Michael Burn, always known as Micky, has just died at the great age of 97, and he ought to be celebrated. His life is a kind of shorthand for the whole twentieth century, and absolutely unrepeatable, since he was in turn a Nazi sympathizer, a commando captain who stormed the Germans at the famous raid on St. Nazaire in 1942, a prisoner of war in the fortress of Colditz, a Communist sympathizer, the lover of the shameful traitor Guy Burgess (it took more courage to admit that than to shoot it out with the Germans), married to Mary, one of the great beauties of her day, a writer and an anthologized poet, a Catholic convert — I have probably overlooked some of his incarnations as he tried to give answers to the question of how a complete human being ought to live.
I met him when I was researching a biography of Unity Mitford. She had gone to live in Munich in the hope of being picked up by Hitler. This was a lady’s version of a street-corner pick-up. Amazingly, it worked. Micky also came to Munich, and Unity introduced him to Hitler. There can’t be many people still around who shook hands with Hitler and received a signed copy of Mein Kampf, as Micky did. He told Hitler that he, Hitler, was very popular with the young in Britain, and Hitler was pleased, commenting on Micky’s good manners and seeing to it that Micky was officially invited to the Nuremberg rally. Micky also took in his stride a visit to the Dachau concentration camp — he used to reflect with horror that he had believed the camp was a positive part of the new Germany. A couple of years later, he realized how mistaken he had been, and became a soldier. The purpose of the St. Nazaire action was to deny the French port to the German battleship Tirpitz. Several commando units took part, and five men were awarded the Victoria Cross. Micky was the sole survivor of his unit. Captured, he was interrogated by a man he recognized from the Nuremberg rally.
In Colditz, he wrote his first novel and switched to Communism. As a special correspondent for The Times after the war, he covered the show trials that Stalin instigated throughout the Soviet bloc at the start of the Cold War. He thought that Laszlo Rajk, the Hungarian Communist, really was guilty as charged and deserved to be executed — and that too made him look back with horror at his gullibility. He almost ruined himself by setting up some sort of communistic cooperative in the splendidly named town of Penrhyndeudraeth in North Wales, where he lived (and was a friend and neighbor of Bertrand Russell). Luckily, he wrote some successful books, including Mr. Lyward’s Answer, about reclaiming juvenile delinquents. In 2003, he published Turned Towards the Sun, his thoughtful and fascinating autobiography.
In the end, Catholicism gave him the inner solace he sought, I think — but what life choices, and what experiences! R.I.P.