Phillip Knightley: The truth about the Cambridge spies

Nazi sympathies in 1930s Britain fuelled the fires of treason

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The accusation that Cambridge Spies, the BBC drama series, glorifies treachery manages to overlook the KGB spies' main motivation: to counter the influence of powerful people in Britain in the 1930s – "Hitler's Englishmen".

The accusation that Cambridge Spies, the BBC drama series, glorifies treachery manages to overlook the KGB spies' main motivation: to counter the influence of powerful people in Britain in the 1930s – "Hitler's Englishmen".

On 14 July 1936 the Anglo-German Fellowship, a pro-German body of considerable influence at that time, gave a glittering dinner in London to honour the Kaiser's daughter, the Duchess of Brunswick, and her husband. The guests, who sat at tables decorated with swastikas, included Admiral Sir Barry Domville, Lord Redesdale (father of Diana Mosley and Unity Mitford), Earl Jellicoe, Prince and Princess von Bismark, Baron Marschall von Bieberstein, General JFC Fuller, the military historian – and Mr HAR Philby, KGB spy.

Overtly, Philby was there in his role as editor of the fellowship's magazine. But he had two covert reasons for attending the dinner. He was busy eliminating his communist past by establishing himself as a quiet admirer of Hitler and the Third Reich, and he was spying on Britain's Hitler admirers for the KGB.

The fellowship was the place to find them. There were 1,000 members in 1936, most of them prominent in British public life. They were enthusiastic supporters of The Times's line on appeasement and no doubt approved of the policy of the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, in "doing my utmost night after night to keep out of the paper anything which might hurt their [the Germans'] sensibilities".

Fellowship members gave a dinner at Claridge's for General Tholens, deputy chief of the Nazi Public Service Camps, and listened to lectures on the need to put down the Komintern. They had a strong House of Lords lobby. The following peers subscribed to the fellowship: Aberdare, Airlie, Arbuthnot, Arnald, Barnby, Bertie, Douglas Hamilton, Ebbisham, Eltisley, Hollenden, Londonderry, Lothian, McGowan, Mottistone, Mount Temple, Nuffield, Nutting, Pownall, Rennell of Rodd, Rice, Sempill and Strang.

True, the fellowship dissolved itself in some haste after Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and war broke out. But Hitler's Englishmen soon switched their attention to trying to arrange a quick peace with Germany. The British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) took a leading role.

Hermann Goering had encouraged Prince Hohenlohe, a Sudenten aristocrat, to contact his British friends and discuss peace terms with them. At one such meeting in Switzerland a month after the outbreak of war, Hohenlohe and retired Group Captain Malcolm Christie, who had been air attaché in Berlin from 1927-30, and had done some intelligence work there, discussed a compromise peace which would free Germany to cope with the threat of Bolshevism.

And on 30 October Walther Schellenberg, head of the Gestapo's counter-espionage service, arranged a meeting in The Hague with two SIS officers, Captain Sigismund Payne Best and Major Richard Stevens. At this meeting some sort of agreement on peace terms emerged. Hitler was to remain head of the German government for the time being. Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland would be restored and there would be a united anti-Soviet front.

According to Schellenberg, Stevens referred these terms to the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, who approved them, and there was talk of another meeting to finalise an agreement. The question is: how much did the British war cabinet know about all this?

The prime minister, Chamberlain, knew of the meetings, but in presenting its report the SIS emphasised the uncovering of a conspiracy against Hitler rather than peace negotiations. But Chamberlain must have had knowledge of the German terms, because on 5 November in a letter to his sister predicting an early end to the war, he wrote that the Germans "might have instant relief and perhaps not have to give up anything they really care about".

The war cabinet learnt about these secret negotiations only on 1 November, and was not happy. (Churchill, for one, wanted all contact with the Germans broken off at once.) But why should the SIS have believed that the British government might have gone along with a settlement with the Germans when it did not necessarily include the removal of Hitler?

The answer – well-known to the Cambridge spies, who passed it on to Moscow – was that within the SIS and certain sections of the British establishment there was agreement with the German view that both countries were fighting the wrong war, that the "right" war would involve Germany and Britain fighting together against the Soviet Union.

Fortunately, the peace talks collapsed. Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 and immediately issued a directive to the Foreign Office. "Foreign secretary: I hope it will be made clear to the [Papal] Nuncio that we do not desire to make any enquiries as to the terms of a peace with Hitler and that all our agents are strictly forbidden to entertain any such suggestions."

With this background the Hess affair in May 1941 can be seen for what it was: a last- ditch attempt by Hitler's Englishmen to switch the war to one against the Soviet Union. Hess, Hitler's deputy, flew to Britain armed with a list of prominent people whom he believed would be interested in an alliance with Germany now that Hitler was about to attack the Soviet Union. His list was out-of-date and many people on it had swung behind Churchill's war effort during the Battle of Britain.

But Hess's arrival was embarrassing because it raised the question of why he imagined he would be welcome. So Churchill claimed Hess was mad. But it is much more likely that he had been invited to Britain by the very people who had proved such friends of Nazi Germany in the past.

The names on Hess's list, some of whom appear on the list of members of the Anglo-German Fellowship, were: Harold Balfour, under-secretary of state in the Air Ministry; Kenneth Lindsay, an MP; Lord Dunglass, later Lord Home; the Duke of Hamilton; Jim Wedderburn, under-secretary of state for Scotland; RA Butler, under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office; Lord Lothian, former British ambassador in Washington; Owen O'Malley, former British minister to Hungary; Lord Halifax, at the time British ambassador in Washington; Lord Eustace Percy, an influential member of the Conservative Party; Sir Samuel Hoare, British ambassador in Madrid; and the Hon JJ Astor, owner of The Times.

In the light of this, is it so amazing that idealistic young men in their twenties such as Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt felt Britain's commitment to the struggle against Nazi Germany was suspect? And is it really surprising that they felt that only the Soviet Union was capable of standing up to Hitler, and that they had a duty to help Moscow in any way they could?

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