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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

World War Two Spies and Alexander von Humboldt

World War Two spies and an extraordinary naturalist | Podcast | History Extra

"Germany as a whole under the Nazis made war incredibly incompetently. And an extraordinary almost paradox. Whereas on the Allied side, I've argued in my book that our successes with intelligence went quite a way to compensate for the fact that the British and American armies were frankly not as good as the German army... in the end it's having the hard power that is critical [not intelligence]...

Agent Max had told the Germans that Operation Mars was coming. And enabled them to move reinforcements up there to deal with it. And... the British said, absolutely nobody is gonna deliberately leak information and cost 77,000 lives just for a deception. But Stalin did... Stalin personally authorised the NKVD to leak through Agent Max who was the NKVD's agent... to deflect attention from Operation Uranus down south around Stalingrad. And only in Stalin's ghastly universe could such a stunt have been organised and all those lives lost, purely to sell the deception. So that was an intelligence operation that undoubtedly did make a difference at a critical moment

[He] couldn't drive a car... he suggested to OSA that they should inflict some disability on him to prevent him from being eligible for forced labour by the Germans... They said if they disabled him the government would be liable for paying the disability pension after the war...

It's a basic principle that you can't trust a word about anything to do with intelligence, and certainly not spies' memoirs. That you have to remember the basic nature of espionage. It's all about deception and treachery. And half these people, they lose track of whether they're telling the truth themselves and so you have to approach everybody's accounts and memoirs, and a lot of the reports in the archive with great skepticism because you can reckon that parts of it are true... but which parts?... you never believe a word any spy says. It's just the nature of the beast. Treachery is their business... I throw in the dustbin as soon as I see on the dust jacket of any new book the word definitive. This is the definitive account... Nothing any of us do can be definitive. We're all having a stab at working out what happened. But you have to be suitably modest...

When Hitler invaded Russia in June 41, absolute crisis, panic. He went to Beria, Stalin's spy chief. And he said we're desperately short of intelligence officers because nearly all the best ones have been sent to the gulag. We gotta get some of them out because otherwise, how are we gonna fight this war? And he said Beria never asked him whether they were innocent or guilty. He just said how badly do we need them? And Sudoplatov said very. And he did agree to let out several hundred. But the two aspects is Sudoplatov writes in his memoirs: after I had got the order for their release signed, unfortunately we discovered that some of the best had already been shot. He describes as though it was sort of everyday experience, but also he said again as a reflection of the madness of Soviet life.

He said after the war, he said I was very fortunate. I'd taken good care in 1941. I did not personally sign the release orders for these people. I got Merkulov, his superior, to do it. He said if I'd signed them, he said I'd probably have faced the firing squad as Merkulov did. Because of course in another of these twists, half of them were accused of being enemies of the state. And Sudoplatov spent 10 or 15 years in prison. But at least he kept his head.

And it's such a mad, monstrous world in which, I mean most of Stalin's best agents in Western Europe - when they went back to Russia in 1945, they were promptly sent to the gulag because they were assumed to have become tools of the capitalists. You can hardly believe it. And some of them were shot. It's an absolutely insane world and reading about it, you know we can read about being with the 8th Army in the desert and thinking it might've been fun to be there. Nobody in their right mind who reads about this mad world of espionage could believe it was fun to be there...

[On Alexander von Humboldt] She was, his mother was so emotionally cold and such an overbearing presence, I think, in his life, because she wanted both sons to be Prussian civil servants and was quite controlling over their education and what they had to do. And Humboldt always wanted to travel. He always wanted to go away. He wanted to be an explorer, and there was no way she was going to allow this. And when she dies in 1796, he immediately writes to his friends like basically: yay, my mom is dead. And then, because he inherits a lot of money, he brags something like: I am so rich, I can gild my nose and my mouth and my ears...

He is a polymath, so when he dies, which is the moment when scientists specialise, these expert scientists look down on someone who knows everything because it's almost like an amateur. So it becomes seen as
something negative"
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