I live in Paris, and every morning on my way to work, I cycle past the Bataclan—the music hall where 90 people were murdered during the November 2015 jihadi attacks. Around the time of those attacks, I started writing my biography of George Blake, the British Dutchman who became a KGB double agent. In many ways, he was a forerunner of European jihadis. Though the parallels are inexact, they are illuminating.
Blake was born in Rotterdam in 1922. His mother was a Dutch Protestant; his Jewish father from what was then Constantinople had acquired British citizenship by fighting in the British Army in World War I. Blake grew up as a fundamentalist Calvinist, who dreamed of becoming a pastor.
The German invasion changed that. As a teenaged courier in the Dutch resistance, he found a new vocation in the undercover life. In 1942, he escaped the Netherlands through occupied France and Belgium, into Spain, and on to Britain, where he joined the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).
In 1945, the SIS sent him to the newly liberated Netherlands and then to occupied Germany. There, his disillusion with his own side began to set in. In Germany, he was tasked with recruiting former naval and Wehrmacht officers to work as agents in the country’s Soviet zone. This made him uneasy: Many of these men had been Nazis, and he was deploying them against Britain’s wartime ally, the Soviet Union.
He also felt uneasy about the wine, women, and song of post-liberation party life. Returning from Germany to Britain in 1947, he felt he was no longer worthy of a religious career. Luckily, the SIS offered him a permanent job pursuing his other vocation.
In 1948, the service sent him to Seoul, where dissatisfaction with his own side crystallized. He grew to despise Britain’s corrupt and borderline fascist ally South Korea. He would forever recall that the Oxford-educated minister of education had “a big photograph of Hitler in his room.” Blake began to equate the regime’s opponents—whom the regime indiscriminately labeled communists—with the Dutch resistance.
The SIS had long anticipated the Korean War. It told Blake that Britain would stay neutral in any conflict, which meant he could stay in place as an observer. But days after the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950 came a shocking BBC broadcast: Britain would not stand aside after all. It had entered the war on South Korea’s side. Blake was shocked, he told the East German Stasi, the state’s secret police, in a 1980 speech.
“Today, no Englishman thinks of his country as a great empire … but we then still thought we were an independent great power, and the evidence that England no longer acted in its own interests—because England didn’t have any interests in Korea whatsoever—but only acted to please the Americans, that was a big shock for me. And another step in my future development [toward Communism].”
This ambitious man discovered he was serving a second-rate power that landed him in horrible captivity. British consul Vyvyan Holt, Blake, and his assistant, Norman Owen, became the first foreign office employees ever to be imprisoned by communists. The North Koreans added them to a group of about 70 civilian detainees and marched them north with about 750 U.S. prisoners of war (POWs). Around half of all the prisoners died that winter, mostly of starvation, illness, or at the hands of brutal guards on a death march.
This ambitious man discovered he was serving a second-rate power that landed him in horrible captivity.
The horrors he witnessed there stayed with him forever, as he told a Guardian journalist: “Ten thousand were dying on my right and ten thousand were dying on my left. It was a period of violent conflict, and I was in the middle of it. I saw the Korean War with my own eyes: young American POWs dying and enormous American flying fortresses bombing small defenseless villages.”
Many Europeans at the time were turning against a supposedly materialist and imperialist United States. Blake seems to have made that turn in South Korea.
He was inevitably reminded of the Luftwaffe’s destruction of his hometown, Rotterdam, a decade earlier. Compare this with the young European Muslim in the early 2000s watching video clips of Western soldiers or Western-supported Israelis killing Muslims in Iraq or Gaza. Such a person might also come to regard his own society as an immoral aggressor.
In February 1951, the horrors finally subsided. Blake was one of a group of 10 British and French prisoners, most of them diplomats and journalists, who were taken to a quiet farmhouse near Manpho, North Korea.
The prisoners’ main problem became tedium. Then, in the spring of 1951, a package of books arrived from the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang. There was only one book in English: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The prisoners drew lots for the privilege of having first go at it, and quickly read it to pieces. But there were also three books in Russian: Vladimir Lenin’s The State and Revolution and two volumes of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
The only Russian speakers in the group were Blake and Holt. The consul had lost his glasses earlier in the war while scrambling to hide from machine gun fire from U.S. planes. “Then he couldn’t read any more himself,” Blake said. “And I read to him. We sat on a burial mound, and we read and discussed the books. I think he’d been political commissioner in Iraq for the English foreign office. He had been a civil servant of the English Indian government, and he was completely a servant of the English colonial system. But he was a very sensible man, and he saw that it couldn’t go on and that something would replace it, and he thought that thing would be communism. He wouldn’t want to live in a communist country, but that was his prediction. And since he was someone for whom I had a lot of respect—he was my boss, shall I say, and we had very good, friendly relations—what he thought had a lot of authority for me.”
There’s an obvious parallel here with today’s young jihadi stumbling across the Quran online.
Blake’s readings with Holt made a deep impression on a bright young man whose education had been truncated by war. Blake and Holt discussed Marx and Lenin with their fellow prisoners.
After reading Marx, Blake reflected later: “I thought I was fighting on the wrong side. … The main aim, if not the only aim, of the English secret service was to destroy communism. … I came to the conclusion that if I had to die—and the possibility of dying in Korea was large—I wanted to die for a cause I could believe in.”
One autumn evening in 1951, he secretly handed the North Korean camp commander, known as Fatso, a note in Russian, addressed to the Soviet Embassy. He had gone over to the other side. KGB officer Nikolai Loenko arrived at Manpho, and after long, discreet interrogations, he decided Blake could be trusted.
In the story of Blake’s radicalization (as we would now call it), Loenko may have applied the final push. However, a long sequence of influences had already disillusioned Blake with his own society: the Wall Street crash of 1929, which had hit his father’s business; the communist arguments he heard from his cousin Henri Curiel in Cairo; an unintentionally persuasive SIS handbook he read on communism; the poverty he saw in Egypt and the Koreas; his hatred of the South Korean regime; and those U.S. bombers obliterating Korean villages.
Blake, in that North Korean farmhouse, was a moralistic 28-year-old with an abstract cast of mind who needed a new cause. All his old moorings had gone. He was a failed SIS officer, an ex-Dutchman, and an ex-Calvinist. He was making up his identity as he went along. Like many jihadis today, he hoped to redeem his years of hedonism by devoting his life to an ideal.
The story of the communist paradise appealed to him just as the fantasy of the caliphate does to Islamic State recruits. Although he no longer believed Jesus Christ was the son of God, he still had an emotional need for paradise; capitalist democracy wasn’t enough for him.
The story of the communist paradise appealed to him just as the fantasy of the caliphate does to Islamic State recruits.
Sitting beside 89-year-old Blake on the sofa in his dacha in 2012, I put it to him: “You swapped your religion for communism.”
I expected him to demur, but he said, “Yes, that’s very clear. Religion promises people, let’s say, communism after their death. Because in heaven, we are all equal, and we live in wonderful circumstances. And communism promises people a wonderful life here on Earth—and nothing came of that either.”
Was his communism a faith just as his religion was? “Yes, I think so,” he replied.
I asked whether his lack of British patriotism had made it easier for him to betray Britain. “I think so, yes,” he replied. Like many European jihadis today, loyalty to his notionally home society was limited. He had, after all, grown up not in Britain but in the Netherlands as a Dutch patriot.
After Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, relations between the Soviet bloc and the West thawed fast, and prisoners in Manpho were released. On April 22, the Britons in Blake’s group landed in Abingdon, England on a Royal Air Force plane. The crowd at the airfield sang the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.” In Blake’s ears, the words “had an extraordinary irony. For many people, my return would not be a reason to give thanks. I knew: I was no longer the person they were expecting.”
He returned to the SIS but now as a KGB double agent. From 1953 until his unmasking in 1961, he handed the Soviets thousands of pages of secret material. He gave away the “Berlin spy tunnel” the British and Americans had built across the city to tap into Soviet conversations in East Berlin. The information Western allies obtained from the tunnel appears to have been genuine. However, almost all of it was banal: obscenity-filled conversations about sex or about the incompetence of the Soviet Union’s own officers.
Every time a British official was exposed as a Soviet spy, Britons’ trust in their own society crumbled a little bit more.
Most culpable of all, Blake gave the KGB the names of hundreds of agents working for British intelligence. The SIS later calculated that at least 40 of these people had been executed. Blake was a well-meaning idealist who became a de facto serial killer.
The damage he did to his individual victims is terrible. The damage to the United Kingdom’s national interests is less clear. The KGB actually allowed the Berlin spy tunnel to function for nearly a year because it feared blowing the tunnel might alert the British and Americans to its prized Agent Diomid.
The worst harm Blake did to Britain probably lay not in the secrets he handed over but in the very fact of his unmasking. Every time a British official was exposed as a Soviet spy—a regular, almost ritualized event in the years 1946 to 1963—Britons’ trust in their own society crumbled a little bit more. People in the security services began to look at one another and wonder.
After Blake and Kim Philby were exposed, the SIS created a directorate of counterintelligence and security to sniff out traitors, as reflected in John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The service’s anxiety eventually spiraled into paranoid mole-hunting by Peter Wright, known as “spycatcher,” which almost tore the intelligence services apart in the 1960s and 1970s. Wright got it into his head that Roger Hollis, head of MI5, was a Soviet agent.
And the paranoia stretched into politics. The popular story that security services suspected former U.K. Prime Minister Harold Wilson of being a Soviet agent probably isn’t true, but rising Labour Party member Bernard Floud did commit suicide in 1967, months after being grilled by Wright on his supposed Soviet ties. Blake helped create paranoid dysfunction inside the British state—not by all his hours of diligently photographing documents but by the unintentional act of getting caught.
In our century, when Muslims raised in the West “defect” to the Islamic State or when well-off Saudis educated in Germany fly planes into the World Trade Center, the effect is similar. Paranoia spreads: Suddenly, all Muslims in Western countries are distrusted. There is also a sense of national, even civilizational, rot. This prompts the question: Why does our society produce people who hate it?
Western societies no longer generate ideals of paradise that seem worth dying for. In politics, there is nativist nostalgia for a lost past and a center-left promise to make society fairer, but there are no revolutionary idylls on offer anymore.
On the one hand, that’s a strength: Idealists willing to die for their cause are dangerous people. But it’s also a weakness: Westerners like Blake who need ideals to die for will go and find them somewhere else.
This article is adapted from Spies, Lies, and Exile: The Extraordinary Story of Russian Double Agent George Blake, Simon Kuper, The New Press, 288 pp., $27.99, May 2021.