And what a web they wove!

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The Webbs, early in their marriage

A century ago, the Webbs, Sidney (1859-1947) and Beatrice (1858-1943), were the power couple of British Labour. Together they help form the Fabian Society, whose devotion to the idea of a socialist UK played a major role in shaping Labour Party policy and creating the modern British welfare state. They took part in the founding of the London School of Economics. They carried out research, published studies, and sat on committees, all with the goal of establishing an entirely new social and economic order. For a time Sidney was a Labour minister.

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The Webbs in later years

“Together, we could move the world,” Sidney once said of their relationship. “Marriage is a partnership. It is the ultimate committee.” (That last sentence should give you a pretty good idea of how their minds worked.) The immense scale of their influence is undeniable; the merits of their efforts to alter the British system are subject to debate. Certainly much of what they helped to achieve was genuinely admirable. But the activity that capped off their careers can only be described as a world-class example of useful stoogery.

We’re referring here to their promotion of Soviet Communism.

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With George Bernard Shaw, a fellow Fabian

The Webbs didn’t start out as admirers of the USSR. During the 1920s they recognized that Soviet Communism and Italian fascism were two sides of the same coin – and equally appalling.

But that changed. In 1935, after visiting the USSR and perusing economic data supplied to them by the Kremlin, they published a book of over a thousand pages entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? It was nothing less than a celebration of Stalinism. The Webbs cheered on forced collectivization, applauded the Gulag, even rationalized the mass murder of the kulaks. (“It must be recognised,” they wrote, “that this liquidation of the individual capitalists in agriculture had necessarily to be faced if the required increase of output was to be obtained.”)

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In Russia, 1932

“Old people,” Beatrice said, “often fall in love in extraordinary and ridiculous ways – with their chauffeurs, for example: we feel it more dignified to have fallen in love with Soviet Communism.”

Despite their private qualms about the Moscow show trials, in which Stalin railroaded his rivals, they publicly gave the trials their support. They acknowledged that the Soviet people were being fed a diet of pure propaganda, but argued that the BBC was doing essentially the same thing to the British populace. They flat-out denied that any famine had occurred in the Ukraine. They also denied that Stalin was a dictator, characterizing him instead as “a shrewd and definitely skilful manager.” And they gushed endlessly over the wonderfulness of everyday existence in the Soviet Union, where people lived “in an atmosphere of social equality and of freedom from servility or ‘inferiority complex’ that is unknown elsewhere,” and experienced an utter “absence of prejudice as to colour or race.” In the USSR, they enthused, “The Worship of God is replaced by The Service of Man.”

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Nick Cohen

Between 1935 and 1937, Stalin had amped up the terrorization of his people to a level unmatched in human history. Nick Cohen has summed it up as follows: “Whole races were being transported, the Communist party was being massacred, every petrified citizen knew they must denounce or be denounced.” How did the Webbs respond? By taking out the question mark in the title of their book. In the 1937 second edition, it was entitled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. If, as Cohen puts it, that question mark had “delicately suggested it was possible to doubt that the Soviet Union was a workers’ paradise,” now all doubt was gone: “The Webbs responded to the creation of a slave economy by dropping the question mark.”

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Malcolm Muggeridge

Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, pronounced that the two editions of the Webbs’ Russia book were “about the most unrealistic books ever produced by able people.” The historian A. J. P. Taylor said that Soviet Communism was “the most preposterous book ever written about Soviet Russia.” Malcolm Muggeridge – who had reported (honestly) from the Soviet Union – later wrote that the Webbs “knew about the regime,” including the evils of the Cheka secret police, “but they liked it.” Once Beatrice said to him, “Yes, it’s true, people disappear in Russia.” Muggeridge recalled that she had “said it with such great satisfaction that I couldn’t help thinking that there were a lot of people in England whose disappearance she would have liked to organize.”

But he was so charming!

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1962

After Soviet spy Guy Burgess defected to Russia, what was his life like?

First he and fellow traitor Donald Maclean were held under house arrest for several months, if not years (reports vary), and were interrogated the whole time. Burgess was then installed, alone, in a dacha in a village near Moscow, where he was constantly under armed guard and was not allowed to go outside without permission.

For five years after their disappearance, the USSR maintained a public silence about the fate of Burgess and Maclean. Nobody in Britain was sure whether they were alive or dead. Then, in 1956, Richard Hughes of the Sunday Times was called to a Moscow meeting at which the two defectors handed him a joint statement in which they denied having been Soviet agents and claimed to have gone to the USSR to work toward “better understanding between the Soviet Union and the West.”

Their statement made headlines. Thenceforth both men began communicating regularly with relatives and chums in the UK. Burgess wrote a piece for the Sunday Express denouncing U.S. foreign policy. Nobody high up criticized this; but when Burgess’s former friend Goronwy Rees published a series of intimate articles about the “real Guy Burgess,” Rees became an Establishment pariah: he was dismissed from a university position and dropped by friends who felt he’d betrayed Burgess. (They apparently didn’t mind that Burgess had betrayed his country.) One of these friends wrote to Rees: “Guy was such a charming, cultivated, civilised and loveable person.” That he worked for Stalin, apparently, was irrelevant; what mattered what the charm.

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Burgess and his mother in Sochi, Russia, 1956

Mind-bogglingly, the British government let Burgess ship his furniture and other possessions from London to Moscow. His mother was permitted to visit him annually (she taught his cooks how to make his favorite dishes) and to send him food shipments several times a year. He corresponded freely with several friends, including Harold Nicolson. The British government even arranged for the contents of his London bank account to be transferred to him in Russia, and didn’t stand in his way when he ordered groceries from Fortnum & Mason, clothes from Turnbull & Asser, shirts from New & Lingwood, and books from Collet’s on Charing Cross Road. British authorities didn’t even strip him of his citizenship: he was designated a non-resident British subject, which meant he could receive money legally from the UK.

In Russia, Burgess continued to work actively against British interests. He wrote a spy-recruiting manual, helped counterfeit official British and American documents, and composed letters that were mailed to British MPs and Western newspapers bearing the signatures of private citizens who didn’t, in fact, exist. He was considered the mot useful of all British defectors.

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Andrew Lownie

He also led a more orderly life than he had in Britain. He had to. When he drank too much, his “minders” gave him a “talking-to.” His mother, who after his father’s death had never made an effort to control her constantly out-of-control son, observed that “Soviet discipline is good for Guy.” As Burgess biographer Andrew Lownie writes, “Burgess was a spoilt child, indulged by his mother,” and “had never been given boundaries.” For some people, indeed, this is indeed the appeal of totalitarianism: the idea of freedom is terrifying; they are incapable of self-control; they crave a strong authority above them, restricting their movements and punishing them for any violation of the rules.

Still, in a 1959 interview with Canadian TV, Burgess said: “My life ended when I left London.”

Three years later, he told British visitors that while he was “a firm believer in communism,” he didn’t “like the Russian communists.” He was even more vehement with another visitor, saying: “I hate Russia. I simply loathe Russia. I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!” The difference, of course, was that in the UK he could be a Communist while living under the capitalist system. What was the fun of being a Communist in a Communist country?

Stalin_JosephOne thing seems clear. Burgess, we suspect, didn’t really want to see Britain transformed into a Communist state. What he wanted was to continue to live in a capitalist Britain where he was fully free to enjoy the manifold privileges and pleasures that were available to him as a member of the Establishment. At the same time, however, he wanted to be able to play the part of the rebel – without, of course, ever having to pay the slightest price for it. There was, in short, no moral or philosophical foundation underlying any of his actions. As one BBC colleague commented after his defection: “He had literally no principles at all. None at all.” Another acquaintance agreed: “There was a solid core missing….épater le bourgeois. That’s what really started him off.” What a shallow reason, indeed, to serve a monster like Stalin.

Traitor, Communist…and cad?

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1956

The 1951 defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union made the CIA livid. It was, as Burgess biographer  Andrew Lownie puts it, “the third body-blow that American security had suffered as a result of the British, after the atom spies Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and they were beginning to feel their whole atomic programme was being betrayed by foreigners.” The British people were also disgusted to know that these two men at the heart of British Intelligence had been traitors.

But the two traitors’ friends and former colleagues in the British elite had a somewhat more muted response. For example, diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson, who reflected in his diary that Burgess’s disappearance would mark the end of “the old easygoing confidence of the Foreign Office” and hence “the loss of one more element of civilization,” admitted that while he felt “so angry with Guy in some ways – feel that he has behaved so much like a cad,” in another sense he felt “deeply sorry for him.” Note the curious word choice here: not “traitor,” but “cad” – as if Burgess had pinched a chorus girl’s cheek rather than pinching government secrets.

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Donald Maclean

The reaction was much the same throughout the cozy club that was the British political, cultural, media, and academic elite. Burgess’s fellow Etonians and Oxbridgeans couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the idea that two of their own were Soviet spies. Actual spies. As we’ve seen, Burgess had drunkenly blabbed about his Soviet connections to BBC colleagues and heaven knows who else. But these people’s minds were wired in such a way that even what amounted to an explicit confession of treason somehow just didn’t compute. They could imagine a member of the working classes betraying their country, but not Guy Burgess.

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Kim Philby in Moscow, 1968

Even after Burgess and Maclean defected, this upper-crust naivete – this inability to work up a reasonable distrust for one of their own – remained intact. They still trusted another Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt, even though a great deal of evidence pointed toward him. This British blind spot so outraged the CIA and U.S. Defense Department that these two agencies withdrew temporarily from cooperating with British Intelligence. It was, indeed, the CIA that soon realized that Kim Philby was probably also a Soviet agent, and demanded that MI6 get rid of him or risk destroying the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Britain. After standing by Philby for a brief while, MI6 did remove Philby from his position. But instead of investigating him for treason and putting him under arrest, it rewarded him with “a golden handshake of £ 4,000,” a pretty penny in those days. (Philby would eventually abscond to Moscow in 1963.)

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Journalist Henry Fairlie

Meanwhile the government, plainly more fearful of negative publicity than of Soviet infiltration, covered up key data about Burgess and Maclean, lied to the public about the extent of the two spies’ access to sensitive information, and made no effort whatsoever to rout out other spies. It was in response to this disgraceful display that Henry Fairlie, in an article for the Spectator, coined the term “The Establishment,” complaining that the first loyalty of the nation’s Oxbridge elite was not to King and Country but to itself. In a perfect demonstration of Fairlie’s argument, it was an American agency, the FBI, that finally fingered Philby as a Soviet agent – and it was top-level British politician (and future PM) Harold Macmillan who vehemently rejected this charge, saving Philby’s career – for a time, anyway.

Indiscreet

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Guy Burgess

We’ve seen how Cambridge man turned BBC producer, Foreign Office official, and British Intelligence agent Guy Burgess enjoyed the absolute confidence of his superiors in the UK corridors of power. And yet all the while he was a secret spy for the Soviet Union. What is baffling is that he was far from the most discreet of spooks. For one thing, as one BBC coworker, an on-air clergyman, later said, Burgess promised that “[w]hen we [i.e., the Communists] get into power” he (the clergyman) would be “one of the first to hang from a lamppost.” After one 1948 party at which he talked an “extremely pro-Russian” line, one of the attendees, Kate Maugham, told her brother, author Robin Maugham: “I believe Guy Burgess is a communist.” But Robin wasn’t having it: “Nonsense. If he were a communist surely he wouldn’t act the part of a parlour communist so obviously.” To which Kate replied: “Perhaps it’s a double bluff.”

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Robin Maugham

He was also outspoken in his hatred of America and the American way of life. This feeling intensified after the war, when he felt Britain had become a “satellite” of the U.S. and believed that the only way to resist American hegemony was to stand with the Soviets. One day in 1950, he walked into the dining room at the Reform Club in London and found a friend sitting with two High Court judges. They were discussing a new memoir, I Chose Freedom, by Victor Kravchenko, who had recently defected from the Soviet Union to the United States. Seeing a copy of the book on his friend’s lap, Burgess delivered a rant about “the iniquity of the Americans” and then picked up the book and tossed it across the room.

Yet none of this kept him from being posted later that year to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. So well-known were his political sympathies among his colleagues at the Foreign Office that one of them, before he left London, actually urged him not to be “too aggressively communist” while in the States.

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William Harvey

In any event, after relocating to Washington, Burgess wore his contempt for America – and Americans – on his sleeve. At a dinner party hosted by his fellow Soviet spy Kim Philby (who was also working at the British Embassy) and attended by CIA counterintelligence head William Harvey, Burgess drew an unflattering caricature of Harvey’s wife, causing the Harveys to leave in a huff. As Burgess biographer  Andrew Lownie puts it: “One Soviet spy had, in the home of another Soviet spy, insutled the man whose job it was to flush out Soviet spies.” This was only the beginning. Burgess’s outrageous conduct in the U.S. occasioned complaints to the CIA, State Department, and Governor of Virginia, and resulted in his being recalled to London, where he shared with everyone who would listen “his hatred for the Americans.”

But Burgess’s indiscreet behavior in the U.S. marked the beginning of the end. British Intelligence soon requested his resignation. Meanwhile, the Soviets informed his fellow spy Donald Maclean that he’d fallen under suspicion. On May 25, 1951, the two men defected to the Soviet Union.

Guy the spy

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Guy Burgess

After Cambridge student Guy Burgess went to work as a spy for the Soviet Comintern, he resigned his membership in the British Communist Party and pretended to have joined the political right. In 1936, with a glittering set of recommendations from well-placed friends and acquaintances, he got a job as a radio producer at the BBC.

Circa 1940: Sir Harold Nicolson, (1886-1968), English diplomat, author and critic sitting before a BBC microphone in a radio studio. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Harold Nicolson, c. 1940

Almost immediately, he proved his value to his Kremlin masters: he introduced pro-Russian radio programming (diplomat Harold Nicolson, a friend of Burgess’s, complained that thanks largely to Burgess’s efforts, BBC coverage of the Soviet Union was “completely distorted”); he was involved in the broadcast of speeches by high-level politicians and military officers whose gossip he readily passed on to Moscow; and he used his position at the Corporation to help established his Cambridge friend and fellow spy Anthony Blunt as an on-air art expert. He also recruited various friends as spies.

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Stanley Baldwin

But that wasn’t all. The Soviets, as it happened, really lucked out. Soon after going to work at the BBC, Burgess was also tapped by the office Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to serve as a “secret courier between No. 10 Downing Street and the French government.” He was then hired by British intelligence to secretly report to it on the Prime Minister’s activities. In short, he was spying on the PM for British intelligence, and spying on both of them for the Soviets, to whom he provided a rich trove of material. His work for British intelligence also involved liaising with anti-Nazi groups around Europe and serving on the Joint Broadcasting Committee, which fed pro-British radio shows to the U.S. and Europe. The top-level connections he now enjoyed in Britain gave him “access to highly confidential information about the preparations for war” that proved extremely helpful to the Soviets. In particular, his tip-off that the British government felt it could easily defeat Hitler alone, and thus had no serious intention of allying with the USSR against him, helped convince Stalin that his only salvation lay in a temporary alliance with the Nazis.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin with Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov who was Foreign Minister (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov with Stalin

In 1944, he was tasked with planning postwar British propaganda for the Foreign Office, and in that capacity had access to “almost all material produced by the Foreign Office.” The material he fed to the Russians at this point was “dynamite.” And it just got better: in 1946 he became private secretary to a top Foreign Office official and began to take part in the formulation of foreign policy. Thanks to him, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, knew what the British and American position on Berlin was before the Brits’ own delegates to the 1947 London Conference did.

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Hector McNeil

Yet nobody in British intelligence suspected what Burgess was up to; on the contrary, so highly trusted was he that when his superiors decided that there was need to fight Soviet propaganda with propaganda of their own, they tapped Burgess to help formulate it. Indeed, his immediate boss, Hector McNeil, trusted Burgess so much that McNeil asked him “to report on anyone who might be suspicious on the staff.”

More tomorrow. 

The road to treason

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The young Guy Burgess

Guy Burgess (1911-63) lost his father, a Naval officer, at thirteen, went to Eton, and at Cambridge, where he was considered “the most brilliant undergraduate of his day,” became part of a circle of debauched, entitled young aesthetes-cum-intellectuals (including the heir to the Rothschild fortune). While enjoying a louche, lavish life of privilege – garden parties, champagne breakfasts, lunch with E. M. Forster, a weekend chez Somerset Maugham on the Riviera, servants who waited on him hand and foot – Burgess also became a Communist. After joining the Apostles, a “secret society” of leftist, pacifist, atheist, artsy students, Burgess and his friend Anthony Blunt set about packing the club with fellow Stalinists. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon: it was the early 1930s, and thanks to the Party’s new tactic of recruiting students instead of workers, Cambridge as a whole was turning red: the Trinity Historical Society became Marxist and the Socialist Society affiliated itself with the British Communist Party.

stalin1As Andrew Lownie notes in a recent biography, Stalin’s Englishman, Burgess was expected to have “a brilliant academic future.” But when his thesis in progress was suddenly rendered redundant by a newly published book on the same topic, the trauma was so great that he was put off from pursuing an academic career.

What else could he do with his life? In 1934, he visited the USSR, where his status as a Cambridge Communist gave him access to a number of high-level officials. When one of them showed him a list of books that were being translated into Russian, Burgess – who was more Communist than the Communists – warned that one of the titles on the list, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, was fascist. He was so persuasive that the Soviets decided then and there not to translate it after all.

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Writer and journalist Goronwy Rees

Burgess wasn’t one of those Western Communists who viewed Soviet life through rose-colored glasses. Returning to Cambridge, he was honest about the USSR’s appalling housing and infrastructure. His friend Goronwy Rees would later observe that Burgess wasn’t particularly interested in the reality on the ground in Russia. A true academic, Burgess was in love with Communist ideas; whether they worked out in real life was of little or no concern to him.

All that was left was for him to become a spy. His fellow Apostle Kim Philby, who had already become a courier for the Austrian Communists, gave his Party contact a list of Cambridge and Oxford friends who might also be willing to work for the cause. He included Burgess, but put his name at the bottom of his list because he was an “enfant terrible,” a flamboyant type who, Philby suspected, didn’t have the makings of a good secret agent.

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Kim Philby

In the end, Burgess figured out that Philby and their mutual friend Donald Maclean – who had also signed up with the Communists – were involved in something clandestine and exciting and demanded they include him, too. “He must have been one of the very few people to have forced themselves into the Soviet special service,” Philby later said. And so it happened. The Soviet Comintern signed up Burgess, giving him the codename Madchen. He was now one of the men who would come to be known as the “Cambridge Spies.”

More tomorrow.

Prisoners in Paradise

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Noel Field

Last week we started examining the curious life of Noel Field, American diplomat turned Stalinist spy, as told in a splendid recent biography by Kati Marton.

In our last installment, we saw that Field was exposed as a spy in 1948 by Whittaker Chambers. Seeking refuge and a new meaningful life in service to Communism, Field traveled to Prague – where he was promptly arrested, questioned, and tortured until he confessed to being an American spy. His torturers knew this was a lie, but they wanted Field to provide false “evidence” against other Communists so that they could be executed as traitors – and he obliged them, turning over no fewer than 562 names.

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Erica Wallach, 1962

This next part sounds almost like some kind of sick joke. When Field went missing, his wife, Herta, was worried. She went to Prague to look for him – and was promptly arrested. Field’s brother, Hermann, was also worried. He went to Warsaw – where he, too, was arrested. That left Erica Wallach, who had been a sort of stepdaughter to Noel and Herta and who was now married to an American GI with whom she had two small children. Erica contacted an East German official of her acquaintance and asked him to help her find Noel, Herta, and Hermann. He invited her to meet him at Communist Party headquarters on Unter den Linden in East Berlin. She went there and was immediately arrested, tried as a spy, sentenced to death, and sent to a Moscow prison to await her execution. But fate intervened: Stalin died, and instead of being executed, Erica was sent to the worst of the Gulag stations, north of the Arctic Circle, where she spent several years doing burdensome manual labor in subzero temperatures.

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Hermann Field and his wife, Kate, in later years

When all four of them – Noel, Herda, Hermann, and Erica – finally got out of prison, they owed their release to an unlikely savior. A Polish officer who had been Hermann’s torturer defected to the U.S. and held a press conference under the auspices of the CIA at which he said that the charges against all four were trumped up. The State Department immediately demanded their release, and the Communist governments complied. Noel and Herda were reunited, and discovered they had been imprisoned only a few meters from each other; but they didn’t cry until they were informed that Stalin was dead. Both still fanatical Communists, they begged to be allowed to remain in Hungary. (As Marton notes, they may well have been the first Americans to request political asylum in that country.)

When Noel found out that Hermann and Erica had been imprisoned because of him, did he feel guilty? Not at all. His main worry, where they were concerned, was that they would not say or do anything to damage the Communist cause. He tried to persuade Hermann (who had never been a Communist) to “defect” to the East in order to hand the Eastern Bloc a propaganda coup. As for Erica, instead of being glad that she could finally be reunited with her husband and children, Noel fretted that her American GI husband would poison her mind against Communism (as if her years in the Gulag hadn’t already done that). Erica was disgusted by Noel, saying: “This is just a Party man. The human being has disappeared.”

We’ll finish this up tomorrow.