My own very modest beginnings were writing an article on the English Civil War for the school magazine in 1949. I opened with “Bolton was a quiet little town until 1643 …”, but perhaps my early ambition was to be a foreign correspondent.
Perhaps it was the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s spy thriller, Foreign Correspondent (1940), nominated for six Academy Awards, but did not win any. Joel McCrea played the hero but I was far more impressed by Leslie Howard, the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and a partly German mother, yet in reality, his image was that of English gentleman.
He had completed his education at Dulwich College. I was very impressed by Pimpernel Smith (1940) in which, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, an English archaeologist, Leslie Howard, is responsible for a series of daring rescues of important scientists and humanitarians from Nazi-occupied territories.
Local news and local buses
After the school magazine, my readership greatly expanded when I was invited to write for the local daily, the Bolton Evening News, about Germany, after a visit with a friend to the Leipzig trade fair. My article appeared on 7 January 1955, with the heading “Behind the Curtain East Germans live a life of drab austerity”. I was lucky that a journalist at the local paper, who knew my father, was interested in Germany. By that time, I was a student at London University. Without knowing anyone, I was very surprised when, after returning from a continental hitch-hiking holiday, I found a cheque waiting for me from The Manchester Guardian. I was thrilled to bits!
During my university summer vacation, I always got a job. That summer I worked as a bus conductor for Ribble on a bus from Bolton to Blackpool. A strike broke out on a neighbouring bus company and I decided to retire from the bus service. The article I wrote produced anger in a businessman. In a letter to the paper, he expressed his disapproval of students taking vacation jobs as waiters and such like. Vacations were for study!
From academia to published author
During my years as a student and beyond I wrote many articles often without expectation of payment but my PhD, on the German Social Democrats, led friends to encourage me to attempt to get it published in a more popular form.
I did and it fell into the hands of Captain Robert Maxwell, MC, MP. He was a remarkable man and one could not help being impressed by him. Born in 1923 Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch in a small town in Czechoslovakia, now part of Ukraine, his family were poor Orthodox Jews, most of whom were murdered in Auschwitz. He had escaped years earlier to France. In May 1940, he joined the Czechoslovak army in exile.
In January 1945, Maxwell became a hero for his actions in “storming a German machine-gun nest”. He was awarded the Military Cross, pinned to his uniform by Field Marshal Montgomery. Attached to the UK Foreign Office, Maxwell served in Berlin. He became a British subject in 1946 and changed his name to Maxwell in 1948. His Berlin period helped him (and others) into money, and he went into publishing. He was elected Labour MP for Buckingham in 1964 but lost his seat in 1970.
My book made me more popular, found his approval and was published in 1966. It received mixed reviews, welcomed more on the Left than on the Right.
A surprise invitation
To my great surprise, in 1965, I was invited to write a chapter of the book Profile of East Germany. It was on the recommendation of my former supervisor at the LSE, Professor Keith Panter-Brick, about whom I knew little at the time. According to his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, he spent “five years in Stalag XXA and Arbeitskommando units in occupied Poland, working — as an ordinary soldier — the life of a virtual slave”.
I attempted to check the other ten contributors, including Panter-Brick, and all appeared to be clear of any Communist leanings. Profile of East Germany was published by George G Harrap and Company Limited, London, a noted publisher of high quality speciality books, such as the memoirs of Winston Churchill, or highly illustrated volumes.
The subjects of Profile appeared non-political – agriculture, the arts, industry, Leipzig Fair, science, sport, travel, and so on. My subject was the economy. I attempted to be as objective as possible. To my horror and annoyance, all my footnotes, were deleted! The book contained no footnotes but plenty of pictures. On the 120 pages there were 142 illustrations large and small, as well as several maps and tables. Images of police and soldiers there were none! Nor were there any pictures of parades of the ‘mass organisations’. As far as I know, the book was not widely reviewed, but once it was published, as well as praise, I came under fire by word of mouth and in reviews. The missing foot notes would have dealt with most of the criticisms raised by the reviewers.
Another surprise invitation
Another surprise came my way. I was asked to write East Germany in the Nations of the Modern World series, published by well-established Ernest Benn. The choice of title was given as they had already published West Germany. I had been recommended by Professor Michael Balfour, a person unknown to me. Michael Balfour, formerly Professor of European History at the University of East Anglia, was a leading expert on the political warfare conducted by both Germany and Britain during the Second World War.
His book Propaganda in War 1939-45 (1979) is an immensely impressive and stimulating work, based on personal experience in the Ministry of Information, the Political Warfare Executive, and the Psychological Warfare Department of the Foreign Office. Invitations to lecture came in from both sides of the Atlantic.
Popularity and a confused Karl Marx
Published by Ernest Benn Ltd in 1969, I fell into the experienced hands of John Collis. How lucky I was! My book shot up the list ahead of numerous books published in 1969 on the 20th anniversary of the founding of the DDR. Sitting in my university office I received a call from the head of the German Department, Prof Neville Houghton-Smith, congratulating me on the review in the leading West German weekly, Die Zeit. He was another person I admired who had served in wartime intelligence both in the UK and the USA.
The front-cover picture was the military parade in East Berlin in 1968, including rockets and other mobile devices one of which broke down! The troops goose-stepped past the leaders in their stone-grey uniforms and chalked-white leather belts and other straps. This must have reminded some of Hitler’s Wehrmacht or the earlier Reichswehr. The image of Karl Marx was displayed high up above the East German leaders and their guests in the review platform. What would Marx have thought? “Good God, what am I doing here?”