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. 

Brecht: from Hitler to Hollywood

 

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Bertolt Brecht

In the eyes of many, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was one of the great modern playwrights. He has been called “without a doubt the most important and influential dramatist of the twentieth century worldwide.” He was a central figure in the culture of the Weimar Republic – in other words, 1920s Germany, the Germany that was still reeling from the loss of World War I, that was struggling with economic depression and hyperinflation, and that had been plunged into in political confusion by the advent of Communism on its eastern border and the effort to maintain a working democratic government in Berlin in the face of a rising tide of Nazism. The Threepenny Opera, his 1927 collaboration with composer Kurt Weill (it included the famous song Mack the Knife), was the most successful German theatrical event of the decade.

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Max Reinhardt

Brecht’s plays – the first of which was produced in 1922 – were outrageously experimental and aggressively political. Working with legendary producers Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, Brecht spat in the face of the very concept of the “well-made play,” the sympathetic hero, the happy ending. Indeed he spat at a broad range of human concepts and behaviors, such as ordinary decency and respectability and honor. But one thing he didn’t spit at was the Soviet Union. After he’d spent some time reading Marx and following the actions of the Kremlin, Brecht became a Communist, and in his plays he celebrated collectivism, dictatorship, the idea of a strongman ruling over his subjects through the use of terror.

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Berlin premiere of The Threepenny Opera (1929)

Then, in 1933, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. The night after the Reichstag fire, Brecht hightailed it to Prague. (As the critic John Simon has put it, “Brecht…like the heroes of most of his plays, was no hero.”) Hitler banned his plays. Meanwhile Brecht, as one account puts it, “bounced around from Prague to Vienna to Zurich to the island of Fyn to Finland.” In May 1941, his U.S. visa came through and he fled to the New World. Like many European artists and intellectuals who had a Nazi target on their backs, he settled in Santa Monica, California, and tried to make a career as a Hollywood screenwriter.

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Brecht’s house in Santa Monica

That didn’t work out. Part of the reason was that Brecht, a radical propagandist with a consistently offbeat approach to drama, was the last playwright in the world who could conceivably be capable of writing a marketable Hollywood movie. Another part of the reason was that Brecht’s contempt for Hollywood – where he stayed for a total of six years – knew no bounds. Having escaped a country in the grip of Nazism, he despised the place he had come to and had no gratitude whatsoever toward Americans for having taken him in. Exemplary of the gulf between Brecht and the movie studios – and, for that matter, with American audiences – was the fact that he actually wanted to make a movie based on the Communist Manifesto. 

More tomorrow.

Howard Zinn, Stalinist

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The young Howard Zinn

In 2003, Howard Zinn was described as “the most influential historian in America.” As of that year, his book A People’s History of the United States was selling 128,000 copies annually; total sales have now topped two million. What a remarkable coup this was for Zinn, whose parents were working-class immigrants from Russia and Ukraine and whose father worked as a fruit peddler and ditch digger. Had Zinn’s parents not emigrated to America, any child of theirs would have grown up as a peasant under Communism. And if that child had grown up to be half as outspoken as Zinn, he’d soon have ended up either in the Gulag or in front of a firing squad. That the son of such a couple could end up as a prominent historian and a wealthy man is a tribute to the reality of the American dream.

zinnbookBut Zinn himself didn’t see it that way. Indeed, perhaps the best way to sum up his life goal is to say that he was out to destroy Americans’ belief in the American dream. For Zinn was a Communist. And he wasn’t just any Communist. He was a very active Communist who belonged to a New York branch of the Party and attended Party meetings five nights a week between around 1949 and 1953.

And that wasn’t all. He taught informal courses in Communism to other Communists. He participated in various Communist front groups, such as the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and the International Workers Order, and in a number of Communist-infiltrated organizations, such as the American Veterans Committee. Although, as noted, he ceased being active in the Party during the 1950s, his political views remained the same, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for the Castro revolution in Cuba.

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One of Zinn’s heroes

As many observers have noted, the timing of Zinn’s involvement in the Party is interesting. He wasn’t one of those who joined the CPUSA in the 1920s or 30s, when ignorance was still a credible excuse and some of Stalin’s worst atrocities remained in the future. No, he joined up after the Ukraine famine, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and after the USSR’s postwar occupation of Eastern Europe. By the time he signed up as an agent of the Kremlin, it was clear to any well-informed Westerner that Josef Stalin was a thoroughly evil piece of work, fully on a par with Hitler, and that the people living in the Soviet Union and its satellites were the helpless, terrorized subjects of a monstrous tyranny.

Zinn would later go on to become a prominent academic and a leader of the anti-Vietnam movement. We’ve already written here about his friendly wartime visit to Hanoi with Father Daniel Berrigan, a fellow Communist. But it wasn’t till A People’s History came out in 1980 that Zinn became famous.

We’ll get to that tomorrow.

Josef who?

You may never have heard of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. But if you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll probably want to know about it, for it’s an institution that seeks to address a profound need that lies very close to the heart of our own efforts: namely, the extraordinary ignorance of the brutal reality of Communism in today’s America, especially on the part of young people.

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Josef Stalin: only 18% of US millennials know who he was

The extent of that ignorance was underscored on October 17 by the foundation’s own annual report on American attitudes toward socialism and Communism. The executive director of VOC, Mario Smith, summed those findings up as follows: “An emerging generation of Americans have little understanding of the collectivist system and its dark history.” While older generations are aware of the evils of Communism, millennials (born between 1982 and 2002) aren’t. This makes sense, of course. The fall of the Iron Curtain occurred before they were born or when they were small children. They’ve been taught about the evils of Nazism, but little about Communism. They know about the Holocaust, but probably not about the Gulag.

The VOC’s sobering numbers confirm this ignorance. According to the study, only 18% of American millennials can place the name of Josef Stalin; the comparable figures for Lenin and Mao Zedong are 42% and 33%. The inevitable result of this profound ignorance of Communism is a disturbingly benign attitude toward it. While 91% of older Americans and 80% of baby boomers view Communism negatively, only 55% of millennials do. Fully 25% of millennials who recognized the name of Lenin actually view him favorably.

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Joseph McCarthy: the real #1 Cold War villain

This sympathy for Communism surely owes a lot to baby-boom teachers or professors who, when they have touched on Communism, have actually treated it sympathetically. Instead of underscoring the fact that the regimes of Hitler and Stalin were equally totalitarian, many of those supposed educators have drawn sharp distinctions between Nazism and Communism, pronouncing the former as unqualifiedly evil but depicting the latter as a beautiful dream that perhaps got just a wee bit out of control. In recent decades, school syllabi touching on Communism have focused less on the horrors of life in the USSR and more on the purported victimization of American Communists during the era of the Hollywood blacklist. In this formulation, the villain of the piece is not Stalin but Senator Joseph McCarthy.

030114-O-0000D-001 President George W. Bush. Photo by Eric Draper, White House.
George W. Bush: deadlier than Stalin?

Consequently, almost 45% of millennials actually say they would vote for a socialist president – a statistic that might have been surprising before the Bernie Sanders campaign, but perhaps isn’t so surprising now. Fully 32% of millennials actually believe more people were killed under George W. Bush than under Stalin. (The figure for Americans generally isn’t much better: 25%.)

Much of the millennial sympathy for socialism and Communism can be attributed to the widespread use, in high-school and colleage history courses, of a single book entitled A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (1922-2010). We’ll get to him tomorrow.

Admiring the Mitfords

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Tina Brown

In September, veteran editor Tina Brown reviewed The Six, a new joint biography — no, not of the half-dozen famous French composers who went by that collective monicker — but of Britain’s notorious Mitford sisters, some of whom we’ve been discussing this week. Brown wondered:

Why did [Diana] and Unity find the shimmer of totalitarian violence so attractive? Why were they dazzled by the glamour of authoritarianism…? Why were even their milder siblings — placid Pam, brother Tom, and their refined, aloof mother, Sydney — also fascist sympathizers…? Why was Jessica drawn to — or blind to — Stalin’s nominally left-wing brand of murderous tyranny?

These were, of course, sensible questions (even though the bit about Stalin being “nominally left-wing” was an absurd, transparently feeble effort by the left-wing Brown to delink Stalin from “the left”). But they were followed by an utterly outrageous question: “So which of ‘The Six’ does one come to admire?”

Admire?

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Hadley Freeman

Brown isn’t alone in thinking that there’s actually something worth admiring about these women. Alas, any number of biographers, memoirists, and others have spoken of the Mitfords in similar terms. One of them is Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman. Two years ago, she confessed to her own intense admiration for the Mitfords – and further confessed that she was uneasy about feeling such a powerful fondness for them.

Why was Freeman uneasy? Because Jessica was a Stalinist and the others were Nazis (or at least Nazi sympathizers to some degree or other)? No. Freeman was uneasy because she was worried that admiring the Mitfords is “seen as something girlish, shallow and immature, like having an over-developed fondness for ponies, or wanting to be a ballerina.”

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The Mitford family

Freeman went on – and if you’re reading this standing up, please sit down:

As a middle-class American – and Jewish, to boot – I should be repulsed by the Mitfords. That I’m not is because they collectively represent something much greater than their (fascinating) biographical details….To me, and I suspect to a lot of other women (for it is mainly women) whom they fascinate, they remain an exciting reminder of a woman’s ability to shape her own life, for better or worse, uncowed by familial and social expectations and restrictions.

Yes, you read that right: the ultimate lesson of the Mitfords’ lives – the lives, that is, of these slavish, foolish, pathetic acolytes of Hitler and Stalin – is all about female empowerment.

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Nancy Mitford

Freeman continued: “Decca went from being a pampered, uneducated aristocratic child to a fierce civil rights campaigner in the US.” Well, yes, Jessica (Decca) did involve herself in the U.S. civil-rights movement – but she did so because she, like her Kremlin masters, saw CPUSA participation in that movement as advancing the larger cause of spreading Communism in the Western world. As for Diana, wrote Freeman, she “remained unapologetically devoted” to her husband Oswald Mosley “to the day he died.” Yes, Diana loved her husband, the most dangerous Fascist in British history – and she also kept praising Adolf Hitler until the day she died. Nancy? She “lived a somewhat lonely life in Paris, writing novels.” Hoffman delicately omits to mention Unity, presumably because Unity’s devotion to Adolf Hitler was so fanatical that even Hoffman can’t find a way to prettify it.

“How many of us,” Hoffman asked, after offering up these perverse thumbnail portraits,

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Unity Mitford with Hitler

can say that we pursued such individualistic lives, utterly unshaped by our parents and unlike our siblings?….it might sound odd to say this about a family spiced with such bitter ingredients as Hitler and loss, but what the Mitford sisters represent is courage and freedom.

Hoffman was right about one thing: yep, this did sound odd. More than odd.

mitford_1441145cFor this was, in fact, a family of sisters who hated freedom, and made no secret of it. Indeed, if Unity, Diana, and Jessica hadn’t made so much noise about their hatred of freedom and love of totalitarianism, chances are they’d hardly be remembered today. Yes, the West’s twentieth-century struggle to defend liberty against the scourges of Nazism and Communism yielded up a great many examples of remarkable courage in the cause of freedom: the rows of grave in military cemeteries across Europe testify to that. To use these same words to sum up the lives of the vile Mitford maidens is, it must be said, nothing less than obscene.

The Red Mitford

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The Mitford family

In the last couple of days, we’ve examined the lives of Unity and Diana Mosley, the celebrated British sisters who became friends and fans of Adolf Hitler. Today we’ll look at their sister Jessica (1917-96), whose love of totalitarianism, unlike theirs, had a crimson tinge. In 1937, Jessica – known to intimates as “Decca” or “Dec” – eloped to Spain with her “wastrel” cousin Esmond Romilly, who had decided to join the International Brigade and fight for the Soviet-supported Republican side. Two years later Jessica and Esmond moved to America, indifferent to the looming war until Germany invaded their beloved Soviet Union, an act that inspired Romilly to join the Canadian Air Force. He was killed in action in 1941, after which Jessica found a government job in Washington and married her second husband, a “’Red’ labor lawyer” (to quote Christopher Hitchens) named Robert Treuhaft.

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Jessica with her second husband, Robert Treuhaft

Like Jessica, Treuhaft was a Communist. She became a U.S. citizen not because she loved America but so that she could join the Party and work towards America’s destruction. She and Treuhaft moved to Oakland, California, where they took part regularly in Party activities. They remained active CPUSA members for fifteen years, staying within the fold even after 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev spelled out the horrific crimes against humanity that his predecessor, Josef Stalin, had committed in the name of the Revolution. Jessica (who defended the brutal Soviet incursion into Hungary as a means of preserving the “socialist system” against a “fascist coup”) had two children, but later admitted to a friend that she was so “preoccupied with CP politics when they were growing up” that “while I was v. fond of them, I didn’t pay too much attention to them when they were little.” 

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Josef Stalin

When she left the Party in 1958, it wasn’t because she’d recognized its ideology as evil, but because she felt it had become “rather drab and useless.” Her issue with the Party, then, wasn’t philosophical or moral, but aethetic and practical. (Perhaps the real problem was that Stalin had died in 1953, and, after giving Khrushchev a few years, she finally decided that he just didn’t provide her with the same delicious frisson.) Though she would later say that she could scarcely imagine “living in America in those days and not being a Party member,” she was far happier in America than she’d been in England, which she considered unbearably bleak. (One can only imagine how bleak she might’ve found the Soviet Union, if she’d been forced to actually live there under the system she served.)

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Jessica Mitford in her later years

Her grisly 1963 exposé of stateside funerary practices, The American Way of Death, made Jessica even more famous in America than she’d been as a glittering young thing back in Blighty. She went on to write many other well-received books. When the USSR collapsed, she expressed neither joy nor regret. As with her Nazi sisters Unity and Diana, her politics didn’t keep her from making famous friends – including, in her case, Maya Angelou (herself a longtime fellow traveler) and Washington Post publishers Philip and Katherine Graham.

Nor have her politics kept writers and journalists from treating her with more respect and admiration than some might think she deserves. We’ll conclude this survey of the Mitfords tomorrow with a brief look at this very subject – namely, the tendency of some biographers, memoirists, reviewers, and sundry scribblers to treat the Mitfords’ love of totalitarianism less as a moral outrage than as a curious personality quirk.  

“More Nazi than the Nazis”

How can it have taken us so long to get around to the Mitfords? This group of aristocratic English sisters were, in their time, the very personification of useful stoogery. They were to totalitarianism what the Spice Girls were to pop music.

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The Mitford siblings in 1935: Unity, Tom, Deborah, Diana, Jessica, Nancy, and Pamela

Well, not all of them. There were six girls in toto. Pamela (1914-48) was “the boring Mitford”; Deborah (1920-2014) was the respectable one, marrying a duke and ending up being named a Dame Commander by Queen Elizabeth II for her charitable work. Nancy (1904-73) became a famous novelist. There was also a brother, Tom (1909-45), who, after refusing to take arms against the Axis powers because he was himself a fascist, was sent by the British Army to fight in Burma, where he died in battle.

But the other three sisters were – not to put too fine a point on it– pretty horrific. And one of the things that are horrific about them is that many people who should have known better celebrated them as the epitome of fabulousness. Yes, their politics might have been offensive – but oh, how beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, witty, charming, and magnetizing they were!

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Unity Mitford

Just how offensive were their politics? Just for starters, take Unity (1914-48). As some observers have joked, she was destined from conception to be a Nazi: she was conceived in an Ontario town called (of all things) Swastika and, just to top it off, was given the middle name Valkyrie. A beautiful blonde, over six feet tall, she kept a pet rat and pet snake. From an early age, she was a full-fledged Jew-hater and Nazi-lover. Her life goal was to meet Hitler, and she moved to Munich in 1934 so she could learn German and thus be able to converse with him when that magical encounter occurred.

Once in the Third Reich, Unity lost no time networking with the Nazi beau monde. After the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer published a letter in which she proclaimed her anti-Semitism, the paper’s editor, Julius Streicher, was so impressed that he invited Unity to speak to a crowd to 200,000 at a summer festival. He also invited her to his home, where after a dinner party, by her own account, he brought up Jews “from the cellar” and made them “eat grass to entertain the guests.” She gave no sign of finding this spectacle offensive. Far from it.

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Unity Mitford with Julius Streicher

While waiting to bump into the Führer, Unity also began the practice – buckle your seatbelts, now – of inviting groups of SS officers to her flat, where, beneath large swastika banners and surrounded by framed portraits of Hitler, they ravished her in sadomasochistic orgies while the “Horst Wessel Song” (the Nazi Party anthem) played on a victrola. These erotic escapades were conceived by Unity as a kind of “eucharist” – as dark, perverse acts of Hitler-worship.

Then came the day she described in a letter to her father as the “most wonderful and beautiful” of her life: she finally met Hitler. He had heard about her antics with his SS men, and was curious about (which is to say, apparently turned on by) them. She told him that “she only thought of him during these acts, and they were a symbol of her submission to his control.” He told her to keep up with the SS sex sessions, and over the next few years she socialized with the Führer frequently, routinely recounting to him the details of her latest gang-bang.

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Unity with Hitler

Hitler was so fond of Unity that he let her pick out a new apartment for herself from a list of those that had been expropriated by the authorities from their rightful Jewish owners. (Reportedly, “the owners of the one she chose sobbed as they watched her comment on the curtains.”) Hitler also told Unity that the two of them would spend the afterlife together, and he put it in her head that at some point she would have to kill herself so that they could be reunited in Valhalla. She was so close to him, and so fervent in her admiration, that the British Secret Services described her as being “more Nazi than the Nazis.”

It was over lunch in August 1939, only three weeks before the invasion of Poland, that Hitler informed Unity that it was time for her to take her life. A month later, after the war had begun, she shot herself in the head in Munich’s Englischer Garten. But she survived, and Hitler had her and her hospital stretcher put on a train to Switzerland. From there she was transported back to England, where she died in 1948 – three years after her beloved Führer had effected his own translation from this world to the next.