Revisiting Smiley & Co.

Last month I re-read John le Carré’s classic story of betrayal in Britain’s security services, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It must be almost forty years since I first picked it up, since my Pan paperback edition came out in 1978. I do not believe I completely understood what was going on at the time, although the television serial produced by the BBC a year later made things a little easier. Now, with my deep background reading into espionage and intelligence, it was much easier to understand the plot, and pick up the threads and references.

A now obvious theme that had not made much impression on me earlier was the veiled introduction into the plot of real-life incidents and characters. Thus Rikki Tarr’s involvement with the Soviet agent Irina, and her sudden extraction back to the Soviet Union, echo the Volkov incident, where the would-be Soviet defector and his wife were spirited out of Turkey to be killed in Moscow, after Philby had betrayed them. The Arabist father of Bill Haydon (‘our latter-day Lawrence of Arabia’) is a clear pointer to the political persuasions of Kim Philby’s own father, Harry St. John.  The Oxford club of ‘Optimates’ (‘an upper-class Christ Church club, mainly old Etonian’ – Chapter 29) while of conservative leanings, is a clear analog of the Apostles, based at Trinity College, Cambridge, where most of the Cambridge Spies were recruited. The formidable Connie Sachs was probably based on the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, who maintained scrupulous records on Communist suspects for MI5, and had a phenomenal memory. Under-Secretary Oliver Lacon, with his ‘tight-lipped moral complacency’, has all the patrician smoothness of Gladwyn Jebb, who was indeed responsible for liaising between the Foreign Office and the security services. Even the workname of Jim Prideaux, Ellis, is a sharp pointer to the infamous Soviet mole, ELLI, never accurately identified, but whose brief syllables provide eerie hints to the various characters who have been at one time or another suspected of being the person behind the cryptonym: Guy Liddell, Graham Mitchell, Roger Hollis, and the undeservedly overlooked Leo Long (‘LL’). Le Carré even introduces a naval intelligence officer named ‘Lilley’ (Chapter 16) to extend the joke and enrich the pageant.

But one aspect that newly impressed me was Le Carré’s skills in characterization, especially his use of different speech registers both to describe and distinguish the intelligence officers. This was a strength that I had picked up in the last Le Carré novel that I read, The Russia House. The idioms and manners of speaking that anyone uses are influenced by many factors: family, locality, education, friends, associations, interests, etc. If taken to extremes, such registers become mere caricature, or may be applied for humorous affect if out of character (for instance, if I started using Cockney rhyming-slang in an exaggerated manner, or used Bertie Wooster vernacular). If deployed subtly, however, they can add much credibility and distinctiveness. Hence Ricky Tarr’s cheeky-chappie sub-American slang makes him instantly memorable and situates him somewhat out of his element among the refined bosses of the Circus; Toby Esterhase’s struggles with British idioms plant him carefully as an anglicised mid-European intellectual, and thus an outsider; Percy Alleline’s sarcastic and pompous banter ( his ‘one instrument of communication’) sharply sets him up as the boss who keeps control by reminding his underlings of their inferior status; Roy Bland’s ‘caustic cockney voice’ incorporates disrespect; Bill Haydon’s sharp-witted barbs and lively images can be seen as a screen to conceal his real character and actions.

And then there is Smiley himself.  His character comes through not so much in his idiom, but more in his manner of speaking, understated, with well-placed silences, and tentative questions, all encouraging his interlocutor to speak more. Perhaps, when most intelligence officers are represented by Le Carré as having all the traditional human failings of ambition, jealousy, and disloyalty, he is everything we should expect in an intelligence officer responsible for guarding the realm – solid, dry-witted, pragmatic, apolitical, dogged, analytical – and a little boring. Those plodding and unspectacular attributes are what enable him to solve the problem. Yet Smiley’s triumph in uncovering the mole Bill Haydon is undermined by Le Carré in a discomforting – and, to me, unconvincing  ̶  way. Even though Smiley has been cuckolded by Haydon, on the disclosure of the latter’s treachery, he still harbours doubts about Haydon’s guilt:  ‘Yet there was a part of him that rose already in Haydon’s defence. Was not Bill also betrayed?’ (Chapter 36)  Le Carré continues: ‘Thus Smiley felt not only disgust; but, despite all that the moment meant to him, a surge of resentment against the institutions he was supposed to be protecting.’ But Le Carré presents those institutions as being the officers of the Circus: ‘such men invalidate any contract: why should anyone be loyal to them?’ To portray a traitor as someone who has inexplicably been betrayed by the survival of decent life after the ruins of war and the onslaughts of two varieties of totalitarianism, yet somehow because of that succumbs to a bankrupt and cruel creed, is a bit rich. Haydon was no hero for the communist cause, no purist like Milovan Djilas, carping at the obtuseness of Stalin and the extravagances of Tito.

Not only that. For it is part of Le Carré’s grudge (as is clear from some of his later works, as well as from Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography of him) that the Western system was as essentially corrupt as was Communism, and their security services thus equally at fault. And here the author falls into the familiar territory of moral equivalence, providing the false contrast of ‘capitalism’ with ‘communism’, and suggesting that there is really nothing to choose between them. As he has Haydon say: ‘In capitalist America economic repression of the masses is institutionalised to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen’, something that simply sounds absurd coming from someone as cultured and intelligent as Haydon. ‘He had often wondered which side he would be on if the test ever came; after prolonged reflection he had finally to admit that if either monolith [sic!] had to win the day, he would prefer it to be the East.’ What nonsense! It is a very unconvincing portrait: on the one hand suggesting Haydon is a victim, and then giving him the most vapid ideological reasons for staying with Stalinism. The logic is as sophistical as one of the main reasons that Kim Philby, Le Carré’s model for Haydon, gave for his own loyalty, and clearly echoes it. Despite ‘some things going badly wrong in the Soviet Union’, as Philby wrote in My Secret War, ‘finally, it is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito.’ It is as if Le Carré (who declared that he blamed Philby for his premature exit from SIS), unconvinced by Philby’s feeble defence of Communism, was unable to come up with any better rationale to explain Haydon’s treachery, and had to resort to a message of Haydon as someone with a justifiable chip on his shoulder, over which Smiley is taken in.

Moreover, Le Carré falls for that familiar Marxist-Leninist dogma, weakly adopting the terminology of that argument. The struggle was not between capitalism and communism, but between totalitarianism and liberal democracy, with its pluralist instincts and necessarily messy approach to making policy. The West was no ‘monolith’. The problem with resisting dogmatic and pernicious creeds is that liberal democracies struggle to defend themselves confidently, as it is difficult to make an ideological virtue out of such fragmentation, out of pluralism itself. But it was the defence of such liberal institutions as parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, regular open elections, an independent press, freedom of religion and conscience, trial by jury, etc. that Smiley was supposed to be guarding – not the transient careers and reputation of the officers of an intelligence service. In fact it was a misguided loyalty to MI5 that encouraged Liddell, Hollis and Dick White to attempt to cover up their mistakes – not only about the discovery of moles in their midst – but also (for example) over Klaus Fuchs, and force their boss, Percy Sillitoe, to lie to the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, over their surveillance of the atom spy, a deception that has not been properly revealed to this day.

Some of the brave defectors from the Soviet Union realised this self-delusion better than their emancipated cousins resident in the West. One of these, Ismail Akhmedov, in his memoir In and Out of Stalin’s GRU wrote, of Philby: ‘To completely close the circle he will pass into oblivion, into an empty abyss during one of his drunken hours, as did Burgess, and join the company of butchers, henchmen, headhunters – call them what you will – the despised enemies of the unfortunate Soviet people still yearning for their freedom.’  Philby’s hypocrisy was revealed in a video recording discovered and broadcast a few weeks ago. He was recorded giving a lecture on spycraft to some STASI (East German secret police) officers in 1981 (see . His final lesson for them? ‘Never admit to anything if you are caught.’ But Philby never had to undergo torture, or threats to his family of he did not admit his guilt, or the prospect of a shot in the back of the head without trial. If MI5 and Special Branch had found convincing proof of his guilt, he probably would not have been prosecuted successfully without a confession and an embarrassing trial, and would likely have been told instead (as was Anthony Blunt, in effect): ‘Why don’t you quietly retire, old boy, as we don’t want any nasty mess and bad publicity for the service, do we?’.

Yet this bias of indulgence towards Stalin’s despotism is well-entrenched in Western intellectual life. I have just read David Lodge’s ingenious, but bizarre and ultimately unfulfilling, ‘novel’ about the love-life of H. G. Wells, A Man of Parts, where Lodge offers the following observation: ‘It took him [Wells] a long time, for instance, to recognize how completely Stalin’s police state had betrayed the ideals [sic] of the Russian Revolution. But at least he was never taken in by Mussolini and Hitler, as many British pundits and politicians were.’ ‘At least’?? Who was ever taken in by that strutting Italian socialist-cum-fascist showman? As for Hitler, the number of intellectuals (or pundits or politicians) truly taken in by his ideology was dwarfed by the number of useful idiots and fellow-travellers who were duped by Stalin. Certainly, the odious message of Mein Kampf was a dire warning of worse to come, and the persecution of Jews was well under way, but, at the outset of WWII, the quantity of massacres and murders perpetrated by Stalin was orders of magnitude greater than that for which Hitler had thus far been responsible.

A strong residue of sympathy endures for the great Communist ‘experiment’, and Marxist apologists are still all too ready to overlook the famines, the purges, the Gulag – and the Maoist Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge . . .  In fact, wherever the communist attempt to make a ‘new man’ has taken root, it has meant the elimination of millions who either chose the wrong parents, or defied the new ideology, or who were simply innocent victims caught up in the terror. Unfortunately, it appears that John le Carré, who, while having welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall, continues to rail against capitalism as he maximises his substantial royalty cheques, did not, and still fails to, understand the relationship between free enterprise and liberal democracy. But he tells a rattling good yarn, and has a great ear for the registers of speech.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.  (May 31, 2016)


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Sonia’s Radio – Part I


The Book Cover       


Sonia’s  Inscription

A couple of years ago, I bought on-line, from a bookshop in Minneapolis, an item titled ‘Sonjas Rapport’ (‘Sonia’s Report’) by one Ruth Werner. It is rather a drab publication, a fourth edition of 1978, issued by Verlag Neues Leben, in East Berlin.  On one of the leading pages, it appears that the author has written an inscription for the buyer. It runs as follows: ‘Jeder Autor hat beim Aufschreiben seiner Erinnerungen Schwierigkeiten; Auswählen, Komprimieren und die Wahrheit sagen, das war für mich der Weg. Mit gutem Gewissen, Ruth Werner. 14 Avril 1977.’ [‘Every author experiences difficulties in recording his or her memoirs: to select, to condense and to tell the truth, that was the approach I took. With a clear conscience, Ruth Werner. 14 April, 1977.’]

What is going on here? Is this a hoax? Why would the inscription be dated ‘April 1977’ when the book was printed the following year? A Google search for the sentence is partially rewarding but also frustrating: it seems that this was something that Werner had declared when the book was first published. An occasion to celebrate her 75th birthday (in 1982) reproduces the sentence. See:   So, Werner presumably thought it appropriate to annotate the volume with her pronouncement, but indicate the date she first said it, at the time of the book’s launch, I imagine. The statement is, however, both anodyne and perplexing. Of course, every memoirist faces difficulties – but was telling the truth one of these challenges? And why introduce her ‘conscience’ unless she had something she was feeling guilty about?

So why did I seek this particular book out? Because Ruth Werner (aka Ursula Hamburger, or Kuczynski, or Beurton: agent SONIA) was one of the most notorious Communist spies of the century. (I direct readers to her Wikipedia entry to learn more about her life and career. See: Now, we must bear in mind that the reminiscences of spies are not at all trustworthy, despite their claims to clean consciences and honesty, and Werner’s work was no doubt controlled by Soviet military intelligence, the GRU. Yet I was especially interested in what she had to say, because of my research into Communist subversion in the early part of World War II. For Sonia managed to hoodwink an incompetent MI5 into letting her back into the United Kingdom, after her arranged marriage to Spanish Civil War veteran Len Beurton in Switzerland (by which she gained British citizenship), in the winter of 1940-1941. Soon thereafter, she became the primary contact for Klaus Fuchs, allowing the German Communist (now also a naturalised Briton) to give her atomic secrets for passing on to Moscow, and she started using radio equipment given to her by her London contacts (or maybe constructed by herself) to communicate information to her bosses in the Soviet Union. Falling upon a signed copy of her memoir was quite a coup.

Yet Sonia pulled off this massive espionage exercise when MI5 was completely aware of her political affiliations, and the probable intentions behind her marriage, as well as her relationship with her openly subversive brother, Jürgen, who was interned early in 1940, alongside some of his Comintern friends. Moreover, a couple of years later, in January 1943, a wireless set was discovered at the cottage in Oxfordshire which she was renting from Neville Laski, the brother of the notorious Communist sympathizer, Harold Laski! Yet nothing was done. What was going on?

Now that my doctoral thesis has been submitted, I can turn to some of the puzzling and controversial episodes of communist subversion in the period of the 30s and 40s (and occasionally beyond)  that have never been satisfactorily resolved (e.g. Kim Philby’s recruitment, Philby’s relationship with Stephen Spender, Guy Burgess’s protectors, Isaiah Berlin’s relationship with Soviet intelligence, Klaus Fuchs’s Aliens War Service permit, Victor Rothschild’s guilt, the early detection of Leo Long’s espionage, the role of Basil Mann, the death of Hugh Gaitskell, etc.). Why illicit broadcasts from Soviet spies were allowed to proceed unpunished is one of the most perplexing of these challenges. The journalist/historian Michael Smith even claims that, during World War II, a nest of communist spies was overheard discussing plans for the forthcoming war between the Soviet Union and the West. (That assertion must be tested.) Ursula Werner’s ability to remain untouched is part of that enigma.

Most of this story has been told before. One of the best accounts appears in Chapman Pincher’s ‘Treachery’, although the reader must be careful with Pincher’s narrative, as he provides no sources for his multiple claims, and since his goal is to show that Roger Hollis was the Soviet Super-Spy in the innards of MI5, his objectivity and accuracy (especially as regards chronology) cannot be readily trusted. For example, his argument is that Sonia was able to continue to perform untroubled because Roger Hollis and his counter-espionage partner in SIS, Kim Philby, were able to keep the authorities from investigating and prosecuting her. Yet it seems inconceivable to me that those two would be able to pull off such a coup, and convince their masters of the correctness of such a course of action, without drawing obvious attention to themselves. Moreover, MI5 harboured a more deep-seated problem of dealing with Communists than might have been contained in the unbrilliant mind of Roger Hollis.

Wireless and its associated techniques are a complex area, attracting both brilliant and slightly eccentric characters. As George Smiley says, when describing to his colleague Peter Guillam the encounter he had with Karla, in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “We all have our prejudices and radio men are mine. They’re a thoroughly tiresome lot in my experience, bad fieldmen and overstrung, and disgracefully unreliable when it comes down to doing the job.” (Chapter 23).  I can’t claim to have a good understanding of the technology involved, but I believe I have learned enough to conclude that the failure to act over Sonia (and maybe other spies at the time) was not a technical problem.

I do know that possessing unregistered wireless sets was illegal, as was using registered sets for transmission. I have learned that, in the first years of the war, the responsibilities for tracking, recording and decoding illicit radio transmissions (as well as messages originating from overseas) were calamitously split between such groups as the BBC, Military Intelligence (in a section called MI8), Section W in MI5, the Radio Intelligence Service and its offshoots (which was a reincarnation of the group within MI8 called MI8(c), and moved to SIS in 1941), and the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), whose name was changed to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in 1943. I know that MI8(c) and RSS very much focused their efforts on Nazi wavebands (‘the enemy’), even when the Soviet Union was still an ally of Germany, that is up to June 1941. (Older readers of this blog may be familiar with the BBC 1979 television programme ‘The Secret Listeners’, which described the corps of amateur wireless enthusiasts who aided the effort. It is viewable at   I recall that MI5 rapidly claimed, in its promotion of the Double-Cross System, that no unidentified Nazi spies remained at large in the UK, sending radio messages back to Germany, despite the administrative mess.  I know that Malcolm Frost, who joined MI5 from the BBC to run Section W, was a very arrogant and ambitious character, and that Guy Liddell (head of B Division, responsible for Counter-Espionage) felt threatened by him.  I know that the head of MI8(c) protested the move of RSS to SIS, and that his boss, the Director of Military Intelligence, tried to talk the head of the Security Executive (Swinton) out of it, but that Petrie of MI5 and Swinton forced the transfer through in May 1941.  I also know that, once MI5 had declined the offer to take over RSS itself in early 1941, Liddell started being very critical of RSS’s direction-finding techniques and discipline.

But what I don’t know is who called the shots, who made the fateful decisions to minimise the Communist threat and to allow people like Sonia to continue working, even after the defector Krivitsky had warned MI5 of the dangers of Communist infiltrators. I certainly do not yet know what is the source of Smith’s claim that the codes of the Soviet spy network in 1943 had been broken, and by whom, or whether the Joint Intelligence Committee knew what was going on. In the coming months, I plan to dig around relevant papers at the National Archives that are available on-line, various works of intelligence history (which are very contradictory about organisation and responsibilities on these issues), and the memoirs of such as the history don Hugh Trevor-Roper (who worked for RSS).  I thus hope to be able to offer a workable hypothesis as to why MI5 – or the government in general – was so indulgent with the Soviet Union’s subversive efforts with illegal radios. Anyone who has unpublished (or published) insights on these issues is encouraged to contact me at

Finally, a hint as to the muddle that was MI5 – and at the same time a reminder that it was such a pluralist muddle that we were fighting for in the struggles against the totalitarian states. Readers may recall those wartime films, where the Gestapo homes in on the desperate SOE agent, feverishly tapping out a Morse message on his (or her) radio set, perhaps in an attic in suburban France, hoping that he can complete it before the Nazis, with their goniometric equipment, can identify the location whence the transmissions are made. The Gestapo officers normally burst in just as the operator is winding down. And we know what happens next: the agent is executed – or maybe, after torture, turned to send false messages back to Britain. If the operator does not use a cyanide pill first, or puts a revolver to his or her head.

Guy Liddell’s Diaries report an incident when the German spy Wulf Schmidt, known as TATE, after being maltreated by a brutal Military Intelligence officer, is rescued by MI5 and persuaded to track down where he buried his parachute and wireless set after landing. MI5 sends out its men to Cambridgeshire to dig it up. But they forget to alert the local constabulary of their intentions. As Liddell records it (September 24, 1940): “The worst of it was that the police, L.D.V. [Local Defence Volunteers], etc. have been scouring the country for this wireless set during the last 48 hours. They eventually came upon some people who reported that some mysterious diggers had come down in a car and removed what appeared to be a wireless set. On making further enquiries they discovered that these people were officers of M.I.5.” On another occasion in 1940, Liddell complains that the police are not allowed even to enter any house merely on the suspicion that illicit transmissions may be going on.  (Maybe that reminds you of the current ban in Brussels on night-time police incursions into possible terrorist houses.)

Watch this space! I plan to provide the next installment in a couple of months’ time.

P.S.  The New York Times fails to learn. Despite my attempt to engage the newspaper a couple of months ago (see Refugees & Liberators), it has not got things straight. In an article on immigration to Germany in its Magazine of April 10, James Angelos wrote: “The scale of the influx last year – roughly one million asylum seekers in all, nearly half of whom made formal applications – was exceeded in German history only by the influx of ‘ethnic Germans’ who were expelled from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after World War II.”

P.P.S.  Again, for those of you who want to contact me, please send your message to my email address at If you use the box underneath maintained by WordPress, your message will probably get lost among the literally thousands of spam messages that I have not yet ploughed through. If I have not yet acknowledged your genuine message deposited there, I apologise.

This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.           (April 30, 2016)

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Hey Big Spender!

‘So let me get right to the point
I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see
Hey, big spender!
spend a little time with me’                                                                                                                     (from Sweet Charity, 1966: lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

Shortly after it was released in 1977, I saw the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Based on a memoir by the American playwright Lillian Hellman, it tells the story of a close friendship between Hellman and the mysterious ‘Julia’, a rich American girl who had gone to Europe, studied at Oxford, and then moved to Vienna in the hope of being treated by Freud. Having involved herself in rescue operations of Jews and Communists from under the noses of the Fascists, Julia is severely crippled by the latter. Hellman, struggling with her writing in the summer of 1934, goes off to Europe to try to find her friend, and a few years later undertakes a dangerous mission of smuggling money into Berlin to help save more souls. Later, she learns that her friend had been attacked and was near to death in Frankfurt, but had been spirited out of the country to London, where she died. Hellman tries to discover what happened, and attempts to contact Julia’s grandparents, but finds instead a wall of silence.

I thought the film rather overwrought and unlikely at the time, but knew next to nothing about Hellman (or even Dashiell Hammett, of Maltese Falcon fame, with whom she was living on Long Island), and had only a vague understanding about Austrian politics in the mid-1930s. So I put it to the back of my mind, thinking it was a harmless vehicle for Hanoi Jane and the ambassadress for the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Ms. Redgrave, and concluded that the luvvies at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences must have seen something I didn’t when it was nominated for eleven awards, and won three.

My interest in Julia was sparked a year or two ago as I was performing research for my thesis on communist subversion. The name of Muriel Gardiner came up, and I learned that she had been the model for Hellman’s Julia, who had featured in an eponymous chapter in Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento, and had also appeared in embryonic form in her 1969 memoir An Unfinished Woman. Muriel Gardiner was indeed a rich American who from 1922 to 1924 had spent time at Oxford performing graduate work in English Literature, had moved to Vienna to seek out Freud and be psychoanalysed by him, and had become involved with the communist movement there. But the coincidence ended at that point, as Muriel Gardiner was in fact very much alive when she brought out her own autobiography, Code Name ‘Mary’ in 1983. What is more, she wrote that she had never met Lillian Hellman.

Gardiner explains in her memoir that she had been prompted to write her account to set the record straight, several of her friends having pointed out to her the resemblance between her and Hellman’s Julia. She apparently read Hellman’s book soon after it came out: Sheila Isenberg (Gardiner’s biographer) says that she paid ‘little heed’ to it at first, as her time was consumed with looking after her husband, apparently stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and her interest was not stirred until the movie was released. But Isenberg then represents the chronology very awkwardly, suggesting that Gardiner had discussions with her friends about the movie, but ‘at first refused to say anything directly to Hellman’. Isenberg next reports, however, that ‘in 1976, she did finally write a letter to Hellman’. But since Julia was not released until 1977, the timetable does not make sense.

So what about the letter? It is an extraordinary compilation, a mixture of deference and polite puzzlement. Gardiner starts by describing Pentimento as ‘a beautiful book’  – a somewhat unfortunate choice of words, as later paragraphs will show. She wonders whether the character Julia could be a composite of several persons: “I do not at all think so, but cannot help wondering that I never – as far as I know – met Julia. Nor have I met you, though I heard of you often from our good friend, Wolf Schwabacher  . . .”  (Schwabacher was a lawyer, with whom Muriel and her husband, Joe Buttinger, shared a large house in Pennington, New Jersey, when she returned to the USA in 1940.)   Why would Gardiner bother to point out to Hellman that they had never met, and, even more to the point, why would she not have tried to arrange a meeting to discuss the topic first? An introduction would surely have been easy.

Gardiner’s biographer adds that Hellman had ‘first borrowed Muriel’s life’ late in 1940, when she created ‘the wealthy American Sara Muller, the wife of a European resistance leader’, in The Watch on the Rhine.  But Gardiner had missed the play and the film. Now her tactful approach gave Hellman an opportunity to explain all. Yet she signed off her letter by saying even that there was no need for Hellman to answer it. Why? If she was genuinely interested in what had happened, why give Hellman the out? Instead, Gardiner studiously avoided pinning Hellman down, and when she came to research her own memoir a few years later, she even made contact with the head of the Documentary Archives of the Austrian Resistance, in Vienna (a Dr. Herbert Steiner), to confirm that no other resistance fighter with the same profile had existed. Instead of pursuing Hellman a little more energetically, behavior that would have been much more conventional and acceptable, she went chasing hares.

Hellman accordingly took advantage of the invitation, and did not answer the letter, yet continued to lie about the person of Julia. Anyone interested in more details on this part of the saga can read Sheila Isenberg’s biography of Gardiner (Muriel’s War), or William Wright’s biography of Hellman (Lillian Hellman), or such articles as the New York Times review of Code Name ‘Mary’, at What is certain is that Hellman was not only a Stalinist, but an inveterate liar, and was called out as such. She died before her famous lawsuit against Mary McCarthy came to court. McCarthy had famously said of Hellman on the Dick Cavett Show on October 18, 1979 that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’ Hellman’s mendacity is made perfectly clear in a volume of conversations she had with the media between 1974 and 1979 (i.e. before and after the movie was made), published as Conversations with Hellman (1986), where she confidently begins by boasting of her memory, and swears to the truth of her story, and the strength of her friendship with Julia, but by the end is resorting to awkward equivocations as some of the inconsistencies come to light.

This February, I at last read Pentimento, and also rented the movie Julia from the University Library. The memoir is pure hokum. For example, Hellman describes Hammett and herself spending the summer of 1934 on Long Island, until Hammett agrees to pay her fare to go to Europe for two-and-half months, so that she can finish her play The Children’s Hour, and see Julia. She arrives in Paris, where she calls Julia in Vienna, and tells her she will join her. As Hellman tells it: “Then, two weeks after my phone call, the newspaper headlines said that Austrian government troops, aided by local Nazis, had bombarded the Karl Marx Hof in the Floridsdorf district of Vienna.” Hellman arrives there to find Julia in hospital, having been severely wounded in the fracas surrounding Floridsdorf. Yet the storming of the Karl Marx Hof (the worker community constructed by the Viennese socialist administration) had occurred in February 1934! And the first night of The Children’s Hour was on November 20, 1934, which made the whole construction a nonsense. It was hardly worth my reading on. (Hellman’s biographer Wright notes the first anomaly, but how come nobody else did at the time?)

The movie was even worse, second time around. True, the producers did try to fix some of the obvious problems in the original story  ̶  such as correcting the oversight that, when she returned to Europe in 1937 on a mission to go to a conference in the Soviet Union, Hellman was able to change, while in Paris, her itinerary to Moscow to go via Berlin without gaining permission from the Soviet consulate, and the plugging of some other obvious gaps. But the character ‘Julia’ drew such attention to herself with her nervous mannerisms, and flamboyant outfits, that it defied credibility. As Gardiner herself said to friends (Isenberg, p 378): “How absurd to think that the likes of Jane Fonda could have sat unobserved, wearing that ridiculous hat, waiting for Vanessa Redgrave in the middle of a restaurant in broad daylight in Nazi Berlin!” And why select a Jew for the dangerous job? Wright lists other anomalies, such as the fact that the whole premise of having to smuggle in dollars to Berlin was false. Why some researcher did not investigate all this before the film was made is astonishing. (One irony, to me, was that it would have made better casting sense to have had Julia, i.e. Muriel Gardiner, who was a very attractive woman, played by Fonda, while Redgrave’s – ahem  ̶  more austere beauty would have suited better the less than stellar features of Hellman. But the producers no doubt had to have an American playing Hellman.) As for Redgrave’s Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, it was a joke. She doesn’t appear much, and is swathed in bandages for half the time. Otherwise, she just sits there, looking saintly, peering devotedly into Fonda’s eyes.

The main focus of this piece, however, is on Gardiner, who has always been presented as a very honest person compared to the monster Hellman. Yet a careful examination of her memoir, and of other accounts of her adventures, indicates that she could be parsimonious with the truth as well. This pattern is reflected in three key incidents in her life: her first marriage, her voyage to Moscow in 1932, and her romantic encounter with an English poet, which events together suggest that her account of her dealings with Lillian Hellman may also be unreliable.

In her memoir, Gardiner completely overlooks what one would think would have been an important episode in her life  ̶  her first marriage. While in England, she had met, at the British Museum, an American, Harold Abramson, whom she had known from Ithaca, New York. A passionate affair led to an apparently reluctant marriage in London on November 25, 1925, and it was the failure of that marriage that led her to psychoanalysis. Abramson accompanied her to Vienna, where she failed to see Freud, but underwent analysis with one of his pupils, Dr. Mack. She then had a tempestuous affair with a Welsh artist named Richard Hughes during a trip to England, and divorced Abramson in the spring of 1929. By then she had met an English musician, Jonathan Gardiner, in Vienna, and married him on May 20, 1930. Gardiner glides over this period of her life, which must have been very painful. Yet in the Introduction to her memoir, she writes, while explaining her decision to write the autobiography in the first person: “I decided I would rather risk a lack of modesty than questionable honesty.” Admittedly, the lie was more one of omission than commission, but it was still an extraordinary failing by someone purportedly aiming to set the record straight.

The Gardiners had a child, Constance Mary, born on March 24, 1931, when Muriel was already falling out of love with her husband. And in the next few years, she embedded herself deeply in the leftist/communist movement in Vienna. She met the journalist G. E. R. Gedye, who put her in touch with people in the underground, and she became friendly with various English socialists there, such as Hugh Gaitskell and Frederick Elwyn Jones. Muriel even recalls meeting Kim Philby at this time, although she claims she didn’t realize it was Philby until much later, when she saw his photograph in a bookshop in Connecticut. Philby asked her to deliver a package to a comrade: she claims in her autobiography that she opened the package after he left, and was annoyed to find a large amount of money, and Communist literature. Surprisingly, Gardiner never mentions Philby’s wife, Litzi Friedmann, although there were few women active in the groups working to help the socialists and Jews. In The Third Man E. H. Cookridge says that Philby claimed that he himself had recruited Gardiner into the Revolutionary Socialists, but Cookridge says she was discovered by one Ilse Kulczar. As Isenberg tells the story: “Muriel’s first covert action was to establish her apartment (the one she would soon have to vacate) as a place to hide people. There she also held several meetings of Leopold and Ilse Kulczar’s Funke (Spark) group, named after Lenin’s underground newspaper, Iskra (The Spark). The Kulczars were intelligent and savvy left-wing socialists – a label that also identified her, Muriel now realized, bemused.”

Gardiner was in fact heavily involved in clandestine activities, with her several properties in Austria exploited for meetings and storage of illicit materials. The Communists were busy infiltrating the Socialist groups in Vienna, and managing their work from the comparative safety across the border, in Czechoslovakia. Philby’s British passport was a vital asset that allowed him easy transit between the two countries. As Cookridge (born Edward Spiro) relates of Gardiner, with convincing detail: “She had plenty of money, a villa in the Vienna Woods, a large apartment in the Rummelhardt-Gasse in one of the outer districts and a pied-à-terre in the Lammgasse near the university. She also had a four-year-old daughter, looked after by a nanny and a maidservant. . . . She made her flats available for illegal meetings; the garden sheds at her villa were soon filled with stacks of clandestine news-sheets and pamphlets.” Thus her claim that she was not aware that Philby was asking her to pass on money and Communist literature (how was such distinguishable from revolutionary-socialist pamphlets approved by a Leninist cell, one might ask?) appears a little naïve. Cookridge says that he broke with Philby when he realised that the latter’s money was coming straight from Moscow, but Gardiner did not appear to initiate any similar rift.

Just after the storming of the Karl Marx Hof, Gardiner decided to take a holiday. According to her account, in late April 1934, she chose to go to Mlini, in Yugoslavia, with her daughter and the governess, Gerda. (‘Governess’ sounds a bit advanced for a three-year old, but then all good socialists have governesses for their children.) As she wrote: “I had selected this spot from various circulars because it was the only one that advertized a sandy beach. The proprietor, replying to my various inquiries, told me that two distinguished English journalists who had been staying at the inn for several weeks were enchanted with it.” After that, she planned to leave her daughter and attendant while she travelled down the coast to Greece. What she didn’t say was that she was accompanied by her current lover of the time, Furth Ullman. In Mlini, she discovered who the ‘two distinguished English journalists’ were. One of them was the poet Stephen Spender, and she was smitten. Spender was ‘strikingly handsome, very tall and well built, with a slight stoop, probably because of his height’. This reaction is echoed by Isenberg: ‘Muriel’s impression of the tall, boyishly handsome young writer was of a “graceful animal”’. Now, an argument could be made that Muriel did in fact ‘pop her cork’ for many men she saw, but this time she was truly entranced. And so was Spender, who found Muriel ‘irresistible’.

There was a slight problem, however. For a highly attractive and lusty young woman in the 1930s, Stephen Spender was perhaps not the best candidate for a long-term relationship. For Spender’s sexual adventures had been solely with men up till then: not only that, he was accompanied in Mlini by his current boyfriend, Tony Hyndman. Yet Muriel and Stephen exchanged confidences, and spoke intimately of their pasts, before Muriel moved on to Greece. Muriel claimed she had never heard of Spender, which was somewhat surprising, given that her post-graduate research in English Literature, and that by 1932 Spender was already a hero of the Oxford literary scene, alongside Auden and Isherwood. She writes that Spender was ‘eager to learn all he could about the events of February and the underground movement’, and adds: “We had both been at Oxford, although not at the same time, and we shared similar reservations about it”, but, oddly, she does not remark as to whether they had shared acquaintances there.  In any case, after two weeks with Ullman touring the Greek coastline, Muriel picked up Connie and Gerda, and returned to Vienna by early May. Later that month, Spender and Hyndman joined them there, as Hyndman needed treatment for an inflamed appendix, and Muriel was soon able to seduce Stephen. Yet Stephen could not choose between her and Tony, although he wrote lyrically to Christopher Isherwood about his affair. Gardiner soon started to become interested in another man, a Socialist colleague Joe Buttinger, whom she would marry, and remain with all her life.

Can we trust the accounts of this affair? To begin with, the dates of the encounter do not ring true. Gardiner said she picked Mlini after looking at several brochures, but also indicates that she had decided to go on holiday at the end of April, had then had an exchange of letters with the proprietor of the hotel, who promoted the hotel’s attractiveness by saying that two English gentleman had been there for several weeks. According to John Sutherland, in his biography of Spender (Stephen Spender, A Literary Life), Gardiner picked Mlini because of the sandy beach, and that she continued her journey to Greece ‘after a day or two’. As Gardiner recounts it, she left Connie and Gerda in Mlini, and took a leisurely trip down the coast, exploring each town at every port of call, and then spending ‘a few days in Athens’. She then returned to Dubrovnik, where she picked up Connie and Gerda, and they were all back in Vienna ‘in early May’. That is quite a speedy accomplishment, especially if Gardiner truly made her decision to leave for Mlini only ‘in late April’. Even with an efficient postal system, how could she have had such a productive exchange with the proprietor in such a short time? And was the line about the ‘sandy beach’ an inadvertent gaffe in trying to add verisimilitude? Sunderland observes laconically: ‘Stephen recalls it having a stony beach: brochures fib.’ Perhaps leftist subversives fib, too. (Current tourist material states: “But the main assets of Mlini are its beautiful, natural beaches with clear blue sea, surrounded by rich and fragrant Mediterranean vegetation. There is even [sic] one sandy beach and a beach for nudists reachable by boat”. So perhaps they are both right.) Sutherland also seems to get it wrong about the Englishmen. He says that the proprietor told her of them when she checked in: Gardiner gives the impression she had received the news in a letter.

Irrespective of how sabulous was the beachfront at Mlini, what was Spender’s version of the timetable? Spender and Hyndman had in fact left London by train in the first week of April with Isaiah Berlin, who split from them in Milan. They continued on in leisurely fashion via Venice and Trieste. But Sutherland reports that Spender and Hyndman arrived in Mlini only in the second week of April, which makes nonsense of the proprietor’s claim to Gardiner. And the choice of Mlini was somewhat problematical. Earlier, Stephen had indicated that he planned to go to Dubrovnik for the winter of 1933, but had been talked out of it by Gerald Heard. Then Geoffrey Grigson apparently recommended Mlini (which is about six miles down the coast from Dubrovnik), and the recommendation was taken up. (Grigson had founded Poetry Review, and in 1936 was the messenger who informed Isaiah Berlin that Spender had joined the Communist Party, a fact that Spender then awkwardly denied, calling Grigson ‘a donkey’.) Was Grigson complicit in the meeting, perhaps?

And what about the decision to meet in Vienna? Isenberg writes that ‘Muriel made plans to see Stephen in Vienna where he and Tony planned to seek medical help for Tony’s inflamed and possibly infected appendix.’ Sutherland indicates that the appendix flared up after Muriel had left: “In May, medical opinion hardened around the appendix diagnosis. The Dubrovnik doctors recommended an operation – in Vienna preferably.” (Doctors? How many? One might imagine that in 1934 experienced gastroenterologists were as sparse in Dubrovnik as Huntingdonshire Cabmen, although it is touching to visualise a group of them around Hyndman’s bed, stroking their beards, and discussing the optimum treatment, while milord Spender sits pensively in the background, composing an ode for the occasion.) Thus the medicos conveniently anticipated the plans that Stephen had already communicated to Muriel. So Stephen then wrote to Muriel, and she arranged for Tony to be accepted at a hospital. Thus a further conflicted story appears: moreover, appendicitis was not an ailment that could be addressed leisurely – especially in 1934, when it was frequently fatal. Yet Spender and Hyndman took their time, and did not arrive in Vienna until May 22.

Moreover, Spender later tried to mask the identity of his beloved. After his arrival in the Austrian capital, he wrote a very mediocre poem (‘Vienna’) that attempts to mingle his ambiguous sexual impulses with the stumblings of the revolution. He openly dedicated it to ‘Muriel’, as my Random House 1935 first edition informs me. Yet, by the time he published his autobiography, World Within World, in 1951, Spender disguised Muriel as ‘Elizabeth’, indicating also that she (with daughter and nurse, but no mention of the lover) all stayed for ‘a few days’. It was not until he was interviewed with Muriel by a TV station in Chicago in 1984 that he admitted to the presence of Ullmann  ̶  ‘a rather steely fawn-eyed young man who passed as her cousin (actually he was her lover)’. So why the deception: did he think no-one would pick up his poetic dedication?   He also wrote that he did not learn about Muriel’s two failed marriages until later, in Vienna: Isenberg, using Gardiner’s unpublished reminiscences, suggests he learned of them while in Mlini. Thus no clear lead on the chronology appears.

One spectacularly unusual item in Spender’s account from this time, which must cast doubt on his overall reliability, is a claim that he climbed one day up a path from Mlini beach to the coastal road, and saw a cavalcade of six-wheeled cars passing, in the first vehicle of which a man turned his head to Stephen and stared at him. It was Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag. But has anybody verified that Goering was in fact in Croatia at this time? (Leonard Mosley’s biography of Goering does not help here.) Was this event an elaborate hoax by Spender, or a dream, where the form of Goering haunted him? Stephen had recently completed a poem about Goering, who had indicted and humiliated the mentally-deficient Dutchman, van der Lubbe, for burning down the Reichstag. Van der Lubbe was then falsely convicted at the show trial, and beheaded in January 1934. The timing of this coincidence is extraordinary.

All in all, it sounds very much as if Gardiner and Spender arrived in Mlini at about the same time, in mid-April. The perspicacious reader (if he or she has lasted this far) may well have noticed the writer’s implicit suspicion that the encounter was perhaps not accidental. As a matter of social etiquette, it should surely have been very difficult for two strangers to develop so quickly such an intimate relationship (especially given Spender’s inexperience with women), when they were each accompanied by their sexual partners. What did Ullmann and Hyndman do while Muriel and Stephen were getting to know each other? Yet, despite the disconcerting details about the sandy beach, the time the two Englishmen had been there, the by no mean galloping appendicitis and its aftermath, and how Muriel’s itinerary worked, the evidence that the surprise encounter was bogus is admittedly still flimsy. Except for one very significant last point.

In 1932, Muriel had made a visit to the Soviet Union. She is very lapidary about this expedition in her autobiography, just indicating that she spent a few weeks in Moscow, and ‘became familiar with the views of a large number of foreign students in Moscow’, but she says nothing about her companions on the trip, or how it was organised. Later, however, describing her time in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss (March 1938), Muriel provides a hint, mentioning that she found someone called Shiela Grant Duff in her apartment. “Shiela, a young English friend whom I had first met in Vienna and who had been with me in Russia in 1932, was now a reporter in Prague. She had come to Vienna to witness the Anschluss first hand.” So how well did she know Grant Duff, and what happened concerning Moscow?

Grant Duff was one of the many female leftist/communist acolytes of Isaiah Berlin. What is more, she had been the girl-friend (but almost certainly not the lover) of Berlin’s friend, and sometime Soviet agent, Goronwy Rees.  (I have written about the 1933 exploits of her, Rees and Berlin in Central Europe before: see Homage to Ruthenia.) In 1982, Grant Duff published a memoir, A Parting of the Ways, subtitled A Personal Account of the Thirties, which is a useful description of the rise of Fascism in that decade, and the reactions of committed socialists like herself. In the summer of 1932, she was in Germany with Rees, and they witnessed the Nazi brutality against Jews and socialists, followed by the vigorous acceptance of Hitler at the polls at the end of July. They decided to leave Germany for Vienna, since ‘many Oxford friends were in Vienna’. Her words describing her time there are worthy quoting in full.

“The smiling, familiar faces of our Oxford friends and acquaintances were infinitely reassuring. William Hayter was there at the Embassy and Duff Dunbar. Martin Cooper was studying music there. Stephen Spender was around and had made a wonderful American friend, Muriel Gardiner, who befriended us all. She was studying psychoanalysis under Freud and living with her little daughter in a flat near the Opera.” Grant Duff goes on: “One night  . . . I fell asleep, only to awake to a most startling proposition – that Neill [her brother], Goronwy and I accompany Muriel on a visit to the Soviet Union, entirely at her expense.” After Muriel returned to London ‘on urgent business’ they reunited in Warsaw, and made their voyage to Moscow. Just like that. Wasn’t it in practice much more difficult to get visas for the Soviet Union?

If Grant Duff’s account is true, it is an astonishing revelation. (Isenberg cites Grant Duff’s memoir, but does not appear to have noticed the early reference to Spender.). Is it possible that she had got the dates wrong? That she had erroneously imagined Spender was there in Vienna in 1932, even though she clearly associates the encounter with the Gardiner-Spender friendship? But it hardly seems likely that she would have made a mistake of that magnitude, just before making a trip to Moscow funded by Gardiner herself. Moreover, she does recall the daughter, and the location of Muriel’s flat. As for Spender, according to Sutherland, his movements that year were as follows: he was in Berlin on July 12, and five days later, travelled to Salzburg, where he remained until the middle of August, reportedly in the company of Isaiah Berlin. Before returning to England on August 18, he spent a few more days in Berlin. Isaiah’s only two published letters from Salzburg that August are to Goronwy Rees and John Hilton: in the letter to Rees, he mentions (vaguely) Spender’s name, but says nothing about his presence there. [Since this original posting, I have discovered, on the Isaiah Berlin website maintained by Henry Hardy, a newly  published letter from  Berlin to Julia Pakenham, dated August 1934, which gratuitously introduces the fact that a Mr. Coughlan had met Berlin with Stephen Spender in Salzburg in 1932.] He writes to Grant Duff on October 13, so she is clearly back in the United Kingdom by then (she had to be back for the beginning of the Oxford term), though nothing is said of the visit to Moscow. Is that not strange? Was it deliberately avoided?

Michael Ignatieff, Berlin’s biographer, offers no details on the summer of 1932: Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, states in his notes to the Letters of that time that Berlin was in Salzburg with Frank Hardie in July, with no mention of Spender. Did Spender thus use Salzburg and Berlin as an alibi for a visit to Vienna to see Muriel? It is entirely possible. Spender’s son, Matthew, has told me that he believes Stephen was in Vienna twice ‘before he met Muriel’: he is seemingly unimpressed by the Grant Duff anecdote. And, even if the presence of Spender in Vienna was an illusion, surely, if Gardiner had accompanied Grant Duff, her brother, and Rees to Moscow, they would have discussed possible acquaintances at Oxford? And, if Muriel and Stephen had met before, what was the purpose of Mlini? Was Spender acting as some kind of courier?

At first glance, that notion does not make sense. After all, Spender’s and Hyndman’s next port of call would be Vienna – though admittedly an unscheduled one, if one believes what Spender said. So why would Gardiner travel to Croatia to deliver a message to Spender? No clearcut reason – unless Philby had perhaps been involved. Again, Gardiner is misleading about the chronology. She suggests that her meeting with Philby took place after she had met Spender in Mlini, and Isenberg echoes this theme, stating that ‘Philby had arrived in Vienna that spring of 1934’, and adding that it was ’his mission to work with leftists, such as Stephen and Muriel, in the Socialist struggle’. But Philby actually left Vienna in April 1934 (i.e. just before Gardiner decided to get away), having married Litzi Friedman in a hurry. Cookridge says that he had to leave quickly, warned by his Comintern friends that he had been compromised. Philby had arrived the previous autumn, and some historians, such as David Clay Large, make the reasonable assertion that Philby was recruited by the Comintern while in Vienna, not when he returned to London, as Philby claimed in his own memoir, and in conversations with various journalists. And, if Philby’s mission had been to work with leftists like Muriel and Stephen, it would imply that Stephen had associated with Muriel well before the Mlini encounter. Isenberg does not explain this anomaly. Perhaps Philby needed to pass a message about his recruitment, hasty marriage, imminent exposure, and escape to London to his cohort, Spender, and encourage his friend to take over some role in Vienna. Indeed, Spender did act as a courier helping Muriel, and the two of them went to Brno in January 1935, taking messages from the Kulczars. Hence the story about the appendicitis. If so, this would be a link between Spender and the ‘Cambridge Spies’ that has not been explored hitherto.

In his recent memoir A House in St. John’s Wood, Matthew Spender recounts the circumstances in which, after Guy Burgess absconded with Donald Maclean in 1951, his father was questioned by MI5, in the person of William Skardon, the interrogator of Klaus Fuchs, as to whether he knew his friend Burgess was a Communist agent. Spender immediately responded that Burgess continually told people he was exactly that, every time that he got drunk, which was ‘almost every night’. Skardon immediately dropped the subject and slunk away: Burgess socialised regularly with Dick White and Guy Liddell of MI5.  That was not news that the government would want revealed. But Philby was a different matter: he had boldly denied his possible role as the ‘third man’. Hugh Gaitskell had ignored Philby’s dubious activities in Vienna when he (Gaitskell) helped recruit him to the Special Operations Executive in the summer of 1940. Maybe Spender was another who knew Philby’s true colours? And one might conclude that Gardiner’s story about not knowing who Philby was at the time was all a pretence.

What is absolutely clear to me is that you can’t really trust the record of any of these people. It looks as if Gardiner and Spender had met some time earlier, and went to some lengths to conceal their association, agreeing to meet in Mlini, but both bringing cover in the form of their respective lovers to divert distraction. Maybe it isn’t so, but it doesn’t smell right, as the published facts stand.

After his break-up with Muriel, Spender had his own adventures. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and in January 1937, was summoned by its secretary, Harry Pollitt, and charged with going on a secret mission to Spain on behalf of the Comintern to discover what had happened to the crew of the Soviet ship, the Komsomol, which had been sunk by Franco’s Nationalist navy. (“It will be a difficult task, comrade. But Moscow Centre has decided that only you can carry it off.”) Yet a less likely intelligence agent than Spender is hard to imagine (with the possible exception of Jane Fonda and her elegant hatbox). MI5 looked on in amazement as the man whom Cyril Connolly called ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic’ started making his inquiries, and, after getting sent back by Franco’s immigration officers at the Cádiz checkpoint, eventually engaged Lord Marley to investigate on his behalf, via the Italian consulate in Cádiz, what had happened to the missing crew. That was not how Comintern agents did things.

Spender’s failure to be entirely honest about the duration of his love-affair with the Communist Party would lead him into difficulties later, every time he wanted to enter the United States. In 1947, by which time his Communism had been watered down to a wishy-washy United Nations liberalism (The God That Failed came out in 1949), he was offered a visiting professorship for a year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville – not part of the Bronx, it should be made clear  ̶  in New York State. Travelling alone, and in first class (his wife Natasha and son Matthew were to join him in the autumn), Spender left on the Queen Mary on August 20, and found congenial company. As Sutherland tells us, ‘on the boat were Lillian Hellman and John dos Passos’. History does not relate whether the man-eating Stalinist popped her cork at the gangly English man of letters, but the two comrades became friends, and Spender later invited Hellman to join him and a faculty colleague, the aforementioned Mary McCarthy, at an end-of-term party for his class. It was a disaster: McCarthy and Hellman were already sworn enemies, and Hellman for ever afterwards thought she had been set up to be ‘red-baited’.

But is it possible that Spender and Hellman could not have discussed their mutual friend, Muriel Gardiner, now Buttinger, during their shipboard encounter? Hellman would surely have been interested in Spender’s experiences near the barricades in Vienna, and, even if he was discreet about his affair with Muriel, Spender would probably have explained to Hellman that his family was looking forward to spending time with the Buttingers in New Jersey, whom Hellman had heard of via the Schwabachers. Sutherland writes that the three Spenders spent many weekends with the Buttingers in Pennington: Stephen’s son Matthew has indicated to me, interestingly, that it was Ethel Schwabacher, not Wolf, from whom Hellman learned Muriel’s history. And he was there (though very young). Isenberg indicates that Hellman, Wolf’s client, had been hearing tales ‘of the glamorous former member of the Austrian resistance’ for ten years already in 1950, when Muriel and Ethel had a falling-out.

Yet the relationship between Hellman and Gardiner is a puzzlement. As I have shown, Gardiner was a very reluctant inquisitor of the woman who had exploited her identity, and she displayed an uncharacteristic loyalty to the mendacious Stalinist. And, despite apparently serious attempts to meet, and an awkward telephone call shortly before their deaths, they reportedly never actually came face to face to discuss what had happened. Is it possible that they had agreed to some deal, whereby Hellman would use Gardiner’s story for propaganda purposes? Why would the Schwabachers not have suggested, from any time after 1940: “You two should meet! I have told both of you so much about each other, and, as sympathizers with Communists, you must have so much in common!” Why would Gardiner, of all people, on reading Pentimento, not have spotted the mangled chronology, realised where Hellman had picked up the story, and pointed out the glaring anomalies, instead of beating about the bush with Hellman, and then doggedly trying to establish whether there was an alternative ‘Julia’? Why did she almost encourage Hellman not to respond to her letter? Why is the chronology of the letter mangled? Is the letter perhaps part of a false trail? Why the business with Dr. Steiner – and what would he have said about the erroneous dates? Why would Hellman believe she could have got away with so blatant a lie, unless she had some form of approval from Gardiner? Should we really trust Muriel’s account of her meeting with the ‘stranger’, Philby? (And why did Gardiner write her memoir under the long-lapsed ‘Gardiner’ name, as opposed to the legal surname of ‘Buttinger’?) Gardiner’s story is just a bit too pat, too deliberate, and too innocent – yet psychologically unsound – and is thus hardly credible.

I believe this extended anecdote confirms several lessons that I have gained during my doctoral research: 1) memoirs are frequently unreliable accounts designed to enhance the legacy of the writer; 2) the creation of a precise chronology is essential for scholarly analysis; 3) biographers face the challenge of being too close to their subjects: if they want personal information, they need to be trusted, but if they press too hard on challenging accounts, they will get rebuffed: 4) tough questions should be asked of all these witnesses to vital matters of security and intelligence while they are alive; 5) fabulists who try to make a dubious story more convincing often introduce details that turn out to undermine the whole fabric of their deception; 6) these unverified stories, especially when they issue from the pens of the Great and the Good, all too easily fall into the realm of quasi-official historical lore, and get repeated and echoed. (For example, Jenny Rees, Goronwy’s daughter, reproduces Grant Duff’s version of the encounter without question in Looking for Mr Nobody, while the Spender-Gardiner version is accepted everywhere else. Martin Gilbert reproduces Spender’s encounter with Goering as fact in his esteemed History of the Twentieth-Century.)

The thirties were indeed a ‘low dishonest decade’, as Auden said, but the intellectuals of the time were often as dishonest as the politicians. An alternative screenplay of the whole Gardiner-Spender-Hellman melodrama probably exists, one in which Muriel and Stephen did meet before Mlini, in which Philby was involved, and in which Gardiner had an uneasy collusion with Hellman over her experiences. It is perhaps waiting for the evidence to leak out from obscure memoirs, letters and reminiscences. And as for you, Big Spender, what were you thinking? Why didn’t you tell us the truth about Muriel, and what on earth possessed you to imagine that you could be a successful agent for the Comintern? What secrets you took with you to the grave!

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.                     (March 31, 2016)

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On Privacy and Publicity

While reading Robert Tombs’ superlative The English and Their History, I came across the following sentence, describing Samuel Johnson’s and Richard Addison’s London: “The mix of commerce and culture produced what has been termed ‘the public sphere’ – places and institutions for exchanging information and forming opinion, which lay between the purely private world and the official realm”. What could be more representative of that sphere in twenty-first century Britain than the pages of Prospect magazine, ‘the leading magazine of ideas’, as it promotes itself?

The February issue of Prospect included an article that outlined what has to be done with technology – primarily that concerning the use of social networking – to keep the citizens of the UK safe while protecting their liberties. The following earnest and superficially innocuous paragraph caught my eye: “The big technology companies have a crucial role – and unique responsibility – in building the security that keeps us free and safe. We trust them in part because they are private. Co-operation is much preferable to legislation. The next step is for all parties to collaborate on a way forward to benefit from new technologies while doing what we can to stop those who would do us harm. This kind of co-operation between public and private sectors is needs in free societies where security underpins our privacy, private enterprise and liberal democracy.”

But this simply will not do. To begin with, this contrast of ‘the public sector’ and ‘the private sector’ is hopelessly naïve. Whereas a government (or its civil servants) may be said to represent the populace, there is no such entity as ‘the private sector’ that may be negotiated with. A free market consists of a number of competing entities trying to differentiate themselves. Politicians frequently display a very wooden understanding of how markets work: I recall David Cameron’s meetings with ‘industry leaders’ to discover what it is they need from government. But what today’s leading businesses want will be protection in some way from any upstarts who threaten their turf. The needs of the market are not the same as the needs of current market-leaders. (Think of Norwegian Airlines threatening the established transatlantic carriers.) The FBI made the same mistake in thinking it could negotiate with ‘Silicon Valley leaders’ as a method of resolving this problem of encrypted information on PDAs and cellphones. This echoed the policy of President Obama, who in 2015 made a point of trying to ‘cooperate’ personally with Silicon Valley on these issues. Just this week, Obama officials again met representatives from technology and entertainment companies (but not chief executives) to discuss ways of combating extremists on-line. They still do not get it. This is a matter of law – to be addressed either by an interpretation of existing laws, or by new legislation. Parliament, not parleys.

For example, had a similar advance been suggested to computer technology leaders twenty-five years ago, the list of vendors would have probably included IBM, ICL, Data General, DEC, Wang, Honeywell, Siemens-Nixdorf  . . .  Apart from IBM, where are they now? Apple is presumably the IBM of today, but there is no guarantee that the ‘big technology companies of today’  (e.g. Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Twitter and Buzzfeed? – my computer industry advisory panel supplied me with these names) will dominate in ten years’ time. How long ago were Nokia and Blackberry the leaders in personal networking, for example? So how can such a suggested initiative encompass the coming vendors of tomorrow? Schumpeterian creative destruction is always at work.

What’s more, it would be illegal. Since most of the companies affected are American, any move by such to meet to discuss shared endeavours would have to be considered under anti-trust legislation (something that should probably have taken affect with Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act, by the way.) For such companies to ‘collaborate’ with government to define pseudo-voluntary technology ‘standards’ (that would then be implemented at the whim of each company’s R & D design and implementation schedule) would be called for exactly what it is – conspiracy. And this aspect does not even touch the issue of whether such measures would be effective – which I shall not get into. This issue has been gaining intense attention in the past month, when Apple’s Tim Cook has again been assailed by the US Department of Justice. Cook has spoken out vigorously with the opinion that any back-door capabilities into a supplier’s encryption system would be abused by the bad guys. At the same time, Apple is planning for greater encryption of customers’ data in its ‘cloud’, which will make things even more difficult for law enforcement. (‘Ou sont les nuages d’antan?’) Yet in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on February 23, William J. Bratton and John J. Miller gave as their concluding argument for demanding that Apple should unlock its iPhone that Google and Apple ‘handle more than 90 percent of mobile communications worldwide’, and thus should be accountable for more than just sales. If such a rule does apply, it should apply to everyone.

So who is the supposed expert making this fanciful suggestion of bonhomous co-operation? Step forward, Sir John Sawers, ex-head of MI6, who indeed wrote the article. Not only that, Sawers advertises himself as having been ‘Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) between 2009 and 2014’, and his second paragraph reminds us immediately of his credentials: “As MI6 Chief, my top priority was identifying terror attacks against Britain planned from abroad.” Sawers is then described as being the Chairman of Macro Advisory Partners.

What in heaven’s name is the ex-head of MI6 doing exploiting his past career while claiming to be an independent consultant? And how can he suggest that his role therefore gives him some credibility in representing the requirements and desires of the ‘public’ sector? There cannot be a more private organisation than MI6, whose very existence was withheld from the British public until 1994, of which no archival material has been released after 1949 (the year where the authorised history stops), and whence any retiring head a decade or two ago would have quietly folded his tent, picked up his ‘K’ (although Sawers had that already), and shimmied off to Torquay to tend his geraniums and take up square-dancing. Now such persons write their memoirs – surely in contravention of the Official Secrets Act  ̶  and pontificate with the chattering classes in the press.

This dual role of subtly promoting MI6 connections and policy, and claiming to be an independent advisor, does not sit well with me. Can MI5 and MI6 not speak openly themselves about such policy? What do they think of this grandstanding and self-promotion, I wonder? Or has Sawers undergone some shift in position now that he has left his official intelligence hutch behind? If so, shouldn’t he describe what that is?

It gets worse, in a way. A quick search on the Web for Macro Advisory Partners shows that the firm has a Global Advisory Board of seven (see ), of whom the prominent names are Kofi Annan (seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations), David Milliband (of Labour Party renown, and now President and CEO, International Rescue Committee), and William J. Burns (President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an institute which regrettably sounds like one of those Soviet fronts of the late 1940s: indeed, the Soviet spy Alger Hiss was its President between 1946 and 1949.) I didn’t see Cherie Blair’s name there yet, but she is no doubt a very busy woman. Sawers was Britain’s permanent representative to the United Nations between 2007 and 2009, so he no doubt developed some good contacts then. But is he running the show, or he taking his advice from this group of Kumbaya do-gooders? How will his undoubted steeltrap mind have been affected by such company? No wonder his recommendation for solving the technology problem is to get everyone around a table in peace talks.

I believe this is all highly irregular. Sawers surely has a pension that he can live off comfortably: he does not need this jump into the ‘private’ sector, where, ironically he can be much more expansive about his ideas than he was when working for the government. The undoubted impression that casual readers will gain from this promotional journalism is that there is some consistency in MI6 policy from the Sawers regime to the current set-up. That must make it very difficult for the present leaders of MI6 – and MI5, of course – to develop policy and work it through the normal processes, dealing with this distracting noise in the media. If they agree with what Sawers says, are they admitting that they are likewise influenced by pollyannaish internationalist wishful thinkers, instead of by steely pragmatism? And if they disagree with him, what does that say about continuity of purpose and perspective within MI6? It is all very messy, and, in the jargon of today ‘unhelpful’. Sawers should not have been allowed to exploit his past experience for monetary gain, and should have been prevented from entering the public sphere in this way: his employers should have insisted on a more stringent termination agreement.

Lastly, all this reinforces the unhealthiness of the transfer of careers between government and industry, and also demonstrates how absurd the UK Honours System is. ‘Captains of industry’, managing directors of private companies publically traded, should be looking after the interests of their shareholders. They do not provide ‘services to the industry’, for which gongs are awarded.  In addition, they have their own generous rewards, being almost without exception overcompensated by crony boards of directors, and remunerated handsomely even if they fail. Public ‘servants’ (who all too often act as if they were our masters) should be expected to perform their jobs well: if they do not, they should be fired. And when they retire from highly-important positions, they should do exactly that – retire.

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Readers who followed my representation to the New York Times in my December blog may be interested to know of the follow-up. Having gained no satisfaction from the Public Editor (Margaret Sullivan), I wrote an email to the Executive Editor, and then one to the CEO, Mark Thompson. These attempts having resulted in not even an acknowledgment, I then sent a letter to Mr. Thompson, with a copy to the publisher, Mr. Sulzberger. Again, I have failed to extract even an acknowledgment from either gentleman. Did Mr. Thompson learn such manners at Merton College, I wonder?

I have since challenged the Public Editor on the Times’s somewhat irregular decision to give Madeleine Albright the opportunity to explain away her Clinton election campaign gaffe (about women supporting other women lest they go to hell) in an Op-Ed column. Again, no reply. And then, Ms. Sullivan announced earlier this week that she was leaving the position early to join the Washington Post. Am I entitled to imagine that perhaps she became frustrated in dealing with the bizarre journalistic principles at the Times, and that the paper’s failure to act on my complaint pushed her over the edge? (‘Dream on, buster.’ Ed.) As for Mr. Thompson, he left a mess behind at the BBC, and I expect further messes at the Times. This week, the paper ran a story about the post-mortem at the BBC over the matter of protected ‘stars’ like Jimmy Savile, who were allowed to get away with sexual malpractices in a corporate culture of fear at a time when Mr. Thompson was Director-General of the BBC (2004 to 2012). Mr. Thompson’s responsibility for that culture – or even the fact that he led the organisation –  was omitted from the article.

In conclusion, I highlight an item from this month’s Commonplace entries, taken from Hugh Trevor-Roper’s waspish Wartime Journals: “The Christ Church manner, that assumption of effortless superiority, is said to be galling to those who weren’t at Christ Church. But we can’t expect the world to be run for the benefit of those who weren’t at Christ Church.” Indeed.  Stop looking shifty, Thompson.                                            (February 29, 2016)

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The Myth of Buying Market Share

A few years after I became an analyst/consultant at the Gartner Group, I was introduced by one of the DBMS vendors to the thoughts of Geoffrey Moore, who had some original ideas about the challenges of high-tech companies in introducing their disruptive products to mainstream buyers. His book, ‘Crossing the Chasm’ (1991) quickly became a classic in technology circles (see, and I adopted his ideas in evaluating and guiding the strategies of companies in my bailiwick. Some CEOs claimed to be familiar with the theories, and even to putting them into practice, but since the distinct message in the early years of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle was ‘focus’, they understandably struggled to keep their companies in line. ‘Chasm’ thinking requires a proper marketing perspective, but independent VPs of Marketing in technological start-ups are a bit of a luxury, and VPs of Sales always think of Marketing as something that supports their Sales Plan, rather than of their Sales Plan as something which realizes the Marketing Plan. Trying to close a deal to unqualified and unsuitable prospects is frequently an exciting challenge for such types.

As my career at Gartner wound down, and I considered retirement, I chose to move to a small software company in Connecticut. I was quickly brought down to earth: as a Gartner consultant, I had earlier been engaged by the company for a day’s work, at quite high fees, during which the managers attending dutifully wrote down all I said, and nodded appreciatively. When I became an employee, however, and started suggesting (as VP of Strategic Planning) to the CEO how she might want to change some of the processes (such as not having the R & D plan changed each month after the latest visit by a customer or prospect to the development facility in Florida), I was swiftly told: ‘You don’t understand how we do things around here, Tony’. That was not a good sign. So I picked up my thinking about Chasm Crossing, tried to talk my CEO out of an acquisition strategy (devised to show muscle to the Wall Street analysts, but in fact disastrous), and reflected on how financial analysts misled investors about markets. I had learned a lot from the first software CEO I worked for, back in the early 1980s, but he was another who didn’t understand the growth challenge. ‘Entrepreneurial Critical Mass’ was the term he had used to persuade his owners to invest in an acquisition strategy that was equally misguided: I had had to pick up the pieces and try to make it work.  (This gentleman was also responsible for bringing to the world the expression ‘active and passive integrity in and of itself’ to describe the first release of a new feature, which presumably meant that it worked perfectly so long as you didn’t try to use it.)   My renewed deliberations now resulted in an article, titled ‘The Myth of Buying Market Share’, which explained how completely bogus estimates of ‘market size’ misled CEOs and investors into thinking that all they had to do to be successful was to pick up a portion of a fast-growing ‘market’. I believe it was published somewhere, but I cannot recall where.

I reproduce the article here. I have not changed a word: it could benefit from some tightening up in a few places, and some fresher examples, but otherwise I would not change a thing, even though it is now sixteen years old. At the time I wrote it, I contacted Geoffrey Moore, and sent him the piece. We spoke on the phone: he was very complimentary about my ideas, and we arranged to meet for dinner in San Francisco, where I was shortly to be attending a conference. I vaguely thought that I might spend my last few years actually putting into practice some of the notions that had been most useful to me in my analyst role, and wanted to ask Moore about opportunities at the Chasm Group. So, after the day’s sessions were over, I approached him, introduced myself, and said how much I was looking forward to dinner. He was brusque – dinner was off. Obviously something better, somebody more useful, had come along. I was for a few minutes crestfallen, but then realized that I would never want to work for someone who behaved that rudely. I resigned from the software company a month later and began my retirement a bit earlier than planned. Since then I have never touched the industry again, apart from one day’s work for another small software company in New Jersey that desperately needed help, and wanted to hire me as VP of Marketing after I did a day’s consulting for them. North Carolina beckoned, and I have never regretted getting out when I did.

After receiving a fascinating observation from a reader (via Nigel Rees), I have posted an update to my piece on ‘The Enchantment’. The normal set of Commonplace items can be found here.                                                                                                                   (January 31, 2016)

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Refugees and Liberators

In the summer of 1967, at the age of twenty, I spent a few weeks with a German family in Hesse. They were very hospitable to their young English guest, although I believe the parents may have taken advantage of his naivety. The father of the household had survived the Russian Front, which was no mean achievement, and he was understandably rather dour and uncommunicative about the whole experience. His wife, however, tried to propagandise me, claiming that they (i.e. German citizens in general) knew nothing about the concentration camps, and that they believed that they were some kind of ‘holiday camp’ where the Jews were being sent. (I cannot recall her exact words in German, but that was the distinct impression she left with me.) She also made some cryptic remarks about ‘Mittel-Deutschland’ and ‘Ost-Deutschland’, which I vaguely thought at the time must refer respectively to what was then the German Democratic Republic, and the land within the 1937 borders of the German Reich that had been given to Poland after the Potsdam Conference. I was too shy (or too polite) to challenge her on what appeared to be a nostalgic wish that the old boundaries might be restored at some stage. (The Federal Republic of Germany had not at that time even recognized the German Democratic Republic.)

I thought of this Frau when I read a recent New York Times piece titled The Displaced, in its Magazine of November 8, by one Jake Silverstein, which was designed to highlight the fact that nearly 60 million people had been displaced since World War II, and that half of them were children. It was supposed to be an innovative article, using some kind of 3-D technology, an app, and some cardboard Google glasses (none of which I experimented with), but the introductory comments caught my eye. The article reproduced a famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, visible at , but several aspects of the way this photograph was introduced seemed questionable to me. Silverstein describes the picture as follows:  “ . . . a girl of about ten  . .  is standing behind an enormous pile of belongings, which have been rightly packed for a long journey. . . . Both [the girl and her younger brother] look directly at the photographer, who took this picture at Dessau, as scores of Germans displaced during World War II began returning home.” Under the photograph runs the description: “A camp in Dessau, Germany, in April 1945, for displaced people liberated by Soviet troops”.

What is going on here? These phrases provoked so many questions in my mind that I hardly knew where to begin. A camp set up in April, 1945, when the war was not over until May 8? Germans displaced in World War II – by whom, I wonder? Did Germans not cause massive displacements themselves? Returning home? From where? What was their ‘home’, and why were they not ‘at home’ beforehand? And those Soviet troops ‘liberating’ German territories? If they were true ‘liberators’, were the Soviets really encouraging ‘displaced’ people to return to their natural habitat? So perhaps these people weren’t German, after all, as the caption suggested? And might they in fact have been running away in fear from the Soviets, whose reputation for murder, rape and pillage made them, for some, an even more obnoxious threat than the Nazis? For these were, indeed very confused – and confusing – times.

I posed such questions to the Public Editor at the New York Times, as it seemed to me that the paper’s editors must have considered these questions. If they had not, this was surely an example of careless journalism – laziness and superficiality. And I thought the matter important as the episode was being used as a banner for a brand new publishing exercise. Yet, after one perfunctory acknowledgment, the Times has gone silent, and ignored my messages. It presumably either thinks its statements are defensible, or that the whole issue is completely unimportant. I thus decided to document it all myself. I thought the best way of approaching the topic was to attempt to answer those journalistic standbys: What? When? Where? Why? How? Who?


That the photograph shows refugees of some sort, there is little doubt. Yet they do not possess any air of desperation: they look healthy and calm, and do not appear to have been abused.  They are surely not Prisoners of War, or slave laborers. Members of the group in the middle distance are smiling, and the size and volume of the possessions strewn on the street suggests that they have made their way to the camp with some form of transport, perhaps a horse-driven cart, or a man-pulled barrow. They have surely not travelled far, but how can Silverstein know that they are preparing for a ‘long journey’? Is the location really a camp? It is difficult to say. The atmosphere is very different from that of most of the other photographs in this group that refer to the Dessau camp, but the texts of the latter appear very unreliable, indicating, for example, families of healthy-looking Soviet ‘refugees’ who are about to return to their homeland. How Soviet families, for example, were allowed to find refuge from the Soviet Union in the German Reich, and yet apparently flourish, is a question that is deeply inexplicable, one which Magnum superficially brushes aside. And clearly, not all images in the set are taken inside the camp, even though they are captioned as such.

That the Central European problem of Displaced Persons (DPs) was massive is unquestioned. The historian Michael Jones has reported that the number of DPs that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had to deal with increased from 350,000 at the end of March 1945 to over 2 million by early May.


The date of April 1945 must be wrong. It appears that Silverstein just plucked it from the website where the photograph appears, without thinking. The caption for it supplied by Magnum runs as follows: ‘Dessau. A transit camp was located between the American and Soviet zones organized for refugees, POWs, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern Front of Germany that had been liberated by the Soviet Army.’ Since the surrender document created for the Germans was not signed until May 8, it would have been very unlikely for refugee camps to have been set up in April so close to the combat zone, what with fierce fighting still continuing in the neighborhood. Dessau is about fifty miles downstream from Torgau, also on the Elbe, renowned for the certainly staged encounter between US and Soviet troops on the Elbe, which did not take place until April 25. It occurred after a US officer had met a Soviet counterpart on the west side of the Elbe, at Leckwitz, which is about halfway between Torgau and Dresden. Hitler committed suicide on April 29, but the fighting was still intense: between April 16 and May 8, Soviet casualties were over 350,000, of which 100,000 were killed. At that time, there were about 250,000 German soldiers in the zone between the approaching GB-US and Soviet lines. A desperate attempt by German troops and civilians, fleeing from the Soviet forces, to cross the Elbe at Tangermünde, about sixty miles north of Dessau, started on May 6, thus showing that the area was in turmoil right up until the surrender was signed (in Rheims on May 7, and ratified in Berlin the following day).

In fact, an explanation below another photograph expands the time-period: it says that ‘Cartier-Bresson . .  took the photo between 21 April and 2 July 1945, between the American occupation of the city and the arrival of their Russian replacements’. This latter date is certainly a more reliable, yet still dubious, pointer to the time: the US forces vacated Dessau some time in July. Magnum does the cause of scholarly research no favors, however, by assigning the same erroneous caption to all forty-one photographs it displays in this album.


Whereas the boundaries of the occupied zones (Soviet, US, GB, and France) had been set at the Yalta Conference in February, both British and US forces actually advanced up to 200 miles (to the ‘Line of Contact’) inside what was legally the Soviet zone, and did not withdraw until early July 1945. Thus Dessau, which is situated just south of the River Elbe, and west of the River Mulde, was well inside the Soviet Zone of Occupation.  Yet the Magnum captions again distort the facts:  by stating that the transit camp ‘was located between the American and Soviet zones’, they suggest that Dessau was the permanent boundary, and misrepresent the coordinates of the American zone. Moreover, Magnum encourages this view by captioning photographs of refugees crossing the Elbe as follows: ‘The river deviding [sic] the Soviet and American sectors. Refugees making way to refugee camps’, and ‘A pontoon bridge between the border zone crossing of refugees. The river was the line dividing Soviet and American sectors’. Unfortunately, this was the impression many refugees had at the time – that by crossing the Elbe they would reach the safety of the American zone, when in fact Dessau was just about to be ceded to the Soviets.

That there was a camp at Dessau is plausibly confirmed by other sources: it may have been set up on the grounds of an existing Nazi concentration camp. ‘Working for the Enemy’ claims that ‘The Dessau camp is listed by the Red Cross International Tracing Service as having existed from November 1944 until 11 April 1945, with an inmate population of about 340’, suggesting it was dismantled just before the Americans arrived. It cites witnesses who state that a ‘death march’ out of Dessau started around April 11, as Allied troops approached it from all sides. The SS wanted to deliver the inmates to the International Red Cross in Prague. No doubt the same camp facilities were eventually used by the Americans – and then the Soviets.


The emphasis in the New York Times article is on ‘displacement’, more specifically on ‘scores [sic!] of Germans displaced during World War II’ who ‘began returning home’, with the suggestion that such people had been ‘liberated by Soviet troops’. This vague assertion is not helped by the Magnum rubric, which describes the refugees as ‘political prisoners, POW’s, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern front of Germany’. Since the photographs include images of ‘Soviet and Ukrainian refugees awaiting repatriation to their homeland’, one might well ask why such persons had ‘returned’ from the Eastern Front. It is palpable nonsense. Yet, examining the single photograph used by Silverstein, one might pose other penetrating questions. If the refugees are indeed German, why had they been displaced, and by whom? Hitler’s policy of Germanization of the lands bordering the Reich involved resettlement of German citizens from the homeland into vanquished territories, but also involved the recall of remote German communities (such as in the Ukraine and the Baltic States). At the same time, Hitler imported thousands of foreign captives to work as slave laborers within the Reich: they had certainly been ‘displaced’ and wanted to return home, whether it was to France, Poland, Ukraine or even the Soviet Union. It was a very messy time. As Christopher Snyder has written in Bloodlands: “German men went abroad and killed millions of ‘subhumans’, only to import millions of other ‘subhumans’ to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves – had they not been abroad killing ‘subhumans’.”

But to speak of the Germans in terms suggesting that they were the primary victims of displacement is an insult to all the other groups of non-Germans who suffered far greater privations, not least, of course, the six million Jews who lost their lives, and thus had no chance of returning ‘home’, wherever that was. Certainly, many Germans suffered when the terms of the Yalta agreements were executed, with Soviet and Polish troops taking their revenge on Nazi massacres and destruction by murdering and abusing Germans in such areas as Silesia or Pomerania, which needed to be cleaned out to make room for Poles whose eastern boundaries had been ceded to the Soviet Union. After Hitler’s death, however, his successor, Admiral Dönitz, used radio broadcasts to warn the German nation that the primary menace was the Bolsheviks, with the result that Nazi armies in the East continued hopelessly to fight the Soviet forces, in an effort to give an opportunity for thousands of civilians (and soldiers) to flee towards the West.

Dönitz specifically intended to drive a wedge between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union, believing that the democracies would come to the realization that Bolshevism was the enduring foe that they would sooner or later need to turn against. At the same time he encouraged a massive exodus of German citizens from their homes in the east, whether their domiciles had been destroyed or not. In fact, the Germans recognizably stalled for time over the process of signing the surrender document, in the hope of allowing more refugees and troops to escape the Russians. Thus to talk of such as ‘displaced persons’ (DPs) returning ‘home’ would be a gross distortion.

A few weeks later, when the Potsdam conference was over in August 1945, the Oder-Neisse line that delineated the new western border of Poland was solidified. The Soviet troops prepared for these new boundaries as they advanced. As Antony Beevor writes, in The Second World War: “As Stalin had intended, ethnic cleansing was pursued with a vengeance. Troops from the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies forced Germans from their houses to push them across the Oder. The first to go were those on pre-1944 Polish territory. Some had lived there for generations, others were the Volksdeutsch beneficiaries of the Nazis’ own ethnic cleansing in 1940. Packed into cattle wagons, they were taken westwards and robbed of their few belongings on the way. A similar fate awaited those who had stayed behind or returned to Pomerania and Silesia, which now fell within the new Polish borders. In East Prussia, only 193,000 Germans were left out of a population of 2.2 million.” It is thus very difficult to judge why and how any group of such German refugees could be said to have been ‘displaced’ in the sense of casualties of war. And it would not appear that the refugees in Silverstein’s photograph had undergone such stern privations.


Were such people indeed being ‘liberated’, as the captions claim? The term ‘Liberators’ originated in the Yalta agreement, where Declaration II stated that the leaders of the Allies ‘jointly declare their mutual agreement to concert during the temporary period of instability in liberated Europe the policies of their three Governments in assisting the peoples liberated from the domination of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems.’ For reasons of political unity, it was incumbent to consider all victorious powers as ‘Liberators’, rather than ‘Occupiers’, but two major problems ensued. First, it suggested that Germans themselves needed ‘liberating’ from Nazi oppression (rather than being complicit agents in the brutality), and second, it assumed that Communist totalitarianism was indeed a force for freedom. As the Oxford Companion to World War II states: “The German advance into the Baltic States in 1941 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous occupation of the previous year. Yet it brought terrible impositions and murderous policies of its own. Similarly, the western advance of the Soviet armies in 1944-5 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous German occupation of the previous years; yet it brought reprisals and totalitarian policies that were no less vicious than those it removed. Liberations that did not liberate are not worthy of the name.”

Juozas Lukša, a CIA-trained Lithuanian resistance fighter, makes a similar point from the benefit of direct experience, cited by Edward Lucas in his book Deception: “In 1940, the Russians had come marching into our land to ‘liberate’ us from ‘capitalist and Fascist exploiters.’ In 1941, the Germans had marched in after them and thereby ‘liberated’ us from ‘Bolshevik bondage’. And now, the Russians were back again – this time to ‘liberate’ us from ‘the tyranny of Nazi hangmen’. But since we still recalled how they had gone about ‘liberating’ us the last time, we didn’t think we had any cause to rejoice.”

What is unarguable is that millions of ethnic Germans outside the new borders were persecuted, with as many as 100,000 killed arbitrarily, and with thousands committing suicide rather than falling prey to the vengeful and pillaging Soviets. Germans living in the Czech Sudetenland (which had been appropriated by Germany in October 1938, as part of the Munich agreement) before the war) were given only a few minutes to pack and flee. Hundreds died en route from Poland and Czechoslovakia. And many more who found themselves in the Soviet zone tried desperately to reach the zones of the Western democracies – which is probably what the Magnum photographs show.


So can the group illustrated by the New York Times be identified with any confidence? Interestingly, the Magnum Archive includes another photograph of the threesome, presumably taken very soon after the first, visible at Here the railway is in view, and one can also detect that a third child is lying on the bundle of possessions. While the young girl strikes a defiant posture, the expressions on the faces of the background group (is one of them wearing an army uniform?) suggest that they are in good spirits, and are expecting a train to take them away soon, probably westwards. Given the pictures of returning Ukrainians and Russians, however, one cannot be absolutely sure that they are not going eastwards. Again, their condition, and the size of their bundle of possessions, indicate they have not suffered much, and have probably not travelled far, and were not expelled in haste, to reach Dessau. But many of the other Magnum photographs are enigmatic. The image at claims to show Belgian and French forced labourers, who, again, look remarkably fit. Moreover, they are carrying a poster of Stalin. Another image, at, purportedly shows ‘a Soviet child, who was deported with his parents, returning to his homeland’. The child incongruously is carrying an umbrella. What in fact happened was that all Soviet citizens returning from captivity in Germany were either murdered, sent to the GULAG, or ostracized. An umbrella would not have helped them. Cartier-Bresson was a Communist sympathizer, and many of the photographs have a propaganda feel.

One inescapable conclusion from the photographs and the historical accounts of the time (including the horrifying escapes at Tangermünde, which can be seen at ) is that most of the ‘displaced’ persons who thought that they would reach a safe haven after reaching the western side of the Elbe were probably unaware of the boundaries agreed at Yalta, and were soon to be horribly disillusioned, as the Western powers had to cede the territory to the Soviets. How many of them, as native Germans, succeeded in escaping from the Soviets to the real American, British or French zones 100 miles away or more would be a story well worth investigating.


Apart from the obvious fact that one should be very careful in reproducing, or citing, information on the Internet, the publication of this piece by the New York Times indicates to me that its journalism can occasionally be amateurish, and its editorial supervision inadequate. The paper claims that ‘we observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing.’ So what happened here, with the casual reliance on a third-party source, and no apparent fact-checking? Moreover, the reaction of the office of the Public Editor has, frankly, been deplorable. It should either acknowledge there was a problem, and admit it publically, or inform me that it thinks the information was correct, and that my complaint is thus rejected. Certainly, if a message that children are always innocent victims in times of hardship and privation was intended to be communicated, the piece transmitted it. But I doubt whether that proposition would ever be contested by anybody.

For an established newspaper reporter, however, lazily to select a photograph which he thought might dramatise his case, and unthinkingly use the descriptive text provided by a website that has clearly been influenced by propaganda, without performing any of the slightest checks of fact verification, or investigating the political and military environment in which the photograph was taken, is simply unacceptable. The issue of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, and the righteousness of their respective causes, and what they are escaping from, and how they might be liberated, is obviously very topical. (The week that this item was posted, the New York Times reported that the city of Ramadi had been ‘liberated’ by Iraqi government troops, but suggested at the same time that some citizens might prefer life under Daesh.) If the newspaper wanted to make a pertinent case about the plight of such displaced persons, however, a far more careful exploration of the context was necessary to give guidance on reasons, identities, victims, oppressors, homelands, statuses, etc., instead of making a shallow and factitious emotional appeal to its readership. The irony of ‘Refugees’ trying to escape from their ‘Liberators’ has been lost on the New York Times. Yet the newspaper seems to think nothing is awry.

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(Since I wrote this piece, I have learned that Jake Silverstein is in fact the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Magazine. The current issue of the Magazine indicates he has at least twenty persons with the word ‘editor’ in their job title. But who edits the editor-in-chief?)


Working for the Enemy edited by Billstein, Fings, Kugler and Levis

The Oxford Companion to World War II

The Times Atlas of the Second World War

Bloodlands by Christopher Snyder

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

The End by Ian Kershaw

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

Armageddon by Max Hastings

The Second World War by Martin Gilbert

After Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe, by Michael Jones

Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today by Edward Lucas

(December 31, 2015)


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The Congenial Richard Dawkins

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book titled something like ‘Why Darwin Is Wrong’. It wasn’t a creationist text, but a popular science-based analysis. I can’t find the volume on abebooks (which doesn’t appear to list anything before 1981), but I recall quite clearly two of its major objections to Darwinian thinking, so far as the author understood it. One, that the notion of ‘The Survival of the Fittest’ (which was actually coined by Herbert Spencer to describe Darwin’s natural selection) was tautological, and thus meaningless, since what was ‘survival’ but another way of saying that an animal was ’fit’?  Two, that if the energies that contributed to survival took place after the animal had passed on its genetic material to its offspring, there would be no mechanism by which more adaptive traits would endure in the species.

I thought at the time that these points had merit, yet I was not completely discouraged from accepting that natural selection was the most plausible explanation for evolution, even though the exact mechanisms by which it occurred were still somewhat mysterious. I was, however, dismayed by another misconception, namely the way that the Theory of Evolution was frequently misrepresented as something purposeful by even the most knowledgeable of experts. I can recall the great David Attenborough, in Life on Earth, explaining certain phenomena in terms such as: “Thus, in order to survive, the bats had to develop radar.” This notion of purpose in Evolution is obviously nonsensical, and I have occasionally had to write to the Science Editor of the New York Times to point out where their journalists mistakenly ascribe this sense of an objective to adaptive changes. After all, did certain winged birds develop their flightlessness in order to make their life less hazardous? And what was the timescale according to which such adaptive changes worked? How long would it take for various initiatives to fail or succeed before the lack of ‘fitness’ wiped out the species? At the same time, as Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch showed, describing the researches of Peter and Rosemary Grant on the Galapagos, small changes in the dimensions of finches’ beaks could rapidly take place in the light of changing climatic conditions and food supply.

Then Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene came along and changed everything, showing that the gene, not the individual organism (as Darwin believed) was the unit of natural selection. I have enjoyed Dawkins’s books since, although I found his first volume of autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, rather scrappy and chippy. Now I have just finished his sequel, Brief Candle in the Dark. This is a new Dawkins. I think his PR firm must advised him not to be so offensive and controversial, because he positively oozes congeniality, and is nice about nearly everybody, and not nearly as scathing about religion as he used to be. (There must be a social meme in such superstitions that aids the survival of certain groups, a sad but unavoidable truth.) He also turns out to have almost as many friends as did Denis Healey or Lord Weidenfeld, and appears at times unbearably smug. As a curmudgeon myself, maybe I preferred the traditional Dawkins.

He has some fascinating new insights about the evolutionary process. I was interested to see what he had to say about the hot topic of epigenetics (defined in Chambers as the ‘gradual production and organisation of parts’, which is the study of how gene behavior is affected by environmental factors), and how he contrasted it with preformationist thinking (i.e. that, in essence, a homunculus was inside every human embryo). It seemed to me lately that some neo-Lamarckians, interested in promoting the notion of the passing on of acquired characteristics, have latched on to the term of ‘epigenetics’ to assist their cause. A footnote (p 402) from Dawkins is worth citing in full: “Don’t by the way be confused by the fact that the word ‘epigenetics’ has recently been hijacked as a label for a fashionable and over-hyped idea that changes in gene expression (which of course happen all the time during the course of normal embryonic development, otherwise all cells of the body would be the same) can be passed on to future generations. Such transgenerational effects may occasionally happen and it’s a quite interesting, if rather rare, phenomenon. But it’s a shame that, in the popular press, the word ‘epigenetics’ is becoming misused as though cross-generational transmission was a part of the very definition of epigenetics, rather than a rare and interesting anomaly.” Thank you, Professor. Just what I was looking for.

In one area however, I wonder whether Dawkins has got it wrong. I recall, at about the same time that I read the book on Darwin, taking in another work that pointed out how quickly scientists make analogies between the human body and whatever the current state of technology is (i.e. a pump in the 17th c., a clock in the 18th , an engine in the 19th , a computer in the 20th ). I thought that it might have been Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, but I can find no trace of it there, and in those pre-spreadsheet days I did not keep track of every book I read. No matter: I think the point is valid. And Dawkins falls into the same easy motion. On page 382, when discussing the possible source of language, he makes the claim that ‘the human brain must possess something equivalent to recursive subroutines’ (an ability for a computer program to call itself and then return to an outer version of itself), a feature he says exists in Algol 60, but not the original IBM Fortran  language he used. Such a feature in human genes, which he calls ‘macro-mutation’ might have come about in a single mutation, and could have been responsible for the ability to create the phenomenon of language syntax. In reducing a complex organic process to a mechanical one, however, I believe Dawkins makes a categorical mistake. A computer program is only an artifact of the entity that he is describing, namely the human brain, which is a far more complex phenomenon than the strings of ones and zeroes that comprise a language compiler. His comparison is therefore merely crude reductionism.

But then Dawkins compounds his error. He goes on to write: “Computer languages either allow recursion or they don’t. There’s no such thing as half-recursion. It’s an all or nothing software trick. And once that trick has been implemented, hierarchically embedded syntax immediately becomes possible and capable of generating indefinitely extended sentences.”  First of all, if it is a design feature, it is not a trick. The trick – if there were one – would be an inherent flaw in the software where recursion did not work properly all the time – either by faulty implementation, or by a deliberate clandestine approach that made aberrant decisions based on some external circumstance or internal control data. After all, we each one of us know now about the Volkswagen Emissions Control Software, which gave false readings when the engine was being tested under laboratory conditions. Similarly, the implementation of a compiler program that claimed to allow recession could disable the function, or cause it not to work properly, depending on, for the instance, the date or time of day, the machine environment, or the particular iteration or count of the software execution.

He thus fails to distinguish between the design statement for a compiler that allows recursion, and the instantiation of that design in code. Moreover, no software is a perfect implementation, which causes the analogy inevitably to stumble. And by hinting at the notion of design in computer languages (what he signifies as the ‘trick’), Dawkins inadvertently undermines his analogy, since that notion of an architect has no role to play in evolutionary development, natural selection being an essentially haphazard process. Too many of his metaphors (for example, the arms-race, p 340; or ‘if we think of natural selection as a sculptor’, p 359) contain this notion of design at work, and thus weaken his whole argument, since the congenial atheist would assuredly deny the role of any ‘Designer’ in the process of language evolution. While many of the mechanisms by which genetic change occurs are still mysterious, that does not mean they are mystical. Following up on this theme, Dawkins later goes on to praise Chomsky’s idea of the language-learning apparatus being genetically implanted in the brain – which also strikes me as a bogus concept, since so many languages have implementations of syntax that are utterly antithetical and incompatible with other schemes. This is the weakest part of Dawkins’s theorizing.

Still, it was all a stimulating and enjoyable read, if you can put up with Dawkins continually reminding you how clever and successful he has been.

P.S. The New York Times informed me, on November 25, that the Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad, Pakistan, sells a thousand copies of Dawkins’s atheist treatise ‘The God Delusion’ each year. Not many people know that.

New Commonplace entries appear here.                                                                                                     (November 30, 2015)


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Mann Overboard!

This essay is not about Thomas, Manfred, or even F. G. Mann: it concerns the scientist, Wilfrid, of that Ilk. It was prompted by my recent reading of Andrew Lownie’s biography of the spy Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman, which reveals a number of important facts about the notorious reprobate. It is a highly enjoyable work, my only major reservation being that Lownie does not assiduously enough pursue the several hares that he starts, leaving such readers such as this one gasping to know (for example) why Burgess not only managed to maintain any job he had in government, but how he succeeded in getting placed elsewhere despite his reputation. I have a particular interest in Burgess’s high-level sponsors and protectors (there must have been at least one), because of my research into the enigmatic voyage that he and Isaiah Berlin made towards Moscow in the summer of 1940.

One intriguing detail that Lownie does bring to the table, however, is an addendum to the case of espionage made against the nuclear scientist Wilfrid Mann. When Andrew Boyle published his Climate of Treason (originally titled The Fourth Man) in 1979, the author made broad hints about the identity of two suspected spies. The first, whom he called ‘Maurice’ was quite easily identified as being Anthony Blunt. The second, ‘Basil’ (whom Boyle then called the ‘Fifth Man’, not knowing about John Cairncross or even Leo Long at the time), was a British scientist in Washington whose name had been revealed to the F.B.I. by the Israelis, and who was subsequently ‘turned’ by the F.B.I. to provide disinformation to the Soviets. Boyle wrote: “It has not surprised the counter-intelligence interrogators that ‘Basil’ broke down quickly and easily, confessing that he had become a covert Communist in his student days and a secret agent for the Soviet not long afterwards.” (p 310) Unlike the hints about Blunt (who turns up regularly in Boyle’s book), there was only one reference to the obvious candidate for ‘Basil’, namely Wilfrid Basil Mann, where he attends a party given by Kim Philby, at which Burgess predictably misbehaves. Boyle must have felt on firm ground to use Mann’s second name without fear of a libel suit.

Mann replied not with a legal action, but with a rather dubious protest, in a book titled Was There a Fifth Man? (1982), suggesting explicitly that the question should be about whether such a character existed rather than whether he, Mann, was that person. It cast doubt on Boyle’s chronology, claiming to show that the author was not around when the episodes of espionage occurred, and that he was in fact out of the nuclear picture when the leaks occurred. Like so many memoirs in the field of espionage and counter-espionage, however, Mann’s account is not really to be trusted. Yet the topic of his guilt has languished for a while, with no definite proof either way (not that proof could be found that determined that anyone had never been a spy, as Lord Rothschild discovered). And then, in 2015, Lownie offers his revelation. He presents new evidence of Mann’s guilt. On page 213, he writes: “ . . .  Mann’s recruitment and turning has now been confirmed by Patrick Reilly, chair of the Foreign Intelligence Committee, and then the Foreign Office Under-Secretary in charge of intelligence, who wrote in his unpublished memoirs, ‘that “Basil”, who can easily be identified, was in fact a Soviet spy is true: and also that he was turned round without difficulty.” Lownie gives a reference to this item as appearing at the Bodleian Library. I am sure it is valid, and I plan to inspect it next time I am in Oxford. But I wonder why it has not been picked up before?

Moreover, another lead appears in Lownie’s book. On page 211, he reproduces two caricatures drawn by Burgess on Wilfrid Mann’s copy of Atomic Energy, the author of the book described here as being George Crannov. This is, however, an obvious misprint, as Lownie has admitted to me: the caricature clearly shows the correct name of the author, G. Gamow, who is described, in Burgess’s writing, as being ‘under the action of absinth’, and it features an obvious image of Joseph Stalin chewing a cocktail-table, as if Gamow were haunted by the influence of the Soviet dictator, and taking on his shape. The episode occurred in November 1950, as the caricature is clearly dated. What is going on here? And what is the connection between Burgess, Mann, Gamow, and Stalin?

Well, I am familiar with this George Gamow. In my thesis about Soviet subversion that is about to be submitted, I have a paragraph on him, which runs as follows (the footnotes and endnotes demanded by such a work being replaced with parenthetical explanations):  “As has been shown with Isaiah Berlin’s father, Mendel, threatening exiles with harm to relatives still living in the Soviet Union was a favoured tactic of Stalin’s secret police. Pavel Sudoplatov [who headed the ‘Special Tasks’ group, responsible for the liquidation of Stalin’s enemies, and had blood on his hands, personally] described how another physicist suffered the same treatment because of his concern for relatives left behind. ‘Using implied threats against Gamow’s relatives in Moscow, Elizaveta Zarubina [a resident NKVD operative in the Unites States, and also not a nice person] pressured him into cooperating with us. In exchange for safety and material support for his relatives, Gamow provided the names of left-wing scientists who might be recruited to supply secret information.’  Like Peierls’ wife, Eugenia, George Gamow had started his scientific career in Leningrad: he was also a friend of Peierls [Rudolf Peierls, who spearheaded atomic weapons research in Britain in 1940, and was the colleague and mentor of the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs], who credited Gamow’s explanation of alpha decay as ‘one of the earliest successes of quantum mechanics’. Max Born [another famous émigré scientist with communist sympathies] explains that Gamow made several unsuccessful attempts to escape to the West from the Soviet Union, but eventually gained a permit in 1932 after several distinguished physicists, including Einstein and Bohr, had guaranteed his return. When Gamow decided to settle in the United States, Stalin was so furious at his refusal to return that he took his frustration out on Pyotr Kapitza [another leading Soviet scientist who worked at Cambridge University for many years, before being recalled by Stalin and not allowed back].”

You can find a rich biographical article on Gamow. ‘Getting a Bang out of Gamow’, at , although it says nothing about any espionage activity, or his relationship with Mann and  Burgess. He is credited with being the originator of the ‘Big Bang’ theory of the universe, and is ascribed as having a considerable influence on the scientists at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. It includes a fascinating photograph of John Cockcroft and Gamow at the Laboratory in 1931. The account of the escape by Gamow and his wife to the West, after making unsuccessful attempts beforehand, does not ring true. The fact that he gained – ‘more than a little surprised’  ̶  Molotov’s and Stalin’s approval for him and his wife to attend a conference in Brussels in 1933 suggests a deal was done.  In fact, Gamow wrote a memoir titled My World Line [that I read since I originally published this piece], which totally finesses the whole drama in a way that makes his escape from the Soviet Union seem like farce.

Gamow and his wife, Rho, were so desperate to leave the Soviet Union that, in the summer of 1932, they attempted to row in a kayak across the Black Sea to Turkey, but were beached by a violent storm. They also inspected the Finnish border in Karelia to see where they might cross. Despite these escapades, Gamow, on receiving an invitation to attend the October 1933 Solvay International Congress on Physics in Geneva, applied for a visa for Rho and himself. Through Bukharin, he arranged an unlikely interview with Molotov, then President of the USSR, to make his case. Gamow tells the story thus: “Here I told him the truth, nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth. ‘You see’, I said, ‘to make my request persuasive I should tell you that my wife, being a physicist, acts as my scientific secretary, taking care of papers, notes, and so on. So I cannot attend a large conference without her help. But this is not true. The point is that she had never been abroad, and after Brussels I want to take her to Paris to see the Louvre, the Folies Bergère, and so forth, and to do some shopping.’ He smiled, made a note on his pad, and told me to come back a week or so before I would leave, adding, ‘I don’t think this will be difficult to arrange.’”

To imagine that the gloomy and unhumorous Molotov would find such an explanation engaging is high comedy. In fact Gamow did experience difficulties getting his passports, and they arrived shortly before he was due to leave. He disingenuously observed, nearly forty years later: “Thinking back now, I still cannot figure out how it happened that I got the second passport. It seems likely that the wires had crossed somewhere.” It looks very much as if Sudoplatov was right, and the condition of his going was committing to a mission to steal Western nuclear secrets. As Gamow writes elsewhere (p 93): “It became a crime for Russian scientists to ‘fraternize’ with scientists of the capitalist countries, and those Russian scientists who were going abroad were supposed to learn the ‘secrets’ of capitalistic science without revealing the ‘secrets’ of proletarian science.”  Gamow never went back to the Soviet Union, yet claimed that he was able to maintain good relations with Soviet consulate personnel in Washington. On page 131, he writes: “In fact, during that winter [of 1934], Rho and I kept up contact with the consulate, and even went to movies with some of its members, criticizing the Hollywood productions. The case of Kapitza only strengthened my decision not to return to Leningrad.” If Gamow really had absconded without permission, it would gave been utterly foolhardy for him to present himself at the Soviet consulate.

(Another interesting tidbit is that Gamow presents a fetching photograph (p 49) of a very alluring young lady sprawled on his lap in a ‘private room at a restaurant’ in Leningrad, with his good friend Lev Landau – who won the Nobel prize in 1962  ̶  acting as ‘the hired musician’. The lady is Yevgenia Kanegiesser, who was to become Rudolf Peierls’s wife: Landau was a close friend of Peierls as well. Gamow coolly notes that Yevgenia ‘eventually married a German theoretical physicist, Rudolf Peierls, and left Russia’, as if he really didn’t know Peierls at all, which is not how Peierls represented their relationship. Gamow is a phoney.)

While Sudoplatov may not be normally be considered a wholly reliable source, it would appear that he was probably accurate in this case, and we could conclude from Gamow’s own clumsy testimony that he had a justification for being mentally tormented.  What does Mann therefore say about him? Well, he admits he knew him. On page 70 of his memoir, he writes: “During this latter period of my stay in Washington [1950] we became very friendly with Professor George Gamow and his wife Rho, and I attended one semester of his course of lectures on nuclear physics at George Washington University, which helped me to keep in touch with my fast-fading profession.” All well and good. But Mann also adds something about the caricature incident. Describing a party hosted by Mann himself, on November 25, 1950, he writes: “Guy Burgess gate-crashed the party on the excuse of bringing Kim’s secretary. It was the only time he entered our house but while he was there he got hold of a book by George Gamow entitled Atomic Energy (a subject on which he occasionally tried to sound me out!) and drew a caricature of one of the guests on the inside of the cover, and as psychologically interesting one of Stalin eating a marble table of the type one might find in a side-walk café in France.” All this sounds very bogus: the jokey aside, the deliberate indication that Burgess had never visited before (Lownie notes that Burgess was a close friend of Mann’s at the time, citing a colleague of Mann’s, Arnold Kramish, who encountered them together in Washington several times), Burgess’s ability to select the right book, Mann’s omission that the caricature described Gamow (even though he reproduces the text in his book, also). It surely sounds as if Burgess and Mann both knew Gamow, and that the relationship probably went back further than Mann claimed, i.e. that he was able to fit in a semester of lectures during this short time. Mann was probably recruited by Gamow.

Moreover, other things in Mann’s testimony do not ring true. One major problem I have is with his membership of the Technical Committee of the MAUD project on atomic weaponry (which was the name given to the activity before it was transferred from ICI to the government, and became the Tube Alloys project, late in 1941). Mann resigned almost as soon as the Committee was set up, in May 1941. He writes (p 20): “In the spring of 1941, under the strain of the hit-and-run raids, I began to feel dissatisfied with my work on the uranium project, and I went to discuss it with the Rector of Imperial College, Sir Henry Tizard. Sir Henry had been chairman of the Technical Sub-Committee of the Air Defence Research Committee since the mid-1930s and had, I understood, played a great part in pushing the development of the spitfire and of Robert Watson-Watt’s radio direction finding, each of which had stood us in good stead on the Battle of Britain. I told him that I could not believe that an atom bomb would be developed in time to win the war against Germany and I felt I ought to get into other work more directly concerned with the main objective. Sir Henry agreed and so I entered into negotiations with the Ministry of Supply in London while continuing to give my lectures at the Imperial College. I started work at the Ministry on 12 May, although the correspondence showed that the negotiations continued until 29 June in order to clarify whether or not my work at the Imperial College constituted ‘an outside interest’!”

Is this not extraordinary, that an eminent scientist should be allowed to run away from a project of such national importance, based on such a whimsical excuse, at a time when native British scientists were urgently needed on the project, especially when Mann was so closely involved with the key figures on the project, Rudolf Peierls, Basil Dickins and G. P. Thomson? Mann adds: “After 12 May, when I went to work at the Ministry of Supply, I had not, as far as I remember [always a sign of the selective memory at work. Coldspur], taken any part in the work of the MAUD Technical Committee, but I had apparently remained a member of it.”  Yet on December 22, 1941, J T C Moore-Brabazon, of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, writes a letter to Mann, saying that the report of the MAUD Committee has been examined by the Defence Services Panel of the War Cabinet Advisory Committee. He appears to be thanking Mann for his efforts., writing: “Inasmuch as the completion of the examination of this project by your [sic] committee, and the acceptance, in the main, of your [sic] recommendations, move the whole matter to the stage where large scale experiment and possible production are now our principal concern, a new organisation has been set up on this basis, and I think the time has come to wind up the MAUD Committee. In doing so I would like to take this opportunity of thanking you for the tine and thought which every member must have devoted to this very difficult problem, in preparing, in such a short time, so clear and concise a summary of the whole question. Although the Committee are now disbanded I am sure that the new organisation under D.S.I.R. can rely upon your co-operation at any time when they may want your help or advice” (from Appendix A of Mann’s book). Moreover, Mann merits no entry in Margaret Gowing’s official history of Britain and Atomic Energy: he is simply listed as one of the Technical Committee in a footnote to page 48 of Volume 1.

This is all very strange. Why would Moore-Brabazon be thanking Mann so profusely if he had been an absentee and reluctant contributor? Why Mann would want to diminish his efforts and expertise is also puzzling, unless he wanted to give the impression  ̶  as he carefully notes elsewhere  ̶  that he was no longer active in atomic research: “Thus ended my association with nuclear physics until the end of the war . . . “. But this was obviously not so, as he was sent to Washington in the late summer of 1943, to serve in the British Central Scientific Office in Washington. This account, again, does not ring true, as he informed his boss at the Ministry of Supply that he was resigning before he even received the USA-based job offer. Maybe, like Burgess, he had friends in high places.

Nigel West’s Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence does not help much. It describes Mann’s career only from 1948 onwards, suggesting that he was approached by a Soviet diplomat in 1961, and that his subsequent meetings with that person were monitored by the F.B.I., but it says nothing about the earlier espionage activity, apart from referring to what Boyle wrote. West concludes his entry on Mann by writing: “Having successfully repudiated the allegations, Mann retired to Chevy Chase, Maryland, and later moved to Baltimore, where he died in March 2001. In 2003, documents retrieved from the KGB archive suggested that Mann may have been a Soviet spy codenamed MALLONE.”

Another hare left unchased. Will someone please haul Wilfrid Mann in?

The normal set of Commonplace entries can be found here, and a few more examples of the Hyperbolic Contrast here. (October 31, 2015)

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Some Diplomatic Incidents

I was prompted to read a compilation of essays titled Telling Lives, edited by Alistair Horne, this month. It consists of biographical profiles by writers, all of whom have at one time held an Alistair Horne Fellowship at St Antony’s College. It is a lively collection, which provided sketches of some familiar characters, but also introduced me to a number of persons I knew very little about, from Carole Lombard to Bram Fischer.

Two items caught my eye especially. The first was written by D. R. Thorpe, in his essay on Alec Douglas-Home, and he provides commentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. It runs as follows: “The mood of dazed anxiety in those weeks reminded some of the period leading up to Munich, though Home’s regular contacts with Sir Frank Roberts, the British Ambassador in Moscow, gave him insights into what the ordinary Russian people were thinking, which proved so different from those in Havana and London. When Kennedy’s ultimatum about the missiles were made public Frank Roberts told Alec Home that there was no sign of panic buying in Moscow and that people there were going about their business in an orderly manner. Roberts interpreted this correctly, as a sign that in the end Khrushchev would back off from full-scale nuclear confrontation.”

Could this be serious? ‘No signs of panic buying in Moscow’, when there was nothing to buy in the shops in the first place? ‘What ordinary people were thinking’, when they had no access to independent news, and were discouraged from thinking? I recalled my visit to Leningrad and Moscow a few years later, in 1965, when the citizens were so desperate for Western goods that I had a furtive night-time encounter with a youth my age, at which I exchanged a couple of nylon shirts and some Bic pens for some useless roubles that had to be spent before I left the country. So Soviet citizens went about their business ‘in an orderly manner’. What did Frank Roberts think would happen if those same good people went about in a disorderly manner? That the KGB’s goons would come up to them and say: ‘Move along there, sir, if you don’t mind’? I could not believe that our diplomatic intelligence was in the hands of such amateurs. Just as useful as reading the entrails of dead chickens, I should have thought.

And then, a few days later, I was reading the extraordinary memoir by Heda Margolius Kovály, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968. This is a searing account of a young Jewish woman who is arrested by the Nazis in Prague in 1941, and shipped off to a concentration camp, whence she manages to escape while all her relatives are killed. After harrowing and dangerous times back in Prague, when the war is over, she watches how the Communists stealthily seize power, and sees the obnoxious ideology bring out the worst in all citizens. Eventually, her husband, who worked as an economist for the government, is arrested, falsely accused, sentenced to death in the Slansky trials, and soon after executed. (I shall leave you to discover the full story.)

What hit me between the eyes were the following sentences, as Kovály describes the struggles of the Czech economy: “There were endless lines in front of stores. There were shortages of practically every household staple. Every few months, there were new rumors about an upcoming currency devaluation. People would panic, buying up everything they could find. The chaotic economy and the constant barrage of ideology drained all pleasure from honest work.” So there was ‘panic buying’ behind the Iron Curtain. But I still wonder whether Soviet citizens would have been informed enough by their masters to be able to detect how serious the missile crisis was, and that their leaders had a firm grasp on the tiller. And if they did ‘buy up all they could find’, and stuff it in those avoska bags, I bet it would have been useless things, like clothes-pins and miniature busts of Lenin, as opposed to the flashlight batteries and toilet-paper that their Western counterparts would have started hoarding.

The other anecdote concerned Sir Isaiah Berlin. In his Introduction, Alistair Horne gives a brief profile of a man whom I have followed very closely in the past three years, and writes as follows: “An honorary fellow at St. Antony’s, Isaiah was truly a Don for All Seasons; he could, and would, talk at any level whatsoever to make his interlocutor feel prized beyond belief. At a first meeting my wife expressed alarm at finding herself seated next to such an august academician at a St Antony’s dinner. I reassured her, ’Don’t worry, he’ll take charge!’ Looking up from my end of the table, I was relieved to see them in lively conversation with each other. When afterwards I asked what they’d talked about so busily and what Isaiah’s opening gambit had been, she said, ‘As we sat down, he said, “Tell me, my dear, did you have many lovers when you were young?”’ – then proceeded to talk about his own, in extenso.”

Now, again, I find this extremely unlikely. First, I think it very bad taste of Horne to relate this anecdote, even if it were true, as it shows appalling manners. Ladies and Gentlemen who have not been met before do not discuss their past sex lives (well, not in the environment that I grew up in –  perhaps it is different with St Antony’s intellectuals.) I would expect Horne’s second wife (for it was she) to have been insulted by such a question, rather than feeling ‘prized beyond belief’. And I do not believe that Berlin, who had developed a canny knack for fitting into whatever milieu in England he found himself, whether playing cricket at St. Paul’s, or gossiping over the port at All Souls, would have been crass enough to make this an opening gambit in his dinner-time conversation. Moreover, evidence has it that Berlin’s sex-life developed quite late, so in extenso seems hardly the right phrase to use to describe it, unless the esteemed historian of ideas was fabricating somewhat. In his biography of Berlin, Michael Ignatieff reports on Berlin’s first sexual encounter with a woman (I shall have to leave the possibilities of what happened with Guy Burgess unexplored, although Berlin did complain, perhaps facetiously, that Burgess never made a pass at him), but leaves the lady in question unidentified. It took Nicola Lacey, in her 2004 biography of Herbert Hart, to confirm for all of us that the personage was none other than Herbert’s wife, Jenifer, the Soviet agent.  Henry Hardy, who knew Berlin very well, tells me that this affair (which went on for several years, until Berlin married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg, an event that severely upset Mrs Hart) began in 1949, but that it was not certain who initiated it.

The affair with Aline Halban itself is an interesting tale. Berlin had first espied Aline Strauss (her husband had been killed) on the SS Excambion, sailing from Lisbon to New York, in January 1941. After the war, during which Aline had met and married Hans Halban in Canada, they came to England, where Halban succeeded in being elected to one of the initial fellowships at St Antony’s College. The College (for graduates only) had been founded in 1950 by a bequest from a successful French businessman with merchant interests in the Middle East, Antonin Besse. After some preliminary stumbles in negotiation between Besse and the University, Bill Deakin (married to the Rumanian Livia Stela, known as ‘Pussy’, so-called for her very feline grace, I am led to believe, who was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Pussy Galore) had taken over the Wardenship of the College, impressing Besse with his common sense and vision. Deakin, who had worked with Isaiah Berlin in Washington during the war, was a historian who had seen fierce action with SOE among the guerrillas in Yugoslavia, and had acted as literary assistant to Winston Churchill in the latter’s historical writing. While Deakin had been a fellow at Wadham College, many of the initial staff members were from New College, and Isaiah Berlin had been very active in advising the Warden on appointments and administration.

Halban was offered a Fellowship: when interviewed in 1994 by Christine Nicholls, the historian of the college, Berlin said that it was because Lord Cherwell had thought it a good idea that a scientist be represented – a somewhat surprising explanation, given that the mission of St Antony’s was to improve international understanding, and diplomacy had not been the strongest arrow in Halban’s sleeve. Maybe the fact that the elegant Mrs Halban would be able to join in social events was an extra incentive. Indeed, Headington House had its uses. As Nicholls’s History of St Antony’s College reports: “The grandest social event of all was the ox-roasting. In 1953, at the time of the Queen’s coronation, an Anglo-Danish committee, on which Deakin sat with a Danish chairman, wanted to do something to thank Britain for its help in wartime. The chairman asked Deakin whether his college would like to roast a Danish ox ….. Hans Halban and his wife Aline, who had a large house with land on Headington Hill, agreed to the roasting taking place there.”

The choice of Fellows was a little eccentric. A certain David Footman was elected at the same time as Halban. His expertise lay in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, but he had been dismissed from the Secret Service because of his support for Guy Burgess. Intriguingly, Deakin, who enjoyed fraternizing with Secret Service personnel, had said he wanted a Soviet expert who was free of any commitment to Marxism, and therefore welcomed Footman to the college. But there were questions about Footman’s loyalty: the Foreign Office did not give him a clean bill of health, and Sir Dick White (who headed both MI5 and MI6 in his career) admitted he should have been more sceptical about his trustworthiness. Footman had had contacts with the Soviet spy-handler Maly, and, when Guy Burgess defected, Footman was the first to be notified of the event by that dubious character Goronwy Rees, close confidant of Burgess; Footman in turn informed Guy Liddell – Victor Rothschild’s boss in MI5.

Thus the first appointments at St Antony’s were very much made by an old-boy network, about which Berlin must have eventually had misgivings. As early as 1953, he was to write to David Cecil, when looking for advice on career moves: ‘In a way I should prefer Nuffield because St Antony’s seems to me (for God’s sake don’t tell anyone that) something like a club of dear friends, and I should be terribly afraid that the thing was becoming too cosy and too bogus.’ His words got back to the sub-warden at St Antony’s, James Joll, who had also lectured at New College and had been a pupil of Deakin, and Berlin was duly chastised. (James Joll was later to receive a certain amount of notoriety by virtue of his harbouring Anthony Blunt when the latter was being hounded by the Press after his public unmasking.) In any case, the chroniclers at the college did not seem surprised when the Halban marriage fell apart. Aline’s son Michel Strauss confides that his mother used to have trysts with Isaiah, before their liaison became official, in a flat in Cricklewood (a touch that would have delighted Alan Coren). Michel also informs us that Hans Halban had been seeing Francine Clore (née Halphern), a cousin of his mother’s, in the 1950s, ‘at the same time my mother was seeing Isaiah Berlin’. The gradual dissolution of the marriage, and the new re-groupings, were becoming obvious to their friends.  The History laconically reports: “Halban remained at St Antony’s until he resigned on October 1, 1955, upon taking a chair at the Sorbonne. When Halban resigned his fellowship and left for Paris, he asked his wife to choose between Paris and Berlin. She determined on the latter and became Isaiah Berlin’s wife.” The marriage was a very happy one.

But they were a pretty rum lot, after all, these St Antonians. I expected to see Freddie Ayer in the wings – and Iris Murdoch taking notes.

As an epigram to Berlin in this whole affair, I conclude with the following lines (with apologies to Philip Larkin):

 Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen forty-nine

(through no clear fault of mine) –

Between the release of Welles’ ‘Third Man’

And the launch of ‘What’s My Line’.

The usual set of Commonplace entries to be found here.                   (September 30, 2015)

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The Undercover Egghead

The September issue of History Today contains my article on Isaiah Berlin, titled ‘The Undercover Egghead’. (see )  Regular readers will recall that this was the subject of a seminar I led at Buckingham University almost two years ago, and that I had been struggling with the editor of the magazine to get it published after a premature announcement he made last September. Under the terms of my copyright agreement with the magazine, I am allowed to post it the piece on my personal website, but the software I use to maintain my website sadly does not permit the importation of documents of this size.  Readers who are interested, but are unable to find a copy of the magazine, can contact me at for the PDF.

I am pleased with the outcome. I like the artwork. A few errors crept in (for instance, the dating of the photograph of Berlin: he died in 1997), but nothing else significant, I think. I would update the text a little if I re-wrote it now, as I have discovered new facts about my subject, but I did not want to provoke any further delays, and my latest findings will find their place in my thesis, to be completed shortly.

I shall be very interested in the response. Already, I have heard of fascination by Berlin-watchers who had suspected something was not quite right with the great man, but hadn’t been able to put a complete picture together. Maybe the picture will never be complete, but I think my research shows that a more comprehensive biography of Berlin is required, something more piercing and more analytical than Michael Ignatieff’s homage of 1998.

I want to express here my thanks to Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, amanuensis and curator of the Berlin flame (see ). While not always understanding my methods, and sometimes being out of sympathy with what he calls my ‘conspiracy-mongering’ approach, Henry has always been extraordinarily helpful in responding to my inquiries, and has graciously allowed me access to some texts that have not been published. It may be a fortunate coincidence that the fourth and final volume of Berlin’s Letters is being published next month: I hope that the publicity surrounding that event, and the appearance of my piece, is mutually beneficial. Henry invited me to the launch party for the volume, but I could not justify the trans-Atlantic journey.

Berlin’s stature as a dignified spokesperson for personal liberties must remain questionable, and I believe the research process will continue, as new observers and historians add their own perspectives, and offer the fruits of their research. Was Berlin an ‘agent of influence’ for the Soviets? My conclusion is that he was probably persuaded, through the threat of harm to his relatives in the Soviet Union, into providing some information to them, but I can’t help concluding that his encouragement of the respectability of Marxist study, as revealed in his 1939 book on Marx, was his own endeavour, although probably encouraged by his friend Guy Burgess. I leave the rest for my thesis.

Meanwhile, a renowned Sovietologist died this month – Robert Conquest. (A few years ago, after reading a couple of his works – ‘Reflections on a Ravaged Century’, and ‘the Dragons of Expectation’  ̶   I wrote a long letter to him in Palo Alto, posing some questions that arose from my reading, since I was about to set out to that area to visit our son. I hoped to meet him, and shake his hand. He did reply, but did not answer my questions, and said he was too busy to see me.) What caught my eye from the obituaries of this great man – who educated the western world about Stalin’s crimes in books such as The Great Terror  ̶  was the fact that he had been for a short time a member of the Communist Party. Now part of the research for my doctoral thesis has involved the analysis of why British Intelligence was not able to detect Soviet spies in its midst, even with the help of hints of identification from the Soviet defector, Walter Krivitsky. Since Moscow was very particular about the commitment of its spies – and their couriers as well  ̶  candidates would have had to show a fierce dedication to Communist principles and rigour before they were recruited. But this did not have to involve membership of the Communist Party: in fact it was preferable if the agents were never associated with the CP, as it made them less traceable. It is nevertheless a fact that each agent must have undergone a period when he (or she) demonstrated openly strong leftist sympathies – Blunt, Burgess, Philby, Cairncross, Maclean, Long, etc. etc.  ̶  before their recruitment was approved by Moscow Centre. They all had such a phase, mainly in Cambridge University clubs, Maclean even confessing to his selection board for a diplomatic career, in a bold moment of semi-candour, that he had not completely shed such beliefs. On the other hand, Jenifer Hart was a secret member of the Party. Yet MI5 had enough to go on to vet all these people.

So what about those who did join the CP, if only for a short time? Denis Healey (b. 1917, still going strong) was one notorious example who lasted a lot longer. He joined in 1937, but stayed there for a few years, seeing out the Nazi-Soviet pact, and not resigning until after the fall of France in 1940 (why then, o beetle-browed one?). He was still rambling on about ‘revolution’ after the war, yet turned out to be a respectable middle-of-the-road politician. (My professor has hinted to me that Healey was actually employed by MI6 all this time, which might just be plausible, I suppose, although the cover seems to have been taken a bit too far.) Was Robert Conquest’s flirtation just a youthful fling, after which he became disillusioned? But then he was recruited by MI6, and went to Bulgaria. How did they know it was just a fling? Or had he joined the CP with MI6 guidance? That would appear unlikely, as his cover would then have been blown for any undercover intelligence operation overseas. It all just shows what a careful methodology has to be applied by counter-intelligence officers trying to determine a suspect’s true beliefs and motivations. I wish I had had the chance to question Dr Conquest about it all before he died.

The usual set of Commonplace items can be found here. (August 31, 2015)


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