The MI5’s secret history lessons

Two of Britain’s leading historians were under the scanner of the state for decades for their Communist sympathies, new records released on October 24 by the National Archives have shown.

Christopher Hill (1912-2003), who became Master of Balliol College, and Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), who studied in Cambridge and taught at Birbeck College, London, were both formidable Marxist historians and for a time members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

They were among a group of left wing writers and academics whose personal and professional activities were closely monitored from the 1930s by MI5, Britain’s secret service agency, over fears that their radicalism and admiration for the Soviet Union were against British national interests.

The files show that MI5 kept a tab on their telephone conversations, copies of their private correspondence, their wide circle of contacts, and their writings.

The 157 files also include those on Communist sympathiser Robert Oppenheimer who worked on the Manhattan Project to build an atom bomb. The files also reveal how Eric Roberts, a bank clerk in Surrey, became an MI5 spy and infiltrated the ranks of Nazi sympathisers as a Gestapo spy, thus ensuring that many wartime secrets were never conveyed to the Germans.

Christopher Hill joined the Communist Party in 1936 and left it in 1957. The files on him include a copy of an anti-monarchy article that he wrote for the Daily Worker before the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Professor Hill went to the Soviet Union in 1935 and 1936 as an undergraduate at Balliol College, and the surveillance on him begins in 1936 and ends in 1952. The files reveal his circle of friends, colleagues and comrades, accounts of his activities as an activist of the party, and also reveal the difficult phase his marriage – which ended in divorce in 1954 – was going through.

The files interestingly have an India connection. An account of one of the meetings of the “Political Committee Meeting” in January 1945 includes the name of “Raji Dutt”, almost certainly a misspelling of Rajani Dutt, whose name later appears in initials as R.P.D. Mr. Dutt was a member of the British Communist Party, and author of India Today, the first Marxist analysis of the Indian freedom movement.

Mr. Hobsbawm came to the attention of the security services in 1942, when he was a sergeant in the Army Education Corps. He had invited a German Communist to talk to the troops, and later was in touch with the Communist Party about propaganda activities among soldiers. Mr. Hobsbawm, who taught in Birbeck College in London, was Chairman of the Historians Group of the party.

The files on him throw light on his contacts with other members of the party like Margot Meinemann and James MacGibbon. After 1959, his relationship with the Party became rather more brittle. He had by then begun to write other non-left publications (He was the jazz critic for the Daily Mail and used the pen name Francis Newton) and had begun to differ on key ideological issues with the party position.

Were those being spied on aware of it? Mr. Hobsbawm reportedly tried to get access to the papers on him in his lifetime.

“They knew,” writer and intellectual Tariq Ali who knew both men, told The Hindu. “They had all been members of the Communist Party and it hardly came as a surprise. My phone was tapped in the late 60s and 70s. All post addressed to me was opened first, and I knew. Years later a retired postman shamefacedly told me how it was done. The phone tapping took place at GCHQ. I wish I could get access to it all.”

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 2:57:38 PM |

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