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A family affair

Nicholas Jacobs finds John Green’s history of the Kuczynskis – particularly Jürgen and Ursula – a mine of information

23 June, 2017 — By Nicholas Jacobs

A family portrait of the Kuczynski children in 1925 from the cover of the book under review

SOME books are like very rich fruitcake – delicious but risking indigestibility. This is one such.

It tells the story of the remarkable Kuczynski family, by an author who not only knew some of the family well, but who has a deep knowledge of modern German history, including the little-known history of East Germany – the German Democratic Republic – where he lived, and on which he has written a book with his German wife.

Paterfamilias of this thoroughly assimilated German Jewish Berlin family was Robert Kuczynski, a statistician who pioneered the discipline of demography and population studies, and who with his wife himself populated the world with six children.

Robert, author of numerous influential demographic studies, was a man of the left even before the First World War, supporting the German Social Democratic Party. After the war, he became a fellow traveller of the Communist left, and the advent of Hitler brought him to London, where he taught at the LSE for five years and became an adviser to the Foreign and Colonial Office, dying in 1947 aged 71.

However significant Robert Kuczynski’s life and work were, the main focus of this book are his son and eldest daughter – Jürgen and Ursula – who both became legends in their own lifetime. Jürgen followed in his father’s footsteps and became one of the most prolific demographic economists on record. Like his father, he worked in the 1920s at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC. On returning to Germany, he joined the German Communist Party in 1930, and threw himself into the struggle against National Socialism. Here the author’s knowledge is a boon to any reader interested in how two great socialist parties allowed themselves to be defeated by the Nazi Party. How was it that even in the March 1933 elections, held in an atmosphere of terror after the Reichstag Fire, the Communist Party got 81 MPs?

Jürgen – a Jewish Communist – stayed in Germany underground until 1936. In England, after brief internment in Devon, he became de facto head of the German Communist Party in exile, living in Belsize Park and attending the Free German League of Culture in Parkhill Road. Then, by a sequence of events only possible with the multiple political and cross-political contacts of a Kuczynski, Jürgen became a lieutenant-colonel in the US Army, sought for by the US Strategic Bombing Survey which was looking for advice on the right people to parachute into Nazi Germany.

As a conscientious Communist, Jürgen was always keen that Moscow should know what he was doing. This is where his closest sister, Ursula, came in. In the 30s, she had become a Comintern agent in China, where her architect husband was working. Jürgen did not accept the US Army job until he was given the green light by Moscow, via Ursula. He subsequently made influential friends in the USA, including the economist Kenneth Galbraith and the diplomat and banker George Ball. He was flown to Paris as early as 1944 and on into liberated German for the Survey.

After resigning from the US Army, Jürgen returned to England and successfully sought permission to return to Germany. In the German Democratic Republic, Jürgen in a sense repeated the distinguished career of his father, as an academic and author. He died rich in honours aged 93.

If Jürgen’s life sounds interesting, Ursula’s resembles an over-plotted Le Carré novel. Her left-wing politics were reinforced through working in a small Berlin bookshop, and doing the same in New York, where she joined her brother in the 1920s and became a member of the American Communist Party. In China with her new husband, the architect Rolf Hamburger, she met the brilliant spy Richard Sorge and the radical US writer Agnes Smedley. Sorge recruited her, and she agreed to go to Moscow for training. It was there that she was given her code-name “Sonya”. She began her life as a Soviet spy in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1934.

After a short time in Poland, she was sent to Switzerland in 1938 as part of the Soviet “Lucy Ring” and worked with “Dora” (master-spy Sandor Rado), operating secret transmitters and eventually infiltrating agents into Germany.

This was all dramatic enough, but the summit of “Sonya’s” career came when she moved to England in 1939, where she lived in Oxfordshire, near her parents, and became a courier for the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, himself a German Communist, who was under the firm belief that the Soviet Union, by then our ally against Nazi Germany, should be given all necessary military information, particularly in view of the fact that there was no Second Front, which the Russians had been calling for since 1942.

This remarkable book, which is a true gold mine of information and political opinion. The book also describes the lives in London of the other Kuczynski siblings, who some readers of this paper will know as the late Bridget Nicholson, Sabine Loeffler and Renate Simpson.

This book is like a round peg in a round hole. The subject has found its ideal author – and that author can hardly stop.

A Political Family – The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War. By John Green, Routledge, £32.99

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