my suggestion that IB underrates evil.

I believe that one of the problems is that, if we talk about ‘human nature’ in a vacuum, we enter the world of mysticism, akin to that of religion. Ignorance rather than mysticism, in my case: I am dead against mysticism. Where does human nature reside? In human biology, history and society. How is it passed on genetically by DNA, or modified by culture and education? IB (p 184) indicates that he thinks that religion is ‘hard-wired’ into human nature: if this were true, how and when did this occur? Who knows? We can only examine ourselves as we are now, and such records of the past as we have, and speculate. And when did the wiring fail I don’t regard its absence as any kind of failure, but as a (sometimes hard-won) strength for those of us who do not require that facet in our lives? And how do such religious instincts get wired into those who would practice, say, honour killings, under the guise of religion by culture, again, which can be a malign force? Does human nature thus not end up being simply those traits that we enlightened beings consider desirable? We must avoid that risk: it should be those traits that are actually beneficial, which is a different matter. Or is human nature just another name for something that is mere tradition, and thus differs in separate countries and times, like the practice of suttee or female circumcision? No: that’s exactly what the term is not supposed to refer to. (Would their adherents say it was ’tradition’ it’s mistaken tradition, in my opinion or ‘human nature’?) And what do we do with a monster like Eric Hobsbawm, who was feted for his historical accomplishments, but to his dying day refused to deny that the murder of millions on behalf of the Communist cause had been a mistake? Was he human? Or was he simply ‘malign’, a ‘pinpusher’, as IB might describe those who fall outside the morally acceptable? Was he ‘evil, without qualification’ (p 194)? Not quite, perhaps; but he was what IB describes as ‘wickedly wrong’ (p. 261).

P.S. I noticed that, in the next issue of the TLS, dated March 8, David Kynaston offers a review of Richard J. Evans’s biography of Hobsbawm, subtitled ‘a national treasure whose politics provoked endless bitterness’. What can one say about a ‘culture’ that promotes a worm like Hobsbawm to such status? It is all here, including the notorious ‘Desert Islands Discs’ programme where Hobsbawm openly approved the slaughter of millions in the communist cause. As John Gross is recorded here as saying, such apologists would have been the first to be lined up against the wall to be shot.

On religion, I was surprised by your rather weak defence of atheism, as if we needed a new term to define somebody who simply ‘doesn’t understand’. I think we do, for the reasons given; but this doesn’t make one a weak(er) opponent of religion, as my book surely shows. If I am faced with all the verbal paraphernalia of, say, Christianity, with the ideas of God, angels, saints, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, Holy Spirit, saviour, resurrection, eternal life, soul, immaculate conception, transubstantiation, prayer, etc. etc., it is quite easy to take the line that this is all mumbo-jumbo, and no more worthy of discussion than the existence of the Tooth Fairy. It would be easier for me to have conversation about beginnings and ends with an atheist from Turkmenistan than with my fundamentalist Baptist neighbour, who is presumably of the same ‘culture’ or ‘society’ that I find myself in. I share your alienation from that terminology, but to call it mere mumbo-jumbo underestimates its allegorical/metaphorical significance for many believers, something IB accepts (up to a point).

It is no doubt fashionable to talk about ‘cultures’, and the pluralist bogeyman of ‘multiculturalism’, but I believe the concept is much more fluid (and evasive) than your debate suggests. I would maintain that we have to inspect ‘culture’ in at least three dimensions – temporal, geographical, and social, and determine how it relates to the concept of a nation (is there a national ‘culture’ yes, to a greater or lesser extent is specific cases; how does it relate to that country’s rule of law closely?). For example, British (or English!) culture has changed over the centuries: we no longer accept bear-baiting, hanging, slavery, child labour, or duelling, but are currently torn over fox-hunting, and largely indulgent of fishing for sport. Our mores over divorce and homosexuality have gradually evolved in recent decades. We extend the geography to talk about ‘European’ culture, which in its most lofty forms presumably means such features as a free press, scientific inquiry, French cuisine, the Prado, and the Eurovision Song Contest, but have to make exceptions for such localised cultural activities as eating horseflesh, bull-fighting, euthanasia, and lax regulations concerning gun-ownership. (European culture also produced the horrors of Nazism and Communism.) Within a certain country, there may be differences between (and I hesitate to use the terms) ‘high’ culture, such as opera, fox-hunting and polo, and ‘low’ culture, such as fishing, greyhound racing, grunge rock, or trainspotting (p 223)! I might consider myself a ‘cultured’ person without indulging in any of those activities. Thus I find it very difficult to identify something that is a clear and constant ‘culture’ among all these behaviours. Fair enough. One can certainly try to be more careful in one’s use of terms such as ‘culture’. But everyone knows what one means by something being characteristically British, German, Japanese etc.

 So what is the pluralist culture that IB defends? He says (p 194) that he is ‘wedded to his own culture’ – but what is that? Englishness, mainly. He writes about a ‘dominant culture’ in every society, and asserts that the ‘society’ has a right to protect itself against ‘religious or ethnic persuasions which are not compatible with it’ (p 199). But what standing does this have in law? Culture doesn’t operate only by legal means; but law can help support the dominant culture. Enlightened people should stand up against ‘grooming’ and bigamy, presumably of course, but who decides what is compatible and what is incompatible outside the processes of legislation? Everyone, by consensus. What allowances are made for religious observance? I wish it were none, but can’t persuade myself to defend such an extreme position. Should parents be allowed to indoctrinate their own children in some faiths, but not others? Not in any faith, say I: all children should be educated in the plurality of faiths, in the hope (for me) that this will help inoculate them against faith as such. Are they allowed to reject certain socially beneficial practices, such as vaccination? I say no. Don’t tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses! What would IB have said about wearing the niqab in public places? He was probably in favour of allowing it: some Jews, after all, wear skullcaps in public; some Christians crosses. It makes my own flesh creep, but I can’t agree that it should be totally banned. The best test of one’s tolerance is when it is most severely tried.

While I was groping with the elusiveness of what ‘a culture’ means, I read further in the March TLS. It was fascinating. I read pieces about Jews in Belarus, and Circassians in Palestine, and reflected how sad it was that individuals should try to solve their problems of ‘identity’ by searching for the odd habits and practices of one of their grandfathers. Quite so. (I would not expect my grandchildren to do this, since they have a mixture of Vietnamese, West Indian and typically complex British grandparents: is that because we are privileged, or merely sensible?) And then I encountered a marvellous essay by Hanif Kureishi, ‘Touching the Untouchable’, where he looks back at the Satanic Verses scandal. He quotes (disapprovingly) some remarkably silly statements by John le Carré and Roald Dahl, which run as follows:

“My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity” (le Carré), and

“In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work why? in order to reinforce this principle of free speech” (Dahl), and then goes on to state:

“The message of the Enlightenment is that we have some choice over who we want to be, making our own destiny as individuals, without submitting to gods, revelation or ancestors. The basis of this is a liberal education and a democracy of ideas. These are not British values – over which Europeans have no monopoly – but universal ones.”, and closes with:

“Notions of criticism, free-ranging thought, and questioning are universal values which benefit the relatively powerless in particular. If we gave way on any of these, even for a moment, we’d leave ourselves without a culture, and with no hope.”

I think making that equivalence of ‘a culture’ with ‘pluralism’ is spot on bravo, although I think Kureishi is being too optimistic yes: what he should have said is that they should be universal values when claiming these are ‘universal values’, as apparently even members of the intellectual elite do not share them with him, let alone Islamicists = Islamists/Moslems?. And of course, Britain is still part of Europe, with or without Brexit, so the distinction between ‘British’ values and ‘European’ values is somewhat specious, but also telling.

 In summary, I find all the talk about a ‘common core’ of human values, an inherent ‘human nature’, and a definable ‘culture’ all very unconvincing. ‘The crooked timber of humanity’ is indeed that: human beings are very unpredictable, and display very different traits over time and space. Human culture, including religious belief, is not genetically wired in any way, but passed on through the agencies of family, school, friends, church, etc. (For example, I hear so many Americans say that ‘hunting is in everybody’s blood, because once “we” were hunters’: but I have never had any desire to hunt, although if I were starving, I might rediscover the skill. cf. my remarks in the book about militarism, e.g. p. 333) There is no biological basis for ethnicity I think this an exaggeration, given the generalisations of physical anthropology, or the notion of practices inherited through it. Geneticists still do not understand exactly how evolutionary adaptation works. Morality is the sphere of the personal: expansive social actions claiming broader virtue frequently fall foul of the Law of Unexpected Consequences a point IB regularly makes. What governs cultural activity is partly the rule of law, which operates at the level of the nation-state, whose actions themselves should be controlled through democratic processes. The preferred ‘culture’ should simply be pluralism. There is also room for culturally specific ingredients like the Japanese tea ceremony, which are neither required nor prohibited by law, but maintained by tradition for as long as they last. (And, in my implementation, Hobsbawm would not be persecuted, but he would not be invited to appear on Desert Island Discs.)

In Misdefending the Realm I attempted to draw my own picture of how this dynamic operates in a liberal, pluralist society. ‘Forgive me’ (as you are wont to say to your mentor) for including a paragraph here: “In a pluralist society, opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group), and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere. So long as the laws are equally applied to all citizens, individuals can adopt multiple roles. The historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin, who has featured so largely in this book, was a major contributor to this notion of the ‘incommensurability of values’, although he did not confidently project it into political discourse why do you say this? I don’t say it in the cited article?.[i] Moreover, a highly important distinction needs to be made: pluralism is very distinct from ‘multiculturalism’, which attempts to reduce the notion of individual identity by grouping citizens into ‘communities’, giving them stereotyped attributes, and having their (assumed) interests represented collectively outside the normal political structure and processes.”

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Henry and I could probably debate further, but I think we are of a very similar mind, and the differences are minor. I did add to him that I thought that philosophers (and others) have to be very careful when they use analogies from the sciences in describing human behaviour (e.g. ‘hard-wired’, ‘in our DNA’), because the usage is dangerous as a metaphor, and inaccurate if meant literally. I also don’t deny the succour that religion has brought to many people (the Paul Johnson theory that because it is beautiful and beneficial, it must be true), but it doesn’t alter my belief that it should be called out for what is, and mumbo-jumbo conveys exactly the right spirit for me. I hope this exchange encourages readers to seek out Henry’s book – and, of course, Misdefending the Realm, for those who have still resisted my entreaties. I look forward to the next publication he promises us.

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