Agents of Betrayal - Graham Greene

In his introduction to Kim Philby’s My Silent War, published in 1968, Graham Greene laid out the case for betrayal as an understandably human problem that needed, in the end, to be forgiven. Philby, the aristocrat- ic son of the orientalist and Islamic convert H. St. John Philby, served as a high-ranking British intelligence officer and Soviet double agent until his defection to the Soviet Union in 1963. “The end, of course, in his eyes,” Greene wrote of the luckless traitor (who died in Moscow in 1988),
is held to justify the means, but this is a view taken, perhaps less openly, by most men involved in politics, if we are to judge them by their actions, whether the poli- tician be a Disraeli or a Wilson. ‘He betrayed his country’—yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?
It’s a well-known passage that has been used many times to cast a baleful eye on Greene’s own love affair with communism. Philby, he goes on to observe, possessed the same “chilling certainty” as the Catholics who worked for the Spanish under Elizabeth I. It was the “logical fanaticism of a man who, having once found a faith, is not going to lose it because of the injustices or cruelties inflicted by erring human instruments.” Communism or Catholicism: faiths not easily discarded for simple reasons of decency. It was, one might conjecture, faith itself that made Philby attractive to Greene over and beyond the allure of a considerable personal charm.

The two first met and became friends while employed as operatives in MI6. Recruited into the agency in 1941 by his own sister and posted to Sierra Leone, Greene remained involved in espionage for years thereafter, though the details are somewhat murky. In a memoir, Ways of Escape, he recalled spending much of his time in Freetown hunting demijohns of Portuguese wine and bottles of Canadian Club, passing his wretched nights marking points on the walls for each roach he and his lone colleague obliterated, and, of course, writing a novel. His attempts to run agents into nearby Vichy colonies were a failure. The boredom and absurdity of this life would come back to haunt his fiction, but West Africa was where Greene first fell in love with a place—as he put it, paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling, where he lost his “virginity” to a loved place.

When Greene was assigned to work on German Abwehr activities in Portugal two years later, Philby became his supervisor. He was eight years younger than Greene; they were part of the same interwar generation. Betrayal and class self-hatred were in the air, and the hysterias and terrors of the 1930s could be seen as a natural incubator of youthful error.

Greene’s yearning for rebellion began early. In another memoir, A Sort of Life, he recounts how at Oxford in 1924 he volunteered to spy for nationalist German underground factions in the occupied Ruhr. He saw them as a sort of disenfranchised underdog under the heel of French occupation. “Now I look back,” he reflected, “there seems something a little bizarre about my Oxford days. They certainly do not recall those of [Cardinal] Newman or the early pages of Brideshead Revisited; perhaps they were closer to [Donald] Maclean’s and Kim Philby’s at Cambridge.”

Greene had read a book of stories by a writer named Geoffrey Moss called Defeat that described the attempts of German patriots to establish “a Palatine Republic between the Moselle and the Rhine.” Inspired by the injustices inflicted upon the recently defeated Germans, Greene sent a letter to the German embassy in Carlton Gardens and proposed himself as a spy and propagandist for the German cause. Returning to his rooms at Balliol College, Greene found his armchair occupied by a “fat blond stranger” who announced himself as Count von Bernstorff, first secretary to the German embassy. They had agreed, to Greene’s considerable surprise, to take him on as an amateur freelance agent.

Greene suffered from a lifelong craving for adrenaline rushes, as demonstrated by his account in A Sort of Life of playing solitary Russian roulette in lonely woods with a loaded pistol when he was a teenager. It was, he later admitted, a result of the boredom that often overpowered him. Boredom was his worst fear, and the antidote to boredom, apart from faith and writing, was intrigue, melodrama, and sex. These are probably everyone’s antidote to boredom, but intrigue in Greene’s case led directly to randomly loaded pistols and escapades as a spy.

What followed was like something out of one of his own later “entertainments,” as he called his more commercial novels. “My days after that,” he remembered,
seemed to be filled by Germans—there was a very pretty Countess von Bernstorff, the diplomat’s cousin, who left a scented glove behind in my room to be added to my adolescent harem of inanimate objects; a young man with a long, complicated title, who claimed a nobler and longer descent than the Hohenzollerns; and a mysterious, wizened, narrow figure with a scarred face, Captain P., whose full name I have now forgotten. Captain P. would turn up at irregular intervals, like someone who looks in at a kitchen door to see if the kettle is boiling. Now that I have worked in the Secret Service myself, I feel I should have smelled him out immediately as an intelligence officer.
Off went the young Greene to the Ruhr with twenty-five pounds from the German embassy, accompanied by an equally youthful Claud Cockburn. The trip was an enjoyable freebie, and an espionage farce. They knew perfectly well that they were going to be useless to their erstwhile employers. In Bonn they followed Senegalese troops around, hoping to witness outrageous criminality against the Germans, but were disappointed. In Heidelberg they were introduced to a shady character called Dr. Eberlein, “in plus fours,” who ran a kidnapping business that snatched up German collaborators with the French who were then whisked back into Germany to be tried as traitors. “There was a delightful sensation of being hated by everyone,” he wrote to his mother, later adding, in A Sort of Life (with nodding reference to the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps), “We flirted with fear and began to plan a thriller together rather in Buchan’s manner.”

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