The mid-20th century historian E. H. Carr famously said: ‘We view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present.’ This goes a long way to explain the ebb and flow of historical debate; as the world changes so does the history, as it should. But one of the first tasks of the historical novelist is to see the past through the eyes of the past. We must understand how our characters thought, how they felt and why they felt it. We must empathise.
The world of espionage in Europe in the 1930s provides a fascinating challenge for the historical novelist. If we look at this period front to back, back through the Cold War and World War Two, we see an entirely different place than if we look at it the other way around, the way people alive at the time did, starting with the Great War and moving forward through the Great Depression. The 1930s they experienced was not the same as the 1930s we see.
The Cold War seemed to most of the West’s inhabitants to be an existential struggle between good and evil, between democracy and totalitarianism, between liberty and mass executions. Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were bad, terrible places where millions died. Nation-states overlapped with ideology: the NATO countries against the Soviet Bloc and China. The men and women who spied for Soviet Russia: the Cambridge spies Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross and the nuclear spies such as Klaus Fuchs, Morris Cohen, Alan Nunn May and the Rosenbergs were traitors to their countries, to their fellow citizens and to democracy. Not surprisingly, historians look back into the 1930s to see where and how this treason was hatched.
As Richard Davenport-Hines points out in his book Enemies Within, our perceptions are also distorted by a kind of survivorship bias. Of the hundreds of communist spies in Britain, America, Germany and France operating in the 1930s, we tend to focus on the most effective in the 1950s and 60s, and to draw conclusions on these alone. For example, the fact that two of the five Cambridge spies, Burgess and Blunt, were homosexual has led many to over-emphasise the importance of homosexuality in spying. Actually, the most useful information received from British spies by the Soviet Union in the 1930s came from John King and Ernest Oldham. They were clerks in the Foreign Office’s Communications Department and had never been anywhere near Cambridge.
So, what did the world look like to a young man or woman in the early 1930s?
Capitalism was demonstrably broken. Wall Street had crashed in 1929, European banks had crumbled in 1931. Unemployment and poverty were sweeping the continent. Democracy was crumbling. The Weimar Republic and the chronically unstable French Third Republic were weak and ineffectual. Fascist strong men were on the rise in Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary and later Spain. Although the British Labour Party formed a government for the first time in 1924, by 1931 the party was decapitated, its leader having sold out to the Conservatives to form a National Government. Anti-Semitism was on the rise, not just in its traditional breeding grounds of Eastern Europe, but now in Germany and France.
Something needed to be done and done urgently. Throughout Europe, many rational people of all classes turned to communism for the answers. In Germany’s 1932 election, six million voted for the communist party; in France in the same year, nearly a million ticked the communist box. But in the 1930s there was only one country with a communist government: the Soviet Union.
But didn’t these people realise that the Soviet Union starved and murdered its own citizens in their millions? What about the kulaks? What about the Ukrainian famine?
Some did, some didn’t. Young intellectuals flocked to the Soviet Union to witness communism in action for themselves. One of their number, intoxicated with liberty, ran across a lawn in Leningrad shouting ‘free at last’ and tripped over a ‘keep off the grass’ sign. Different visitors saw different things, or rather saw the same things differently. Malcolm Muggeridge, a young British journalist, was shocked. E.H. Carr was impressed. Mildrid Harnack, an American communist living in Berlin, admired the equality, the enthusiasm and optimism of the people and the majestic public works such as the Dnieper dam and the beautiful Moscow Metro. She blamed the apparent poverty she observed on the Tsar. Arthur Koestler later admitted that he put everything that shocked him down to the heritage of a brutal past, and everything he liked to optimism for the future.
Communist spies of the 1930s were suspicious of the idea of country. Nation-states had recently fought the most destructive war in history and seemed to be squaring up to do it all over again. Fascism was evil, based as it was on the idea of the supremacy of one Volk over another. In 1933, the Oxford Union famously vowed not to fight for king and country, and communists from all classes and all countries flocked to Spain to oppose Franco. The Comintern agents who handled the British spies Maclean, Philby and Burgess, were rootless. Theodore Maly, Arnold Deutsch, Ignace Reiss and Leopold Trepper were all born in the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was dismembered in 1918. Litzi Friedmann and Edith Tudor-Hart, who tempted Philby into spying, were both born in Vienna. Kitty Harris, Maclean’s handler and lover, was born in London’s East End to pogrom-fleeing parents from Bialystok, moved to Winnipeg as a child, and then to Chicago in her twenties. It’s difficult to accuse these spies of betraying their country without asking and failing to answer the question, which country?
The Comintern was an organisation based in Moscow whose aim was to spread communism throughout the world. We know now that by the 1930s the Comintern was no more than a puppet organisation for the Soviet Union, funded by its government and run by its intelligence services. But most communist spies believed that they were fighting for the cause of international communism, not Soviet Russia. When Philby suggested spying to Donald Maclean over supper in Philby’s West Hampstead flat in 1934, Maclean insisted that he would only spy for the Comintern, not Russia.
In the second half of the 1930s, Europe’s intelligence services were more concerned with spying on each other, than the network of international communists in their midst. It was left to that ultimate nationalist, that socialist in one country, Joseph Stalin, to destroy the communist spy rings. In a fit of paranoia, Stalin recalled most of the Comintern’s agent handlers, including Maly, Deutsch and Reiss, to Moscow to be executed. He was convinced that the British secret services were still conspiring against the Soviet government and decided that the lack of evidence from Maclean, Burgess, Blunt and Philby meant that they were at best untrustworthy, at worst double agents. For several years no one from Russia maintained contact with them, and it later transpired that much of the large volume of information gathered at great risk by these spies was never even translated when it reached Moscow.
The final blow was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, where Soviet Russia allied with Nazi Germany. This was too much for many communists who had flirted with espionage.
But not all of them. Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt went on to give important secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, in Philby’s case this led to the loss of life of many brave MI6 agents around the world. I am not seeking to condone or exonerate them for what they did. By then, it was clear what the Soviet Union was, and they had gone too far down the path of betrayal. But I do seek to understand the hundreds of individuals in the 1930s who saw the world self-destructing, and decided to do something about it, even though, or perhaps because, what they decided to do proved to be so misguided.