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INTO THE SHADOWS – LIFE AND DEATH IN VIENNA
For those seeking to cross it, the Iron Curtain was much more than a political concept or rhetorical device. It was something tangible and often deadly. In the first decade of the Cold War, it was rising mile by mile. Thick wooden posts supported three walls of barbed wire, taller than a man, on the Czechoslovakian border with Austria. A wide clearing lay on one side to make footprints easy to spot, with landmines casually littered around. A touch of one piece of stretched wire might launch a signal flare; at another place it would offer a 6,000-volt shock, the short circuit alerting guards with guns and dogs. Three hundred people were killed trying to cross the Czechoslovak border, some shot by guards, others electrocuted, leaving their bodies caught on the wire hanging at an obtuse angle; one man shot himself after his foot was blown off at the ankle by a mine.
Jan Maek had somehow made it across. But he had not found safety. These were the dangerous days of the early Cold War, as he was about to discover. A lance corporal in the Czechoslovak army, he was slight of frame, not too tall, with dark hair. His rough-skinned tan came from the twenty-odd years he had spent growing up in a country village, brought up alone by his mother. She had fallen ill and he had asked for compassionate leave from the army. His commanding officer had refused, so he simply left to see her. But as he headed back to his unit, he was warned that he faced a court martial. He decided to flee over the border into divided Austria.
There he had found his way into the welcoming arms of British Field Security in Vienna. These were the men, most just out of their teens, who performed the grunt work for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Among their tasks was the interrogation of the illegal frontier crossers who had come over from Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Once any suspicion that they had been sent by the other side to cause trouble was removed, they were sucked dry of every ounce of usable information. Britain was blind about what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain. A claustrophobic fear of imminent war haunted every debriefing. Field Security was under orders to extract every nugget, however trivial, so it could be laid alongside a thousand other nuggets in the hope of revealing something useful and perhaps giving early warning of the Red Army beginning its march. What type of shoulder-boards did the Soviet troops wear in a small village in Hungary? What was a particular factory in Czechoslovakia producing? Even a grandmother might know whether a relative in the army had been moved from one place to another. The purpose was to divine where the enemy was and whether he was on the move.
Maek was quietly spoken and sensitive. He was questioned for five days at Field Security's Vienna office, a grand five-storey building at Sebastianplatz near the city centre. Bob Steers asked the questions, trying to separate fact from fiction in a small, bare room with only two chairs and a table. He 'fronted' for the Secret Service by advertising himself as a contact in the Viennese underworld, allowing the MI6 men to remain out of sight. He produced a synopsis of Maek's information, which went up to MI6 at its grand hiding place in the Schönbrunn barracks. Two of their people came over. Maek had some interesting details on how the Czechoslovak army was being integrated with the Soviets. He was a touch simple minded, and extracting more detail was painfully slow. But after two and a half weeks his life had yielded up forty-five pages of double-spaced typed notes.
Just as his reward of a one-way ticket to Australia was being prepared, one of the MI6 men intervened. A radio set had to be taken urgently to near where Maek had come from in Czechoslovakia. Maek was the only person around at that moment to do it. This would normally be a job for a professionally trained courier. But the border was being tightened and a network of 'resistance' couriers had just been rolled up. More than sixty had been arrested. One betrayed his friends by agreeing to work for the other side. MI6 had a training centre for its couriers in Austria and an office back in London (under the name Kenneth Proud Translation Services, code-named 'Measure') to help organise Czech agents. But these operations were penetrated by the Czechoslovak security service, the StB. Over ten years, the StB would record details of more than a thousand individuals linked to British intelligence.
Adventurous, foolhardy methods were sometimes employed to smuggle couriers across the border as it was tightened. Aqualungs and inflatable rubber suits were used to traverse rivers. Hot-air balloons with canvas folding baskets were another trick – although the discovery of two bodies on a Czech hill bearing the marks of having fallen from a great height bore witness to the dangers. Another method was using the defectors and frontier crossers who had found some way out and who showed some potential. They would be offered a choice: take a message or a radio back and we will get you out of your squalid refugee camp now and give you a ticket to a new life when – or if – you make it out again. Sometimes a radio came with the offer of a gun, one captured from the other side so it could not be traced. One man who appeared tough as nails cried himself to sleep the night before he went back. When he was cornered on the frontier, he shot himself rather than face the secret police.
Maek did not have potential. 'He's too soft,' Steers protested. He had spent days in a room with him and had promised him he was as good as on the boat. 'If he came out, he can go in the same way,' the MI6 man insisted. It took a few hours to persuade Maek. His orders were clear. Having buried the radio at the agreed spot, he had to – had to – come back immediately. Under no circumstances should he visit his mother as it would be noticed by the informers who worked in the village on behalf of the secret police.
He got across the border and successfully buried the radio. But then he went home to see his mother. Another agent radioed a message to Vienna. The local press were reporting that a British courier had been caught. Jan Maek's name was added to the list of those executed for acting as couriers for Western intelligence, joining at least forty others. Many of these were motivated by a commitment to fight Communism. Jan Maek was just a simple man who wanted to see his mother.
Lives were held in the balance in Vienna after the war. They dangled precariously between life and death and East and West like the city itself. The Iron Curtain that Winston Churchill warned of in 1946 was descending from Stettin in the Baltic in Europe's north to Trieste in the Adriatic to the south. And yet Vienna lay almost a hundred miles behind a straight line connecting those two places, east even of Prague. Austria was the easternmost area of Western influence and Vienna lay in its far corner, making it a crossroads – a route out from those escaping the Iron Curtain and a route in for those seeking to penetrate it. For a decade from the end of the Second World War until Austria gained its independence in 1955 Vienna's narrow, winding, cobbled streets were a stage on which the drama of the unstable, early Cold War was played out and in which the British Secret Service struggled to adapt to a new enemy and a new war. It was a world of bravery and betrayal, of black and white and every shade in between. East and West were colliding and Vienna lay on the fault line.
The words 'cleared of enemy' could still be found stencilled in Russian on the corner of Viennese buildings long after April 1945. They were a reminder of the five days when the Red Army had fought its way from house to house to drive out the Nazis. American and British bombers had done their work from the skies above, burning the roof of St Stephen's Cathedral and gutting the Opera House in the city's medieval centre.
The months following the capture of the city were in many ways more traumatic than the brief but intense fighting that preceded it, leaving deep emotional scars of fear and suspicion. 'People in dark overcoats hurried along with hunched shoulders and blank, shutdown faces,' recalled a British official who visited in those first few months. 'Furtiveness, fear and suspicion were everywhere.' People were constantly on the move, looking for food, trading their treasured possessions on the black market for dried peas and bread. The phones and electricity were down and at night an air of sinister malevolence hung over the deserted roads.
The Viennese learnt to fear the knock on the door. While the Western powers chose to overlook the previous widespread support for Hitler, the Soviets saw the Austrian people as a defeated enemy and had elected to seize the spoils of victory. 'Every day every hour it is the same,' a French occupation official told a visitor that November at a police station. 'The Russians ... have knocked down an old woman in the street and are stealing her clothes. The Russians are pillaging a house ... A man walks home with his wife and sees her raped before his eyes ... Monsieur, it is fatiguing ... The life in Vienna is fatiguing.' The claims were often exaggerated. A deep hatred of the Russians, inculcated by Nazi propaganda, had led to fear among the Austrians of being left to the Red Army and its vengeance. In August 1945, the Soviets unveiled a memorial to the Red Army in the central Schwarzenbergplatz. A small crowd carried banners, one reading 'Saviour of Vienna from the Atom Bomb'. A British Field Security agent reported that the applause was unenthusiastic.
The memorial joined the statues of forgotten emperors on horseback that stared grandly over the broad Ringstrasse which wrapped around the old city. War had left Vienna a hollowed-out shell of its imperial self. The destruction was not as complete as that inflicted on Berlin and so the still-standing but skeletal façades of baroque buildings gave the city the feel of a film or theatre set for the many visitors who stepped out on to it.
The vision of a rubble-strewn city of shadows, statues and ruins in which the darker paths prospered was immortalised by a former, but not entirely divorced, member of the British Secret Service. In the bitingly cold days of February 1948, if you had happened by the Café Mozart on the square near the Opera building, you would have found a man seated at a table beneath the ornate mirrors and lavish chandeliers working on a screenplay entitled The Third Man as black-tied waiters served thick coffee. There had been snow on the roofs and driving sleet when Graham Greene arrived in the city. A wry Catholic fascinated by sin, Greene was on his way to becoming England's most famous writer, but one who never quite left the secret world. So powerful would be his evocation of Vienna that those who lived through these years would find it hard to separate their own memories from the world as defined by Greene and the film he helped create.
'I never knew Vienna between the wars,' Greene's British military police narrator explains; 'and I am too young to remember the old Vienna with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm; to me it is a simply a city of undignified ruins which turned that February into great glaciers of snow and ice.' The mood in the city was as bleak as the weather when Greene had arrived. There was talk of Nazis meeting in Gasthaus back-rooms planning sabotage and of Communists preparing putsches. People were simply vanishing into thin air never to be heard of again. Rumours swept the locals that the Allies were preparing to abandon the city to the Russians. 'Listening to conversations in trams and streets, as well as taking part in discussions in family circles of all classes, the impression is being gained that morale has reached a dangerously low level,' a British intelligence report read.
The desire to capture post-war Vienna on celluloid – and especially its moral ambiguities that contrasted so sharply with the black and white of the war – came from the Hungarian-born film producer Alexander Korda, another sometime helper of MI6. His company, London Films, had been a front for the service's work since the 1930s – scouting for locations provided excellent access to places otherwise hard to reach. Korda had pulled some strings so that Greene could retreat into the cosy warmth of the Hotel Sacher round the corner from the Café Mozart, normally reserved for British officers involved in the occupation. Before the war the cream of Viennese society had gathered in the Sacher's famous velvet-draped Red Bar. After the war, the bar had become a British officers' canteen, serving baked beans and dried-up rashers on toast with NAAFI tea as full-length portraits of elegant Viennese women and their children and dogs looked on disapprovingly. A warren of rooms and cubbyholes on the ground floor proved perfect for whispered conversations. The headwaiters there and across the city did their best to preserve the airs and graces of Old Vienna, dressing in tailcoats and maintaining their haughty air even as their cafés and restaurants had little food and were cold and dirty and covered in grime.
Greene's tour-guide through the rubble was an unusual character, straight from the pages of one of his books. Peter Smollett, the Times correspondent, knew the city inside out. He had been born there before becoming a British citizen in the 1930s and returned after the war. Greene and Smollett would drink until the early hours of the morning in some of the seedier clubs like the Oriental and Maxim's whose floor-shows harked back to pre-war Berlin. Greene would also visit some of the lowest prostitutes. 'I have my ways,' he explained to one of Korda's staff who had asked him how he could do so while remaining a Catholic.
Smollett took Greene into the Soviet sector of the city where the Prater, the famous funfair, used to draw the crowds. 'The Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of the merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones,' Greene wrote in a letter back home. The wheel gave Greene the defining backdrop for the moment in his drama when loyalties collide. His story revolved around Holly Martins, a cheap thriller writer, coming to visit an old friend, Harry Lime, in Vienna, only to find him recently deceased. A mysterious third man had been seen at the time of his passing and Martins seeks him out. He discovers that the third man was Lime himself, who had faked his own death to try and escape the rap for selling fake penicillin which was killing children. As they meet on the Great Wheel, Lime stares down from the creaking carriage through the steel girders to the broken city below. 'Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving for ever?' he asks. 'In these days, old man, nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't, so why should we?'
Smollett had probably told Greene about the real-life penicillin rackets. He also knew about spies. He had anglicised his name from Hans Peter Smolka and had worked during the war as head of the Russian section in the British Ministry of Information. This rather suited him since he was himself a Communist and, also, from at least the start of the Second World War, passing information to the Soviet Union.
Graham Greene's experience of the world of espionage came after he was recruited into MI6 during the war through his sister who worked for the service. True to the service culture of the time, he had been checked out during a series of boozy all-night parties. His first posting was to mosquito-ridden Freetown in Sierra Leone where vultures clattered on his tin roof and he hunted cockroaches at night by torchlight. He was not a success. A typically Greene-like proposal to open a brothel to try and gather information on German soldiers was rejected by London. He hated being asked to pressure a Scandinavian sailor by warning him that if he did not talk he would be interned and his girlfriend would not wait for him. It was, he thought, 'dirty work' which should really have been done by the local MI5 man and he soon returned to Britain to be immersed in MI6 files.
Excerpted from The Art Of Betrayal by Gordon Corera. Copyright © 2012 Gordon Corera. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted March 19, 2013
I enjoy reading fictional espionage and spy books and I thought it would be useful to read a real account of the subject. This book tells the story behind many of the individuals and incidents I vaguely remember hearing about in my youth. So it was interesting to me to get the full story on these real cases. I would recommend it to anyone with a similar interest.
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Posted November 3, 2013
This is an amazing book that tells you alot about the mi6's history. Sometimes it can be hard to follow, but if you just read the page again you can understand it. In the print book,there are pictures in the middle. Iam unaware of this in the nook book. Reading this book, you will find that it somehow differs from the odd fictional spy novel, but this book in itself is its own spy novel. It gives you an incredible amount of info, but it goes in great detail about the past. You will learn about many people, and basically
This is the ultimate mi6 book.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 10, 2013
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Posted March 17, 2013
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