On the Sunday morning of 12th June 1950, the Head of Reuters News Agency in West Berlin left a note for his employers in his office, jumped into his car, and drove through the Brandenburg Gate to begin a new life in Communist East Germany. Although this did not cause quite the sensation created by the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean the following year it was still a headline story worldwide the following morning. So, who was he? Why did he decide to move to the East? What became of him afterward?
His name was John Peet. Born into a Quaker family in south London in 1915 and educated at Bootham School, a Quaker boarding school in York, he was appalled like so many others by Hitler`s rise to power in Germany. He joined the Federation of Student Societies, a Communist-oriented student group which was particularly focused on recruiting members from public schools. There he met Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill, and they collaborated on the production of an anti-Fascist magazine called “Out of Bounds”. Its stated aim was “to fight against reaction, political and cultural Fascism, and war” by circulating it around public schools. This caused quite a stir and was the subject of a leading article in the then “Manchester Guardian” on 16th April 1934. An article in the “Daily Mail” on 5th April had already attacked it under the headline “Corrupting Youth”. It staged debates, including one between Romilly and the “Oundle School Fascist Youth Group” and contained much satirical material along similar lines to the future “Private Eye” – another product of a public school environment. Romilly was expelled from his school (Wellington) and the magazine was short-lived, but it was a formative influence both on the development of Peet`s political views and on his subsequent career in journalism.
After leaving school he embarked on a career of local journalism for the “Bromley and West Kent Mercury”. Soon tiring of the “dreary round and common tasks” involved he decided in 1935 to hitch-hike across Germany to Vienna, co-incidentally at roughly the same time as Patrick Leigh Fermor whose similar exploits led to his classic memoir “A Time of Gifts”. Political tensions between “Red Vienna” and the predominantly rural, Catholic conservative countryside had led to a civil war in February 1934 in which the Viennese Socialist movement had been crushed and outlawed and Austria taken over by a clerico-Fascist regime headed by Kurt von Schuschnigg. Both the Cambridge spy Kim Philby and the future Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell had experienced the fighting in Vienna and drawn differing political conclusions. Peet earned a living as a tutor of English before moving on to Prague for similar work in 1937. By this time the Spanish Civil War had broken out. Peet returned to the UK and joined the British Battalion of the International Brigade fighting against Franco. He saw action on the Ebro in 1938 and the experience hardened his anti-Fascist convictions. Returning to London in December 1938 the Battalion received a hero`s welcome, headed by the Leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, an application to join the R.A.F. having been rejected, Peet joined the Palestine Police.
Palestine in 1939, a former province of the Ottoman Empire conquered by the British during the First World War and consisting of what are now Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Gaza, was a British Mandate governed under the auspices of the League of Nations. In 1919 the population was overwhelmingly Arab, but in 1917 the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, promised British support for a Jewish National Home in the territory, thus facilitating a controlled amount of Jewish immigration to help swell the numbers of the small existing Jewish population. In this it was assisted by the Zionist movement, founded in Vienna in 1898 and committed to the return of Jews, scattered all over Europe but predominantly in Tsarist Russia, to their Biblical homeland. Tensions between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish newcomers were all but inevitable. Pressure for increasing levels of Jewish immigration increased following the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany and the anti-Semitic legislation which followed. The British found increasing difficulty in keeping the peace between the two communities – sadly a situation which the British themselves had created and the results of which are still a major source of tension in the world to-day following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. As Peet`s narrative makes clear, a wartime career in the Palestine Police was far from a soft option and he found himself on a hit-list drawn up by the Zionist terrorist organisation the Irgun. Indeed, the Stern Gang, an extremist offshoot of the Irgun, began negotiations with the Axis in the belief than an Allied victory in the War would produce a settlement in Palestine favourable to the Arabs. After conventional police work which included the unearthing of a cache of arms hidden by pro-Nazi German settlers Peet`s linguistic and journalistic skills were recognised. He was appointed de facto Head of the news service of Jerusalem Radio, broadcasting in seven languages.
Returning to the U.K. at the end of the war Peet was snapped up by the Reuters News agency and posted first to Vienna and then, in December 1946, to Warsaw. Vienna had been taken by the Soviet Army in April 1945 but the war damage there was as nothing compared with that of Warsaw. The Polish Home Army had staged an Uprising in August 1944 against the Nazi occupation and in six weeks of bitter street fighting the city was almost totally destroyed before the Poles were defeated (the city was eventually occupied by the Soviets in January 1945). Peet`s experiences there included an interview with Rudolf Hoess after his trial (Hoess was hanged in April 1947) and contacts with Ukrainian partisans fighting against both Poles and Soviets for an independent Ukraine. In the course of the interview Hoess stated that his initial career ambition had been to become a missionary but his father had forbidden it. Then, in the summer of 1947, Peet was suddenly switched to Berlin, where he was to spend the rest of his life.
Berlin in 1947 was, like the rest of Germany, divided into four sectors, American, British, French and Soviet. Tensions between the former wartime allies were already running high. When the western allies introduced a common currency into their zones The Soviets retaliated by blockading the western sectors, which could only be supplied by air (the whole city being situated deep inside the Soviet zone). The resulting Berlin Airlift lasted for 11 months from June 1948 until May 1949. The result was the permanent division (until 1990) of Germany – West Germany and West Berlin on the one hand and Communist East Germany and East Berlin on the other. Peet lived through all of this. His political sympathies lay with the East. He was appalled by the number of former Nazis holding office in the West German diplomatic corps. The final straw for him was the support of the Western Allies for West German re-armament, which he regarded as a threat to peace. Hence his dramatic move to the East on 12 June 1950.
Peet lived in East Berlin for the rest of his life, forging a close friendship with Bertolt Brecht and maintaining links with English friends and contacts as diverse in their political opinions as Len Deighton (who wrote the foreword to this book), John Le Carre and Frederick Forsyth. Peet`s was an anomalous situation. He retained his U.K. passport and made frequent visits to see friends and relatives in his home country. After the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 he was able to travel freely between East and West Berlin. Yet at the same time he was an employee of the East German News Agency, editing an English language fortnightly “Democratic German Report”. The publication was given greater latitude by the censors than the official party newspaper “Neues Deutschland” and whilst providing a corrective to some of the crude anti-Communist propaganda circulating in the West nevertheless portrayed the East German (D.D.R.) regime in as favourable a light as possible (Peet described himself as a “friendly critic”). It was published between 1952 and 1975 and built up a worldwide circulation of over 30,000. He became a well-known figure in East Germany, as I realised when at a friend`s birthday party in a village (in the former East) north of Berlin 21 years after his death (he died in 1988) I mentioned that I had known him I was regaled with questions and anecdotes about his life (“You KNEW John Peet!”). The village was also home to the widow of Markus Wolf, mastermind of the secret police (Stasi) in Communist times and most of the inhabitants seemed nostalgic for the old regime (`ostalgie`, as it is ironically termed in German).
I met John Peet several times in the mid-1980s, having been given an introduction by an English relative whose son was in a school History group I was taking to Berlin in 1984 (ironically the same school whose Fascist group had staged the debate with Esmond Romilly fifty years earlier). He agreed to address the group in our Youth Hostel in West Berlin, driving from his apartment on the Leipzigerstrasse in the East and nodded through Checkpoint Charlie as a pure formality, dining with us afterwards and then driving home. The consensus in the group was that he had given a balanced assessment of the differences between East and West (he gave similar talks to groups in 1985, 1986 and 1987). He stressed the security provided by the Communist regime (full employment, subsidised basic foodstuffs etc.) but didn`t try to defend either the Wall or the Stasi. There was no suggestion, however, that he regretted the decision he had taken that June day in 1950.
Reviewed by Alan Midgley