Charmian Brinson & Richard Dove, A Matter of Intelligence: MI5 and the Surveillance of Anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-50 (2014) Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2015, Notes, Name Index, pp. 239, ISBN 978 0 7190 9079 0. Reviewed by Dr Frank Ellis
Frank Ellis underlines the threat that Communism formerly posed to Britain
The authors’ justification for writing this book is that surveillance of anti-Nazi refugees has more or less been ignored in the official histories of MI5. The reasons for this neglect, according to Brinson and Dove, are that whereas MI5 generally had a highly successful war against the Germans – one thinks of its success in rounding up German agents infiltrated by the Abwehr and the stunning achievements of the Double Cross Committee – MI5 surveillance of German and Austrian refugees failed to pick up some serious threats to British and Allied security. Specifically, MI5 failed to uncover the treachery of Klaus Fuchs until after he had passed on details of the Manhattan Project to his Soviet handlers in Britain and the USA. Female communist spies – Edith Tudor-Hart (codename Edith), Margaret Mynatt (codename Bianca) and Ursula Kuczynski (codename Sonya) – escaped retribution.
Brinson and Dove are probably right to assert that MI5 tended to underestimate Edith et al because they were women and because they had all acquired British citizenship by marriage. Edith Suschitzky was born in Vienna. In 1933 she married a one Alexander Tudor-Hart; in 1938, she was implicated in the Woolwich Arsenal spy plot. Margaret Mynatt was also born in Vienna. Her mother was Austrian-Jewish and her father British. She arrived in Britain in 1934. Possessing a British passport, she could travel and was an important courier for the Comintern (Communist International). To quote Brinson and Dove: ‘Her work as a courier involved her in flying regularly to the Soviet Union and carrying money from there to fellow couriers elsewhere in Europe for Communist parties declared illegal within their own countries’.[i] Ursula Kuczynski, the sister of another communist agent, Jürgen Kuczynski, acquired the married name of Beurton from a one Len Beurton. Beurton’s ideological allegiances can be divined from the fact that he called himself Leon and that Ursula Kuczynski and he were married on 23rd February 1940. During the Soviet era the 23rd February was earmarked as Soviet Armed Forces Day and Leon Trotsky played a major role in their founding. Given her husband’s infatuation with Trotsky – in Soviet mythology, Antichrist – and that such associations, however tenuous, with such an enemy of the people could prove fatal during the Stalin period, Kuczynski (Sonya) is lucky that she was not recalled to Moscow and shot.
Kuczynski (Sonya) was, in fact, a star Soviet agent and the all-important link between Fuchs and Moscow in England. While working on the Tube Alloys Project, the cover for work on a British atomic bomb, Fuchs would meet Kuczynski (Sonya) – he called her ‘the girl from Banbury’ – and pass on information, which she then enciphered and transmitted via radio to Moscow, or so she claimed. In her memoir, Sonya’s Report (1991) Kuczynski (Sonya) maintains that she just set up the aerials of her radio between two cottages, one of which she was renting, and started transmitting her report to Moscow. Her account is not entirely convincing. In war time Britain private radio transmissions were forbidden. Unauthorised transmissions, especially those in Morse code and figure cipher, would very quickly have come to the attention of MI5. Regular transmission from the same site would have made the work of triangulation that much easier. At a time when the only transmissions permitted were those of British official agencies, unauthorised transmissions would have been intercepted. Even if the encryption was too powerful to be broken, call signs, time of transmission and the full encrypted text would have been recorded. One can take it for granted that the written record of any transmissions intercepted on behalf of MI5 during the war would have been retained. Perhaps Brinson and Dove should consider a request to MI5/GCHQ for access.
Although Brinson and Dove are concerned with the fate of anti-Nazi refugees in Britain, they do not seem fully to appreciate that refugees espousing left, and extreme-left, totalitarian ideologies may well be anti-Nazi but that this does not automatically translate into pro-British sympathies. Let us be clear. These people sought refuge in Britain because continental Europe was becoming too dangerous. Indeed, the authors note that to begin with the favoured destination was France and only later Britain. Communism and the influx of refugees many of whom with communist allegiances undoubtedly posed a direct threat to British security since Soviet agencies would use – and did use – the entry of refugees as a cover for the infiltration of its agents.
Brinson and Dove make much of the fact that MI5 was obsessed with the threat posed by communism. Typically, they place Red menace between inverted commas thereby implying that MI5 was somehow wrong to have seen any severe danger from communism. Events fully justify the MI5 approach. In 1927 the offices of the Soviet Trade Delegation were raided by the police acting on MI5 information. This was the so-called ARCOS raid and it confirmed the threat posed by the Soviet Union and communism to Britain. The MI5 assessment that the Soviet Union and communism were the main enemies prompted Guy Liddell, a senior MI5 officer, to visit Germany in 1933. There he met Rudolf Diels (incorrectly cited as “Diehls” by Brinson and Dove) at the time when Abteilung Ia of the Berlin Police headquarters was being reorganised into the Gestapa (das Geheime Staatspolizeiamt) not the Gestapo (die Geheime Staatspolizei), as claimed by Brinson and Dove, with Diels as its first head. According to Brinson and Dove the Nazis tried to justify their suppression of the German Communist Party (KPD) with the claim that they had prevented a seizure of power. I am not aware of any planned KPD-inspired uprising in Germany in 1933. However, the Brinson and Dove claim that any such uprising was implausible is wholly inconsistent with Lenin’s endless calls for world revolution, the communist insurgency in Germany after World War One and on-going Soviet attempts to foment one, no different, indeed, from Soviet subversion being carried out by the Soviet Trade Delegation in London in the 1920s.
Together with their brown rivals, German communists made common cause against the Weimar Republic so making it that much easier for Hitler to gain power. Brinson and Dove do not seem to grasp the nature of communism and see no grotesque contradiction in describing Wilhelm Koenen, a German communist who had been denied entry to Britain in 1932, as a ‘communist parliamentarian’.[ii] As a revolutionary party fully committed to subversion, red terror and the destruction of any parliamentary democracy, the KPD and its activists deserve no sympathy when they were arbitrarily arrested, incarcerated and shot. Terror and revolutionary violence were the tools of their trade. Now they got a taste of their own medicine. Brinson and Dove also fail to make a clear distinction between Fascism and National Socialism. Fascism was a propaganda construct used by the Comintern and designed to lump all enemies of the Soviet Union together as Fascists.
Peace time surveillance of German and Austrian aliens was complicated by the simple fact that these people were more or less free to move about and thus to engage in activity that was harmful to Britain. The numbers are worth noting. By September 1939 some 78,000 refugees were living in Britain. Brinson and Dove speculate that of this total about 6,000-8,000 could be estimated to have been political refugees.[iii] Given the growing demands on MI5 time and resources effective surveillance was always likely to be a problem. However, with the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the change in their status – German and Austrian aliens were now “enemy aliens” – internment would have been a highly effective solution.
The MI5 position was that all enemy aliens should be interned. On this matter Brinson and Dove cite an extract from Guy Liddell’s diary: ‘My personal feeling is that enemy aliens should be interned and they should be called on to show cause why they should be released. From an MI5 point of view, it would be far preferable to have them put away’.[iv] Brinson and Dove reject Liddell’s proposal. Thus: ‘All German and Austrian refugees should therefore – so MI5 believed – be interned and required to demonstrate their loyalty to the British cause: that is they should be assumed guilty until proven innocent’.[v] I suggest that Brinson and Dove misconstrue what Liddell was advocating. The obvious point here is that these Germans and Austrians are, in time of war, “enemy aliens”. There is no obvious reason why these people should be permitted the benefit of any doubt. Internment is therefore fully justified. Further, in view of the fact that these people are enemy aliens it is entirely reasonable that the burden of demonstrating to the satisfaction of the British security services that they posed no threat, not necessarily any loyalty to the British cause, falls on them. The internment of enemy aliens makes it much harder for spies among them to engage in espionage, since it disrupts agent networks and enormously simplifies the task of surveillance. In times of a dire national emergency such as that which confronted Britain in 1940 it was, or should have been, an essential measure.
MI5 penetration of communist organisations confirmed not merely the hostile intent towards Britain and the West but also provides very revealing insights into attitudes towards the Soviet Union and the war in general. For example, Hans Beermann, a Jewish refugee, who was an MI5 informer in The Free German Movement (FGM), reported back on reactions to Soviet-Polish plans for Germany’s post-war borders which had been announced in January 1944. René Robert Kuczynski, father of Jürgen and Ursula Kuczynski, and the chairman of the FGM, made an astonishing attack on Soviet policy which had it been made in exile in the Soviet Union and inevitably picked up by the NKVD would have led to his arrest. Thus: ‘the Russian plans for the future of Eastern Germany represented the same kind of barbarism that the Nazis practised. If Germans were to be put under the Poles he could only advise them to stick to the Nazis, for their lot would be far worse with the Poles than with the Nazis’.[vi]
Kuczynski senior’s scathing condemnation of Soviet policy highlights a whole series of omissions in A Matter of Intelligence. Even though factionalism and failing to adhere to the policies ordered by Moscow were serious ideological crimes, disputes among Austrian and German communists arising from Soviet policies and the general course of the war were far more likely in British exile. During the period of the Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939 – June 1941) the ideologically correct line was that this was an imperialist war and that the German bombing of London was no more than the British imperialists deserved. Are we to believe that German and Austrian communists in Britain did not argue among themselves about the merits of the Pact and the correctness of the Moscow line? How did communist refugees react to Stalin’s demands that the Western Allies open a Second Front in 1942 when there was no chance of success? Later in the war, in April 1943, a major rift occurred between the Anglo-Americans and the Polish government-in-exile after the discovery of the mass grave of Polish prisoners of war at Katyn. Despite vociferous Soviet denials of responsibility for this war crime – denials which persisted until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 – only fanatical communists and sympathizers in Britain accepted the Kremlin claim that the mass murders had been carried out by the Gestapo. That the discovery of these mass graves and strong evidence – even then – for Soviet responsibility did not provoke bitter arguments among communists adhering to the Moscow line and those of a more sceptical disposition strikes yours truly as utterly implausible. Non-communists might well have given Goebbels the benefit of the doubt. Any such divisions among the exiles would have been monitored and evaluated very carefully by MI5 since those dissenting from the Moscow line would have been earmarked as potential informers. Yet none of this seems to have made its way back to MI5 via its informers or is there evidence of these arguments and dissent in the files examined by Brinson and Dove but which for reasons unclear they have decided to pass over? If they have neglected any such material, why is this?
One aspect of British operations against communist agents and British traitors is the leniency with which they were treated when caught. Klaus Fuchs escaped the death penalty, Blunt received a royal pardon instead of the long drop, Cairncross was allowed to scuttle away, and when Ursula Kuczynski visited Britain to promote her book she was not arrested. Likewise, when Melita Norwood’s treachery was exposed in 1999 she was briefly the centre of media attention before disappearing from the radar screen. Incidentally, Norwood’s GRU codename was Tina which is appropriate since tina is the Russian word for slime or mire. Soviet handlers want the information but they are not obliged to like the individuals supplying it.
In the conclusion of this book Brinson and Dove tell us that they have taken cognizance of Eric Hobsbawm’s advice ‘ “that it is the business of historians to remember what others forget” ’[vii], unaware of, or indifferent to, it seems, Hobsbawm’s well documented playing down of communist crimes, including genocide. Hobsbawm is the last person to instruct others on the need to remember the forgotten bits. In any case, it is not that communist war crimes and genocide have been forgotten. Unlike the crimes of National Socialism there is still a great reluctance to face up to the enormity of communist crimes. The inapposite citation of Hobsbawm to one side, MI5 surveillance of refugees and enemy aliens, above all the communists, is an important part of MI5’s history and overall Brinson and Dove have made a good beginning. There is much more to come. In their follow-up study the authors should be aware that the KGB, Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti, was not formed until 1954 and so no KGB officer could have played a part in contacting Engelbert Broda, another major source of information on the Manhattan Project, in 1943. The main Soviet intelligence agencies from the mid 1930s until the 1953 reforms were the NKVD, NKGB, GRU and SMERSH. One final point: a book of this kind requires a proper and detailed subject index. A name index alone is not enough.
[i] A Matter of Intelligence, p.85
[ii] A Matter of Intelligence, p.174
[iii] A Matter of Intelligence, p.91
[iv] A Matter of Intelligence, p.103
[v] A Matter of Intelligence, p.103
[vi] A Matter of Intelligence, p.163
[vii] A Matter of Intelligence, p.232
© Frank Ellis 2015
Frank Ellis is an historian and the author of The Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army (2013)