Sabotage, suicide, revolution and counter-revolution: a bit of family history
A comment on: John Mulgan and the Greek Left: A Regrettably Intimate Acquaintance by C.-Dimitris Gounelas and Ruth Parkin Gounelas, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023
I have just read a fascinating book about a cousin of mine, John Mulgan, who was a writer and soldier, and committed suicide at the age of 33. His short life connects Theodor Adorno and WH Auden, guerrilla warfare and James Bond, communism and the vicious side of Winston Churchill.
John Mulgan was a smart New Zealander who in the 1930s had moved to England where he worked on poetry collections with WH Auden, and discussed ideas with Theodor Adorno and others. His novel, Man Alone, became an iconic book in New Zealand, its portrayal of the Great Depression, activism and Stoical masculinity somehow capturing part of the national character.
When the second world war started, John Mulgan, like so many others, had to turn into a warrior. After postings in northern Ireland and North Africa (where he chafed at the hierarchy and stupidity of the British officer class) he found a more comfortable home in the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, which was acting all over Europe to undermine the Nazi war machine.
The SOE trained him in the arts of sabotage, and in 1943 he was parachuted into the mountains of Greece to help guide the resistance against the Nazis, organising bombings of railtracks, mortar attacks and more.
He was clearly very good at this and killed hundreds of German soldiers. His book ‘Report on Experience’, published shortly after the war, describes brilliantly the heady mix of boredom, fear, bloodshed, and occasional bouts of ouzo drinking and wild feasts up in the mountains.
But the new book’s main fascination is politics. Mulgan was very much a man of the left and so fitted in well with the leftwing Greek guerrillas, the ‘andartes’ of EAM-ELAS, the dominant resistance force. He was not a communist but sympathised strongly with the everyday socialism of the mainly peasant fighters he was with (and before the war had been an enthusiast for the various Popular Fronts taking shape across Europe).
Yet as the war moved towards its conclusion British policy switched. In Stalin’s notorious deal with Churchill, Greece was designated as part of Britain’s sphere of influence. Churchill decided on reinstalling the corrupt and unloved monarchy and backing the upper classes and the rightwing forces, many of which had collaborated with the Germans. As Greece moved into civil war as the war came to an end, tens of thousands of British troops were sent in to enforce the policy.
All of this is set out in detail, as the book documents the complex political manoevring of the communist party and others on the left, including the very progressive regime set up for a short while in the mountains, and then the ways in which the British cracked down, not just on the Greek left but also on leftists in their own ranks, many of whom were appalled by the policy of their own government which seemed to be betraying the values they had been fighting for.
The final act of the book leads up to John Mulgan’s death from a morphine overdose in a Cairo hotel in April 1945. I had always assumed that his suicide was in some way connected to his opposition to British policy, as so many of his former allies were being shot and arrested. The book certainly makes clear just how disaffected he was.
But it also shows alternative explanations. Everyone who knew John Mulgan found it hard to believe he had killed himself, and the inquests if anything deepened the mystery. He was physically and mentally in good health, and preparing to go to fight in east Asia.
So why did he kill himself, or was he murdered? The authors don’t reach definitive conclusions but they do bring remarkable new insights.
First they show just how actively John was countering British policy, writing a detailed report for the New Zealand government, newly run by Labour, which was distancing itself from Churchill’s return to old-style imperialism (it was in this report that he wrote of his ‘noble and regrettably intimate acquaintance’ with ELAS-EAM). New Zealand threatened to challenge Britain in the emergent new United Nations and there were good reasons for the British establishment to want to shut off the flow of unhelpful intelligence from Greece.
Second, they show that John was having an affair with a notorious spy, Krystyna Gustava Skarbek and that she was with him on the night he died. She herself became the subject of many books, and was the model for Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale (Ian Fleming was one of her many lovers). She was also said to be Churchill’s favourite spy. There’s a recent podcast on her here. Whether she killed him we cannot know; what’s certain is that she was good at seducing men and then killing them as part of her job (the book writes of ‘Skarbeck’s famed daring and cool, her excellence in the art of ‘silent killing’.)
Third, they remind us of the ambiguous role of SOE, which was expert in dirty tricks. At the time, John's boss was experimenting with poisons, and other leftists elsewhere were being eliminated.
It's probably too late to ever know the full truth. But the authors have done a remarkable job of uncovering new facts from such a distance in time, and their detailed analysis of John Mulgan's writings, including the self-censorship of texts which had to go through army vetting, is fascinating.
One of many virtues of the book is that Greek history comes alive – a corrective to the simplicities of many British accounts, which used to present the Greek left as brutish murderers (including the ill-informed picture provided by Louis De Bernieres’ best-seller ‘Captain Correlli’s Mandolin'). Both sides committed atrocities, but the right had done little or nothing to liberate the country and, ironically for the birthplace of democracy, were contemptuous of democratic values. Recent history has tended to paint a more balanced picture (by coincidence, I recently re-watched the film Z, based on the true story of the murder of a leader of the Greek Left in the early 1960s, in a staged accident, which turns out to echo the murder a few years previously of John Mulgan’s main collaborator in the resistance).
The book is a reminder of another time when so many had to shift from the world of books to the world of action. It's a reminder of the difficulties of knowing how to act when your own side is acting immorally and against your values. And it’s a reminder of just how often the pressures of war bring with them appalling moral dilemmas and contradictions, horrors and mistakes.