That the British Security Service didn’t immediately identify Fuchs as a danger was partly the result of an experience that a member of MI5 had had just one year earlier. This was Captain Guy Liddell, at the time a junior officer but destined to rise later to become Deputy Director General of the organization.
G A 2nd cousin of Alice Liddell was Guy Liddell, Alice was looking up to him in Wonderland. A pudgy man with a high forehead, a round face, and a square moustache on his upper lip, he had the appearance of a bank manager. He was a first-rate cellist and had a calm and kindly manner that endeared him to his staff. His family life was a disaster, however, for he was unhappily married to the Hon. Calypso Baring, the daughter of an Irish peer. According to colleagues, Liddell endured life with her ‘through a haze of cigarette smoke’ and ‘would surely have strangled Calypso’ had he been a ‘less patient man’. In 1943 she would desert him for her American half-brother, taking their four children to California. From then on Liddell would effectively be married to the defence of the realm.
The saga of Klaus Fuchs would be a recurring professional nightmare in Liddell’s life of private pain. Liddell’s obsession with communists and, inadvertently, his perceptions of Klaus Fuchs, began quite innocently in 1933. The Nazi government, which had persuaded itself that Germany was under siege by a conspiracy of communists, Jews and leftist pacifists, had called upon MI5 to cooperate. At the end of March, Liddell began a ten-day visit to Berlin. He was hosted by Hitler’s foreign-press bureau chief, the charismatic Ernst Hanfstaengel, met the head of the Prussian Secret Police, Rudolf Diels, and upon return to London, wrote a report that the Authorized History of MI5 describes as ‘the lowest point in a distinguished career’. In it he wrongly assessed Nazi brutality to be a passing phase and the Comintern to be a greater threat. Years later, when the Cold War was at its height, and following further misjudgements by Liddell, some conspiracy theorists would claim that he himself was a communist mole at the heart of British security. This was completely untrue.
In one respect that fateful visit to Berlin in 1933, when Diehls informed him of their intention to ‘exterminate communism’, had a lasting impact on Liddell’s thinking. Many thousands had already been arrested, and disposing of them was becoming a serious problem. ‘Perhaps,’ the police chief said, ‘the British Government could set aside an island somewhere which could be jointly used as a penal settlement.’ At first Liddell thought he was joking, but he later discovered that the suggestion had been made ‘in all seriousness’.
Liddell reported back to London: ‘The Germans have dealt the third international a serious blow by liquidating its European centre. In addition the German communist party has been completely broken up. Some of the arrested leaders … will be interned indefinitely.’ Although Liddell seems to have been impressed with the result, he was horrified by the methods. ‘A good deal of “third degree” work is going on,’ he wrote, adding: ‘Communists and even Social Democrats have been submitted to every kind of outrage’ – a statement with which Klaus Fuchs would certainly have agreed.
For Liddell and MI5, realpolitik seems at that point to have won over morality. Liddell noted that the German police, who believed they had ‘saved Europe from the menace of communism’, were ‘proud of what they have done and are anxious to convince the world that their action was fully justified’. Liddell recommended that personal contact be maintained with specific officers, who seemed more sensible, for a day ‘when the present rather hysterical atmosphere of sentiment and brutality dies down’.
Liddell had seen enough to form his own opinions of the amateur methods of the German secret police, which had raided houses, ‘thrown documents in lorries, and then dumped them in disorder in some large room’. Nothing had been packed or labelled. There was no means to connect any claim with a reliable source, nor was any of their ‘evidence’ worth more than passing attention.
The Nazi agenda during Liddell’s visit was to get MI5 on board for an anti-communist purge. Unwittingly, however, they created an impression that any information about ‘communists’ that originated with the Gestapo was almost certainly worthless. Indeed, Liddell was so unimpressed by their record-keeping and corruption of evidence that later, when there was a message from the German Embassy in London with genuine information about a communist – Fuchs – his chief, Sir Vernon Kell, ignored it.
On 8 November 1934 Kell responded to the chief constable’s alert about Fuchs, noting simply that the Aliens Branch had been informed and that the Home Office file revealed nothing untoward about him. In sum: MI5 was sceptical about the information, which had originated with the Gestapo, and on 21 November the Fuchs file was closed. MI5’s interest in Fuchs reawakened temporarily in January 1938 when he required a new travel certificate. The Home Office phoned MI5, who replied that they had no evidence that Fuchs was a communist except for the Gestapo’s assertion, which they continued to discount. These were the first in a litany of oversights.