Kim Philby’s betrayal of England will never be explicable. The country had been good to him, he was welcomed and privileged everywhere, promoted to the top in the intelligence service, and yet found it in himself to work for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. In this extraordinary rejection of fellow-feeling and normal morality, he takes his place as a pathfinder for today’s standard intellectual who looks at his country and sees only wrongs.
After defecting to Moscow he let it be known that he was not receiving his due. In 1981 he was invited to address the Stasi, the East German secret police, all of them apparently alienated to the same point of dehumanization. The BBC has just discovered a film of this ghastly occasion in the Stasi building in East Berlin. A boastful Philby recalls how he tricked the archivist of the British intelligence service by inviting him out regularly for a drink, creating false trust. He then engaged in office intrigues to remove and replace Felix Cowgill, head of the service. “There was, in fact, no discipline,” in Philby’s version. He excused his responsibility for the death of some thousands of anti-Communists: “all our work does imply getting dirty hands from time to time but we do it for a cause that is not dirty in any way.” Could there be a more specious lie than that about murder? The film is grainy, brown, poor quality, and Philby looks ghostly in it, which is only fitting for a figure haunting the 20th century.