Oliver Kamm

The Rosenbergs were both Jewish and traitors

She devoted her life to serving Stalin, and a revisionist biography is gravely mistaken

July 19, 2021 17:59

A young Jewish couple, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, went to their deaths in the electric chair in Sing Sing prison in New York almost 70 years ago. They had been convicted for conspiring to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. They left behind two young sons. In the febrile atmosphere engendered by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s demagogic claims of communist conspiracy, the Rosenbergs’ execution seemed to epitomise the dangers of paranoia. It also suggested to many a disturbing recrudescence of antisemitism.

The case is retold in a book published this month by Anne Sebba, Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. The publisher dubs it the story of America’s Dreyfus case. Sebba says: “Ethel’s tragedy was also America’s tragedy, illuminating how US culture and politics had been shaped by the country’s rapid descent after the Second World War from military euphoria to Cold War paranoia.” Her book has received plaudits from leading Anglo-Jewish writers and intellectuals. Both Jewish World Relief and JW3 are doing online events promoting the book (the latter in conjunction with the London Library).

I reviewed the book for The Times last week and did indeed find contemporary political resonance, but not of the sort the author intended.

I termed the book an intellectual disgrace. Like Sebba, I have no doubt the trial was tainted, the main prosecution witness perjured himself and the capital sentence was monstrous. Yet we now know that Ethel and Julius were guilty. Julius ran an espionage ring; Ethel helped him. Sebba acknowledges Julius was a spy yet says next to nothing of the hundreds of military secrets that he and his associates betrayed. And she insists Ethel was not a spy, by the simple expedient of ignoring the evidence.

Sebba is a biographer, not a Cold War historian. She appears not to have realised the significance of, let alone investigated, a voluminous archive of notebooks smuggled to the West by former KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev. These comprise transcripts of files held in the archives of Russian intelligence. They include many cables sent by and to the Rosenbergs’ Soviet handlers in the US. Their reliability is demonstrated by their consistency with other intelligence sources and accurate identification of many previously unknown Soviet agents, including a member of the Rosenberg spy ring. Combined with Soviet cables intercepted and decrypted by the US under a programme called Venona, and the memoirs of the Rosenbergs’ handler, Alexander Feklisov, the Rosenberg case has long been closed.

Even without this evidence, we can piece together the guilt of both Rosenbergs from numerous sources. In his autobiography, Kim Philby refers to the confession of the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs, which formed the first link in “the chain [which] led inexorably to the Rosenbergs who were duly electrocuted”. The idea that Ethel was framed appears not to have occurred to Philby. What does all this have to do with modern issues of Jewish concern? A lot. Above all, the common notion that America was caught up in a spasm of hysteria (Sebba uses the word often) in the Cold War is wrong. The Rosenberg case shows how a couple of very ordinary people could gravely damage the security of the West through ideological fanaticism. The Soviet Union managed to plant hundreds of agents in sensitive positions in American government (including Treasury Department official Harry Dexter White and State Department official Alger Hiss) and military programmes. The communist parties of the US and UK were slavishly loyal to Stalin and deeply implicated in espionage.

A current of Jewish opinion identified with communism and to this day their cause is romanticised as having noble impulses; yet that image is false. Communism is inherently totalitarian because it has its roots in the belief that human beings are entirely constituted by their social relationships, and inevitably antisemitic in practice because it cannot recognise the distinctiveness of other types of communal belonging.

The truly noble figures were not traitors like the Rosenbergs but liberals who upheld due process even while recognising the threat from communism. The antisemitism was not the Rosenberg case but the show trial and execution of Rudolf Slansky, the Czech communist leader, in 1952, and the conspiracy theory of a “Doctors’ Plot” to murder Soviet officials in 1953. The last thing Jews need in our own dark times is a bout of baseless historical revisionism concerning those who gave their lives in the service of Stalin.

July 19, 2021 17:59

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