George Blake’s death marks the declining memory of the Cold War’s lessons

The year 2020 will certainly not be forgotten anytime soon, as much as we would love to regard it as a distant memory. Its denouement on the other hand signifies the growing fogginess there is for remembering the past. As new events continue to dominate the current narrative, it either overrides or corrupts previous ones.

The death of George Blake – which only comes a few weeks after the passing of another prominent figure in the espionage world, John le Carré – is a sad reminder of this, even if one disagrees with the man’s actions during the Cold War. Blake’s role as a double agent for the Soviet Union is one of the last of a few remaining relics that defined the height of the Cold War. Whilst not as prolific as his fellow spies within the Cambridge Five (especially after Kim Philby’s defection in 1963), Blake was an interesting figure to say the least. Born originally in the Netherlands as George Behar to a British-neutralised Sephardic Jewish father and a Dutch mother, Blake was educated both in the Netherlands and Egypt. By the time World War II started had he returned to the Netherlands, assisting the Dutch Resistance once the country was under German occupation before making his escape to Britain. Already before becoming an adult had Blake lived a life of escapades, a theme that would go on to define the rest of his life.

Upon his return to Britain, Blake had joined the Royal Navy where he was recruited by SIS (MI6) before enrolling into Cambridge University to study Russian. After the war, he was posted in Seoul. It was there when he was captured by advancing North Korean forces during the early stages of the Korean War and subsequently relocated to the north of the country during his imprisonment. It was during his three years of captivity under his North Korean overlords that Blake’s life and perspectives would undergo a turning point. Having gone through the several works of Karl Marx and other communist theorists – along with witnessing the bombing of North Korea by the United Nations – Blake became disillusioned with the West and covertly defected to the Soviet Union.

The lives of men like Blake serve as an example of the realities that global politics consists of and dissolves the assumptions that we often take for granted. The good and evil narrative that was frequently reiterated during World War II in the fight against fascism had quickly u-turned to one between capitalism and communism once the demise of the war gave birth to the Cold War. Yet this itself is a diminutive explanation and, at worst, misleading. As the acclaimed Cold War historian Melvyn P. Leffler once stated, ‘[t]he Cold War will defy any single master narrative’. Above all, it was more of a conflict of these narratives themselves than that of actual combat, albeit with elements of minor disputes and a series of proxy wars as forms of expression.

Ideological or not, the elements of deceit found within the espionage world was a mirror of the Cold War in its truest form. For many, such actions were inexcusable. The late John le Carré described Blake’s fellow drinking buddy and spy Kim Philby as ‘a thoroughly bad lot, just a naturally bent man’ and had refused to meet him in the last year of the latter’s life. There is no doubt that Blake’s own deception towards the British was on par with Philby’s – which had cost le Carré’s career in SIS yet inspired his prolific writing, particularly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Men such as these are a breed that are becoming extinct. Without them, the Cold War’s history will be increasingly submerged in the mystiques of fiction that is concomitant with popular media such as the James Bond series. The comprehension of international relations is thus slowly but surely becoming a realm of fantasy that causes its practitioners to miscalculate its dynamics. As the former deputy director of MI6 George Kennedy Young himself stated in the late 1950s (who was quoted by Blake as well):

‘In the press, in Parliament, in the United Nations, from the pulpit, there is a ceaseless talk about the rule of law, civilised relations between nations, the spread of democratic processes, self-determination and national sovereignty, respect for the rights of man and human dignity. The reality, we all know perfectly well is quite the opposite and consists of an ever-increasing spread of lawlessness, disregard of human contract, cruelty and corruption. The nuclear stalemate is matched by the moral stalemate. It is the spy who has been called on to remedy the situation created by the deficiencies of ministers, diplomats, generals and priests. Men’s minds are shaped of course by their environments and we spies, although we have our professional mystique, do perhaps live closer [to] the realities and hard facts of international relations than other practitioners of government.’

Whilst Young’s comments maybe exaggerated and outdated for today’s international structure, its essence nevertheless consists of an elemental truth.

The new talk of a second Cold War now occurring – whether it is with Russia or China – can easily be a misnomer or an oversimplification for a dispute that is one of many that defines human history. Yet this new rhetoric marks the age of confusion that describes the existential crisis the international order is increasingly enduring. How we encounter it continues to be witnessed. But as we further drift away from the experiences of the Cold War, the wisdom gained from it becomes much less valuable. The generation who decided both its onset and its height of tensions in its early stages are now slowly disappearing into the void of history. Without them to serve as a living example for posterity, even if for better or worse, the world becomes a much less knowledgeable place.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons