The 1961 photograph which shows Gilbert with the Hungarian agent. Photo: Ian McGowan
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Big fish: how the Hungarian security services tried to land Martin Gilbert

The Budapest authorities fought hard to recruit the historian - but who was really working for whom?

A black-and-white photograph taken in 1961 shows two men walking through the doorway of a Budapest hotel. An Englishman and his guide are heading out for a day in the city. The man on the left is Martin Gilbert, who later became an eminent historian, biographer of Winston Churchill and member of the Chilcot inquiry panel on the Iraq war. His companion is an agent of the Hungarian state security service.

The picture is one of many in the service’s archives documenting a visit that Gilbert made to Budapest in 1961 when he was invited there as a guest of the government, which was attempting to recruit him to work as a communist spy. The attempt failed and yet for some reason Gilbert, who dedicated his life to discovering and confronting the past, never spoke about it.

Martin Gilbert was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, when he first came to the attention of Hungarian intelligence. “His general way of thinking and behaviour are characterised by being contrary to anything conventional,” noted Ödön Kallós, an undercover agent reporting under the code name “Barabás”. Gilbert was interested in the eastern bloc: he had visited Bulgaria, and had travelled through Poland in 1959 with Richard Gott, the Guardian journalist later alleged to have been a KGB “agent of influence” (a claim Gott denies). Their trip led them to co-write a study of pre-war British foreign policy, The Appeasers, described by the Hungarian intelligence service as “politically very useful”.

London was a major centre for the Hungarian spy trade during the cold war. Its residentura, or clandestine spying station, was established in 1950. The Hungarians considered Gilbert prize recruitment material and spared no expense in wooing him. In the Budapest archives, the files on most candidates for recruitment run to roughly 200 pages. There are 701 pages on Gilbert, spread over five volumes. An initial plan was sketched in February 1960 but first contact was not made until October that year, by which time Gilbert had been given a code name of his own, “Pártos”, which roughly translates as “biased” or “partisan”. The next meeting took place a month later at the luxurious Simpson’s-in-the-Strand in London. Gilbert was given lunch by László Nagy, an agent whose true identity has never been confirmed.

They met again in February 1961. Gilbert explained that he had organised campaigns for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In the eyes of the Hungarians, this placed him in an ideal position to destabilise British politics. The timing was right: Gilbert was invited to Budapest.

He arrived on 9 September 1961 and for two weeks was exposed to the best that communism could provide. When he announced that he wanted to see Verdi’s Traviata at the opera house, tickets were quickly arranged. On one of his first evenings, he was taken by his handler, Comrade Major Peter Szikla, to Fisherman’s Bastion to enjoy views of the city at night and to dinner on Hármashatár Mountain. “As a result of good food and drink his mood became quite relaxed,” Szikla wrote in his report. “He said he hated the government ruling England. He said his years of military service turned him against the system, because there he experienced the reactionary, class-based policies that are primary characteristics of that imperialistic country.”

The language seems carefully crafted, aimed to provide his new friends with exactly what they wanted. Gilbert told Szikla that he had inherited his political views from his father, a Welsh miner. In reality, Gilbert’s father was a middle-class jeweller based in Hatton Garden, London, who had sent his son to Highgate School – facts that Hungarian intelligence might have been expected to know.

Yet it wasn’t all high living in Budapest. Gilbert made the inevitable trip to meet foundry workers in a new town named after Stalin, describing the place as a “beautiful paradise for workers”. But exposure to the communist dream did not stop him complaining about lazy waiters and a lack of loo paper at the Hotel Astoria.

Gilbert sent 36 postcards and nine letters while in Budapest. One was teasingly addressed “to the Hungarian censors”. He complained about the checking of his correspondence. A subsequent analysis of his post concluded: “His expressed opinions are not always honest. His statement that he is a communist is not true.” But the intelligence services did not give up, proposing to exploit him as a “social contact” rather than a full agent.

The next rendezvous was arranged for the Café de Cluny in Paris but Gilbert didn’t turn up. Though there were further meetings with László Nagy in London, a proposal to invite him to Czechoslovakia came to nothing. A series of defections shook the confidence of Hungarian intelligence. In November 1964 the file on Gilbert was closed for good.

It would have been clear to Gilbert that he was being groomed by the Hungarians. So was he working as an agent for British intelligence ? Had he contrived his far-left views to give himself credibility? Or was it simply an adventure for an ambitious young man who was at first flattered to have attracted the Hungarians’ attention and then saw no harm in accepting their lavish hospitality? In the eyes of Hungarian state security Gilbert returned home a safe bet for recruitment – but how did he remember that time? There is no mention of the trip in his published writings. He never spoke about it in public and did not respond to emailed inquiries before he died on 3 February. It seems that one of Britain’s leading historians of the 20th century chose to forget a significant part of his own history.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

Photo: Getty
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Every day, Theresa May's mask slips a little further

First the Human Rights Act, now Dfid. What's next, asks Jon Ashworth.

The news that the new International Development Secretary is about to slash development spending and channel Britain's aid budget into defence spending is yet another major slip of the new government's centrist mask.

Theresa May has tried to pitch her policy agenda as prioritising social justice and a “Britain that works for everyone” but the reality is that this announcement is the true right-wing colours of her government shining through.

The appointment of the most right-wing Cabinet for decades was a major warning sign, with figures such as David Davis, who said he was “very worried” about sexual discrimination legislation, and Liam Fox, who said equal marriage was “social engineering”, now at the highest level in government.

Those of us passionate about development were horrified when Priti Patel, who has previously called for the Department for International Development to be scrapped, was appointed as the department's new Secretary of State, but few of us would have imagined such a dramatic break with Britain's strong development legacy so soon.

Not only is what is reported very dubious in terms of the strict regulations placed on development spending- and Priti Patel has already come dangerously close to crossing that line by saying we could use the aid budget to leverage trade deals - it also betrays some of the very poorest in the world at a time when many regions are facing acute humanitarian crises.

It was Gordon Brown who put international development at the heart of 13 years of Labour government, massively increasing aid spending and focusing minds in Britain and abroad on the plight of those suffering from poverty, famine and the ravages of war. David Cameron followed Gordon’s lead, enshrining the 0.7 per cent aid budget in law, making Britain the first G7 country to do so. In light of these new revelations Theresa May must now restate her commitment to the target.

Sadly, it now seems that Theresa May and Priti Patel want to turn the clock back on all that progress, diminishing Britain's role in international development and subverting the original mission of the department by turning it into a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence, focused on self-interest and security. Not only will this create the opposite of the "outward-looking and globally-minded country" Theresa May said just weeks ago she wanted Britain to be, it’s also a betrayal of some of the poorest people across the planet.

Other examples of the right-wing traits of this Government surfaced earlier this week too. On Friday it emerged that Gerard Lopez, a tax-haven based businessman with links to Russian State banks that have been sanctioned in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict, donated £400,000 to the Tory party just months ago. Theresa May needs to tell us what meetings and interactions she has had with Lopez.

Earlier in the week Liz Truss, the new Justice Secretary, brazenly insisted that the Government would proceed with scrapping the Human Rights Act, despite fierce opposition from politicians of all parties and the public.

With so many right-wing announcements trickling though when the government has hardly had time to change the name plaques above the doors you've got to wonder and worry about what else is set to come.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South.