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MI5 and the Hobsbawm File

The British security service, MI5, its war on communism, and its file on Eric Hobsbawm, 'one of the pre-eminent British historians of the 20th century.'

Eric Hobsbawm at his desk in 1976,
On 25 January 1933, the 16-year-old Eric Hobsbawm marched with thousands of comrades through central Berlin to the headquarters of the German Communist Party (KPD). When they arrived at Karl Liebknecht Haus, on the Bülowplatz, the temperature was –18°C. They shuffled and waited in the bone-numbing cold for four hours to hear the podium speeches of the party cadres. As Hobsbawm would recall much later, there was singing – ‘The Internationale’, peasant war songs, the ‘Soviet Airmen’s Song’ – with intervals of heavy silence. The red flags and banners could not dispel the greyness – of the shadowy buildings, the sky, the crowd – or the realisation that ‘the inevitability of world revolution’ had been postponed, that what faced the beleaguered movement in the short term was a reckoning: ‘danger, capture, resistance to interrogation, defiance in defeat’.​[Unless otherwise stated, all Hobsbawm quotations are from his autobiography, Interesting Times: A 20th-Century Life (2002).] Not the New Jerusalem, then, but a new circle of hell.
Five days later, on 30 January, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. On 24 February, the police, augmented by the newly enrolled ‘auxiliary police’ of stormtroopers grouped under such edifying names as the Robbers and the Pimp’s Brigade, raided Karl Liebknecht Haus. In anticipation of this, the KPD had been exfiltrating its records to private addresses. Its top officials were working out of anonymous premises scattered round the city, and secret post offices had been installed in a piano store and a coal business. But Hermann Göring, minister of the interior, was on to them – ‘My mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more!’ – and few escaped the truckloads of SA and SS who roared through the streets and snatched them, one by one, from their hideouts. They were taken to improvised prisons, beaten up, tortured and killed.
The KPD chairman, Ernst Thälmann, was arrested on 3 March, and later managed to smuggle out details of his treatment:
"They ordered me to take off my pants and then two men grabbed me by the back of the neck and placed me across a footstool. A uniformed [political police] officer with a whip of hippopotamus hide in his hand then beat my buttocks with measured strokes. Driven wild with pain I repeatedly screamed at the top of my voice. Then they held my mouth shut for a while and hit me in the face, and with a whip across chest and back. I then collapsed."​  [Thälmann was held in solitary confinement for 11 years, before being shot in Buchenwald on Hitler’s orders in August 1944.]
‘Arrests upon arrests,’ Joseph Goebbels noted with satisfaction. ‘Now the Red pest is being thoroughly rooted out.’ By April, 25,000 communists were in ‘protective custody’. Dachau, the first official concentration camp, was set up to hold them.
Hobsbawm, whose parents had died within two years of each other, was living with his aunt in the Halensee district. He was not a member of the KPD, but of its dependency the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (Socialist Students Federation), specifically designed for secondary-school students. What now remained of its small, west Berlin cell contrived to hide its duplicating apparatus in the Halensee flat. ‘The comrades concluded that, since I was a British subject, I would be less at risk; or perhaps that the police would be less likely to raid our flat,’ Hobsbawm later wrote. He kept the rudimentary printing press under his bed for several weeks until someone came to take it away, presumably to put it to work for the printing of election leaflets.
Incredibly, given the efficiency of Göring’s ‘iron fist’ in smashing up the KPD, there was still rump enough to organise a campaign for the general election of 5 March (on his first day in office, Hitler had manipulated Hindenberg into dissolving the Reichstag). Participation in this campaign was little short of suicidal, but Hobsbawm embarked on this, his ‘first piece of genuinely political work’, protected by the fantasy that it was like ‘playing in the Wild West’: ‘We would go into the apartment buildings and, starting on the top floor, push the leaflets into each flat until we came out of the front door, panting with the effort and looking for signs of danger.’ In his diary, he confessed to ‘a light, dry feeling of contraction, as when you stand before a man ready to punch you, waiting for the blow.’ The KPD polled 13 per cent of the vote, and was promptly proscribed by Hitler’s ascendant party. Less than a month after this, in early April, an uncle arrived in Berlin to remove Hobsbawm to the safety of London, where his paternal grandfather had settled in the 1870s.
The week Hobsbawm left Berlin, Guy Liddell, MI5’s German-speaking deputy head of counter-espionage, arrived from London. The fearful symmetry in this – history throwing us a stray bone of coincidence – will become clear. Liddell left London on 30 March, and stayed for ten days. He had been invited to meet officials of the German Political Police, Abteilung 1A, which had installed itself in the KPD headquarters, now conveniently vacant. Liddell was assisted by Frank Foley, MI6’s Berlin station chief, whose diplomatic cover was passport control officer. On 31 March, the two men entered Karl Liebknecht Haus, now renamed Horst Wessel Haus and sporting a huge swastika where only weeks earlier Lenin had stared out from a hoarding.
Liddell and Foley were introduced to Rudolf Diels, head of Abteilung 1A, who explained urbanely that it was his intention to exterminate communism in its widest sense. By this he meant not only the Communist Party and its subordinate bodies but also left-wing pacifist organisations. It was immediately clear to Liddell that there was ‘certainly a good deal of “third degree” work going on’ and that ‘Jews, communists and even social democrats’ were being ‘submitted to every kind of outrage’. Swallowing his distaste (he witnessed a man being dragged into the building while ‘protesting loudly that he had never had anything to do with politics’), Liddell settled down with Foley, in a room placed at their disposal, to examine the files of Abteilung 1A, while their hosts refined their enhanced interrogation techniques on detainees held elsewhere in the building.
Of particular interest to Liddell were documents belonging to the KPD and the front organisations of the Comintern, looted by SA men ‘who just threw [them] into lorries and then dumped them in disorder in some large rooms’. ‘If placed virtually at our disposal,’ Liddell noted, ‘[these records] will be of great assistance in establishing how the Comintern’s work in Western Europe and the Colonies is being organised.’ Diels ordered that Liddell and Foley ‘be given every possible facility’, including the opportunity to copy documents; the copies would then be forwarded to MI5 in London by Foley.
Liddell left Berlin on 9 April (after a congenial dinner with Ribbentrop the previous evening), satisfied that a crucial liaison had been established. In their present mood, the German authorities ‘were extremely ready to help us in any way they can’ – after all, were they not tied to the British by the same enterprise of saving Europe from the menace of Bolshevism? Any normal restrictions on the ‘free interchange of information’ (what is now called ‘intelligence sharing’) had been pushed aside, and Liddell was confident that if ‘constant personal contact [were] maintained’, the relationship would persist after the current ‘rather hysterical atmosphere of sentiment and brutality dies down’. On 26 April Abteilung 1A was reformed as the Gestapo, with Diels as its first chief.
The British Security Service, better known as MI5, released its file on Eric Hobsbawm last autumn. Hobsbawm, who had long desired to see it, had died two years earlier, at the age of 95. In his memoir, Interesting Times, he warned against autobiographical ‘post-mortem inquests in which the corpse pretends to be the coroner’, but whatever self-justifications he might have entered as evidence, the reading of his file is hampered by his absence. It is an unwritten rule of MI5 that Personal Files (PFs) are only released after their subjects have died. Another unwritten rule, among so many, is that it only releases such material after fifty years, which explains why the Hobsbawm file deposited at the National Archives in Kew ends in the mid-1960s. The rest is withheld, and researchers who ask for more will fare no better in their feeble supplications to the state than Hobsbawm, one of the pre-eminent British historians of the 20th century.
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