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.

Was Hobsbawm a spy?

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E. J. Hobsbawm

This week we’re remembering British historian E. J. Hobsbawm, who spent his life applauding Stalin – and being applauded, in turn, by the cultural elite in both Britain and America. On Monday and Tuesday, we relived the brilliance with which Hobsbawm’s admirers managed, in the obituaries that followed his death on October 1, 2012, to minimize or explain away – or even valorize – his Communism. As we saw yesterday, it took writer A. N. Wilson to dispel all this nonsense and spell out the hard facts about Hobsbawm, whom he truthfully described as a “fashionable Hampstead Marxist.”

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A. N. Wilson

But isn’t it possible that Hobsbawm, despite his noxious politics, actually was a good, or perhaps even great, historian? Nope. His books, Wilson explained, “are little better than propaganda, and, in spite of the slavish language in the obituaries, are badly written.” What’s worse, Hobsbawm, like all Communists, could not be relied on to tell the truth about matters close to his heart. In other words, he committed what, for any historian, is the ultimate crime: he lied.

Wilson spelled it out: in his 1994 book The Age Of Extremes, Hobsbawm “quite deliberately underplayed the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939-40, saying it was merely an attempt to push the Russian border a little further away from Leningrad.” Hobsbawm was also silent on the infamous Katyn massacre, in which the Soviet secret police murdered 20,000 Polish soldiers in cold blood. And he blithely dismissed the Soviet Army’s refusal to intervene when the Nazis crushed the 1944 Warsaw uprising.

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Josef Stalin

There’s more. In On History (1997), Hobsbawm claimed that “only a limited, even minimal, use of force was necessary to maintain” the Communist system “from 1957 until 1989.” As Wilson charged, this was nothing less than “a blatant lie”:

Ask the inhabitants of Prague, where Soviet tanks rolled into the streets in 1968, if they agreed with Hobsbawm that this was “minimal use of force.” Ask the millions of people who were taken from their homes by KGB thugs and forced to live, often for decades, in prison-camps throughout the Gulag, whether force had been “minimal.”

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Guy Burgess

Finally, Wilson raised a question that none of the laudatory eulogies had dared to go near: had Hobsbawm – who, at Cambridge in the 1930s, had chummed around with Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and others who later turned out to be Soviet spies – been a spy himself? Late in life, Hobsbawm had tried to get his hands on his MI5 file – to find out, he said, who’d “snitched on him.” Why, Wilson asked, had Hobsbawm used the word snitched? The very word, after all, “implied that he had done something…criminal.”

Wilson was almost alone in posthumously reprehending “the Hampstead Marxist,” but not entirely. In the Telegraph, historian Michael Burleigh also pulled back the curtain on the real Hobsbawm, attributing the postmortem cheers to the leftist hegemony in British humanities and social science departments and calling Hobsbawm’s books “synthetic,” ill-informed, and – above all – shot through with “a dogmatic refusal to accept that the Bolshevik Revolution had been a murderous failure.” Here’s Burleigh:

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Anthony Blunt

Everything Hobsbawm wrote deceitfully downplayed the grim role of the Communists in Spain in the Thirties or the forcible nature of the coups the Soviets carried out in Eastern Europe after 1945. Such a cosmopolitan thinker had ironically become imprisoned within a deeply provincial ideological ghetto, knowing or caring nothing for the brave Czechs or Poles who resisted Stalin’s stooges…..

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Michael Burleigh

But then again, how could Hobsbawm possibly have understood or respected or cared about courageous people who resisted Stalin’s stooges, given that he himself was one of the most prominent of those stooges – a lifelong stooge, a shameless stooge, and, alas, a stooge whose stubborn stoogery was rewarded with glittering prizes by a fatuous, craven, and morally bankrupt cultural elite?