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MI5 and the Hobsbawm File (Frances Stonor Saunders in London Review of Books)

26 March 2015

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London Review of Books, Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015

Stuck on the Flypaper
Frances Stonor Saunders on MI5 and the Hobsbawm File

On 25 January 1933, the 16-year-old Eric Hobsbawm marched with thousands of comrades through central Berlin to the headquarters of the German Communist Party (KPD). When they arrived at Karl Liebknecht Haus, on the Bülowplatz, the temperature was –18°C. They shuffled and waited in the bone-numbing cold for four hours to hear the podium speeches of the party cadres. As Hobsbawm would recall much later, there was singing – ‘The Internationale’, peasant war songs, the ‘Soviet Airmen’s Song’ – with intervals of heavy silence. The red flags and banners could not dispel the greyness – of the shadowy buildings, the sky, the crowd – or the realisation that ‘the inevitability of world revolution’ had been postponed, that what faced the beleaguered movement in the short term was a reckoning: ‘danger, capture, resistance to interrogation, defiance in defeat’.​1 Not the New Jerusalem, then, but a new circle of hell.

Five days later, on 30 January, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. On 24 February, the police, augmented by the newly enrolled ‘auxiliary police’ of stormtroopers grouped under such edifying names as the Robbers and the Pimp’s Brigade, raided Karl Liebknecht Haus. In anticipation of this, the KPD had been exfiltrating its records to private addresses.

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Official British anti-communism has attracted much less attention than its American counterpart, with its perspiring, malodorous knuckleheads jabbing their lists before the cameras. In Britain, the steps taken, with cross-party agreement, involved a much quieter programme of mass vetting and a subsidiary practice known as the ‘purge procedure’, by which suspect civil servants or employees of businesses working on sensitive government contracts (‘List X’ firms) were removed from their jobs. ‘Positive’, or ‘developed’ vetting – known as the ‘full sheep-dip’ – involved telephone checks, the opening of mail, Special Branch inquiries, employers’ records, and a series of what Cornwell describes as ‘strenuous interrogations’ of the (witting) subject. There were two possible outcomes: pass or fail. Being a communist meant a fail. Other ‘character defects’ deemed to impair the subject’s professional ability were ‘profligacy with money, alcoholism, drug-taking, unreliability, dishonesty, promiscuity’. Promiscuity usually implied homosexuality (MI5 kept a ‘Pink List’ until 1994, though it’s doubtful any of its own homosexuals featured on it). Less commonly, marital infidelity was implicated. It was well known in the service that Roger Hollis’s secretary was also his mistress. When Hollis was director general, from 1956 to 1965, the first serial, or memo, seen by the night duty officer at MI5’s Curzon Street headquarters read: ‘Should the DG’s wife call, say one of the following …’ A range of possible answers was supplied, with a tick box next to each, such as: ‘The DG is in an extended meeting and will be home later.’
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