Unrepentant 'traitor' remains unforgiven

The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake
Roger Hermiston
Aurum, 2013
362 pages, $39.99 (hb)

George Blake was smart, resourceful and committed.

A teenage courier with the Dutch anti-Nazi resistance during the war and a British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) spy after it, Blake then picked the wrong cause, says Roger Hermiston in The Greatest Traitor, converting to Marxism and becoming a Soviet mole in the SIS.

The British Establishment’s vengeance would be severe ― a 42-year prison term ― only for the ever-ingenious Blake to escape over the walls of Wormwood Scrubs via a rope-ladder made from knitting needles. Blake found refuge in Moscow, where ― on an intelligence service pension ― he still resides, unrepentant.

Blake first turned leftwards when he headed the SIS station in post-war South Korea. He mingled with distasteful Korean businessmen lining their pockets from US aid while the rest of the population festered in poverty, ruled over by a corrupt regime that survived thanks only to brutal US military tactics.

Communism, Blake decided, compared more than favourably with the capitalist class system, despite his three-year privations as a prisoner of North Korean and Chinese soldiers during the peninsular war.

In 1951, the ideologically-converted Blake began passing on copies of secret SIS documents to the KGB.

After nine years of dead-letter drops and clandestine meetings with his KGB “handlers”, Blake fell under suspicion. But he confessed only after being goaded by his SIS interrogators’ suggestion that he had spied for financial gain or under duress of torture in North Korea.

On the contrary, an indignant Blake maintained, he had acted from political conviction.

Conviction was also not lacking on behalf of the British political and judicial establishment, which sought to make an example of Blake with an unprecedented sentence.

Blake’s response was to become an escapee in 1966. He was aided by willing helpers, including two peace campaigners who had done time with Blake for non-violent civil disobedience. They helped Blake out of humanitarian affront at his virtual life term, rather than from any sympathies for Stalinist dictatorships.

Like most who took up spying for Moscow, Blake did so from high-minded socialist idealism. He equated this with protecting the Soviet Union from Western imperialism ― a not unworthy aim given that imperialist threats against the Stalinist state were part of the West's agenda to seize eastern European and post-colonial societies for Western capital.

Alas, Hermiston has a different take on Blake, to whom the words “traitor” and “treachery” are freely applied at all opportunities.

Hermiston can not conceive of anyone who believes they “have no country”, as both Blake and Karl Marx declared, and who act out of internationalism ― however much hindsight shows this to have been distorted by Stalinist travesties of socialism.

In Blake versus capitalist Establishment, the red mole still comes out on top.

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