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A Spy Among Friends

Philby and the Great Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre
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A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

A Spy Among Friends (2014) details the life of Kim Philby, a highly respected operative who rose through the ranks of the British secret services during World War II and the Cold War. Though a seeming paragon of British values, he actually spent his career working as a double agent for the Russians.

Key idea 1 of 11

Kim Philby’s nascent Socialist inclinations were formed at Cambridge and in revolutionary Vienna.

To the Cambridge of 1930, Kim Philby was no outlier. When he went up to the university to read history, he was, like so many other first-year 18-year-olds, distinctly upper class and burning with academic ambition.

However, as his political outlook shifted, his scholastic tendencies were soon overtaken by more controversial occupations. He began moving in a left-wing direction by canvassing for the moderate Labour Party. But a trip to Berlin in 1933 radicalized him. There, he witnessed Nazi thugs demonstrating against Jewish citizens.

By this point, he was personally committed to the Socialist cause, but he was hardly outspoken about it. It’s known that he purchased some of Karl Marx’s works, but there’s no evidence of him ever reading or studying them in any detail, let alone of him preaching Communist ideas.

Though Philby did eventually devote himself to the Socialist cause, he did so far from home, where he was unlikely to be recognized.

Vienna, Austria, 1934. Revolution was in the air. At the time, the country was under the thumb of Engelbert Dollfuss, a right-wing dictator. A Socialist movement had coalesced, and tensions between right and left had reached boiling point.

Within just a few weeks of Philby's arrival in Vienna, Dollfuss began a crackdown. Socialist leaders were arrested, and trade unions banned. A short but violent civil war erupted.

In the ensuing chaos, Philby fell in love with Alice Kohlman, a young Jewish Socialist activist. Kohlman found herself on the proscription list of wanted Socialists. Arrest, if not worse, was imminent. Consequently, Philby married her so that she could flee to Britain and safety. Even though the couple divorced in 1946, it’s thought that Kohlman remained Philby’s only true love.

After this adventure, and once he was back in Britain, Philby's determination to fight for the Socialist cause was fixed.

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