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BOOK REVIEW: A gallery of British turncoats

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

TREASON OF THE HEART: FROM THOMAS PAINE TO KIM PHILBY
By David Pryce-Jones
Encounter Books, $23.95, 258 pages

For American readers, it may seem a stretch from Tom Paine to Kim Philby, from pamphlets and polemics to treason. But seen from Britain, Paine was just another of those figures, apparently produced in some abundance there, who made common cause with enemies of their nation.

Among Mr. Pryce-Jones' great gallery of British turncoats: supporters of the French Revolution; Napoleon; the Ottomans; Garibaldi; romantic Arabists like T.E. Lawrence, who loved to dress up in flowing robes; loony protofascists like Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Winifred Wagner (born British), Lord Haw-Haw (who wasn't) and a whole cast of dim, eccentric and perverted Hitler and Stalin lovers.

Mr. Pryce-Jones quotes Lord Londonberry, a sometime Cabinet minister who, after a meeting with Hitler, described him as "a kindly man with a receding chin and an impressive face." This, Mr. Pryce-Jones writes, "may be the silliest sentence ever uttered about Hitler."

Other silly sentences: Former Prime Minister Lloyd George, after two meetings, called Hitler "the George Washington of Germany," a man who "likes to withdraw from the world for spiritual refreshment - he has no vices, or indulgences and ambitions - one of the creative figures of this generation."

Or this, from the epicene Bloomsbury art critic Clive Bell: "A Nazi Europe would be, to my mind, heaven on earth compared with Europe at war."

While a number of British notables - among them the Duke of Windsor, aka King Edward VIII, whom Joachim von Ribbentrop called "a kind of English national socialist" - looked toward Berlin for heaven on earth; others saw salvation in Moscow.

Among Mr. Pryce-Jones' sketches of Stalinist dupes and cat's paws are historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the "prize boobies" whose massive "Soviet Communism: A New Civilization" ("a monument to gullibility without equal in the language") embarrassingly romanticized Stalinism, and George Bernard Shaw, whose deep dislike of England eclipsed good sense.

Shaw spent nine days in the Soviet Union and met Stalin. "I expected to see a working Russian man and I found a Georgian gentleman." He gave a speech in the hall where the great show trials were to be held, in which he praised Soviet communism as the system "capable of leading mankind out of its crisis"; later that year, "in a broadcast on American radio, he compared Lenin to Jefferson, Stalin to Hamilton, and [commissar for education] Lunacharsky to Paine."

"[Shaw] could prattle unself-consciously about the secret police and 'necessary shooting.' A year later, he was writing, 'Our question is not, to kill or not to kill, but how to select the right people to kill.' "

Shavian silliness aside, there's little evidence that when British communists did try to kill, they were especially effective. Mr. Pryce-Jones quotes from a letter written by Ernest Hemingway to Maxwell Perkins, commenting on the British battalion of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War: "The British volunteers were the absolute scum of the Brigade. After the Jarama fight they deserted by whole companies; they were cowards, malingerers, liars, phonies and fairies ... their officers, when they were brave, were so stupid that their stupidity was absolutely murderous."

More successful at killing was Kim Philby, whose betrayal, along with his fellow Cambridge communists Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, "was to shake the country." With the help of Anthony Blunt, Philby escaped to Moscow, one jump ahead of the posse, "where he lived with a pension from his KGB masters."

"Philby," Mr. Pryce-Jones writes, "evidently was proud that he had sent to their death would-be Soviet defectors as well as secret agents infiltrated by Western intelligence services into Communist countries."

Why? Shaw, despite his selective moral blinkers, may have had a point when he observed that British public schools "are the nurseries of all vice and immorality." Given the case histories of traitors such as Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean, those schools do at least seem to have been the hatcheries of drunks, degenerates and effete spies who perhaps dreamed of Ivan's boots and hoped one day to feel them, as Burgess undoubtedly did.

But of course, it's more than that. Mr. Pryce-Jones puts it this way: "Only the greatest novelists could do justice to the complex bundle of Utopian or millenarian fantasies, the twinned hatred and self-hatred, the narcissism, guilt, sanctimoniousness, hunger for power, fanaticism and nihilism that are on display in Treason of the Heart."

In the meantime, until those great novelists come along, Mr. Pryce-Jones has done the job and done it in strong, clear, evocative prose informed by wit and high intelligence.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley, 2007).

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