Archive for the 'Heroes' Category

Caning John Pilger

Wilfred Burchett (1911-1983) was a brave and intrepid Australian journalist who mainly reported from the other side in the Cold War. He was the first western reporter to visit Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, something he did without permission from the US Occupation authorities, and was thus able to counter attempted US military lies and disinformation about what we now know was radiation poisoning; he did this most dramatically at a US military press conference in Japan immediately after his visit to the city.  For many years in the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Australian Governments refused to renew Burchett’s Australian passport, something only remedied by the incoming Labor administration of Gough Whitlam on 6 December 1972, four days after Labor’s election win.

Another Australian journo, John Pilger, wrote a preface to a collection on articles about Burchett, edited by Ben Kiernen in 1986. On the second page of his preface, Pilger quotes from Burchett’s autiobiography, and then commits a schoolboy howler. “Soon afterwards [Pilger writes, page x], Wilfred went ‘on the road with a swag’ and in Queensland was adopted by a group of cane-cutters . . . ”

No, Mr Pilger, no! Although Burchett is careful not to name the location of the sugarcane farm he worked on, he says (page 62) it is on an arm of the Clarence River, upstream from a sugar-mill whose chimney effusions he could smell and possibly also see, on a large island bisected by a canal with horse-drawn barges transporting bundles of cut cane. The mill would be the one at Harwood (still in operation today, thanks to former state MP, Don Day), and the island most likely Palmers Island. Other large islands upstream of the Harwood Mill would be Harwood Island itself or Chatsworth Island, but these are not bisected by canals.  But all of these, including the entire mouth of the Clarence River are in New South Wales, Mr Pilger, not Queensland.

Burchett is briefly mentioned as a social acquaintance of Guy Burgess in Moscow in the 1950s in the recent biography of Burgess by Andrew Lownie, reviewed here.



Wilfred Burchett [1969]: Passport: An Autobiography. Melbourne, Australia: Nelson.

Ben Kiernan (Editor) [1986]: Burchett Reporting the Other Side of the World 1939-1983. London, UK: Quartet.

ARM Members

The African Resistance Movement (ARM) was an underground movement engaged in sabotage and violent resistance to the South African apartheid regime. Formed in late 1960, it just predates MK and Poqo, the armed wings of the ANC and PAC, respectively (although its public announcement occurred 5 days after that of MK). The founders of the ARM were members of the non-racial Liberal Party, whose leaders had been arrested, detained, and banned in the state of emergency declared in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960.  Both the ANC and PAC were declared banned organizations in that same period.  These government actions led many reasonable people to believe that peaceful, democratic protest was no longer possible in South Africa.  The ANC, after all, had been engaged in peaceful public protest since its formation in 1912 and still found itself declared illegal.

The ARM operated between 1960 and mid 1964.  According to South African History Online, ARM members came from three distinct groups:  members of the Liberal Party, who were mostly white;  former members of the Transvaal ANC Youth League who had defected to form the African Freedom Movement, who were mostly black;  and, former members of the South African Communist Party, some of whom were Trotskyites who had been expelled from the party.  Jonty Driver estimates that the ARM had 58 members: 17 in Cape Town, 27 in Johannesburg, and 14 elsewhere (Durban, PE, Grahamstown, Europe and Canada).  I can find no list of members online, so decided to compile my own.  My sources are given below.

The clear policy of the organization was to not undertake any actions in which people could be hurt. All but one of the 25 actions undertaken adhered to this rule. Most involved attempts to bring down power pylons or similar state-owned infrastructure.  The final action, a bomb left in a suitcase on Johannesburg Railway Station on the afternoon of 24 July 1964, sadly killed one elderly lady, Mrs Ethel Rhys, and maimed several others, including her teenage grand-daughter.  Warning calls had been placed to the police and to two newspapers, but no efforts were made by the authorities to clear the platform.  It is still not known whether this inaction was deliberate or not.

The planting of a bomb in a station was contrary to ARM policy and practice, and was undertaken when almost all ARM members had been arrested or had fled into exile. It was the solo work of John Harris, who was subsequently tried and executed for murder. Harris was the only white person tried and executed by the apartheid regime for a political crime (although others, such as Rick Turner and Ruth First, were assassinated without judicial process).  Several ARM members received gaol terms, and I note these below.  Members of ARM also bravely assisted in spiriting people out of the country, both fellow ARM members and others wanted by the security police,  as did the  underground railroad that operated later in Rhodesia. One ARM member, Michael Schneider, went on to help spirit Jewish people out of various countries, including Bosnia, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria and Yemen.

The decision by any individual to embark on a campaign of violent resistance cannot have been an easy one, even given the already-evident violence of the state and its organs in South Africa.  Moreover, with organisations such as the ANC declared illegal,  ARM membership would likely have led to arrest, and arrest to torture or worse, as indeed it did.  Thus, ARM membership would have required considerable courage.

  • Monty Berman (co-founder)
  • Myrtle Berman
  • Alan Brooks (1940-2008) (4 years, 2 suspended)
  • Eddie Daniels (15 years)
  • Johannes Dladla
  • Raymond Eisenstein (2 years)
  • David Evans (5 years)
  • John Harris (1937-1965) (executed)
  • Dennis Higgs
  • David de Keller (10 years)
  • Baruch Hirson (1921-1999) (9 years)
  • Bernice Kaplin
  • Stephanie Kemp (5 years, 3 suspended)
  • John Lang (co-founder)
  • John Laredo (5 years)
  • Adrian Leftwich (1940-2013)
  • Hugh Lewin (7 years)
  • John Lloyd
  • Ruben Mowszowski
  • Hillary Mutch
  • Ronnie Mutch
  • Samuel Olifant
  • Rhoda Prager
  • Lynette van der Riet
  • Neville Rubin
  • Diana Russell
  • Michael Schneider
  • Stephen Segale
  • Milton Setlhapelo
  • Willie Tibane
  • Antony Trew (4 years, 2 suspended)
  • Rick Turner (1942-1978)
  • Randolph Vigne (1928-2016)
  • Robert Watson
  • Ernest Wentzel
  • Rosemary Wentzel.

I welcome any updates or corrections.


CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver [2002]: Used to be great friends. Granta, 80:7-26.

CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver [2015]: The Man with the Suitcase: The Life, Execution and Rehabilitation of John Harris, Liberal Terrorist. Crane River.

Simon Finch [2016]: The Good Terrorist. TV Documentary, Channel 4, UK.

Adrian Leftwich [2002]: I gave the names. Granta, 78:9-31.

Hugh Lewin [2011]: Stones against the Mirror: Friendship in the time of the South African Struggle. Cape Town, RSA: Umuzi.

Gideon Shimoni [2003]: Community and Conscience:  The Jews in Apartheid South Africa.  Waltham, MA, USA:  Brandeis University Press.

South African History Online: African Resistance Movement


Postscript (Added 2016-01-17): In his apologia, the late Adrian Leftwich describes his behaviour as “shameful, harmful and wrong” (2002, page 25).  It is not clear to me if he is referring to his membership of ARM as a whole (which is the focus of the preceding part of that section of the memoir) or just his fast collapse under police interrogation, a collapse in which he gave up the names of his fellow members.  In either case, he was mistaken. Everyone in such circumstances will eventually succumb to torture and so there is no shame and no wrong in giving up names.  There was harm, but this arose from the speed of his collapse (he held out just a day, it seems) and the extent of his prior knowledge.  Membership of ARM was certainly neither wrong nor shameful – quite the reverse, in fact – and only for one action harmful. Where Leftwich appeared to have erred, at this distance of time and morality, is in tradecraft: he should not have known so much about the organization, nor its membership (ie, he should have had fewer names to give up); he should not have saved a field guide for selecting targets in a book in his flat; his girlfriend should not have stored explosives in her flat; he and the other members should have made plans to alert one another, via coded or secret means, of any arrests; they should each have had well-practised plans and places for hiding, or plans for escape abroad; etc.  In a sense, the poor tradecraft was an indication of integrity of intentions: anyone engaged in armed struggle for its own sake, or for the thrills it provided, would have been more professional in undertaking it. Leftwich, like his colleagues, remains a hero.

Transitions 2015

People who have passed on during 2015, whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Yogi Berra (1925-2015), American baseball player
  • Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), American jazz musician
  • Robert Conquest (1917-2015), British kremlinologist
  • Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015), Australian politician
  • Jaako Hintikka (1929-2015), Finnish philosopher and logician
  • Lisa Jardine (1944-2015), British historian
  • Joan Kirner (1938-2015), Australian politician, aka “Mother Russia”
  • Kurt Masur (1927-2015), East German conductor
  • John Forbes Nash (1928-2015), American mathematician
  • Boris Nemtsov (1959-2015), Russian politician
  • Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), British-American neurologist and writer
  • Gunter Schabowski (1929-2015), East German politician
  • Alex Schalck-Golodkowski (1932-2015), East German politician
  • Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), American composer and musician (and French horn player on Miles Davis’ 1959 album, Porgy and Bess).
  • Brian Stewart (1922-2015), British intelligence agent.

Last year’s post is here.

A salute to Bella Subbotovskaya

Bella Subbotovskaya (1938-1982) was a Russian mathematician who founded an underground university in Moscow to teach mathematics to students, particularly but not only Jewish students, excluded from education by the anti-Semitic policies of Moscow State University and other institutions of higher learning. The unpaid lecturers in this underground university were both Jewish and non-Jewish. The activity came to be called the Jewish People’s University and operated, against strong KGB harassment, from 1978 to 1983. Her death was due to a suspicious car accident that may well have been a KGB assassination.

I never cease to be amazed at the stupidity of racism. Even in a allegedly rationalist state such as the late USSR, the authorities deemed it desirable to exclude the best students from university on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.


G. Szpiro [2007]: Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya and the Jewish People’s University. Notices of the American Mathematics Society (NAMS), 54 (10): 1326-1330.

London Life

In solidarity with the people of France, and in support of human civilization, Trafalgar Square an hour ago:


(Photo Credit: Boris Johnson, Mayor of London)

RIP: Natalia Gorbanevskaya

Natalie Gorbanevska 19677

The death occurred last month of Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013, pictured in 1967), Russian poet and Soviet dissident, and one of the Moscow Seven,  brave opponents of the occupation by forces of the Warsaw Pact of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.  From 1975 she lived in exile, initially in Israel and then in France.  For most of this time she was stateless, and did not have a passport until 2006, when granted Polish citizenship.   As in the 19th century, Russia disowns its best and brightest children.  The Economist has an obituary here.  

There was more than this one protest against the invasion, with over 200 people involved in protests elsewhere in the USSR and across the Eastern Bloc.  A list of 160 Soviet protesters against the invasion, prepared by Memorial, is here.  The courage of the Moscow Seven and these others has been recognized by the Czech Republic, but not yet by the Russian Federation.   Indeed, Russia has still to apologize to Czechslovakia for the invasion. 

From Gorbanevskaya’s poetry (translation by Daniel Weissbort):

The crime has not yet been expunged,
the hour of truth has not yet struck.
logs in the stove still ticking over,
although the fire’s already out.

What we’re thinking

Christopher Weyant’s cartoon in The New Yorker (HT: SP).


We keep books because they are personal souvenirs of the past – physical reminders of the feelings we had while reading them.  The same goes for concert programs and tickets for sporting events, which many people keep.     As more of our life goes online, we risk losing such souvenirs.  Only the online record itself may provide a long-term reminder of something, or someone.

On the other hand, the web makes it vastly easier to bring to wide attention something or someone who should be remembered.  In the early days of photography, photographers recorded memorable events, such as weddings and Presidential inaugurations.  Susan Sontag noticed that something changed as photography ceased to be only done by professionals and became a democratic pastime: the relationship between events and photographs switched.  Now events were memorable (and remembered) precisely because they had been photographed.   The web is effecting the same reversal, I believe.

I can record a person of great influence on my life, who would otherwise be entirely forgotten to history, or people whom I never met, but whose words and actions have affected mine, for example, the activist-poets Vadim Delone, or Robert Southwell.  I can record people who think differently to the verbal paradigm which so dominates contemporary western culture – the  matherati, say, or musical thinkers.   I can even use the Web to find and trace the genealogy of some of my own musical thinking, say, and then record for posterity these cross-generational networks of connections.  Since so much of written history is by definition written by people au fait with language-based thought, it is particularly important that minority, non-language thinkers are not forgotten. (Many more people know, for instance, of the writers of Japanese haiku poetry in the Edo period than do of the ordinary people who solved temple geometry problems, the Sangaku.)

The souvenirs I mention above are mostly personal, perhaps of little interest to anyone else.  The same became true of photographs, early in their adoption.  The Web also lets us record for posterity events and people of much wider significance.   Perhaps the best recent example I know is Normblog’s admirable and riveting series of Holocaust stories, Figures from a Dark Time.  Apparently not everyone agrees that this series is worth doing.  Let me add my strong opinion that this recording is both necessary and important, and we should all be very grateful for Norm’s efforts.  After 9/11, the New York Times published short obituaries of every person killed in the attack.    Although it may be too late, we should be aiming for the same in remembering the Holocaust.

Coates on Bam

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a superb and insightful essay on black and white perceptions of Barack Obama as President and as black American in a country that experienced 175 years of white affirmative action.  The common phrase describing what black Americans need to be for success in white society is:  twice as good and half as black.


XX Foxiness: Counter-espionage

I have just read Ben MacIntyre’s superb “Double Cross:  The True Story of the D-Day Spies” (Bloomsbury, London 2012), which describes the succesful counter-espionage operation conducted by the British against the Nazis in Britain during WW II.   Every Nazi foreign agent in Britain was captured and either tried and executed, or turned, being run by the so-called Twenty (“XX”) Committee.   This network of double agents, many of whom created fictional sub-agents, became a secret weapon of considerable power, able to mislead and misdirect  Nazi war efforts through their messages back to their German controllers (in France, Portugal, Spain and Germany).

The success of these misdirections was known precisely, since Britain was able to read most German encrypted communications, through the work of Bletchley Park (the Enigma project).  Indeed, since the various German intelligence controllers often simply passed on the messages they received from their believed-agents in Britain verbatim (ie, without any summarization or editing),  these message helped the decoders decipher each German daily cypher code:  the decoders had both the original message sent from Britain and its encrypted version communicated between German intelligence offices in (say) Lisbon and Berlin.

This secret weapon was used most famously to deflect Nazi attentions from the true site of the D-Day landings in France.  So successful was this, with entire fictional armies created and reported on in South East England and in Scotland (for purported attacks on Calais in France and on Norway), that even after the war’s end, former Nazi military leaders talked about the non-use by allies of these vast forces, still not realizing the fiction.

One interesting question is the extent to which parts of German intelligence were witting or even complicit in this deception.   The Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization, under its leader Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (who led it 1935-1944), was notoriously anti-Nazi.  Indeed, many of its members were arrested for plotting against Hitler.   Certainly, if not witting or complicit, many of its staff were financially corrupt, and happy to take a percentage of payments made to agents they knew or suspected to be fictional.

Another fascinating issue is when it may not be good to know something:  One Abwehr officer, Johnny Jebsen, remained with them while secretly talking to the British about defecting.   The British could not, of course, know where his true loyalties lay while he remained with the Abwehr.   Despite their best efforts to stop him, he told them of all the German secret agents then working in Britain.  They tried to stop him because once he told them, he knew that that they knew who the Germans believed their agents to be.  Their subsequent reactions to having this knowledge  – arrest each agent or leave the agent in place – would thus tell him which agents were really working for the Nazis and which were in fact double agents.

Jebsen was drugged and forcibly returned to Germany by the Abwehr (apparently, to pre-empt him being arrested by the SS and thus creating an excuse for the closure of the Abwehr), and then was tortured, sent to a concentration camp, and probably murdered by the Nazis.  It seems he did not reveal anything of what he knew about the British deceptions, and withstood the torture very bravely.  MacIntyre rightly admires him as one of the unsung heroes of this story. 

Had Jebsen been able to defect to Britain, as others did, the British would have faced the same quandary that later confronted both CIA and KGB with each defecting espionage agent during the Cold War:  Is this person a genuine defector or a plant by the other side?  I have talked before about some of the issues for what to believe, what to pretend to believe, and what to do in the case of KGB defector (and IMHO likely plant) Yuri Nosenko, here and here.