At the end of March 1933 Guy Liddell, a senior MI5 officer, visited Berlin to liaise with the Prussian political police organisation that was soon to become the Gestapo.
He was given privileged access to the results of their operations against the German left and produced a report on “The Liquidation of Communism and Left-wing Socialism in Germany”. He quite freely acknowledged that “Jews, Communists and even Social Democrats have undoubtedly been submitted to every kind of outrage”.
Nevertheless, MI5 and the Gestapo had a common enemy and, as Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove observe, “MI5 was keen to cooperate with the new Nazi authorities”.
Of particular concern to MI5 were the refugees, overwhelmingly Jewish, but many political, both Jews and non-Jews, who fled Germany. By 1957 over 150,000 people had fled Germany. Only 5,500 were allowed into Britain, but this was quite enough to excite MI5.
Their concern was, of course, with those associated with the left. Keeping an eye on these foreign “reds” remained an MI5 priority “arguably until early 1939”. After that date surveillance of refugees suspected of communist sympathies continued but now because the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany.
MI5 was much less concerned about the activities of the fascists during this period. To be fair, in 1934 they did request authorisation to intercept the mail of the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Oswald Mosley. The Home Office refused, a refusal all the more remarkable because the BUF was at the time heavily subsidised by Mussolini.
Brinson and Dove examine the Dora Fabian episode in some detail. She was found dead, along with Mathilde Wurm, another left wing refugee. The British were eager to put this down as suicide, but there was a widespread belief, both in refugee circles and on the British left, that they had been murdered by Nazi agents.
Their exploration of this affair is inconclusive, but they do report that the British authorities considered Karl Korsch as being somehow involved and as someone who was working for the Nazis. Given Korsch’s considerable reputation, this really needed more discussion than it receives.
On the outbreak of war in 1939 MI5 pushed for the internment of all refugees, even though most were Jews, who were hardly likely to be working for the Nazis. The result was pretty chaotic with such obvious injustices as to discredit the scheme. The sinking of the Arandora Star, carrying internees to Canada, in July 1940 with some 650 drowned, further discredited the policy of mass internment.
What is most striking is that for all their concern with the threat posed by refugee communists, MI5 still managed to miss those who actually were working for the Russians. Edith Suschitsky, for example, who became Edith Tudor-Hart by marriage, was kept under close surveillance, even had her home burgled, but her involvement with nuclear spying was never uncovered. Indeed, MI5 were even unaware of her paid-up membership of the British Communist Party!
Similarly, Ursula Kuczynski, managed to “get the better of British intelligence”. She was the nuclear spy Klaus Fuchs’s handler. And, of course, there was also Engelbert Broda, the nuclear scientist who just happened to have been a member of the Austrian Communist Party, whose spying for the Russians was only finally revealed in 2009!