Headline, 2014, 344 pages, $xx.yy (pb)
A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: Kim Philby and the Great BetrayalBEN MACINTYRE
Bloomsbury, 2014, 352 pages, $xx.yy (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Klaus Fuchs has had a very bad press because the refugee German physicist who was at the heart of the war-time British and American nuclear bomb projects also passed on all their secrets to Stalin’s Soviet Union. There is, however, more to Fuchs than his depiction by conservative Cold Warriors as a reprehensible traitor, as can be gleaned from Mike Rossiter’s biography.
Fuchs came of political age during the rise of Nazism when he joined the German Communist Party (KPD) as the only effective resistance force to Hitler. A fearless activist, Fuchs was once attacked by Hitler’s street thugs outside Keil University and thrown in a river, losing some teeth during the assault.
After Hitler’s power-grab, the KPD leadership sent their highly valuable young scientist to safety in Britain with a dual career as nuclear scientist and Soviet spy. MI5, Britain’s domestic secret police, was unaware of Fuchs’ covert role and waved aside what they assessed as Fuchs’ ‘slight security risk’ for the sake of Britain’s greater nuclear good.
A decrypted Soviet spy message, however, trained their gaze on Fuchs in 1949. The evidence was scanty, vague and circumstantial, and, as MI5 would not want to reveal in court that it had cracked the Soviet’s secret espionage code, Fuchs would almost certainly have escaped prosecution.
Under gentlemanly interrogation by MI5, however, Fuchs volunteered a confession. He may have developed doubts about the Soviet Union, and he was concerned about his colleagues, friends and family getting dangerously caught up in his MI5 investigation, but the inducement of immunity from prosecution, which was beyond MI5’s powers, in return for a confession was crucial.
Fuchs’ illegally obtained confession should have been ruled inadmissible as evidence in court but with Lord Chief Justice Goddard hearing the case, there was no way this rank conservative would obey legal niceties. Nor was Goddard moved by the fact that Fuchs also effectively spied for Britain, his phenomenal memory transporting highly classified American nuclear weapons know-how, jealously-guarded from even US allies, back to Britain.
Washington, says Rossiter, knew that its nuclear weapons dominance “gave a significant advantage to the country that possessed it” in terms of geo-political power and it was not just the Soviet Union but also Britain which believed, as Labour’s Foreign Secretary put it, that ‘we could not afford to acquiesce in an American monopoly’ of the atomic bomb.
Tricked into a confession, Fuchs got fourteen years and served nine for good behaviour before returning to East Germany, becoming that neo-Stalinist state’s most senior nuclear physicist where he died in 1988, the year that also saw the death, in Moscow, of Kim Philby, another Soviet spy and as reflexively vilified, including by his latest biographer, Ben Macintyre.
Like Fuchs, Philby moved from moderate laborist politics to communism in the 1930s after witnessing the brutality of fascism in Berlin. An underground communist activist in quasi-fascist Austria, Philby returned to London and Cambridge University where his impeccable upper-crust family credentials made him a perfect choice for Soviet intelligence which was scouting for well-connected students at elite universities with good career prospects who could blend invisibly into the British establishment.
Reinvented under the guise of a keen young fascist and anti-communist, a role Philby found ‘deeply repulsive’ but compensated for by the romantic thrill of espionage, he joined MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, eventually rising to head up MI6’s anti-Soviet intelligence operations.
From this position, all activities of MI6, and of the CIA courtesy of “long boozy lunches” with the CIA head in Washington, found their way to the Soviet Union which Philby never wavered from seeing as the embodiment of his left-wing political values, despite Stalin’s Show Trials and deadly purges, including the liquidation of Philby’s early, cultured and still idealistic Soviet ‘handlers’.
For Philby, his spying meant helping to foil the West’s Cold War ‘roll-back’ strategy which centred on MI6 and CIA operations to destabilise the strong national communist movements in France, Italy and Greece, to repress anti-imperialist liberation struggles in Latin and Central America, South America and Asia, and to foment insurrection behind the Iron Curtain.
When exposure loomed for Philby, he, too, like Fuchs, was offered immunity from prosecution in return for a confession but, unlike in Fuchs’ case, leading MI6 officers wanted to avoid what would have been a massive, and career-ruining, spy scandal and they did nothing to prevent his midnight flit to Moscow in 1963.
Philby’s services to Soviet intelligence had meant the deaths of those he fingered – the armed anti-communist insurgents in Georgia, Armenia, the Ukraine and other Soviet satellites; a would-be Soviet defector bearing the names of those spying for the Soviet Union in the West; and anti-Nazi but right-wing, anti-communist Catholic resistance activists in Hitler’s Germany.
Whilst Macintyre vents unalloyed disgust at Philby’s regret-free “killing for the communist cause”, he fails to summon such moral outrage for Britain’s war-time execution of Nazi spies (also a result of Philby’s ‘legitimate’ spy job), nor for the Western spy agencies’ vastly more numerous Cold War toll of peasants, workers, Catholic nuns and others in the developing world. For Macintyre, some causes (such as “combating the communist menace”) apparently justify guilt-exempt, spy-induced murder.
Top-heavy on the what and how of spying (codewords, clandestine rendezvous, etc.) both books are underweight on the why (motives and principles) of Fuchs and Philby whose guilt is posed only at the level of breaching official secrets and treason laws. True political guilt, however belongs to Stalin who was guilty of misleading the likes of Fuchs and Philby into a blind belief that Russia under the counter-revolutionary tyrant was socialist and therefore worth spying for.
In the spy’s micro-universe, Fuchs and Philby were isolated from public engagement as socialist activists working for a democratic, egalitarian and war-free world. These were the revolutionary ideals that Fuchs and Philby started out with and for which, despite their misguided strategy, they remain guilty – and proudly so.