From LSHG Newsletter 53 (Autumn 2014)
Book Review of “A Matter of Intelligence. M15 and the Surveillance of Anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-50” (Manchester University Press, 2014) by Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove.
The concern of the police and security services with lefties is not new. A book has just come out which looks at MI5’s behaviour towards the political refugees from Nazism. Their role has so far been hidden from history.
MI5 were over-concerned with German – and subsequently Austrian - Communist refugees, indeed much of their resources were devoted to their surveillance and investigation. Although nobody knows exactly how many German Communists there were in Britain up till the November 1938 pogrom (Krystalnacht), we are probably talking of about twenty comrades who identified themselves as German Communists. There were a few dozen other people who were on the fringe of the German Communist Party, or who passed through the UK on their way, usually, to the US, but altogether, there were not many people in the UK who could have been reasonably categorised as German Communist refugees.
There were reasons for the small number of anti-Nazi exiles in the UK. The Home Office did not want Communists in the UK. According to Brinson and Dove, from after the end of World War One, the Prussian Secret Service gave information to the MI5 about their Communists. The Home Office would have been well prepared. A tragically small percentage of people who applied for the right to land in the UK received permission to do so. This did not just apply to left refugees, but also to Jews (sometimes an overlapping category) and everybody else: industrialists, Social- Democrats etc, seeking refuge. The greater the need for asylum, for example after the 1938 Pogrom or the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the more difficult it became to get in. In addition, German KPD refugees in the years immediately after the Nazis gained power generally wanted to stay nearer than Britain to build and maintain some sort of illegal KPD organisation which could influence the German anti-Nazi struggle.
So why were MI5 so obsessed? Two if not three of their bug-bears coincided in the person of the German anti-Nazi refugees: firstly, they were German, secondly, they were Communists and God forbid, many of them were Jews as well. Kell, who had risen to be the MI5 boss, was far more sympathetic to the fascists than the communists. The British Union of Fascists he saw at one time as a patriotic bunch, representing the interests of all, unlike those Communist class warriors.
Opening the refugees’ mail was MI5 favoured form of spying (advantageous when, as is my case, you want to research some of these people!) They also infiltrated the groups and friendship networks. The Communist exiles lived in dread. They were not allowed to participate in political activity as a condition of being granted temporary rights of residence but this was something many of these people, who had given their all in the opposition to the Nazis, pre- and post- 1933, found difficult to comply with. A small KPD group in exile was established which went against these restrictions, leaving them very aware of the possibility of betrayal: which did indeed occur. (And though it falls outside this book, it seems so great was the Government’s dislike of these exiles, that. even though they were desperate for information on and contacts with the German opposition/underground, especially after the outbreak of war, they never made use of this little bunch of well - connected exiles.)
Nor did MI5 stop with the end of the war. By mid-1940s, the USSR was seen as the enemy. Although there were a few ‘ex’-Nazis floating around, the Nazi system had collapsed and insofar as it had ever been, Nazism was no longer seen as the threat. My mother’s files were still being sent to the CIA in the early 1950s.Recently opened MI5 files have divulged that they were still keeping a close eye on Peter Pears in 1951 on the grounds that he was the Vice-President of the Musicians Union for Peace and a member of the League for Democracy, both described by M15 as ‘Communist Front organisations’. Two years later, in 1953, MI5 were concerned with Pears’ partner, Britten, as a well- known pacifist. MI5’s file on Priestley started in 1933 and effectively continued till 1960. What alerted them appears to be that he was a member of the early National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1930s. As late as 1956, MI5 had a report, presumably from a ‘spy’, of a meeting which Priestley attended about police powers! He was, they said, associated with left-wing causes, but the appreciation that ‘none [were] Communist inspired’ did not stop the surveillance.
But there is hope yet. What emerges from this book is how much MI5 bungled everything: their priorities were to keep an eye on lefties but they concentrated on people who were harmless and let other ‘real spies’ slip by. MI5 failed to identify or prioritise the very few cases which could be defined as a ‘security risk’. They failed to spot Klaus Fuchs, the ‘atomic spy’ for the USSR until late in the 1940s. In the case of his fellow atomic spy, Englebert Broda, it failed to take any action at all. In the case of Edith Tudor- Hart, they may have kept policemen on watch outside her house and intercepted her mail in the 1930’s, but they did not even realise she was a member of the Communist Party, never mind a crucial agent. In the meantime, however, many political refugees were left feeling overwhelmed with a fear of being spied on and deported.
The final blow for many of these anti-Nazis was internment in 1940 when anti-Nazi and a few Nazis were packed together in internment camps, some in very poor conditions. Amidst talk of a ‘fifth column’ and the enemy within, MI5 saw its task, sometimes against Home Office advice, to intern people who had the rights to temporary abode in a foreign -‘democratic’ – country because they had opposed Nazism and had to escape or die.
Why has so little light been cast on MI5’s disgraceful activities during this period? Brinson and Dove suggest their record does them no favours so they have preferred it kept quiet. This book has finally pulled together how Mi5 operated in relation to a number of anti-Nazi exiles. It is also of interest because unlike so much that is written in relation to the lead-up to the war and the barbarism of Nazism, this is a book which finally looks at the people who chose to stand up against Nazism in Germany and Austria, the people in whose shoes we tread, despite our disagreements with the Communist Party, and the responses of the British State to them.
Edited to add: On Monday Nov 24 Merilyn Moos will be speaking in London on 'Siegfried Moos: a lost revolutionary? The story of a German Communist who fled to Britain in 1934.' as part of the LSHG seminar series.