There is something about the cold month of November which has particular resonance in the annals of murky Cold War history. The Russian Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall both took place in November. The space race kicked off in November 1957 with the launch of Sputnik 2, carrying the ill-fated dog Laika. And in an event perceived by many to be of equal significance, on 21 November 1979 the government revealed that Sir Anthony Blunt, a seemingly unassuming Cambridge professor and member of the Royal Household, had been a spy for the Soviet Union.
Suggestions have been made that information passed on by Blunt between the 1930s and mid-1950s may have cost the lives of British agents. While these claims are firmly denied in almost all credible studies of the affair, there is good evidence that during World War II—notably during the period when Soviet Russia had entered into alliance with Nazi Germany—Blunt relayed intelligence to Russia from his position in MI5. He also used his post at Cambridge University to recruit students for Soviet espionage. “We do not know exactly what information he passed”, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons in an explosive statement revealing Blunt’s identity. “We do know, however, to what information he had access by virtue of his duties. There is no doubt that British interests were seriously damaged by his activities.”
The 30th anniversary of Blunt’s public outing comes hot on the heels of the publication of his memoirs, which remained classified at the British Library for the last 25 years. The resulting reinvigoration of debates over Blunt’s espionage has raised some thorny questions—not just about Blunt’s own story, but also about how we understand, recollect, and depict the Cold War.
The most obvious—though perhaps not the most pressing—question raised by the memoirs is the issue of Blunt’s motives. What led this academic, the son of a vicar and a distant cousin of Elizabeth the Queen Mother, to take such a treasonous course of action? Blunt explains himself in a handful of ways, most of them unconvincing.
First and foremost, he situates his decision against the background of British appeasement of Nazism during the 1930s.
I had come to believe – or to think I believed – that Marxism…supplied the solution to the political problems with which the world was faced in the mid-1930s…The rearming of Germany, failure to resist the occupation of the Rhineland and the policy of non-intervention in Spain [during the country’s Civil War] seemed to prove that nothing could be expected from the British or French governments and that the only force really determined to resist Nazism was Communism, based on Soviet Russia.
Then there was Blunt’s relationship with fellow spy and Cambridge undergraduate Guy Burgess, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. Burgess became notorious as the inspirational figurehead of the ring of Soviet collaborators popularly known as the Cambridge Spies. Blunt explains:
…Guy, who had extraordinary powers of persuasion, eventually convinced me that I could do most for their cause by joining him and working for the Russians.
Blunt also protests that his allegiances to Britain were, in any case, rather tenuous. Much of his early adolescence was spent in France where his father served as a chaplain to the British Embassy in Paris. As a result—in an explanation which raises complex questions about the concept of citizenship—Blunt argues that “my country” was:
not a principle that was deeply instilled. My loyalties were international as much as national, and above all they were directed to causes.
Reflecting on the fateful decision to spy for the Soviet Union, Blunt insists that the slaying of Fascism was his primary concern. However, subsequent developments, most notably his realisation that Stalinist Russia was “a tyranny as bad as Hitler’s”, gave him pause. “I made the greatest mistake of my life”, Blunt ultimately admitted.
Readers will not be fooled by this apparent volte-face. Blunt may have penned these words out of genuine remorse in the last days of his life; he may have struggled to live with the shame he felt at being stripped of his knighthood and becoming a social pariah (he was booed out of a Notting Hill cinema in 1980, and died largely cut off from the world three years later). Still, the general consensus among historians is that if Blunt intended his memoirs to serve as adequate explanation for his treason, he singularly failed. At best, his papers are an apology stunted by the Official Secrets Act which curtailed his freedom to speak frankly.
At worst the memoirs are a mealy-mouthed insult to the reader’s own intelligence. Blunt devotes pages and pages to his views on art history and self-serving reflections on the honours he received as art historian. More pressingly, he admits to continued contact with the Russians well into the 1950s, when Nazism had been defeated. Blunt explains that this continuing espionage was borne less from principle than a commitment to protect his friends—including Burgess and Donald Maclean, another Cambridge spy whom he helped escape to Moscow in 1951—still involved in espionage. Though we might acknowledge this loyalty to his friends, Blunt’s support for these defectors should earn him no sympathy.
The inadequacy of Blunt’s explanations raises a second, more pressing issue—that of how, in this month of remembrances, we remember the Cold War itself.
For one reason or another, our recollection of the Cold War has become—or perhaps always has been—remarkably ill-defined. The current fashion is for a fuzzy sort of nostalgia: film buffs chew popcorn while watching offerings like Goodbye Lenin! or The Lives of Others, while well-meaning lefties wear the Soviet red star or Che Guevara images as badges of honour. This commodification—how Marx would laugh—of the lifestyles and iconography associated with the Cold War seems relatively banal. But (as Hannah Arendt would remind us) what lies beneath is a far less light-hearted story in which Che t-shirts obscure outrage at the abuses perpetrated by the communist regimes of Europe. Unlike the sombre quality of our recollection of the Second World War, we remember the Cold War with frosty detachment.
Previous coverage of the Blunt affair has been caught up in this process. In an otherwise worthy biography of Blunt in 2002, Miranda Carter sought to counterpoise Blunt’s defection with the inadequacy of British intelligence, which failed to unmask him despite suspicions of communist sympathies and even, rather embarrassingly, bestowed knighthood upon him in 1956. Reading Carter’s book, the Blunt affair appears more as a comedy of diplomatic errors than a single link in a chain of terrifying Soviet political might. As one reviewer commented, Carter’s coverage frame the Soviet spy games in which Blunt was engaged as “never much more than civil servants playing Cowboys and Indians.”
Thirty years ago, Rhodes James, MP for Cambridge, offered a more serious and damning reading of the Blunt affair. For James:
…a traitor is a traitor is a traitor. I ask those who try to exculpate Mr. Blunt to think just for a moment what their attitude would have been had he been discovered to be a German rather than a Soviet agent.
For those who may—inadvertently or otherwise—underplay the seriousness of Cold War espionage, this is a rather sobering reading of the case of Anthony Blunt.
James’s comparison with Nazism is illuminating. In the “hot” war against Nazism there were clear ramifications of combat—the deaths of millions of serving soldiers (also remembered in this month of November) and the chilling figures of civilian deaths from bombing raids, military action, and Nazi genocide. British collaborators with the Nazis such as John Amery or William Joyce were dealt the ultimate punishment after the war.
Though the Cold War cannot provide such simple lines of cause and effect, men like Anthony Blunt played their own part in supporting an oppressive, sometimes murderous regime. Commemorations of the collapse of the Iron Curtain ought to remind us of the many millions of people who suffered from the excesses perpetrated by Europe’s communist parties—not just the headline-grabbing events of the Ukrainian holodomor in 1932-3, the Hungarian Uprising, or the Prague Spring, but the daily privations experienced by normal citizens. One wonders whether it’s wholly unreasonable to cast the kind of opprobrium we levy upon Nazi collaborators upon Blunt—and, if it’s not, why we so rarely do.
Whether we credit Anthony Blunt with any role in the maintenance of the communist system, his name will forever be connected with it in the public mind. This is an insinuation his memoirs do nothing to allay. But while historians and commentators are quick to criticise Blunt in the wake of his memoirs’ publication, this clamour also—and perhaps more importantly—illustrates a double standard in our treatment of 20th-century history: where collaboration with Nazism is deemed a “war crime”, collusion with the Soviet Union is merely a feature of Cold War “spy games”.
It is not the job of the historian to decide which of these equally barbaric tyrannies of the 20th century was the more reprehensible. It is, however, a key part of the historian’s role to ascertain and maintain an appropriate sense of perspective on historical events. Remembering, as we do this month, Novembers past, we would do well to re-evaluate our bizarrely benign interpretation of European communist regimes.
James Appell graduated from St Antony’s College, Oxford in 2009 with an MPhil in Russian and Eastern European Studies. He is a travel journalist and freelance sportswriter living in London.