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. Its top officials were working out of anonymous premises scattered round the city, and secret post offices had been installed in a piano store and a coal business. But Hermann Göring, minister of the interior, was on to them – ‘My mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more!’ – and few escaped the truckloads of SA and SS who roared through the streets and snatched them, one by one, from their hideouts. They were taken to improvised prisons, beaten up, tortured and killed.

The KPD chairman, Ernst Thälmann, was arrested on 3 March, and later managed to smuggle out details of his treatment:

They ordered me to take off my pants and then two men grabbed me by the back of the neck and placed me across a footstool. A uniformed [political police] officer with a whip of hippopotamus hide in his hand then beat my buttocks with measured strokes. Driven wild with pain I repeatedly screamed at the top of my voice. Then they held my mouth shut for a while and hit me in the face, and with a whip across chest and back. I then collapsed.[2]

‘Arrests upon arrests,’ Joseph Goebbels noted with satisfaction. ‘Now the Red pest is being thoroughly rooted out.’ By April, 25,000 communists were in ‘protective custody’. Dachau, the first official concentration camp, was set up to hold them.

Hobsbawm, whose parents had died within two years of each other, was living with his aunt in the Halensee district. He was not a member of the KPD, but of its dependency the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (Socialist Students Federation), specifically designed for secondary-school students. What now remained of its small, west Berlin cell contrived to hide its duplicating apparatus in the Halensee flat. ‘The comrades concluded that, since I was a British subject, I would be less at risk; or perhaps that the police would be less likely to raid our flat,’ Hobsbawm later wrote. He kept the rudimentary printing press under his bed for several weeks until someone came to take it away, presumably to put it to work for the printing of election leaflets.

Incredibly, given the efficiency of Göring’s ‘iron fist’ in smashing up the KPD, there was still rump enough to organise a campaign for the general election of 5 March (on his first day in office, Hitler had manipulated Hindenberg into dissolving the Reichstag). Participation in this campaign was little short of suicidal, but Hobsbawm embarked on this, his ‘first piece of genuinely political work’, protected by the fantasy that it was like ‘playing in the Wild West’: ‘We would go into the apartment buildings and, starting on the top floor, push the leaflets into each flat until we came out of the front door, panting with the effort and looking for signs of danger.’ In his diary, he confessed to ‘a light, dry feeling of contraction, as when you stand before a man ready to punch you, waiting for the blow.’ The KPD polled 13 per cent of the vote, and was promptly proscribed by Hitler’s ascendant party. Less than a month after this, in early April, an uncle arrived in Berlin to remove Hobsbawm to the safety of London, where his paternal grandfather had settled in the 1870s.

The week Hobsbawm left Berlin, Guy Liddell, MI5’s German-speaking deputy head of counter-espionage, arrived from London. The fearful symmetry in this – history throwing us a stray bone of coincidence – will become clear. Liddell left London on 30 March, and stayed for ten days. He had been invited to meet officials of the German Political Police, Abteilung 1A, which had installed itself in the KPD headquarters, now conveniently vacant. Liddell was assisted by Frank Foley, MI6’s Berlin station chief, whose diplomatic cover was passport control officer. On 31 March, the two men entered Karl Liebknecht Haus, now renamed Horst Wessel Haus and sporting a huge swastika where only weeks earlier Lenin had stared out from a hoarding.

Liddell and Foley were introduced to Rudolf Diels, head of Abteilung 1A, who explained urbanely that it was his intention to exterminate communism in its widest sense. By this he meant not only the Communist Party and its subordinate bodies but also left-wing pacifist organisations. It was immediately clear to Liddell that there was ‘certainly a good deal of “third degree” work going on’ and that ‘Jews, communists and even social democrats’ were being ‘submitted to every kind of outrage’. Swallowing his distaste (he witnessed a man being dragged into the building while ‘protesting loudly that he had never had anything to do with politics’), Liddell settled down with Foley, in a room placed at their disposal, to examine the files of Abteilung 1A, while their hosts refined their enhanced interrogation techniques on detainees held elsewhere in the building.

Of particular interest to Liddell were documents belonging to the KPD and the front organisations of the Comintern, looted by SA men ‘who just threw [them] into lorries and then dumped them in disorder in some large rooms’. ‘If placed virtually at our disposal,’ Liddell noted, ‘[these records] will be of great assistance in establishing how the Comintern’s work in Western Europe and the Colonies is being organised.’ Diels ordered that Liddell and Foley ‘be given every possible facility’, including the opportunity to copy documents; the copies would then be forwarded to MI5 in London by Foley.

Liddell left Berlin on 9 April (after a congenial dinner with Ribbentrop the previous evening), satisfied that a crucial liaison had been established. In their present mood, the German authorities ‘were extremely ready to help us in any way they can’ – after all, were they not tied to the British by the same enterprise of saving Europe from the menace of Bolshevism? Any normal restrictions on the ‘free interchange of information’ (what is now called ‘intelligence sharing’) had been pushed aside, and Liddell was confident that if ‘constant personal contact [were] maintained’, the relationship would persist after the current ‘rather hysterical atmosphere of sentiment and brutality dies down’. On 26 April Abteilung 1A was reformed as the Gestapo, with Diels as its first chief.


The British Security Service, better known as MI5, released its file on Eric Hobsbawm last autumn. Hobsbawm, who had long desired to see it, had died two years earlier, at the age of 95. In his memoir, Interesting Times, he warned against autobiographical ‘post-mortem inquests in which the corpse pretends to be the coroner’, but whatever self-justifications he might have entered as evidence, the reading of his file is hampered by his absence. It is an unwritten rule of MI5 that Personal Files (PFs) are only released after their subjects have died. Another unwritten rule, among so many, is that it only releases such material after fifty years, which explains why the Hobsbawm file deposited at the National Archives in Kew ends in the mid-1960s. The rest is withheld, and researchers who ask for more will fare no better in their feeble supplications to the state than Hobsbawm, one of the pre-eminent British historians of the 20th century.

To this deficit must be added the blanks in the file left by the declassifiers (a posh word for ‘censors’), the silent deceptions by which deception is itself concealed. Many names are redacted, and some pages have been removed in toto and replaced with a white sheet on which is stamped this grammatically unappealing message: ‘THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENT RETAINED IN DEPARTMENT UNDER SECTION 3(4) OF THE PUBLIC RECORDS ACT 1958.’ Section 3(4) allows for the retention of a record for a ‘special reason’, which does not have to be given. No reason is given, either, for the absence of an entire folder of the Hobsbawm file. Retained? Lost in transit? Destroyed? Also withheld, as standard practice, is MI5’s intelligence assessment, the casework on the material collected (through surveillance, informers, plants etc) in a file.

Welcome to the Bermuda Triangle of intelligence studies. For the researcher, it’s like flying on manual without the manual, then getting sucked out of the sky into the mysterious negative space leagues below. There’s very little light down here, no markers by which to tell sun time, so we must deploy all our senses. For example, we can deduce something from the feel of the Hobsbawm file, its heft. A PF is like a medical file: it starts with one flimsy page, and then, as the diagnostics proceed, its growth accompanies that of the disease it charts (another similarity is that the actual person becomes more and more abstracted). PF 211,764 weighs in at a thousand or so pages, collated chronologically as ‘volumes’ and held together with Treasury tags in buff folders that run from June 1942 to December 1963 (logic suggests that the missing volume is for the period January 1957 to November 1958). Hobsbawm was considered a ‘hardliner’ or ‘Category A’ communist, and his file remained ‘live’, or ‘active’ (and he under surveillance), for decades after that, possibly as late as 1994, when the section dealing with such cases was allegedly stood down. Simply by virtue of living as long as he did, Hobsbawm must lay claim to one of the biggest PFs in MI5’s vast back catalogue.

Then there’s the smell of the file, the physical residue of ink and carbon and onion paper and the many hands that passed over it, fingertips licked to separate the pages; and the distinct scent of archival matter, slightly sour, of mouldy particles of dust and time. Fugitive traces, like the whiff of cordite long after the gun has been fired. When I mention this to David Cornwell/John le Carré, he says: ‘I can still feel it in my nostrils now.’ Historians, like spooks, need a sensitive nose, Orwell’s ‘Sniff, sniff’ for the detection of ‘all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls’.[3] (And, in time, Orwell’s canine explorations into the political beliefs of his contemporaries would be eagerly dropped at the feet of the secret services).

Eric Hobsbawm at his desk in 1976.
Eric Hobsbawm at his desk in 1976.

What was the smell of Abteilung 1A/Gestapo files that found their way into the Central Registry at MI5’s Mayfair headquarters? The Reichstag fire? The book burnings? The crematoria? For what were these files, these endless lists and card indexes, if not the pennies for feeding the gas meters? Guy Liddell disapproved of the Nazis’ methods – ‘Apart from the moral aspect … [they] do not pay in the long run,’ he later wrote in his diary – and British anti-communism was organised around strategies that did not include mass murder. But MI5’s prewar liaison with Hitler’s political police was built on the promise of reciprocity, so it is reasonable to fear that there was two-way traffic in blacklists between Berlin and London. How long this arrangement lasted is a matter of speculation.

What is known is that both MI5 and MI6 had information that must have come from a German source concerning the political activities of the left-wing refugees who sought sanctuary in Britain from 1933 onwards. Some were indeed ideological communists, others were sympathisers, and many were not communists at all, but anti-fascists and pacifists who had aligned themselves with the KPD as a matter of contingency. If they didn’t already have a Personal File, most of them acquired one within days of arriving at a British port. Additionally, their names were listed in the Precautionary Index (which started life at the end of the First World War as the Defence Black List), a ‘register of persons potentially dangerous to National Defence’.[4]

The idea that the Nazis themselves – or their supporters in Britain – might pose a danger to national security was very slow to mature in the British intelligence community. In a letter circulated to all chief constables in May 1934, MI5’s director general, Vernon Kell, explained that fascism was, to a great extent, ‘a natural reaction from communism’. This thesis, if something so underdeveloped can be called that, was widely shared in Whitehall. When Hugh Trevor-Roper joined MI6 in 1941, he doubted that ‘there was one man [there] at that time, who had read Mein Kampf’. Indeed, Hitler’s rise to power made virtually no impression at all on the ‘defenders of the realm’, except as an opportunity to expand the franchise on anti-communist surveillance.

To this end, officers of Special Branch – the ‘arms and legs’ of MI5 – monitored all entries to British ports. When the gangly teenager Eric Hobsbawm arrived in the first week of April 1933, Liddell was still in Berlin, and the intelligence dividend, were it to have included information on the members of the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (there’s no evidence that it did, and no evidence that it didn’t), had yet to materialise. Hobsbawm, a heavily accented immigrant who knew nothing about Britain except that he liked the Boy Scouts and weeklies like the Wizard and Adventure, passed undetected, probably because of his British passport. Thanks to his grandfather, a Jewish cabinet-maker called Obstbaum (the ‘H’ was probably acquired from a Cockney immigration officer), he was a subject of King George V, and therefore, as he spent a lifetime explaining to interviewers, not a refugee.

‘After the excitements of Berlin, Britain was inevitably a comedown,’ Hobsbawm remembered. ‘Nothing in London had the emotional charge of those days.’ Except, perhaps, the running battle with his relatives, now his effective and very loving parents, who ‘flatly refused to allow their impassioned 16-year-old to plunge into the life of political militancy which filled his mind’. To his despair, he was banned from joining the Communist Party, or even the Labour Party (‘which I proposed to do in order to subvert it’). He was held in this state of suspended political animation – ‘Not that the British revolution seemed to be making much progress with or without me’ – for three years, during which time he concentrated on his studies at St Marylebone Grammar School, where he took the scholarship exam for King’s College, Cambridge in 1935.


Hobsbawm went up to Cambridge in 1936, and found himself in the midst of ‘the reddest and most radical generation in the history of the university’. His enforced abstention from politics came to an end, and he immediately joined the local student branch of the Communist Party. ‘Red Cambridge’ didn’t experience the 1930s as Auden’s ‘low dishonest decade’, but as the time when ‘the good cause confronted its enemies’ – chiefly, the ‘capitalist and imperialist’ governments that were doing nothing to stop the drift to fascism and war. ‘We enjoyed it,’ Hobsbawm recalled, ‘and we did a certain amount of world-saving as a matter of course, because it was the thing to do.’ (I wonder if this self-mockery was available to him at the time.) He eventually became a member of the branch secretariat – ‘the highest political function I have ever occupied’ – and discovered he was not a natural leader, and that agitprop was not his true calling. In Interesting Times, he claimed never to have been recruited for the kind of work that ‘was quite separate from the open activities of a legal political party’ (espionage), about which no questions were to be asked, but acknowledged that he would certainly have taken on such work had he been asked.

After graduating in 1939 with a double first and distinction in both parts, Hobsbawm remained at King’s as a student researcher until he was called up in February 1940 and assigned to the Royal Engineers as a sapper. He was puzzled by this decision, having initially been put forward for a cipher course, but it was explained to him that this proposal had been aborted because his mother was German. Still, he enjoyed his life among the sapper ‘proletariat’ – thus fulfilling a communist nostrum in practice as well as in theory. He was perhaps the first Kingsman to operate a road drill, worked on revetting the walls of giant anti-tank trenches in East Anglia, and attached explosive charges to bridges. His unit was stationed in Merseyside during the great Luftwaffe raids on Liverpool in 1941, and mobilised to clear up the ruins on the mornings after. Off duty, he attended meetings of the local party branch.

By June 1942, he had been transferred to the Army Education Corps as a sergeant instructor, teaching German and running a programme on current affairs at Bulford Camp in Wiltshire. On 20 June, he wrote a letter to a friend, Hans Kahle, inviting him to give a talk to one of the local army units. Three days later, a photographic copy of this letter was forwarded to MI5 by a special investigations unit hidden deep within the General Post Office. A request for a ‘trace’ on Kahle’s unknown correspondent was immediately sent out to Special Branch, which returned the information that a similar name, ‘Hobsdown’, appeared on a list of men in the armed forces ‘who are obviously members of the Communist Party of Great Britain in Merseyside’. This is the first page of PF 211,764. Its subject was now an official ‘target’ of MI5.

Hobsbawm speculated that he had earned an intelligence file by dint of joining the Communist Party while he was at Cambridge. We now know he was wrong about this, though it’s axiomatic that MI5, when they had caught up with the fact, would have taken an interest in him. His file was opened because he had, unwittingly, served himself up as a close associate (‘My dear Kahle’) of a man believed to be a high-level Soviet agent. MI5 had long been pursuing traces on Kahle – a comet’s tail of communist activism in Germany dating back to the 1920s and undimmed since his escape from Berlin at about the same time as Hobsbawm’s. Kahle’s file, PF 47,192, was opened in 1935, but it included close knowledge of his work for the KPD before this date, and it’s likely that some of this intelligence product came from MI5’s liaison with the Gestapo.

Kahle, we learn, had escaped to Switzerland, but in 1935 he went to Moscow. A year later, he resurfaced in Spain as commander of the 11th International Brigade (he is the model for Hemingway’s General Hans in For Whom the Bell Tolls). He was also, according to information received by MI5, the ‘leader of the OGPU’ – one of the KGB’s predecessors – ‘in Madrid’. In 1939, this ‘notorious’ and ‘particularly dangerous’ man was briefly in London before being interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man, whence he was deported to Canada. Following his release in December 1940, he made his way back to London and worked to recruit anti-Nazi refugees to the Free German Brigade. MI5 alleged that he was using this cover to run ‘an espionage system’ for Moscow.

Kahle is not mentioned in Hobsbawm’s autobiography, and it’s possible that the friendship simply lapsed (there’s no evidence in either PF of further contact between the two), along with the memory of how it was formed. Hobsbawm didn’t fight for the ‘good cause’ in Spain, though his account, in Interesting Times, of hitchhiking in the French Pyrenees and, on a whim, wandering across the border for an afternoon, strikes a strange note. Did he already know Kahle? Was he intending to join his brigade, before suffering a crisis of nerves? (This was the summer of 1936, and he had just been offered a scholarship at Cambridge.) Had Hobsbawm been allowed to see his MI5 file, it might have prompted some answers. In any case, he was now stuck on the flypaper that was Hans Kahle.

Initially, MI5’s inquiries into Sergeant Eric Hobsbawm returned little. On 4 July, they wrote to Southern Command HQ for information (including his home address ‘so that inquiries into his antecedents may be made’), and received a positive assessment from his commanding officer, who could find no reason ‘to suspect him of using his position to commit any indiscretions’. An address in Harrow was supplied, and this was forwarded to Middlesex Special Branch, whose investigations revealed it to be the residence of his uncle Henry, a postal worker, who ‘has been described by a reliable informant as a sneering, critical type of person, harsh of speech, half Jew in appearance … [and] believed to be an energetic communist’ (he was in fact a longstanding Labour councillor). From this, MI5 judged that the nephew ‘may be tarred with the same brush’, and requested that Southern Command keep a close eye on him for any ‘subversive activities or propaganda’.

MI5 stepped up its search for traces of Hobsbawm in its own records, which were housed in the Registry, described by the MI5 veteran Peter Wright as ‘a mass of dry paper’ inside which ‘were warm trails waiting to be followed’. This repository, containing an estimated 500,000 files by the mid-1950s, was organised according to an elaborate system of cross-referencing between Personal Files, Subject Files and Y Boxes, designed to separate highly sensitive files from general access (all suspected spies, as well as defectors, were Y-Boxed). An officer could only obtain a Y Box – marked with a yellow card inside the front cover known as ‘the Yellow Peril’ – by ‘indoctrination’ into its contents given by a controlling officer or the director general himself.

In August 1942, Y Boxes 2127 and 927 yielded a few mentions of Hobsbawm’s name. The extracts copied into his file from these boxes were taken from the transcribed conversations of functionaries of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), whose offices in King Street, Covent Garden were comprehensively bugged: the building was studded with hidden microphones (some of which fell out of the ceiling during a later refurbishment), and all telephone calls were permanently monitored. Product received from these listening devices was codenamed Source North. The transcription centre was known as the Gristery, after its formidable supervisor Evelyn Grist, remembered by Cornwell as a kind of Madame Blavatsky who, together with a stuffed owl, guarded the arcane mysteries of her sanctum. The actual recording was done by specialist Post Office employees in a separate room, the Tower of Babel. Telephone intercepts were recorded on Dictaphone cylinders and the microphone circuits were recorded on acetate gramophone disks. The recordings were then handed over to be transcribed in the Gristery.[5]

The Y Box transcripts featuring Hobsbawm confirmed that he was an active member of the CPGB, and that the party was seeking to use his presence in the armed forces to its advantage. This was, in fact, already the case. Pressed by MI5, Hobsbawm’s commanding officer returned a more critical appraisal of his activities, writing on 7 September that he now considered Sergeant Hobsbawm to be ‘highly partisan’: ‘He has a tendency to produce left-wing literature and to leave it lying about. He is known on one occasion to have invited a warrant officer … to join the Communist Party.’ Hobsbawm had been reprimanded, in the presence of officers, ‘for the abuse of his position as a teacher, and for continuously presenting current affairs in a partisan light’, and from now on he was only to be employed in the teaching of elementary German classes. It was agreed that he be kept ‘under close and careful observation’.

Hobsbawm was a marked man, and he knew it, because ‘a friendly sergeant in Field Security’ had told him. He took the matter up with his commanding officer, complaining that he was a ‘political victim’: his membership of the Communist Party was perfectly legal, and his attempts to infuse ‘drive’, far from being unpatriotic, were consonant with national policy. Technically, this was right. Britain’s wartime alliance with the Soviets was shouldered by a comprehensive campaign of positive propaganda, in which the image of the fanatic Bolshevik was replaced with that of the valiant Russian defending universal civilised values. Many prominent intellectuals and writers were employed in government departments to produce this and other confections, among them Orwell, who put aside his loathing of British imperialism – so strong, according to William Empson, that he initially ‘felt Hitler’s war would be worthwhile if it spelt the end of the British Raj’ – to broadcast its merits to India. After attending a six-week training course dubbed ‘the Liars’ School’, he became a talks producer for the BBC’s Eastern Service. (Sniff, sniff: Orwell hoped he could ‘deodorise’ this task by keeping ‘our propaganda slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been’.)


Following his reprimand, Hobsbawm pulled his neck in, but MI5, working on the principle that any change in demeanour must be a stratagem, a calculated deception, continued to monitor him. Their suspicions were further aroused when Southern Command reported that Hobsbawm knew he was being watched. For a surveillance operation to be effective, it must go unnoticed by the target; nothing should be discernible, not a whiff. Literally. Cornwell recalls that MI5 burglary teams in the 1950s – tasked with breaking and entering for the purpose of photographing records or installing eavesdropping equipment – were acutely conscious of leaving behind their own smell (habitual smokers in a non-smoking house, unfamiliar aftershave, women’s scent and deodorants etc). Hobsbawm was now, in MI5 usage, ‘surveillance sensitive’, which would explain his muted posture and the interruption of contact with Kahle: he was trying to throw them off the scent.

That Hobsbawm might instead be attempting a retreat from what he later described as a ‘combination of priggishness and immaturity’ (an unwitting echo of his commanding officer’s view, as expressed to MI5, that he was ‘patriotic’ but ‘juvenile’ in his judgments) was never considered. Nor was the possibility that this passionate anti-Nazi could do something more useful in the war effort than teaching soldiers the correct pronunciation of ‘Wo ist das nächste Bordell?’ This is how intelligence works: it’s a parallel universe of unfalsifiability where evidence is fitted into a context already believed to be true. Just as when Alice B. Toklas throws down the map and shouts at Gertrude Stein: ‘This is the wrong road!’ Stein drives on: ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.’

So, Hobsbawm’s file continued to gain mileage. We find that over the next two years he applied several times for a transfer (including to the Intelligence Corps) but was routinely denied. In May 1944 he was stationed briefly on the Isle of Wight, where he saw the gathering of the invasion fleet for France, but it was quickly deemed ‘essential’ to post him somewhere else as soon as possible, ‘in view of the many secret and operational activities going on in and around this island’. So he was off to Cheltenham, assigned to a military hospital to teach handicrafts while the D-Day landing craft disgorged in Normandy. ‘Every day of this existence,’ he later wrote, ‘was a reminder that I was doing nothing to win the war, and that nobody would let me near any job, however modest, where my qualifications … might have been of some use for this purpose.’ On 7 July, he expressed his frustration in a call to his friend Margot Heinemann, a senior party member whose phone, Holborn 4071, was tapped by MI5:

M: You are still doing the same job, are you?
E: Yes, with knobs on, well anyway with knobs off!
M: Off!
E: Well about as tucked away as I can possibly be!
M: That’s very bad luck I must say.

A few months later, at MI5’s initiative, Hobsbawm was removed from the overseas embarkation list. (EH: ‘I volunteered to go abroad, but nobody wanted to know.’ MI5: ‘He would be far better kept under our eye in this country.’) In April 1945, just as the Red Army reached Berlin, he applied for a job in the BBC’s Services Educational Unit, and was deemed ‘a most suitable candidate’, but again MI5 stepped in, warning the personnel department that ‘he is not likely to lose any opportunity … to disseminate propaganda and obtain recruits for the Communist Party.’ The BBC consequently agreed to ‘arrange that Hobsbawm will not be accepted for the proposed employment … and in the event of his applying … at a later date, his name will be referred to [MI5] for vetting before any other action is taken’.

On 8 February 1946, after six years in uniform, Sergeant Hobsbawm’s epically ‘pointless’ war came to an end. For the rest of his life he was to regret that ‘as far as the greatest and most decisive crisis in the history of the modern world was concerned, I might as well not have been there.’


In Dickens’s time, they called it ‘sitting for your portrait’. A scene in The Pickwick Papers describes the procedure: the hapless Mr Pickwick, finding himself in a London jail, was seated in a chair by a guard who, hands on hips, ‘inspected him narrowly’, while two others ‘studied his features with most intent and thoughtful faces’. In this way, the guards memorised his likeness and glued it in their mental album of mug shots (‘We’re capital hands at likenesses here. Take ’em in no time, and always exact’).

When Hobsbawm took the chair at a discussion on ‘History Teaching at School and University’, organised by the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party, on 15 October 1958, he wasn’t aware of being scrutinised by a plain-clothes Special Branch officer in the audience, but as he pleaded for history teachers to ‘adapt themselves to the changing history of the world’, Sergeant G. Fryer, in age-old fashion, took his likeness: ‘height, 6’1”; slim build; eyes blue; pale complexion; hair light brown; long oval face; large nose and ears; thick lips’. This description was added to Hobsbawm’s Personal File 211,764, which was now running to its sixth volume.

It’s not that MI5’s box of tricks didn’t run to a camera, but with an estimated 250,000 files to maintain on communists alone, taking photographs of every target was not feasible. This job fell to the ‘watchers’, a team run out of A Branch (Operational Support), whose cars were garaged in the basement of Arding and Hobbs department store in Clapham. Watchers observed targets from vehicles, on the street and from fixed positions. Their usual quarry was the foreign diplomat indulging in a spot of espionage, perhaps popping out to leave a message for an agent – Soviet Embassy staff favoured the dead letter box in the gap between two pillars at the Brompton Oratory in Knightsbridge.[6]

According to Hobsbawm’s frank admission in Interesting Times, in the 1930s he would have done underground work for the Soviets if asked. His friendship with Kahle had prompted the suspicion at MI5 that he might indeed have been given ‘the touch’ (also known as ‘the hand on the knee’) by a Kremlin-directed agent: that he could be a Soviet courier, a spy even, one of those types who had fallen asleep in Marx’s beard and woken up in Stalin’s pocket. It is clear from the first two volumes of his PF, which cover his wartime career, that he was to be kept not only from influencing his fellow servicemen but from any contact with military operations. This was an unusual measure, even for known communists in the forces. However much he yearned to join the fight against the Nazis, Hobsbawm was, in effect, a military target himself, cornered and neutralised by MI5’s self-styled ‘attacks’.

Nobody wanted Hobsbawm in the army, but once out of it, the job of containing him became more complicated. There’s no evidence that he was tailed by watchers, though the removal of entire pages from his file under the blanket cover of Section 3(4) of the Public Records Act makes it impossible to verify. He was certainly held to be an ongoing security risk, and the invisible fence that had so effectively perimetered his life in the army was continually policed. After demobilisation, he had returned to his research at King’s, but the university as a whole held him at arm’s length, turning him down for several posts over the next decade despite his fulgent qualifications. He assumed this had much to do with his doctoral supervisor, M.M. Postan, who, when giving references, ‘helped to keep me out of jobs by pointing out to anyone concerned that I was a communist’. No doubt MI5 was also involved – a gentle prompt over the college snuff box would suffice. For all that, in 1947, Hobsbawm managed to secure a lectureship in history at Birkbeck College, which, exceptionally for this period, showed no discernible signs of anti-communism among staff or students.

In the same year, Hans Kahle died. At the end of the war he had made his way to Germany, emerging in February 1946 as head of the People’s Police in communist-held Mecklenburg. Intriguingly, MI5 date his death to 1949, and kept his Personal File active until late 1954 because of the (inconclusive) evidence of his wartime espionage activities in London, and in the hope that his traces, those ‘warm trails waiting to be followed’, might yet lead to live targets such as Hobsbawm. Postal checks on Hobsbawm’s address, first authorised when he was still in the army, had failed to turn up any further links to Kahle himself, but he might yet be incriminated in his putative network.

Hobsbawm’s letters were steamed open with kettles in a room on the first floor of the Post Office’s St Martin’s-le-Grand depot, near St Paul’s Cathedral. The existence of the GPO’s Special Investigations Unit, which had a facility in every major sorting office in the country, was highly classified, but, like Congreve’s secret, it was whispered everywhere (the postman and future home secretary Alan Johnson was aware that letters on his round were surreptitiously removed from the frame and taken upstairs). Photostats were made using pedal-operated cameras, later replaced with less cumbersome 35mm film and Kodak cameras. The copies were then couriered in unmarked green vans to MI5’s Mayfair headquarters (also top secret, though local bus conductors helpfully called out the stop as ‘Curzon Street and MI5’), while the originals were forwarded to the cover address. All but one. Hanging on a wall of the St Martin’s unit was a framed letter. Addressed on the envelope to a prominent cadre of the Communist Party, the typewritten message inside read: ‘To MI5, if you steam this open you are dirty buggers.’ The head of the unit classified it as ‘obscene post’, which meant that legally he had no duty to send it on.


In these early years of realignment after Hitler’s death – described by Arthur Miller as ‘this wrenching shift, this ripping off of Good and Evil labels from one nation and pasting them onto another’ – fresh traces on suspected communists were being received daily from British intelligence outposts in the defeated territories of the Third Reich. As staff in London struggled to cope with the backlog of new information, officers in the field pumped their ‘high value’ sources, which included an assortment of Nazi war criminals, among them Friedrich Buchardt, leader of an SS death squad that specialised in the slaughter of Jews and communists, and Gestapo officer Horst Kopkow, responsible for the execution of some three hundred captured British agents. The Americans cherry-picked Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, and Reinhard Gehlen, whose German army intelligence unit was preserved intact to build and direct a spy ring against the Soviet Union. These men, experts in hunting down communists, all bought their way out of criminal proceedings with the same bloodstained currency: files.[7]

While the security services, defenders of the realm, policemen of our souls, were high on intelligence dope from Hitler’s henchmen, Hobsbawm was set on the more sober course of preparing lectures that could capture the attention of students who had to earn their living during the day (his Birkbeck slot was 8-9 p.m.). It was from these lectures that most of his books would spring, yet it was a slow start for one of the most promising scholars of his generation; in his mid-thirties, he was still shy of a major published work, and he was continually losing out to lesser candidates when applying for academic promotion. MI5, soldered to the proposition that all communists were a public health hazard, intended to keep it this way.

Hobsbawm correctly assumed that his career was being ‘seriously held back’ by a hidden hand, and would later allege that there was ‘a silent but comprehensive effort to eliminate known party members from any positions connected with British public life’. This was indeed the case, though, as declassified cabinet papers show, the cordon sanitaire extended beyond the party to include ‘its fringe of associated bodies and sympathisers’. The Russian bear, as MI5 saw it, was congenitally minded to push its paw into soft places; or, as a somewhat hysterical Ernest Bevin put it in a top secret memo of 3 March 1948, ‘physical control of the Eurasian landmass and eventual control of the whole World Island is what the Politburo is aiming at – no less a thing than that.’[8] To forestall ‘the collapse of organised society over great stretches of the globe’, Bevin urged that ‘positive and vigorous steps’ be taken immediately.


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.’

Habituated as it was to standing outside the law (there was no statutory basis at all for MI5 until 1989), the Security Service exempted itself from positive vetting, relying instead on a system of personal references. Anthony Blunt, having been refused entrance to the wartime Intelligence Corps after MI5 found traces of his previous communist associations, managed to talk his way into MI5 with the support of influential contacts. He went on to pass a good deal of classified material to his Soviet handlers. When Kim Philby joined the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, fellow officer Hugh Trevor-Roper was ‘astonished’, as he knew him to have been a communist in the 1930s. Trevor-Roper was actually cheered by Philby’s ‘unusual recruitment’, wrongly believing that his superiors, usually so ‘lunatic in their anti-communism’, had decided to forgive the ‘mere juvenile illusions’ of an otherwise brilliant candidate.

In the world beyond their own artificial vivarium, the spooks were lusty superintendents of the vetting and purge procedures. One cannot be surprised by, or waste indignation on, the fact that 14,000 positions in the atomic industry were positively vetted, although this didn’t prevent the espionage activities of Alan Nunn May or Klaus Fuchs. Nor, outside of the List X companies and a further three thousand designated ‘security points’, or ‘sensitive junctions’, was the purge procedure imposed on the private sector, though some businesses acted on their own initiative. In April 1949, the central council of the John Lewis Partnership voted ‘to exclude communists from membership and to ask present and future staff to sign a declaration that they are neither members of the Communist Party nor in sympathy with its doctrines’. A second resolution recommending similar action in the case of fascists was defeated.

Vetting of sensitive posts was presented as a perfectly sensible policy, a national security matter, and insofar as the practice was discussed at all, it was not controversial. Yet it provided legitimacy and cover for a far wider programme of top secret political screening whose details are only now beginning to emerge. At the BBC, for example, upwards of 50 per cent of all staff were vetted without their knowledge. This programme, whose existence was officially denied until late last year, was co-ordinated by MI5 and the BBC’s chief assistant to the director of personnel, later retitled manager special duties. Working out of Room 105 (the numeral ‘5’ always denotes the mothership) this assistant, in liaison with a designated MI5 handler, arranged for the top jobs and those that involved access to classified material to be given the full sheep dip.[9] All other positions – current staff as well as new applicants – were processed through ‘normal vetting’, of which the subjects were unaware. Here there was no pass or fail, but if MI5 (cryptically referred to in Room 105 as the College) uncovered anything in the subject’s background to suggest unreliability, a red symbol resembling a Christmas tree was stamped on the subject’s file. Only in exceptional cases was the BBC required to submit to MI5’s veto; generally, the corporation was allowed to use its own discretion, but many employees have testified over the years that their careers were unexpectedly interrupted or impeded by the Christmas tree.

When the programme began to be wound down in the late 1980s, between six and eight thousand posts out of twelve thousand at the BBC were being vetted.[10] This included engineers (might pull the plug), cleaners (might rummage through a desk or plant a bomb), producers (might seek to hold people to a particular view), and anybody who was put in front of a microphone (ditto, with knobs on). MI6 was also involved in the screening, but no details of this have ever been disclosed, nor is it possible to confirm the arrangements by which both MI5 and MI6 allegedly obtained BBC cover for its operatives. Additionally, every BBC employee was required to sign the Official Secrets Act.[11]

Hobsbawm’s PF further reveals that MI5 had access to the BBC’s List of Speakers and Scriptwriters, a copy of which was filed in the Registry as serial 192a in Subject File 65/47. Hobsbawm’s status on this list was periodically updated, for the BBC’s attention, with comments such as ‘Eric Hobsbawm continues to be an active communist.’ The objective was to deter the corporation from using his services. In March 1953, Comrade Hobsbawm managed even so to get into Broadcasting House to record a talk for the Third Programme. Having successfully obstructed his previous attempts to work there, MI5 were now subjected to a transmission called The Seizure of Power, in which, as the Daily Worker gleefully reported it, Hobsbawm analysed ‘the failure to understand the basic historical prophecies involved in revolutionary situations’. The response was immediate: a confidential letter was despatched to one Miss Wadsley (her BBC position or department is not revealed), stating that she ‘may care to know for future reference that this man has a communist history dating from 1936’. As Hobsbawm’s public reputation began to gather pace in the late 1950s, so too did this comedy of the revolving door (he to get in, MI5 to get him out).


History, Hobsbawm once said, must base itself on evidence, not belief. His MI5 file, from 1953 onwards, is an exercise in the opposite, a paper monument to the solecisms of a collective brain organised around counterfactuals and untested hypotheses. Hobsbawm was not on the phone to Moscow, he was not a spy (sorry for the spoiler), but a member of the tiny, legal Communist Party of Great Britain and, as MI5’s own investigations reveal, not a very good one. We read in his file that in October 1953, an informant reports that he overheard a fellow of King’s College say of Hobsbawm that he ‘was thoroughly out of date with his communism … that he would probably not survive if the Russians came; and that he was estranged from his wife, who was a much more ardent member of the British Communist Party and disapproved of Eric’s attitude’.[12] From Source North (the codename for the telephone intercepts from Communist Party headquarters), we hear that Hobsbawm is cavilling at the party line: he is, his comrades say, ‘a dangerous character … an opportunist’, ‘a slippery customer’, ‘behaving very badly’, ‘two-faced’, ‘a swine’, ‘a very queer fish’, a ‘nasty piece of work’. He is accused of ‘taking a bellicose attitude’ towards the party leadership; ‘He only had to sit in [a] meeting to spread cynicism, he didn’t even need to open his mouth’; he is attracting support for his ‘Eric-ism’ from his ‘cronies’ in the rank and file; he is writing a column on jazz for the New Statesman under the pseudonym Francis Newton and ‘that would explain a lot of the financial basis for his politics because he must be making a canny screw out of all this.’

There’s more. Following Khrushchev’s ‘secret’ speech denouncing Stalin in February 1956, Hobsbawm repeatedly tussles with the party for sanitising the evidence of historical abuse, and sets his signature to an internal letter protesting that ‘the exposure of the grave crimes and abuses in the USSR … [has] shown that for the past 12 years we have made a political analysis on a false presentation of the facts.’ In November, after privately criticising the nomenklatura for supporting the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he makes his grievance public, writing an article in World News calling for an overhaul of party rules so as to improve ‘Communist Party democracy’.

Hobsbawm did not enter these protests lightly. Being a member of the party seems to have been a psychological necessity for him (‘We belonged together’) and when the party threatened him with expulsion, according to one telephone intercept, he became ‘frightfully upset, swearing that he never wanted to leave’. Hobsbawm glosses over this crisis in his autobiography: he stayed in, he says, because he didn’t want to join the score-settling cadre of ex-communists. Unappealing as this richly remunerated truth squad was, this is frustratingly insufficient; why couldn’t he have recycled himself as a sympathiser, a non-party independent communist? Asked by his admirer Simon Schama in 2012 why he had never handed in his card, Hobsbawm said that he should answer ‘To hell with you.’ This was ‘a Cold War question’, he explained, and therefore ‘redundant’.

So Hobsbawm remained in the party, a fact that still haunts his legacy, but his heresies set him at an impossible angle to its doctrinaire hacks, and from the late 1950s onwards he did hardly any political work. The party kept him as window-dressing. And MI5 kept him as a Category A Communist, a Soviet missile site in their backyard, because that was the context they had supplied for him. Spies are paid to spy, and it’s a truism of intelligence that if it doesn’t yield the desired results that must mean you need more of it. Rather than relaxing the coverage, MI5 increased it, opening his mail, requesting details of his passport applications, monitoring him at airports, sending agents and undercover Special Branch officers to his lectures (even his talks on jazz), eavesdropping on his private conversations, blocking his professional path.

Thus we find in the final (accessible) volume of his file that before he left for a three-month exchange visit to Stanford University in May 1960, MI5 warned the FBI that he was ‘a long-standing member of the Communist Party of Great Britain’. Again, in December 1962, after information ‘from an extremely delicate source’ was forwarded by MI6, the Security Service attempted to sabotage Hobsbawm’s planned 12-month tour of South America, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. It was agreed that MI6’s Washington station, armed with a ‘dossier on his communist associations’, would press the case against his appointment with the CIA and the FBI. When this proved unsuccessful (it was too late for the foundation to rescind its sponsorship without causing a scandal), it was decided that Hobsbawm would be monitored by MI6 agents in South America. All antennae and no head: that a committed Marxist should have unconsciously outwitted four intelligence agencies caused considerable embarrassment, and led to an urgent internal review of MI6’s ‘machinery for reviewing people sent abroad by both public and private bodies in this country’. These are the last entries in PF 211,764. For the remainder, should we still have the appetite for it, we will have to wait another fifty years.


Britain’s war on communism may have avoided the vulgar hysteria of McCarthyism, but it was hitched to the same calculation: that communism was an alien ideology, the fevered product of a foreigner who had spent too much time in the British Library, and that all its servants were vectors for its dangerous pathogens. But the definition of ‘communist’ was perilously vague. At MI5 it included everything from ‘Comintern-controlled’, ‘party man’, ‘sympathetic to the Communist Party’, ‘holding communist views’, ‘a man of communist appearance’, ‘intellectual communist’, ‘communist of a highly idealistic and literary brand’, ‘known to hold socialist views’, ‘close friend of a communist’, having ‘the appearance of a communist Jew’, and dressing ‘in a bohemian fashion’.[13]

This kind of hold-all profiling had been sanctified by Orwell in his list of 38 journalists and writers whom he believed to be ‘crypto-communists, fellow-travellers, or inclined that way’. Other pejoratives flow from his blue pencil: ‘sentimental sympathiser’, ‘Zionist’, ‘Jewish’, ‘dishonest careerist’, ‘anti-British’, ‘makes huge sums of money in USSR’ (Priestley), ‘very anti-white’ (Paul Robeson), ‘reliably pro-Russian on all major issues’ (Shaw), ‘Easily influenced. Tendency towards homosexuality’ (Spender).[14] Divided into three columns headed Name, Job and Remarks, Orwell’s list is remarkably contiguous with the Personal Files so far released by MI5, which is not surprising: in May 1949, he helpfully donated his ‘strictly confidential’ list to a semi-covert branch of the Foreign Office, whence it was filtered, strictly confidentially, into the intelligence apparat.

In time – and one is left to ponder whether or not Orwell’s approval would have been withheld – ‘communist’ came to be viewed as coterminous with membership of, inter alia, CND, Friends of the Earth, the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Fire Brigades Union, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, even the Seventh Day Adventists.[15] As the colour red spread like a disease on the retina of the security services, so a peculiar blindness to right-wing organisations developed. According to Cathy Massiter, who worked at MI5 from 1970 to 1983, ‘there was only one person covering all of right-wing subversion,’ while there were ‘many dozens’ dealing with communism. Across Whitehall, secret committees tasked with developing national security procedures chose to simplify their reporting by following ‘the common practice of using the phrase “communist” throughout to include fascists.’ Yes, well, that should deal with it.

This was the context for the secret state’s continued interference in the lives of others, at least half a million of them, of whom only a handful were ever shown to be involved in illegal or treasonous activities – and most of these were sitting at desks in MI5 and MI6. More absurdly, only about twenty thousand were actually members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and their chief occupation seemed to be libelling each other. Like Auden’s poets, they made ‘nothing happen’ in a society for whom dialectical materialism was far less engaging than Dixon of Dock Green, Ealing comedies, the Cup Final, the conquest of Everest, rain-free shopping arcades, John Betjeman, Margot Fonteyn, new schools, employment, immigration. In the international communist movement, the British party was a laughing stock, correctly assumed to be so thoroughly penetrated that it was virtually a branch of the Security Service. As Roger Hollis told the home secretary in 1959, ‘we [have] the British Communist Party pretty well buttoned up.’ It was more than mere containment, says Cornwell, who ran agents into the party. ‘We kept it afloat. In fact, we owned it.’

This entwinement, this psychic trope of coupling, is the real imitation game. The two sides in the Cold War, finding each other irresistible, ended up in a contrapuntal relationship where, as George Urban put it, ‘they marched in negative step, but in step all the same.’ They had their spies, we had ours. They had their files, we had ours. True, we didn’t have gulags. But what kind of democracy is it that congratulates itself on not having gulags? Never mind the dragnet surveillance, the burglaries, the smearing of reputations, the bugging of public telephone boxes, cafés, hotels, banks, trade unions, private homes, all this legitimised by the thesis that everyone is a potential subversive until proven otherwise – the problem is that the defenders of the realm took on the symptoms of the disease they were meant to cure.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Hobsbawm quotations are from his autobiography, Interesting Times: A 20th-Century Life (2002).

[2] Thälmann was held in solitary confinement for 11 years, before being shot in Buchenwald on Hitler’s orders in August 1944.

[3] In 2011, the US National Security Agency presented its ‘New Collection Posture’ in a Powerpoint slide, leaked by Edward Snowden, which opens with the bubble caption: ‘Sniff It All.’

[4] The hitherto neglected – or evaded – story of this political blacklist is taken up by Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove in A Matter of Intelligence: MI5 and the Surveillance of Anti-Nazi Refugees, 1933-50 (Manchester, 236 pp., £70, March 2014, 978 0 7190 9079 0).

[5] In 1950, before the introduction of shredders, fragments of secret waste that had been placed in a malfunctioning incinerator floated up the chimney and out into the streets of Mayfair.

[6] A single target requires six watchers. If, as has been stated, MI5 currently has upwards of five hundred ‘high priority’ targets, it would need at least three thousand watchers in the field to ensure 24-hour coverage. Desk coverage concentrates on intercepts (letters, social media etc) and a panoply of ‘intelligence vision systems’, including the facial recognition component of London’s congestion charge CCTV network.

[7] Towards the end of the war, Gehlen had stashed his huge treasure of microfiche files in watertight drums and buried them in different locations in the Austrian Alps.

[8] Bevin’s clear view of ‘the threat to Western civilisation’ (Gibbon sharpening his pencil) prevailed over Attlee’s readiness to examine strategic issues from Moscow’s point of view and address Russian demands ‘with the requirements of a world organisation for peace, not with the needs of the defence of the British Empire’.

[9] MI5’s cover was Box 500, its post office address, and in the Ministry of Defence it worked out of Room 055.

[10] Between 1990 and 1994, the vetting operation was finally stood down. Ex-royal marine Michael Hodder, the last incumbent of Room 105, was instructed in 1994 to ‘shred it all.’ The task took him and three staff two days. Sixty years’ worth of shredded remains were thrown out with the rubbish. The only file to survive was that of the spy Guy Burgess. It didn’t have a Christmas tree stamp.

[11] This practice ended in the mid-1980s, except for a few positions, including director general.

[12] Muriel Seaman, whom he had married in 1943. They were divorced in 1951.

[13] These quotes are taken from James Smith’s impressive survey of Personal Files in British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-60 (Cambridge, 2012).

[14] A marginal improvement on ‘pansy’, Orwell’s usual epithet for Spender. As to the remark about Robeson, we all know that Orwell loathed racial distinctions. William Empson, who in the wartime BBC occupied a cubicle next to Eric Blair, overheard him say to an Indian visitor, in his formalised Cockney accent: ‘The FACK that you’re black and that I’m white, has nudding whatever to do wiv it.’ Empson was surprised that the Indian did not reply: ‘But I’m not black.’

[15] David Cornwell: ‘Oddball religious groups were thought to attract fanatics.’