LONDON (Reuters Life!) - British intelligence officers played on former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s pride to get him to take notice of Adolf Hitler’s aggressive ambitions on the eve of World War Two, a new book reveals.
Frustrated by Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement toward Hitler in the 1930s, officers at Britain’s MI5 security service, putting together a report on intelligence from German sources, included insults about the prime minister said to have been made by Hitler in private.
“MI5 warnings to the government that Hitler was serious, that ‘Mein Kampf’ should be taken seriously, had no effect,” said Christopher Andrew, author of “The Defense of the Realm,” the first authorized history of the British security service.
“So it fell back to the thing that any prime minister is always going to pay attention to, that he’s been insulted by his opponent,” he added. “It was the only way of getting through to him.”
Hitler’s description of the British leader as an “arsehole,” underlined three times in red pencil, as well a reference to him mocking Chamberlain’s trademark umbrella, were said to have made a “considerable impression on the prime minister,” who was known to be infuriated by disrespect.
Among the book’s other insights into Britain’s previously secretive intelligence service are revelations that MI5 kept a file on former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
But Andrew dismisses long-standing claims of MI5 plots against Wilson, who was monitored after concern was raised about his relationships with Eastern European businessmen and contact with KGB officers.
The book also reveals MI5’s first major counter-terrorist operation to tackle the threat from Middle Eastern terrorism was directed not against Palestinian or Islamist groups, but Zionist extremists who believed the creation of an independent Jewish state required the use of terror.
Andrew, a professor of modern and contemporary history at Cambridge University, was given virtually unrestricted access to secret service archives to produce the book, which was published on Monday to mark the organization’s centenary.
“I was thrilled and a bit nervous,” Andrew said of being given unparalleled access to the archive’s 400,000 files. “There is only one archive like this ... it is extraordinary, it is unique.”
The book — which describes the role of MI5 since it was founded by a British army captain in 1909, how it has been managed, and its varying relationship with the government — reveals details about many notorious individuals and events.
Stephen Lander, director general of MI5 in 2002 when the book was commissioned, said one of the aims of the book was to lay to rest persistent myths and misunderstandings about the security service and foster understanding of what it does.
Originally tasked with targeting German spies, MI5 has become principally a counter-terrorist service. MI5 deals with Britain’s internal security threat, while MI6 is the country’s external intelligence agency.
“It is quite clear within the service that our world has changed fundamentally,” said Lander. “We certainly saw that we needed to gear up to a new sort of approach and we particularly need the support of the public in that work.”
Editing by Steve Addison