Review: A Spy Among Friends, Ben Macintyre

Rating: 5 out of 5

This was a really good story! Good not because of its morality or straightforwardness, but because the history that we were presented with here is absolutely thrilling. This spy novel really did touch me on a deeper level, and I think the main reason for this is that these characters — Kim Philby and the rest of the MI6 team — had an effect on our quality of life.

This comes about due to the very simple reason that throughout the considered time period (1936 through to 1959) MI6 was no doubt closely linked with every country. And Kim Philby’s double-espionage would have had an effect on all of these countries. Mr Philby was part of the Cambridge Five, a group of elite spies in the upper echelon of the society, the first one of whom I met only recently in the third season of The Crown. Mr Philby ranked the highest amongst the five, including leading MI6’s Counter-Soviet department and following that up with a posting in the USA to facilitate communication between the American and British organisations.

As such, if there was a MI6 or CIA operation in the 1940’s or ’50’s, that operation was compromised. The saddest aspect is not that Mr Philby was excellent at his double-life which he was, but rather that the British establishment never really bothered to properly look into him because he was one of them. This utterly British faith in their own caused the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of the best people across a wide swath of the European nations — starting with all of the post-war occupied European peoples. Germans and Albanians are a focus for a part of this book, while Estonians and Latvians are mentioned in general terms. Of course, the Soviet state itself lost many of its people as well.

However, does this mean that Mr Philby was in the wrong? If we investigate the beliefs that the author brings forward on the double-agent, Kim Philby really believed in the Soviet system — and that he continued believing in it for six decades does mean something! Mr Philby was incredibly successful in what he did, but that can’t make him wrong either! But… the feelings that ran through me when I read about Philby’s exploits were not of success or glory. Though, to be fair, I cannot get past the thought that if there had been a double-agent working at the top of the NKVD/KGB, I might have lauded that person instead…

Perhaps the one aspect in which I can really say that from my point of view what the spy did was wrong is the one where Mr Philby’s actions only ever really sacrificed his friendships. The amount of betrayal he carried out where he was trusted by his closest friends… The only excuse Mr Philby seems to have needed is that ideologically, he was on the other side. Mr Philby betrayed his friends for his government, and while he left no proof of whether that was tough or easy, I hope it cannot have been easy. I know it would be an incredibly tough decision for me if I was ever put before it. Yet, for this narrative history, this very human question is only another level of depth that the reader can welcome and mull over.

Most of my reviews do not stretch to this length, and I hope that is one eloquent proof of how many thoughts this book started in me: I definitely recommend this!

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