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?

“Journalist spies,” then and now

Declassified Soviet documents have long since proven otherwise, but the myth persists that concerns, during the decade or so after World War II, about Kremlin operatives in Hollywood, Washington, and the New York media were the product of “McCarthyite hysteria.” It’s always useful, then, to be reminded just how real that phenomenon was – and just how important it is for free people always to be on guard against the infiltration of their societies by the servants of tyranny.

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Walter Duranty

Today, it’s well known, at least in some circles, that Walter Duranty (1884-1957), the New York Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Russia, was in fact a tool of Stalin who routinely printed outrageous lies – and who actively sought to discredit colleagues who strove to get out the truth. But Duranty wasn’t alone. On July 1 of this year, Matthew Vadum reported on new research in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies establishing that the number of American reporters of that era who can fairly be described as “journalist spies” turns out to be considerably higher than was previously thought.

In the article referenced by Vadum – entitled “Spies in the News: Soviet Espionage in the American Media During World War II and the Beginning of the Cold War” – University of Ohio scholar Alexander G. Lovelace reports that as of June 1941, no fewer than 22 American journalists were active, full-fledged members of the USSR’s spy network in the U.S., and that after 1941 that number grew. As Vadim reminds us, “the relationship between the U.S. government and the press was different in those days.” What he means is that there was an atmosphere of trust; government officials took it for granted that American journalists were, first and foremost, loyal Americans; consequently, as Lovelace notes (his article, unfortunately, is behind a paywall), they “were routinely trusted with secret information to be used as ‘background’ for stories.”

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Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and Warren Beatty as John Reed in Reds

Who were these “journalist spies”? Some of their stories have already been told. The 1981 Warren Beatty movie Reds made heroes out of two of the earliest such turncoats – John Reed and Louise Bryant, both of whom, in the wake of the October Revolution, filed disinformation-packed “news reports” that glamorized the fledgling USSR and its Communist system.

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Whittaker Chambers

Nor is it any secret that Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine from 1939 to 1948, was a Soviet spy. Chambers, of course, eventually recognized the error of his ways, turned in State Department official Alger Hiss and other Communists, and told the story of his own journey into and out of the Party in the classic memoir Witness.

But Chambers wasn’t the only staffer at that supremely influential newsmagazine who was secretly working for the Kremlin. Others included John Scott, Stephen Laird, and Richard Lauterbach. The last-named did Stalin a great service when he reported that the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviets killed more than 20,000 Polish military officers in cold blood, had been committed by the Germans.

29 Jun 1955, Washington, DC, USA --- Original caption: Washington, D.C.: CBS News correspondent Winston Burdett testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee here today. Burdett admitted being a Communist from 1937 to 1942 and under questioning by Eastland, he said that he had engaged in espionage abroad for the Communists. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Winston Burdett testifying in 1955 before a Senate subcommittee, to which he confessed to having been a Soviet spy

Other KGB men included Peter Rhodes of the New York Herald-Tribune and Winston Burdett of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and CBS News. (Burdett, who for a time had regular personal contact with both FDR and J. Edgar Hoover, eventually admitted his history of espionage in testimony before a Senate subcommittee.) Then there was Walter Lippmann, in his time the dean of American political commentators. Lippmann himself was not a Soviet spy, but – as it turns out – his secretary was. Therefore Lippmann, in whom many leading politicians confided, unknowingly helped transmit vital top-secret information to the KGB.

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Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men

In the immediate post-Watergate era, many young Americans’ image of journalists was shaped largely by the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, which depicted Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as stirring heroes of American freedom. Some of those Americans took a long time to recognize that many journalists are, in fact, less devoted to objective truth than to partisan agendas, in the service of which they are more than willing to distort or suppress the facts. Some Americans, alas, have yet to wake up to this reality. Alexander G. Lovelace deserves our thanks for a timely reminder that even the most trusted, respected, and highly placed members of the fourth estate may secretly owe their allegiance to the most morally abominable of masters. There is no reason to believe this is any less true now than it was in the early days of the Cold War.