Claud Cockburn, the only son of Henry Cockburn, was born at the British embassy in Peking (Beijing) on 12th April 1904. His father was Chinese secretary in the diplomatic service and later consul-general in Korea. Claud was the great-grandson of Henry Cockburn, the famous Scottish lawyer.
In 1908 he was sent to Scotland with his Chinese nanny to be cared for by his grandmother. His father retired from the diplomatic service in 1909 and eventually settled near Tring, Hertfordshire. Cockburn was sent to Berkhamsted School where Charles Greene was headmaster. He became a close friend of the headmaster's son Graham Greene. According to Richard Ingrams, the boys "shared a liking for mischief-making and adventure stories, especially the yarns of John Buchan, in which brilliant but corrupted villains seek to overthrow the established order from within."
Cockburn went to Keble College where he associated with Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton. He also did some teaching in his vacation. According to one of his students, Hugh Carleton Greene, he was the most brilliant teacher he ever encountered. Cockburn also edited the university newspaper, Isis. He obtained second classes in classical honour moderations (1924) and literae humaniores (1926).
In 1926 he won a travelling scholarship from Queen's College. He went to Berlin, where he was mentored by Norman Ebbutt, who worked for The Times. Ebbutt told him "you will write for the newspaper, and we will get as many pieces of yours in as we can, although naturally it will be necessary to pretend that I have sent them". While researching these articles he made important contacts, including Gustav Stresemann and Wolfgang zu Putlitz.
Eventually, Ebbutt told his editor, Geoffrey Dawson, about the talents of Cockburn. Dawson cabled Cockburn: "Return at once. Job waiting." Cockburn was assigned to the Foreign Editorial Room at the newspaper. He really wanted to work in the United States. After making repeated requests he was sent to work at the newspaper's bureau in New York City. He arrived in July 1929 and later that year reported on the Wall Street Crash. A friend who knew him well later commented: "Cockburn was a man of great charm, modest, unassuming, and possessed of a schoolboyish zest for life. His appearance was donnish and with his deep bass voice he spoke in staccato bursts."
Cockburn went to interview Al Capone in Chicago. Guarded by Jack 'Machine Gun' McGurn, Capone told him: "Listen, don't get the idea I'm one of those goddamn radicals... Don't get the idea I'm knocking the American system. My rackets are run on strictly American lines. Capitalism, call it what you like, give to each and every one of us a great opportunity if only we seize it with both hands and make the most of it." He was later asked by his editor why he never sent the article in for publication. Cockburn replied that "Capone's remarks were in essence identical with editorials of The Times itself, and he doubted whether the paper would be pleased to see itself in agreement with the most infamous racketeer in Chicago."
The Great Depression had a dramatic impact on Cockburn's political opinions. He now considered himself a Marxist and after marrying the left-wing American journalist Hope Hale, he moved even further to the left. Hope later wrote of Cockburn: "I wanted what a woman has traditionally asked of a lover going off to war - his qualities and his heritage." She was attracted to him for his "charm, gaiety, mischief and wit" and the way he made people laugh. But privately with her, she added, he would talk seriously about how "we could sweep away all these disgraces at once and build a new society that would rule them out forever". Hope gave birth to Claudia Cockburn but the marriage did not last.
In the summer of 1932 Cockburn decided to resign from The Times for political reasons. The editor, Geoffrey Dawson, replied: "It was foolish to give up working for The Times simply on account of one's political views... The Times was a vehicle which could be used by people of the most varied opinions... For myself, I have always regarded The Times as something of an organ of the Left... Though never, I hope, of the extreme Left... It does seem rather bad luck that you of all people should go red on us."
Cockburn now spent time in Berlin where he met Willi Münzenberg. The historian, Norman Rose, has pointed out: "Willi Münzenberg... one of the founders of the German Communist Party... Münzenberg was a propagandist of genuis. Adept in public relations, a fiery and irresistible public speaker, a gifted fund-raiser and a masterful organizer, he made converts from all sections of society... Dubbed as the 'Red Hearst', Münzenberg raised up media empires... that encompassed a publishing house, book clubs, newspapers, magazines, and the financing of movies (including some of Eisenstein's) and plays."
Cockburn now returned to London where he intended to start up his own business. He had originally got the idea while working in New York City where he saw for the first time a mimeograph machine. He later recalled: "A mimeograph machine is one of the few remaining weapons which still gives small and comparatively poor organizations a sporting chance in a scrap with large and wealthy ones."
This impression was reinforced in Germany where he had seen supporters of Kurt von Schleicher using mimeograph machines to produce political propaganda. Cockburn had also been inspired by the French satirical paper Le Canard Enchainé. He considered it "the best-informed publication in France" and although some of it was "in execrable taste" it carried no advertisements, received no subsidies, and still broke "a little better than even". Cockburn was also attracted to the way it exposed government corruption. Something that Cockburn was keen on doing in Britain.
Cockburn had decided to call his newsletter, The Week. As Richard Ingrams has explained: "Started on a capital of £50 provided by his Oxford friend Benvenuto Sheard, the paper, which was all his own work, was produced in a one-room office at 34 Victoria Street, and was obtainable only by subscription. Although he relied on information supplied by a number of foreign correspondents including Negley Farson (Chicago Daily News) and Paul Scheffer (Berliner Tageblatt), it was his own journalistic flair which gave the paper its unique influence. Cockburn was not an orthodox journalist. He pooh-poohed the notion of facts as if they were nuggets of gold waiting to be unearthed. It was, he believed, the inspiration of the journalist which supplied the story. Speculation, rumour, even guesswork, were all part of the process and an inspired phrase was worth reams of cautious analysis."
The first issue of the newsletter appeared on Wednesday, 29th March 1933. As Norman Rose has pointed out: "It was preceded by scenes of great editorial confusion. The actual production of the paper was left until Wednesday morning in order, Claud argued, to pre-empt the existing weeklies with as much hot ness as possible. Claud wrote the entire issue - a modest three pages of foolscap - and cut the stencils, touching up the material as he progressed, a routine that excluded any prospect of efficiency... The Week finally emerged in what would become its distinctive format, smudgy in appearance, lively in content." The first edition had as its lead story "Black-Brown-Fascist Plan". It told of how Benito Mussolini had sponsored a four-power arrangement to regulate the affairs of Europe. It revealed that a definite proposal had been forwarded to London and Warsaw that envisaged granting concessions to Germany in the Polish Corridor while compensating Poland with a slice of Russian Ukraine."
Cockburn relied on other journalists to supply most of his information. These were those stories that their own newspaper would not print. Important contacts included Frederick Kuh, Negley Farson, Paul Scheffer and Stefan Litauer. Another source was the secretary of Franz Von Papen. According to Jessica Mitford: "In the early thirties Claud Cockburn founded and wrote a mimeographed political muckraking journal called The Week which, in the period immediately preceding the war, had become extraordinarily influential. The Week was packed with riveting inside stories garnered from undercover sources throughout Europe - at one time, Claud's principal informant in Berlin (his Deep Throat, so to speak) was secretary to Herr von Papen, a member of Hitler's cabinet."
A close friend, Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, claimed that many of the stories that appeared in The Week had already reached him in the "form of rumour" but unable to confirm their veracity, he would not risk publishing them. Cockburn did publish them. He once pointed out: "How can one tell truth from rumour in less than perhaps fifty years?" Cockburn was warned that this approach could get him into a lot of trouble. John Wheeler-Bennett warned him that very soon he would be "either quite famous or in gaol." Richard Ingrams has admitted: "In other hands it might have been a fatal approach, but Cockburn had great flair, and although many stories in The Week were fanciful, there was enough important information to win it an influence out of all proportion to its circulation."
James Pettifer has argued: "The Week... was almost exclusively concerned with the life of the ruling classes in the different European countries, and exposing inner machinations to a wider public, but they remained conspiracies that took place in drawing-rooms, in banks, in clubs and in the officers' messes... The Week... soon became famous for its exposure of the machinations of the Conservative government in the later years of the decade. More than anything else published at the time, The Week brought home to its subscribers the nature of Appeasement, and how a dominant section of the Conservative Party was assisting the foreign policy of the fascist dictators"
Cockburn was soon being monitored by MI5. In a report written on 2nd November 1933, an agent went to see Cockburn and claimed he wanted to write for The Week. He later reported: "He swallowed my story and asked for an article, which I shall prepare today. He is either very crafty or very gullible, for he invited me to have a boozing evening with him, which I cannot unfortunately afford to do, and therefore invented an appointment." A report written the following year states: "I am informed that so much is thought of the ability of F. Claud Cockburn that he could return to the staff of The Times any day he wished, if he would keep his work to the desired policy of this newspaper."
Cockburn's main target was those members of the ruling elite who were proponents of appeasement. He relied on people within the corridors of power for his information. One source was probably Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor on 30th January 1933, Vansittart became his leading opponent in the Foreign Office. He wrote on 6th May: "The present regime in Germany will, on past and present form, loose off another European war just so soon as it feels strong enough … we are considering very crude people, who have very few ideas in their noddles but brute force and militarism."
Vansittart worked very closely with Admiral Hugh Sinclair, the head of MI6, and Vernon Kell, the head of MI5. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "Robert Vansittart, permanent under secretary at the Foreign Office, was much more interested in intelligence than his political masters were... He dined regularly with Sinclair, was also in (less frequent) touch with Kell, and built up what became known as his own private detective agency collecting German intelligence. More than any other Whitehall mandarin, Vansittart stood for rearmament and opposition to appeasement."
Robert Vansittart also recruited his own spies. This included Jona von Ustinov, a German journalist working in London. However, his most important spy was Wolfgang zu Putlitz, First Secretary at the German Embassy, and a friend of Cockburn from the time he worked in Berlin in the 1920s. Putlitz later recalled: "I would unburden myself of all the dirty schemes and secrets which I encountered as part of my daily routine at the Embassy. By this means I was able to lighten my conscience by the feeling that I was really helping to damage the Nazi cause for I knew Ustinov was in touch with Vansittart, who could use these facts to influence British policy." Putlitz insisted that the only way to deal with Adolf Hitler was to stand firm.
Using the name Frank Pitcairn, Cockburn also contributed to the Daily Worker. As he explained in his autobiography, In Time of Trouble (1957): "It was at about this time (September 1934) that Mr Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, whom I had never met, was suddenly announced on the telephone - would I, he asked, take the next train, in twenty minutes or half an hour, and report a mine disaster at Gresford, North Wales. Why? Because he had a feeling that there was a lot more in it than met the eye. But why I in particular? Well, because, it seemed, Mr Pollitt - who was worrying at the time about what he believed to be a lack of'reader appeal' in the Daily Worker - had been reading The Week and thought I might do a good job."
Cockburn wrote a great deal in The Week about what became known as the Cliveden Set. The leaders of this group, Nancy Astor and her husband, Waldorf Astor, held regular weekend parties at their home Cliveden, a large estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames. Those who attended included Philip Henry Kerr (11th Marquess of Lothian), Edward Wood (1st Earl of Halifax), Geoffrey Dawson, Samuel Hoare, Lionel Curtis, Nevile Henderson, Robert Brand and Edward Algernon Fitzroy. Most members of the group were supporters of a close relationship with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. The group included several influential people. Astor owned The Observer, Dawson was editor of The Times, Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax was a minister of the government who would later become foreign secretary and Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons.
In 1935 a Colonel Valentine Vivian, the head of counter-espionage at MI6, wrote to Captain Guy Liddell at MI5 saying he had sent MI6's man in Berlin to talk to Norman Ebbutt, who had worked with him at The Times in the 1920s. The agent reported the conversation: "Ebbutt has the highest opinion of Claud Cockburn's honesty and admires him for feeding on the crust of an idealist when he could obtain a fat appointment by being untrue to himself... Ebbutt says The Week has a large circulation among businessmen in the City. He gets his copy regularly. He very much regrets that Claud Cockburn has now completely fallen to the mad idea that all Imperialists dream of nothing but the destruction of Russia."
Norman Rose, the author of The Cliveden Set (2000) has pointed out: "Lothian, Dawson, Brand, Curtis and the Astors - formed a close-knit band, on intimate terms with each other for most of their adult life. Here indeed was a consortium of like-minded people, actively engaged in public life, close to the inner circles of power, intimate with Cabinet ministers, and who met periodically at Cliveden or at 4 St James Square (or occasionally at other venues). Nor can there be any doubt that, broadly speaking, they supported - with one notable exception - the government's attempts to reach an agreement with Hitler's Germany, or that their opinions, propagated with vigour, were condemned by many as embarrassingly pro-German."
On 17th June, 1936, Claud Cockburn, produced an article called "The Best People's Front" in his anti-fascist newsletter, The Week. He argued that a group that he called the Astor network, were having a strong influence over the foreign policies of the British government. He pointed out that members of this group controlled The Times and The Observer and had attained an "extraordinary position of concentrated power" and had become "one of the most important supports of German influence". Over the next year he continually reported on what was said at weekends at Cliveden.
Claud Cockburn later admitted in his autobiography, I Claud (1967) that most of his information came from Vladimir Poliakoff, the diplomatic correspondent of The Times. As his editor, Geoffrey Dawson, was a member of the Cliveden Set, and would obviously not allow it to be published in his own newspaper, he gave it to Cockburn instead. Cockburn also revealed that Poliakoff received much of his information from "anti-Nazi factions in the British and French Foreign Offices... and were thus first-rate, and the stories that came from them had that particular zip and zing which you get from official sources only when a savage intra-mural departmental fight is going on." He also admitted that Winston Churchill and his supporters were also providing him with "inside information".
On a visit to the United States Anthony Eden was amazed when he discovered the impact on public opinion of articles on the Cliveden Set in The Week was having in the country. A horrified Eden reported to Stanly Baldwin that "Nancy Astor and her Cliveden Set has done much damage, and 90 per cent of the US is firmly persuaded that you (Baldwin) and I are the only Tories who are not fascists in disguise."
Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, asked him to cover the Spanish Civil War for the Daily Worker. When he arrived in Spain he joined the Fifth Regiment so that he could report the war as an ordinary soldier. While in Spain he published Reporter in Spain. Cockburn was attacked by George Orwell in his book Homage to Catalonia. In the book he accused Cockburn of being under the control of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Orwell was particularly critical of the way Cockburn reported the May Riots in Barcelona.
In the spring of 1937, Sir Vernon Kell, the head of MI6 wrote a note to a diplomat at the American Embassy saying: "Cockburn is a man whose intelligence and wide variety of contacts make him a formidable factor on the side of Communism." Kell complained that The Week was full of gross inaccuracies and was written from a left-wing point of view, but admitted that on occasions "he is quite well informed and by intelligent anticipation gets quite close to the truth". Kell was also concerned about some accurate reports that appeared in The Week about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
In November, 1937, Neville Chamberlain sent Lord Halifax in secret to meet Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering in Germany. In his diary, Lord Halifax records how he told Hitler: "Although there was much in the Nazi system that profoundly offended British opinion, I was not blind to what he (Hitler) had done for Germany, and to the achievement from his point of view of keeping Communism out of his country." This was a reference to the fact that Hitler had banned the Communist Party (KPD) in Germany and placed its leaders in Concentration Camps. Halifax had told Hitler: "On all these matters (Danzig, Austria, Czechoslovakia)..." the British government "were not necessarily concerned to stand for the status quo as today... If reasonable settlements could be reached with... those primarily concerned we certainly had no desire to block."
The story was leaked to the journalist Vladimir Poliakoff. On 13th November 1937 the Evening Standard reported the likely deal between the two countries: "Hitler is ready, if he receives the slightest encouragement, to offer to Great Britain a ten-year truce in the colonial issue... In return... Hitler would expect the British Government to leave him a free hand in Central Europe". On 17th November, Claude Cockburn reported in The Week, that the deal had been first moulded "into usable diplomatic shape" at Cliveden that for years has "exercised so powerful an influence on the course of British policy."
It was claimed that the circulation of The Week reached 40,000 at the height of its fame. Cockburn pointed out it was read by important people: "Foreign Ministers of eleven nations, all the embassies and legations in London, all diplomatic correspondents of the principal newspapers stationed in London, the leading banking and brokerage houses in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York, a dozen members of the United States Senate, twenty or thirty members of the House of Representatives, about fifty members of the House of Commons and a hundred or so in the House of Lords, King Edward VIII, the secretaries of most of the leading Trade Unions, Charlie Chaplin and the Nizam of Hyderabad." Other readers included Léon Blum, William Borah, Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's ambassador in London, who called for its suppression because of its anti-Nazi stance.
January 1938 Robert Vansittart was "kicked upstairs, assuming the high-sounding, but politically meaningless, title of chief diplomatic adviser to the government". His replacement was Alexander Cadogan, a member of the Cliveden Set. When Anthony Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary on 25th February, 1938, he was replaced by another Cliveden regular, Lord Halifax. Cockburn argued that the "appeasement coup" had been organised by the Cliveden Set. He later added that Halifax was "the representative of Cliveden and Printing House Square rather than of more official quarters."
On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the government suppressed The Daily Worker and The Week, although they were both later allowed to resume publication once the Soviet Union became one of the allies. According to his biographer, Richard Ingrams: "The new situation, which conferred respectability on the communists, was not to Cockburn's liking, and his Marxist fervour began to wane. He was further influenced by an interview with Charles de Gaulle in Algeria in 1943, in which the general suggested that his loyalty to the communist movement might perhaps be ‘somewhat romantic’. Following the Labour victory in 1945 he became convinced that the communists were ineffective as a political force."
In 1947 Cockburn moved to Ireland with his second wife, Patricia Byron Cockburn, but continued to contribute to various newspapers and journals. This included Punch Magazine and Private Eye and in 1963 he played a role in the downfall of John Profumo. He also produced a weekly column for the Irish Times. He also published several books including Aspects of English History (1957), The Devil's Decade (1973), Union Power (1976) and Cockburn Sums Up (1981). Cockburn also published three volumes of autobiography, In Time of Trouble (1956), Crossing the Line (1958) and View From the West (1967).
Oddly - or perhaps not so oddly, because I have always liked Americans, and the sort of man that likes Americans is liable to like Russians - a prominent light in my part of the gloom was my old friend Mr Vladimir Poliakoff, formerly diplomatic correspondent of The Times. (It was he who had first, perhaps inadvertently, provided the information which ultimately led to the discovery - or invention, as some said - by The Week, of the famous - or notorious, as some said - 'Cliveden Set')...
He had a house in a square in South Kensington and there I used to drink Russian tea or vodka with him, or walk round and round the gardens while he exercised his two small Afghan hounds and talked to me derisively, in his harsh Slavonic accents, of the international situation. Even when he later brought a libel action against me our walks and talks continued amicably.
Being a supporter of what was called "the Vansittart line" the notion that by a friendly policy towards Mussolini it might be possible to split the Axis and isolate Hitler - he was fervent in denunciation of those powerful personalities in England who, on the contrary, saw in Hitler a bulwark and potential crusader against Bolshevism and thought friendship with the Nazis both possible and desirable. The vigour of his campaigns and intrigues against such elements was naturally heightened by his knowledge that some of them lost no opportunity to convince everyone that he himself was a hired agent of Mussolini.
His sources of information from anti-Nazi factions in the British and French Foreign Offices were thus first-rate, and the stories that came from them had that particular zip and zing which you get from official sources only when a savage intra-mural departmental fight is going on.
I rushed about between London, Paris and Brussels, supplementing and checking such stories from other sources. Vigorous anti-Nazis in the City, too, and on the so-called Churchillian wing of the Conservative Party were also very ready with "inside information".
At length I thought I had enough and more than enough to write in The Week a longish "think piece" about the nature and aims of those in high places who were working, sincerely perhaps, but as it seemed to me disastrously, for the 'appeasement' of Adolf Hitler. There were, of course, several references to gatherings at the Astors' Thames-side house at Cliveden. When I published the story, absolutely nothing happened. It made about as loud a bang as a crumpet falling on a carpet. A few weeks later, I ran the whole thing again, in slightly different words, and with similar result.
And then about a month later I did it a third time. There were only trivial additions to the facts already published but the tone was a little sharper. But it happened that this time it occurred to me to head the whole story "The Cliveden Set" and to use this phrase several times in the text. The thing went off like a rocket.
I think it was Reynolds News, three days later, which first picked up the phrase from The Week, but within a couple of weeks it had been printed in dozens of newspapers, and within six had been used in almost every leading newspaper of the Western world. Up and down the British Isles, across and across the United States, anti-Nazi orators shouted it from hundreds of platforms. No anti-Fascist rally in Madison Square Garden or Trafalgar Square was complete without a denunciation of the Cliveden Set.
In those days, if you saw cameramen patrolling St James's Square at lunchtime or dusk, you could be nearly sure they were there to get a picture of the Cliveden Set going in or out of the Astors' London house. Geoffrey Dawson, then editor of The Times, and a prominent member of the "Set", comments petulantly on this nuisance in his diary. If you talked to American special correspondents, what they wanted to know all about was the Cliveden Set. Senators made speeches about it, and in those London cabarets where libel didn't matter, songsters made songs about it. People who wanted to explain everything by something, and were ashamed to say "sunspots", said "Cliveden Set".
And throughout it all the members of the Cliveden Set, furiously, wearily or derisively, maintained that they were not members because there simply was not any Cliveden Set to be a member of. It was a myth.
And the fact was that, however it started, it presently became a myth. Within a year or so, the Cliveden Set had ceased to represent, in anybody's mind, a particular group of individuals. It had become the symbol of a tendency, of a set of ideas, of a certain condition in, as it were, the State of Denmark. It had acquired a powerful and alarming significance for people who could hardly have named three of those who frequented Cliveden. The phrase went marching on because it first had dramatized, and now summarized, a whole vague body of suspicions and fears.
Occasionally, moderate-minded intermediaries who felt the story was stirring up dangerous thoughts urged me to tone it down in some way curb the monster I had set loose. I had to reply that in the first place I thought the picture essentially a true one, doing more good than harm. In the second place, even supposing that, contrary to my own convictions, I were to get the B.B.C. to permit me to announce personally to the listening millions that the story had no foundation, that I had invented it, no one would pay the slightest attention. People would come to the conclusion that I had been nobbled by the Cliveden Set.
I was certainly taken aback by the wild improbabilities which some correspondents were writing about the Cliveden Set. It looked as though quite a lot of people were getting involved, were being branded as subtly scheming political intriguers, who would not have known a plot if you handed it to them on a skewer, and quite possibly had gone to Cliveden simply for a good dinner. But then, I reflected, if one is as ignorant of political goings-on as some of them claim to be, is it very wise, even for a very good dinner, to go at all?
My father Claud Cockburn once said that the report that God was on the side of the big battalions was propaganda put about by big-battalion commanders to demoralise their opponents. He saw the rich and powerful as highly vulnerable to journalistic guerrilla warfare of a type largely invented by himself. In 1933, he founded The Week, a radical anti-fascist newsletter, on a capital of £40 after resigning from his job as the New York correspondent of The Times. Its aggressive style and hard-hitting content was very similar to that of Private Eye.
He observed from the start that MI5 was keeping a close eye on his activities. He rightly assumed that they opened his mail and listened to his telephone calls. I remembered him telling me this years later when I was researching a memoir of my childhood. I wrote to the director of MI5 asking for my father's file. It was placed in the National Archives in Kew in 2004. It turned out to be 26 volumes long....
Claud's prediction is in keeping with a mischievous habit he had of telling people who were trying to pump him, or whom he simply found boring, that war or revolution were likely within days. On one occasion an outraged woman wrote to some contact at MI5 saying she had sat next to Claud at dinner and he had predicted imminent revolution, starting in the Brigade of Guards.
It was at about this time (September 1934) that Mr Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, whom I had never met, was suddenly announced on the telephone - would I, he asked, take the next train, in twenty minutes or half an hour, and report a mine disaster at Gresford, North Wales. Why? Because he had a feeling that there was a lot more in it than met the eye. But why I in particular? Well, because, it seemed, Mr Pollitt - who was worrying at the time about what he believed to be a lack of'reader appeal' in the Daily Worker - had been reading The Week and thought I might do a good job.
On 12th July 1936 gunmen in a touring car nosed slowly through sparse traffic under the arc lamps of a Madrid street, opened fire with a sub-machine-gun at the defenceless back of a man standing chatting on his doorstep, and roared off among the tram-lines, leaving him dying in a puddle of his young blood on the pavement.
That in a manner of speaking was the Sarajevo of the Spanish war. The young man they killed was Jose Castillo, Lieutenant of Assault Guards. I never saw Castillo, but afterwards I heard all sorts of people speak of him with a kind of urgency and heartbreak, as though it were impossible that you too should not have known, and therefore loved, so fine a young man.
In a corps which in the five years of its existence had already acquired a high military reputation, Castillo was already
distinguished, and already loved, by men who are not very easy pleased nor easy fooled.
In the working-class districts of Madrid he was equally well known and liked. He was declared a gallant and patriotic young officer, as dauntless a defender of the Republic as you could wish to see, and a man - as a Madrid workman said to me afterwards - "who made the culture and the progress we were after seem more real to us".
From the main streets you could already hear quite clearly the machine-gun and rifle fire at the front.
Already shells began to drop within the city itself. Already you could see that Madrid was after all going to be the first of the dozen or so big European capitals to learn that "the menace of Fascism and war" is not a phrase or a far-off threat, but a peril so near that you turn the corner of your own street and see the gaping bodies of a dozen innocent women lying among scattered milk cans and bits of Fascist bombs, turning the familiar pavement red with their gushing blood.
There were others besides the defenders of Madrid who realised that, too.
Men in Warsaw, in London, in Brussels, Belgrade, Berne, Paris, Lyons, Budapest, Bucharest, Amsterdam, Copenhagen. All over Europe men who understood that "the house next door is already on fire" were already on the way to put their experience of war, their enthusiasm and their understandings at the disposal of the Spanish people who themselves in the months and years before the Fascist attack had so often thrown all their energies into the cause of international solidarity on behalf of the oppressed and the prisoners of the Fascist dictatorships in Germany, Hungary and Yugoslavia.
It was no mere "gesture of solidarity" that these men - the future members of the International Brigade - were being called upon to carry out.
The position of the armies on the Madrid fronts was such that it was obvious that the hopes of victory must to a large extent depend first on the amount of material that could be got to the front before the German and Italian war machines smashed their way through, and secondly, on the speed with which the defending force of the People's Army could be raised to the level of a modern infantry force, capable of fighting in the modern manner.
When the church bells ring in Malaga that means the Italian and German aeroplanes are coming over. While I was there they came twice and three times a day. The horror of the civilian bombing is even worse in Malaga than in Madrid. The place is so small and so terribly exposed.
When the bells begin ringing and you see people who have been working in the harbour or in the market place, or elsewhere in the open, run in crowds, you know that they are literally running a race against death.
But the houses in Malaga are mostly low and rather flimsy, and without cellars. Where the cliffs come down to the edge of the town, the people make for the rocks and caves in which those who can reach them take refuge. Others rush bounding up the hillside above the town.
Those in the town, with an air of infinite weariness, wait behind the piles of sandbags which have been set up in front of
the doorways of the apartment blocks. Though they are not safe from bombs falling on the houses, they are relatively protected from an explosion in the street and from the bullets of the machine-guns.
Sometimes you can see the aeroplane machine-gunner working the gun as the plane swoops along above the street.
If you were to imagine, however, that this terribly hammered town is in a state of panic you would be wrong. Nothing I have seen in this war has impressed me more than the power of the Spanish people's resistance to attack than the attitude of the people as seen in Malaga.
Claud Cockburn, the former Times reporter, editor of The Week, and Daily Worker correspondent (under the name of Frank Pitcairn) who had been one of the first to fight in Spain, contributed his own remarkable abilities to this campaign of propaganda and distortion. Willi Munzenberg's henchman, Otto Katz, suggested to Cockburn that the Republic needed news that would have "a clear psychological impact." The English journalist then proceeded to concoct a story of a revolt against Franco in Morocco. He wrote unapologetically, "In the end it emerged as one of the most factual, inspiring and yet sober pieces of war reporting I ever saw, and the night editors loved it."
Examples of this kind of travesty are numerous. Peter Kerrigan, himself reporting for the Daily Worker, took Harry Pollitt to task for a false story the British party leader had planted. According to the CPGB organ, Kerrigan heroically swam the Ebro bearing crucial reports. Kerrigan said Pollitt knew this was "a phony story," and, moreover, "there was already too much butter in (The Daily Worker)." On October 18, 1938, Pollitt again angered Kerrigan as arrangements were being made for welcoming the British Battalion home. He told Pollitt that the Daily Worker's report that the battalion was at the strength of 1,000 was "incredible." "This phony figure of 1,000 in the battalion ... you must know [to be] wrong." And, more pragmatically, "The boys' reaction here was very bad when they saw it." Thinking of the Daily Worker, Orwell said, "I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed." Remembering his experience with the POUM, "I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories." He concluded by writing, "I saw ... history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various party lines.
"That is the stage on which the first act of the world war drama is being played," said a doctor of the militia to me today, pointing down to the Valley of the Jarama as we lay on a hill in long, thyme-scented grass.
I had driven out from Madrid along the Valencia road, turning off along a mule track about ten miles from the city. The track carried us into the heart of the hills, along whose seemingly deserted slopes reverberated the booming of guns.
At last we came to a little hollow in whose shelter stood two ambulance cars.
"This is the place," said the army doctor with me, and getting out he told us to follow. Imitating my guide, I crawled up the slope to the summit and there we lay prone with our nostrils buried in the thyme and our eyes fixed on the field of battle.
This was Valley of the Jarama, that stream whose name, beside that of the Manzanares, is now being written with letters of blood in imperishable annals of humanity's fight for liberty. Beyond the stream were our lines facing the long forbidding ridge of Redondo, now held by enemy.
A week ago, in the most powerful drive since the battle for Madrid began, the rebels advanced along the ridge, and now from the bluff at the northern end their fire commands the Valencia road and compels the convoys of lorries carrying precious food to Madrid to make a detour to the north.
But the mercenary troops of international Fascism, despite repeated attempts, have not yet set their feet on the road; between them and their goal stand the men of the young Republican Army, determined that just as the Manzanares defied Franco when he tried to storm Madrid, so shall the Jarama defy him as he tries to starve it.
Through field-glasses we could see bands of rebel troops move along the ridge.
"This morning we saw a priest among them," said the doctor. "He was carrying a machine-gun, but as soon as our men opened fire he scurried off and took cover behind a boulder. Most of his companions over there seem to be Moors.
"At night the Moors steal down the hillside and crawl towards our lines. Then, when they are quite near, they jump up, and uttering fiendish cries to frighten our men, rush forward. But our lads are not frightened, and in many cases those wild cries of the Moors have been their last."
A mule with two stretchers strapped to its saddle was grazing in the hollow. "That's how we bring in our wounded," the doctor explained. "Two men at a time. They have to be carried across the bridge which spans the Jarama and up this side of the valley to where we are, all under enemy fire. Today we have brought in between sixty and seventy. Ten were dead."
Seriously wounded men, if they survive that nightmare ride on the mule across the valley of death, are treated in one of the ambulances which are equipped with an operating-table.
Thousands of loudspeakers, set up in every public place in the towns and villages of Republican Spain, in the trenches all along the battlefront of the Republic, brought the message of the Communist Party at this fateful hour, straight to the soldiers and the struggling people of this hard-pressed hard-fighting Republic.
The speakers were Valdes, former Councillor of Public Works in the Catalan government, Uribe, Minister of Agriculture in the government of Spain, Diaz, Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain, Pasionaria, and Hemandez, Minister of Education.
Then, as now, in the forefront of everything stand the Fascist menace to Bilbao and Catalonia.
There is a specially dangerous feature about the situation in Catalonia. We know now that the German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly in order to "prepare" the notorious 'Congress of the Fourth International', had one big task. It was this:
They were - in co-operation with the local Trotskyists - to prepare a situation of disorder and bloodshed, in which it would be possible for the Germans and Italians to declare that they were "unable to exercise naval control on the Catalan coasts effectively" because of "the disorder prevailing in Barcelona", and were, therefore, "unable to do otherwise" than land forces in Barcelona.
In other words, what was being prepared was a situation in which the Italian and German governments could land troops or marines quite openly on the Catalan coasts, declaring that they were doing so "in order to preserve order".
That was the aim. Probably that is still the aim. The instrument for all this lay ready to hand for the Germans and Italians in the shape of the Trotskyist organisation known as the POUM.
The POUM, acting in cooperation with well-known criminal elements, and with certain other deluded persons in the anarchist organisations, planned, organised and led the attack in the rearguard, accurately timed to coincide with the attack on the front at Bilbao.
In the past, the leaders of the POUM have frequently sought to deny their complicity as agents of a Fascist cause against the People's Front. This time they are convicted out of their own mouths as clearly as their allies, operating in the Soviet Union, who confessed to the crimes of espionage, sabotage, and attempted murder against the government of the Soviet Union.
Copies of La Batalla, issued on and after 2 May, and the leaflets issued by the POUM before and during the killings in Barcelona, set down the position in cold print.
In the plainest terms the POUM declares it is the enemy of the People's Government. In the plainest terms it calls upon its followers to turn their arms in the same direction as the Fascists, namely, against the government of the People's Front and the anti-fascist fighters.
900 dead and 2,500 wounded is the figure officially given by Diaz as the total in terms of human slaughter of the POUM attack in Barcelona.
It was not, by any means, Diaz pointed out, the first of such attacks. Why was it, for instance, that at the moment of the big Italian drive at Guadalajara, the Trotskyists and their deluded anarchist friends attempted a similar rising in another district? Why was it that the same thing happened two months before at the time of the heavy Fascist attack at Jarama, when, while Spaniards and Englishmen, and honest anti-fascists of every nation in Europe, were being killed holding Arganda Bridge the Trotskyist swine suddenly produced their arms 200 kilometres from the front, and attacked in the rear?
Tomorrow the antifascist forces of the Republic will start rounding up all those scores of concealed weapons which ought to be at the front and are not.
The decree ordering this action affects the whole of the Republic. It is, however, in Catalonia that its effects are likely to be the most interesting and important.
With it, the struggle to "put Catalonia on a war footing", which has been going on for months and was resisted with open violence by the POUM and its friends in the first week of May, enters a new phase.
This weekend may well be a turning-point. If the decree is successfully carried out it means:
First: That the groups led by the POUM who rose against the government last week will lose their main source of strength, namely, their arms.
Second: That, as a result of this, their ability to hamper by terrorism the efforts of the antifascist workers to get the war factories on to a satisfactory basis will be sharply reduced.
Third: That the arms at present hidden will be available for use on the front, where they are badly needed.
Fourth: That in future those who steal arms from the front or steal arms in transit to the front will be liable to immediate arrest and trial as ally of the fascist enemy.
Included in the weapons which have to be turned in are rifles, carbines, machine-guns, machine-pistols, trench mortars, field guns, armoured cars, hand-grenades, and all other sorts of bombs.
The list gives you an idea of the sort of armaments accumulated by the Fascist conspirators and brought into the open for the first time last week.
A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign antifascist press, but, as usual only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were "stabbing the Spanish Government in the back" and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves - but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received samething that they regard as a provocation.
In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided 'uncontrollables'. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was 'Franco's Fifth Column' - a 'Trotskyist' organization working in league with the Fascists.
In the early thirties Claud Cockburn founded and wrote a mimeographed political muckraking journal called The Week which, in the period immediately preceding the war, had become extraordinarily influential. The Week was packed with riveting inside stories garnered from undercover sources throughout Europe - at one time, Claud's principal informant in Berlin (his Deep Throat, so to speak) was secretary to Herr von Papen, a member of Hitler's cabinet. Claud had coined the phrase 'Cliveden Set' to describe the powerful clique of Nazi appeasers whose frequent meeting place was Cliveden, Lady Astor's house, a sobriquet that first appeared in The Week and subsequently became a catchword used in the English and American press from the Daily Express to Time magazine.
If I were asked who are the two greatest journalists of the twentieth century, my answer would be G.K. Chesterton and Claud Cockbum. Both are more than journalists: both produced at least one novel which will be rediscovered with delight, I believe, in every generation - The Man who was Thursday and Ballantyne's Folly. Both are manic characters, writing with what some sad fellows may find even an excess of high spirits. Perhaps Claud Cockbum will prove to have been more influential, for he discovered the influence that can be wielded by a mimeographed news-sheet.