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<nettime> MI5 spied on leading British historians for decades
nettime's avid reader on Fri, 24 Oct 2014 13:46:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> MI5 spied on leading British historians for decades

MI5 spied on leading British historians for decades, secret files
reveal Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill had phones tapped,
correspondence intercepted and friends and wives monitored

    Richard Norton-Taylor The Guardian, Friday 24 October 2014        


MI5 amassed hundreds of records on Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill,
two of Britainâs leading historians who were both once members of
the Communist party, secret files have revealed.

The scholars were subjected to persistent surveillance for decades
as MI5 and police special branch officers tapped and recorded their
telephone calls, intercepted their private correspondence and
monitored their contacts, the files show. Some of the surveillance
gave MI5 more details about their targetsâ personal lives than any
threat to national security.

The files, released at the National Archives on Friday, reveal the
extent to which MI5, including its most senior officers, secretly
kept tabs on the personal and professional activities of communists
and suspected communists, a task it began before the cold war. The
papers also show that MI5 opened personal files on the popular
Oxford historian AJP Taylor, the writer Iris Murdoch, and the
moral philosopher Mary Warnock after they and Hill signed a letter
supporting a march against the nuclear bomb in 1959.

Lady Warnock told the Guardian on Thursday night: âIâd love to
see the file, or anybodyâs file come to that, to see what was/is
regarded as suspicious â I am completely taken aback and even
faintly flattered.â

Hobsbawm, who was refused access to his files when he asked to see
them five years ago, died in 2012, and Hill died in 2009. Many
passages, sometimes whole pages, of their files remain redacted and
an entire file on Hobsbawm has been âtemporarily retainedâ. The
files include long lists of names and addresses of letters written by
Hobsbawm and Hill.

They make clear that MI5 frequently read â or was sent â copies
of as many as 10 letters a day. At the same time, its officers, or
special branch officers, or their informants â one of whom was given
the codename Ratcatcher â were secretly taking notes of their phone
calls and meetings.

The files show that Hobsbawm, who became one of Britainâs most
respected historians and was made a Companion of Honour by Tony Blair,
first came to the notice of MI5 in 1942 when he and 38 colleagues
were described as being âobvious members of the CPGB [the Communist
party of Great Britain] on Merseysideâ. He became number 211,764
on MI5âs index of personal files. Although he was cleared of
âsuspicion of engaging in subversive activities or propaganda in the
armyâ, MI5 noted it was doubtful that he would be suitable for the
Intelligence Corps. Roger Hollis, later head of MI5, and Valentine
Vivian, the deputy chief of MI6, prevented him from joining the
Foreign Officeâs political intelligence department.

At the end of the war, in July 1945, an MI5 officer noted: âAs he is
known to be in contact with communists I should be interested to see
all his personal correspondenceâ.

MI5 said the object of keeping checks on Hobsbawm was âto establish
the identities of his contacts and to unearth overt or covert
intellectual Communists who may be unknown to usâ. Similarly, Hill
was kept under surveillance, the files note, to establish âthe
identity of his contacts at the University [of Oxford] and in the
cultural field generally, and to obtain the names of intellectuals
sympathetic to the [Communist] party who may not already be known to

Telephone intercepts disclosed that Hobsbawm and his family were
friendly with Alan Nunn May â a British physicist who had confessed
to spying for Russia and was released from jail in 1952 â and on one
occasion put him up for the night. There is no evidence in the files
of any attempt by either Hobsbawm or Hill to spy for Moscow or that
the Russians were interested in them for any such purpose.

One early file on Hobsbawm describes his uncle Harry, with whom he
sometimes stayed, as âsneering, half Jew in appearance, having a
long noseâ.

The surveillance intruded into the targetsâ relationships. Hobsbawm
is recorded in 1952 as having âdifficulties with his [first] wife,
who,â an MI5 officer noted, âdoes not consider him to be a fervent
enough Communistâ.

A report in 1950 revealed how Hillâs first wife, Inez, was becoming
âsick to deathâ of his Communist party affiliation, which she had
previously shared. âThere seems to be some reason to believe that
she is not only fed up with her husbandâs politics but also with
her husbandâs political activities, especially as his political
sympathies lead him, according to her, to give a considerable amount
of his money to the party,â the report stated. A subsequent report
revealed she was having an affair with another Communist party

Hobsbawm never left the Communist party but the MI5 files show he
argued with the party leadership so strongly that it considered
dismissing him, according to transcripts of MI5âs bugged

At a fraught meeting at the partyâs headquarters at King Street
in Londonâs Covent Garden, at the end of 1956, Hobsbawm, Hill and
the writer Doris Lessing agreed to write a letter attacking the
party leadershipâs âuncritical support â to Soviet action in
Hungaryâ, a reference to the crushing of the uprising there. That
support, the letter explained, was âthe undesirable culmination
of years of distortion of factsâ. Hill, who left the party a year
later, used the phrase âthe crimes of Stalinâ at the meeting,
according to the MI5 report. The partyâs paper, the Daily Worker,
refused to publish the letter which was later run by Tribune, the
leftwing weekly.

Unlike the very public manifestation of McCarthyism in the US,
the discreet British version had its victims. Although political
activities did not affect Hillâs academic career, Hobsbawm was
prevented from getting the Cambridge lectureship he wanted. He was
later appointed professor at Birkbeck College, London.

The documents show that years later MI5 was furious with the BBC
for allowing Hobsbawm to broadcast. In October 1962, an MI5 officer
noted: âMy BBC contact tells me that Hobsbawm is still an occasional
contributor to the Third Programme â Some recent talks were entitled
âSicilian Peasant Risingsâ and âRobin Hoodâ.â What is
described as âslightly unexpectedâ was a series of talks on

Earlier that year, MI6 asked MI5 if they had any objection to telling
the CIA that Hobsbawm was going on a tour of South America funded,
to its surprise, by the Rockefeller Foundation (Hobsbawm had already
visited Cuba). In a document marked Top Secret, dated 13 May 1963, MI5
told MI6: âA reliable and very delicate source has reported that
Hobsbawm visited a number of countries.â

The files also reveal that the FBI feared that the atom bomb pioneer
Robert Oppenheimer would use a visit to Britain to defect to Russia.
He had come under investigation in America for his leftwing sympathies
and in 1954 the FBI urged MI5 to put him under surveillance if he
entered the UK. In a cable from the US embassy, legal attache JA
Cimperman wrote: âInformation has been received that Oppenheimer
may defect from France in September 1954. According to the source,
Oppenheimer will first come to England and then go to France, where he
will vanish into Soviet hands. No further details are available.â

MI5 was anxious to assist. One officer noted: âUndoubtedly, if
Oppenheimer came here under the shadow of reliable reports that he was
possibly going to defect to the Russians, we should treat the matter
as of major importance and in that light do what we could to help.â
The warning proved to be a false alarm and no such attempt occurred.

Hill, who became a celebrated historian of the English civil war and
was later elected Master of Balliol College, Oxford, first came to
MI5âs notice when he visited Russia as an undergraduate in 1935. On
his return a year later, MI5 noted that Hill âhas the appearance of
a Communist; but his baggage which was searched by HM Customs, did not
contain any subversive literatureâ.

The files show he was turned down after applying for a post in
military intelligence. He âshould not be employed as a lecturer to
the Forcesâ, MI5 insisted in 1946.

In 1953, MI5 described Hill as a âpopular history don at Balliol â
a Marxist and Communist party memberâ. It added, apparently with
relief: âHe does not, however, engage in Soviet studies. His period
is the seventeenth century.â

One file contains a copy of a letter to Tribune supporting an
anti-nuclear bomb march organised for 27 November 1959. It was signed
by Murdoch, Taylor and Warnock, as well as Hill. MI5 had opened
personal files on all of them.

Three years later, in October 1961, MI5 noted that Hill had become
âa strong supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmamentâ. It
added: âThis fact, however, does not shed any light on his political
sympathies, since very many shades of left wing opinion are opposed to
nuclear weapons.â

Lord Lipsey, who had been asked by Hobsbawm to inquire about the
possibility of MI5 keeping files on him, said on Thursday: âAs a
supporter of increased openness I am at least delighted that these
files have finally been released.â

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