Justifiably, biographers are inclined to think big when they take on Brecht. John Fuegi’s controversial The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht (1994) stretches to 800 pages. Werner Hecht’s Brecht Chronik 1898–1956 (1998) forms an extraordinary factual archive of 1316 pages. And their opening views tend towards the panoramic. This is how James K. Lyon introduces his Bertolt Brecht in America (1980): ‘Bertolt Brecht took part in that spectacular migration of art, culture, and intellect from Germany to America during the Hitler era’, the likes of which had not been witnessed ‘since the influx of scholars into Western Europe after the fall of Constantinople in 1453’. Now Stephen Parker follows suit: ‘The cataclysmic events which twice engulfed Europe and much of the planet in war and mass suffering during the dark times of the early to mid-twentieth century still cast an ominous shadow upon our world. Meanwhile, in the theatres of war the killing goes on.’
In this crucible, you needed to be tough or clever or lucky to survive. Parker situates Brecht as a ‘trenchant opponent of war’, a sensitive and vulnerable observer of ‘human behaviour at the fault line of barbarism and civilisation’. He shows us how Brecht forges a cynical and aggressive image of himself, to become the essence of cool and the most iconic playwright since Shakespeare. I traversed this colossal biography for weeks, tearing along with Parker, who seemed to leave no stone unturned (including his subject’s kidney stones). Its emphasis on Brecht’s genius and illnesses, its build-up of a multitude of medical, sexual, psychological, literary, intellectual, political and historical stories, produces a kind of Gulliverian perspective: Parker’s Brecht is like a huge Swiftian creature taking prodigious strides through monstrous times.
We meet a gifted, nervy, bossy child who in games of Cowboys and Indians always had to be the Chief, and for his presumptions often got a beating from other boys. While Brecht liked his grandmother for being an accomplished storyteller, he mostly treated others, including his younger brother Walter, as fools. His Protestant mother was sickly, sad and religious; she doted on her first-born son. Because he was bored at primary school and often unwell, he accompanied her to sanatoriums. Their bond embraced a ‘kinship of suffering’ until he began his rebellion against her in adolescence. His Catholic father was an authoritarian and a stoic; he had worked his way up the social scale to become managing director of a paper mill in Augsburg and, ignoring local gossip, brought his mistress into the household as housekeeper. Parker suggests that the boy’s deeply religious upbringing, undercut by family tension and deceit, was the source of ‘Brecht’s later espousal of atheism and Marxism, not to mention his brilliant mock Lutheran tone’. And yet his parents indulged their son’s voracious reading habit and nurtured his writing talent; they don’t seem too bad.
As a child, Brecht was diagnosed with heart disease. More forensically than previous biographers, Parker focusses on the precariousness of Brecht’s health, especially recurrences ‘in adolescence and adulthood [that] are consistent with the contraction of rheumatic fever, a syndrome affecting the joints, the brain, the heart and the skin, when the immune system reacts badly to streptococcal infection’. Brecht’s palpitations, breathlessness, poor circulation and flu-like ailments were ‘symptoms of heart failure [which] came and went all his life [and] as he grew older, the complications got nastier’. Parker also registers a family history of epilepsy and suggests Brecht suffered from Sydenham’s chorea, which explains the erratic movements of his limbs, head and hands, and his anxiety that he might lose control.
Depression and excitability; an early interest in war games and great military leaders like Napoleon; his life-long love of chess and his determination to win; how he was either rude or reserved; how he could not listen to Bach, Beethoven or Chopin, nor read Dostoevsky, for fear of feeling overwhelmed; how he channelled opera with outstretched fingers; the closeness of death in much of his writing: Parker adds it all up and proposes that although ‘it is impossible retrospectively to measure these things with any precision, knowledge of his childhood illnesses provides greater insight into the erratic force of the young Brecht’s dazzling, chameleon-like personality, into his extraordinary, intense creativity as well as into the Saturnine, self-destructive tendencies which close friends … saw in him.’
We are given a brilliant portrait of Brecht’s adolescence, his exuberance, his circle and their hangouts: swimming, singing, ice-skating, the thrill of fairgrounds and of several flirtations at once. A puppet theatre kindled his passion for drama; he relished the energising vocal rhythms of newspaper sellers and fairground spruikers; he played the guitar and sang ballads mesmerisingly, with a peculiar voice that would inspire artists like Bob Dylan.
He read with gusto: Stefan George and Rainer Maria Rilke (though his penchant for these two did not last), Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, so much Rudyard Kipling that years later critics would call him ‘Rudyard’ Brecht. He studied Schopenhauer and Spinoza. With his friends, he discussed Hamlet and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and at school he was taught the Latin and German classics. Above all, there was the dramatist Frank Wedekind, bad-boy-hero of German literature; Brecht saw himself as his heir. ‘Brecht had been moulding his own self-image in the light of his veneration of Wedekind as the consummate artistic personality: vital, cynical and amoral – and of his veneration of similar artistic figures like Verlaine and Rimbaud.’ Altogether, he ‘spent much time in Steinicke’s lending library, picking books off the shelves and reading them at great speed’, ambitious ‘to master all the genres and grand themes’ and pick up their dramatic potential.
At the outbreak of World War One, Brecht was sixteen. Parker tracks the brittle teenager’s shift ‘from idealism to profound disillusion’ through poems and stories he wrote about the war for the local Augsburg paper. Like many of his generation of writers, including his eternal bête noire Thomas Mann, Brecht showed early nationalist sympathies, but very soon ‘the war became a severe psychological trial for the boy’ and he was radicalised, taking up the anti-militarist and anti-imperialist position he would hold all his life. Parker also notes that for Brecht (whose first name was Eugen) to begin calling himself Bert was ‘his own personal act of high treason against Wilhelmine Germany’. The start of medical studies in Munich deferred his army call-up. As an orderly in a field hospital where ‘trainloads of badly-wounded soldiers were brought directly from the Alsatian Front for operations and amputations’, he faced the most confronting consequences of war, prompting him to write a sympathetic letter to his brother stationed near Verdun and the ‘Ballad of a Dead Soldier’, one of his most powerful poems.
When his hypersensitivities and anxieties threatened to spin out of control, ‘the teenage Brecht learned behavioural techniques to alleviate those alarming responses and transform them into pleasurable experience’, such as reading and writing poetry. But that was not enough. He developed a ‘cult of coldness’ and was determind to grow a thicker skin. He rarely washed and let his teeth decay, beginning a stubborn lifelong neglect of personal hygiene. Yet this never hindered his sex life: crushes on boys and constant chasing of girls and women lead to seductions, engagements, collaborations, marriages, children, as well as abortions, divorce, betrayal and profound distress. At the start of most of these affairs, Brecht’s calling card was a copy of The Exchange (1893), a play by Paul Claudel about sexual freedoms, which he gave to several women, signalling his disregard for monogamy.
Early in 1919, when his girlfriend Paula ‘Bi’ Banholzer was expecting their child, Brecht wrote Spartacus (later called Drums in the Night) to try and make money. Again he suffered severe depression and health problems. His son Frank (after Wedekind) was born in the summer of 1919 and would die on the Russian front during World War Two.
Brecht could be harsh and cruel. The drawn-out emotional turmoil of his on-off infatuation with the opera singer Marianne Zoff is especially difficult to fathom. When it came to a showdown with Paula and Marianne, who asked which one he was going to marry, he replied ‘both of you’. He married Zoff in 1922; their daughter was born in 1923. As Parker tackles these contortions, there is great suspense in watching how they – biographer and subject – manage the sheer logistics of it all. Brecht’s nimbleness is matched by Parker’s capacity to convey his complex, unstable, almost unbearably open and brilliantly acquisitive character.
In the midst of chapters that deal out the collapse of the House of Hohenzollern and its Empire, the end of war on 11 November 1918, revolutionary turmoil and the formation of the German Communist Party (KPD), which Brecht supported but did not join, the smoke and mirrors of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, the assassinations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Eisner and Rathenau, the imprisonment of writers like Ernst Toller and Erich Mühsam, the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism – in the midst of this, we are given telling snapshots of a hypersensitive and hyperactive young man who ‘would perform anywhere, any time’, even while waiting in a queue outside a barber’s shop, a man agitated with the essential drama – the gargantuan demands – of his era.
With his Augsburg dialect, clear ambition, and disdain for the petit bourgeoisie – their stupid dream of undisturbed consumption, protected by German law and order, for which he invented the term Mahagonny – Brecht headed to Berlin in the early 1920s. Once there, and already feeling contrary, he said he was sick of the new and intended instead to work with ‘very old material that’s been tested a thousand times over’ and with this material he would do ‘what I want’. He studied the work of others closely, mulled over Franz Kafka’s writings, loved Charlie Chaplin’s films, visited bars and cabarets, met the philosopher Ernst Bloch, the poet Klabund, actors Ernst Lubitsch and Alexander Granach, actor and director Max Reinhardt. Very soon he knew just about everybody, though the novelist Alfred Döblin ‘was virtually the only contemporary to whom Brecht would grant equal status’. When Brecht sang his ‘Ballad of the Dead Soldier’ at Trude Hesterberg’s cabaret, he caused a riot. He often took refuge in illness or ‘protected a vulnerable self by publicly performing a variety of invulnerable selves’, leaving ‘emotional carnage’ in his wake. When his play Drums in the Night premiered in September 1922, it was heralded as ‘a new voice, a new sound, and a new vision’. His friend Arnolt Bronnen wrote that in this ‘little, unprepossessing man the heart of the age is beating’. Praise, prizes and contracts flowed in. At the 1923 premiere of In the Jungle of Cities in Munich, Nazis interrupted the performance with noise and stink bombs.
One of the brightest lights in this biography goes on when Brecht meets that ‘figure of brilliance, substance, strength and sexual attraction’, the actress Helene Weigel. Parker describes a street scene in Munich in the 1920s, in which Brecht and a pregnant Weigel pass Marianne and their child in a pram, and mentions that ‘there was briefly a chance that Bi, Marianne and Weigel would all be living in Berlin and that in time Frank could join his mother and the other children in Brecht’s polygamous world’. Despite his intense relationships and close collaboration with other women – most prominently Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, and Ruth Berlau – Brecht’s marriage with Weigel lasted from 1930 until his death in 1956. From 1933, when the Brechts went into exile and Weigel shifted her attention to looking after her husband and their two children, Stefan (born 1924) and Barbara (born 1930), Weigel’s career suffered a long intermission with very few opportunities. When they returned to Berlin after the war, she resumed acting and was artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble from 1956 to 1971.
In the hothouse of Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s, Brecht developed his ideas of Epic Theatre. Plays like Man Equals Man (1926), The Three Penny Opera (1931) and St Joan of the Stockyards (written 1929-31, but not performed until 1959), are dramatised life stories that reject theatrical conventions of individuality and empathy. Through episodic acts and gestural speech, poems, songs, humour and commentary, they convey our deepest social concerns. Brecht was a reader of Marx’s work, and for his plays drew on theories of historical contingencies and dialectical materialism to target our capacity not simply to feel but, aiming higher, to reason.
At this time, Brecht formed close bonds with the literary and social critic Walter Benjamin and the social scientist and Reichstag deputy Karl Korsch. One observer commented that ‘the alliance of the pure man of genius, Benjamin, with the unwashed genius Brecht is exceedingly curious’. When they discussed revolution, one of their priorities was to ‘annihilate Heidegger’. As for Korsch, he was immensely attractive to Brecht as a heretic who had dared to identify Marxism’s weaknesses and had been expelled from the Communist Party. At this time, we are told, Brecht was more provocative than ever. He liked fast cars and was interested in America. Some people were not quite sure where he stood politically; the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács called him a ‘deviationist’.
In the early 1930s, in this city ‘made up of nothing but future migrants’ (Lion Feuchtwanger’s words), Brecht continued to believe in a united anti-fascist front. Just months before the fabric of his life fell apart, he bought a house. Hitler became German Chancellor on 30 January 1933, the Reichstag burned down on 27 February, and Brecht and Weigel escaped the next day, meandering via Prague, Vienna, Switzerland and Paris, until they settled for exile in Svendborg, Denmark, where the journalist Karin Michaelis gave them a house and financial support. Brecht urged his friends to come and visit him in ‘Danish Siberia’. Before long they poured in, including his lovers, childhood friends and even his father. Parker describes one scene in a small crowded fisherman’s cottage lit by a smoking paraffin lamp, with the composer Hanns Eisler singing and playing piano to a closely pressed together audience of the Brechts, Grete Steffin, Karl Korsch and Walter Benjamin. Later Brecht would say that, compared to the isolation of his exile in Hollywood, Svendborg had been a metropolis.
Brecht also travelled. In early 1935, he shared a house in London with Korsch for a couple of months, but found his friend depressed and disillusioned with the communist movement. Korsch was writing a biography of Marx. Sometimes Korsch would, in turn, stay with the Brechts in Denmark. They were a tight group. Benjamin records in Understanding Brecht (1966) that before one such visit, Brecht said to him: ‘You know, when Korsch comes, we really ought to work out a new [chess] game with him. A game in which the moves do not always stay the same.’ Brecht went to Moscow. In June, he attended the first International Writers’ Congress for the Defence of Culture in Paris and afterwards commented wryly ‘we have just rescued culture. It took 4 (four) days, and then we decided that we would sooner sacrifice all else than let culture perish. If necessary, we’ll sacrifice ten to twenty million people.’
Brecht had a cutting wit. In California in the 1940s, asked how he was getting along with his fellow exile Thomas Mann, he replied that he met him only casually ‘and when that happens 3000 years look down on me’. His scorn knew no limits; he also considered many Marxists to be frauds.
In this biography, it is as if we are being told absolutely everything. Parker has read widely. He has gone to Svendborg where ‘a particular delight was seeing Brecht’s house of exile’. And he travels bravely through the Brechtian body to record the excruciating path of kidney stones through the urethra, commenting that ‘the penis, the source of such immense pleasure, was also a site of extreme pain’. He highlights Brecht’s obsessions (postcards, silk, fear of being buried alive, whiteness), his literary themes (pregnancy as a blessing and a curse, hedonism, death, morbidity), and his behavioural traits, such as a ‘Bonapartist’ decisiveness.
But how near can a compendious biography really get to its subject? Parker’s point seems to be that in the case of someone as gritty and self-absorbed and self-documenting as Brecht, the door is wide open and you go straight in. It seems that, sometimes, biography is a form of surveillance.
The second half of Parker’s book maps a life where everything was indeed watched and weighed: Brecht’s affiliations, questions of theory and authenticity, friends and enemies, where he stood in relation to Moscow and the Show Trials, war in Spain, war in Europe, the Hitler-Stalin pact. In 1939, the Brechts escaped via Sweden and Finland to the United States. It was in those years that, in collaboration with Steffin, who died in 1941, Brecht wrote Mother Courage and Her Children. It is now regarded as the greatest play of the twentieth century.
In exile in America, Brecht and his circle did not know how they would endure their personal losses and the universal wreckage and atrocities of war, nor how they would keep writing. Brecht was luckier and more adaptable than most. He developed connections in Hollywood and was able to work. With Fritz Lang and Hanns Eisler, for example, he collaborated on the film Hangmen Also Die! (1943), from which he earned enough to buy a house and a second-hand Buick. But he was also under close surveillance from the FBI. Neighbours and members of the emigré community acted as informants. Going to see Russian films ‘was sufficient grounds for suspicion’. After the war, Brecht was blacklisted and interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee; he gave a masterful performance.
When he and his family returned to Europe, it wasn’t easy for them to know how to act there, on stage and off. In East Berlin, for example, he encountered ‘powerful enemies who would never accept his aesthetic experimentation’. Brecht and Weigel persisted, and after some tough wrangling set up their own theatre, the Berliner Ensemble. In the 1949 production of Mother Courage and Her Children, Weigel played the lead. Brecht’s health declined. He also grew impatient with East German politics and bureaucratic constraints. He died of a heart attack, aged 58, in 1956.
According to Benjamin, Brecht once praised Anna Segher’s stories ‘for having a rebellious, solitary figure as their central character’. Brecht had a keen eye for those who stood alone. For all its vibrant close-ups of Brecht, its magnificence of research and engaging style, I feel that, while Parker presents Brecht as a rebel, he has not quite grasped his subject’s solitariness, the pacifist inside the activist. Nor does he convey fully the dynamics of Brecht’s aesthetics and his thinking, those quest-like traits discussed by Stanley Mitchell in his perspicacious introduction to Benjamin’s Understanding Brecht: that ‘Brecht and Benjamin thought in millennia, geologically, of new dark and ice ages [and] discovered optimism in men’s most ancient teachers’; that ‘Brecht shared with Benjamin a scavenging, magpie temperament, receptive to the often fragmented nature of modern art and literature’; and that Brecht believed in yielding and friendliness as much as hardness and revolution.
James K. Lyon has described how the FBI collected evidence from ‘a family that lived in Santa Monica a few houses away from the Brechts during these years [who] became convinced they were enemy agents engaged in espionage.’ They thought they heard ‘Heil Hitler’ being uttered, recalled ‘maps of Europe on the walls of Brecht’s study, plotting the progress of the war’. Brecht’s daughter was seen returning library books with slips in them. Another set of neighbours let the FBI know the Brechts were Russian agents. Lyon comments that ‘the idea that the Brechts were probably not simultaneously Nazis and Communist spies eluded them’.
This kind of blundering is endemic to intelligence agencies, especially where nervousness about so-called ‘enemy aliens’ is concerned. To cite Stanley Kubrick’s Brechtian film about the Cold War:
Hmm … Strangelove? What kind of a name is that? That ain’t no Kraut name … He changed it when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkwürdigliebe … Well, a Kraut by any other name …
Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove have deciphered and documented files recently released from MI5 to the British National Archives. In doing so, they have filled a gap in our historical knowledge. Their book A Matter of Intelligence: MI5 and the Surveillance of Anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-50, traces the complex relationship between political refugees from Nazi Germany – there were 80 000 at the start of World War Two – their British patrons, and the British Security Service (MI5), which was set up to ‘Defend the Realm’ by keeping an eye on ‘Aliens’.
MI5 had humble beginnings. Early methods of surveillance included a card index of suspicious foreigners’ names and postal and telephone intercepts. Limited foreign languages skills, financial constraints and staff shortages hindered smooth operations. Somehow it managed to invent its own glamorous reputation, which – Brinson and Dove suggest – ‘the facts of its history scarcely justify’.
If MI5 began by blocking German espionage, its target soon shifted and it began combating communism. A significant part of the problem was an indecisiveness in identifying Britain’s worst enemies: was it the Germans or the communists? And so, in 1933, ‘MI5 was keen to cooperate with the new Nazi authorities, with whom it had a common interest in countering communist subversion’. Many of its spymasters – Guy Liddell, for example – displayed a ‘casual anti-Semitism’ and poor judgement of political developments on which it based the later surveillance of left-wing German and Austrian refugees in London – communists, socialists, trade unionists, pacifists and liberals, including many who were politically unaligned. MI5’s ‘interest in the political refugees from Germany was out of all proportion to their numbers and influence’. In fact, it was relying on a list of names supplied by the Germans. Within the refugee population, matters were complicated by the fact that the Left was divided. Although scattered groups tried to conduct politics in exile, they failed to form an effective anti-Nazi front.
When Mathilde Wurm and Dora Fabian, who shared a flat in Bloomsbury, were found dead on 4 April 1935, it caused great disquiet within the German refugee community. Wurm had been a member of the Reichstag; Fabian was a journalist and political activist known to MI5. She was a friend of the playwright Ernst Toller, had an unhappy affair with Karl Korsch, and was involved in investigations into the kidnapping in Switzerland of the anti-Nazi journalist Berthold Jacob. She seems to have been on the trail of the man who would later be arrested as Jacob’s kidnapper, Hans Wesemann, a refugee turned Nazi spy who had offered his services to the German Embassy in Britain, which passed information to the Gestapo in Berlin. On the continent, Wesemann specialised in luring and abducting people back to Germany, where they were arrested. While in Britain, his strategies included offers to stranded authors to get their work published, and bringing people together for meetings to overhear their conversations.
Many details of the Fabian-Wurm case are mysterious: including the women’s room being locked from the inside, two packed bags, an unidentified visitor, a suicide note transcribed by the German embassy, the way the Coroner depoliticised the inquest, the suspicion that Korsch was a Nazi agent and his deportation from Britain, and by no means least, the fact that Fabian’s personal MI5 file remains inaccessible. Brinson writes:
A fictional account of the Fabian-Wurm case has recently been published in which the mystery surrounding the case has been ‘satisfactorily’ resolved. However, reality is more intractable than that. The case itself remains unsolved, resisting the easy resolutions of fiction.
She is referring to Anna Funder’s All That I Am (2011). This novel was said to be ‘based on real people and events’, though it would be more true to say it is based largely on Dove’s He was a German: A Biography of Ernst Toller (1990) and Brinson’s The Strange Case of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm: A Study of German Political Exiles in London during the 1930s (1997). Funder’s reinvention of ‘real people and events’ as fiction in All That I Am makes for uncomfortable reading, especially her blithe first person narration and her conflation of Karl Korsch and Hans Wesemann into a single fictional character who becomes the probable murderer of Fabian and Wurm. Uncomfortable literary history too, as some readers, such as Ruth Scurr in the Times Literary Supplement, have assumed that the ‘wealth of archival research and historical scholarship’ is Funder’s, and some have confused aspects of her fiction with fact.
Until 1935, with British fascism on the rise, MI5 maintained its ambiguous attitude towards Nazism and was mostly concerned with catching out communists. There seems to have been quite a bit of fumbling and guessing and tediousness at every level – for example, the record of a subject who buys papers, goes to the British Museum Reading Room, then to a Lyons café. The glamour of MI5 rubs off quite easily. Its ‘intelligence’ often seems like a misnomer. Take the story of veteran pacifist Otto Lehmann-Russbueldt, who was arrested after the Reichstag fire, then set free and forced to flee into Holland, where ‘disguised as one of a group of psychiatric patients out on a walk, he was taken across the border by two Catholic priests’. He arrived in Britain in November 1933, but once there the circulation of his book on the German air force (based on documents obtained for him by Dora Fabian) was suppressed and his political activism – including warnings of Germany’s plans for chemical attacks – was viewed by MI5 as a nuisance.
The intricacies of the espionage network are mind-boggling. The file on the fervent anti-Nazi novelist Karl Otten revealed that he worked with Claud Walter Sykes, who was his translator. Sykes wrote books on aviation and espionage, and by exploiting Otten’s trust had infiltrated German refugee circles in London, which were part of much wider European activist circles. Otten is described by Brinson and Dove as
a man in his mid-forties, balding and bespectacled, [who] might have seemed a typical intellectual, but … was much more than he seemed, emerging from his MI5 file as a volatile and ambiguous figure with a taste for backstairs politics. He belonged to a literary generation which freely mixed poetry and political action.
Sykes was no less interesting. He and his wife, the actress Daisy Race, were friends of James and Nora Joyce, and Sykes had typed up a section of Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922). MI5 was so impressed with Sykes that they made him an ‘officer’ and then a double agent. And by 1940 they had also recruited Otten, though even as he became a ‘watcher’ (at least until late 1944 when he went blind), he remained one of the ‘watched’; his file was kept open until 1956.
Throughout the 1930s, MI5’s obsession with the Red Menace was focussed on the Lawn Road Flats in London’s Hampstead, a modernist building which was home to left-wing intellectuals, such as the photographer Edith Tudor-Hart (born Edith Suschitzky, 1908, in Vienna). In its clunkiness, British intelligence often either overestimated or underestimated people and situations. In Tudor-Hart’s case they were unaware of her importance to Soviet intelligence, in particular her role as a talent spotter and recruiter, instrumental in recruiting Kim Philby.
Similarly, the sparseness of Margaret Mynatt’s MI5 file shows they were unaware of her role as Comintern courier and other duties, though this failure, Brinson and Dove suggest, might reflect the competence of the Comintern’s operations rather than the incompetence of MI5. Mynatt was born in Vienna in 1907 to an Austrian-Jewish mother and a British father, so she had the advantage of British nationality. As a young woman, she had moved to Berlin, worked as a journalist, joined the KPD and became part of the circle around Bertolt Brecht. She fled Germany soon after the Reichstag Fire, arrived in London in 1934 and worked with American journalist Clara Leiser, who was investigating the deaths of Dora Fabian and Mathilde Wurm.
After the widespread violence of Germany’s Kristallnacht, during the night of 9-10 November 1938, a new flood of refugees poured into Britain, numbering 78 000 by September 1939, about 90% of whom were Jews. But to MI5 all Germans were potential spies and they classified them as ‘enemy aliens’; they lacked the resources (and it seems the inclination) to make distinctions.
When war broke out, MI5 – then known as the ‘War Office’ – reacted with great urgency and a recruitment drive, which by their own admission plunged them into ‘a state of confusion which at times amounted almost to chaos’. And when the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced, left wing circles registered this betrayal with perplexity and distress, especially German communists, who had been early opponents of Nazism and were among its first victims. Further panic ensued when the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and France, leading to mass internment of refugees in Britain, and the decision to ship out these enemy aliens. When the Dunera was sent to Australia overloaded with 2542 mostly Jewish detainees,
the shameful mistreatment of prisoners on board by the crew and the military escort, who deprived them of food and looted their luggage, caused a major scandal. The commanding officer and two of his subordinates were eventually brought before a court martial.
MI5 was implicated; once again it had clearly stuffed up. And when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and that country became an ally, MI5 was very slow to change its views.
A particular hive of surveillance by MI5 was the Free German League of Culture, founded in London in late 1938 by refugees as an anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, non-party organisation. Nonetheless, it was considered a communist front and especially dangerous in its appeal to a wide audience. It’s now known that one of the most active informants on the League was a fellow refugee, the pacifist, anti-communist, human rights activist and ‘political maverick’ Kurt Hiller.
Another focus for surveillance was the Austrian Centre, where exiles gathered to read newspapers and attend plays, concerts and lectures. It offered tailors, a small publishing house and an Austrian restaurant. It was also the domain of its Secretary, Eva Kolmer – ‘attractive, cultured, persistent, intelligent, well-dressed’, with excellent British contacts – who kept her communist affiliation well hidden and despite requests for her to be interned, avoided arrest. While Eva Kolmer charmed people, others, like the journalist Rudolf Moeller-Dostali, with his murky political past, commanded ‘almost universal mistrust.’
The picture that emerges from A Matter of Intelligence is of MI5 spying on people who often spied on each other. It seems that refugees did this for a number of reasons: financial gain, preferential treatment, gratitude to Britain for taking them in, or existing political or personal grudges. Brinson and Dove point out that some refugees were convinced that after fleeing German persecution ‘the Communists had gained the upper hand within the refugee organisations in Prague (thereby giving them priority for evacuation) and within the Czech Refugee Trust Fund after arrival in Britain.’
There was a high level of support from groups like the Religious Society of Friends, and from individuals, including aristocrats, archbishops, politicians, actors, composers and authors. Virginia Woolf ‘donated the proceeds from the sale of the manuscript of Three Guineas to the American League for German Cultural Freedom, an organisation set up to assist exiled German writers and intellectuals’.
British surveillance of Germans and communists continued after the end of World War Two. It became especially relevant when Britain planned to build an atomic bomb. Klaus Fuchs had arrived in Britain in 1933 as a young communist. He would go on to gain a doctorate in theoretical physics, and to postgraduate studies in Edinburgh. For his brilliance, he was at first exempted from internment, then arrested and taken to a camp in Canada, before being returned to Britain in 1941. Although MI5 had been reluctant to give him security clearance, he signed the Official Secrets Act, and was allowed to join others on the atomic bomb project. He became a British subject in 1942. But he decided to inform the Soviet Union: he and his intelligence controller met regularly, outside Mornington Crescent tube station, in quiet residential streets, on country roads. It is in subtexts like this that A Matter of Intelligence feeds our imagination. At one point, when an arrangement was broken, Fuchs was supposed to renew contact by throwing ‘a copy of the magazine Men Only over the wall at 166 Kew Road, Richmond (a house occupied by party comrades) with a message on page 10 stipulating a new place and date’. One of his intelligence controllers was ‘Sonya’, sister of the spy Jürgen Kuczynski. She conducted her operations with aplomb from a cottage she had rented in Oxford from the respected QC Neville Laski, brother of the political theorist and Labour man, Harold Laski.
As a member of the British mission to the Manhattan Project (and here we are again in Dr Strangelove territory), Fuchs sailed to America in 1943, worked at Los Alamos and returned to Britain in 1946. Although he was caught, his arrest in 1950 was another huge embarrassment to MI5. There were others, like Engelbert Broda, who spied within the inner circles of Anglo-American nuclear developments and got away.
MI5 was probably watching the wrong Germans for the wrong reasons; it was handicapped by its binary view of the world – friend or foe, British or foreign. Although Brinson and Dove found instances of ‘casual’ anti-Semitism by individuals, reflecting widespread anti-Semitism in British society, there is no evidence that MI5’s surveillance operations were driven by anti-Semitism.
This is an immaculately researched history. Its pellucid prose offers facts, personalities, detective work and interpretations – including conjectures about files that are still closed – which pay homage to the real intelligence of people like the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm,
who famously wrote that it is ‘the business of historians to remember what others forget’. Following his advice, we have tried in our study to ‘remember’ a lengthy episode of counter-intelligence, which, after being hidden from history for seventy years, is now in the public domain but has remained unacknowledged and unrecorded: MI5’s surveillance of German and Austrian refugees from Hitler between 1933 and 1950. Hobsbawm might well have approved of our project. Himself a refugee, he was also the subject of an MI5 file which he was refused permission to read in 2009.
Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, translated by Anna Bostock (Verso, 1998).
James K. Lyon, Bertolt Brecht in America (Princeton University Press, 1980).
Ruth Scurr, ‘Exiles in Bloomsbury,’ Times Literary Supplement (14 September 2011).