Our War

Nicholas Hiley

  • Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany by Noël Annan
    HarperCollins, 266 pp, £18.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 00 255629 4

At first sight Changing Enemies is a welcome addition to the literature of modern Intelligence. The deliberate anonymity of the Official History of British Intelligence in the Second World War needs to be supplemented with the personal memoirs of those closely involved, and Noel Annan appears well suited to the task. In 1941 he joined the Military Intelligence Division of the War Office, and worked in section MI14, which was the German department. In 1943 he was promoted to be War Office representative on the Joint Intelligence Staff at the War Cabinet Office, and in 1944 he moved to the Intelligence section of Shaef, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Paris. He is also well placed to put flesh onto the paper skeleton of Intelligence history, for in 1945, at the final surrender of Germany, he observed at first hand those German generals whose progress he had followed so closely in reports and intercepts, and, on transferring to the political division of the British Control Commission, he saw at close quarters the effect of the war on the German population.

There is a definite appeal in the recollections of someone so closely involved with the final defeat and initial regeneration of Germany between 1941 and 1946, especially someone young and idealistic whose work brought them into contact with a range of colourful figures. Annan describes the problems of advising the Director of Military Intelligence, General Francis Davidson, whom it was difficult to persuade to a different view and who ‘would emerge from his office en route to brief the CIGS with a stack of files under his arm in which a dozen or so pages had been flagged, some of the flags fluttering to the floor as he walked’. Annan also describes how the CIGS gave his military assistant the job of listening in to his telephone conversations, ‘so that at any critical moment he could seize a relevant file and lay it before his master as he spoke’. However, after monitoring these secret consultations the same military assistant, who fretted for active service, would amuse his colleagues with ‘lifelike imitations of the exchanges between the Prime Minister and the CIGS’.

This is presumably the ‘superbly characterised detail’ promised in the book’s publicity, but such passages are remarkably rare. Lord Annan claims that his recreation is ‘writing English prose’, but he clearly does not mean by this a form of expression designed to communicate personal thoughts or feelings. What he means is rather that dispassionate mode of patrician address once favoured by public figures, whose principal function was to establish the writer or speaker not as a passionate individual but as the disinterested representative of a group or caste. In Annan’s case the group or caste is ‘the Establishment’, that shifting affiliation which he glosses as ‘the old governing class of men who had been to a public school and to Oxford or Cambridge’, and among whom he belongs. Indeed, his desire to locate himself within the Establishment provides the only passionate intensity in what is otherwise a cold and detached book.

Annan recounts with admiration how an Old Etonian officer he knew in MI14 ‘was highly strung yet imperturbable’: ‘If some vulgarian patronised or oiled to him, his expression never changed; only his nostrils quivered.’ Changing Enemies is naturally secure against the oilings of vulgarians, for Annan has mobilised the full armoury of patrician address in an effort to keep the reader at a respectful distance. Remarkably for an autobiography, the book even opens in the third person plural. ‘They were playing cards or cleaning equipment in the hut that served as a barrack room,’ Annan writes of his young self and his fellow officer-cadets in 1940, ‘when the sergeant came in and pinned a notice on the door.’ The effect of this distancing is to create a vacuum at the centre of the book, where one would expect to find the author, and the strain even tells on Annan, who never quite decides whether to write of ‘my’ or ‘our’ experiences, or to refer to the subject of the book as ‘I’ or ‘we’.

Where possible he resorts to the false personal pronoun ‘one’, even when recalling his own feelings. He thus admits that on joining the Joint Intelligence Committee in 1943 he was burdened by the heavy weight of secrecy, but distances himself from this sensation. ‘When one became overtired,’ he recalls, ‘it was hard to remember whether one had seen some succulent item in Ultra, a Cabinet Office document, the Times or the Daily Mirror.’ Another advantage of these indirect modes of address – apart from establishing membership of an élite and allowing Annan to admit to reading the Daily Mirror – lies in their power to soften failure through the passive voice. Annan thus notes the unfortunate fact that Leo Long, one of his colleagues in MI14, ‘was to be shamed years later when he was identified as one of the Cambridge spies’. Long was a Cambridge graduate recruited by Anthony Blunt, who kept the NKVD supplied with secret intelligence from 1941 onwards, but this keen sense of shame may have been sufficient punishment for his crimes.

For Annan the treason which began the long post-war decline derived from another source. As he acknowledges, when it came to traitors such as Long, ‘the Establishment imposed a pall of silence,’ but this silence was resented by the newspapers, and after 1945 an unholy alliance of ‘the Beaverbrook press and the left-wing periodicals’ did its best to discredit the Establishment. This conspiracy ‘disintegrated the trust that was once placed in the old governing class’, and although Annan voted for the Labour Government of 1945, he now damns it with faint praise, calling its representatives ‘reasonable, sensible, friendly’, and ‘honest and unprejudiced’, at a time when the world demanded more. In the resulting vacuum of power the trade unions formed a ‘fifth column’, and Annan believes that trade union militancy ‘was arguably the most immediate cause of Britain’s post-war economic decline’. In 1946 Annan returned to Cambridge to resume his academic career, but he was forced to accept that the old deference was gone. All a gentleman could do was to face the oilings of the new vulgarians with as much stoicism as he could muster. ‘I tried to treat the trade unions in my university as partners,’ he recalls with sadness, but this was ‘without much success’.

Luckily, academic life gave Annan access to other strategies for maintaining distance, which he has used to full effect. Long sections of the book are straight history, in which the world is surveyed without any pretence at personal recollection, while even in passages of reminiscence Annan employs footnotes to give his private opinions the trappings of scholarship. It is remarkable that anyone can contrive to be so completely absent from their autobiography, for even personal recollections are here filtered through the medium of colleagues and friends. To illustrate the camaraderie on the Joint Intelligence Staff in 1943 and 1944, Annan quotes from a letter written by a colleague to remind him of how exhilarating their work had been, and how ‘we were a happy band.’ To demonstrate his attitude to the war he quotes the unpublished diary of another friend, recording a conversation in 1944 in which Annan expressed the unremarkable opinion that the war ‘would last until mid-1945’. He even cites the published memoirs of General Strong, Head of Intelligence at Shaef, to show his own opinions in 1945, as though all memory of them is gone.

This feeling of absence is even stronger in the sections dealing with Annan’s time in the political division of the British Control Commission during 1945 and 1946, where he quotes at length from his own reports preserved in the Foreign Office archives. Yet in those places where his experiences might have added to our understanding of events Annan has almost nothing to say. With regard to the slaughter of the Jews he admits that in Intelligence ‘we knew of the gas ovens,’ but he does not choose to elaborate on this or to recall his feelings on sharing this dreadful secret. Similarly, he was present at the unconditional surrender of the German forces in 1945, but he dismisses the event in a single paragraph. He also admits to knowing that MI16 and the American OSS were recruiting ex-Nazis in occupied Germany during 1945 and 1946, but again has nothing material to add and no feelings to recall.

It is hard to understand why Annan should have withdrawn so completely from his own life. It is possible that Changing Enemies is the memoir of an old man unravelling and forgetting. ‘In my mind’s eye I see myself smiling,’ he reports on one occasion, as though it is no longer certain whether that smile has historical reality. Alternatively, it may be that he truly lived his life with a detachment that evades recollection. After all, even his bitter experience of war’s destructiveness took place at one stage removed from the cold reality. ‘The memory of Germany in defeat has never faded from my mind,’ he admits of 1945, ‘particularly since we, the new lords of creation, swept by in our cars bound for some snug mess remote from hunger and cold.’

Both explanations are possible, but it seems impossible to get away from the feeling that this detachment is an attempt by Annan to build himself into the fabric of history, and to suggest that the history of Europe and the history of a cultural élite are so closely identified as to elevate individual beliefs to the status of objective reality. This patrician loftiness might have worked if Annan had been a general or a senior civil servant, but he was a junior officer writing summaries and reports, and in consequence Changing Enemies has become a mediocre history when it might have been a valuable memoir.