The USSR’s British spy

Fuchs put his hopes in Stalin and spilled US, UK nuclear secrets.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied in 2017 by the heads of Russia’s intelligence services which replaced the KGB. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, accompanied in 2017 by the heads of Russia’s intelligence services which replaced the KGB.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Thirty years after his death in Communist East Germany, the saga of the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs still astonishes. The author of Trinity, Frank Close, a distinguished professor of theoretical physics, has forensically dissected this story with nuance and insight.
Fuchs came of political age in Nazi Germany and joined a paramilitary group to fight the worshipers at Hitler’s altar. At Kiel University he had a reputation of one imbued with moral fortitude – someone who was no pushover. Sentenced to death by the Brownshirts, he was thrown into the Forde River, managed to escape to France and eventually arrived in the UK to study at Bristol University. His father and the Fuchs family were involved in smuggling Jews out of Germany.
Such experiences persuaded the young Fuchs to place his hopes in Stalin. It was the first step in working for the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, and enthusiastically passing over atomic secrets to its agents. His involvement, at first as a fellow traveler, then as a spy, bizarrely continued during the period of Nazi-Soviet friendship, initiated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939.
A brilliant equation solver, Fuchs took advantage of the kindness and expertise of his friends and colleagues in the scientific community, but a disproportionate number of those who facilitated Fuchs’s treachery were converted, assimilated and acculturated Jews. The subterranean base of Frank Close’s blow-by-blow rendition is the tale of the belief of many Jews in the false messiah of Marxism-Leninism.
Fuchs was friendly with Jürgen Kuczynski, the Jewish head of the German Communist party in the UK, who lived in Hampstead, a leafy, well-to-do London suburb. Kuczynski introduced Fuchs to Col. Simon Kremer, an intelligence officer at the Soviet Embassy, and Fuchs was soon recruited under the code name “Otto.” Kuczynski’s sister, Ursula, code-named “Sonya,” became his contact with the Soviets, and when Fuchs was cleared by MI5 to travel to the US to work on the Manhattan Project, Harry Gold became his courier. Their first meeting was at dinner in Manny Wolf’s restaurant on New York’s 49th Street.
Fuchs was brought into this exclusive group of atomic scientists by Rudolf Peierls and was befriended by his wife, Genia – both of Jewish origin. Peierls and his collaborator, Otto Frisch, formulated a memorandum in March 1940 to the British government which presented detailed calculations regarding the critical mass of Uranium 235 that would produce a chain reaction – the atomic bomb. Frisch and his aunt, Lisa Meitner, had previously worked on this problem, but, as Jews, been forced to flee from Hitler – Meitner to Sweden, Frisch to Birmingham. Close writes that Peierls clearly understood what might happen if his findings leaked out and secured Berlin’s attention, such that he typed the report himself rather than ask a secretary. Ironically both Peierls and Frisch were excluded by the British from work on radar because they were regarded as enemy aliens. Peierls was forced to work as a fireman during World War II.
Fuchs returned to the UK in June 1946 to work at the atomic energy establishment at Harwell, where he continued to pass secret information to the Soviets, including the British decision to develop an independent nuclear deterrent. The security officer at Harwell later commented that Fuchs was very good “at understanding the psychology of suspects, winning their confidence and then destabilizing them.” He controlled his conversation and was “strangely silent” about his private life.
THE VENONA decryption project, initiated by US intelligence, soon began to uncover Soviet spies at the highest levels. The cracking of the code used by Soviet diplomats in the summer of 1949 indicated the presence of a spy in the British team in Los Alamos.
MI5 began to interview Fuchs, who first denied, then delayed and eventually provided a drip-drip of facts in order to allow his contacts time to escape to the Eastern bloc. Gold similarly pleaded innocence until the FBI discovered a map of Santa Fe, stuffed behind some books – it marked the location with an ‘X’ where he had met Fuchs.
Fuchs was sentenced to 14 years – of which he served less than 10. However, it led to the defection of other spies, Bruno Pontecorvo, Burgess and Maclean – and eventually Kim Philby. It also led to the barbaric execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the electric chair and the orphaning of their sons. Fuchs ended up as a professor at the University of Dresden in East Germany, while most of his colleagues in Britain were honored and ennobled.
In a climate of rising paranoia about “Reds under the bed,” the innocent Rudolf Peierls, the father of the British atom bomb, was placed under a cloud of suspicion. He was refused permission to read classified documents and vilified in the British press – the collateral damage of the Fuchs affair. Cooperation on questions of atomic energy between the US and the UK was suspended for eight years.
This well-crafted book is a meticulously researched exposition of complex individuals, driven to act in dark times. They believed that they were serving the higher good of humanity. As Close demonstrates with great clarity, life is never that simple.

The writer is an emeritus professor of Israel studies at SOAS, University of London.