In the summer of 1942, an Oxfordshire housewife began a series of brief encounters with a man who was not her husband. They met at a café in Birmingham and then in Banbury on the edge of the Cotswolds, where they strolled arm in arm, like lovers trying to forget the war. They had much in common: both were cultured Germans, refugees from the Nazis. But their secret meetings weren’t romantic – she was a Soviet spy and he a scientist who knew ‘the most dangerous secret in the world’.
His name was Klaus Fuchs. A US Congressional Committee later claimed that no one in human history had ‘accomplished greater damage’. He grew up in the Weimar Republic, where he joined the Communist Party (KPD) and became a brilliant student of nuclear physics. He was beaten up by the Brownshirts, his father was arrested for criticising Hitler, his brother and one of his sisters were exiled, and his mother and another sister killed themselves. Fuchs arrived in Britain in 1933, where he continued his academic studies. After a spell of internment in 1940, he was recruited to the Tube Alloys programme, the British effort to develop nuclear bombs. In April 1941 he went to a party in Hampstead held by Jürgen Kuczynski, a prominent German anti-fascist. Kuczynski’s family, Jews as well as radicals, had also been persecuted, but they had all managed to escape. Kuczynski’s sister, Ursula, was a Russian spy. The following year he introduced her to Fuchs.
The story of Ursula Kuczynski – Agent Sonya – is perfect for Ben Macintyre, who specialises in ripping yarns of war and espionage, full of sympathy and comic irony, which read like thrillers yet thrive on fact. Soon after the Hampstead party, Fuchs was recruited by Soviet military intelligence, to which he passed notes about fission in the uranium isotope U-235, usually by means of circuitous taxi rides or in parcels left on buses. The clichés of spycraft exist because that’s the way things were done. By the time Kuczynski became his controller, Fuchs had given Moscow what he claimed was sufficient information ‘to organise production of nuclear weapons’. But more followed. Over the next two years, she received 570 pages of plans, which she photographed and transmitted as microdots the size of full-stops, attached to letters or slipped to contacts she brushed past in the street.
A puzzle emerges from Macintyre’s telling of Kuczynski’s life: how did she not get caught? Macintyre puts it down to the loyalty she inspired, but she was also preserved by the authenticity of her cover. As well as being an officer in the Soviet army, she was a wife and mother: this created the illusion of normality while imposing great strain. In some ways her existence resembles that of Donald Maclean, as described by Roland Philipps in A Spy Named Orphan (2018) – domestic duty and devotion had to be juggled with nerve-racking espionage.
She was born in 1907, three years after Jürgen, in the smart Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf – her family belonged to the bourgeois intelligentsia; they were Germans first, Jews second. Their father, Robert, was a statistician, president of the Berlin Stock Exchange and owner of the largest private library in Germany. Like his son years later in London, Robert Kuczynski knew many prominent left-wingers, including Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, founders of the KPD. But his own position on the radical spectrum was unclear, a fault Ursula swore to correct in her own life, just as she vowed to be better than her mother, an artist whose main talent was for self-regard. Ursula, however, found being a good parent harder than being a good communist, and when she had to choose between the two, she invariably chose communism.
Turbulence in the Weimar Republic, including the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, pushed Robert further to the left. Ursula, a gangly teenager with riotous hair, resented her mother for impeding her studies (while her brother forged ahead) and longed for adventure. In 1924, she joined the German Young Communists’ League and was coshed by a policeman at a demo. Her disapproving parents found her a job in a bookshop, where she was allowed to dust the books but not read them. At nineteen, she joined the KPD, read Die Rote Fahne and kept a Luger hidden inside a cushion. Among her new acquaintances was Rudi Hamburger, a Jewish architecture student keen on modernism, a progressive but not a communist. She quit the bookshop for a publishing firm, where she trashed her prospects by writing an article for Die Rote Fahne denouncing the working conditions there.
She followed her brother to America in 1928, where her love for glittering New York made her hate herself. After reading Daughter of Earth, a novel by the radical journalist Agnes Smedley, she joined the American Communist Party. She returned to Germany just in time for the Wall Street Crash and, refusing financial help from her family, married Hamburger and set up house in a pokey flat. He qualified as an architect but couldn’t find work, while she ran the Marxist Workers’ Lending Library from a disused pigeon cellar. Then Hamburger was offered a job redesigning government buildings in Shanghai, and they sailed in the summer of 1930 with two suitcases, a chessboard, and some bread and sausage.
The extremes of wealth in Shanghai exceeded anything in Berlin or New York: fifty thousand Westerners lived in comfortable enclaves; there were chic boutiques and restaurants on one side of the street, opium dens and brothels on the other. Kuczynski met Agnes Smedley there and was dazzled by her volatility, promiscuity and exhibitionism. Smedley was a Soviet spy, and with her support, Kuczynski was recruited by Moscow and received a visit from Richard Sorge, a charismatic German described by Macintyre as ‘a strange mixture of bibliophile and brawler, pedantic scholar and hard-nosed functionary … a dissolute warrior-priest’.The Hamburger home became a rendezvous, and domesticity a disguise. Ursula was six months pregnant; Rudi was busy designing Art Deco furniture, innocent of what was going on until his wife remarked over dinner that she’d quite like to work for the Chinese communists. Their son Michael was born in February 1931 (named after Michael Gold, an American communist acquaintance who was once told to go fuck himself by Ernest Hemingway, whom Gold had called out for class treachery). They moved to a spacious villa, which they furnished nicely. Kuczynski was now both the pleasant provincial wife of a municipal architect and a secret agent.
Sorge was fond of fast motorcycles, women and booze. One day, he took Kuczynski for a spin on his Zündapp K500 and that was that. Their affair brought her into his network (Macintyre calls it ‘a new secret family’), much to the chagrin of Smedley, one of his other lovers. As Kuczynski became more useful, she was given a codename: Sonya, meaning ‘dormouse’. Sorge thought a baby was the ideal accessory for a spy.
Appalled by Japanese militarism in Manchuria and the rise of Hitler, Hamburger too became a communist. Perhaps he hoped it would rekindle his marriage. If so, it was too late. Kuczynski thought about going home to Germany, but the Gestapo was soon harassing her family and her father was forced into hiding. The Nazis burned every volume in the lending library she’d set up. The Kuczynskis fled to London, and Ursula went to Moscow for six months of spy school: she learned Russian, Morse code and unarmed combat, built radios and blew things up. She had left Michael with her husband’s parents in Czechoslovakia (a precaution, in case he came back speaking Russian and blew her cover) and missed him terribly. His third birthday came and went, and Kuczynski, now a Red Army captain, was sent to the Manchurian city of Mukden – a miniature Shanghai full of drifters – to support the Chinese resistance against the Japanese.
Her partner on the mission was a taciturn Lithuanian called Johann Patra, a former seaman. Their cover story sounds like a romcom: Kuczynski, accompanied by her son, would pose as a rep for a Shanghai bookshop and Patra would be something big in typewriters. They would sail on the SS Conte Verdi and, after ignoring each other for a while, would begin an affair. Kuczynski collected Michael, who after seven months of separation had to be dragged screaming from his grandparents, boarded the liner and got into character. Patra, less convincingly, read Hegel and kept half-smoked cigars behind his ear. She ticked him off for this non-bourgeois habit, claiming it would attract suspicion, but she also wanted to improve him.
When they arrived in Mukden, Kuczynski refused to let Patra move into her elegant home, concentrating instead on starting work. She made contact with the underground, sewed notes into her petticoats, and tinkered with a transmitter. Japanese planes were scanning the skies for illicit signals, and the Kempeitai – the equivalent of the Gestapo – was waging war against guerrillas and spies. She slept badly and lost the weight she had gained in the Russian training camp. Then Patra began to bring chemicals to the house for making explosives. ‘He was a considerate lover,’ Macintyre tells us. ‘And he knew how to build an excellent bomb.’
Michael remembered Mukden in ‘phantom mosaic fragments’. He picked up some Mandarin, and warmed to Patra. Hamburger visited his son, still hoping that he and Ursula would be reunited. Two resistance members, Wang and his wife Shushin, came to stay. Shushin acted as Michael’s nanny until she and her husband were arrested, and Kuczynski was ordered by Moscow to get out. The cover story would be that she had split up with Patra. She took Michael to Peking, and moped until Patra turned up and they spent a month’s leave on a kind of blissful honeymoon. It was August 1935. Kuczynski was then sent back to Shanghai, where she confessed to Hamburger that she was carrying Patra’s child. Both men wanted her to have an abortion; when she refused, Hamburger agreed to be the child’s legal father. She then went to Britain, where she was met at Gravesend by the family she hadn’t seen for five years.
After that, she was sent to Warsaw, accompanied by Hamburger, Michael and her childhood nanny Ollo (co-opted as ‘assistant spy’). Her boss there was Bulgarian, a former gunrunner and cinema musician working as a florist, for whom she tapped out messages. Nina was born in April 1936, and six months later the family moved to Danzig to liaise with anti-fascist saboteurs, whose messages Kuczynski picked up in Nina’s pram. After her telegraphy aroused suspicion, she went alone to Moscow, where she brushed up on how to derail a train and received the Order of the Red Banner. She saw Patra and realised she no longer loved him, another kitchen sink drama played out against an epic backdrop. Stalin was feeding legions of faithful servants into the grinder, including some of her friends, but Kuczynski paid no attention – ‘to display any form of curiosity was itself an invitation to death.’ After a dull stint as a ‘secret postman’ back in Poland, she was sent to Switzerland, which was bristling with spies of every nationality, including Swiss agents who ‘politely but insistently’ spied on everyone. Her marriage to Hamburger finally over, she settled with Michael, Nina and Ollo in an idyllic farmhouse in the mountains, overlooking Lake Geneva. She constructed a radio, and at the end of September, heard about Munich on the BBC news and knew it meant war not peace.
If a novelist were inventing this story, they might now consider having Kuczynski plot to kill Hitler, before rejecting the idea as too obvious. But that’s what happened. Before she left Britain, she had suggested that an agent be dropped into Germany. Alexander Foote was a Yorkshireman, a former coal merchant, chicken-feed sales manager and RAF deserter, who had run off to fight in the Spanish Civil War after getting a girl pregnant. He enthusiastically accepted the offer of a spying job, knowing only that ‘it will be abroad, and very dangerous.’ He fantasised about springing prisoners from Dachau like a modern Scarlet Pimpernel. When he first met Kuczynski in Geneva she was holding an orange, in which, as arranged, he showed an interest. After she had replied correctly – ‘You can have it for a penny’ – they went to a café, and she sent him off to Munich. Foote’s job was to swot up on Germany in the public library and, once established in the city, send her a message in invisible ink. He went, found himself a flat and a German teacher and dined out for every meal. Lunching at the Osteria Bavaria one day, he was surprised to see Hitler, and learned that the Führer was a regular, unvaryingly ordering egg mayonnaise, pasta with vegetables, and fruit compote. In April 1939 Foote brought another British spy to the osteria, a civil war comrade called Len Beurton. Sure enough, in came the Führer, flanked by Eva Braun and Unity Mitford. Afterwards, Foote and Beurton presented Kuczynski with an assassination plan. She approved it and, while Ollo was picking daffodils with Michael and Nina, showed them how to make a bomb.
Stalin may have saved Hitler’s life by signing the Soviet-German Pact, at which point the agents were stood down. Whatever excuses Kuczynski subsequently made for Moscow’s fascist alliance, Foote saw that the news hit her ‘like a thunderbolt’. Beurton and Foote escaped to Switzerland on the eve of war, and lounged around at her house, sunbathing and taking long walks. She was in a tight spot because the Nuremburg Laws meant that, as a Jew, she could not replace her German passport, which was about to expire. She had her marriage with Hamburger annulled on a fictitious charge of adultery, and married Beurton to get British citizenship. He was good with the kids and she fell in love with him. He reciprocated, noting that, for all her skill with radios and explosives, ‘she remained feminine and was the most devoted of mothers’. MI5 tried and failed to block her passport application.
In a bizarre twist, Ollo, who feared being left behind when the family went to Britain, betrayed the new couple: they were tipped off by a hairdresser. Moscow ordered them to leave before their cover was blown, but this meant passing through Spain, where Beurton, the ex-Republican fighter, was refused a visa. Kuczynski and the children arrived in Oxford without him. The Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941 ‘appalled and elated’ her: communism was in danger, but her masters were once again enemies of fascism. Desperate to be reunited with his new family, Beurton sold out a Chinese spy to MI6 in return for a passport and landed in Britain in July 1942. A few weeks later, Kuczynski had her first meeting with Fuchs.
The Americans and the British, including Fuchs, co-operated on the Manhattan Project. Fuchs’s achievement – and Kuczynski’s – was to ensure that Stalin was copied in without London or Washington suspecting. Now promoted to colonel, she was the most senior woman in Soviet military intelligence. In September 1943 she had another baby, Peter, with Beurton. The Beurtons of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, saw no conflict between their commitment to the British war effort and spying for Russia. MI5 thought differently, but its most ferocious bloodhound, Milicent Bagot (supposedly the model for le Carré’s Connie Sachs), couldn’t catch them, even when someone noticed that their wireless set was suspiciously large. Beurton was called up to the RAF, and, in the last stages of the war, Kuczynski helped recruit German communists to parachute into the Reich. These spies masqueraded as US agents, with forged papers, ration stamps, pistols, diamonds and cyanide capsules. They also took with them a secret communications system – the walkie-talkie – which a nosy SS officer in Berlin almost discovered, but was in the end safely handed over to the Russians.
When the war was over, Beurton got a job in an aluminium factory in Banbury, while Kuczynski cycled around, brought up the children, made scones, and radioed Moscow from the outdoor privy. But MI5 was closing in: she was interrogated, but tried to give the impression that any irregular thing she might have done was in the past. Early in 1950, Fuchs was arrested and confessed, and Kuczynski hurried to Germany with Nina and Peter – Michael was at university – leaving Beurton behind. She told people she’d be away for a few days.
East Berlin was in ruins. She moved into a cold, one-room apartment and enrolled the children at school, where they were teased for their bad German. An intelligence officer took her to a restaurant to discuss her next mission, but extraordinarily she resigned, and even more extraordinarily was allowed to do so. She took a job as a press officer dispensing propaganda; in June Beurton arrived; Michael followed a year later. Naturally, she was spied on by the Stasi, who noted that she had ‘still not overcome all her petit-bourgeois tendencies, among which an individualist attitude is revealed’. These tendencies were on full display in 1956 when, as Ruth Werner, she began writing bestselling children’s books. To her admirers she was ‘East Germany’s Enid Blyton’.
When she died in Berlin in July 2000, Putin hailed Kuczynski as ‘a super-agent of military intelligence’; but she was also the mother, lover and soldier of Macintyre’s subtitle. By the time communism collapsed she was disillusioned: by what had been revealed about the Great Purge, by the suppression of the uprisings in Hungary and Prague. To contain her disappointment, and to make sense of her life, she fell back on the one achievement, apart from her three children, she felt unreservedly proud of: she had fought fascism with every ounce of energy and strength in her body. ‘For that reason,’ she said, ‘I hold my head up high.’