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Kim Philby, a traitor and a gentleman - James Hanning

Blog | By James Hanning | Nov 30, 2022

Philby at the 1955 London press conference where he denied he was the third man. Alan Whicker smokes, centre.

Kim Philby was sweet, kind – and a drunk, cold-hearted liar. And he is now being portrayed by Guy Pearce in a new ITV series, starting on December 8, A Spy Among Friends, based on Ben Macintyre's book. By James Hanning

Kim Philby (1912-1988) was born 110 years ago as of New Year’s Day 2022.

His early years were influenced by a remote, domineering and often absent explorer father – the cause of his stutter, he claimed. Affronted by the injustices of the 1930s, he became fired with indignation at the treatment of the downtrodden – and what he assumed was the British government’s willingness to collude with the even more oppressive forces of fascism.

So far, so understandable. Lots of people joined the Labour Party or the Communist Party. Between 1933 and 1938, membership of the Cambridge University Socialist Society increased fivefold. But Philby was in a hurry. He had visited Germany with his lifelong friend Tim Milne and saw the dawn of the Third Reich with his own eyes.

He had seen the brutality of Chancellor Dollfuss’s Vienna and had helped those on death lists escape. He had also been introduced to Otto Deutsch, the Russian spy who recruited Philby. Deutsch was to be the role model the sensitive, impressionable Philby might have hoped his brilliant, conceited father would be.

Deutsch, said Philby, was a ‘simply marvellous man’ with a love of and interest in people. That interest was ‘sincere, unfeigned’.

Philby said of Deutsch, ‘The first thing you noticed about him were his eyes. He looked at you as if nothing more important in life and more interesting than you and talking to you existed at that moment.’ He was ‘a kindly alien’, and had a marvellous education, humanity and a fidelity to building a new society with new human relations.

This warm, human figure – so far from the wintry apparatchik one might imagine – was the one who gave direction and meaning to the amiable Philby’s exceptional analytic gifts. It was Deutsch who persuaded the well-connected Philby (Westminster and Cambridge) that he could be more effective operating in secret. As Deutsch put it, ‘An avowed Communist can never get near the real truth, but somebody moving as real bourgeois among bourgeois could.’

But why did Philby do it? Because he could. He possessed an extraordinary gift for mendacity. Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky went further, and said he had ‘a compulsion to deceive those around him’.

And, to Philby, those lies were for the most part told in a noble cause – the fight against fascism and the building of an optimistic political world where human goodness could prosper in defiance of baser instincts. That the midwife of this sunny new world was Joseph Stalin makes that hope seem all the more futile.

And, as Philby’s opponents are quick to point out, this is not mere hindsight.

There was mounting evidence, as the 1930s progressed, of Stalin’s show trials and the murdering of his own people. Yet, apart from a wobble over the Hitler-Stalin pact, Philby’s faith never wavered.

Philby had little need for approbation of his cause. The 1930s had crystallised his mind – only patience was needed after the war. Some (Gide, Koestler and Spender) saw Communist failures as, at best, the naïve bunglings of a god that failed. Philby saw Communism as a continuing work in progress.

He told his American wife, frustrated by the obstructiveness of Soviet bureaucracy, ‘One has got to remember that Communism first succeeded in Russia, and must for some time bear a specifically Russian imprint, including the centuries-old tradition of secrecy in government. Even a major revolution cannot wipe out that tradition in a generation.’

Where most of us tend to dip in and out, for Philby politics trumped everything, to the surprise of almost everybody. To the British cast of mind, any belief in ideology is to be viewed with suspicion. To a lot of public-school chaps, theory itself is a bit of a rum concept.

When it emerged that he had signed up with alien, ‘science-based’ Communism, and for decades lied through his teeth about it, no wonder his friends were enraged and confounded.

Kim was likeable. He came across as sweet-natured and gentle. He had empathy and emotional intelligence. He would make a point of doing the right thing. Tim Milne said he was ‘never one to shirk an unpleasant duty’. In Moscow, late in life, he would show excruciating levels of courtesy to those laden with shopping as they got off the underground. You knew where you stood with Kim, and he was generally holding the door open for you.

Except, of course, you didn’t – and his treachery was not merely that of an innocuous, parlour-game wrong’un or golf-club bounder. People died – some of them British – when, for example, they dropped into Albania at night in the hope of unseating the Communist Enver Hoxha, to be met with a hail of gunfire. In the words of novelist (and former fellow spook) John le Carré, ‘The scale of Philby’s betrayal is barely calculable to anyone who has not been in the business. In Eastern Europe alone, dozens and perhaps hundreds of British agents were imprisoned, tortured and shot.’

As Moscow built a buffer of nations around itself, he tricked anti-Communist activists, sending them back across their own borders, ostensibly encouraging their subversion but condemning them to death. He justified the deaths, saying he was fighting a war. He just hadn’t told those who loved and admired him.

Deutsch had been right. Philby could indeed achieve that much more under cover. To those who thought he was their friend, that deception was unforgivable.

Most of us could barely imagine such strength of conviction, let alone such cold-bloodedness. How did he live with himself? Drink, mainly, like his co-conspirators Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean, who drank more and more as they tried to reconcile a career crammed with incompatible lies.

Philby attempted suicide at least twice. He must surely have been tempted by British offers to come clean, but he remained an ideologue. He loved the idea of serving Russia and Communism, and wanted to carry on, fleeing to Russia only in 1963 when all other options were exhausted.

But, like Kipling’s Kim, after whom Philby was named, there was another attraction. Kipling said of Kim, ‘What he loved was the game for its own sake – the stealthy prowl through the dark gullies.’

My concern when I started writing my book was whether people are still interested. Hasn’t Philby been done to death? Seemingly not. The fact that, nearly 60 years on, a screen version is being made of his friendship with Nicholas Elliott, starring Dominic West and Damian Lewis, suggests the appetite is still there.

Yet there is so much more, and it is an extraordinary human story. It turns out much has been overlooked – about his romantic life, the seven years of happiness he enjoyed in the Lebanon after he was cleared by Harold Macmillan in the mid-1950s, and the strength of his friendship with Sir Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and fellow Soviet mole.

What’s more, there are even more holes in the official version than I thought.