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A Guide to Infiltrators

During the last decade of his life, Bertrand Russell was much interested in the problem of the underground activities of the secret police engaged in combating revolutionary movements. He wanted to know about the infiltration methods of undercover agents and how they trumped up charges. His inquiries into this dark part of history had been inspired by the assassination of President John Kennedy. During one of our meetings in London, he asked me whether I believed that President Kennedy was a victim of a conspiracy organized by conservative circles in America.

I pointed out to Russell the difficulties of finding primary historical sources which could help an objective researcher to do his job honestly. I told him of my own experiences in this respect. In the vast literature on the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, there were several historians who claimed that Princip and other young assassins were the blind instruments of different groups of secret police. It took me almost fifteen years of hard study in the archives of many countries to evaluate some of the most important primary sources which described the fatal event (for instance, the minutes of the assassins’ interrogations in Sarajevo, the original text of the trial proceedings); only then did I feel free to conclude that Princip and his friends were not secret agents, but had decided for themselves that it was right to kill a tyrant.

I agreed with Russell that there are many dark questions surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Not only historians but all honest men are entitled to the historical truth. But I declined to write anything about the assassination of Kennedy before I had in front of me all or most of the primary historical sources about the event. Without them no serious opinion could be expressed. I could do no more than hope that one day the full story would come into the open, as a result of the inquisitiveness of the Americans, of their urge to probe the great secrets of their contemporary history.

From the subject of the secret of John Kennedy’s murder, Russell and I went on to discuss the vast question of the work of undercover police agents in revolutionary movements. We talked about the problem of finding out whether or not rumors that a man is an undercover agent are true, how the danger of accusing an honest man for the worst of crimes can be avoided, how both treason against fellow revolutionaries and the work of real police agents can be exposed.

For me the worst penetration of revolutionaries by any Establishment was done by the English Secret Service, which succeeded in infiltrating the inner core of the Irish rebels a century ago. On May 25, 1870, The New York Times announced the news that the Irish American Army for the liberation of Ireland had invaded Canada. The invasion was organized and executed by an Irish secret revolutionary society, the Fenians, which was founded in 1858 by Irish immigrants in the United States. During the five years of the Great Famine of 1845-49, more than a million Irish died of starvation and of diseases which accompany malnutrition, and at least 800,000 Irish men and women sailed for the States and Canada. The British government let the Irish die in Ireland without making serious efforts to save them, thus continuing London’s old practice of genocide (which is ignored by most English historians).

The Irish emigrants felt obliged to help their country. On June 1, 1866, 800 Fenians crossed the Canadian border and captured Fort Erie, but the superior British forces pushed them back. In 1867 an open insurrection broke out in south and west Ireland, followed by the attempt of the Irish workers in Manchester, England, to liberate two captured Fenian leaders who were accused of organizing a rebellion in Lancashire. During the skirmish a policeman was accidentally killed, and five young Irishmen were charged with murder, of whom three, William Allen, William Gould (alias Michael O’Brien), and Michael Larkin, were sentenced to death and executed on November 23, 1867.

In 1960 I undertook a comparative study of the organization of secret revolutionary societies in Ireland and those in my native Bosnia and Herzegovina, using the libraries and archives in Manchester.* I came across the minutes of the trial and copied the last words of Michael O’Brien:

Ireland, with her delightful climate and fertile soil, was capable of supporting triple her population; and no man, except a paid official of the British Government, could say there was a shadow of liberty there, or a spark of life among its persecuted inhabitants. It is to be hoped that her imbecile and tyrannical rulers may be forever driven from her soil, amid the excretions of the world. How beautifully the aristocrats of England moralize on the tyranny of the rulers of Naples, Dahomey, etc…. Look at home—look at London—see the thousands of men with the specter of famine implanted on their faces; see the virtuous, beautiful, and industrious women who only a few years ago, ay, and yet, are obliged to look at their children dying for want of food—look at what is called the majesty of the law on the one side, and the long deep misery of a noble people on the other….

The passion aroused by the execution of Michael and his two comrades can be gauged by the fact that the Fenians decided to strike at the English royal family. On March 12, 1868, three months after the execution of the Manchester Martyrs, as they were called by the Irish, or the Manchester Murderers as they were slanderously identified in the House of Commons, an attempt was made against the Duke of Edinburgh, the son of Queen Victoria, at a public picnic at Clontarf, near Port Jackson in Australia. According to the Annual Register, “One O’Farrell shot the duke in the back, the wound was dangerous but not fatal.” O’Farrell was soon tried and hanged.

In 1870, as popular discontent in Ireland was increasing, the Fenians again decided that they should try to invade Canada. On March 31 the House of Lords in London passed the Irish Law and Order bill. The chief object of the Fenians was to obtain possession of Canada, not as the permanent seat of an Irish republic, but as the base for maritime operations against England. The Fenians then hoped to be recognized by the United States as a belligerent state which could quickly organize a blockade of England and help to liberate the mother country.

According to the dispatch of The New York Times, 500 armed Fenians crossed the border near Milton, Vermont, and a reserve of between 10,000 and 20,000 revolutionaries, “all poor laboring men, scattered all over the north,” from Boston, New York, and Buffalo were ready to join the first contingent. All of them were armed. The Fenians had spent several years collecting money for their arsenal and most of the financing was done “by the servant-girls of New York.”

Yet the Canadian troops waited in ambush and the invaders were scattered. The Canadian authorities knew well in advance about the preparation for the invasion. The New York Times reported on April 15, 1870, from Ottawa,

…the Habeas Corpus act has been suspended. The measure passed both Houses, and was assented to by the Governor-General in the name of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. In asking Parliament for a suspension of the act, the Government had received information on which they relied, that the peace of the country was again in danger from the invasion of lawless men from the United States, belonging to the Fenian organization.

The organization of the raid was in the hands of the top leadership of the Fenians: the President of the Fenian Brotherhood, John O’Neill, Fenian Secretary of War, General T.W. Sweeny, and the Adjutant-General of the Fenian Army, General Henri Le Caron.

The secret of the Fenian defeat in 1870 was publicly disclosed only in 1889. The Fenian General Henri Le Caron, by his own admission, was in fact one Thomas Beach, an Englishman from Colchester, and “a paid spy of the British Intelligence Service.” He justified his undercover activities by claiming “my British instincts made me a willing worker from a sense of right.” In his memoirs Twenty Five Years in the Secret Servicethe Recollections of a Spy, Beach described the Fenians’ defeat in 1870—how, on the eve of the invasion, his trusty messengers departed for Canada, carrying full details of the time, exact points of crossing, numbers, place of operations, and other details.

Sir Robert Anderson, the head of the British Secret Service, publicly confirmed Thomas Beach’s exploits. He was Beach’s main contact for almost a quarter of a century, ever since Beach worked his way into the Fenian organization in America. Beach had the audacity to organize the Fenian branches (circles or camps as they were called) in Lockport, Illinois, and some other towns in the Midwest. He quickly gained the confidence of the Fenian leaders, fomented dissent between the Fenian factions, and pushed them to undertake “instant terroristic actions,” which were poorly prepared. Even after the May, 1870, fiasco at Pigeon Hill in Canada, Beach succeeded in remaining in the Fenian leadership, sending every important document to Sir John overseas in England for almost two decades.

To Russell the greatest spy in the history of the world revolutionary movement was Evno Fišelević Azef, one of the top leaders of the Russian Social Revolutionary Party, who as primary historical sources prove, was also a paid agent of the Ochrana, the secret police of the Russian tsars. This fact was ascertained in 1908 by three judges of the inner tribunal of the Russian Social Revolutionary Party, Peter Kropotkin, Vera Figner, and Germain Lopatin, and by Azef’s own admission, and is confirmed by documents in the archives of the Ochrana, which after the 1917 revolution fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Azef’s motives for acting as an informer were less complex than those of Beach. The latter was a restless man and spy exploits are thrilling. Figuring in Beach’s actions was an element of English patriotism, although he was also well paid. Azef, however, was a pure mercenary. He smelled where the money was and did everything he could to get it. As a student of engineering in Karlsruhe, Germany, where he had met several young Russian rebels, he wrote, on April 4, 1893, a letter to the police department of his native Rostov, offering his services for a modest fee of 50 rubles a month. But his salary increased when, in 1894, he joined the Union of Russian Social Revolutionaries Abroad then in Bern. At that time the Union was a small circle, but Azef’s membership in it helped him later to become one of the founders of the Social Revolutionary Party, the biggest radical organization in Russia for many years.

  1. *

    Some of my findings I published as an appendix in the Serbo-Croat edition of my book The Road to Sarajevo. On the question of the rationality or irrationality of the idea of martyrdom among the Irishmen and Young Bosnians, I expressed some of my views in a letter to the London Times, April 13, 1966, protesting at the same time the racist attitude of some English writers toward Irishmen, and particularly toward the noble martyrs in the Dublin 1916 rebellion.

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