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.

It is difficult to grasp how small, international yet intimate the world of physics was between the wars. It was small enough for everyone to know or to be aware of everyone else. Young Berti Broda had climbed an Alpine peak with young Hans von Halban (who was to recruit him for the atom-bomb project in 1941) when they were barely undergraduates. The youngest research students were likely to know, even if they had not been taught by one, those multiplying Nobel candidates or laureates whom they might reasonably hope to join one day. In retrospect one is amazed by the extent of mutual trust in this curious extended family, held together by the common excitement of doing wonderful things in pursuit of truth, with which those outside should not interfere, if only because they could not really understand them. Given the situation in the 1930s, especially after the arch-enemy of reason had taken power in Germany, it is not surprising that younger scientists should have been attracted to the radical and revolutionary left. A novel written from within the milieu, C.P. Snow’s The Search, is a good guide to their mood at the time, including the air of slight contempt for purely literary intellectuals that was to make F.R. Leavis foam at the mouth. The politically far from subversive grandees of the Cavendish Laboratory were not shocked by these affiliations.

An unknown refugee in 1938, Broda, was vouched for by Sir William Bragg, president of the Royal Society, on the strength of having been the assistant of a Viennese physical chemist whose work Bragg thought well of. In 1942, James Chadwick, though well aware of Nunn May’s Communism, recruited him over the hesitations of the security people to the ‘Tube Alloys’ (atom-bomb) project, as a first-class British member of Halban and Kowarski’s ‘heavy water’ team of solidly refugee scientists who had come over from France in 1940. It was, as Nunn May later reflected, a normal and unavoidable choice for those who were running an atomic project rather than anticipating a Cold War. In any case, the world of physics knew no frontiers. It wasn’t confined within the enclosures of national patriotism and wartime military calculation, however enthusiastically its members worked to create nuclear destruction. During the war even physicists who would not have dreamed of passing information to unauthorised recipients sympathised with the view that it should not be totally withheld from our Russian ally. After the war, Tam Dalyell recalls in a characteristically freethinking preface to this book, he asked Chadwick about Nunn May, and was told: ‘I knew Alan extremely well. I do not support what he did. But he did it for good motives. And because of what he did, it may just be that your generation will be spared an atomic war. None of us can know.’

Somewhat surprisingly, this positive view of Nunn May was shared by the security services, even though he had been immune to the blandishments of William Skardon, the great interrogator who had succeeded with Klaus Fuchs, and flatly refused any collaboration beyond the full account of his actions he had given at the trial. He was not, he said, a snitch. Indeed, when he left jail at the end of 1952 after six years, the secret services did their best – although the witch-hunting hysteria was then at its height and despite worries about furious American reactions – to find him a reasonable scientific job. When this proved impossible, his transition was eased by the offer from what was claimed to be an ‘anonymous benefactor’ (via the vice-chancellor of Cambridge) of a support grant for two years. In effect, his jailing ended what had once promised to be an academic career as a distinguished but probably sub-Nobel physicist. Nunn May did not get a permanent post until 1961, when J.D. Bernal persuaded President Kwame Nkrumah of the newly decolonised state of Ghana to offer him a chair at his new university, under its equally unexpected vice-chancellor, Conor Cruise O’Brien. There he remained with Hilde until retirement.

Nothing was ever proved against Broda, who had been long (and, as was discovered in the 1990s, correctly) suspected by MI5, though its belief that he was Nunn May’s recruiter is almost certainly wrong. Still, except for one brief visit in 1948, after his return to Austria in 1947 Broda kept away from Britain, although he maintained a close relationship with his son, Paul. He took up his university career again in Vienna – with some difficulties, since his public Communism kept him out of a formal chair until 1968 and postwar Vienna was scientifically marginal. Gradually he shifted his interests to biochemistry, bioenergetics and the history of Austrian science. An honorary degree from the German Democratic Republic reflected his political loyalties rather than his scientific distinction, for his interests were too various to make a major mark in any of his fields. He resisted the reformism of other Austrian Communist intellectuals, but shared their passion for the open air. He collapsed and died on a wetland walk, in his pocket the poems of another expatriate Austrian, Erich Fried.

How to understand Paul Broda’s third parent is the real puzzle. In one sense, she chose her own life. Against bitter family resistance she pursued both medicine and social revolution. In another, from 1932 her commitment to Berti immersed her in a dangerous life of political activism, illegality, separated couples and impoverished emigration which did not suit her, but from which she could not escape. The partnership, formalised by marriage to give her an Austrian passport, was not destined to last. Berti’s strength and unwavering political commitment, rather than a passionate bout of love (his speciality), had attracted her and may well have given a troubled life, dogged by ill-health, a degree of emotional stability. By 1938, when she had finally qualified as a doctor and they had begun a joint life in emigration, she was readier to go her own way. She resisted his demand for yet another abortion (as party discipline then required from true revolutionaries) and gave birth to the author of this book. Not that either would win prizes as parents. Paul Broda reports without comment how shocked the foster family was at the physical and mental state of the toddler who was evacuated to them after the Brodas had been bombed out in 1941. Fortunately, they were able to put things right.

The Brodas ceased to see themselves as a couple after Berti, somewhat illogically given his habitual infidelity, was outraged by an affair of Hilde’s during his months of internment as an alien in 1940. They were not divorced until 1946 but henceforth led separate lives, kept in edgy contact by Berti’s need to see his boy, who lived with and was brought up by his mother. Since he did not join the atom-bomb project until 1942, she can’t be said to have been married to a scientist spy, though she would probably not have been surprised by his activities. Professionally, these were probably Berti’s best years, while the war allowed Hilde at last to follow her medical career. Mother and child lived in London and Inverness before moving in 1945 to Cambridge, where contact with Broda was easier. I do not think she had a clear idea of where her future should take her, or that she had accepted a life without lasting emotional anchorage.

I think this was still true when I moved to Cambridge in 1950 and we became friends, two displaced left-wing cultural Central Europeans who looked back on the same milieu of the ‘Austrian Centre’ and the wartime Austrian Communist emigration. Her situation remained unfixed, though her life now looked more rooted in Britain, not least by the needs and wishes of her teenage son, with whom her relations seem to have been less intense than Berti’s. As secretary of the Cambridge Peace Council, she was politically as well as culturally isolated from the mainstream of Cambridge life, in spite of its ingrained liberalism and toleration, for the fellow-travelling or Communist left was never more suspect than during the Korean War. While she had no problem attracting men, her relationships didn’t seem to imply a real future, though she plainly missed the emotional stability of an old-fashioned life-partnership, even after the discouraging experience of marriage to Berti. Nevertheless, to universal surprise, she married Alan Nunn May within a few months of his release from Wakefield jail. This time she had, with open eyes, married a scientist spy. Within a year they had adopted a newborn baby. It was to prove a happy and stable marriage.

How and why? Paul Broda’s book is curiously oblique about this crucial question, partly because there is no adequate documentation – Hilde was not a confessional talker – and partly because it seems so inexplicable. The two may have encountered each other in Cambridge social circles in 1945-46 before Alan’s arrest and after her return from Scotland, but there is no real evidence that they got to know each other until they met in the house of friends shortly after his release. Nor does it seem to have been a coup de foudre on her part, and certainly not on his, even if Hilde was warm, attractive and full of indestructible joie de vivre. Yet she must have made up her mind almost immediately that this was the man for her, even if she could hardly have expected 49 years of successful marriage.

Such questions are rarely open to clear answers, but they cannot be understood at all unless we put ourselves in the situation of Communists and philo-Communists in the years of the Korean War, perhaps their time of maximum and most bitterly felt isolation. Five years after the end of the Second World War, Korea had brought us to the verge of another in which our side was the enemy. The mood was correspondingly tense. To me, a young fellow, the conventions and courtesies of college life could barely conceal that many, perhaps most, of those I dined with at high table regarded me as a potential or actual traitor. I remember wondering where, if war broke out, people like myself would be interned as ‘enemy aliens’ had been in 1940 – on the Isle of Man or overseas? In Britain, hysteria was kept in check by a tradition of fairness and decency: the attempt by a Cambridge alderman to sack Hilde from her post as a school medical officer because of her marriage was overwhelmingly defeated at short notice by the county council. Outside the zone of good manners and toleration, it was not. The fear of traitors had no limits in the US, where the Rosenbergs, a husband and wife whom we believed innocent – as indeed one of them was – had been executed for atomic espionage weeks before the wedding. As Paul Broda’s book shows, the British authorities were sensitive to American witch-hunting pressure, reinforced by the ravings of the local press. Nothing was more likely to produce a manic reaction than the release of a genuine self-confessed Soviet spy from jail.

As in cities under wartime bombardment, the combination of real danger and declared enemy ferocity entrenched the determination of the besieged garrison of Communist and philo-Communists. In Britain it certainly prevented any large-scale defection of intellectuals from the Party until the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The choice we seemed to be faced with – officially disclaiming our loyalties and convictions, changing sides, even naming names – was intolerable. Defiance, to raise the scarlet standard high, was not a rational reaction but a tempting one. Thus I knew that inviting Alan Nunn May to a feast at King’s College, where I was then a fellow, was an act of provocation, though I also knew that in King’s nobody, not even the most encrusted reactionaries, would rise to it. Everybody behaved perfectly.

I believe there was a similar element of public defiance in Hilde’s capture of Alan. A life of revolutionary engagement with Berti had not brought her much happiness, but she had shared it and she believed in its values. She would not abjure. Probably, like many of us, she had seen Alan in jail not as a justly convicted offender but as a heroic casualty of the anti-Fascist war. This does not, of course, explain her marriage, but it provides the necessary setting for it. It did not surprise me that she found him attractive and in need of protection. I recall him, shortly after his release, as a big, deliberately understated, friendly, shy, emotionally unattached man uncertain how to make his return to the world. Until his marriage he seemed at ease only with music. When he spoke about his life, as he was ready to, he radiated a melancholy but not quite resigned honesty. He knew he had drawn the short straw. He, and indeed the entire British nuclear operation, sidetracked to Canada by the American insistence on keeping the bomb on US sites, was of secondary importance. Consequently, so was the information he sent to the Russians. Six years in jail and, as was now clear, the end of his hopes as a physicist were a high price to pay, though he regarded the jail sentence as legitimate punishment for his offence. He did not regret passing information to the Russians. What hurt was the growing conviction that he should have been strong enough to refuse altogether to take part in the project to use the atom bomb, as the admirable Joseph Rotblat had done. He was the only member of the British or any other research team to do so. But Alan knew he had maintained his self-respect, unlike Anthony Blunt, of whom he disapproved.

Paul Broda’s book is largely based on Alan’s lengthy memoir of his activities as a scientist and copious letters from his father, Berti. Hilde said and wrote little – Berti was always complaining about her silences. However, the major sources are undoubtedly the extensive security files on all three. Broda has used these with great honesty to write a book that succeeds in allowing readers to understand the world-changing and disappointed convictions of his parents’ generation because, too young to share them, he saw enough of their lives to recognise what they meant and to pay a more than filial respect to them. It should be read, and will probably survive to fascinate and instruct the generations in the 21st century.