It’s been quite a while since I read any non-fiction, so I was delighted to be given the opportunity to read and review this new book from Headline, via the Bookbridgr initiative – the subject matter sounded right up my street and I wasn’t wrong in my judgement that it would interest me! “The Spy Who Changed The World” is written by Mike Rossiter, an experienced author and film-maker, and it tells the story of one of the most significant spies of the 20th century – Klaus Fuchs.


As a little background, Wikipedia tells us: Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs (29 December 1911 – 28 January 1988) was a German theoretical physicist and atomic spy who in 1950 was convicted of supplying information from the American, British and Canadian Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union during and shortly after the Second World War. While at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Fuchs was responsible for many significant theoretical calculations relating to the first nuclear weapons and later the early models of the hydrogen bomb. However, those brief details give no hint of how wide-ranging this book is, and what a gripping tale it has to tell.

Fuchs was born in Germany, and from early on his sympathies were Socialist (as were those of his brother). After an early spell in the German Socialist Democrat Party, he was expelled and joined the Communist party instead. This was a time when Europe was still reeling from the First World War and the Russian Revolution – many countries were unstable, and Germany came very close to a revolution itself. But instead Hitler came to power and Klaus as a Communist was in great danger, so he fled to England in the early 1930s where he studied, gained a degree and worked on scientific research for many years. He worked his way up through the ranks to become a vital part of the search for the atomic bomb during WWII, and he was sent to the US as part of the British team during the war when they were trying to finalise their research. After the war, Fuchs became an integral and crucial part of the British attempt to build an H-bomb. And yet, all this time he was sending information to the Soviets through a variety of contacts, and the secret services simply had no idea. He sent secrets abroad from the USA and from Britain – and in fact, he brought a considerable amount of data to Britain from America when the USA decided they would go it alone and not share their research results with other countries. As the late 1940s went on, and the Cold War came closer and closer, Fuchs was instrumental in creating that situation by providing both Britain and the Soviet Union with all the information they needed to create all sort of atomic power and weapons. And yet, in 1950 he confessed all to MI5 – which put an end to his research for the British and blew the whole spy scandal wide open.


I have to say that this book was absolutely gripping from start to finish – you couldn’t make up a tale like this, with its twists, turns, subterfuge, huge stakes; as other reviewers have said, a thriller writer couldn’t do better. Rossiter tells the tale brilliantly, and one of the best things about the book was its balance. The author is well aware of the impact Fuchs has had on our modern world, and gets this across well. And his lack of obvious bias is so refreshing – I’m actually quite sick of reading non-fiction with a hidden (or not so hidden!) agenda, and it was a real pleasure to read something which simply wanted to tell us a story. As a non-scientist, I appreciated very much that Rossiter had explained the scientific processes in layman’s terms, too!

One of the most fascinating questions to come out of this book is that of why Fuchs actually confessed when he did. He was being put under no real pressure, and his situation was no more precarious than it had been in the past. Yet he told all to the UK authorities, somehow under the impression that if he did he would be able to stay in his position at Harwell – quite a naive viewpoint, one you might expect from a slightly unworldly scientist, but not one like Fuchs who had experience in his field and was highly aware of the dangers he faced. There are hints that he might have feared for the safety of his sister in American, or it could have been something to do with a love affair he was involved in. But these don’t seem to be major factors, and Rossiter tells us that some of the archives from the time are *still* unavailable, even though they can contain no scientific data that is not already well-known around the world; so maybe in fact they contain material that would show the British authorities in a bad light…

This is popular history at its best: intelligent, informed and unbiassed. Rossiter is remarkably even-handed in his treatment of his subject: you feel he has a sympathy for Fuchs and the way he was treated, plus an understanding of why he behaved like he did which nevertheless never stops him from being aware of the enormity of the spy’s actions and the effect they had. But I have to say that those effects are a matter for much thought – because in many ways Fuchs could be thought of as having benefited the world. Accepting that the atomic bomb is a bad thing, as are the results of any detonation of it, by spreading the knowledge not only to the Soviets but also to the British, he ensured that there was no US domination of the world with its nuclear weapons. And although this created the Cold War (and I’m old enough to remember the stark uncertainty of how it felt to live through times where you felt that the end of the world really *was* nigh), if this kinds of weapon has to exist, it’s best that all the big nations have access so that there can be some kind of equilibrium. I ended the book feeling that scientists should not have nationalities – their loyalties should be to their work and their research and their achievements, which should be shared by all. And Rossiter is really good at conveying how things appeared to the different nations:

“The scientists in Moscow, Arzamas and Chelyabinsk had all experienced the dreadful slaughter and hardships that Russia had suffered in the Second World War. Victims of an unprovoked attach, the Russian people have lost millions of men, women and children to an invading army that was barbaric in its behaviour.They had also seen the massively destructive carpet-bombing that the Allies had launched on German cities – a demonstration of indiscriminate killing from the air that had finally ended with the two atomic bombs that had destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were in no doubt that Russia could not exist in the world without their own nuclear weapon.”

If I had one very minor quibble, it would be that I would have liked more detailed notes – Rossiter gives a list of his sources at the end but not specifics of what came from where, and that would have been useful. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and read it in a few sittings – it was that gripping!

It’s hard to overestimate the effect that this one man had on the 20th century, and certainly the title of the book is accurate – Klaus Fuchs really *was* the spy who changed the world, and this absorbing book really does his story justice!

Book kindly provided by the publishers via – for which many thanks!