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PostMeeting Hugh Thomas (Boris Volodarsky, Austria, 05/18/17 12:41 am)
Further to Paul Preston's fascinating essay about his mentor, the late British historian Hugh Thomas (Lord Thomas of Swynnerton), as well as Paul's equally excellent and touching tribute to this legendary personality published in The Guardian, I'd love to add my modest recollections about Lord Thomas, as I always used to call him.
Having started to work on the book dealing with the Civil War in Spain, I naturally wanted to meet the renowned author of The Spanish Civil War first published in 1961 with several following editions. So, as soon as I joined WAIS I asked Professor Hilton how to arrange such a meeting. I was told (and hopefully JE has a copy of our correspondence) to write directly to the House of Lords, which I did. To my great surprise and joy, I soon received a personal letter from Lord Thomas that I still have, suggesting a meeting at the House of Lords on 24 November 2006. It was the next day after Sasha Litvinenko died in a London hospital and two days after my article "Russian Venom" was published in The Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB116416400977930364 ) mentioning the radioactive poison long before it was actually detected in Sasha's body.
Lord Thomas and I met as agreed and he was very kind to give me the latest edition of his book with a very friendly inscription. Then, we had a tour of the House of Lords and a tea at the Peers' Dining Room. We also discussed the Litvinenko case and my new book about Orlov that finally came out as Stalin's Agent (2015) published by Oxford University Press with a foreword by Paul Preston.
After that first meeting we started corresponding, and I met with Lord Thomas several times always in the House of Lords. The last time we came together with my wife Valentina and Lord Thomas was very kind to invite us for a drink of sherry and a snack while we had a long discussion about the Spanish Civil War and the Russian secret services' role in it.
In his essay, Paul mentions James McGibbon, "then a literary agent with Curtis Brown. McGibbon invited him [Hugh Thomas] to lunch and told him that the scene in his novel where the hero went to fight in Israel had reminded him of volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Remarking that the time was ripe for a broad survey of the war, he urged Hugh to make a pitch."
Before my book Stalin's Agent came out, Lord Thomas, as he himself told me, did not know that James MacGibbon used to be a Soviet agent. Before James died, he admitted in his twelve-page affidavit that he had spied for the Russians while working in the War Office. Mr. MacGibbon was recruited after he became a Communist in 1934. Information from a secret source in late 1937 indicated, as seen in the declassified Security Service files, that MacGibbon had performed "a service" for the Soviets, for which he was rewarded. He was subsequently investigated and interviewed by MI5 but denied the allegation. When the war broke out, he volunteered to join the Royal Fusiliers and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Because of his knowledge of German, MacGibbon was posted into the Intelligence Corps and later to the War Office Military Operations, Section 3, where he was involved in planning Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. MacGibbon, whose son Hamish followed in his career footsteps, finally became a publisher, head of MacGibbon & Kee, who were the first to publish Philby's My Silent War in 1961, the same years when the first edition of Hugh Thomas's celebrated book appeared.
Paul names all major works written and published by Hugh Thomas, but does not mention his Foreword to the very interesting book by Jill Edwards, The British Government and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1979). About a year ago I asked Hugh and he eagerly agreed to write an introduction to my own book, Between Stalin and Franco: Freemasons, Communists and Secret Services in the Spanish Civil War to be published next year. A few months before Lord Thomas passed away, I received his most kind and lively written piece that will, unfortunately, appear as this great historian's posthumous contribution to the Spanish Civil War historiography.
JE comments: Lord Thomas was a legend--I am sorry I didn't have the chance to meet him. Thank you for this fascinating perspective, Boris. I have no record of Prof. Hilton's e-mails. although his hard-copy correspondence is meticulously archived in the RH papers at the Hoover Institution. It was rather eerie, for example, to go through boxes of documents only to stumble upon a letter handwritten in the early 2000s, by me. Had I known posterity would be involved, I might have been more eloquent.
Keep us updated on Between Stalin and Franco, Boris. I hope to be one of the first to read it.