Books: Crime or blunder?

Two new studies quarrel violently over a wartime tragedy and the legal battle it provoked. Alistair Horne judges them

Alistair Horne
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:23

A Looking-Glass Tragedy

by Christopher Booker

Duckworth, pounds 25

The Cost of a Reputation; Aldington versus Tolstoy: the causes, course and consequences of the notorious libel case

by Ian Mitchell, foreword by Robert Harris

Topical Books, pounds 15

The story of the forced repatriations of the anti-Communist Cossacks and Yugoslavs in May 1945 is one of the most searingly haunting tragedies of our times. As I served in the army at the time, I am eternally grateful to have been spared being a British officer with orders to carry them out. Three decades later, in 1974, in The Last Secret, Lord Bethell lifted the lid on what had happened. From there the torch was carried, with passionate zeal, by Nikolai Tolstoy in a series of books beginning with Victims of Yalta in 1978. Tolstoy performed a notable service with his revelations; then accompanied it with an equal disservice by his obsessive dedication to the "conspiracy theory" - directed first against Harold Macmillan, then Lord Aldington.

In 1989, events were imprinted on British consciences by the libel trial in which a jury found squarely against Tolstoy to the record-breaking tune of pounds 1.5 million. One might have thought that, after nine weeks of delving into countless "bundles" of documents, truth would have triumphed at last and Macmillan and Aldington would be finally vindicated of charges of being "war criminals".

Not so. Perhaps because of the absurd scale of damages, I would guess that possibly half the thinking population of Britain under 40 still regard Aldington with some suspicion, and Tolstoy as a dashing, Cossack-style hero - the last Victim of Yalta, and of that mysterious corpus known as "The Establishment".

The ghosts still will not lie down. Simultaneously, these two new books take diametrically opposite views. The Cost of a Reputation, by Ian Mitchell, rekindles the "conspiracy theory"; A Looking Glass Tragedy, by Christopher Booker, is powerfully critical of Tolstoy's whole approach to history.

Here, I have to declare an interest. Booker's late sister, Serena, was my research assistant for the official biography of Macmillan - well before Tolstoy appeared on the scene. She persuaded, indeed bullied, me into seeing that there was a serious case to answer. I was at first reluctant. Set against Macmillan's whole wartime career, the "Klagenfurt Affair" seemed marginal. Yet it was to prove to be the most painfully complex issue I had ever tackled as a historian.

After Serena's tragic death in 1982, Christopher took up the cause. Initially he was strongly supportive of Tolstoy's thesis. Since the mass of documents unearthed while he was collaborating on the official Cowgill Report, he has since veered 180 degrees. I was equally influenced by the Bookers' findings. Then, on publication of the Macmillan biography, Tolstoy wrote to me retracting a disgraceful innuendo he had made, charging Macmillan with having acted "under covert NKVD pressure". My sympathy for Tolstoy began to evaporate.

While paying Tolstoy a handsome tribute for his pioneering work, in , Booker devastatingly challenges his claim to be a "reputable" historian - already called into question by the judge at the Aldington trial. Booker analyses "34 main points" at which, he claims, "a serious misreading of what really happened" led Tolstoy into a "fatally flawed" interpretation.

During the course of his work on the Cowgill report, Booker claims that "there was almost no part of the story which we found to be free from serious error, even to the point where atrocities and massacres described at length were found not to have taken place at all. Even the general belief that most of the Cossacks had died after their return to the Soviet Union turned out to be a wild exaggeration".

The "war crimes", charges against Aldington, or any other British officer, are effectively demolished. So is the whole "conspiracy thesis" - the notion that there simply had to be "someone to blame".

Going much further than I was able to on the evidence available 10 years ago, Booker absolves Macmillan of any responsibilty for the repatriations. Influenced by Tolstoy, we asked the wrong questions - contributing to the misery of the ageing statesman's last years. Booker finds, in total opposition to Tolstoy, that Macmillan's role in the crisis of May 1945 constituted "one of the more creditable episodes in his political career".

Booker confirms that the Yalta conference in February 1945 was really what settled the fate of Cossacks. The actions of Macmillan, Churchill's Minister Resident, and of Aldington, the Chief of Staff of the corps concerned in the repatriations three months later, were marginal. What overlaid all considerations at the time, he stresses repeatedly, was the threat posed by Tito's Yugoslavs to the Allies in Northern Italy.

Here he adduces a revelation of considerable import. From recent research it appears that the order to execute the repatriated anti-Communist Yugoslavs was not actually given "until six days after the British agreed to hand over the prisoners". The reason for this "dramatic" change of policy was Tito's (quite unwarranted) panic that the Allies were going to invade Yugoslavia, exploiting the anti-Communists as a Fifth Column. If this is correct, one of the main planks in the "War Crimes" charge collapses because Aldington and the British could not have known the fate of the Yugoslav repatriates.

Booker also challenges Tolstoy's evidence on the atrocities suffered by the repatriates. Four out of six alleged massacres, he finds, never took place. Of the Cossacks repatriated to Russia, few were actually killed; horrendous as their privations were, the vast majority survived the Gulag.

Booker sees Tolstoy, unflatteringly, as the "foolish Knight of La Mancha, dreaming of `honour' and convinced that those windmills were giants". But as a journalist, he reserves his main ire for the credulity of the media, the "Cleverdick Culture" (or what, for want of a better definition, one might call Paxmania), and the overriding need to hunt for a villain - preferably in the Establishment.

The BBC produced no fewer than nine radio and TV programmes hopelessly biased and reliant on Tolstoy's "mistaken assumptions". Distinguished journalists were prepared to accept the engaging Tolstoy at face value rather than read through the heavy-going report by Brigadier Cowgill.

What, then, can one make of Ian Mitchell and The Cost of a Reputation, privately printed and dedicated to the Earl of Portsmouth, who supported Tolstoy to the tune of six figures in the Aldington case? Despite all the hype in the Sunday Times, and a powerful foreword by one its most respected writers, Robert Harris, it seems to me to come close to repeating a very expensive libel. The text is loaded against Aldington and, to the old conspiracy chant, Mitchell adds a new one: that the FO and MoD under Thatcher conspired to keep out of defence hands crucial documents which might have won the case for Tolstoy. He argues that the verdict of the 1989 case was not "safe or satisfactory": call in the DPP.

On the evidence, I would have thought that the story of the missing files was, like so much of the whole repatriations saga, cock-up rather than conspiracy, and definitely "not proven" by Mitchell. I doubt if any of this allegedly missing material would have made a row of beans of difference to the Aldington jury.

If there is any common ground in these two books, it is that the trial and its ridiculous damages showed, in the words of the Daily Mirror, that "the law is not just an ass, it's gone loony", and that reform of our libel laws is imperative. Had one-hundredth of the "Mickey Mouse" damages been awarded, Aldington would have been vindicated, Tolstoy would have been able to pay - and so would not have become a national martyr. As it is, according to Booker, Aldington has not received a penny. Over 80 and losing his sight, his old age - like Macmillan's - has been made a misery.

As I and many others pressed at the time, Mrs Thatcher should have appointed an impartial commission to investigate what really happened in May 1945. With the Blair government now in a mood to apologise for the Potato Famine, is it too late to atone to victims of Yalta with a Royal Commission? Certainly Harold Macmillan, as PM, would have done so. Meanwhile, the next best thing is Booker's work of remarkable, painstaking diligence. Not easy, cheerful reading, then: will any bien pensant of the "Cleverdick Culture" take the trouble to read it, any more than they did the Cowgill Report?

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