Monday, January 23, 2012

My Uncle, Klaus Fuchs - Beyond The Cold War

Klaus Fuchs after his release from prison
Early in the morning of July 16, 1945, before dawn crept over the horizon, a group of scientists stood at one of three observation points on the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in the New Mexico desert and waited for the Trinity test to begin. The explosion came at 5:29 a.m., when a nuclear device, dubbed simply “The Gadget,” detonated and shot a mushroom cloud into the air. The sky turned purple, then green and finally white. Three weeks later, on August 6, the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, destroying half the city and killing an estimated 42,000 to 93,000 inhabitants (totaling more than 150,000 over a period of four months). A second bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9, leaving another 70,000 people dead. The Atomic Age had begun.

One of the scientists who witnessed that first nuclear detonation in the New Mexico desert was Klaus Fuchs, a young theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, the American-led nuclear weapons development program, from 1944 to 1946. A German-born, naturalized British citizen, Klaus had been active in the Communist Party while a student at Kiel University in Germany but fled in 1933 after the National Socialists (Nazis) burned the Parliament building, blamed it on the Communists, and turned Party members into hunted criminals.

Over a period of nearly ten years, starting even before he worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Klaus passed classified information to the Soviet Union through Russian agents: a woman in England code-named “Sonja” and a courier in the United States whom Klaus knew only as “Raymond.” Later, after the affair was uncovered, “Sonja” turned out to be an operative of the Soviet military intelligence service (GRU) named Ursula Kuczynski (also known as Ruth Werner), while “Raymond” was identified as a chemist named Harry Gold. Kuczynski was never captured, but Gold served 15 years of a 30-year sentence.

Klaus at age 14
Klaus evaded detection for three years after his return to England, where he resumed work on the British nuclear weapons program as well as civilian projects (and continued to pass secret information to the Russians). But after U.S. military intelligence agents decrypted Soviet cables in which Klaus's name appeared, he came under scrutiny and eventually confessed his activities. He was convicted of espionage in a trial that lasted only 90 minutes and sentenced to 14 years in prison, the maximum punishment at the time for passing classified information to a friendly government (after all, the Soviet Union was a U.S. and British ally during and after the war). You can read the statement he made to an MI5 agent here. He served nine years, with an early release in 1959 for good behavior.

Klaus Fuchs has been called many things. Traitor. Disloyal to friends and colleagues. Atom Spy. To me, he was always just Uncle Klaus, my mother’s older brother.

When I tell people I am related to a man often considered the most notorious spy of the Atomic Age, people inevitably want to know what my uncle revealed to me about his years passing secrets to the Russians. It’s a reasonable question. After all, as his niece, a person he trusted and who hadn’t even been a twinkle in her mother’s eye at the time all those events went down, wouldn’t he tell me things that weren’t part of the public record?

I hate to disappoint, but we never did talk about it much. And he didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already heard many times from my mother. Only that it was a decision he didn’t make lightly or without considering the consequences. That he deeply regretted deceiving his close friends, people who trusted him implicitly. That he didn’t think he had any choice in the matter, not without compromising his conscience. Which is why he returned the Soviets’ cash-filled envelopes without ever opening them.

It wasn't money or greed that drove Klaus to lead a double life of dedicated scientist and Soviet informant. He sincerely believed that Communism would pave the way for a better, new world, and he felt the Russians should know what their British and American allies were up to. More importantly, he thought that if the world’s two superpowers both had a nuclear bomb, neither was likely to use it – fear of mutually assured destruction would act as a deterrent to global annihilation.

Klaus and his sister, Christel
(my mother)
The truth is, I’ve always been much more interested in Uncle Klaus, the man, than in “Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy.” As a child, I occasionally traveled with my parents and sister to East Germany, where Klaus had settled right after his release from prison. During those visits, he always seemed a bit enigmatic to me, tall and silent, smiling and affectionate but never saying much. He left the conversation up to his wife, my Aunt Grete, the much chattier of the pair.

Years later, in the early 1980s, when I was a student at Leipzig University (or Karl-Marx Universität, as it was called at the time), I’d take the train to Dresden on weekends and wander up the pedestrian zone from the station to where Klaus and Grete lived on Alt Markt. On such trips, I’d pass the ruins of the Frauenkirche, an 18th-century church that had been bombed in the war and left a pile of rubble as a monument, and wonder how my uncle could live so close to such an unavoidable reminder of war, its destructive power, and all he’d experienced. But I never did ask him that question.

Instead, I got him to talk about his life as a child with my mother and their two older siblings, Gerhard and Elisabeth, in Eisenach before the war. Perhaps I wanted corroboration of the stories my mother had told me all my life. Or I sought another perspective, the overlapping yet divergent memories of siblings growing up in the same time, place, and family.

I’d heard how Klaus taught my mother to read when she was just five, and he not yet seven. (He didn’t remember that.) How they’d climb the tree outside their house, with part of its trunk bent horizontally, and pretend it was a horse they’d ride across the countryside. (He remembered it being a camel.) How he’d kept white mice as pets and taught them tricks. (His version was that he built them running wheels and mazes to play in.) The one story he recalled just the way she’d told it to me was how he’d hide a pair of his trousers in a closet so she could put them on, sneak out the window and run off with him to climb trees without their mother being able to stop her daughter’s tomboy adventures and scold her for unladylike behavior.

Me on the "horse" tree in Eisenach
After I graduated from Leipzig University in 1983, I never saw my uncle again. He died five years later, in January 1988. His passing merited a few seconds on the six o’clock evening news, barely enough time for his picture to flash across my TV screen. It’s odd to see your uncle on the news, even for such a brief moment, but mainly I felt sad to witness his long life, spanning a period of 76 years, reduced to his most publicly sensational decade.

I understand the historic significance of his actions in passing classified information to the Soviets, and yet it annoys me that the spy story overshadows his other accomplishments: the fact that he was a brilliant scientist who made significant contributions to his field, qualities that got him assigned to the Manhattan Project in the first place. After all, Klaus’s work continued for two more decades after he moved to Dresden, where he became the deputy director of the Institute for Nuclear Research in nearby Rossendorf, working on peaceful applications of nuclear technology and reactor safety, and devoted himself to promoting nuclear disarmament.

It makes perfect sense to me that Uncle Klaus, who always lived life according to the dictates of his conscience, ended up working for peace.


  1. This is not driven by money or greed, led by a dedicated scientist Klaus Soviet informers and double life. He sincerely believed that communism paved the way for a better, new ways of the world, he believes that Russia should be aware of their allies, the United Kingdom and the United States respectively.

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  2. Terrific blog post, Heidi! We've chatted about your uncle occasionally over the years, but I really enjoyed reading about the bigger picture: his childhood with your Mom, what he worked on in later years in East Germany. Loved the photos, too! Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. Thanks for your comment, BlakeHerz!

    1. Madam I am a Coptic person, I do not speak your language and I live far away from you, I am a very idealist person, I profoundly think that your uncle is a hero of the mankind but sadly the world only respects those who do not deserve like politicians and businessmen . I personally admire your uncle very much.
      Please accept all my most respectful regards

  4. Heather, glad you liked the post! There's always more to a famous person's story than hits the history books, isn't there?

  5. Heidi, what a compelling post. It's lovely to have the stark image from history books softened by your family memories. Thank you.

  6. Fascinating story, Heidi, and so important to see the other side of a man I'd heard about as a villain. Thanks for this intriguing glimpse.

  7. Thanks, Patricia, Judy and Edith! Glad you enjoyed the post. I think there is always another side to every story, but it doesn't often get told.

  8. What a fascinating private glimpse of a public person! Very nice post.

  9. Heidi --
    Such interesting times. Thanks for the story, and the reminder that every story has many sides.

  10. I'm so glad you wrote about the man and not his political side. We need to know he believed he was acting for good and not out of greed. A very nice tribute to a courageous man.

  11. Heidi, thank you so much for sharing. Such a fascinating story and the personal insights you've given us goes to show that behind every story, there is a human with many, many layers.

  12. Thanks, Kye, Leslie, Ellis and Alli!

    Ellis, this personal story is the only one I can tell. The story that most people know from the history books never felt like they belonged to the same person.

    Alli, you're right, there are always so many sides to people, and the public one isn't always the best or even the truest one.

  13. Thank you for pointing out that the USSR was our ally during WWII, something that many seem to have forgotten over time. And for adding nuance to a situation that seems so cut and dry today, through the lens of history. Thank you also for reminding readers that there were people who believed that Communism had honorable ideals and goals, even if its implementation was deeply flawed with tragic results.

  14. Heidi, what a wonderful post, very deep and heartfelt and beautifully crafted! I only got to know about your uncle (and your family) because of knowing you, and I still feel very priviledged of having shared that trip to Eisenach we took together, with all your family memories. (You look a lot like your mother on that photograph! :-)) Thank you! Almuth

  15. Just an amazing, almost surreal story. Reminds me of something out of a Graham Greene novel. Regardless of how anyone feels about his choices, he was indeed an extremely brave man with strong moral convictions. I can't stop thinking about Uncle Klaus and the many facets of his lif and layers of his character. Thanks so much for sharing this personal story, Heidi.

  16. Kelly, thanks for your very thoughtful comment. It is so true that subsequent historical events color how we view earlier ones. When I lived in The GDR, I met many people who did not like much of what went on but still believed that the overall goal of a socialist society was one worth striving for.

    Almuth, I thought a lot about trip to Eisenach when writing this piece, as well as you and Uwe. It meant a great deal to be able to share that personal journey with such good friends! I'm delighted you liked the post!

    Supriya, I'm always happy to share stories with you. And now I have to go back and reread some Graham Greene...

  17. What an interesting post, Heidi. You've show that people and situations are seldom black or white, but always more complex and shaded than that.

  18. Thanks for stopping by, Kris! I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. People are indeed very complex, which is what makes them interesting. And I always believe that there is never only one side to a person's story.

  19. Thanks for sharing, Heidi! I remember our evening in Seattle going up to the top of the Needle hearing all about your time in Leipzig and your amazing family! I guess I didn't realize what an amazing family it is!

  20. Thanks for stopping by, Ruth! I remember that evening on the top of Seattle. Did I really fail to tell you the whole story? :)