Financial Times journalist Burns (Barça: A People’s Passion, 2000, etc.) examines his father’s career as a British Secret Service agent in Spain during World War II.
The author learned a great deal about his father’s wartime activities from the recent opening of MI6 files as well as tracking down the still-living participants, whose memory, he admits, proved shaky. The official version of his father’s work—running Allied propaganda in the Iberian peninsula under Sir Samuel Hoare, then British ambassador to Spain—claimed that Burns had suspicious fascist, pro-Catholic leanings and elicited information from and protected sources who were suspected of being German agents. Burns fils sifts carefully through the record and concludes admiringly that his father’s methods—going “native” in Spain and resisting the Minister of Information’s attempts to control him—proved highly effective in the ultimate goal: to keep Franco and his pro-Axis minions from siding with Hitler. Born Catholic in Chile to British parents, papa Burns was educated by the Jesuits in England. He befriended a circle of Catholic intellectuals and worked at The Tablet, recruiting such literary lights as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and Graham Greene. The energized young Catholics were horrified by the communist “savagery” enacted on the Catholics with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and Burns had to tread gingerly between Franco’s suspicion of the British effort and the Nazis military and espionage offensive. Winning Spanish public opinion was first priority, though Burns’s fraternization with Spanish collaborationists proved questionable. On the other hand, he may have kept the British embassy from being shut down completely. More memoir than history, the author’s re-creation of his father’s wartime activities exposes a hive of complex spy games and a fascinating, little-discussed part of WWII.
Good and evil blur in this descent into the shadowy, slippery realm of wartime espionage.