Next month a documentary is to be shown in London about a little-known woman who deserves a much bigger place in espionage history. Quite simply she started the process that led to the creation of the ‘Cambridge Spies’ and tried to do the same with former Oxford students too. I’m particularly interested to see ‘Tracking Edith’ at the Barbican Cinema on 28th July because for the past two years I’ve been tracking Edith too, her story is the centrepiece of a guided walk I give each month called ‘The Hampstead Spies’.
Edith Tudor-Hart was her married name, she was born Edith Suschitzky in Austria in 1908. The documentary was made by Peter Stephan Jungk, and the billing says that as he ‘learns more about his aunt and her work, his film demands the question: why is she not recognised alongside Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five as one of the spies that changed the world?’. Good question.
The answer partly lies in the way the British security service drip feeds its files into history. Each autumn MI5 releases to the National Archives a few more of its previously secret files on ‘Soviet intelligence agents and suspected agents..and suspected communist and Russian sympathisers’. Some of the big books in the world of espionage literature were written long before MI5 released in 2015 their file into ‘Edith Tudor-Hart,aliases Suschitsky,White,Betty Grey,codename Edith’.
One by-product of each release is that I put a few more red stars on my map of the old Borough of Hampstead. Each star denotes an address which has appeared in an MI5 file. I developed this addictive hobby during my research for a biography of Guy Burgess which I wrote in 2015 with Jeff Hulbert. Burgess never lived in Hampstead-he was more of a West End chap himself- but it seemed from the MI5 and Foreign Office files that just about everybody else involved in his recruitment to the KGB did. One had lived in a house just across the road from where I’d once had a flat.
In the 1930s many political and religious refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria headed for North-West London, traditionally a home of left-wing emigres since Marx and Engels stayed there and Lenin and Stalin briefly visited. Hampstead had what one resident called ‘shabby genteel Victorian streets’ where, according to official records, ‘the alien population had increased to almost 24,000’ by 1941.The Communist Party members amongst them were often the ‘scruffy lot’, Saturday mornings would be spent selling the Daily Worker on a street corner, Sundays at the Cosmo restaurant in Finchley Road with other refugees from ‘Mitteleuropa’.
The few amongst them who actively recruited for Soviet intelligence have a comparatively modest place in the literature of Soviet espionage in Britain, certainly compared to those they signed up, spies like Kim Philby who lived in Hampstead pre and post recruitment. But more details are becoming known about them, either by an MI5 release or by their families looking back into their own archives.
In 1930s and 1940s Hampstead there were two emigre communities -one German, one Austrian -who saw it as their duty to continue the fight against fascism and to link up with like-minded Britons. Those refugees who decided that helping Soviet intelligence was a necessary and justifiable tactic against fascism chose to work with separate parts of what later became known as the KGB. The German Communists in Hampstead worked mostly with the Soviet military’s foreign intelligence agency, the GRU. Their greatest success was recruiting a key spy within the Anglo-American-Canadian ‘Manhattan’ research into nuclear weapons. The Austrian Communists tended to sign up with Stalin’s enforcers, the NKVD. They helped set up the biggest known network inside the British establishment, the so-called Cambridge spies and also tried to create one at Oxford.
More than half a century on we know more about the origins of this particular NKVD enterprise from research done for his film by Jungk, the son of the cousin of the woman at the heart of it. Using family sources Jungk has traced the starting point back to a bookshop in Vienna in the mid-1920s where the owner’s teenage daughter was helping out. A man walked in and asked for a book by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich whose views on sex were so controversial that this was one of the few shops to stock it. 17 year old shop assistant Edith Suschitzky was interested in the book and therefore in the kind of man who would ask for it. His name was Arnold Deutsch, Jewish like her but four years older, originally from Slovakia, strong in physique and thick in hair.
For both of them Communist politics were a natural fit with sexual liberation. According to the family sources he invited her to a lecture on sexual politics, they walked in the park, swam naked at night in the Alte Donau and Edith’s first love affair was underway. She told him ‘I have chosen you Arnold’ even though she knew he was promised to somebody else.
Edith and Arnold’s relationship was a long-term but stop-start one punctuated by his doctoral thesis, his marriage to a fellow Comintern courier, his subsequent training in Moscow as an agent, and Edith’s own induction into Soviet intelligence. By 1934 they were both agents living in London but married to other people. Arnold’s cover was researching psychology at London University, Edith was a photographer with a studio in the Belsize Park area of Hampstead. By a remarkable coincidence or a piece of excellent NKVD organisation, her entry into Britain from Austria had been eased by her marriage to a British communist Alex Tudor-Hart to become Mrs Edith Tudor-Hart while another Austrian Jewish communist, Litzi Friedman, got entry after meeting and marrying in Vienna a British communist to become Mrs Kim Philby. To complete the symmetry Edith and Litzi knew each other from Vienna and Alex and Kim were both Communist graduates from Cambridge who knew Maurice Dobb. He was the Cambridge don who set Philby on the road to Vienna in 1933 to see for himself the class war in action. The Austrian left were fighting on the streets to try to take power. The right, encouraged by the rise of fascism across Europe, wanted to destroy them.
Back in London after the struggle was lost the Tudor-Harts and the Philbys lived in different parts of the Borough of Hampstead and met socially. It was perhaps inevitable that Edith would soon have, in Philby’s words, ‘a proposition to make which might vitally affect my future’. They set off together from Hampstead so that Edith could introduce him to a man ‘of decisive importance’. When they reached a bench by the boating pond in Regents Park a man who was waiting there stood up to welcome them. Edith said ‘Here we are, on the dot’ and left them to it.
Which is how Kim Philby met Edith’s fellow agent and by now former lover, Arnold Deutsch. The recruiter flattered Philby into Soviet intelligence and did the same to friends Philby introduced from his Cambridge University days such as future Foreign Office diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. How much more exciting, Deutsch promised them, to join this exclusive club rather than be a mere Communist Party member. In fact Deutsch told them that joining the party was the very last thing they should think of doing.
Edith was also interested in somebody ‘more promising’ than Philby. She demanded ‘we must make haste’ with the recruitment of Anthony Blunt, although he later claimed they never actually met. Edith had built her reputation as a photographer documenting working-class life in Britain but by 1940 the studio business was in trouble, she was divorced from Alex, had a severely autistic son Tommy to bring up and, according to the latest family research, received no remuneration for her espionage. She pleaded for help to Jack Pritchard, creator of the nearby Isokon block of flats where the communal living spaces created an intellectual meeting-place in North London. Edith had photographed the opening of the building and it had been her recommendation that led to Arnold Deutsch and his wife moving in. She wrote to Pritchard : ‘I am now in a difficult situation and urgently need a job’. He was not encouraging.
Meanwhile her protege Kim Philby was moving up the ranks of British intelligence and saw updates on MI5’s activities, some of them about his old patch. The Security Service thought he might be interested to see a list of all suspected Austrian communists in London. He certainly would because he could check if his own wife was on it. Amazingly she wasn’t.
When Burgess and Maclean defected to Moscow in 1950 it was the beginning of the end for Edith’s ring. Philby came under suspicion and he too made a run for the Soviet Union. MI5 had always been on Edith’s case, watching her home in the 1930s, getting her to admit in 1947 that ‘she used to work for the Russian Intelligence in Austria and Italy in 1932-3’ but nothing that was a crime in the UK. With the collapse of the ‘Cambridge Five’ (Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross were questioned but never charged) MI5 were back again and it was in 1964 that Blunt told them ‘he had always believed it was Tudor-Hart who first recruited Kim Philby’ and that she was probably ‘the grand-mother of us all’. Edith had a nervous breakdown, tried her luck running an antiques business in Portobello Road and Brighton and died from cancer in 1973.
Details of the documentary ‘Tracking Edith’,including a trailer are here and there’s more about The Hampstead Spies’ guided walk here . If it’s not me doing the walk it will be my colleague and co-author Jeff Hulbert. Hope to see you there sometime.