Edith Tudor-Hart photographed poverty, society and children in Vienna and the U.K. and also helped launch Britain’s most notorious ring of spies for the Soviet Union
22 December 1942. A memo crossed the desk of the Soviet Secret Service, the NKVD: “Recently, ‘Edith’ sent us a detailed report through Mary on the results and status of work on ‘enormous’, both in England and in the United States. ‘Eric’ had given her this report on his own initiative to pass to the fraternal.” Thanks to declassified KGB and MI5 top secret material, we now know that ‘enormous’ stood for atomic weapon research, ‘Eric’ was the code name for Austrian scientist Engelbert Broda, and ‘Edith’ the (unsubtle) code name for Viennese-born Edith Suschitzky.
Edith Suschitzky (1908–1973) had grown up in a social-democratic household in radical Jewish circles. Her father and uncle ran a bookshop and a publishing house in Vienna, campaigning for many progressive causes, including birth control and sex education. In 1925, aged 16, she travelled to London to train as a teacher in the Montessori method, then in its earliest years.
At a time of rising poverty and oppression, the Russian Revolution was a beacon of hope for some young people. Edith found the Viennese Socialists ineffective. She joined the Austrian Communist Party and completed undercover missions for the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB). In London she quietly joined the British Communist Party in 1927 – under the alias Betty Grey. “We wanted to defeat fascism,” explained Herbert Freudenheim, one of her comrades. “Edith fought for the victory of communism on the noblest of grounds […] After all, communists were the only ones who, forthrightly, took action against the Nazis.”
At the Bauhaus, where she honed her photographic skills (1928–1930), she joined the communist student faction KOSTUFRA. In London, she was spotted at a communist rally and promptly deported in January 1931. A later MI5 file portrayed her as “a rather typical, emotional, introspective and somewhat intellectual Viennese Jewess.”
The wrong men
Precocious and inquisitive, Edith was well-informed about contraception, and had read the works of -Wilhelm Reich, but had a knack for doomed affairs with remarkable men. In one love letter she wrote: “Of course there’s a very great deal of insatiability and a kind of impulsive childishness in my character.” Her first lover, Arnold Deutsch, gave her a taste of the double life: An alluring Slrovak-born Viennese, he was already engaged when they met in 1926 and they held furtive rendezvous in a friend’s apartment on the Ringstraße, until he was sent to Moscow. Later he was posted to London to recruit for Stalin’s secret service where he earned the respect of British double agent Kim Philby, who considered him a man of both principle and heart: “Though a convinced communist, he had a strong humanistic streak,” he said, “…a man of considerable cultural background.”
Yet in 1933 Edith hastily married Alexander Tudor-Hart, an English doctor she met in London years earlier. Alexander, the hapless son of Post-Impressionist painter Percyval Tudor-Hart and himself a communist, had moved to Vienna in 1932 to study bone surgery. When agent ‘Edith’ was arrested in Vienna the following year for her communist activities, they decided to marry. She evaded a prison sentence and they fled to London. However, soon after the birth of their son in 1936, Alexander left for the Spanish Civil War. While he mended the bones of -Republican fighters, his penniless wife was left to fend for herself and their baby.
Her next lover was her best catch for “the cause”: Engelbert Broda, a brilliant Austrian scientist at the University of Cambridge. For several years his atomic espionage would feed British and American secrets to Moscow. The relationship was less successful for Tudor-Hart. Broda left for Vienna at the war’s end… to marry another woman.
Then there was a liaison with unhappily-married Donald Winnicott, leading child psychoanalyst. In the late 1960s she became infatuated with the renowned architect Lord William Holford – again a married man.
The Cambridge spy ring
Edith’s best friend in Vienna had been Litzi Friedmann, a committed communist and lover of one Kim Philby. In 1934, the newly married Philbys fled Vienna for London, where Edith recruited Kim, who would become Britain’s most notorious Soviet agent inside MI6, Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
During the war, MI5, the U.K.’s domestic intelligence agency, began to take a close interest in her, conducting round-the-clock surveillance, opening her mail and tapping her telephone. She was interrogated several times, to no avail. Others talked: Anthony Blunt, one of the Cambridge Five, confessed in 1964 that Edith had been “the grandmother of us all.” However, she was never prosecuted. Peter “Spycatcher” Wright, former assistant director of MI5, remembered that neither Bob Stewart nor Edith Tudor-Hart, both couriers, would talk. “They were disciplined soldiers, and had spent too long in the game to be broken.“
Passion and penury
The Bauhaus provided a launch pad for Edith’s career as a photojournalist in Austria, where she worked for the Soviet news agency TASS and several illustrated publications, and later in England. Her photographs had a strong social message. She saw the camera as a political weapon, becoming an important figure in the Worker Photography Movement. In a sense, her undercover work, like her art, were all part of her idealism.
Yet espionage also got in art’s way. After the war, she turned to the safer realm of commercial photography, with commissions from the British Medical Association, Mencap and the National Baby Welfare Council. But even her earlier work fell victim. In 1951, after her flat was searched in vain by three British agents, she burnt all incriminating negatives, name lists and most of her photographs.
Idealism came at a high personal cost: “Edith wanted to help everyone when she saw someone in material or mental distress,” remembered Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav. “She took it so much to heart, as though it was her own distress.” The absolute need for discretion and self-control made close friendships near impossible; and her services to the USSR were unpaid. From “her dress and habits,” observed one surveillance report from May 1942, “she does not seem to be in affluent circumstances.”
In later years, living under the threat of being unmasked played havoc with her sanity. In May 1952, MI5 agents turned up at her hiding place. “We do not wish to find out that you are continuing your work as a professional photographer in any form whatsoever. Is that understood?” they warned.
Shaken to the core, she had to be interned for three months in an Epsom clinic. In the following 10 years, she moved nine times, worked as a housekeeper for Labour Party politician John Platts-Mills and was initiated into the antiques trade by one kindly employer, before settling down on the Sussex coast.
In July 1965, MI5 traced her to Brighton and found her running a “good-class antique shop”. She succumbed to cancer in 1973, never having set foot in the USSR – as far as we know.
Peter Stephan Jungk pieced together the passionate, if unhappy life of his great-aunt Edith Tudor-Hart in an enthralling book: Die Dunkelkammern der Edith Tudor-Hart – Geschichten eines Lebens (2015, also available in French). His documentary about her, Auf Ediths Spuren / Tracking Edith, can be seen at the Diagonale in Graz in late March and in several cinemas throughout Austria in April.