Everybody behaved perfectly

Eric Hobsbawm

  • Scientist Spies: A Memoir of My Three Parents and the Atom Bomb by Paul Broda
    Troubador, 333 pp, £17.50, April 2011, ISBN 978 1 84876 607 5

This is an unusual and illuminating contribution to the literature on Soviet espionage that has become part of Anglo-Saxon folklore. All the more so as it is written from the point of view of the spies rather than their hunters. It is about four people: the author, a retired biochemist of distinction, and the ‘three parents’ whose times shaped his life. They were Hilde, or Hildegard Pauline Ruth Gerwing, and the two physicists she successively married, who passed information to the Soviets on the atom-bomb project between 1942 and 1945: Berti, or Engelbert Egon August Ernst Broda, and Alan Nunn May, who was sentenced to ten years for it. Broda, who probably had the longer record of relations with Moscow, was never tried though seen as heavily suspect by the British security services.

As it happens, I knew or met all three as well as a very large percentage of the dramatis personae of this book in the setting where Mitteleuropa met Cambridge, the curious milieu of the prewar and wartime Austrian emigration to Britain. Not the least merit of Paul Broda’s book is that it throws light on this neglected but not insignificant aspect of Britain in the era of anti-Fascism.

Broda’s protagonists do not belong in the shadowy world of John le Carré’s intelligence professionals or agents, or even the milieu of full-time Communist Party or Comintern functionaries, let alone the Party cadres trained into total identification with Moscow in institutions like the Lenin School. Their life was primarily science – the physics of what Ernest Rutherford called ‘the heroic age’ – even when it was inseparable from their Communism. Berti Broda (whose brother was to become a distinguished Austrian minister of justice in his post-Communist years) probably came closest to the le Carré pattern, and certainly had Comintern links going far back, but even he saw himself less as one of Lenin’s ‘professionals of revolution’ than as a scientist. In a sense the difference can be illustrated by the case of Alex Tudor-Hart and his one-time wife, Edith Suschitzky. Both were equally revolutionary, but he served the cause as a doctor in the valleys of South Wales, to which he returned after a spell as a medical man in the Spanish Civil War. His ambitions were civilian. She, though a successful professional photographer, had been in contact with the Soviet services since 1926 and appears to have been an active recruiter of agents from Kim Philby on, including, it would seem, Broda, then one of her lovers. However strong their political commitment, and their hope to use their professions to help the cause of humanity, Broda and Nunn May wanted to live their working lives as physicists, Hilde as a medical practitioner.

All were children from established bourgeois and indeed business backgrounds, though the unusually well-connected Brodas, a combination of Jew and Catholic from the multicultural Habsburg territories, could hardly be called either conservative or ‘respectable’ in the manner of Nunn May’s Birmingham brass-founding origins, or of the West German Salomons and Eichengrüns who supported Hilde, child of a Jewish-Catholic marriage, on her way out of a deeply disturbed and dysfunctional family setting. Berti’s mother had been a reasonably successful Viennese actress until her marriage, his uncle Willi is better known as the film director G.W. Pabst, and radical politics had been part of the family milieu even before 1914. All three were born in 1910-11. Berti seems to have been a Communist at or before the age of 18 and joined the Party in 1930. That same year Hilde, a year younger, joined the Young Communists, of whom Berti was a student leader. Both were in Germany at the time of Hitler’s triumph, though Berti also had spells in prison or internment in Austria and later in Britain. Alan, though he saw the USSR as the world’s hope, postponed joining the Party until 1936, when he was sure of his doctorate.

There really isn’t much mystery about the activities of Broda and Nunn May, who wrote at great length about them. They were physicists, that is to say members of a small community of magi, the guardians of incomprehensible secrets on which, it seemed, the fate of the world depended. The Second World War patently made this unique knowledge a priceless asset. Without the US-British decision to keep the USSR in the dark about the plans to construct an atom bomb, neither Broda nor Nunn May would have been of interest to the Soviet intelligence services, and indeed they only provided information from 1942 on.

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